My Take On The News

Dissension Within the Likud

The election campaign is gathering momentum. In recent days, we have all been busy monitoring the primaries in the Likud party. This is actually something that should interest every citizen in the country. If the Likud wins the election, then the party members who managed to end up in the top positions on its list will likely be ministers in the coming government. This isn’t guaranteed, but the outcome of the primaries certainly contributes to the choice. On the other hand, after the last elections, Prime Minister Binyomin Netanyahu made it clear that he doesn’t feel obligated by anything; he simply chose government ministers as he pleased.

This time around, the aspect of the primaries that received the most public attention was the ugly public battle between Netanyahu and Gideon Saar. The latter, a former senior official in the Likud party and faithful follower of Netanyahu, left political life several years ago. He always maintained his connections with his colleagues in the party, knowing that he planned to return eventually. Now he is back and he wanted to be elected to the top of the party list, which would be a sign that he would ultimately succeed Netanyahu. Saar stressed that he had no intention of ousting Netanyahu from his position, that he supported the prime minister as leader of the party, and that his ambitions were focused purely on the future (although the future may come very quickly if Netanyahu is indicted).

Netanyahu, however, did not believe him. He was convinced that Saar was conspiring against him with President Reuven Rivlin, and that after the election is over, Rivlin planned to select Saar, rather than Netanyahu, to form the next government. It was an absurd theory, but Netanyahu has a penchant for paranoia. And because of his fears, he wanted Saar to be as far removed from the top of the list as possible. If he managed to keep his rival away from any kind of power, he reasoned, then he could be confident that Saar wouldn’t pose a threat to him. Netanyahu went so far as to explicitly instruct the other members of the Likud not to vote for Saar.

The results of the primaries were somewhat embarrassing for Netanyahu. The top positions were awarded to Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein, Transportation Minister Yisroel Katz, Minister of Internal Security Gilad Erdan, and Gideon Saar, in that order. While Saar didn’t make it to the highest position on the list, he was still one of the top five, against Netanyahu’s wishes. Interestingly, among the top ten positions on the party list, two were awarded to newcomers: Yoav Gallant, who was a member of Moshe Kachlon’s party in the previous Knesset, and Nir Barkat, the former mayor of Yerushalayim. As far as they are concerned, this is a major accomplishment. The other names at the top of the list were to be expected: Ministers Gila Gamliel, Ze’ev Elkin, Ofir Akunis, Tzachi Hanegbi, and Chaim Katz. Only about ten members of the Likud party who are serving in the current Knesset will not be returning.

Saar and the Battle for Shabbos

When the results of the primaries were publicized, Netanyahu released the following statement: “I am very, very pleased. The Likud members have chosen, in a precise and democratic way, a list that is strong, impressive and good for Israel. They also voted in favor of my proposal,” Netanyahu added, referring to his request to be able to assign three spots on the list to candidates of his choice.

While he was addressing the issue, Netanyahu did not forget to mention his most formidable opponent, Benny Gantz. “The problem,” he said, “is that Abu Mazen is also pleased, because Benny Gantz said today that he would carry out a second Disengagement in Yehuda and the Shomron, and Abu Mazen wished him success in the election. Therefore, we must work together to win this election and to prevent that from happening. This is the true essence of the elections: a choice between a left-wing government headed by Benny Gantz and a Likud government headed by me.”

Netanyahu also claimed a victory of sorts in the primaries: He had wanted Saar not to receive the top position on the list and he succeeded.

The highly publicized friction between Netanyahu and Saar clouded the atmosphere even outside the ranks of the Likud party. There is no question that the party lost some points on account of their conflict. Believe it or not, Saar actually received support from the business owners of Tel Aviv. They still remember that during their battle against the law that would permit stores to operate on Shabbos, Saar, as the Minister of the Interior, took their side. Kobi Bremer, a grocery store owner in Tel Aviv who is one of the leaders of the battle for Shabbos (and whom I once interviewed for the Yated), released a statement claiming that they had helped Saar in the primaries. “Gideon Saar received our support,” he announced, “and we now have a simple example of the way that Shabbos can defeat a prime minister.”

Gantz Starts Talking

Benny Gantz, the only person who seemingly poses a threat to Netanyahu’s future in office, broke his silence. I am not referring to his speech of two weeks ago, which he read off a written transcript and which was tailored to please every sector of the nation. Rather, I am referring to his interview this past week. This time, he had to answer questions, which made the situation more complicated for him. In order to make the process less difficult, he selected his own interviewers. Of course, he came under scathing criticism for that.

At one point, Gantz said, “I am not a tycoon and I do not consider myself a businessman. Therefore, I wasn’t successful in business. I don’t hate Bibi, but his time has come to finish his job in a dignified way… If there are criminal charges, I will not sit with Bibi,” he added.

“Before a hearing or after a hearing?” the interviewer questioned him.

“I will not sit with him if there are criminal charges,” Gantz repeated.

“I am going to write that you avoided giving an exact answer,” the reporter told him.

Gantz also refused to condemn the Disengagement, in which Ariel Sharon dismantled Jewish settlements in the south, which he described as a legal process ordered by the government. He was slammed for that statement as well, mainly by the political right. The new chairman of Bayit Yehudi, Rafi Peretz – a former chief rabbi of the IDF and onetime air force pilot, who advised the evacuees in Gush Katif at the time not to resist the army and the police – reacted to Gantz by declaring, “My friend Gantz, I was there. My home was destroyed and I was evicted. The Disengagement wounded the nation, and it wounded me. Retract your statement. We cannot have another Disengagement.” Peretz himself has been trying to rid himself of the label of a “collaborator,” which has been attached to him by the extreme right.

Meanwhile, Gantz’s party responded to the outrage evoked by his comments: “The Disengagement was executed and led by a legitimate government headed by the Likud. Netanyahu and the leaders of the Likud voted in favor of it, and Miri Regev served as its spokesperson. The Gantz government will not take unilateral steps regarding the evacuation of settlements. The discussion in the interview related to the importance of preventing a rift within the nation, and the insistence on rigid security provisions as a part of any future policy.”

Moshe Yaalon and the Chareidim

At this time, everyone is trying to figure out if the Likud party will be good for the religious populace, as the party leaders are being analyzed to determine whether they have any connection to Jewish tradition.

Shelly Yachimovich, one of the leaders of the Zionist Camp, made the following statement in response to the new Likud list: “The Likud conducted a democratic process worthy of praise, with an impressive degree of participation and placed Knesset members at its head who will be the future leadership after the imminent replacement of Netanyahu. I hope that on Monday, in a similar democratic process, the members of the Labor party will also come in droves to the polling stations and will assemble an excellent group of party leaders who will give us reason for hope.” It was a clever response, but it was also laughable. All the polls have predicted that the Labor party will earn no more than six seats, and perhaps even fewer.

Meanwhile, my prediction has come true: The pressure is mounting for Lapid to give up his position at the top of Yesh Atid and to merge with Gantz’s party, accepting a position for himself in the second place on the list. The polls indicate that if Chosein L’Yisroel and Yesh Atid merge, the combined party can expect to win 30 mandates, provided that it is headed by Gantz rather than Lapid. But for Yair Lapid, with his hubris, it is difficult to give in to those demands – at least for now.

This past week, I learned that the chareidi community isn’t all that fearful of Benny Gantz. Suddenly, they have decided that there are some positive things about him. The main point, however, is actually not Gantz himself, but rather Moshe “Bogie” Yaalon, the former chief of staff of the IDF and defense minister in Netanyahu’s government (until he was thrown out), who has allied himself with Gantz. As the Minister of Defense, Yaalon was the person who was most amenable to the chareidi community’s demands regarding the draft law. And it is only natural that the fate of the draft law is the most significant factor dictating the chareidi public’s stance on the elections.

Debate Over the Shas Amulet

Once every four years or less, the Central Electoral Council takes over the floor of the Knesset building where the political parties have their offices. In the past, when the building was smaller and the party offices were located on the fifth floor, the Electoral Council took over the entire floor, while the judge who headed the council always decided to take the offices of the Shas party for his or her personal use. For instance, Dorit Beinisch, who later became the chief justice of the Supreme Court, occupied my chair. It was in that very room that Aryeh Deri and his lawyer, Dan Avi-Yitzchak, argued with the opponents of the Shas party who petitioned against the party’s distribution of amulets to voters.

I remember Avi-Yitzchak’s argument. He said to Beinisch, “I have one of the amulets in my pocket. Now, if you rule in our favor and permit us to continue distributing the amulets, we will be pleased. And if you rule against us, then that alone should prove that the amulets are ineffective – and then what reason can there be to prohibit their distribution?”

It was a nice bit of reasoning, but the decision had already been made. After all, was there any reason to believe that Chief Justice Beinisch – who, in her previous post as the state prosecutor, had given a secret order to eliminate the Shas party and Aryeh Deri – would make a decision in favor of Shas? Was there any doubt that she would join forces with those who sought to thwart the party’s efforts? Amazingly, though, all of the efforts of Beinisch and her ilk to hamper the growth of the Shas party met with failure. In every election campaign, there were petitions filed against the Shas party, and there were even laws passed to hinder its efforts. The use of amulets and brachos were outlawed, and when that didn’t work, another law was passed that prohibited the use of gifts. (This led to a fierce debate as to whether a small bottle of oil with the brocha of the mekubal Rav Yitzchok Kaduri should be considered a gift.) Nevertheless, the Shas party stubbornly refused to disappear from the political map.

Chanan Aharon Returns

I have been waiting for the past four years to see him again, and now that the election campaign is here, I finally have the opportunity.

No, I am not referring to the judge who heads the Electoral Council. I have had the dubious privilege of encountering a seemingly endless number of Supreme Court justices over the years. Off the top of my head, I can tell you that I remember Justices Menachem Alon, Goldberg, Chalima, Theodor Ohr, Eliyahu Matza, Mishel Cheshin, Dorit Beinisch, Eliezer Rivlin, and, of course Elyakim Rubinstein, who davened Mincha and Maariv with us in the Knesset shul. There was also Salim Jubran, the Arab justice who was both inquisitive and entertaining, and now there is Chanan Meltzer, who was surprised to see that the Knesset shul, which is directly across the hall from his office, was packed with mispallelim.

Parenthetically, I have sat in on meetings headed by the judges and have listened to their debates. From time to time, I have also had the opportunity to interact with them. There is one thing I can tell you: They are human beings, and they are not all the same. Some of them are filled with self-importance and conceit, while others are pleasant and ordinary. Some of them show excellent comprehension and know how to ask the right questions, while others are ponderous thinkers and could never be mistaken for geniuses. There have even been judges who were dull, dimwitted, and even bothersome. But there is one commonality that they all share: I have never heard any of them admit to having made a mistake. Even when a lawyer makes an irrefutable argument that they were wrong, and even when they know that they were truly in error, none of these judges have ever admitted it.

But as I said, these judges are not the people whom I have waited four years to see. Instead, I am referring to Chanan Aharon, the representative of the Transportation Ministry who works for the Electoral Council and joins us for davening in the Knesset shul. Eight years ago, he was invited to deliver a devar Torah one day after davening, and as soon as he opened his mouth, everyone else found themselves gaping at him in astonishment. This young man began rattling off entire Medrashim, Gemaros and maamarei Chazal by heart, weaving all of the ideas together beautifully and peppering his presentation with an assortment of gematrios and other fascinating insights. It was an absolutely remarkable display of knowledge. Four years later, he was there again. I remember that in one of his drashos, he related that Rav Ovadiah Yosef had been his sandek. On another occasion, someone asked him where a certain word can be found in the Torah. “There is no such word in the Torah,” Chanan replied instantly. He paused for a moment and then added, “It isn’t anywhere in the rest of Tanach, either.” This week, we had the privilege of hearing from him once again. It was a brief drasha on the subject of gemillus chassodim packed with information despite its brevity.

Matters of Life and Death in the Health Basket Committee

I cannot help but shudder when I think about the task facing the members of the Health Basket Committee. How are they capable of making their decisions? Moreover, how do they dare to make those decisions? When they accept one lifesaving drug as part of the health basket, it automatically means that a different drug, which may be equally pivotal in saving lives, will not be included. How can a person choose one life over another?

I don’t know how the health care system works in America, but here in Israel, every citizen is insured by one of the country’s four heath funds. When a person needs a medication, he pays a nominal fee for the drug. Even if the actual cost of the medicine amounts to hundreds or thousands – and sometimes even tens of thousands – of shekels, it always costs the same amount to the consumer, which is equivalent to about five dollars – provided that it is included in the “basket” of approved medications. These are medications recognized by the Health Ministry as drugs that are required to be supplied to any patient.

Who decides which drugs are approved? There is a committee that includes various public figures, along with doctors and other medical experts, and they are responsible for making these decisions. How can they choose one medication over another? I certainly do not envy them the responsibility.

Ticketed for a Cigarette

I recently visited my hometown of Be’er Yaakov, including the bais medrash of its famed yeshiva, where I spent much time in my youth. While I was there, I decided to investigate an incident that was brought to my attention. There was a recent report about a group of youths who were acting in a disorderly fashion, one of whom was fined for dropping a cigarette on the ground. I examined the police report, which stated that “the accused threw a cigarette on the floor, according to the testimony of police officer Dima Bochutov, after a mob of about 60 people surrounded us.”

The story behind this fine is quite extraordinary. The young man in question was handcuffed to a police officer, and when he was asked to enter a police car, the cigarette fell out of his mouth. Someone then picked up the spent cigarette and brought it with him to the police station. I have just begun investigating the incident. Something is not right about these charges.

The State of Israel Against Tefillin

There was a major turn of events recently in a courtroom in Lod, yet the world seems to have paid no attention to it. Judge Brant – a woman whose distant ancestors were famous rabbonim – disqualified the confessions of a defendant identified only by his initial, who seems to be a young man with an intensive hyperactive streak and a need for proper direction. This youth was suspected of setting fire to a church, and the Shin Bet decided to make him a “project.” Their abusive treatment of the boy crossed every imaginable red line. He was threatened, intimidated, and subjected to physical, mental, and emotional abuse. There should have been no doubt that he would “confess.” It is reminiscent of the famous joke about the “criminal” who was taken into custody by the KGB and confessed to stealing Leonid Brezhnev’s watch. The joke has it that a KGB officer later announced triumphantly to his commander that he had found the watch, and the commander exclaimed, “But the thief already confessed!”

When I read about the case, my attention was caught by the following statement made by the judge: “The Shin Bet’s conduct was also improper with regard to the prisoner’s religious rights. He was not permitted to observe Shabbos properly, and he was prevented from wearing tefillin for two consecutive days. I must emphasize that the right to wear tefillin, like any other religious right, should not be taken lightly. The state must do everything in its ability to make sure that a suspect who is imprisoned, and who is at its mercy, will be able to fulfill his religious obligations.”

I am not a fan of the hilltop youth and their ilk. I presume that they have the halachic status of a rodef, although most of them are probably not even fit to stand trial. I am also not terribly enamored with Itamar Ben-Gvir, although I certainly enjoy it whenever he manages to deal a moral and judicial blow to the police and the Shin Bet. But even someone who doesn’t support the militant right wing should be saddened when the State of Israel shows contempt for such basic values as Shabbos and tefillin. It is very sad when an official agency, as important as it may be, forces an imprisoned minor to violate the Shabbos and denies him the opportunity to wear tefillin.

A Man with the Priceless Soul

Let me conclude with a few words about Reb Itche Wolf zt”l.

Picture the following scene: It was a Tuesday in Cheshvan 5749/1988, immediately after the national elections. On Rechov Jabotinsky in Yerushalayim, a group of activists who had worked for the Shas party’s election campaign had come to Rav Ovadiah Yosef’s home to inform him that the party’s representation in the Knesset had increased from four mandates to six. Rav Ovadiah was seated in his living room, engrossed in his seforim, and the large, noisy group fell silent as they stood on the threshold. Rebbetzin Margalit tried to divert her husband’s attention. “Harav,” she said, “Aryeh is here. He wants to tell you how much we received.”

Rav Ovadiah looked up from the sefer and made a questioning motion.

“Six!” the ecstatic Aryeh Deri said.

“Very good,” Rav Ovadiah replied, returning his gaze to the sefer before him. Once again, he was completely oblivious to the commotion around him, even to the joyous singing that had erupted from the group. Six mandates was a nice achievement, but it was not a reason to put down his sefer

I was a member of that group, and we felt that we were intruding. We quickly left the rov’s home. There were also two “strangers” in the group who felt, and rightly so, that they were equally involved in our success: Rav Moshe Reich and Rav Itche Wolf. They had been at the forefront of the campaign during that election for the Twelfth Knesset. The two men believed in the righteousness of the Shas party and in the justness of its efforts to restore the glory of Sephardic Jewry. They threw themselves into the campaign with all their might, supporting it financially as well. Both men were close friends of the Shas party, as well as its spiritual leader, who was deeply fond of them, and its senior representative, Aryeh Deri. They went on to support Deri during the period when he was persecuted viciously by the judicial establishment.

Itche Wolf, who passed away last week, was an incredible and very rare type of person. He was blessed with talent, insight and courage. It was always enjoyable to converse with him; he was perennially pleasant and humble. I met with him many times and in many places, in a wide variety of circumstances, but regardless of the situation, he always greeted me with warmth and good cheer, and he was always interested in finding out what he could do to help. He was a good man, who always sought to do good for others.