My Take on the News

Rapid Change in Israeli Politics

Once again, things are happening at a maddeningly dizzying pace in Israel. The most significant development is the pact between Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid. The two have been at loggerheads all along, but now they have suddenly become partners. According to the agreement they reached, Gantz and Lapid will share the office of prime minister on a rotating basis – if they win. This pact was forged at the last possible minute. The deadline for submitting the party lists for the upcoming election was last Thursday.

On Thursday night, the results of the first polls were published. According to the polls, if the election had been held on that day, the newly combined party headed by Gantz and Lapid, which was named “Kachol Lavan” (“Blue and White”), would have received more mandates than the Likud. That only served to justify Prime Minister Binyomin Netanyahu’s dire predictions. He has been repeatedly raising the alarm that there is a chance that the left-wing bloc will defeat the right. In the final analysis, the pivotal question in the election is whether the right or the left will emerge victorious. If the right-wing bloc receives the greater number of mandates, then Netanyahu will be tapped to assemble the next government. If the left receives more votes, then the president will give that opportunity to Gantz.

Last week, on account of the developments in Israel, Netanyahu canceled a planned trip to Moscow to meet with Vladimir Putin. He then got to work trying to convince the political right to unite. He had already succeeded in persuading Bayit Yehudi and the National Union (headed by Rafi Peretz and Betzalel Smotrich, respectively) to join forces. Now he had to convince them to partner with Otzma Yehudit, the party led by Rabbi Meir Kahane’s followers. In the previous election, this party, which ran together with Eli Yishai, almost managed to reach the electoral threshold, costing the right-wing bloc four mandates. Netanyahu feared that the same scenario would play out in the coming election, and he appealed to the parties to run on a united list. In the end, he was successful and they agreed to join with each other.

Fearing a Loss of Votes

There is still concern that the right-wing bloc will lose valuable votes. According to the polls, Moshe Kachlon, who is considered a member of the right – since, after all, he was a member of the Likud for many years – is hovering around the electoral threshold. Avigdor Lieberman is also barely managing to scrape past the threshold. Orly Levi, who broke away from Lieberman’s party and appeared on the political scene with major fanfare and was expected to win five mandates, has also been losing popularity. Until the last minute, she had held out hope of uniting with Gantz, but he turned his back on her and chose to ally himself with Lapid instead. In all likelihood, her shrinking support is due to the fact that Gantz is siphoning votes away from those who are considered the center-right. Moshe Feiglin, a former Likud MK who is now running independently, also seems to be hovering around the threshold.

On the left side of the political map, there are also a few parties that have dubious chances of passing the threshold, especially the radical left-wing Meretz party. At the last possible minute, Meretz offered to join with the Labor party in order to prevent a defeat for the left, but the Labor party refused.

Now that the lists have been submitted, there can no longer be any changes. At this point, the parties will begin the work of spreading propaganda and struggling to convince the citizens to vote for them. If the examples of the past are any indication, plenty of things will change by the time the election takes place. As in the past, mudslinging has already begun, mainly between Netanyahu (with his son’s assistance) and Benny Gantz. I will write more about that next week.

An Ego Parade in the Sprinzak Hall

Last Wednesday and Thursday, I witnessed a parade of egotists in the Sprinzak auditorium in the Knesset building. One after another, these people strutted pompously into the room, each of them convinced that he or she alone represents the salvation of the State of Israel. Every one of these politicians was completely confident that Israeli voters will flock to the polls to cast votes for them. What causes people who are ostensibly sane and levelheaded to believe that they, more than anyone else, belong in positions of power in the Israeli government, and that they alone will garner sweeping support from the electorate? I am not referring only to people such as Oren Hazan. I am also speaking about the likes of Brigadier General Gal Hirsch and General Yom Tov Samia, who once led IDF soldiers on the front and are now running for the Knesset on their own list. Do they really believe that 120,000 Israeli citizens will vote for them?

The biggest issue of the upcoming election is the potential for precious votes to be squandered. How do these deluded dreamers have the audacity to gamble with the welfare of the entire country on the chance that they will garner enough votes to receive seats in the Knesset? Chazal teach us that desire, envy, and the hunger for power can remove a person from the world – but what about the rest of the people of Israel, who will have to suffer on account of their delusions?

There is an old saying: The things that the rest of the world views as entertainment are a matter of koreis for us. In an Israeli election season, this takes on another dimension of meaning. For most of the country, the rivalries on the political scene are like a sport of some kind. The political battles and bickering make for prime entertainment for the Israeli public. But for us, the religious populace, it can be a matter of life and death. The values of the Torah itself are at stake in every election. And we must daven fervently for the best possible outcome.

Prosecutorial Doubletalk

Shlomo Benizri was once a minister in the Israeli government. He is a baal teshuvah, the right-hand man of Rav Reuven Elbaz of Yeshivas Ohr Hachaim, and a talented individual. At a certain point in his career, he was indicted on charges of accepting bribes. He was convicted and sent to prison. Several years later, after he was released, the state witness who had testified against him admitted in an interview that he had framed Benizri in response to pressure from the police. The entire country was shocked by the revelation. Today, the testimony of state witnesses against the prime minister has focused the public’s attention on the concept of a state witness, and there is much debate as to whether it is a legitimate tactic.

The testimony of a state witness should be of dubious validity at best. There can be no witness more biased than one who knows that he can save himself from a jail sentence and monetary fines if he incriminates someone else. Aside from that, Benizri’s conviction was utterly unreasonable by any measure. There is no question that he was targeted and was subjected to injustice. This week, Benizri asked the president of the state to expunge his criminal conviction. That request was denied by President Rivlin.

At the time, a close friend of Benizri named Moshe Sela, who turned state witness against him, was granted significant leniency by the prosecution. To those who complained, the prosecution explained that without Sela’s testimony, there would not be a case against Benizri. For that reason, they felt compelled to honor his requests. Now, after Sela admitted that he had lied in court, the same prosecutors backtracked on their previous statements, claiming that the case against Benizri would have existed even without Sela’s testimony. Sela’s admission, after all, placed them in a quandary: If the entire case was based on his word, then as soon as he admitted that he had lied, they should have called for a retrial. And if the case was truly strong enough even without his testimony, then all the benefits he received were essentially a gift – with no discernible reason for the prosecution’s munificence.

This prompted the following parliamentary query, which was directed to the Minister of Justice: “According to the prosecution, in its response to Yisroel Hayom’s interview with Shlomo Benizri on May 11, 2018, even if Moshe Sela hadn’t signed a state witness agreement, there was sufficient evidence in the case to lead to Benizri’s conviction. The prosecution also stated that Sela’s testimony was ‘not central’ to the case, and in the instances in which it was central, ‘there was significant support for it.’ I would like to ask: What benefits were given to Moshe Sela as a state witness in the case against Benizri? If there was enough evidence even without his testimony, then were all those benefits given to him for nothing? Who was the person in the prosecutor’s office who decided to sign the agreement with Sela and who decided on the benefits to be given to him? Was Sela’s testimony actually ‘not central’ to the case or were there some instances in which it was a central factor? If it was indeed central to some details of the case, was it still superfluous because of the ‘significant support’? From the prosecution’s standpoint, now that the state witness has said that he lied, isn’t that a reason to reexamine the case?”

The minister’s answer was long, evasive, and far from convincing. “First of all,” she began, “it goes without saying that as the Minister of Justice, I am not involved in any way in the process of investigating crimes or in the professional considerations of the state prosecutor’s office. After inquiring with the state prosecutor, I am relaying the responses of the relevant officials.

“1. The benefits that Sela received in the context of his state witness agreement were the following: He would not be tried for the crimes he committed in the context of his ties with Benizri, he received a promise that his statements would not be used against certain close associates, he agreed to be tried for tax evasion with the understanding that the prosecution would seek a penalty that was previously agreed upon, and he received an agreement regarding his tax liability and the date of its payment.” This response may actually be incomplete. if I am not mistaken, he also received some financial benefits.

The minister’s response continues: “2. Regarding the evidence, it is true that even without the information provided by Mr. Sela, there was sufficient evidence against Mr. Benizri for criminal charges to be pressed regarding some of the clauses in the indictment. Nevertheless, Mr. Sela’s statements, which were supported by external evidence, expanded the allegations against Benizri and led to the gathering of additional evidence, which was used to connect Benizri to other crimes. This can be seen from the fact that after Mr. Sela’s incriminating testimony was delivered, Mr. Benizri was indicted on serious charges that included crimes involving bribery.”

The next paragraph relates that the agreement was signed by the district prosecutor, with the approval of the state prosecutor and the attorney general at the time. Shaked then moves on to the next point: “4. Regarding the centrality of Mr. Sela’s testimony, there were some instances in which it was central to the case and others in which it was not, in accordance with the individual charges under discussion. Even in the cases in which his testimony was central, it did not stand alone. instead, it was supported by additional central evidence.” This sounds like pure doubletalk: How could his testimony have been at once crucial to the case and supported by other evidence that made it unnecessary? Why couldn’t she simply answer the question? If there was even one part of the case that relied on Sela’s testimony, shouldn’t it have been reevaluated after he admitted that he had lied?

Back to Minister Shaked’s response: “5. Regarding the need for Mr. Sela’s testimony, concerning the fact that there was external support for his version of events: That evidence didn’t give his testimony extra weight. Rather, it lent authenticity to his testimony and served to negate the possibility that it was a false incrimination. The court examined Mr. Sela’s testimony painstakingly, and it found Mr. Benizri guilty only in the areas in which there was convincing evidence beyond reasonable doubt of the truth of his version of events.”

Well, if that was true, then why did the prosecution pay such a high price in order to solicit Sela’s testimony? Even more to the point, we must ask: If Sela had admitted at the time that he was lying, would Benizri have been convicted at all?

This is not the end of the response. the following paragraphs grow increasingly convoluted. Regarding the question of whether the case would be reopened, Shaked replied that the agreement was signed only after the police and the prosecution had reached the conclusion that Sela was being truthful. That hardly seems to be a reasonable answer, considering that he has now admitted that he was lying. The response also mentions that Benizri was convicted by the District Court and that the Supreme Court rejected his appeal, but what difference does that make? At the time, both courts believed that Sela was speaking the truth. Finally, Shaked concludes, “In light of the above, the prosecution did not find that the state witness’s general statements to the media justify reopening the case, and it has decided that there is no reason to suspect that his current statements are truthful, rather than the testimony that he delivered in court, which was supported by ample external evidence.”

In reality, nothing that is written in that response seems to justify the failure to reopen the case. That decision is based only on the prosecution’s preconceived notions and their hunger for a conviction at any price, even at the expense of truth and justice. At the end of the day, that is the true face of the criminal justice system of the State of Israel.

Shameful Behavior in Kiev

Two weeks earlier, I received a phone call from a relative who was in Kiev, who informed me that immigration officials were harassing many religious Jews who were arriving to visit the kivrei tzaddikim in the country. I wrote to Hillel Cohen in Kiev, and he responded tersely, “Yes, that is routine.” He didn’t elaborate more than that. The Ukrainians hinted that their motives were not anti-Semitic. Rather, it was a reprisal for the treatment suffered by Ukrainian travelers at Ben Gurion Airport.

This past week, the Knesset was visited by Georgii Logvynskyi, a member of the Ukrainian parliament who is not only Jewish, but also a former talmid of Yeshivas Ohr Simcha in Kfar Chabad. Logvynskyi is also a member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, and his wife serves as a judge on the European Union’s court in Strasbourg. Logvynskyi is recognizable as a ben Torah and makes no effort to hide his Jewishness. He arrived in Israel last week as a companion to the prime minister of Ukraine, who was visiting here. I met him in the Knesset, where he was a guest of our indefatigable friend, MK Michoel Malchieli.

“Tell me,” I said to Logvynskyi, “is there nothing that can be done about the anti-Semitism in Ukraine, especially in Kiev?”

He understood my reference immediately and he disagreed with me. “It isn’t anti-Semitism,” he asserted. “It is a policy of the immigration authorities, who are probably unjustifiably rigid.” Then he added, “Aren’t your officials in Lod also very rigid?” I shrugged, and then he said, “I will let you in on a secret. The last time I came here, they almost sent me back to Kiev!”

An Outage in Beitar Illit

Even though the Knesset is in recess, the members of the Knesset still have the right to submit parliamentary queries, to which the government ministers are required to respond within 21 days. With over a month remaining until the election – aside from the fact that the ministers will remain in office for a short time even after the election – this means that the queries can still be expected to draw responses.

Capitalizing on that opportunity, one of the chareidi MKs recently sent the following query to the Minister of Energy: “About a month ago, during a period of cold and stormy weather, the electric company deliberately cut power to several areas, including the city of Beitar Illit. The mayor of Beitar Illit claims that they were too quick to turn off the electricity in his city, and he is certain that other cities were not subjected to deliberate outages for such a lengthy period of time. I would like to ask: Is it true that the electric company initiated deliberate outages during those days? If so, in what cities was the supply of electricity interrupted and for how many hours in each city? How long was the outage in Beitar Illit?”

The minister’s answer is bound to be interesting…

One Good Turn

Our neighbors asked if we could lend them an electric kettle for a few days. Their kettle had broken, and they thought that we might have a spare. My wife immediately assured them that they could borrow our kettle. I am not certain why she said that, since we have only one electric kettle for our own use.

“Are you really letting the neighbors use that?” I asked.

“Yes,” she replied. “It’s a chesed. Why not?”

“And what will we do in the meantime?” I said.

“We’ll use our Shabbos urn!” she replied.

Of course, she was right. The electric kettle is used to boil water during the week. The Shabbos urn, which is much larger, also boils water, as well as maintaining its temperature throughout Shabbos. Why couldn’t the neighbors use their own Shabbos urn? Well, that was none of my business. Why shouldn’t we do a mitzvah?

We handed over our kettle and placed the Shabbos urn on the kitchen counter. We filled it with water, brought it to a boil, and watched as steam billowed out of it. Then we turned on the Shabbos mode and left it to keep the water warm overnight. In the morning, the water was cold. We boiled the water again, and it remained hot for several hours before cooling off once again.

To make a long story short, we discovered that the urn had broken. We bought a new one, but the lesson was clear: If we hadn’t loaned our regular kettle to our neighbors, we wouldn’t have discovered the malfunction in our urn until Shabbos morning. A simple act of chesed spared us from a Shabbos without hot water.

A Simple Change with Lifesaving Results

Chaim Tabak, a highly skilled computer expert and a man of impeccable character, lives in Kiryat Sefer and works in the IT department of the Knesset. Interestingly, many of the men and women who work in that particular department – and in the same field in other workplaces as well – are chareidim. Apparently, Jews with a chareidi background are blessed with analytical skills that often give them an advantage over other experts in technology. But I digress.

Chaim Tabak recently came to me to offer his thanks. For many years, he has been traveling to work on the 304 bus, the same bus line that experienced a terrible tragedy last month. In fact, he took the bus at the same time of day every day, which would have placed him on the very bus that overturned that morning. But ever since the 100 bus, which travels from Tel Aviv to Kiryat Hamemshalah in Yerushalayim, began stopping in Shilat, he has begun taking that bus instead. “I shudder to think of what might have happened if the 100 bus hadn’t begun picking up passengers in Shilat,” he said. “I would have been on that bus when the disaster happened.”

“But what does that have to do with me?” I asked.

Tabak replied that he believed that I was responsible for fact that the 100 bus began stopping at the Shilat Junction on Route 443, where the entrance to Kiryat Sefer is located. “Until recently,” he added, “whenever I missed the 100 bus, I would still take the 304 from Shilat, but it recently discontinued its stop in Shilat.” Tabak plans to ask a rov if he is required to bentch Gomel.

Now, I can take only partial credit for this turn of events. Tabak once complained to me that the chareidi employees who work in Kiryat Hamemshalah were suffering from a lack of transportation from their homes in places such as Kiryat Sefer. After all, the relevant authorities found it hard to believe that any chareidim have jobs at all, much less that they are employed by the government, and they saw no need to provide suitable bus routes for those workers. Tabak’s request for help indeed led to the establishment of bus routes that were better suited for chareidi workers. However, I wasn’t the one who was actually responsible for those arrangements. Instead, it was a member of the Knesset to whom I relayed Tabak’s complaint, who sent the following query to the Minister of Transportation: “Egged Taavurah operates a bus line, the number 100 bus, which is intended to benefit people who work in Kiryat Hamemshalah in Yerushalayim. The bus travels from Kiryat Hamemshalah to Shafirim parking lot in Emek Lod, and it does not stop at the Shilat Junction on its way to Shafirim, nor does it stop at the bus stop across the road on its way to Yerushalayim. This prevents hundreds or even thousands of people who need this bus – who live in Modiin, Shoham, Modiin Illit, Chashmonaim, and the surrounding areas – from benefiting from its service. Is this correct? If so, why doesn’t this bus have a designated stop at the Shilat Junction in both directions? Does the bus have any other stops, or does it travel directly from its starting point to its final destination? How many buses travel this route every day, and what is the average number of passengers on each trip?”

The response from Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz was quick and to the point: The 100 bus would begin stopping at the Shilat Junction immediately. True to his word, the bus’s route was altered very quickly. It was a major accomplishment resulting from a simple parliamentary query – and now it seems that it even may have saved a life.