Tuesday, Apr 13, 2021

My Take On The News

Israel in Paralysis

Things are not calm in Israel.

Many parts of the government are paralyzed—such as the Ministerial Committee for Legislation, which determines the government’s stance on laws that are proposed in the Knesset.

In general, the committee meets every week to discuss the latest bills, but it has been three months since the last time it convened. This means that the members of the coalition are unable to present new bills in the Knesset, since the government has no official position on any of them. Any proposed law must have the support of the ministerial committee before a member of the coalition can bring it to the Knesset. And since the committee hasn’t been meeting, all legislative work in the Knesset has come to a standstill.

Actually, let me qualify that. The opposition is not beholden to the ministerial committee; therefore, any member of the opposition can introduce any bill he desires in the Knesset. The coalition, however, is bound to vote down any such law. In recent months, the Knesset has seen multiple bills submitted by the opposition, all of which have been struck down. The coalition members, on the other hand, have not been able to submit bills of their own, which has led to significant resentment.

Why hasn’t the ministerial committee been meeting? That is because it is headed by two ministers: Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn of the Blue and White party and the Government-Knesset Liaison, Dudi Amsalem, who belongs to the Likud. Since the relationship between the two governing parties is on the rocks, these two ministers haven’t been able to cooperate, and the committee has therefore been crippled. And this is only one example of the paralysis that has gripped our government. The entire government has been brought to a halt by this chaos. I wouldn’t say that this has been a catastrophe, since the country has somehow managed to continue functioning, but it makes for a hopeless situation.

Gantz Hopes to Succeed Netanyahu

Alternate Prime Minister and Defense Minister Benny Gantz seems to have an overriding objective: to make sure that the government remains intact long enough for Netanyahu to keep his promise and relinquish his position to him at the time specified in their agreement. According to the rotation agreement, Gantz is scheduled to become prime minister of Israel in November 2021, one year from now. Will that actually happen? None of us can say for certain. The majority view in Israel—and among the country’s politicians—is that it will not come to pass. Most people believe that there will be another election before the time comes for Gantz to take the reins. Netanyahu is constantly changing his tune, which lends credence to that suspicion. Gantz has told friends that he doesn’t believe that Netanyahu will live up to his commitment. At the same time, he is taking great care to avoid giving Netanyahu an excuse to renege on his commitment. Meanwhile, both parties are extremely hostile toward each other, and the government has been paralyzed as a result.

Behind his back, Benny Gantz’s friends laugh at him. As he scrambles desperately to hold on to his rotation agreement with Netanyahu, Gantz might soon discover that he has lost his entire party. This week, the tension levels within Blue and White rose higher than ever, as Gantz’s partners discovered that he had made a deal with Netanyahu for one of his close associates, Hod Batzar, to be appointed as the director-general of the alternate prime minister’s office. Gantz had not notified Gabi Ashkenazi and Avi Nissenkorn, his partners in the Blue and White leadership, of his intentions until the deal was done.

What necessitated this backroom deal was the fact that in the government’s current state, no one has been able to make appointments of any kind without the “other side” nixing them. Gantz therefore agreed to permit Netanyahu to make several appointments that he desired, and Hod Batzar was given his position in exchange. The justice minister was irked by this, since he would have preferred to make a deal that would have allowed him to appoint a director-general for his own ministry, a position that has remained empty thus far.

As of this writing, Gantz is still enjoying the remaining support of most of the Knesset members and ministers of his party. Nevertheless, there is a steadily growing undercurrent of discontent. His friends feel that Gantz is taking a dangerous gamble: He considers Nissenkorn and Ashkenazi to be a burden, and he aims to hold on to the existing situation and hope for the rotation to actually happen, while ignoring any other issues. They predict that Gantz will end up regretting his choice.

Meanwhile, Netanyahu is continuing to upstage Blue and White. On Sunday night, the prime minister traveled to Saudi Arabia along with the director of the Mossad to meet with Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi crime prince. That meeting was also attended by Mike Pompeo, the Secretary of State of the United States. In other words, while Gantz and his cronies were preoccupied by petty politics in Israel, Netanyahu was advancing a critical diplomatic achievement. As the saying goes in the Likud party, “Gantz plays politics while Netanyahu makes peace.”

Gantz Launches an Inquiry

Meanwhile, Benny Gantz dropped a bombshell on Sunday, when his office released a statement that was bound to rattle Netanyahu: Gantz had decided to form an official investigative committee, under the auspices of the Ministry of Defense, to examine the notorious submarine purchase. This was the deal that had previously been labeled “the greatest case of corruption in Israel” by various members of the Blue and White party, mainly Moshe “Bogie” Yaalon, the former IDF chief and staff and Minister of Defense. And that was the one criminal case in which the attorney general decided not to press charges against Netanyahu. The Knesset itself had made two attempts to appoint an official investigative committee, but the efforts were struck down by a majority vote. And now Gantz has decided to make the move unilaterally. Nevertheless, there is a major difference between an official investigation launched by the Knesset and a probe run by the Defense Ministry. The latter, for instance, does not have the authority to subpoena witnesses.

An official statement released by the Ministry of Defense on Sunday declared, “Defense Minister Benny Gantz announced today that he has decided to appoint an official committee to conduct an inquiry into the purchase of submarines and naval vessels. This comes after weeks of administrative work in the Ministry of Defense, and in accordance with his authority under paragraph 8a of the Government Law. In recent weeks, the Minister of Defense has held many consultations with former senior officials in the judiciary and the defense apparatus. In light of those consultations and the updated information he received, Gantz reached the conclusion that an inquiry conducted by the Ministry of Defense has the ability to shed light on some of the circumstances that led to the purchase of the submarines and other vessels, and to examine the procedures and the manner in which the arrangements were conducted. Gantz has decided to appoint retired Justice Amnon Strashnov to head the committee. Gantz gave the members of the committee a period of four months to prepare their final report. The Minister of Defense has instructed the members of the committee to work together with the professional arm of the Ministry of Defense and has stressed to them that they must perform their work independently, without the involvement of the political echelons. Gantz also stressed that the committee’s conclusions will be made transparent to the public, after all the information that is relevant to the country’s security has been protected.”

Amnon Strashnov is a former military prosecutor and judge, and it is expected that his approach will be stringent. Gantz also recruited Avraham Ben-Shoshan, a former official in the prime minister’s office and general in the army reserves who served as the commander of the navy, to assist in the inquiry. Ben-Shoshan’s naval experience is highly relevant, since the case deals with a purchase of submarines. And in case you are interested in his American connections, Ben-Shoshan also served in the past as the IDF’s military attache to Washington.

Netanyahu is probably not very worried about this inquiry, which is most likely to stall before it yields any results. On the other hand, this move hardly served to warm his relationship with Gantz. On the contrary, it probably made their dealings even frostier than ever. I will not be surprised if Netanyahu finds a way to use Gantz’s ploy to his own benefit.

Pompeo’s Historic Visit to the Territories

Last week, Israel was also visited by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. This was a historic visit for several reasons, partly because it was the final visit of a United States official during the Trump administration. Pompeo also made history by visiting the Psagot winery in the Binyomin region. Of course, this is significant because the winery is in the “occupied territories.” Until now, no American representative has ever crossed the Green Line or set foot in the area of Yehuda and the Shomron.

During his visit, the Secretary of State declared, “The Trump administration has decided to change the policy of labeling products that are produced in the settlements. From now on, these products may also be labeled ‘made in Israel.’” This was a dramatic departure from the American government’s previous policy and served as a de facto recognition of the settlements in “Area C” as part of Israel with respect to international trade. According to Pompeo’s announcement, the new guidelines require all manufacturers in the areas under Israeli jurisdiction—which mainly applies to Area C on the West Bank, where the Israeli government has complete control—to label their products “made in Israel” when they are exported to the United States.

Pompeo arrived at the winery to discover a group of left-wing activists from the Peace Now organization who shouted, “Israel, Palestine, two states for two peoples!” Such is the state of affairs in our country….

During his visit to the winery, the secretary of state was presented with an ancient coin bearing Hebrew script that had been found in a cave near the winery, along with copies of three important declarations in Israeli history: the declaration of King Koresh, the Balfour Declaration, and Pompeo’s own declaration of the American government’s position on Israeli settlement in Yehuda and the Shomron.

In Israel, Pompeo’s visit generated much excitement. The visiting official asked not to be photographed, but that did not deter quite a few people from taking pictures. The pictures made their way into all the newspapers in Israel, and possibly throughout the world as well. One picture shows Pompeo and his wife together with the owner of the winery, Yaakov Berg, and his wife, as well as Ambassador David Friedman. Pompeo ended his visit by writing a personal note in the winery’s guest book. “It is a great blessing to be here in Yehuda and the Shomron,” he wrote. “I hope that I will not be the last secretary of state to visit this beautiful place.” Pompeo and his entourage enjoyed a festive meal at the winery before departing.

COVID Confusion and Vaccines on the Way

Of course, the coronavirus pandemic continues to dominate our lives. As is often the case here in Israel, there is tremendous confusion. Every day brings new rules that contradict the guidelines of the previous day. The government had already decided to open the country’s schools only through the fourth grade, and today the Minister of Education announced that he favors opening classes through the ninth grade. There has been plenty of commotion surrounding the vaccines as well. Prime Minister Netanyahu boasted that he managed to sign a deal with Pfizer before the rest of the world, but now it has been revealed that it might have been better to make the deal with Moderna instead….

Let us take a look at the numbers. On Sunday, the Ministry of Health announced that 415 coronavirus patients had been diagnosed the previous night (i.e., on motzoei Shabbos), out of a total of 15,343 people who were tested. This meant that the percentage of positive tests had risen to 2.8 percent, a sharp increase from the 1.8 percent of the previous day, although the actual number of tests performed was much lower than on previous days. The number of active coronavirus patients in Israel currently stands at 8,479, including 313 in serious condition and 131 who are on ventilators. The death toll rose last night to 2,757. Since midnight, an additional 57 patients were diagnosed. The Military Intelligence Directorate, a branch of the IDF that is involved in the battle against the coronavirus, reported today that for the first time in a month and a half, this past week saw a rise in the number of new hospitalizations and new coronavirus patients in grave condition. “Further loosening of restrictions without the accompanying safety measures such as masks, social distancing, and enforcement will increase the morbidity rate,” they warned.

According to the National Security Council, 46.7 percent of the new coronavirus infections in Israel over the past week were in the Arab sector. The 25 communities with the highest numbers of active cases per capita are also Arab settlements. In order to combat the coronavirus outbreaks in Arab communities, a ministerial committee accepted the Health Ministry’s recommendations last weekend to impose a lockdown on Nazareth, the largest Arab city in the State of Israel, and on Ussafiya until November 26 and to extend the existing lockdowns on Qalansawe and Bukata until November 27, due to the high morbidity in these four settlements. For some reason, though, you will not find any of the invective unleashed against the chareidi community for its own outbreak of coronavirus repeated against the Arab sector now. Why not? The answer should be obvious….

Flooded Roads and Pollard’s Freedom

And then there was the rain.

Apparently, there was a deluge everywhere in Israel except Yerushalayim. As a resident of Yerushalayim, I did not see or hear the rain on Shabbos, but it seems that there was torrential rain everywhere else in the country, to the point that the water level of the Kinneret rose. This also caused roads to be closed in various parts of the country. As it turns out, the drainage system in this country isn’t exactly what it should be, and heavy rains often cause flooding that can even result in life-threatening danger. Once again, emergency services were forced to rescue people in several places over the course of this weekend, while other places “only” experienced road closures. The flooding took place both within cities and on intercity roads. Somehow, our country is surprised anew every year.

Another major story this week revolved around Jonathan Pollard. Last week, we waited quietly until Shabbos arrived to hear that nothing had happened. In this case, no news was good news; as long as nothing changed, the restrictions on Pollard were due to be lifted automatically. Indeed, that is precisely what happened, boruch Hashem, after 30 years of imprisonment. This marked the end of a saga that hung over the relationship between America and Israel like a black cloud for many years. Parenthetically, it was eventually revealed that the damage to America was due to the actions of other spies, especially the former senior intelligence official Aldrich Ames, and that Pollard did not do any harm. Nevertheless, Pollard was treated horribly in prison for many years, and he probably served the longest sentence of any foreign spy who worked for a friendly country. It is important to note that throughout the years, in spite of Israel’s ongoing insistence, the United States government refused to grant Pollard clemency; he was even barred from participating in his father’s funeral. The last opponent of his release was the newly elected American president, Joe Biden, who objected in 2011 to then-President Barack Obama’s plan to release Pollard. It was only in the year 2015, after he had been in prison for three decades, that Pollard was released under draconian parole restrictions. Those restrictions have only now been lifted.

Throughout the years, many of Pollard’s active supporters claimed that the American government was taking a harsh stance toward him in order to intimidate other American Jews, and that the government’s treatment of Pollard bordered on anti-Semitism. In Israel, the politicians are trading accusations regarding who was the “fool” who recruited him and who was the “rasha” who prevented him from entering the Israeli embassy in Washington when the FBI was on his trail. It wouldn’t have helped him very much to be admitted, but locking the door in his face was certainly an injustice.

The Longest Tunnel

Do not delude yourselves into thinking that our enemies have been resting on their laurels. If anything, the opposite is true; they have been trying over and over to harm us. The IDF announced last week that it had discovered several explosive devices in the southern Golan Heights, near the Syrian border. According to the army, the explosives had been planted near the same location where it had thwarted another attempt to deploy explosives just three months ago. The bombs were neutralized by military sappers, and the army announced that it holds the Syrian regime responsible for any actions that take place on its territory.

Israel has no doubt that someone is trying to exact revenge. In July, a Hezbollah activist was killed in an attack in Syria attributed to Israel. Since that time, the army has been on a heightened state of alert in the vicinity of the border, following Hezbollah’s attempts to retaliate for the operative’s death. In July, the IDF thwarted an attempt by the terror organization to infiltrate Israel on its northern border, near Har Dov. The attempted infiltration seemed to be the work of a group of five terrorists, who fled back to Syria. In August, the army fired on a group of four terrorists who were attempting to plant explosives on the Israeli border with Syria, east of the border fence. According to the army, IDF soldiers and a fighter jet fired simultaneously at the terrorists, who appeared to be killed by their fire. There were no Israeli casualties. The four terrorists, some of whom were armed, tried to deploy their explosives near an inactive IDF post on the eastern side of the border fence, in an enclave that is under Israeli control. And last week, the IDF also announced that it had shot down a Hezbollah drone that entered Israel from Lebanon.

To make a long story short, we are at war. And I haven’t even mentioned the terror tunnel that was located about a month ago on the border with Gaza. The tunnel, which penetrated dozens of meters into Israeli territory, crossed the border in the vicinity of Khan Yunis, which is in the southern Gaza Strip. The tunnel was discovered by IDF engineers, and senior army officials revealed that it was one of the longest tunnels they had discovered, meaning that it extended further into Israel than almost any other terror tunnel. That means that the danger was quite real.

Meanwhile, a sixteen-year-old terrorist approached a bus stop in Chevron near the Meoras Hamachpeilah this week and attempted to stab the soldiers who were standing there. In addition, two explosive devices were discovered in the Binyamin region at the beginning of the week. The terrorists who planted the explosives had been planning to detonate them from a distance when soldiers passed by. And if that wasn’t enough, two other attempts to plant explosives were foiled this week, one at the Qalandiya Crossing and the other at Kever Rochel. Hashem is watching over us!

Knesset Members Try to Stoke Conflict

The representatives of the Russian immigrant community have become more combative, perhaps in an effort to attract voters. This week, a motion of no confidence in the government decried the “discriminatory policies of the Population and Immigration Authority and the Ministry of the Interior, as well as the incitement to racism by the chareidi members of the Knesset against immigrants from the former Soviet Union.” As usual, Avigdor Lieberman is trying to boost his popularity by slandering the religious community.

Lieberman and his ilk, however, would be well advised to look in the mirror before hurling these accusations at others. They themselves are the ones who exude bigotry and anti-Semitism. We are all still wounded by Alex Kushnir’s video mocking the Jewish value of purity. This week, his compatriot in Yisroel Beiteinu, Yulia Malinovsky, followed his example at the Knesset podium.

One can assume that these people have no awareness at all of the values that are important to the Jewish people. Their profound lack of understanding led Yevgeny Sufa, as well, to repeat his usual inanities: “When you arrive in the State of Israel as an immigrant, they welcome you and sing nice songs to you. After a short time, though, you find that you cannot marry in this country, since you didn’t have the good fortune of being born to a Jewish mother. Only your father is a Jew, and your mother is Jewish only through her father. That makes you good enough to serve in the army, but not to get married.”

If only I could explain to Yevgeny what he does not understand. A Jewish father earns his children a ticket to the State of Israel, but that does not make them Jewish. If a mother is not Jewish, then her children are goyim. Yevgeny’s mind simply cannot understand this. Unfortunately, there are many non-Jews, and even people who despise Jews, who came to Israel for reasons that had nothing to do with dedication to the Holy Land. Many of them have already left the country. The Minister of Immigration and Absorption revealed that 25 percent of the immigrants gleefully collect their benefits and then immediately move on to other shores. While it is true that the immigrant populace includes some wonderful and idealistic people, there are many others who do not fit that bill.

But perhaps I should also point out the positive side of the immigrant populace. Yoel Razvozov of Yesh Atid once revealed that he wears tefillin every day. During a Knesset discussion on “Aliyah Day,” he related, “In Russia, my father was the equivalent of our Minister of Sports. The day after we landed in Israel, he went to work as a simple construction worker…. My mother was the principal of a large school in Russia. In order to be certified as a teacher in Israel, she had to travel three hours in each direction by public transportation from Kiryat Yam to Tzefas. During her first years as a teacher, she often had to deal with bigotry and insults…. In order for you to understand my story, I must tell you about my mother’s great-grandfather, Rav Shmuel Soike, who was the rov of a small community in Poland, and my mother’s grandmother, Brocha bas Mordechai, who hailed from Uman, not far from the kever of Rebbe Nachman. She met my grandfather, Yitzchok ben Shlomo, when they were on their way to establish the Jewish autonomous district on Stalin’s orders in Birobidzhan…. Their granddaughter Irena, my mother, was born in the Jewish autonomous district in Birobidzhan, and that is where she met her husband, Anatoly, my father.

“Last week, Israeli children shouted at me in the street, ‘You are a goy! Go back to Russia!’” Razvozov continued. “But I am Yoel, the great-grandson of Rav Shmuel. Why do they call me a non-Jew? Why do they do this? Perhaps it is because the easiest and most primitive way to cause themselves to feel better is to put down someone else. But that is a cheap and disgraceful practice. Judaism is not about hatred or bigotry…. Judaism is about people like my great-grandfather, Rav Shmuel Soike, who sat on the frozen earth on the other end of the world and spent his life davening for Eretz Yisroel….”

In fact, he is absolutely right!

An Absurd Attempt to Undermine Halacha

Just to give you an idea of the sort of adversity that the religious community faces in Israel, let me share another incident from the Knesset with you.

MK Elazar Stern of Yesh Atid, who even wears a yarmulke, recently introduced a bill that would authorize every rov of a city in Israel to perform conversions. I understood that the bill’s stated purpose was to make the process of giyur easier for converts, but the mere identity of the person advancing the bill was enough to tip me off that it was a bad idea. Elazar Stern always makes trouble; he is a champion at creating problems. He claimed that Rav Ovadiah Yosef and his son, the current chief rabbi, yibadeil l’chaim, agreed with his proposal. The skeptical members of the Shas party asked him to be more careful with his words, and Stern laughed at them.

I knew that I could expect an illogical argument, and it was not long in coming. “We heard about the people who were brought here by the State of Israel,” Stern declared, “people who were asked to serve in the IDF because they were Jews. As far as the state is concerned, these people are good enough to serve in the army and to sacrifice their lives, but they are not good enough to marry here.”

I had been waiting for this argument, which reminded me of a bill advanced by Meretz that would have redefined a Jew as any person who links his own fate to that of the Jewish nation. Perhaps it should have been noted that there are non-Jews from Ukraine who pretend to be Jewish in order to receive Israeli citizenship in spite of the requirement to serve in the army, since military service in mandatory in Ukraine as well, and it is more dangerous to be a soldier there than in Israel.

The chareidi Knesset members objected to Stern’s comments and tried to explain that no one can relax the standards for giyur. Stern replied haughtily, “You don’t understand military service. You don’t know what it means to serve in the IDF.”

“And you know nothing about halacha!” Michoel Malchieli responded.

Minister Dudu Amsalem delivered the government’s response. “There are many people who serve in the IDF and are not Jewish; there is no connection between these things,” he said. He advised Stern to postpone the vote on the bill, since it was bound to be defeated anyway, and he suggested that some sort of understanding might be reached within a few months. Stern accepted his suggestion, and the measure was taken off the table.

No Covid-19 in the Army

The following story might explain the reason that hundreds of soldiers have recently tested positive for the coronavirus. It seems that the army has never even heard of the disease….

This Sunday, I learned precisely what the army and the State of Israel are all about. The coronavirus rules are very serious and rigid here in Israel—but not in the IDF. Here is my story.

Last Sunday, my cell phone rang. I picked it up, and a voice said, “Hello. Is this Yosef Shlomo?”

“No,” I replied. “I am his father.”

“Very good,” the caller said. “I am calling from the draft office. If your son does not come here within three days with his deferral, he will lose his status as a ben yeshiva.” Those were his exact words—succinct and to the point. Apparently, the army does not waste time on simple things such as tact.

I was alarmed when I heard this. “He left for yeshiva today,” I told the caller. “He is in a capsule.”

“I don’t know anything about a capsule,” the caller replied indifferently. “He hasn’t submitted a deferral in a year. If he doesn’t come by Tuesday, I will cancel his official status.” It sounded very frightening.

“Do you know about the coronavirus?” I demanded. “He has been in a capsule for the past half a year. He is not allowed to leave the yeshiva. He wasn’t allowed to come to you the last time he received a summons either. I had to sign a form for the yeshiva that I would pay a penalty if he left.”

The caller raised his voice. “Sir, do not try to play tricks with me!” he insisted. “I don’t care about any capsules. Your son must be here by Tuesday with a form signed by his rosh yeshiva and by the lawyer of the Vaad HaYeshivos.”

“But how is he supposed to come if he isn’t allowed to leave his yeshiva?” I asked.

“The same way everyone else came!” was the reply.

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