My Take on the News

Mark Your Calendars: Elections Ahead

We have gone past the point of madness. The political system in the State of Israel is like a truck whose brakes have failed and that is hurtling along a highway at an extremely high speed. One can imagine the panicked driver making a phone call for help and shouting, “The truck is moving at 140 kilometers per hour, and the brakes aren’t working!” Incidentally, such an incident actually took place on Israel’s Route 6 this past week, but it ended well, boruch Hashem. The driver followed the instructions of the emergency dispatcher, turning off his engine and pulling up the emergency brake, and the truck came to a halt.

The political system in Israel, though, is still hurtling along at top speed and there is no emergency brake to apply in order to stop it. But as Minister Dovid Levi once said, it is moving fast but going nowhere. We have already passed the deadlines given to Netanyahu and Gantz, respectively, to form coalitions, and we are now approaching the end of the period when any member of the Knesset can be recommended to form a government. In fact, the law even allows two MKs to be recommended together for this purpose. Netanyahu has already asked his entire bloc of 55 Knesset members to recommend him. He hopes to receive 61 supporters through that tactic, since Lieberman announced several days ago that he plans to recommend both Gantz and Netanyahu for the premiership. If he keeps his word, then Netanyahu will indeed have 61 recommendations. But one cannot be certain that Lieberman will do as he promised. Furthermore, it isn’t clear how it would help Netanyahu to have those 61 recommendations. Even if he does, there is no guarantee that Lieberman will support his coalition—and if he does not have that support, the country will return to the same deadlock.

In another four days, the law requires the Knesset to dissolve itself and a new election to be announced. The only way to prevent this is for Netanyahu to claim again that he has the ability to form a government and to request an official extension. As of now, it seems that even though no one wants another election, and there isn’t a single party that will benefit from it, we will be heading to the polls again, this time on Zayin Adar. This is complete insanity.

When I arrived at the Knesset building on Sunday morning, I encountered two hubs of activity. The first was outside the office of the Knesset speaker. Yuli Edelstein, who has heretofore been suspected of aspiring to succeed Netanyahu as the head of the Likud and thus to launch his own negotiations with Gantz, suddenly decided to aid Netanyahu in reaching an agreement to form a unity government. Edelstein met with Gantz and Netanyahu together and placed his office at their disposal for the talks between Blue and White and the Likud to continue. Nevertheless, the miracle that someone was expecting did not materialize, nor was there any reason for it to take place. Edelstein also invited Deri, as well as Litzman and Gafni, to the round of talks in his office, but those discussions also achieved nothing. No one in the government has changed their positions.

Signing for Another 14 Days

In addition, I saw many people hurrying to the Likud party’s office to sign a document declaring Netanyahu to be their candidate of choice to form a government. This was both amusing and sad at once. Both the Likud and Blue and White parties have begun a race to collect the signatures of 61 MKs, which would enable either Netanyahu or Gantz to receive a renewed mandate from the president to form the government, but they will have only 14 days to carry out the task.

For the time being, the entire right-wing bloc, following hesitations either real or feigned on the part of each of its member parties, has agreed to sign the request. Yaakov Asher, the chairman of United Torah Judaism, announced that his party had chosen to sign the recommendation for Netanyahu. “Despite Lieberman’s phony games, and his pretense of allying with the Likud at times and with the Blue and White party at other times, we have accepted the request of the chairman of the Likud party to sign a document supporting Netanyahu to receive a new mandate from the president. We, more than anyone else, are familiar with Yvette’s hostility, and the time has come for everyone else to see it as well.”

The first person to sign the document was Gideon Saar, the same man who had announced that if the Likud party held primaries, he would run against Netanyahu. Saar believes that if he becomes the head of the Likud at this time, he will save the political right. He expects that the Blue and White party would agree to join a government with the Likud if he is the party leader (which is probably true) and that the Likud party would garner more votes in an election if he heads it than if it remains under Netanyahu’s leadership (an assumption that seems to be refuted by recent polls). Nevertheless, he has shown that he intends to remain loyal to Netanyahu until the bitter end.

At the same time, the chairman of the Blue and White party, MK Avi Nissenkorn, said that his party has also been making efforts in recent days to collect signatures supporting Gantz. Over the course of the day, he planned to appeal to Lieberman and to the members of the Joint Arab List, in the hope that ten of them would recommend Gantz to the president. By the time Wednesday arrives, we will know more.

Why Should He Stop Complaining?

Meanwhile, Netanyahu is still being viciously lambasted by the media. “Stop whining!” wrote the most respected journalist (Barnea) in the most respected Israeli newspaper (Yediot Acharonot) in its most important edition of the week (the Friday edition) and in the most prominent place in the paper. “Stop whining and be a man,” his diatribe continued. “Every time the leader of the state describes himself as a victim, I am ashamed.” Barnea thus managed to incorporate a tremendous amount of wickedness in an incredibly small number of words. Saying that Bibi has been portraying himself as a victim is a distortion of reality. Netanyahu is a victim. And why should he stop “whining” when the criminal justice system is tearing him apart? Netanyahu certainly believes, and has every reason to believe, that he is the victim of a horrific injustice. There is no reason to demand of him to “be a man” and no reason for him to want to comply with that demand, since there is no question that he has indeed been victimized.

On Tuesday—once again, in an essay prominently positioned on the front page of the newspaper—A.B. Yehoshua, who is considered an intellectual and one of Israel’s most prominent authors, published another article excoriating the prime minister. “You are holding the country by its throat solely in order to save yourself from judgment,” he wrote accusingly. “You intend to drag this country into a third round of elections, which will bring more mudslinging, hatred, and division within the nation…. This is the time when we must tell you politely but firmly: Enough! Give up!”

How can any author, even a prominent and highly regarded writer, use such disparaging language? Is Netanyahu really holding the country by its throat? Wouldn’t it be more correct to say that the prosecution is grasping Netanyahu himself by the throat? And why is it Netanyahu who is dragging the country into another election, rather than Lieberman, or Gantz, or Lapid? Perhaps this is the time for us to politely but firmly tell Netanyahu’s incessant detractors, such as A.B. Yehoshua himself, along with Yediot Acharonot: “Enough! Give up!”

A Victim of the Prosecution

I have listened to the boasting of retired investigators from Lahav 433, the anti-corruption division of the police force, as well as officials in the state prosecution who have retired. What do they brag about? One of them announces proudly, “I brought about the convictions of eight mayors and two members of the Knesset.” Another then asserts that he is even more accomplished: “I investigated two prime ministers and obtained convictions in both cases.” The officials in the state prosecution have yet to consider it an accomplishment when they see a defendant exonerated. You will never hear one of them boasting, “I managed to determine the truth and to clear a prime minister and a chief rabbi of the charges against them.” They take pride only in convictions.

Let me tell you a story: The wife of Aryeh Haan, the former secretary of the Knesset, used to work in the Tel Aviv prosecutor’s office. One day, she came to work and found most of her coworkers in the conference room, where a celebration was being held. When she inquired about the reason for the festivities, she was told that one of the senior prosecutors had managed to have a 14-year sentence of imprisonment passed against a defendant. This was the “achievement” that she and her colleagues were celebrating. Aryeh Haan was shocked when he heard about this. Of course, the country needs a prosecutor’s office, but is there any reason to revel in someone else’s incarceration? Criminals must be punished, but that does not mean that anyone should dance for joy when they are penalized for their crimes. Haan insisted that his wife leave her job there; I believe that she has since become a judge.

Prime Minister Netanyahu is now in the crosshairs of the judicial system, and his chances of escaping a criminal sentence seem to be almost nil. He certainly has every right to bemoan the unimaginable campaign of persecution that is being waged against him, which will certainly be studied in later years by students of Israeli history. In case Netanyahu was hoping that a third election would bring him the support of right-wing voters who abstained from voting this September due to the cloud of suspicion surrounding him, the prosecution was quick to hand down an indictment against him, in the hope that it would alienate more of his potential supporters. A broad hint to this intent came from a panel of three Supreme Court justices (Kara, Elron, and Mazuz), who rejected a petition to instruct Netanyahu to resign from all of his ministerial posts, including the office of prime minister, since the petitioner—an incorrigible pest—hadn’t exhausted the other avenues at his disposal. This was a clear signal to Netanyahu that the judges have no great affection for him; they simply felt compelled to reject the petition for procedural reasons.

Netanyahu is now beginning the battle of his life, as the judicial system prepares to tear him to pieces.

A Guest from the UN

The State of Israel will soon be welcoming a guest from America, Mrs. Kelly Craft. She will be arriving in the midst of the turmoil of a third election campaign (unless the unimaginable happens and a new government is established). Kelly Craft is the new American ambassador to the United Nations. The Kentucky-born Mrs. Craft served in the past as the American ambassador to Canada. Her itinerary includes a visit to the Kosel as well as the northern border (that is, the border with Syria) and the southern border (with Gaza). Mrs. Craft has already delivered a speech to the United Nations that was highly favorable to Israel, in which she promised to be the best friend that Israel would ever have. This indicates that she will be a positive force for Israel, following in the footsteps of her predecessor, Nikki Haley. She will be accompanied on her visit by the Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, Danny Danon.

Another American official who made headlines here in Israel is Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. In a recent interview with Yisroel Hayom, Pompeo was extremely candid about issues that diplomats tend to cloak in vague, deliberately noncommittal language. Of course, he also attracted plenty of attention with his recent announcement that the Israeli settlements are no longer considered an obstacle to peace, in a marked departure from longstanding American policy. Pompeo added that his declaration was part of the “deal of the century.” His interview with Yisroel Hayom, along with his official declaration concerning the settlements, drew fierce reactions from the Palestinians.

Supreme Court Permits Cigarette Advertisements

A strange story took place this week, which is interesting in light of the determined struggle that is being waged against the advertising of cigarettes. This week, the Supreme Court rejected a petition filed by Smoke Free Israel (an organization whose Hebrew name translates as “The Initiative to Stamp Out Smoking”) to cancel the exemption of print media from the law prohibiting advertisements for tobacco and cigarette products. Although cigarette advertisements have largely been outlawed in Israel, the print media somehow managed to have itself excluded from the law; newspapers and magazines are permitted to publish such advertisements.

Due to the Supreme Court decision, newspapers in Israel will be allowed to continue publishing advertisements for cigarettes. The judges explained that the exception for print media has been discussed at length in the Knesset Economics Committee and approved by the Knesset as a whole, and they see no reason to interfere with the legislature’s decision. They also noted that the representatives of the Ministry of Justice and the Knesset legal advisor had agreed that there are no legal impediments to excluding print media from the law. The rationale for the exception is twofold: Young people have less exposure to newspapers and magazines, and these publications are already suffering from financial difficulties.

The petitioners responded with the following statement: “The exemption of print media from the general ban on advertising products for smoking is causing significant damage to the health of the Israeli public. We are disappointed that the panel of justices refused to discuss the legal question presented to them, and that they decided to reject the petition on the basis of incorrect facts and unconvincing logic. It would have been proper for the court to discuss the question of whether the decision of the Ministerial Committee for Legislation, which was made due to a blatant conflict of interests and effectively tied the hands of the Knesset during the legislative process, would justify abolishing the exemption. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court, for its own reasons, refused to discuss this important question. We will continue to fight with all the tools at our disposal to abolish the exclusion of the print media from the ban on advertising cigarette products.”

It should be noted that this issue may have a significant impact on the chareidi press in Israel. When the issue arose, there were some who claimed that the chareidi newspapers would go bankrupt without the revenue derived from cigarette advertisements. On the other hand, there are some newspapers that refuse on principle to publish those advertisements. And in case you are wondering about the identities of the people who have made it their mission to combat cigarette advertising, they are two chareidi yungeleit, one of whom hails from America. They feel that the cigarette advertisements influence young people to begin smoking, resulting in eventual addictions.

The Source of Deri’s Strength

This week, I was a guest a wedding that was also attended by Aryeh Deri, who danced vigorously to celebrate the occasion. Someone else at the wedding pointed to Deri and asked me, “How is it possible that he has so much strength?” He had to shout at the top of his lungs to make himself heard over the music, but he had no need to explain his question to me. It is indeed amazing that Deri manages to dance at so many weddings, and my fellow wedding guest wondered how he had the energy to do so.

I laughed at the question, though, because the answer is simple: The weddings themselves give him the strength and drive to celebrate. This was a marriage between two Sephardic families, and all it took was a glance around the hall to fill him with energy and enthusiasm. The sight of the distinguished guests at the dais and the experience of dancing with a large circle of yeshiva bochurim undoubtedly gave him a tremendous emotional boost. Thirty years ago, if anyone had predicted that the Sephardic Torah world would look like this in the year 5780, they would have been dismissed as hopelessly out of touch with reality. Yet the transformation has taken place before our eyes, and it is evident at every wedding in the Sephardic community. And a man such as Aryeh Deri, who was one of the driving forces behind that spiritual revolution, will certainly never tire of dancing at these weddings.

What I did wonder, however, was how he finds the strength to visit so many houses of mourning. With every shivah call, something inside him seems to break. I was present along with him in Rosh Ha’Ayin, where he visited the Lavi family to comfort Rabbi Yaron Lavi after the deaths of his two righteous sons, Meir and Nissim. The bereaved father and the visiting minister alike both seemed to be on the verge of collapsing from grief. And then he visited the home of the Ochana family to offer his condolences for the deaths of their two sons, Raphael and Elazar. I saw Deri embracing the father, and I could practically feel his own heart being torn. The real question, then, is how he has the emotional strength to visit so many mourners!

The Interior Minister’s Tears

In a similar vein, allow me to share the following story with you: Many years ago, I was a member of Aryeh Deri’s office staff during his first stint as the Minister of the Interior. (As you are certainly aware, he was later tried, convicted, imprisoned, and released, and he eventually resumed leading the Shas party and returned to the Interior Ministry.) At one point, Deri was invited to tour Ezer Mizion’s camps for children with special needs, and I was asked to confirm that he would be coming. I asked Deri for his agreement, and when it was not forthcoming, I asked again. I pleaded and cajoled, but my efforts did not yield a positive response, and I was left feeling frustrated and embarrassed. I did not know how to respond to Rabbi Chananya Chollak, the director of Ezer Mizion, and his colleagues. How could I disappoint them?

Finally, I decided to make a last-ditch effort to persuade Deri to accept the invitation, and I mustered the courage to ask him the reason for his reluctance.

“Believe me,” Deri said, “I am the first person who is willing to show appreciation to Ezer Mizion for everything they do.”

“Then what is the issue?” I asked.

“I can’t bear to see those small children who are ill,” Deri replied. “I become so distraught that it makes me sick for at least a week.”

In the end, Deri went. He was accompanied by a pleasant young aide named Eli Suissa, who went on to hold the post of Interior Minister himself in later years. I, too, joined him for the tour, and we spoke to the staff members and lauded them for their hard work. One after another, the children greeted Deri—those who were in wheelchairs, or who suffered from Down’s syndrome, or who faced other challenges or disabilities. Deri embraced the youths and smiled warmly at all of them, and I found myself wondering why he had believed that he would not be able to handle the experience. Soon enough, though the reason became clear.

When we returned to the car, Deri climbed into the back seat. And there, behind the curtain that shielded him from view, he dissolved into tears.

Incident on the Train

Last week, several members of the Knesset brought up the subject of the global rise in anti-Semitism. Last Wednesday, one of the Knesset members arrived with a newspaper. “If this wasn’t sad, it would be amusing,” he said.

He read five different articles from the newspaper. One article reported that a recent poll had found that one out of every four Europeans has anti-Semitic views. The Anti-Defamation League has identified a trend of rising anti-Semitism throughout Eastern Europe and the center of the continent. Another article reported that residents of Monsey had told the Jewish News Agency that there is an atmosphere of venomous hatred directed against Jews, particularly the Orthodox. A third article spoke about an anti-Semitic incident in Brooklyn, in which an African American youth was arrested after slapping an Orthodox man in the face in Williamsburg. Yet another article related that the government of the Netherlands has pledged to allocate millions of euros for the sake of protecting Jewish cemeteries from desecration. And the fifth article described an incident in Great Britain, in which a man was arrested after harassing an Orthodox Jewish family on the subway. In the images of this particularly appalling incident, a Jewish child with a black yarmulka can be seen on a subway train, sitting next to his father and sister. A large, dark-skinned man stands over them, reading aloud from the book of the Muslim religion and making animalistic roaring sounds. It was extremely frightening, to say the least.

Egged Violates Shabbos

On each of the past two Shabbosos, one of my children informed me, an Egged bus arrived in Yerushalayim on Shabbos afternoon packed with passengers. This particular bus, the 947, begins its route in Haifa and stops at Atlit, the Ohr Akiva Junction, Olga, the Central Bus Station in Netanya, Dror, Hadarim, Highway 4, the Raanana bus depot, Hod Hasharon, the Sharonim mall, the Yarkon Interchange, Ganim, Sirkin, the Shaariah Interchange, the Tayasim Junction, the Air Industry Junction, the El Al Junction, the Shoresh Interchange, and the Chemed Interchange, concluding its route at the Central Bus Station in Yerushalayim.

In Haifa, Shabbos is violated freely as a matter of status quo. And it seems that someone in Egged has decided that if a bus begins its route in Haifa, that status quo allows it to complete its entire route on the Shabbos day, even if it passes through many other locales.

Parking Permits at the Kosel

A local publication in Yerushalayim recently published a two-page spread containing the names of all the bearers of the special passes that provide access to the Kosel parking lot. This isn’t much of a story, since the Freedom of Information Law has made it very easy to gain access to all sorts of lists that were once shielded from the public eye. The list contains hundreds of names, although not all of those people have parking passes that are still valid. Every pass is required to be stamped at certain regular intervals, and if the bearer fails to visit the Kosel at the predetermined frequency, his permit will be revoked. It is also important to note that a pass does not automatically guarantee that the bearer will be permitted to enter the lot. Over the course of a typical day, there tend to be periods of congestion when motorists may be denied entry due to crowding in the lot, even if they are technically entitled to park there. So as you can see, these passes are not necessarily as useful as they may seem.

Some of the names on the list may appear to be out of place, but for the most part it is fair and reasonable. Anyone who is familiar with the chareidi community here will note that the vast majority of people who hold these passes are regular mispallelim at the Kosel—as is noted in the column that indicates the reason for each permit—who pour out their tefillos on a regular basis for the sake of Klal Yisroel as a whole. They are certainly worthy of this distinction.

I have no quibbles with the list itself. In fact, what disturbs me is the fact that a group of residents of the Old City objected to the distribution of these parking permits. Why do these people believe that they deserve to be given preference over those who have received the permits? Moreover, the Kosel plaza is one of the most heavily congested places on earth, and it is impossible to expand it. Is the Kosel Heritage Fund at fault for that? Is that a reason to prevent visitors from parking in the plaza? If they are forced to park their vehicles somewhere else, will that benefit the residents in any way?

The representatives of the residents are quoted as complaining, “The problem begins when thousands of private vehicles are allowed to drive up to the Kosel. A solution must be found that will provide transportation for the visitors to the Kosel 24 hours a day, six days a week. The traffic congestion caused by these private vehicles is creating great hardships for us.”

Nevertheless, I cannot understand the logic of their complaints, which focus on the congestion within the Jewish Quarter rather than at the Kosel itself. Does it really make sense to block cars from entering the Jewish Quarter? And what is the connection between vehicles entering the Jewish Quarter and the permits issued for visitors to park in the Kosel plaza?

The Fire at Beilinson Hospital

An Israeli newspaper recently reported that the police had arrested an arsonist who set fire to the shul at Beilinson Hospital. When I read that, I hoped that we would finally gain some understanding of the profile of a person who has the sheer audacity to set fire to a shul. Is this the work of an Arab? A Russian? A Jew? Is such an action driven by a thirst for revenge for something? I felt that it was important to learn something about the arsonist’s background.

This week, I called Rabbi Yisroel Babchik, the rov of the hospital (a remarkable person who would be worthy of being the subject of an article in his own right), to inquire about the episode. He told me that the man was mentally disturbed and had previously set fire to a different shul. He appears to be a pyromaniac and had been hospitalized in the plastic surgery ward due to burns he had suffered from his previous act of arson.

“Interestingly,” Rabbi Babchik added, “you are not the first person to call me about this.”

“Another journalist was investigating the same incident?” I asked.

“It wasn’t a journalist,” he replied with a laugh. “It was a member of the Knesset, who called to ask about the identity of the arsonist. He was debating whether to address the issue as part of his parliamentary duties.”

This week, I read that the perpetrator has been placed on trial for two or three incidents of arson. I found that somewhat bizarre, since I had been given the impression that he was not fit to stand trial. I am afraid that the police have decided to take the easy way out in this case…

The Magnet Thief

The two neighbors returned together from Maariv at a relatively late hour. One of them lives on the second story of his building, while the other lives on the top floor. On their way home, they both noticed a small calendar attached to a magnet that had been placed on the door of their downstairs neighbor. This is a fairly standard method of advertising in Israel, where the apartment doors are made of steel. Business owners produce colorful magnets and make the rounds of local apartment buildings, leaving one on every door in order to advertise their businesses. The second-story resident had noticed the calendar a few days earlier and had envied his more fortunate neighbor. For some reason, the advertiser hadn’t seen fit to leave one on his own door as well. He had considered taking it for himself, but he had decided against it, reasoning that there might be some halachic mechanism by which the occupant of the apartment had already acquired it. Yet he was quite surprised when his companion removed the magnet from the door and pocketed it, without even batting an eyelash.

As they made their way up the steps together, he could not resist questioning his neighbor’s actions. “Tell me,” he said, “are you sure that it is really considered hefker?”

His upstairs neighbor looked at him quizzically. “What are you talking about?” he asked.

“Don’t pretend to be naïve. I’m referring to the magnet that you took!”

“I’m not taking it; I’m simply holding on to it for them. I will give it back to them when they are home.”

The other man was puzzled. “What is the purpose of that?”

“There are some thieves who leave magnets on people’s doors in order to assess who is away from home,” his neighbor explained. “When they see that the magnets are not removed, they presume that the occupants of the apartments are away and that they can get away with breaking in. I always take the magnets off the doors and keep them in my home until the owners return.”