9/7/2016 Bibi Steps on the third rail of Israeli politics

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has long been considered the “Reagan of Israel” because he is perceived as a “Teflon” leader. Like President Ronald Reagan, nothing negative seems to stick to him.
But last weekend, Netanyahu touched the third rail of Israeli politics: religion and state. Moreover, he did it in such a clumsy fashion that, according to an opinion poll published on Monday, Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party is leading Netanyahu’s Likud party for the first time ever.
The issue was routine repair work to maintain Israel’s rail system. The work was set to take place on Saturdays, the only day the rails do not operate in observance of the Jewish Sabbath. Such maintenance has been done on Saturdays for decades, under a convoluted and complicated system by which some work is automatically permitted while other work requires special permits that are routinely granted.
For example, Ben Gurion International Airport is fully operational on the Jewish Sabbath. Yet El Al, Israel’s national carrier, does not fly on Saturdays. There is no public transportation on Saturday, except in the city of Haifa, which has operated Sabbath public transportation since the time of the British Mandate. Most Israelis seem relatively comfortable with the status quo, which features a more-or-less deliberate policy of “looking the other way” regarding apparent transgressions of the Sabbath as a day of rest.
Over the years in largely secular Tel Aviv, many mini-markets have begun operating on the Sabbath and a number of commercial/entertainment centers throughout the city are also open on Saturdays. Even Jerusalem now features a new entertainment complex that is open on the Sabbath.
Of note is that 8 percent of Israelis define themselves as ultra-Orthodox, 10 percent Modern Orthodox, 23 percent Traditional, 40 percent Secular and 16 percent Muslim, Druze or Christian.
These sectoral distinctions are very pertinent. The ultra-Orthodox, called “Haredim” in Israel, believe in no compromise with modernity. A primary goal of their leaders has always been to keep their communities as separate as possible from the larger society. The overwhelming majority of Haredi Israelis do not serve in the army, and until recently many did not recognize authority of the State of Israel.
In contrast, the Modern Orthodox, who make up much of the leadership of the settler movement, believe in making certain compromises to modernity and consider the establishment of the State of Israel a defining moment in Jewish history – part of God’s larger plan.
Those who define themselves as Traditional think religion is important but not central to the State’s identity. They are most likely to go to synagogue on Saturday morning and the beach in the afternoon.
Netanyahu’s coalition government is dependent on the support of the ultra-Orthodox parties. Without the Haredim, Netanyahu’s coalition would not maintain a majority. But the ultra-Orthodox community, heretofore living very separate and isolated lives controlled by their religious leaders, is currently undergoing radical change. The Haredi communities no longer have any religious leaders that are accepted by all. The towering religious authorities of the past decades have died and have not been replaced. The remarkably high birth rate in their community has also made isolation economically untenable. As a result, many members have been forced to seek employment outside of their communities, behavior that is particularly prevalent among Haredi women. Finally, there is the pervasiveness of the Internet and the proliferation of the Smart Phone. While in previous generations it was possible to ensure that televisions were not found in homes, lest members of the community – particularly children – be corrupted by what is broadcast on the airwaves, it has become impossible to enforce such a ban on possession of Smart Phones. Consequently, most ultra-Orthodox families are connected to the Internet and inevitably exposed to more modern ideas, particularly Internet-based news sites and podcasts specifically aimed at their communities.
What transpired in Israel last weekend is a direct result of these changes.
Two weeks ago, the railroad undertook a regular maintenance project on Saturday – but one that was exceedingly public in that once upon a time, the ultra-Orthodox community would never have even heard about it. But, this time they did.
Since there are no great Haredi giants any more, leaders have been emerging from the general community. Due to decades of separation from the Israeli public, the ultra-Orthodox crowd has not been exposed to the history of secular-religious relations in Israel. Now, however, they have seen the ultra-Orthodox ministers in the government doing nothing to stop what are clear-cut, public desecrations of the Sabbath.
So, the ultra-Orthodox demanded that their ministers do ‘something’ and that ‘something’ was to warn Netanyahu that if maintenance work continued on the Sabbath, their parties would leave the coalition and bring down Netanyahu’s government.
Netanyahu took no action through the whole of Friday, then, finally, ten minutes before the start of the Sabbath, he gave an order to stop the railroad work (an order later ruled to be illegal by Israel’s Supreme Court).
Netanyahu ended up with the worst of all possible worlds, since by the time he gave the order, work on the rails had already begun. Much of the track had been removed in the area where work was to take place. Hence, due to his indecision, there was no train service on Saturday night and all day Sunday, which resulted in the inconveniencing of tens of thousands of Israelis.
To make matters worse, rather than spending most of Saturday finding ways to minimize the damage done, Netanyahu chose to focus on attacking the transportation minister, who is his rival within the governing Likud party.
In the end, by giving in to the ultra-Orthodox and waiting for the last moment to prohibit the rail work, Netanyahu came off as both weak and indecisive. By not knowing that his last-minute decision would force the closure of the rails through Sunday night, the incident also revealed his questionable administrative skills. And lastly, by ducking the blame and trying to pin it on his transportation minister, he appeared petty.
Opinion polls showed the Israeli public blamed Netanyahu for the chaos that ultimately transpired. And, for the first time, Monday night’s poll suggested that if elections were held today, Netanyahu would lose the prime ministership to Yair Lapid.
Whether that poll is an outlier or a sign of things to come will become evident as the days pass. But the whole affair clearly reveals that Israel has yet to come to grips with the many problems engendered by its religious divisions, while Netanyahu has shown himself to be even more embattled than ever.

Pet Festival Photo Moshik Lindenbaum