Yair Lapid is the kind of pro-peace politician the Middle East is crying out for (Independent)

I joked earlier that Yair Lapid is, essentially, the main character of Aaron Sorkin’s as-yet unwritten series about Israeli politics. By which I did not mean that he would inevitably find the key to the stalemate in the Middle East – as President Bartlet so memorably managed in The West Wing – but that he is attractive, charming, media savvy and media friendly (he is, of course, a former journalist), and that above all, he comes across as largely sincere in his beliefs.

As West Wing fans will know, Sorkin’s politicians tend to be the heroes, championing the right and good. If Lapid comes anywhere close to this, that surely is good news for Israel and for all those who want to see it thrive and build a peaceful, stable future with its neighbours.

On Tuesday Lapid’s Yesh Atid party claimed 19 seats, more than expected and enough to make it the second biggest player. In the run-up to the Israeli election, when Lapid’s chances of winning a substantial number of seats seemed dim, especially against the trajectory of the right-wing, uncompromisingly pro-settlement Naftali Bennet and his Jewish Home party, one of the questions was whether this untested politician could walk the walk quite as well as he could talk the talk.

Lapid is a smooth, modern politician in the Obama mould, able to make rousing speeches and engage with the everyday voter and their concerns. He is corruption-free, comes across as affable, and is well-known to voters by way of a regularly broadcast slot. And like Barack Obama, his perspective has been shaped by his personal story; he too published a memoir, Memories After My Death, telling the tale of his Hungarian immigrant father’s journey.

Israel, in common with most electorates that invest disproportionate faith in the abilities of one individual to transform the political landscape, has been disappointed before. It is not entirely surprising that after various well-intentioned dreamers ultimately failed to bring about real change, many Israelis turned instead to more pragmatic, expedient politicians like Ariel Sharon and Benjamin Netanyahu.

Yet Lapid, with his commitment to working with both the most staunchly religious and the most ardently secular, and his desire to work not just for a two-state solution but for domestic progress, belongs in that first category. His victory speech – “I hope to change things for the better. For 30 years, this country has been about left versus right. Now we want to change things on the inside: national service, education, housing, a middle class that cannot finish the month” – could have been written by Sorkin, or spoken by Obama.

He is an idealist – a clever, politically attuned one for sure, but he is not a career politician (although in true Israeli style, he is the son of one). Enjoying success and stability as a journalist, he did not have to enter the muddy waters of Israeli politics.

He has not been particularly vocal in terms of foreign policy – although he vowed last year not to join any government opposed to diplomatic negotiations on the peace process – but the consensus is that he is pro-peace, and the suggestion is that he is at least aware of international opinion and how Israel can damage itself with settlements or stubbornness.

That is not to say he is only a naïve dreamer; he is aware there is no perfect solution – “we’re not looking for a happy marriage with the Palestinians, but for a divorce agreement we can live with” – but appears at least to believe an imperfect one is possible.

Perhaps Lapid is no different from the scores of other ambitious and self-serving politicians who have gone before him, flying in on an “outsider” tagline only to become as “insider” as the rest. Perhaps – and as yet it is unclear whether he will enter the coalition or become the main opposition player – all the hopes and aspirations shared on the campaign trail, from drafting the strictly Orthodox into army service to building a fairer economy, will disintegrate once the messy business of governing gets in the way.

Only time will tell. But, after months of scaremongering about a sharp rightward turn for Israel, it can only be positive that a moderate centrist who still believes in all that “hopey changey” stuff has emerged as kingmaker. For a country founded on the dreams of figures like Theodor Herzl, Rav Kook and David Ben Gurion, Lapid’s rise can only be a good thing for Israel and for the wider region.

To see the original and read the comments, click here.

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My three weeks in writing

What with Christmas and new year, I’ve been very lax at updating this. But the past few weeks haven’t been entirely quiet, and the stories that I’ve worked on have included the PCC’s ruling on the Guardian cartoon about Gaza, and the death of the man believed to be the last surviving Briton to have fought Franco. I also delved into the fascinating world of medieval astrology and found out about astrolabes – devices use to study the cosmos – and the work being done to learn more about them.

I contributed a feature on a programme bringing teenagers from around Europe together to learn leadership skills, after meeting the group for an event at the House of Commons, and, staying with parliament, investigated how many Early Day Motions were instigated on the subject of Israel in the last year. The result: 21, at a cost of £6,000 to the taxpayer.

I indulged my inner West Wing fan by writing about Josh Malina’s unusual fundraising method, and covered the news that Francesca Segal’s novel The Innocents – which I reviewed last year, as you can read here – had won its category for the Costa Prize.

With the new year came the Honours List, which we trawled through in order to speak to as many recipients as we could find. Without fail, each one said something along the lines of not deserving it, but being delighted – humility that perhaps shows why they have reached the list in the first place. I also covered the remarkable project carried out by an artistic teenager, who sketched a drawing a day based on current events for the whole of 2012.

Meanwhile in comment, I wrote on how we must not lose sight of what Israel represents and what it should be striving for, and was delighted to feature academic Tony Klug on the essay page with a piece on the two-state solutions and intransigence among leaders.

Having interviewed him last year, my piece on stage and film legend Jack Garfein went in. He was a fascinating subject to interview and I thoroughly enjoyed my times speaking to him.

Where are the women in The Ides of March? (The Telegraph)

Forget the polls. Forget what the pundits think and what the ordinary Joes interviewed on the street have to say. The best barometer of how we view politics and what state politics is in surely comes from fiction, from the bumbling leaders of Yes, Minister to the spin-doctored puppets of The Thick of It.

Nowhere is that more true than with regard to American presidential politics. When Americans have faith in their commander-in-chief – or wish for a leader different to the one they have – contemporary fictional leaders have Abraham Lincoln’s ability to unite a divided nation, Dwight Eisenhower’s physical valour, Franklin Roosevelt’s ability to enact change and John F Kennedy’s glamour. Think Harrison Ford as the action-hero president in Air Force One (1997), Michael Douglas’s Andrew Shepherd striking a blow for liberty in The American President (1995) or Grant Matthews in Frank Capra’ss hope-imbued State of the Union (1948).

Likewise, times of low public faith in politics are often accompanied by films where power and the pursuit of it is shown as dirty, dank and Nixonesque. That’s no new thing; as the Great Depression got underway a film called Gabriel Over the White House (1933) was made, featuring a vacuous, do-nothing president in Herbert Hoover’s mould.

The Ides of March, George Clooney’s drama about political aspirations gone awry, reflects a profoundly dismal approach to politics at a time when Barack Obama’s popularity is at a new low. The film, set during the Democratic Party primaries (and based on a play that was itself supposedly based on Howard Dean’s shortlived run) takes a Hobbesian view of the state of politics; everyone is a dealmaker, everyone will ultimately act against their beliefs and nothing is sacred.

The subtext is that no politician – and, in this adaptation, for politician, read Barack Obama, with “Yes We Can” style posters and all – can ever be the ideal he purports to be. It’s a film about how the audacity of hope will always let you down.

But as dispiriting as that message was, also noticeable was the lack of a single credible female political figure. The sum total of female characters stood at three; the intern, the journalist, and the First-Lady-in-waiting (a Laura, not a Hillary or even a Michelle).

This was a film filled with backroom deals, high-stakes conversations and political chess games and yet the women were eternally on the periphery. Involved, yes. But not the ones leading the country, or trying to.

This comment piece was first published in the Telegraph. Read the rest of it here

Gossip Girl recap: I am Number Nine

What if Sorkin wrote Gossip Girl (a girl can only dream)? That was basically the focus behind this episode, as Dan and Serena pouted about plans to Zuckerberg Inside all the way to the Oscars.

His book would be the Social Network, take two. Only with more parties, champagne and overly coiffed society girls.

Except between Serena’s inability to understand how the industry she is supposedly so expert in works, and Dan’s ego, the project is a goner.

“I’m done,” Dan wails, as if dropping out of the top ten of the bestseller lists means he is to be chained to a rock for all eternity and pecked at by bitchy columnists.

While Dan’s rise and fall was no shock, there’s no way in hell a poseur like him wouldn’t have secretly been thrilled that Sorkin was planning to write the script. He might not have watched West Wing – too mainstream – but Dan was blatantly into the woefully misunderstood intellectual supremo that was Studio 60.

Unfortunately, Liz Hurley’s character has gone from farce to worse. I have no issue with Nate and the cougar as a storyline (except that we’ve been there, done that) but she’s a cartoon character.When she gets all overexcited about how she’s going to destroy society one scandal at a time, I half expect to see animated dollar signs flash over her eyes.

She’s what teenage boys imagine successful businesswoman are like, and there’s no way in hell she’d have built a media empire when she was off in the back all the time doing the dirty with her staff.

Anyway, now she’s got Nate (be gone, random media celeb plus one) and she’ll be damned if anyone stands in the way of her teenage romance. Adorable. Or the opposite.

Meanwhile, the prince got some backbone.

Nah, just joking. He wouldn’t know what to do with a personality.

But he tried to pay Chuck’s therapist to spy on him and reveal the secrets of Chair, which backfired spectacularly with the sort  of party-showdown that back in season one would have prompted a Gossip Girl blast, but is now so routine that nobody even chokes any on their champagne.

It was quite dull (not exactly a plot worthy of his fiancée) but it prompted Chuck to see the light and apologise to Blair for his past misdeeds. Is that a rift in an engagement I spy. Gawd I hope so.

But despite the groom drama, Blair is all set for bridesmaids after hosting a minions-of-old gladiator contest. She ends up going with Ivy, which means she must have what Lily on How I Met Your Mother has – pregnancy brain.

As if Queen B would let another Van der Woodsen (even a fake on) steal the limelight on the big day.

Not a great episode. The prince storyline is really done to death, as is Liz Hurley. What happened to college bitchiness, friends their own age and, hell, people who drank something other than champagne.

The great thing about Gossip Girl was always its ability to balance high drama with biting social satire, to show the divide between rich and poor and to show rich and pretty teens playing havoc with people’s lives, consequences be damned. Right now, it’s just a soap, and a bit tired at that. News of Georgina’s return couldn’t come at a better time.

Aaron Sorkin vs. Andrew Marr

After Andrew Marr registered his dislike for bloggers – calling them “socially inadequate, pimpled, single, slightly seedy, bald, cauliflower-nosed young men sitting in their mother’s basements and ranting” – it’s good to see that one prominent public figure considers them worthy of engaging with.

 Aaron Sorkin, writer of the West Wing and more recently The Social Network, was so upset by remarks below a blogpost about the so-called Facebook film that he responded in the comments section.

After facing criticism by “Tarazza” for “the lack of a decent portrayal of women” in the film – they “were basically sex objects/stupid groupies” – on the blog of Emmy winning writer Ken Levine, Sorkin wrote back:

 “This is Aaron Sorkin and I wanted to address Taraza’s [sic] comment….

“….Tarazza–believe me, I get it. It’s not hard to understand how bright women could be appalled by what they saw in the movie but you have to understand that that was the very specific world I was writing about….

Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, Aaron Sorkin, Justin Timberlake (Photo: J Lipman)

 “….More generally, I was writing about a very angry and deeply misogynistic group of people. These aren’t the cuddly nerds we made movies about in the 80’s. They’re very angry that the cheerleader still wants to go out with the quarterback instead of the men (boys) who are running the universe right now.

 “….I wish I could go door to door and make this explanation/apology to any woman offended by the things you’ve pointed out but obviously that’s unrealistic so I thought the least I could do was speak directly to you.”

Having seen the film, I’d agree to an extent with the complaint that there are very few positive representations of women in it. But to my mind, that’s more about how male-dominated the web/tech world is than any failure on Sorkin’s part.

Nevertheless, all credit to Sorkin for taking the time to talk – and for doing it in the forum of his fans, rather than via a press spokesperson.

 I wonder if Marr would tell Sorkin his comments are simply “the spewings and rantings of very drunk people late at night.”

Blair Waldorf for president?

Photo: Jennifer Lipman

Could you imagine Blair Waldorf and Marissa Cooper in the White House? Nate Archibald and Seth Cohen wandering around Congress, or Vanessa and Summer leading a protest outside the Supreme Court?

You won’t have to, for much longer. Sort of.

Variety reports that Gossip Girl and OC creator Josh Schwartz and his writing partner Stephanie Savage are planning a new TV show following young DC wannabes.

So, Seth the senator, Chuck the congressman, Dan the Democrat or Ryan the Republican?

Or more likely a bunch of low paid interns who in one of Schwartz’s-trademark ludicrous plots wind up running the government and doing it well.

The show is to centre on “a group of twentysomething roommates who juggle their personal and professional lives in Washington.
“The young politicos find that the ideals that brought them to D.C. don’t always match with the realities of living in the nation’s capital.”
 
Having already taken on California and New York, this is perhaps the inevitable next step. 
Especially because Gossip Girl, with its anonymnous tip-offs, malicious rumours and incriminating photos, is basically a better-dressed version of the political media.  
 
This is Schwartz, not Sorkin, so while we can expect plenty of high-stakes drama, one imagines there will be less of a forensic look at the inner workings of the Beltway.
Social politics, rather than social policy, one might say.  
 Still, with West Wing firmly part of TV history, there’s definitely space in my viewing schedule for DC TV.

Aaron Sorkin goes back to the White House

West Wing fans, our prayers have been answered. Sort of.

OK so Josiah Bartlet isn’t going to get a third term, nor are we going to get a more detailed glimpse into the Santos administration.

But WW writer Aaron Sorkin has apparently agreed to work on a film about the rise and fall of John Edwards. Edward, you’ll remember, ran for president then suffered a spectacular fall from grace when the National Inquirer revealed the juicy details of his affair (and child) with an aide.

Keen WW lovers will recall of course that political scandal is no new subject for Aaron Sorkin. The dramatic demise of John Hoynes for a similarly stupid misdemeanour made for a nail-biting season four finale.

Of course, Hoynes was fictional… real politicians would never be so stupid. You’d think.

The Edwards tale is great Sorkin fodder, and I can’t wait for the film, which follows his political biopic Charlie Wilson’s War and the forthcoming Facebook flick The Social Network.

But as enthusiastic as I am about the project, there’s another caught-with-his-pants-down political affair I’d rather see the writer turn his attention to.

Bring on “Sorkin does the Bill Clinton life story”.

Read my feature on Aaron Sorkin here.