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Conversation with Gil Hoffman

A narrow governing coalition – like the one Bibi Netanyahu just put together in Israel – could be a good thing, says the Jerusalem Post’s chief political correspondent.

By Cindy Mindell

Gil Hoffman is the chief political correspondent and analyst for the Jerusalem Post and host of the daily radio show “Inside Israel Today,” on VoiceofIsrael.com. He also teaches journalism at the College of Management, Academic Studies in Rishon LeZion.

Hoffman has interviewed every major figure across the Israeli political spectrum, has been interviewed by top media on six continents, and is a regular analyst on CNN, Al-Jazeera, and other news outlets.

Raised in Chicago, Hoffman graduated magna cum laude from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and wrote for the Miami Herald and Arizona Republic before moving to Israel. A reserve soldier in the IDF Spokesman’s Unit, he has lectured in 10 countries and all 46 contiguous states not named Dakota. He lives with his family in Jerusalem.

Hoffman will make two stops in Connecticut next month to discuss all things Israel and Middle East: Tuesday, June 9, at Temple Sholom in Greenwich, and Wednesday, June 10, at Weston Public Library.

He spoke with the Ledger about the country that, as he puts it, redefines the saying, “May you live in interesting times.”

Q: You were named “the most optimistic man in Israel” by Israel Television. What inspired this appelation and what are you optimistic about these days?

A: When Channel 1 called me “the most optimistic man in Israel,” it didn’t have to do with thinking that there would be peace in the Middle East overnight or anything. It had to do with me being a person who recognizes all the accomplishments of Israel against all odds, being the grandchild of Holocaust survivors, raising Aryan-looking children in Israel – in a Jewish state – which is the ultimate defense against Hitler. We had a Backstreet Boys concert last night – a lot of the top acts have been here recently – and it’s very exciting. Robbie Williams was here, saying over and over again “Israel is effing amazing.” We’re going through a really great time here culturally and technology-wise.

Q: Does your optimism extend to Netanyahu’s newly formed government? Will the right-wing and ultra-Orthodox parties wield a disproportionate amount of power in the coalition?

A: This government is going to be very unstable, with a narrow majority – 61 [coalition] to 59 [opposition] – and at any point, one member could rebel and prevent the government from doing anything. That’s a recipe for chaos. On the other hand, sometimes coalitions of 61 are stronger than coalitions of 62, 63 or 64, because no one can afford to rebel and bring the government down. History has taught us that 61, as problematic as it is, is not so bad. Covering politics is intense: I’ve been writing three or four articles a day for more than six months in a row. I’ve written the lead to the paper every day for more than six months. The lead usually can’t be written until 9, 10, or 11 at night – it’s a long day. I’ll just be happy if the government will last a year. Give us a break for a year; try to get along for a little bit.

This right-wing question is completely exaggerated. The prime minister restated on May 20, in his meetings with the European Union foreign secretary, that he supports two states for two peoples. No one who understands what’s going on here could have ever doubted him. The New York Times misreported him in a really embarrassing kind of way. [Netanyahu] specifically appointed a former foreign minister to be in charge of the peace process and told him that he wants there to be a peace process.

Yachad, the most right-wing party that ran – and the only party that’s against there being a peace process at all – didn’t make it into the Knesset; they didn’t get the minimum number of votes to pass the threshold. There’s only one party united by a leader who opposes a Palestinian state: HaBayit HaYehudi. They went down from 12 seats to eight. Another party further to the right than Likud, Avidgor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu, decided not to join the government because it’s not right-wing enough. So, you have a coalition that has all kinds of points of view on the Palestinian issue; you have Kulanu, which has a lot of left-wing members of Knesset, including Michael Oren, who is in favor of unilaterally withdrawing from much of the West Bank; and you have some Likud and HaBayit HaYehudi Knesset members, who are more to the right. You’ve got left, right, and center together.

The ultra-Orthodox are a separate concern. They were destroyed in this election. The previous Knesset had in it 18 ultra-Orthodox members; this one has 13. They’ve groveled back into the coalition. Their main goal right now will be to continue the effort of the previous government to bring more ultra-Orthodox people into the workforce. Aryeh Deri, the leader of Shas [an ultra-Orthodox political party] has control of the Economy Ministry. His focus is to make people in his sector not poor. Did they demand in the coalition negotiations to end funding to the Reform or Conservative movements? No. That funding is not stopping. I asked Netanyahu if he’ll allow the ultra-Orthodox to take away the egalitarian prayer area near the Western Wall and he said, “No, I built it; I won’t let them take it away.” That’s a commitment he made on video. All these fears that the ultra-Orthodox are going to start making Israel into ISIS or the right-wing will create some kind of hawkish policies – it’s not happening. Netanyahu has gone more left wing every day and every day he mentions the peace process in his speeches. Netanyahu is seen as a lot less hawkish by Israelis than he is by a confused international media with an agenda.

Q: How has the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement (BDS) against Israel affected the country’s economy?

A: In my work, I brief representatives from European Union credit agencies and ask how the BDS movement is doing. These are detached European business analysts who tell me, “We study that, we monitor it very closely, and we always come up with the conclusion that the impact on the Israeli economy has been zero.” Netanyahu told me that a central goal of his new government will be making sure that there will not be a wave of anti-Israel campaigns and boycotts around the world. My home state of Illinois became the first in America to pass a bill that prohibits state pension funds from including in their portfolios companies that participate in the BDS movement against Israel. The governor is going to pass it into law after it passed unanimously in both the House and Senate.

Recently, SodaStream moved its West Bank plant to the Negev, where Israel is doing a lot to give incentives to companies. But the move has nothing to do with BDS; the timing is just a coincidence.

BDS hurts the Palestinians more than it hurts Israel. That’s why the Palestinians have begged the movement organizers to stop. But these are people who don’t care about the Palestinians; these are people who hate Israel and are completely ineffective in their hatred against Israel. It’s really sad because imagine if all that money and all those efforts were going to help [Palestinians] instead of toward anti-Israel hate.

Q: We’re nearing the end of the Obama presidency. Do you think his successor can improve the U.S.-Israel relationship?

A: It can only get better. We’ve endured a very challenging time over the last six years here. Whoever will be elected president of the United States will make things better.

Gil Hoffman in Connecticut: “Red States, Blue States & the Jewish State,” Tuesday, June 9, 7 p.m., Temple Sholom, 300 East Putnam Ave., Greenwich. For information: (203) 869-7197; templesholom.com.

“Peace, Politics, and Plutonium: A Maven’s Guide to the Mayhem in the Middle East,” Wednesday, June 10, 7 p.m., Weston Public Library, 56 Norfield Road, Weston. For information: (203) 635-4118; schneersoncenter.org.

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