Toppling a Government Over Gifts?
It is now almost clear that the investigations surrounding Prime Minister Binyomin Netanyahu will end with the cigars – perhaps I should say the many cigars – that he received as gifts, the champagne that his wife received, and several items of jewelry, here in Israel but even more so in New York.
The prime minister’s lawyers are repeatedly insisting that gifts are not a reason to bring down a government, as if the attorney general or the state prosecutor are bound in any way by that idea. They seem to hope that with enough repetition, the concept will gain traction and influence actual decisions. Netanyahu himself introduced another brilliant slogan earlier in this saga: “There will be nothing, because there is nothing there.” I would have suggested a slightly different version: “There will be nothing, because there was nothing.”
But there was misconduct, and a police commissioner once resigned from his job after he accepted gifts, as did a president of Israel. The law, as it was formulated by the Committee for the Prevention of Conflicts of Interests Among Ministers, stipulates that “a minister may not receive payment or any other benefit aside from the salary paid to him by the state.” A minister who receives any gifts is required to transfer them to the Treasury or to pay for them. But there are loopholes in the law. The law does not prohibit a gift of “small or reasonable value,” nor does it apply to “a gift from a friend.” Will these exceptions spare Netanyahu the wrath of the law? Only time will tell.
Ehud Olmert, in his day, was investigated for accepting pens as gifts. In another case, Olmert was also suspected of accepting a pen as a gift, but the attorney general at the time, Meni Mazuz, who is a justice of the Supreme Court today, ordered the case closed, explaining that not every gift is illegitimate. In the Talansky affair, Olmert was placed on trial for receiving benefits from a close friend in New York. The prosecutor in the Tel Aviv district was also investigated for taking gifts from a well-known attorney. Mandelblit closed that case due to a lack of incriminating evidence. But there were other such cases as well.
The most prominent such case, of course, involved Ezer Weizman, the seventh president of the State of Israel. In late 1999, an investigative journalist named Yoav Yitzchak publicized the fact that in his previous positions, Weizman had accepted large gifts from his friend, Edward Sarusi. The police questioned the president in his home, and he responded with great confidence. Justice Elyakim Rubinstein of the Supreme Court, who held the position of attorney general at the time, chose not to press charges, since the statute of limitations had passed and he felt that there was a “lack of guilt.” Nevertheless, his decision was accompanied by a stinging rebuke, which forced Weizman to give in to public pressure and resign from office. Three years later, Police Commissioner Rafi Peled was forced to resign from his own position after it was revealed that he had accepted gifts, including hotel stays. The prosecution recommended indicting him, but a compromise was reached that called for Peled to resign from his position in exchange for an end to the legal proceedings against him.
I am not among those who aspire to see Netanyahu’s downfall. On the contrary, I hope that he will emerge from this affair with his reputation intact, and that his family members will also be spared from those who seek to harm them. For the record, though, it is not accurate to say that governments do not fall as a result of gifts.
A New American Envoy Comes to Israel
This week has hardly been dull and uneventful. At the end of last week, there was a solidarity event, in which the prime minister invited all the members of the Knesset, the ministers of the government, and their aides to dinner in honor of the beginning of the Knesset’s recess. But it was precisely at that event that it became clear that there is much interpersonal friction among the members of the government. Moshe Kachlon and Netanyahu do not get along, and Naftali Bennett and Avigdor Lieberman are in the middle of their own feud. (This time, it concerns the Religious-Zionist rabbonim who have been speaking out against permissiveness in the army.) One minister was insulted that she had been seated next to a certain other minister, and the Knesset members of the Likud party are not on speaking terms with each other.
Other events last week included attempted terror attacks and continued pressure from the Reform movement. Prime Minister Netanyahu met with a delegation of Reform Jews in Yerushalayim and told them that he felt he had to pass the Kosel agreement. When Aryeh Deri protested this statement, Netanyahu responded that he hadn’t been referring to the agreement that the government previously accepted, which is now null and void. He was simply saying that he had to pass some agreement. That is Netanyahu…
Then there was Jason Greenblatt. He is the man who was sent by Donald Trump to the Middle East to clarify the sides of the dispute and what can be done to advance a peace plan for the region. He has already achieved one thing: He has managed to extract a promise from Abu Mazen, the chairman of the Palestinian Authority, that the PA will stop encouraging terror and hatred among Arab children. If you remember, that was one of the central motifs in Trump’s address to AIPAC prior to the presidential election.
The Arabs aren’t fools. They have made a complete about-face in their approach. They arrived at their meeting with Greenblatt in Ramallah fully prepared, announcing immediately that they are happy to have the Americans working to promote a peace agreement. That, of course, is a completely different approach from the one they have adopted until now. Instead of clashing with Trump, they have decided to embrace him. Israel’s approach, too, has changed. Under Barack Obama, Israel knew that it was dealing with an American regime that was overtly hostile toward us. Now, it is the Arabs who are in that position. Nevertheless, if we thought that Trump would agree with everything we said, we were wrong. Differences of opinion have already emerged.
Differences of opinion, and a major gap in perspective as well. Nevertheless, Jason Greenblatt was different from his predecessors. Under Barack Obama, we encountered American envoys who were completely pro-Palestinian. And there is one thing we can definitely appreciate about Greenblatt: When he was asked how much hope he had for success in his mission, he replied, “We hope that G-d will help us succeed in this task.” That is a type of sentiment that we do not often hear from politicians, certainly not in Yerushalayim. There is something particularly appealing about American politicians who are not ashamed to express their thanks to G-d and to say to each other, “May G-d bless you.” Our television stations made sure to show images of Greenblatt with a large black yarmulka, even though he did not wear it on his visit.
What is Troubling the State Department?
Do you know what is causing the officials in the State Department in America to lose sleep? Do you know what issue has been troubling them? It isn’t terrorism in America, or mass murder in Syria, or the flood of immigrants inundating the countries of Europe. What is truly bothering them is the situation of the Ethiopians in Eretz Yisroel.
Does that sound bizarre? It may, but that is the situation. These are Ethiopians who have immigrated to Israel over a long period of time, beginning with Operation Solomon under Menachem Begin. To this day, the Ethiopians haven’t fully integrated into Israeli society. That is partly because of the color of their skin, but also because of their unique mentality. This week, for instance, it was revealed that a very small percentage of Ethiopians hold government jobs, which is one way of measuring their degree of integration. Two years ago, a wave of protests erupted in the Ethiopian community after it was revealed that two police officers had beaten an Ethiopian youth for no reason. I reported to you on those events at the time.
In any event, a new report by the American State Department notes that the department is particularly concerned about the human rights situation in Israel. The report reveals that the percentage of Ethiopian minors who end up in prison is ten times the percentage of incarcerated minors in Israeli society as a whole. Based on the facts presented in the report, it is clear that its authors relied on information from the most extreme left-wing sources in the State of Israel. When they discussed the conditions in Israeli prisons and the scandal concerning the Yemenite children, the authors of the report knew to quote organizations such as the Association for Civil Rights in Israel and the Israel Bar Association.
We are all in favor of rectifying any flaws that may exist in our government and our country. We are opposed to the abuse of any human being, and we believe that all human beings were created in the Divine image. But still, a little sense of proportion is in order. Is this really the world’s greatest problem – the Ethiopians in Tel Aviv? The entire world is on fire, innocent people are being murdered indiscriminately, children are being sold as slaves, and Islam is threatening to wipe out half the world, yet they are fixated on the detention cells in an Israeli prison in Ramle. Where is the sense in that?
Freedom of Religion Under Fire in Prison
Still and all, there is one thing about the State Department’s report that is correct. With regard to human rights – and in this case, I am referring to the human beings who have been locked up in prison – Israel has no reason to take pride. The following is a story from this past week: One of the suspects in the Duma arson (the fire that was set in July 2015 and caused the death of an Arab infant and his parents) is a young Jewish man named Amiram Ben-Uliel. He is currently being held until the end of the judicial proceedings, and the trial is moving along at an extremely slow pace. This past week, Ben-Uliel was placed in solitary confinement after he refused to share a cell with a person who was mechallel Shabbos. Ben-Uliel claimed that his cellmate was causing him to violate Shabbos, and he was punished in response. That is an example of the sheer apathy that dominates Israel’s judicial system.
As a person who often advocates on behalf of observant inmates in a number of prisons (Chermon, Rimonim, Dekel, Ayalon, and, of course, the observant wing of Maasiyahu Prison), I can attest that the prison system is heartless and uncaring. It gives off the impression that its entire purpose is to make the prisoners’ lives as difficult and intolerable as it can. That is the case regarding prison inmates in general, and I believe it is even truer concerning those who are observant. A Jew remains a Jew even if he has sinned, and an observant Jew in prison deserves to retain his religious rights. I have an incredible story from Rav Ovadiah Yosef on that subject; I will have to share it with you sometime in the future.
Here is another recent incident: A chareidi prisoner whose father had passed away was permitted to attend the funeral only in the wake of intense, unrelenting pressure from MK Moshe Gafni. If not for Gafni’s intervention, he would have left the prison only with shackles on his legs. And why wasn’t Ehud Olmert allowed to attend his grandson’s bar mitzvah? True, he is the grandfather, not the father. And true, it was during the first third of his prison sentence. But what difference does that make? Couldn’t the court system display a modicum of humanity? Why shouldn’t Olmert, or any grandfather who is in prison, be allowed to attend a grandson’s bar mitzvah?
I have now learned that a new initiative has begun to bring about sweeping changes in this area. A new organization has been formed to protect the human rights of prison inmates and to combat the abusive policies of the establishment. Among the key players in the effort are Yaakov Weinroth, the well-known attorney, and Rav Sholom Ber Sorotzkin. Their involvement seems to guarantee that the initiative will succeed, at least quietly. Another new organization, this one chareidi¸ was established recently to aid chareidi prisoners. Last week, they held a Purim banquet for all the children of religious prisoners.
Yerushalayim Is Not Just Another City
About two months ago, two government ministers and a mayor held a meeting in my office. They asked permission to use the room for about two or three hours, and I saw no reason not to agree. One of the members of this group was Miri Regev, the Minister of Culture. Another was Ze’ev Elkin, the Minister of Jerusalem Affairs (and now the Minister of Environmental Protection as well). The third was the mayor of Yerushalayim, Nir Barkat. The threesome were accompanied by a large group of advisors, most of them from the Finance Ministry. The atmosphere was tense; the group appeared to be at odds with each other. The subject under discussion was the celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the liberation of Yerushalayim, and I understood that the tensions revolved around money. The government had earmarked certain sums for the festivities, and the question was who would decide how the funds are to be spent. The individual who receives that privilege is bound to gain from it, at least in terms of political capital, if not in other ways as well.
Like the proverbial fly on the wall, I listened to their conversation. I was particularly interested in finding out if our representatives had succeeded in diverting some of the funds for religious purposes. Last week, that subject was raised in the Knesset plenum. It was interesting that none of the government ministers were willing to respond to Yoav Ben-Tzur, the Knesset member who brought up the subject. In fact, there was some pressure to prevent the issue from being raised at all. The following is a portion of Ben-Tzur’s speech:
“In about two months, we will celebrate Yom Yerushalayim. This year, the day will be even more meaningful than usual, since we will be marking fifty years since the liberation of the Kosel Hamaarovi and the Old City, and the reunification of Yerushalayim. We all know that Yerushalayim is a city of gold, a city of copper and light. But Yerushalayim is much more than that. It is the light of the world, the holy city and the seat of the Bais Hamikdosh. The government has decided to allocate tens of millions of shekels for the funding of events, ceremonies, and celebrations in honor of this jubilee. The city of Yerushalayim has prepared a very moving video presentation. A special logo has also been designed, and it will be imprinted on official state documents throughout the year. The Ministry of Education has chosen the topic of the fiftieth anniversary of Yerushalayim’s liberation as the event of the year, with all the ramifications of that decision… I applaud the efforts of everyone involved in these endeavors. Everything that is done to praise and honor our city is warmly welcomed.
“However,” Ben-Tzur continued, “Yerushalayim is not just another city, and the celebrations of its reunification should not be like any other festivities. If we are discussing events to be held in Yerushalayim, I believe that they should have the character that is appropriate for our sacred city. We are not celebrating the fall of the Berlin Wall. We are celebrating the redemption of the site of the Bais Hamikdosh and the Kosel Hamaarovi. The celebrations and events must respect the fact that this is not merely a national event, but, even more importantly, a religious one. Therefore, we would like to be members of the body that will be responsible for all the preparations and planning for the jubilee celebrations. More than that, we feel that we should be in charge of the preparations. I am not certain if the planning is actually following the correct schedule. I am concerned that we may arrive at the 27th of Iyar and find that we are unprepared. That is another reason that I am raising the subject here. I would like to urge everyone concerned to move quickly on the subject.”
A Call to Renovate Ancient Kevorim
Yoav Ben-Tzur made several practical suggestions. One of his comments was that it would be appropriate for several million shekels out of the overall budget to be allocated to the restoration of mekomos kedoshim in Yerushalayim, such as the kevorim of Rav Shimon Hatzaddik and Shmuel Hanovi. Those kevorim themselves are in need of renovation, as are the paths leading to the kevorim.
He also made another point: “We are speaking about commemorating the liberation of the Old City. Today, there are two world-class Torah giants living in the Old City and serving as its rabbonim: Rav Shalom Cohen and Rav Avigdor Nebenzahl. Shouldn’t we ask them what to do? I have no doubt that there are a number of important sites, shuls, and other buildings in the Old City that are in desperate need of renovation, just as the Churvah Shul was renovated. Wouldn’t it be proper to designate several million shekels for Jewish projects in the Old City?”
Ben-Tzur proceeded to let his audience in on a secret. “Over the course of the day, we have been asked by various parties not to raise this issue in the Knesset. ‘Let’s get together and you can tell us what you want,’ they have said to us, promising that they will take us into consideration. I would like to say something here and now: We don’t want you to take us into account. We will take you into account. You are not the owners of Yerushalayim. The strength and special quality of Yerushalayim lie in its kedushah. And we, if you will excuse me for saying so, understand more than you do about kedushah. However you look at it, Yerushalayim is entitled to have Jewish events taking place. The mitzvah-observant community, after all, makes up a majority of its populace. But it is much more than that: If we are going to celebrate the liberation of the Kosel and the unification of the city, we must do it properly. Even if we don’t have a problem with all sorts of parades, marches and festivals, we cannot lose sight of the simple and correct fact that half of the budget or more for celebrations in Yerushalayim should be earmarked for religious matters.
“Let me make this clear: I have nothing against any person. We respect Minister Miri Regev, who has much more than a modicum of Jewishness. Her ministry has also proven that it is against any sort of discrimination between sectors. We have nothing against Mayor Nir Barkat, and certainly not against the Minister of Jerusalem Affairs. We are coming from a positive place.
“It would be very unfortunate if we were not able to use the jubilee celebrations to benefit the mekomos kedoshim of Yerushalayim in general and the Old City in particular, and perhaps even to restore some of the shuls in the city that haven’t yet received any aid at all, or perhaps even to make a one-time allocation of funds to assist the poor of Yerushalayim or the Torah scholars in the city.
“I presume that this suggestion will be transferred to the Interior Committee. If and when the committee discusses the matter, we would like to be informed, in an organized way, about the designated use of the large sums that have been allocated for the jubilee festivities. I would also ask the committee to act in keeping with the spirit of my remarks here. But it is possible that the discussions in the committee will be superfluous. I hope that in the coming days, we will find a way for those who are now responsible for the planning to work together with the logistical team that we have established, which consists of people of Yerushalayim who respect the city’s sanctity. I should also mention that we have an ally within the government: Minister Dovid Azulai is a member of the Ministerial Committee for Ceremonies and Symbols, and he will represent our position. We are not asking for favors from anyone in the government or in the municipality. The money belongs to Yerushalayim, not to any specific person, and Yerushalayim is a holy city. Consequently, the vast majority of the festivities should be a means of increasing the kedushah of the city.”
As Ben-Tzur remarked, the discussion will continue in the Knesset Interior Committee.
When the Questioners Failed to Show Up
Some time ago, someone in the Knesset decided to change the rules concerning parliamentary queries. A parliamentary query is a written question submitted by a member of the Knesset to a particular government minister, which requires the minister to respond from the Knesset podium. Until the change was made, if a member of the Knesset was not present when the response to his question was delivered, the response would simply be transcribed in the Knesset protocols. If the questioner was present, he or she would be entitled to ask an additional question after the minister delivered his response. An MK who could not be troubled to be present in the Knesset to receive the response would forgo the right to ask additional questions, but he would be able to read the response to his question in the transcripts of the Knesset’s sitting at any time.
But then someone decided that it was beneath the dignity of the Knesset when its members failed to show up to hear the responses to the queries they submitted. That person then decided that a new policy would be instituted: If a member of the Knesset is absent when a minister appears to respond to his question, the query will be canceled. This change may have been a well-intentioned move, but it has effectively resulted in the death of the parliamentary query. Until the new policy was instituted, thousands of parliamentary queries were submitted. Every week, the ministers responded to dozens of questions. Of course, it was true that there were some MKs who were not present in the plenum when the answers were received, whether it was because the answers were delivered at the end of the day, or because the questioners were not present in the building at all, or because they felt that it was sufficient to read the responses in the Knesset protocols. But the new policy has caused the frequency of parliamentary queries to drop almost to zero. In effect, the baby has been thrown out with the bathwater. Today, the members of the Knesset almost never submit queries, since they cannot be certain that they will be present to hear the responses.
Two weeks ago, two government ministers were scheduled to respond to four queries: The Minister of Justice was supposed to answer two queries, and the Minister of Religious Affairs was scheduled to respond to another two. At the end of the day, it was revealed that the Minister of Justice would not be responding. The two questioners – Ghattas and Haskel – had informed her in advance that they would not be present, and their answers would therefore be sent in writing. Both of the questions sent to Azulai came from the same questioner, Elazar Stern, and he was likewise not present. Azulai had waited in the Knesset until a late hour to respond to his questions, and it turned out that his wait had been in vain.
A Telephone Call on Erev Purim
Last Motzoei Shabbos, I attended my Daf Yomi shiur in complete “Shabbos” mode – in other words, without money, a cell phone, or any other muktzah in my pockets. At the end of the shiur, we were informed that the siyum on Maseches Bava Metzia would be held on the night of Purim – “our” Purim, in Yerushalayim, which would be the following night. This siyum had already been delayed for some time, and it seemed that it could not be postponed any longer. Before long, we will be completing Bava Basra as well. The organizer assigned each participant in the shiur to bring a different item to the siyum. I was asked to provide the beverages. I hurried to a store on Rechov Kanfei Nesharim to purchase the necessary items, but when I arrived at the cash register, I realized that I had left my credit card at home. Fortunately, the storeowner allowed me to take the merchandise home and to pay on the next day, or even after Purim.
When I returned home, I was told accusingly, “You forgot your cell phone at home!”
“I didn’t forget it,” I replied. “I simply didn’t take it with me.”
I am not the type of person who is enslaved to his cell phone. I often leave it at home and go about my business without it. I also do not feel the need to investigate who has been trying to reach me when there are missed calls on the display; I rely on my callers to try again if I do not answer. This time, however, was different: The number from which I had missed a call was the type of phone number that only a high-ranking official could possess. And so I dialed it back. “You were trying to reach me?” I said when someone answered.
“Yes. Is this Yaakovson?”
“Yes. Who is this?”
“It’s Eli Cohen.”
“Eli Cohen?” I repeated in surprise. The only Eli Cohen that I remembered was the man who had been hanged in Damascus, lo aleinu, many years ago. But then the caller reminded me that there is another Eli Cohen, after all: the man who was recently appointed to serve as the Minister of the Economy.
“I was going over some papers, and I saw that I promised you that I would meet with the visitors from America who came for Temech. That meeting did not come to pass, and I understand that they have already returned to America. I apologize for the mistake.”
“It wasn’t a mistake,” I reassured him. “Your office director told me that she felt that Temech’s activities were more closely associated with the Ministry of Welfare than with the Ministry of the Economy, and we decided to forgo the meeting. Besides,” I added, “I could never be angry at a person who refuses to talk to a senior official in the government because he is in the middle of a conversation with his mother.”
I was referring to an incident that took place two weeks earlier. Eli Cohen had been speaking on his cell phone on the edge of the Knesset plenum, and I was waiting for him to end his call so that I could relay the request from Temech for him to meet with their visitors from America. Temech is an Israeli-American initiative that works to help chareidi women find work and learn a profession. It is an initiative that has the backing of a number of influential figures in America: Moshe Wolfson, Avi Schron, Mendy Klein, Itche Rosenbaum, and perhaps several others as well. While I was standing next to Eli Cohen, before he completed his telephone call, a very high-ranking member of the government approached him to ask a question. It would have been the most natural response in the world, I imagined, for Cohen to ask the person on the phone to wait for a moment while he answered the minister’s question. But Eli Cohen did the opposite: He motioned to the minister that he couldn’t talk, and he moved to the side to continue his conversation. I followed him, wondering who could possibly be on the other end of the line. Was it Bibi? Vladimir Putin? Who could possibly be more important than the official who had approached him?
But then I heard him say, “Yes, Ima. Don’t worry about it, Ima. Have a nice day, Ima.”
Incidentally, I once overheard Finance Minister Moshe Kachlon conducting an almost identical conversation with his own mother. Kachlon is known as Cohen’s political patron. It appears that the disciple has learned something from his mentor.
When I reminded him about the incident, Eli Cohen laughed. Then I said to him, “Wait a minute. It’s already Purim for you. Why are you working now?”
“What choice do I have?” he replied.
Then I told him, slowly and clearly, that the principle of “kol haposhet yad nosnim lo” applies in a spiritual sense as well. “Ask Hashem for your mother to have good health and nachas,” I advised him. “On Purim your prayers are accepted.” I do not know if Cohen understood me, but he thanked me for the insight.