My Take on the News

Mergers and Negotiations on the Right

During an election campaign, nothing is ever certain until the last moment. Now, however, the last moment is rapidly approaching.

By the end of this week, we will know the exact makeup of all the parties. The deadline for submitting party lists to the Central Elections Committee, headed by Justice Chanan Meltzer, is at the end of this week. For now, chaos is reigning on the right and left alike. But let us begin, as Chazal teach us, with the right….

First, there is Moshe Feiglin’s Zehut party. In the elections for the 21st Knesset, Feiglin received 118,000 votes, which amounted to about 2.7 mandates. In other words, he did not pass the electoral threshold, and he caused a loss of many votes both to the right and to the left. Feiglin now understands that there is no sense in repeating his effort to run alone, and he has been offering himself to any buyer. The only problem is that no one has expressed any interest in taking him. The simple reason for that is that the votes that Feiglin received came neither form the right nor from the left; they were from an assortment of strange people who were captivated by his slogans and promises, such as his intent to legalize certain drugs. There were some negotiations between Feiglin and Bennett, but the talks did not lead anywhere, as could be expected, and it is almost certain that Feiglin will not be part of the game this time around.

That leaves the Union of Right-Wing Parties—Rafi Peretz, Betzalel Smotrich, and their colleagues, who ran together with Otzma Yehudit, the party of Rabbi Meir Kahane’s followers. For now, Otzma Yehudit is sitting on the fence. They ran with Eli Yishai in the elections for the 20th Knesset and failed to pass the threshold, although the combined party received over 100,000 votes, most of which were for Otzma Yehudit. They know that they don’t have the option of running independently, since they will fail to cross the threshold again, yet the United Right hasn’t exactly shown much excitement at the prospect of running together with them.

That leaves Naftoli Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, who ran jointly in the previous elections as the New Right party and received 138,000 votes, or 3.2 percent of the total vote, missing the electoral threshold by a minuscule margin. Logic dictates that Bennett and Shaked should return to their “home” party and run together with the United Right, capitalizing on their potential for almost four mandates. Shaked negotiated separately with Peretz and Smotrich, but the talks stalled when they could not agree on who would lead the combined party. Peretz refused to give in, arguing that it was not appropriate for a woman, especially an irreligious woman, to lead a national religious party. Bennett, for his part, has been persistently asking Shaked to join him again. At the beginning of this week, Bennett even announced that he would be willing to surrender the first spot on his party’s list to Shaked. In all likelihood, that is what will happen. Incidentally, Bennett also made the very bizarre statement that he does not consider himself obligated to endorse Netanyahu for prime minister. The logic for making such an assertion completely escapes me.

If Shaked joins Bennett and the two offer to unite again with Peretz and Smotrich, it will be difficult for Peretz to insist on continuing to head the party. But on Sunday evening, something extremely odd happened: Netanyahu, under pressure from his wife, encouraged Rafi Peretz not to give up his spot to Ayelet Shaked. This is a highly illogical move, since it might torpedo the chance for all the right-wing parties to unite. Then again, perhaps nothing that happens in Israel should be surprising.

As we were going to print Shaked announced that she was returning to the New Right, this time as its head. Bennett called on all right-wing parties to unite in a joint list led by his party’s new leader.

Strange Alliances on the Left

Meanwhile, on the left, there have been two major developments over the course of the past week. The first was Ehud Barak’s rapid, sharp decline. I will not go into the details, but Barak, who tried to present himself as a source of hope for the country in the upcoming election, appears to have lost his standing within the space of a few days. At this moment, he has become completely unwanted. Meretz, the party furthest to the left (with the exception of the Arabs, of course), which had previously been exploring the possibility of an alliance with Barak, dropped the idea very quickly when they realized that he would be nothing but a burden. The Labor party, which is now led by veteran MK and onetime Defense Minister Amir Peretz, also quickly scuttled the idea of joining forces with Barak. This, in spite of the fact that both Meretz and Labor have long proclaimed the necessity of unity on the left.

Nevertheless, there was one pact formed on that end of the political spectrum: Amir Peretz united with Orly Levi’s party, Gesher. Levi, the daughter of former Foreign Minister and senior Likud official David Levi, was originally elected to the Knesset as a member of Avigdor Lieberman’s party. After she found herself in conflict with Lieberman, she left Yisrael Beiteinu and became a one-woman party. She was highly admired in the previous Knesset, and in the election for the 21st Knesset, she attempted to merge with Blue and White and with the Likud party. Both attempts failed, on account of various egos that were involved. Levi ultimately ran alone and received 74,000 votes, only 1.7 percent of the total vote. She did not pass the electoral threshold, but she is considered to be worth two or three mandates that will likely be won by any party she chooses to join. Last weekend, she signed an agreement to unite with Amir Peretz and the Labor party. This came as a major shock, since she is viewed as part of the political right. Amir Peretz explained that the Labor party is attempting to target not only left-wing and centrist voters but also those on the right, especially in the periphery. He is certain that Orly Levi will elicit the support of those voters.

At this point, it seems unlikely that there will be any more unions on the left. Barak is not only considered undesirable, but is also incompatible with Orly Levi, as is Meretz. Will Meretz and Barak join forces? I wouldn’t bet on it, since Barak seems to have become persona non grata altogether.

Another major bombshell was Amir Peretz’s announcement that he will refuse to enter a Netanyahu-led coalition after the elections as long as the threat of indictment hovers over the prime minister’s head. This implied that if the specter of a criminal indictment is removed, he would indeed join with Netanyahu. And that is a major turnaround.

Returning to an Impasse?

Avigdor Lieberman, meanwhile, is still an enigma. What caused this man to make a complete turnaround and become an enemy of the chareidim? Even if his actions make sense on an electoral level, is it really true that anything goes in politics? Does political expediency make it acceptable to incite against a group with whom one has maintained a close relationship for decades? Can anyone justify Lieberman’s turning his back on the chareidi parties after working closely with them for so long? It is a shame that he has made this choice.

According to the polls, Lieberman will still hold the deciding vote when the next government is formed. The polls indicate that the right and left will each receive more or less the same number of mandates, and neither will have enough to assemble a coalition of over 60 mandates on their own. Netanyahu will still be in a better position than Gantz, since even if Gantz is able to put together 61 mandates, the Arabs will be included in that number, and no Israeli government in history has ever depended on Arab parties for its existence.

According to the most recent polls, the Likud party will receive 32 mandates, down from its current 35, while Blue and While will drop from 35 to 29. The Joint Arab List (which split into two separate parties for the previous election, although the Arabs have likely realized by now that it is to their benefit to run jointly) will be the third largest party, with ten mandates, followed by Yisroel Beiteinu, Lieberman’s party, which polls say will leap from the four mandates it possessed in the 21st Knesset to nine or ten. The only thing that may stop Lieberman’s growth is the recent stroke of hashgochah pratis that took the form of Ron Kobi’s arrival on the scene. Kobi is expected to siphon off two mandates that would otherwise have been won by Yisroel Beiteinu, but to fail to make it into the Knesset.

The polls also show the chareidi parties remaining with virtually the same representation: eight mandates for the Shas party, the same number it possessed in the 21st Knesset, and seven for UTJ. The latter party received eight mandates in the previous election, paving the way for Yitzchok Pindrus to enter the Knesset. (The Likud party argued at the last minute, though, that the eighth mandate was improperly awarded to UTJ by an incorrect tally of the votes, and that the mandate should actually have gone to the Likud.) Further along the list are the New Right (under the assumption that it will be led by Ayelet Shaked) with six mandates, which is a very nice achievement, and then the Labor party (although this may have been before its alliance with Gesher was announced). Then there are the smaller parties: Meretz is projected to win five mandates, and the Union of Right-Wing Parties (again, without Shaked and Bennett, and without Otzma Yehudit) would receive four. That means that the political right is taking a major risk. The polls also show that Ehud Barak will receive four mandates if he runs independently. Nevertheless, logic indicates that Barak will not end up receiving even that much, since his popularity is likely to decline even further by the time the election arrives.

As you can see from these figures, the right would remain with 57 mandates, while the left would receive 54. Lieberman, with his nine mandates, would be capable of handing control of the country to the left. He claims that he will force a unity government, although if he does that, he himself will almost certainly be excluded.

More Insanity from Ron Kobi

Having mentioned Ron Kobi, I cannot fail to bring up his recent apparent victory in the Supreme Court. Last Thursday, Kobi petitioned the court to prevent Interior Minister Aryeh Deri from beginning the process that will lead to his dismissal from office, as the law requires. On Sunday, Justice Grosskopf of the Supreme Court accepted his petition and ruled, “A temporary injunction is hereby granted whereby the respondents

[the Minister of the Interior, the director-general of his ministry, and the
Interior Ministry itself]

will refrain from summoning the claimant to a hearing until a further decision is rendered. This petition will be heard by a panel of three justices no later than July 31.” This seems like a win for Ron Kobi.

Kobi, of course, cited the judge’s ruling in a typically arrogant public statement, which included some harsh language and scathing accusations directed at Deri himself. The following is Kobi’s unedited response: “The Supreme Court has dealt a serious blow to Aryeh Deri and the Ministry of the Interior. Ron Kobi, the mayor of Teveria, won a temporary injunction ordering the hearing in his case delayed until his petition is discussed in the court. Those who try to have Ron Kobi removed from the post of mayor of Teveria will ultimately get him as Minister of the Interior. The support for Ron Kobi and the Secular Right party has crossed the boundaries of all social networks and media. Only Ron Kobi and the Secular Right can stop the chareidi coercion in the Knesset and the country. The Supreme Court showed today, in an unprecedented ruling, that it is against giving the Interior Minister the authority to dismiss a mayor. This means that the court understands that Teveria must remain a secular city! Residents of Teveria, your democracy and your votes have defeated the forces of darkness that voted against our budget and tried to remove a ruling mayor. There are judges in Yerushalayim! We need 1000 shares in order to spread the news. B’sheim Hashem naaseh v’natzliach!” This should give you a picture of the type of person we are dealing with —one who even has the audacity to invoke the Name of Hashem!

But this is not a victory, since the hearing that was called for Kobi was scheduled all along to take place on July 28. It is almost certain that the court will ultimately decide against him. All he achieved was a very temporary victory, which will do nothing but allow him to say that he exhausted every possible avenue of effort. Besides, as long as this continues and the situation in Teveria remains unstable, Kobi will not begin campaigning for his election to the Knesset. And the later he begins his campaign, the less he will succeed. That isn’t to say that we expect him to cross the electoral threshold at all, but it would still be helpful if he is not properly prepared. In that case, it seems most likely that he will receive two to three mandates—at Avigdor Lieberman’s expense.

The Three Weeks Begin

But I would not want you to think that Ron Kobi and Avigdor Lieberman are the only things on our mind in Eretz Yisroel. For one thing, this weekend marked the beginning of the three weeks between Shivah Asar B’Tammuz and Tisha B’Av. I remember that MK Uri Maklev made a remarkable comment last year in a drosha: The people of Yerushalayim tend to have a keener sense of the Churban, since the Bais Hamikdash once stood in our own city. By way of analogy, he pointed out that the destruction of the Twin Towers left a much more powerful imprint on the people who lived in New York than on those who lived in more distant parts of the United States. Every year, the weeks marking the Churban are a time of great sadness in Yerushalayim. I don’t know how to explain it, but there is something palpable in the atmosphere. Just as we can sense the Shechinah coming down to the world on Shabbos, we also have a powerful awareness of the days of bein hameitzorim. The grief and mourning fill the air.

Then there were the fires that caused havoc and destruction last week. Because of the heat wave that hit our country last week, dozens of fires erupted throughout the country, some of which forced the evacuation of entire neighborhoods.

In other news, two American congresswomen are scheduled to visit Eretz Yisroel, although these women, Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, are known for their virulently anti-Israel views. Both of them are ardent supporters of the boycott campaign against Israel. According to Israeli law, it would be possible to prevent them from visiting the country, but Prime Minister Netanyahu and Interior Minister Deri decided together to permit them to come.

And then there was the chillul Shabbos. This past Shabbos, the Israel Railways company engaged in flagrant chillul Shabbos once again, employing 187 Jews to perform work over the course of Shabbos. At the same time, several mayors in Israel, especially the mayor of Ramat Gan, have decided to play their own part in eroding the status quo by introducing public transportation on Shabbos. And that makes for a sad situation.

Evading Eavesdroppers

As I mentioned last week, Justice Meltzer has taken over the Shas party’s office. He holds meetings in the large conference room, and the judge himself sits in an adjacent office. I warned him that lashon hara is verboten in these offices…. This week, I discovered a row of cubbies for cell phones that had been placed at the entrance to the conference room. I wondered if the participants in committee meetings have been asked to deposit their phones outside the room in order to prevent the meetings from being recorded. In the past, a distinguished MK was once caught recording a session of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee when his cassette recorder began making noise; he had accidentally pressed the Play button rather than Record. The sight of the cubbies brought that memory to my mind.

Then there was another incident that I recalled. This took place when I was sitting in my office late one night, during a particular election campaign. The building was empty, the door was open, and I noticed Avigdor Lieberman pacing back and forth in the corridor outside. At some point, he entered the room and began examining the pictures of Rav Ovadiah Yosef that adorned the walls. He began asking me where each picture had been taken (one was from Egypt, another from London, and several others from Rav Ovadiah’s home on Rechov Jabotinsky), and at some point, I said, “I am certain that you didn’t come here simply to look at pictures!” Lieberman laughed and said, “Have you seen Aryeh? We had arranged to meet here.”

Aryeh Deri arrived two minutes later. He and Lieberman entered a room together and closed the door. Moments later, Lieberman suddenly emerged from the room and placed five cell phones on my desk. Three were his, and the other two belonged to Deri. “Watch these phones until we finish,” he said, and then returned to his meeting. I believe that they made an agreement during that meeting that neither of them would enter the coalition without the other.

When they finally emerged and retrieved their phones, I could not restrain my curiosity. “Tell me,” I said to Lieberman, “you are Deri’s friend, yet you still suspect him of recording you?”

Lieberman looked at me fiercely and said, “Are you crazy? Is there anyone more trustworthy than Deri?”

“If that’s the case,” I asked, “then why were you afraid to let him bring his cell phone to the meeting?”

Lieberman was astonished. “You mean to tell me,” he said, “that you don’t know that a person can be sitting in Russia today and tap into a cell phone belonging to one of the participants in a meeting in Israel?”

Tourism in Israel

It is an official statistic: 93 percent of tourists come to Yerushalayim—not to Tel Aviv, even though it has become a city of international revelry, nor to Teveria, even if its promenade is open for business on Shabbos, nor to Haifa, in spite of the Bahai Gardens. I am curious how many tourists visit the kever of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai in Meron. I am not sure that there are all that many.

Nevertheless, the degree to which the state invests in preserving mekomos kedoshim should have nothing to do with the number of visitors. Tourists will visit holy sites regardless of whether they are rundown and neglected or refurbished and sparkling. That, however, should not absolve the government of its responsibility to tend to those sites.

No Need for Chareidi Soldiers

We may think that we are running the world, but we are actually doing no more than the man who stands at the entrance to Yerushalayim and “directs” traffic in tune with the traffic lights. Hashem needs our help just as much as the traffic lights need that man’s intervention—which is to say, not at all.

At the Pressburg kollel in Yerushalayim, there is an elderly man who is an outstanding Torah genius. He is always the first to greet others with radiant warmth and good cheer, and he spends his entire day immersed in Torah learning with a series of chavrusos, including bochurim in need of chizuk and men who learn with him by telephone. At times, he inquires about the work of our public servants, and then he smiles and says, “Make sure that you always remember that Hashem runs the world.”

This man is one of the incredible people who spend their lives steeped in Torah learning, unfazed by the tumultuous world in which they live. I see them every morning, radiating joy and contentment as they head for the botei medrash of our neighborhood, completely unperturbed by the overdrafts in their bank accounts or by the nefarious plotting of politicians who seek to harm the Torah world. They are content to allow Hashem to manage the world, secure in the knowledge that He has no need for our help. On that note, Rav Ovadiah Yosef once quoted the midrash that states that there were four factions among Bnei Yisroel at the Yam Suf: Some wanted to leap into the sea, others wanted to return to Mitzrayim, another group wanted to fight the Mitzrim, and a fourth wanted to daven for salvation. None of them, Rav Ovadiah pointed out, dreamed of the fifth option, which is what actually happened: the miracle of Krias Yam Suf. But Hashem is capable of anything!

And the same is true today. Who imagined that it would be Avigdor Lieberman who would provide us with a solution at the height of the controversy over the draft? Who dreamed that Ron Kobi might be the key to undermining Lieberman? And those are but two of many examples.

The most noteworthy example is the case of the draft law, which has become the prime pretext for opposition to the Torah world in Eretz Yisroel in our generation. In recent times, even as the chareidi leadership has remained mum on the issue, there have been growing calls from the rest of Israeli society to put an end to the situation altogether and to leave our community alone. Ehud Barak recently declared that it is time to put an end to this “Isra-bluff.” Naftoli Bennett’s plan proposes that chareidim be integrated into the work force rather than the army. A sort of consensus has been formed that includes Moshe Feiglin (“There is no need to draft chareidim”) and Stav Shapir (“No one has an interest in drafting chareidim”). Even Shai Piron has been calling on Lapid to set aside his obsession with “sharing the burden.” (“Is it equality when one soldier serves in Golani and the other in Kiryah?” Piron asked rhetorically) The topic has also become a subject of discussion in academic institutes such as the Israel Democracy Institute, and in ideological forums such as B’Sheva.

Even the media has echoed this growing call. “The army doesn’t need chareidim,” Kobi Niv recently wrote in Haaretz. “We have too many soldiers already. And if the chareidim are drafted en masse, as you have been demanding, then the IDF will have to change its entire character in order for them to serve in accordance with their faith. Is that what the army needs? Is that what you want? If that happens, then you will scream and protest about hadatah [foisting religion on others], won’t you? So stop driving everyone mad about equality in sharing the burden!”

Then there was Hillel Gershoni, who wrote in Liberal, “The exemption of chareidim from the draft doesn’t undermine human dignity. The Knesset has every right to exempt various groups from the draft…. Is the exemption for Arabs an affront to the dignity of the Jews who enlist? … Even if a volunteer army with appropriate salaries isn’t something that can be developed overnight, we can certainly work in that direction….”

Are the Beta Israel Really Jewish?

On Monday, the Knesset convened for an emergency session in response to the Ethiopian protests. No one voiced complaints or resentment of the protestors, either out of fear or out of a sense of guilt. Interestingly, many of the soldiers stationed outside the Knesset, as well as many of the ushers, were Ethiopians.

The session focused on a motion filed by the opposition, which was entitled, “The Ongoing National Failure to Absorb the Jews of Ethiopia.” Somehow, the media failed to take note of the speech delivered by Desta Yevarken, an Ethiopian member of the Knesset (from the Blue and White party), who actually accused the leaders of Israel of causing bloodshed! Here is an excerpt:

“The State of Israel has always closed its gates to the Beta Israel…. We began a trek on foot via Sudan in the end of the 1970s. The government discovered that we planned to come to Israel via Sudan, and it leaked information about our presence there. This took a lethal toll, costing the lives of thousands of people who died in Sudan, and who are memorialized today on Mount Herzl. Ask a precious Jew named George Gutelman, a Jew from Belgium and a survivor of the Holocaust, who donated his fleet of planes for clandestine operations to bring the Beta Israel from Sudan to Israel. On his own, he helped over 8600 Jews escape on his planes via Europe. After the country leaked this information, he lost his entire fortune. He was boycotted by the Arab countries and driven into bankruptcy. The former head of the Mossad, Ephraim Halevy, can attest that he recruited him for that task. Here in the Knesset, at the Knesset podium, the leaders of the state proudly and arrogantly disclosed that operation, which was a state secret, at a time when soldiers and Mossad operatives were risking their lives to save the Jews of Ethiopia who were in Sudan. The exposed us to the Sudanese, our ardent enemies.”

Did the government differentiate between Ethiopian Jews and the Beta Israel? Perhaps, but Yevarken continued, “Ultimately, the government came to its senses under pressure from United States Jewry, or with the assistance of the American government led by the senior George Bush of blessed memory, and sent its sons to rescue the remaining Jews and complete the aliyah. There are two men sitting here who were among the combatants present at the time: General Benny Gantz and Reserve General Tal Russo. The two of them served as soldiers and commanding officers during this event.”

I asked Tal Russo if the story was true. He confirmed that he assisted the Ethiopian immigrants; however, he averred that he knew nothing about the government having a change of heart at the time.

Later in the day, I asked Yevarken who had prepared his speech, and he insisted that he had written it himself. “No one helped you?” I asked. He vehemently denied that anyone else had contributed to it. I asked him if he was certain that the leaders of the Israeli government had caused the deaths of the Ethiopians in Sudan, and he responded with absolute certainty that they had.

“Who did it?” I asked.

“All of them,” Yevarken replied. “Peres, Begin, Rabin, and Shamir.”

It was a very long speech, and Yisroel Eichler, who was chairing the session, did not dare interrupt him. The Knesset was fairly empty, and Pindrus and Tessler managed to deliver brief speeches of their own, the latter mentioning Yanky Rosenberg, who was beaten by police on Lag Ba’Omer. Apparently, the topic of the Beta Israel requires further study. Is it possible that they are actually not Jewish? Is it possible that some of the Ethiopian protestors are full-fledged gentiles?

Yevarken’s speech was not the only thing that many chose to ignore. There was also the collapse of Mrs. Salmasa, the mother of 22-year-old Yosef Salmasa, who was killed five years ago; to this day, the police are still suspected of having caused his death. Mrs. Salmesa was leaving the auditorium and suddenly collapsed outside the various party offices. Moshe Miller, an aide to Yitzchak Pindrus and a volunteer paramedic, provided first aid. I do not believe that this was reported anywhere.

A Jab at Travelers

It has been a long time since I had such a good laugh, in spite of the sad circumstances.

I was informed that Rav Gadi, a righteous yungerman with whom I am acquainted, had lost a son, and I invited a mutual acquaintance who is a wonderful yungerman to join me in visiting the bereaved father to pay our condolences. My companion was a former chavrusa of Gadi, who had learned with him during their time as talmidim in the Yeshiva of Beer Yaakov. Both men are exceptional tzaddikim and extremely poor; one learns in an American kollel in Yerushalayim, while the other learns in Rechasim. Although they live in abject poverty, they are among the happiest people I have ever met.

The yungerman whom I wished to invite does not own a cell phone, and in order to contact him I had to ask the administration of his kollel to pass on a message. I sent them an e-mail, asking them to print it out and hand it to him, in which I wrote, “I am going to visit Gadi. Do you want to come along? If so, when? We can even wait until after the shiva!”

When I received his response, I laughed uproariously. “It’s a bit of a problem,” he wrote. “I’m going to be in the Carpathians tomorrow, I am spending the weekend in Venice, and I’ll be in Austria next week. Maybe we can squeeze it in sometime….” It was a tongue-in-cheek mockery of the growing phenomenon of Israelis taking quick jaunts abroad. The next line contained his real answer: “Whenever you say. I prefer bein hasedorim or nighttime.”

A Public Figure’s Dedication

A talmid chochom recently remarked to me, “When we recite a mi shebeirach for people who are ill, we daven for them to have a refuas hanefesh u’refuas haguf—healing of the spirit and of the body. Yet in the mi shebeirach before Mussaf, when we daven for the people who are involved in communal affairs, we ask Hashem to ‘remove all illness from them and heal their entire bodies.’ Why don’t we ask for a refuas hanefesh for them, as well?”

His answer to this question was scintillating: “An askan who isn’t a meshuga l’dovor echad—who isn’t obsessively devoted to a particular cause—is not a proper askan!”

I repeated this to my publisher and he said that sometimes a person has be meshugah to remain involved in keholishe inyonim.