Who among us can fathom Benjamin Netanyahu as he scrambles to retain power and avoid trial? Now there’s talk of bending the rules to cancel the repeat election he engineered after failing to form a coalition in the wake of the April vote — which he had called early in an apparent bid to head off corruption charges. But who can truly say what’s really going on?
I am reminded of Romania almost thirty years ago, in my early days as a foreign correspondent for the Associated Press: to this day few can say what really happened there.
With the Warsaw Pact regimes collapsing all around and demonstrators in the streets, it seems with hindsight that Communists staged a palace coup. Dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his imperious wife Elena, who had run the place as a fiefdom, were captured fleeing Bucharest in a helicopter. On Christmas Day of 1989, at a barracks in the sticks, they were condemned by kangaroo court of high crimes, lined up against a wall, and shot faster than a cameraman could film. A group calling itself the National Salvation Front declared itself in charge and promised elections. Democracy embarked upon its odd, unsteady path.
Simplistic cynics will compare Netanyahu and his wife Sara, whose own involvement in government reputedly goes well beyond bizarre, to the unelected and genuinely horrendous Ceausescus. But that would be vile. I have a different comparison, more sinister in its way.
For several weeks inexplicable shootings continued in the streets of various cities. State media, now controlled by the NSF, reported that “terrorists,” remnants of Ceausescu’s Securitate secret police, were trying to stage a counter-revolution. About 1,000 people were killed before the “terrorists” appeared to vanish into thin air.
The theory quickly spread that the shootings had been organized by the new authorities to befog and obfuscate the coup, painting it with the prettier brush of a popular revolt. It was my first experience with conspiracy theories, and I was skeptical; I’ve met few people smart enough to carry out a plot, cover their tracks, and resist boasting of it in a bar.
I became less skeptical after meeting Ion Iliescu, the former communist who became president in that tumultuous period. He was a slick talker (despite a bureaucratic style typical of his demographic), and a genius at persuasion. For many months he assumed a fatherly pose as he tolerated near-daily protests in Bucharest’s main square, where his government was pilloried as “crypto-communists.” But the tide would soon turn.
One day police moved in on the protesters and arrested a bunch of them, including me as I was trying to walk into my apartment nearby. They ripped my shirt to shreds and smacked me on the head with batons, then nearly broke my leg as I was thrown into a windowless van as I shouted “I’m an American correspondent” in complete and total vain. I felt the van bouncing over potholes and lurching this way and that, and in the darkness I could smell much alcohol on the breath (or was it the hair?) of my fellow detainees.
“What did you do?” one of them demanded. “Nothing,” I replied in rather good Romanian, as my parents both hailed from the country. “I’m just an American correspondent.” My new friends found this hilarious and began to chant as one, in their melodic, Latin-based tongue: “We’re all just American correspondents!” I did not feel so respected on that day.
The crackdowns soon grew more severe and the protests were eventually snuffed out by miners called in from the provinces to break skulls. In the third and final such affair quite a few people are thought to have been killed, although the official count is only seven, with over 1,000 wounded.
It was perhaps to compensate me for my own troubles that I received a personal summons a few weeks later to interview the president at Cotroceni Palace. As we settled onto absurdly ornate chairs a huge TV camera appeared. AP had no TV service then, and I asked what’s going on. “Nothing,” Iliescu said. “It is for the presidential video archive.” I let it be and the interview commenced.
I asked Iliescu how it could be that almost two years after the revolution no terrorists had been prosecuted and mystery still prevailed. Iliescu’s explanation was pretty clever, assuming he considers his audience to be fools. “The assassination of John Kennedy remains a mystery as well,” he said. “If America, with all its resources, cannot solve the murder of one man in almost 30 years, how can we possibly solve 1,000 deaths in just two?” In a TV interview you challenge nonsense; I might have noted that logic goes the other way, as a massacre is in fact harder to cover up than a murder. But this was an interview for text purposes only, and our time was limited, and so I let it go.
Years later I would recall this Kennedy business when Netanyahu told me he expected the Palestinians to suffice with autonomy just like the Catalans do — ignoring that the Catalans are citizens of Spain. He too, assumes the audience is fools, and like Iliescu he does this with some style.
The entire interview with Iliescu was broadcast that night on the only TV channel in the land, and the whole country saw me accepting all his words and even nodding, as you do. I looked like an idiot, but on the other hand for months I was mistaken for an associate of the president. In the early years of democracy, when the role of journalists was not so clear to people, that had its advantages, as I recall.
Iliescu was a brilliant politician. Lies flowed like honey from his silver tongue. The uneducated seemed especially entranced by his urbane, entitled ways. He drove liberals and intellectuals up the wall, but these groups are a minority at all times in all places. In a particularly Romanian twist that Israelis might find ironic, he made short work of his opponents by casting them as ultranationalists all. He strode the stage as the indispensible man, won several elections without falsifying counts, and seemed eternal for a time.
His policies, in retrospect, are hard to unequivocally condemn. In the end, Iliescu stood for slow change in all things, which bolstered the “crypto-communist charge” but avoided chaos all the same. Under his rule many structures and people stayed in place or simply were reshuffled. The International Monetary Fund was rebuffed in its push to enact shock therapy of capitalist reform; statist economic policies, and some protections, remained. So did corruption and cronyism, of course. Everybody grumbled, but Romania was spared the snap privatizations that caused mass impoverishment and the rise of a tiny oligarch class in Russia. It was slow to be admitted to the European Union, joining only in 2007. But there was no Putinesque backlash either, and real democracy now is reasonably entrenched.
Like with Iliescu, there’s no consensus on Netanyahu’s policies, and while “the elites” think he’s leading the country to ruin there is a counter-argument to be made. Would Netanyahu have called in club-wielding miners and set them upon peacefully protesting students? I bet some who see the shamelessness of 2019, whatever happens with the election fiasco, would not put it past him. As for me, I cannot be sure.
I do know that Iliescu seemed invincible once. He made opponents seem like squabbling children at his feet. Two months ago he was finally charged with crimes against humanity for the “revolution file” and for the miners’ rampages. “He denies wrongdoing,” as journalists would say.
Sic transit gloria mundi.