11/27/17 Four Days of Chaos
Latest polls in Israel show that Yesh Atid, the party led by Yair Lapid, would garner as many votes as the Likud, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. On one hand, with the economy booming and the security situation quiet, one would expect the Prime Minister to be showing very well in the polls. On the other hand, with ongoing corruption investigations and the intense political turmoil enveloping Israel this last week, some say it’s surprising Netanyahu is doing as well as he is.
This past week was a difficult one for the ruling Likud party. It began with an interview given by Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely on i24News. When pressed by the host on the state of relations between American Jews and Israel, (a topic that has come up frequently as of late, on issues surrounding freedom of prayer at the Western Wall, following the Netanyahu government reneging on a compromise agreement negotiated with American Jewry to heal decades of enmity over the matter) Hotevely went beyond the normal defense of the government’s position and stated that American Jews cannot understand Israelis, since unlike Israelis, most of whose children serve in the Army, the majority of American Jewish children do not serve in the army or marines and do not serve in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Leaving aside the fact that Hotovely herself never served in the Army, and that her kids are toddler age, she made the fatal mistake of taking about what American Jews do, or do not do, in America. If she would have stuck with the classic Zionist argument — i.e. that Israeli kids serve here and yours don’t here … Therefore, you cannot understand how we feel — she would have easily been forgiven — and frankly, most Israelis might even agree. However, once she brought up the canard that American Jews don’t serve in the US Army, she fell into the trap of American antisemites, who wrongly make the same claim.
Whenever there has been a universal draft, such as during World War II, Jews served in greater percentage than any other ethnic group. In today’s volunteer army, Jewish participation is in line with the Jewish socio-economic standing in the US. However, Hotovely’s comment created an unneeded firestorm, with the neo-Nazi website, the Daily Stormer, gleefully quoting her remarks. She was roundly condemned, across the board, by Israeli politicians — including her titular boss, Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Netanyahu. Nevertheless, the damage was done. American Jews are angry, while Israelis look at the matter and say, another bungling act by the Likud, who puts unqualified people into positions of power.
As Americans ate their turkeys and Israelis discussed the Hotovely debacle, a different mini-drama was being played out in the Knesset. Supporters of Prime Minister Netanyahu have been promoting a law, called the “Recommendations Law,” that would stop police from publicizing their recommendations to the Attorney-General at the completion of an investigation— more directly, their goal is to bar police from publicly stating whether there is factual basis to indict Netanyahu, once they finish their current investigation into Netanyahu’s various alleged acts of corruption.
Proponents of the Recommendation Law bill, led by MK David Biton, the Likud Knesset whip, denied that this proposed law is about Netanyahu, asserting that it is aimed at protecting others. However, when MK Benny Begin, a lifetime Likud member and son of revered Prime Minister Menachem Begin, had the temerity to suggest that the law not apply retroactively — and thus definitively not cover Netanyahu — he was immediately removed from the committee responsible for reviewing the law and was replaced by, none other than, Biton. While not much that happens in the Knesset shocks Israelis, this act did, as did a photo that showed Biton and MK David Amsalem (Biton’s partner in advancing the law) applying limited physical pressure on the 71-year-old Begin, while trying to convince him to go along with the legislation. On Monday, with Begin no longer on the committee, the law was approved.
… And while all this was happening, a new Knesset coalition crisis was developing. Israel has a complicated set of laws relating to public work on the Sabbath. Trains do not run, buses only operate in the city of Haifa, the National Airline El Al is grounded, though the airport is open. Most stores are closed, while restaurants are generally open (although that varies depending on the municipality). Essential services are maintained, such as, electricity, and of course, security does not take a break for the Sabbath. The general rule of thumb has been, as long as what happens can be ignored by the religious, they will look the other way.
In 1976, the first government of Yitzhak Rabin fell, when the arrival of F-16 planes from the US was delayed and the very public ceremony to receive them took place during the Shabbath. As a result, the National Religious party forced the government to fall. In 2001, the movement of electric turbines on the Shabbath received so much publicity that the ultra-Orthodox felt obligated to withdraw from Ehud Barak’s government. Even so, by-and-large, public maintenance work has always taken place quietly during the Sabbath. The Railroads in Israel, once an afterthought, have become an essential mode of transportation, with ridership skyrocketing in the last ten years. The rail system is also in the midst of a major upgrade, introducing electrification of all the lines. To accommodate this system-wide advance, maintenance needs have increased, as has the need to accomplish these tasks at a time that will not disrupt vital usage.
Railroad maintenance has received a great deal of publicity in recents months, causing a number crises with ultra-Orthodox members of Netanyahu’s coalition — some of whom (due to a court-ruled requirement) are now full-fledged ministers. This past week, the Rebbe and unequivocal spiritual leader of the Gur Hasidim, that largest Hasidic group in Israel, instructed his follower — Minister of Health MK Ya’akov Litzman — that if the policy to perform railroad maintenance work on the Shabbath continues, he must resign.
During a previous coalition crisis, Netanyahu backed down and ordered work stopped on the railroads, even though that work had already been started— an act that caused widespread disruption the following week — a decision which was incredibly unpopular. This time, Netanyahu did not back down and Litzman announced he would resign on Sunday, which he did.
Litzman made it clear he did not want to bring down the coalition. Rather, he just did not want to have any ministerial responsibility for actions taking place on the Sabbath. The fear, however, was that Litzman’s actions would force other ultra-Orthodox members of the government to resign as well. This latest crisis has been ended, for the moment, after Prime Minister Netanyahu met with representatives from the ultra-Orthodox parties and promised them a series of actions that he claimed would maintain the Sabbath Status-Quo. One of the acts Netanyahu promised ultra-Orthodox representatives is to change one of Israel’s Basic Laws (i.e., the closest thing Israel has to constitution) to allow Litzman to remain in charge of the Ministry of Health, without being a government Minister (as mentioned above, a decision Israel’s Supreme Court has deemed prohibited).
All of the above drama took place over a four-day period — and does not even address the escalating external challenges Israel now faces in Syria, or the rising specter of terror in the Sinai. Expectations in Israel are that the coming weeks, which will include a visit by US Vice President Mike Pence, will lack no excitement, either political or diplomatically. Israelis are in a strange place — the economy is doing well, people feel safe, and the general situation is the best it has ever been for the average Israeli. All the same the ongoing investigations into the Prime Minister, and the willingness of the coalition to do whatever it takes to stay in power, are generating growing discontent, that despite the positive economic and security indicators, breed sentiments the country is not moving in the right direction.