Stone Throwing on the Road to the Kosel
Another week has passed, and as I always tell you, Israel is a country that manufactures news at a dizzying rate. Prime Minister Naftoli Bennett paid a visit to Russia, where he met with the Russian president, Vladimir Putin; I will write about his visit at greater length below. Meanwhile, the glue that binds the government together seems to be wearing out. I will write about that below as well, but I think the most important story this week involves recent events in the Old City.
The Arabs in the Old City seem to have begun to feel comfortable staging riots whenever they please. They do not fear the police, and their audacity seems to be growing with every passing day. In the vicinity of the Old City of Yerushalayim, there is no sign of the existence of the State of Israel; there are no police and no soldiers to keep the order or protect the country’s citizens.
The sight of buses being pelted with stones has become a regular occurrence. One widely publicized video shows an armed soldier cowering in terror on the floor of a bus, while the bus’s windows have been shattered and the driver can be heard calling for help. Sadly, there was no one to come to his aid. The police themselves have already suffered plenty of blows at the hands of the Palestinian rabble. What can they do in return? Use their guns? That is out of the question; if a single Arab is wounded by a weapon belonging to an Israeli police officer, it will result in an international outcry. Israeli soldiers and policemen are afraid to fire their weapons; they all remember what happened to Elor Azariah.
The situation has become so dire that the Egged bus company altered the routes of its buses in the vicinity of the Kosel. The bus stop directly outside the Kosel has been eliminated, and passengers are forced to walk down the road in order to board a bus leaving the Kosel, while people arriving at the Kosel have no choice but to disembark further down the hill and make the ascent on foot. This is an unmistakable sign of weakness on the part of this country, but this is what happens when the government’s grip on power is tenuous, when the government itself is plagued by infighting, and, worst of all, when it relies on the support of the Arabs for its very survival.
Mayhem on the Streets
This is precisely what has led to a severe uptick in street violence. I try to refrain from writing about crime in this column, so I will not go into too many details, but I will tell you in general terms that violence and crime on the streets of Israel have soared to record heights. People are being murdered in the streets. Of course, that is a sign of the moral nadir that this country has reached, but it also indicates a resounding failure of the Israel police force.
Not long ago, the scourge of violence was a problem that mainly affected Arab cities. It became so severe that there were daily murders in those cities. The Arab members of the Knesset have complained bitterly about this phenomenon and have begged for the police to do something about it, but the police themselves are afraid to enter their cities, knowing full well that such a move could cost them their lives. Compounding the absurdity is the fact that the police force appointed an Arab commissioner to oversee affairs in Arab cities, and the commissioner himself was nearly murdered. Were the would-be killers apprehended? I think you already know the answer to that question….
Unfortunately, the wave of violence has now spread to Jewish locales such as Nahariya, Tel Aviv, and Bat Yam. It seems that there are crime organizations that are active in these areas, and the criminals no longer fear the police. The secular press in Israel has been reporting on this wave of crime in frightened tones. And we all know that there is very little that the police can do about this.
Bennett Meets Putin
Now let us return to the meeting between Naftoli Bennett and his Russian counterpart. Prime Minister Bennett landed in Russia last Friday for his first official visit to the country, at the invitation of the Russian president, Vladimir Putin. Shortly after his arrival, the prime minister was greeted by Putin at the president’s official residence in the city of Sochi. The meeting between the two heads of state lasted for five hours and ended with Bennett and Putin stepping out onto the porch to continue their conversation and then taking a stroll together through the compound, toward the seashore. The conversation was warm and friendly, and the two leaders discussed a number of significant issues connected to the relations between the two states.
Up to that point, everything was fine—perhaps. One complication arose when Bennet’s meeting with Putin ended too late for him to return to Israel without arriving on Shabbos. The prime minister’s entourage was forced to remain in Russia over Shabbos, taking off for the return trip to Israel only after Shabbos had ended. Rumor has it that Putin tried to speak to Bennett on the phone on Shabbos, but the prime minister’s aides told him that Bennett would accept a phone call on Shabbos only if it was a matter of life or death.
Another awkward moment occurred when the time came for Bennett to have his picture taken together with Putin—as well as with Minister Zeev Elkin, who speaks Russian and remained at Bennett’s side throughout the trip. Bennett paused before the photo-op to ask Elkin where the Israeli media was, while Putin was standing off to the side, preparing to reach out for a handshake and puzzled by his Israeli counterpart’s behavior. It was a very embarrassing moment, which earned Bennett a hefty dose of ridicule. Someone even quipped that after his visit to the White House, Bennett expected other world leaders to fall asleep while they were talking to him, and he didn’t realize that Putin would be quite so alert….
Worst of all, though, is Bennett’s tendency to contrast himself with Netanyahu. Bennett and his supporters seem to be perpetually stuck in Bibi Netanyahu’s shadow. They are constantly drawing companions with the previous prime minister; in this case, they could not stop analyzing the differences between Netanyahu’s meetings with Putin and Bennett’s encounter with the Russian president.
The Rabin Assassination as Fodder for Incitement
Since we are discussing Netanyahu and Bennett, I must tell you about the debate in the Knesset last Monday, on the day commemorating the assassination of Yitzchok Rabin—or, as I prefer to call it, on the “Rabin festival.” Israeli law obligates the Knesset to hold a special discussion every year around the date of Rabin’s assassination. Naturally, this debate usually features a series of speakers from Rabin’s side of the political map who take advantage of the occasion to inveigh against the political right, as if the entire right wing was responsible for Rabin’s murder.
This year, Yair Lapid (whose inclusion on the list of speakers was itself baffling enough) set a new record for audacious and inflammatory rhetoric. He began his address as follows: “Mr. Speaker, honored Knesset, Mr. President and his wife, Madam Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, members of the Rabin family, and leader of the opposition, there is a clear connection between the Rabin assassination and the events of the past year. Both are part of the great battle in Israel. This isn’t a war between the right and the left; the great Israeli battle is a struggle between people who believe in democracy and those who are trying to destroy it. Rabin wasn’t killed by the right; a true right wing would be democratic. Rather, he was killed by someone who was unwilling to accept Israeli democracy. Yigal Amir wanted to murder the democratic idea. He told himself that the majority doesn’t rule, that he knows better. If someone believes that the majority does not make the decisions, then he is not truly part of the national camp; instead, he is a dangerous, radical nationalist. Instead of loving the state, he despises anyone who doesn’t think as he does. Radical nationalists are not patriots. Radical nationalism isn’t the same as love of the land; it is extortion by threat. The ideological progeny of Yigal Amir are sitting here in the Knesset of Israel today and receiving legitimacy; they are desired guests in every news studio. If we hadn’t brought about the miracle of the government of change, they would be ministers in the government today.”
It took a moment for the members of the Knesset to realize what he was insinuating, and then the shouts of protest began.
“Are you referring to the Joint Arab List?” Betzalel Smotrich demanded sardonically.
“Aren’t you ashamed to say such things?” Moshe Arbel called out.
“You are putting Rabin to shame,” Keren Barak added.
But Lapid continued his diatribe. “In spite of the challenges of the past year, three rounds of elections are better than three bullets from a gun. The incitement today is very similar to the incitement that was happening at the time; the same people are saying the same things…. A true democrat doesn’t remain silent when people try to wipe out the rule of law, and he certainly does not remain silent in the face of violence. We will not allow anyone to take advantage of our tolerance in order to destroy democracy. A democracy must know how to protect itself…. The assassination of Rabin was an assault on Israeli democracy. In recent years, there has been an attempt to attack that democracy through other means. We prevented it at the last possible moment out of our sense of duty and patriotism, and with the understanding that what happened then must never be allowed to recur.”
Netanyahu: “Don’t Preach to Me About Democracy”
Shock rippled through the Knesset. Yair Lapid was essentially blaming the political right for the murder of Yitzchok Rabin. Knesset members were further incensed when Naftoli Bennett warmly shook hands with Lapid when the latter left the podium and moved to the government table to take his seat beside the prime minister. Had Bennett failed to understand what Lapid was doing?
The next speaker was Binyomin Netanyahu, who apparently decided that he had had enough of the annual parade of hypocrisy. Netanyahu himself is often accused of being partially culpable for the assassination, since he was standing among a group of protestors who were shouting “Death to Rabin!” before the murder. Netanyahu has tried to explain that he had no connection with the unruly demonstrators and that he didn’t even hear their shouts, but no one has paid him any heed.
This Monday, after treating the Knesset to a review of the many disputes between Rabin and the right, Netanyahu began his response to Lapid’s slanderous speech. “Members of the Knesset,” he announced, “in a democratic regime, it is the right and the obligation of the opposition to direct fierce criticism against the government. But look what is happening here: For one side—and it doesn’t matter if it is the opposition or the coalition—everything that it says or does, including the most radical expressions or statements, such as using images of gallows and guillotines or showing disrespect to symbols of the state, is considered democratic, appropriate, and a form of freedom of expression. But for the other side, even when it expresses legitimate positions that represent the majority of the people of Israel, its words are branded as incitement, hateful rhetoric, divisive, and vulgar. And now there is a new accusation as well: It is also considered unstatesmanlike. Well, I must tell you something that I feel very deeply. For the past 26 years, year after year, there are people who have been using the day of commemoration for Yitzchok Rabin in order to attack a large portion of the Israeli people and those who represent them. Throughout the years, I have heard many false and offensive things during these days about the camp that I represent and about myself on a personal level, but I gritted my teeth and swallowed the insults. In spite of the hostility, I fulfilled my obligation as the prime minister to be present for this event, in keeping with the official protocol. Of course, when I arrived, I was asked why I had come. But now that I am no longer the prime minister, when there is no protocol requiring my presence, people are asking why I am not coming.”
If I tried to quote the catcalls and jeers that punctuated Netanyahu’s speech, it would fill this entire newspaper. After pausing long enough to allow his listeners to calm down, Netanyahu said, “I would like to make one thing clear: We do not change our opinions about the leaders of this state based on changing trends or the demands of the media. We do not believe that the concepts of legality and legitimacy are subject to change. This government is completely legal, but there is someone here [i.e., Naftoli Bennett] who once said that a government formed on the basis of even ten mandates—not six—is illegitimate and undemocratic. I would like to direct the attention of the alternate prime minister [Lapid] to the fact that the man who said this is sitting beside him at this moment. Therefore, do not preach to me about democracy,” Netanyahu admonished his opponents. “Do not preach to me about legitimacy or statesmanship.”
Paving the Way for the Budget to Pass
Last week, Yair Lapid urged the members of his party to keep a low profile for the time being, avoiding vocal protests or political maneuvers in order to avoid interfering with the passage of the budget. Everyone seems to feel that the budget will be the test of this government and its coalition: If the budget passes, it will be seen as a sign of the government’s stability.
But nothing could be further from the truth. It is true that the budget is a test for the government and an important milestone, and that everyone in the coalition will do everything possible to ensure that it passes. In fact, it is likely that the budget will pass, albeit by the slimmest of margins, and that its passage will require the immediate disbursement of huge sums of money to the Arabs. However, that will not solve the problems that are plaguing the fractured government. On the contrary, it will probably mark the beginning of even greater rancor and division. Every initiative in every area is bound to spark intensive disagreements, and there is a limit to the concessions that each side will agree to swallow.
Construction in the settlements, for instance, is bound to be a bone of contention. Zev Elkin, as the Minister of Housing and a longtime right-wing activist, recently decided to approve the construction of 3000 new housing units in that area. At this point, it seems that the left is holding its collective tongue until after the budget is passed, but there is no question that the Meretz and Labor parties will raise a ruckus as soon as they feel secure enough to do so. Another inevitable trigger for conflict is the law that would prevent Netanyahu from serving as prime minister. The law’s proponents have tried to claim that it isn’t personal, but that is an absurd argument. Is there any other person in Israel who might become prime minister and is currently facing indictments?
Ayelet Shaked has already announced that she will oppose the law, even though it is the flagship legislation of Justice Minister Gideon Saar. And Shaked isn’t the only one who is uncomfortable with the draconian bill, which is clearly a product of a vendetta against the former premier. There is probably good reason for Netanyahu’s recent prediction that he (and the chareidi parties) will not remain in the opposition for long, and that they are bound to return to power sooner than anyone expects.
Let us hope that he is correct.
No-Confidence Motion Defeated by One Vote
If anyone was looking for evidence of the cracks in the current government, the no-confidence motion filed by the Shas party last week should have provided plenty of proof that it is crumbling.
Let me explain. Every motion of no confidence in the government must be submitted a week in advance, to be discussed on the following Monday. The motion must be submitted on Wednesday, before the end of the Knesset session for that day. Two weeks ago, Aryeh Deri, the chairman of the Shas party, instructed MK Michoel Malchieli to file a no-confidence motion independently, rather than together with United Torah Judaism. According to the Knesset rules, the two parties together (with a total of 16 seats) are entitled to submit no-confidence motions once a week; each party on its own, however, is entitled to a maximum of four such motions throughout the winter. Deri’s instructions mystified everyone, but on Monday we observed that it was a clever move.
Three motions of no confidence were debated in the Knesset on that day. The first, which was filed by the Likud, faulted the government for ignoring the severe harm suffered by small and medium-sized businesses since the beginning of the fourth wave of the coronavirus. The motion received 19 votes in favor and 51 against, and the Knesset speaker announced that it had been defeated. Many members of the Likud party complained that there hadn’t been enough time between the bell that signaled that a vote was taking place and the actual vote itself.
The third no-confidence motion of the day, meanwhile, was submitted by UTJ and was titled “A Government That Accepts Deaths and Limits Chareidim.” The vote was conducted by roll call rather than electronically and yielded 47 votes in favor of the motion and 55 against, with six abstentions. Those eight votes were a significant difference, but the margin by which the motion was defeated was still notably smaller.
That leaves us with the second of the three no-confidence motions, which came from the Shas party and accused the government and its budget of harming the weaker sectors of society. A roll call was conducted for this vote as well, and this time the results were surprising—and dramatic. There were 54 votes in favor of the measure, and only 55 against. In other words, the motion was defeated by a margin of only a single vote.
A Win for the Arabs
For my readers’ benefit, perhaps I should explain a bit about the process of filing a no-confidence motion and the significance of the fact that it was defeated by a narrow margin. While some journalists reported that the government survived by a single vote, this isn’t really true. For one thing, the government wouldn’t have fallen even if the vote had ended in a tie. When a bill is introduced in the Knesset, it does not pass unless the majority votes in its favor; a tied vote means that the bill has been defeated. But aside from that, even if the numbers had been reversed and the 55 votes had been in favor of the motion, it still wouldn’t have succeeded in bringing down the government. In fact, even a motion of no confidence that receives 60 votes would not topple the government. For such a motion to be accepted, it must receive the votes of the majority of the entire Knesset, meaning a minimum of 61.
You may be wondering, then, why it makes a difference that Shas’s motion was defeated by only a single vote. If there was no chance of the government actually dissolving, why is everyone celebrating this dramatic near-victory? The answer is that the narrow margin is itself an indication of the government’s instability. The public now sees very clearly that the government does not have a solid foundation, and with this impression spreading through the country, it might very well spell the beginning of the end of this government. Any members of the coalition who are displeased by the government’s actions might decide, based on the results of this vote, to cross the fence and join their colleagues in the opposition. And if that happens, this government of evil will be wiped off the face of the earth.
And that is not all. There was another bill introduced by the Shas party that was likewise defeated by a single vote, and a bill submitted by the Joint Arab List was actually voted into law over the objections of the government. Anyone observing these events will realize that it would not take much for the coalition to fall; all that is needed is for one or two members of the Knesset to decide to cross over to the opposite side of the aisle. That is certainly Netanyahu’s hope, and that is the reason that he was overjoyed when the Joint List managed to pass its bill—with the support of the Likud and the chareidim.
Three Points of Contention Between Israel and the US
And that is not the end of the government’s woes. As I mentioned, Minister Zev Elkin decided this week to approve construction in the settlements, which aroused the ire of the American government. The United States has already announced its disapproval of the move and has demanded clarification. Bennett will not be able to ignore the American criticism and will have to explain himself. Of course, this places him in an unenviable position, trapped between the right wing (himself, Shaked, Lieberman, and Saar) and the left wing (including Meretz, Gantz, and the Arabs) in this government and unable to please everyone at once.
As you may recall from last week’s column, there is another point of contention between America and Israel—namely, the intention of the United Sates to reopen its consulate on Rechov Agron in Yerushalayim. This, too, places Bennett in a very uncomfortable situation.
And there is a third issue as well: the decision of Benny Gantz, as defense minister, to sign an order designating six civilian organizations in the West Bank as terror organizations. A statement released by the Ministry of Defense explained that the organizations act on behalf of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and that they participate in funding the terror group. This immediately evoked objections from the American Department of State. State Department spokesman Ned Price announced that the United States would seek clarification from Israel as to why it declared the groups to be terror organizations and added that Israel hadn’t given America proper “advance warning” of its intention to take that step. “We believe that respect for human rights, basic freedoms, and a strong civil society are critical for responsible governance,” he said. Israel has already denied that it neglected to warn the United States in advance. In short, this is yet another source of conflict between the two countries.
Elazar Stern in Hot Water
There was a minor scandal last week involving Minister Elazar Stern, who made some ill-advised comments on the radio and triggered a fierce backlash that led him to withdraw his candidacy for the position of chairman of the Jewish Agency—a coveted position that became vacant when Yitzchok Herzog was elected to the presidency. From my perspective, it wouldn’t be quite accurate to say that Stern’s radio interview tarnished his image, since there has been something rotten about him all along. Nevertheless, his own big mouth proved to be his undoing. I would have celebrated Stern’s departure from the Knesset for there is no one else in Israel’s parliament as reprehensible as Elazar Stern, with the possible exception of MK Kariv, the Reform lawmaker who is perpetually offensive.
My personal distaste for Elazar Stern began during his time as an officer in the army. A commanding general has the authority to sign a pardon for a soldier who is imprisoned. If that “soldier” is a yeshiva bochur who was jailed for draft evasion, that authority rests with the director of the IDF Manpower Directorate. Many yeshiva bochurim have been freed from imprisonment in this fashion: The bochur submitted a request for a pardon and I relayed it to the general authorized to sign it. When Stern held that position, I once traveled to the community of Rechasim in the north in order to present such a request. We were both paying a shiva visit to Rabbi Itamar Bar-Ezer, and Stern listened to me and promised to sign the pardon on the following day. Nevertheless, he did not sign it. When I later met him in the Knesset, while he was still serving as a general in the army, I asked him to explain his actions and he responded with a tirade against yeshiva bochurim.
Ever since Stern was elected to the Knesset (after zigzagging between several parties) I have found him to be utterly conceited. He seems to feel that no one in the world can match his level of intelligence or understanding. He also shows complete contempt for everything that is sacred to us; he is the first to stand up for everything impure. His proposed laws and parliamentary queries are invariably adversarial; his speeches are wicked and spiteful. And anyone who reads his book can see that he has always been this way. The book B’dam Libi by Yisrael Weiss, the former chief rabbi of the IDF, also demonstrates that Stern has always been a bitter enemy of the Chief Rabbinate, a proponent of “reforms” in the areas of kashrus, giyur, and burial, and the first proponent of the twisted philosophy that Jewishness should be defined by service in the IDF. He is in the same class as other heretics, apostates, and the Reform movement.
I have encountered a number of people in the Knesset who came from the army, the Mossad, the Shabak, and the police force and who caused me to wonder how it was possible for them, with their narrow minds and inflated egos, to hold positions of such seniority in the country’s defense establishment. Stern has outdone all of them by demonstrating that a complete degenerate can rise to the rank of general. He is a man filled with bitterness and animosity, and it is a shame that he is still in the Knesset.
The Battle of the Beards
I have much more to tell you, but I am running out of space. I must mention the levayah of Alta Fixsler, the young girl who was disconnected from a respirator due to an order from a British court, which effectively killed her. Make no mistake: Alta Fixsler was murdered. This is the legacy of the nations of the world—an act of so-called “mercy killing.” In this case, it wasn’t even merciful at all, since the family begged the court not to take her life. The Fixsler family called on people all over the globe to come to their aid, but the protests were of no avail. The levayah in Yerushalayim was painful beyond description. Alta’s father moved all of his listeners to bitter tears.
We are also in the middle of a battle for the rights of firefighters with beards—in other words, firefighters who are religious. The firefighting service of the State of Israel has presented an ultimatum to them: They must either shave their beards or resign from the force. The supposed rationale is that the masks that firefighters are sometimes required to wear cannot create a hermetic seal if they are blocked by beards. The firefighters, along with the public figures who support them, have argued that it is possible to procure more advanced masks that will surmount this problem, and that it is unthinkable for a religious employee of the Israeli government to be forced to shave off his beard. This is an issue that affects thousands of firefighters, and the battle is in full swing.
Another major story concerns the basket of medications provided at subsidized prices by the Israeli government. There is a public committee in Israel that determines every year which medications will be included in the basket; those medications can be purchased in pharmacies at the reduced price of 15 NIS per box, even if the actual cost of the medication is much higher. It is certainly self-evident that the committee’s decisions affect matters of life or death. This year, we discovered that the committee doesn’t include a single oncologist among its members, and we have already learned that there will be far fewer approvals of medications necessary for cancer patients. It is quite frightening to contemplate the impact of the decisions made by this committee and the potential cost of a failure to take certain patients’ needs fully into account.