The Emerging Candidates: Dan Meridor’s Big Challenge is Overcoming Puppet Image

For Dan Meridor, the biggest challenge facing him as he runs for prime minister may be a television puppet.

A veteran politician and Likud member, the soft-spoken Meridor last week announced he is forming his own centrist party to run against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the upcoming elections.

But although he is well educated and highly respected across the political spectrum, Meridor will have to convince Israelis that he can lead.

This is where the televised puppet show comes in.

“Hartzufim,” a weekly satire in which puppets play politicians, depicts Meridor as the ultimate wimp, incapable of standing up for himself or making decisions.

True or not, the image has been hard for him to shake off.

“He is more resolute and made of harder stuff than was presented on the show,” says Gideon Samet, a columnist for the Israeli daily Ha’aretz and a friend of Meridor’s.

“Dan Meridor is honest, intelligent and personable, with deep roots in the Israeli political system,” says Samet. “My problem with him is that his record has shown so far that he is far more right of center than he would like the public to believe.”

Shayke Ben-Porat, a veteran journalist and author of a recent book, “Talks With Dan Meridor,” disagrees. He says Meridor has moderated his previous political stance and accepted the Oslo peace process.

Ben-Porat also says Meridor’s puppet likeness is not completely mistaken. “He does have some difficulty making decisions, but that is because he is very intelligent and always tries to understand the other side of an argument,” Ben- Porat says.

Meridor, 51, was born into a family steeped in Likud ideology. His father, Eliyahu, was an activist and Knesset member from the Herut Party, Likud’s precursor.

A graduate of Hebrew University’s Law School whose wife, Leora, is one of Israel’s leading economists, Meridor was appointed Cabinet secretary in 1982 by then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin.

He won his first Knesset seat in 1984. Four years later, he became justice minister.

This was no easy job, because during his tenure at the Justice Ministry, the intifada, or Palestinian uprising, erupted, forcing Israel to deal with fundamental justice-related issues.

In 1991, after a wave of Palestinian knifings in Israel, Meridor rejected public appeals to seal off the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

“The nation’s elected representatives are not supposed to echo and amplify public emotions,” he said at the time in an interview with the Jerusalem Post. “We are here to guide the public, not to be led by it.”

His relatively soft line contributed to his dovish image, but also cost him some support within the Likud Party.

In 1992, Meridor lost internal elections for the party leadership to Netanyahu, in what analysts say was the beginning of the rivalry between the two.

Meridor, one of the Likud “princes” who was being groomed to take over the leadership by the party’s old guard, was angry that Netanyahu, who spent several years abroad, leapfrogged over the veteran players.

This frustration was clear when Meridor launched his campaign last week.

“A situation has been created in which a man who arrived in Israel 10 years ago has taken over the Likud — albeit democratically — and is preventing his replacement,” said Meridor.

After the 1996 elections, Netanyahu appointed Meridor to head the powerful Finance Ministry. Their rivalry quickly resurfaced.

In June 1997, he resigned as finance minister after a bitter power struggle following a debate over foreign exchange policy that Meridor believed was politically motivated to squeeze him out of the government.

Since then, say political analysts, Meridor has been impatiently waiting to unleash his feelings about the prime minister.

“There is not one ounce of credibility left” in Netanyahu’s leadership, Meridor said last week. “The ministers do not believe the prime minister, nor do Knesset members, his enemies or friends, if he has any left.”

Netanyahu quickly responded by branding Meridor a “leftist” driven only by personal ambition.

But for Meridor, leaving Likud was not easy.

“He was born into right-wing ideology,” says Samet of Ha’aretz. “For him to leave Likud was an extremely difficult step to take, but it seems to show how lousy the situation within Likud has become.”

In the coming weeks, Israelis will be watching closely to see if Meridor is more than the puppeteers make him out to be.

“What you can definitely say about Meridor is that he is much more intelligent than his puppet,” says Ofer Knispel, a political satirist who writes for the “Hartzufim” show. “We can’t say that about most of our puppets.”

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