New Politics Is the Best Politics

The ministers who came to Sunday’s cabinet meeting got their first glimpse of the “smart table”: a network of Samsung tablet computers meant to replace the piles of paperwork, including bills and printouts of PowerPoint displays, that used to confront cabinet members. From now on, they’ll be able to read all the material, take a position on it and vote on their tablets. The photograph distributed by the government shows that, still nestled among the tablets, are the symbols of old-school politics: the staplers, the pencils and, of course, the paper, that will remain on the table until the ministers get used to their new gadgets.

For security reasons, the tablets will not be connected to the Internet, just to the internal Prime Minister’s Office network. Finance Minister Yair Lapid won’t be able to post a status update on his Facebook page straight from the cabinet meeting, but he will be able to send messages to his brother-minister Naftali Bennett, or to other cabinet members. This is the updated version of the ministerial notes of old.

Lapid has been mocked and criticized over his use of Facebook to convey his political messages and to communicate with the public, particularly after posting about the middle-class plight of the fictitious “Riki Cohen from Hadera,” and using the social media network to set out his economic strategy and tell of his first days in the treasury.

Some of my colleagues in the media have argued that he is bypassing the journalists, as though they have a monopoly on mediating between the minister and his subjects. Others wondered if treasury officials would express themselves freely in internal debates when the minister in charge is also the reporter covering the treasury beat.

But Lapid’s critics are seriously mistaken. Nothing beats transparency in government, and every additional means of contact with the public strengthens that.

It’s good for the ministers to send emails, write blogs, post on Facebook or Twitter, or engage in the next big thing the Internet has to offer. I want to read an unfiltered Lapid, to be exposed to his thought process, his vocabulary and his sentence structure. The journalists would be better off putting their time into uncovering the information the minister wants to hide than writing up his talking points.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu uses Facebook too, but he just posts brief press releases, without truly revealing himself. That’s too bad. He likes to express himself in illustrations − like the fat man and the thin man from his time at the Finance Ministry, or, more recently, the Iranian bomb drawing at the United Nations.

I would have liked to see Netanyahu, the architect from MIT, show the public his cartoons, even the horses he doodles during meetings. That way we’d be able to see the real Bibi, not just the superficial figure seen through his communiques.

But this enthusiasm must be qualified. Genuine politics, not the utopian kind, will continue to be conducted using the old methods. Because when a minister is having a hard time, he doesn’t make do with Facebook or Twitter but runs to the columnists and political commentators to generate support. When Lapid gets in trouble, it’s the journalists he’s going to call up at night − just as his predecessor, Yuval Steinitz, did after the comptroller’s report assigned him “special responsibility” for the Carmel forest fire.

In his Facebook post on Riki Cohen, Lapid succeeded in branding his economic policy and generating a tempestuous public debate, but he failed when it came to the numbers. When he felt like no one understood him, he called in his former colleagues from the mainstream media for briefings: Sima Kadmon from Yedioth Ahronoth and Shalom Yerushalmi from Maariv. Their weekend columns suspiciously evoked old-school politics, the kind represented by pages of talking points and background talks with “sources close to the minister.”

Lapid promised not to give up Facebook, but he dedicated his weekly status post to “Uncle” Amnon Dankner, the journalist and writer who died Friday of a heart attack, not to a report from the trenches of the treasury.

In all likelihood, he will also be keeping to himself the details of his experiences in the inner cabinet and decisions about the state budget, or reserving them for those digital notes he can exchange with Bennett on their new tablets. Lapid may be on a mission to rejuvenate Israeli politics, but he is fast learning the methods of his predecessors.

Israel’s new government ministers sitting around the ‘smart table’ on Sunday, April 7, 2013. Credit: Alex Kolomoyski

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