Wednesday, Aug 4, 2021

Elections for the Twentieth Knesset

Less than forty days remain until the elections for the Twentieth Knesset of the State of Israel. By law, Israeli elections always take place on a Tuesday. In this column, we will follow the events leading up to the elections and present some small stories - or some not-so-small stories - that are relevant to the process.

FROM SAN JOSE TO MONTEVIDEO

The elections for the Twentieth Knesset will be held on Tuesday, March 17. Over five million Israeli citizens are entitled to vote. If you would like an exact figure, the number is 5,881,969. These Israelis will flock to the polling stations, which will be located in every city and settlement in the country, from Dimona and Eilat in the south to Kiryat Shemonah and Moshav Yaarah in the north. In total, there are 10,461 polling stations. That includes polling stations on army bases, in jails, and in hospitals. It even includes official Israeli ships at sea, and 98 embassies and consulates representing the State of Israel throughout the world.

What do Dublin, Ottowa, Abuja, Canberra, Houston and Taipei have in common? We won’t keep you guessing. The answer is that all six of these places are included on the list of Israeli consulates and embassies where votes will be collected from Israelis stationed abroad during the upcoming elections. Would you like to hear some more of the list? Suit yourself: There is also San Jose, Bratislava, Dakar, Quito, San Salvador, Hanoi and Yaounde. As I mentioned, there are 98 places where polling stations will be situated. And from the list, you can see that the State of Israel operates consular offices even in some remote locales where it is doubtful if there is much need for them.

Why do we have a consulate in Chengdu? For that matter, where is Chengdu? The Foreign Ministry announced that a new Israeli consulate opened three months ago in the city of Chengdu, the capital of the Sichuan province of China. Perhaps Matan Vilnai, our ambassador to China and former Minister of Home Front Defense, can explain the reason for that decision. And why do we need a consulate in Bangalore, the capital of the Indian state of Karnataka? What about Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic?

The consular offices in these cities work alongside the Israeli embassies situated in the state capitals. In some cases, there are other consulates scattered throughout the state where they are located. Each of these offices is generally staffed with quite a few government employees, in addition to security guards, drivers, cooks, and so forth. In short, huge sums of money are being poured into these facilities. And all the unfortunate souls who work there, who are “suffering” in their postings in foreign lands, must be accorded the basic right to vote in the Knesset elections, regardless of the cost. That is what democracy is, isn’t it?

HOW RELIABLE ARE THE ROVING POLLS?

This week, the newspapers reported on the roving poll run by the Maariv newspaper, which traveled around Yerushalayim with surprising – in fact, sensational – results. Roving polls can be very endearing. They can also be very misleading. If I ever come across a roving poll, I can simply get together a few friends and create, in the words of the legendary newscaster Chaim Yavin from state television in 1977, the year that Menachem Begin came to power, “a revolution, ladies and gentlemen!”

On that note, I have a bit of historical information to share, which may help you understand the extent to which you can rely – or not rely – on these polls. I have in my possession two articles that I clipped from Zman Tel Aviv, a local newspaper in the eponymous city, which were published long before the results of the current roving polls. These articles reported on a similar initiative that took place in Tel Aviv, where pollsters simulated the upcoming elections in order to predict their results. That poll was run by a young, enterprising journalist by the name of Roi Stern, and it took place exactly two months before the elections for the Sixteenth Knesset, which were held on the 25th of Shevat, 5763 (2003). Thus, the clippings are twelve years old.

One of the roving poll’s ballot boxes was brought to the Hatikvah neighborhood of Tel Aviv, and the results were published under the headline, “No Hope for Shas.” Out of the 65 “voters” who agreed to take part in the poll, 43 voted for Likud, eight for Labor, five for Meretz, five for Shinui, two for Mafdal, and two for Shas. The following week, the newspaper reported from the Dizengoff Center, in the heart of Tel Aviv. The simulated election at that location had been conducted with 66 “voters,” and the results were even more foreboding for the Shas party: Likud again emerged as the winner, with 28 votes, followed by Labor with 15. The Green Leaf party earned seven votes, Shinui received six, Mafdal received five, and Meretz received three. National Union and Yahadut HaTorah rounded out the poll with a single vote each. This time, the headlines read, “Not Even One for Shas.”

But the results of the actual elections for the Sixteenth Knesset were quite different. Shas received 258,879 votes, 8.2 percent of the total vote, which earned the party 11 mandates. Meanwhile, Mafdal, which had rejoiced over its performance in the roving poll, sank to half of the number of votes Shas received, earning six mandates with its 132,370 votes. The Green Leaf party, which had received seven times as many votes in Dizengoff Center as Yahadut HaTorah and National Union, received only 37,855 votes in the elections – 1.2 percent of the total vote. Of course, the party did not manage to cross the electoral threshold. Yahadut HaTorah received five mandates and National Union received seven. Those seven mandates were divided among the representatives of three different parties: Avigdor Lieberman, Yuri Stern, and Michael Nudelman of Yisrael Beiteinu; Tzvi Hendel and Uri Ariel of Tekumah; and Benny Alon and Aryeh Eldad of Moledet.

It bears mentioning that the Ahavat Yisrael party, under the aegis of the great mekubal Rav Yitzchok Kaduri, also ran in the 2003 elections. Its ballot slips bore the designation zayin nun. That party, which seemed at the time to pose a potential threat to Shas, received a mere 5,468 votes, only 0.2 percent of the total vote.

All this should serve as a reminder that the polls often fail to predict the actual outcome of an election.

AN APOLOGY WORSE THAN THE OFFENSE

There is a famous joke about an apology that was worse than the actual offense. We will not repeat the joke here, but we were reminded of it last Thursday upon reading a lengthy article in Haaretz describing the decision of a number of Israeli politicians to refrain from attending the Israel Conference for Democracy when they learned that it would be sponsored by the New Israel Fund, an organization that is involved in highly dubious activities.

The article slammed a group of public figures – Naftali Bennett, Ze’ev Elkin, Gila Gamliel, Aryeh Deri, Tzachi Hanegbi, Tzipi Hotovely and Ayelet Shaked – who had committed to appear on the panel and then changed their minds. “Their idea of democracy is ignoring the weak, the oppressed, and those without rights, the sectors of society suffering from economic discrimination and ostracism based on their faith,” the paper raged. In order to bolster its arguments, the article included a list of the recipients of the New Israel Fund’s donations. However, that information only served to prove that the politicians were correct in boycotting the panel. Certainly, Aryeh Deri was right.

In the area of “democracy, human rights, and civil rights,” most of the recipients of funding from the New Israel Fund are Arab and left-wing organizations. To support “pluralism and religious tolerance,” the organization contributed, of course, to Reform groups. The Movement for Progressive Judaism, for instance, received over 300,000 NIS from the NIF’s coffers. The Women of the Wall, too, benefited from their largesse, as did another organization that assists frum Jews in leaving religion. Even under the category of “social and economic justice,” the NIF supports a long list of Arab organizations. Was it really so difficult for them to find impoverished Jews who could benefit from their funding as well? Are we really to believe that the NIF has never heard of Yad Sarah, Ohr Leah, Yad Eliezer, Ezer Mizion and Kupat Ha’ir, all organizations that support and assist Jews with a variety of needs?

CALCULATED CRITERIA

The following is an excerpt of an official announcement broadcast in the media under the title “Supporting Communal Institutions That Maintain Centers for Enrichment in Jewish Zionist Heritage for Senior Citizens.” The announcement was released by the Ministry for Senior Citizens, headed by Uri Orbach, who succeeded in the Bayit Yehudi primaries but, unfortunately, recently lost the battle against the terminal illness that ultimately took his life.

“For a copy of the criteria for funding or for request forms, please call 02-654-7030,” the announcement declared. When I tried that phone number, my call was neither answered by a human being nor directed to voicemail. But that is not the issue at hand. The point is that this is an example of how government funding is often heavily influenced by political considerations. The leader of Bayit Yehudi is constantly coming up with new ways to channel money to his own people. What organizations deal with senior citizens and Jewish Zionist heritage? Only those that operate in the spirit of the national religious movement. Any chareidi entity that submits a request for funding would undoubtedly be disqualified out of hand.

This week, after the scandal involving Yisrael Beiteinu and Deputy Minister of the Interior Faina Kirschenbaum, there were many calls for coalition funding to be terminated altogether. Yehuda Weinstein, the attorney general, and other officials involved in the fight against corruption also advocated for such a move. Yochanan Plesner, who served until recently as a member of the Knesset, called on the parties to include this goal in their agendas, claiming that the current situation is one of rampant corruption and the distribution of funding without oversight or transparency.

But this is utter nonsense. Coalition funding is not only completely kosher, it is also entirely justified. The function of the ruling parties is to rule the country, and a government minister’s job is to determine his ministry’s goals and objectives. Coalition funds are carefully supervised and screened, and exacting criteria must be met in order for a transfer of funds to be permitted. For instance, Yosef “Tommy” Lapid, the father of Yair Lapid, once received coalition funds and decided to designate some of the money for use by chess societies. He was able to decide the intended use of the funds, but not the specific recipient. By law, he was required to issue an announcement of whatever sum had been designated for the use of chess societies, and then any such organization – even a chareidi or Arab one – could receive its share if it met the criteria to qualify. Abolishing the entire concept of coalition funds simply because someone might have used them wrongfully and corruptly is the most improper thing to do, even if it is also the easiest and seems to be correct.

The worst thing is when politicians play games with the criteria for funding. That is exactly what the people of Bayit Yehudi are doing, and much of the fault lies with the state’s legal advisor, who is responsible for approving the criteria set for coalition funds. The stipulation that funds will be directed to an institution that works among the elderly – or “senior citizens” – provided that it includes “enrichment” in the field of Jewish-Zionist heritage, is more than merely a criterion. It is a blatant maneuver to prevent government funding that is supposed to be distributed transparently and equally from falling into the hands of anyone not associated with Bayit Yehudi.

THE SECRETS COME OUT

The primaries within the Bayit Yehudi party afforded us an opportunity to get a glimpse of the economic dealings of its representatives in the Knesset. On the day of the primaries, I visited the polling station that the party set up in Bayit Vegan, and I collected a number of the pamphlets that were distributed at the door. The chairman of the party’s finance committee, MK Slominski, boasted, “We strengthened the Torah world with 170 million shekels. We transferred 300 million shekels to be used for settlements and security in Judea and Samaria. We added tens of millions of shekels to the budgets of Religious-Zionist educational institutions. And we added tens of millions of shekels to the budgets of Garinim Toraniim [a type of social development group] in the center of the country, the Negev, and the Galilee.” Where did all this money come from, and what makes it “Bayit Yehudi” funding? What were the criteria for its transfer and who approved it?

In another pamphlet, Deputy Education Minister Avi Wortzman proudly lays claim to a litany of accomplishments, including the addition of 1,000 slots for Sherut Leumi volunteers in kindergartens throughout the country and the lowering of tuition in the state religious school network. The pamphlet goes on to list a number of statistics: 55,000 students have been able to learn about education and Jewish identity, thanks to an investment of 45 million shekels. Under 160 different local authorities, there are 900,000 people participating in Torani cultural programs funded by an investment of 30 million shekels. The state religious educational system has been given an allocation of 70 million shekels. Seventy Hesder yeshivos have received an additional allotment of 42 million shekels. Seventeen million shekels have been allocated to Garinim Toraniim. And twelve million shekels have been allocated for 9,000 foreign students studying in yeshivos in Israel.

These are massive sums of money. Did anyone investigate where all these funds were taken from? Who approved the criteria that made it possible for Bayit Yehudi’s lawmakers to channel these funds specifically to institutions associated with their party? And I find myself wondering whether any members of our own camp attempted to request a portion of this funding. Why shouldn’t we establish Garinim Toraniim of our own and receive half of the funding? Do any of the “foreign students” funded by Bayit Yehudi learn in the Mir Yeshiva? Let’s forget about the Yisrael Beiteinu scandal. Right now, it seems far more important to investigate the financial pipelines managed by Bayit Yehudi.

MILLIONS OF SHEKELS TRANSFERRED FROM POCKET TO POCKET

Everyone is talking about the huge sums of money that are being spent due to the early elections and how the funds could have been put to much better use by being channeled to help the needy. We attempted to investigate where this money is actually going. Why does an election campaign cost so much money?

We discovered, in brief, that the state is paying six million shekels to the Housing Administration – in effect, transferring a vast sum of money from one of its pockets to another. Those funds are used to rent buildings for the use of the various election committees. As we have noted in the past, in addition to Justice Salim Jubran, who is currently heading the Central Elections Committee, there are other regional judges who are in charge of their own local election committees. The Central Elections Committee is based in the Knesset building, but all the local committees rent other buildings. The one in the Northern Dan, for instance, is located in a tall building at the end of Rechov Kahaneman.

And that is only one of the expenses involved in these elections. The state is also paying the government printer – which is yet another part of the government itself – 1.2 million shekels to print ballot envelopes. The state is also paying 5.5 million shekels to the Ministry of Defense to arrange voting in the army. The police force is receiving 15 million shekels to provide security at the polls. “Malam Systems” will be paid 17 million shekels for facilitating the elections, and the government’s public relations office will receive 1.5 million shekels for “announcements and advertisements.”

Last, but certainly not least, the greatest expense is the payments to the representatives of the various parties who will be manning the polling stations. Likud and Yesh Atid will each receive 3.2 million shekels for this purpose, Labor will receive 2.2 million shekels, and Shas will receive 1.7 million shekels. Yisrael Beiteinu will be allocated 2 million shekels, Bayit Yehudi will receive 1.9 million shekels, and the remainder of the parties will receive less than one million shekels each, for a total of 4.6 million shekels. The grand total of all these sums is a whopping 20 million shekels.

THE INFILTRATORS AND THE ISRAELI POOR

We will end this column with a brief story.

Recently, workers in the Knesset were somewhat frightened by the arrival of many small, thick envelopes addressed to the each of the members of the Knesset from the Berl Katznelson Foundation. Just to be safe, one of the envelopes was X-rayed so that its contents could be determined. Surprisingly, each envelope contained … a stocking cap.

This was the foundation’s way of protesting a court decision that prohibited the use of heating furnaces for the many foreign workers and infiltrators who were arrested for remaining in the country illegally, and who have been confined to the Holot detention facility in the Negev. The Berl Katznelson Foundation mailed hundreds of stocking caps to the facility, to be used by the detainees, and chose to send the caps to the 120 members of the Knesset as well. In a letter accompanying each cap, they wrote, “This is to remind you of the humanitarian obligation resting on all of us, and the need to demonstrate great sensitivity to the harsh conditions endured by all the detainees in the facility.” The current weather, the foundation’s employees added, does not distinguish between legitimate citizens and infiltrators, and it is imperative to demonstrate compassion to illegal immigrants as well.

A very nice gesture. But there are also people who are cold in Bnei Brak and in Beit Shean…

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