My Take on the News

Another Week of Insanity in the Knesset

We have been through yet another week of insanity here in Israel. The Knesset has been the focus of everyone’s attention. During the previous week, the opposition made every effort to stall the passage of the Recommendations Law, the Yerushalayim Law (which requires a larger majority vote than normal in order to give up portions of Yerushalayim), and the Judaism Law. These filibusters accomplished nothing other than disrupting the Knesset’s work. This week, two more laws were brought to the plenum that caused certain members of the Knesset to lose their cool: the law stipulating that terrorists should receive the death penalty and the Supermarket Law.

The law calling for the death penalty for terrorists is a bizarre initiative, since it was always possible for a military court to sentence a terrorist murderer to death. The bill states only that instead of requiring the unanimous vote of three military judges, as has been the case until now, the death penalty can now be imposed by a majority of two out of three judges. Quite a few members of the coalition found it difficult to support this bill. Among them were Minister Yuval Steinitz, who ultimately gave in to the prime minister’s pressure and supported it, and Benny Begin, who resisted Netanyahu’s efforts to change his mind.

I watched as the prime minister rebuked the insubordinate coalition members over the phone. I heard him screaming at Minister Chaim Katz, “Why are you just sitting in your office? Come to the Knesset immediately!” Katz explained that he had made a “pairing” arrangement with a member of the opposition, but the prime minister was insistent. Ultimately, Chaim Katz came to the Knesset and cast his vote, which led to a crisis between the coalition and the opposition.

A pairing arrangement is an agreement reached between a member of the coalition and a member of the opposition, each of whom agrees to refrain from voting in order to offset the other’s absence. When these agreements are made, it is considered a major breach of protocol to violate them. In this case, though, the protocol was ignored. Prime Minister Netanyahu was not willing to take the risk of losing the vote, since Avigdor Lieberman, the man behind the bill, was essentially breathing down his neck. Netanyahu feared that he would lack a majority on account of several members of the Knesset from the Likud party who were opposed to the bill. In addition, members of United Torah Judaism announced that they would not support the bill. Their objection was on the grounds that it involved a halachic issue that would have to be discussed with gedolei Torah.

Of course, part of the background to their opposition was also Lieberman’s refusal to support the Supermarket Law. By rejecting his initiative in response, the members of UTJ sent a clear message: Avigdor Lieberman is not the only person who knows how to throw his weight around in the Knesset or to violate coalition discipline.

Netanyahu Calls for Serious Discussion

Here is an excerpt from Netanyahu’s remarks, which were delivered on Wednesday in the Knesset plenum: “Members of the Knesset, several weeks ago I went to pay my condolences to the members of the Solomon family. The family members who had survived the terrible attack told me that the terrorist laughed as he held his knife and slaughtered other human beings. I have seen many horrific things over the course of my life, but I was appalled by this. My reaction was that there are some situations, very extreme situations, in which people commit terrible crimes and do not deserve—”

“Such as assassinating a prime minister,” interjected Ayman Oudeh of the Joint Arab List. He was referring, of course, to Yigal Amir, who assassinated Yitzchok Rabin.

Netanyahu ignored the interruption. “And do not deserve to live,” he went on, completing his sentence. “These people deserve to be punished with the full weight of the law. And I decided that we would change the law. We support changing the law for these situations. The main change that we are talking about is for the ability to make this decision not to be limited to the government or the Minister of Defense, but rather for any two out of three judges to give this order. That is essentially the change that we are interested in making. When we decided that this vote should take place, that was the intent. We were then told that it was necessary for the cabinet to approve the measure before the government or the coalition made this decision; at least, that was the impression that we were given. So I said, ‘Very well, we will have a cabinet decision. The cabinet will meet and make the decision, and perhaps the ministers will have their own comments to make.’ Meanwhile, I discovered today that there is no legal requirement for a cabinet decision, even though it is proper for the government to make that kind of decision through a meeting of the cabinet, and I decided that we would do that between the preliminary vote and the first reading. We are not doing this without giving thought to the matter. We all understand that there are complicated issues to consider, but there is also the very basic consideration of justice in extreme circumstances. The idea of imposing justice in an extreme situation, of using the death penalty to carry out justice in an extreme case, has already been put to the test in the State of Israel [in the Eichmann trial]. That was a case of war crimes, but the principle of applying a special punishment in an extreme case is something that has already been instilled in our judicial system and our sense of justice. The counterargument, the debate over its effectiveness and of whether we will gain or lose from it, is a serious issue. I think, though, that in extreme cases, there is also simple logic, and that simple logic tells us that a person who can butcher other human beings and laugh about it should not spend the rest of his life in prison. Instead, he should be taken out to be executed.”

“But there are also Jews who did that!” called Taleb Abu Arar. “Jews have done it too!”

Netanyahu went on, “In my view, this type of incident necessitates that outcome. I have told our friends who are hesitating to support the bill – and I know there are such people – that a full discussion, as I have told several of the members of the Knesset, will indeed take place. No one here is being hasty. But when we think about it, and we think about all the difficult things we have been through, and the very traumatic things we have been through, and the extreme things we have been through….” At that point, Netanyahu received a signal that everyone who was able to come to the plenum had arrived. He left the podium, and the vote was held. The law was passed by a majority of 52 to 49 – not a large margin at all.

Is There No Shabbos in Eilat?

Another major issue this week was the Supermarket Law, which is intended to authorize the Minister of the Interior to veto any municipal ordinance that permits businesses to operate on Shabbos. Many members of the Knesset are opposed to the law, including some from the Likud party, and even some government ministers from Likud. Nevertheless, coalition discipline obligated them to vote in its favor. Avigdor Lieberman, however, announced that his party would oppose the law. Of course, that created a crisis. To make matters worse, two MKs from the coalition were suddenly unable to be present for the vote: Dovid Azulai, the Minister of Religious Affairs, who is hospitalized in Rambam Hospital in Haifa and is undergoing chemotherapy and radiation treatments, and MK Yehuda Glick of the Likud party, whose wife passed away and was buried on Monday. The vote on the Supermarket Law was scheduled for the same day, but was postponed due to the lack of a majority for the coalition.

There was another reason to postpone the bill, as well: In the committee where it was prepared for its final reading in the Knesset, the decision was made to exclude the city of Eilat from the law. That means that if the city of Eilat decides that businesses in the city should be open on Shabbos, no government minister will be able to change that fact.

Aryeh Deri tried to prevent the vote from being postponed, even investigating whether there was a right-wing rov who would pasken that Yehuda Glick could come to the Knesset to vote in the middle of his shivah. When news of his efforts began to spread, Deri was roundly condemned from the chiloni end of the spectrum. That was somewhat hypocritical on their part. After all, if they are so concerned about Glick’s dignity or the honor of the deceased, then why did they refuse to allow an MK from the opposition to pair with him? For that matter, why didn’t they let anyone make a pairing arrangement with Dovid Azulai? That is the standard procedure whenever a member of the Knesset or government minister is ill. In this case, though, the opposition decided that no one could break ranks for any reason. Why, then, are they so surprised at the idea of bringing Glick to the Knesset from his shivah house?

There was something particularly nasty about the way the opposition fought against this bill. Nevertheless, they won. The vote was postponed for a week.

Ambassador Friedman in Otniel

MK Yehuda Glick unwittingly became the center of attention last week. As I mentioned, Glick found himself at the center of a major conflict in the Knesset – a conflict sparked by the beginning of the week of shivah for his wife. The circumstances are sad.

Glick is unyieldingly dedicated to promoting visits to the Har Habayis. He is one of the most frequent visitors to the site and regularly encourages others to follow suit, despite the opposition of the gedolim to the practice.

I visited Glick in the hospital after he survived an Arab murder attempt. I wasn’t permitted to enter the intensive care unit where he was hospitalized, but I sat outside with two of his sons. Glick usually begins his addresses in the Knesset with the words “my friends, the charming members of the Knesset.” It may sound a bit sappy in the Knesset, but that adjective was quite fitting for the son I met in the hospital. It was clear that Glick and his wife a”h raised children who are charming and highly principled. It is incredible to see how the proverbial tables can turn: Yehuda Glick, who was hovering on the brink of death, is now a member of the Knesset, while his wife, who stood by his side throughout his recovery, is no longer in this world.

On that note, the officer of the Knesset, Yosef Griff, whose rank is equivalent to a major general in the army, is always on guard against possible mishaps. During the Glick shivah, he was concerned about a large, unmonitored stream of visitors coming to the settlement of Otniel, where Glick resides. Just imagine what would happen if a group of murderous Palestinians decided to wait in ambush somewhere at the side of the road, waiting to pounce upon a convoy of government ministers and Knesset members coming to pay their respects to Glick. Griff therefore decided to arrange a secure bus to transport visitors to and from Otniel for a large-scale shivah visit. The bus departed from the Knesset and returned there after the visit. In his memorandum to the government officials, he added, “For those who are interested in visiting independently, I ask them to travel via Highway One to the Latrun Interchange, then to take Route 6 south to the Shoket Junction, and to turn left onto Route 60 and drive through the settlement of Meitar until the entrance of Otniel.” A map of the route accompanied the note.

During the shivah, Ambassador David Friedman of the United States made history by paying an official visit to Otniel, where he embraced Glick in his home.

We Are Not Good at Public Relations

The postponement of the vote on the Supermarket Law caused the chareidi politicians to be attacked even by chareidi journalists. I certainly do not agree with them. It isn’t as if our Knesset members could have done anything about the situation. Just like the rest of us, they wish that they could minimize chillul Shabbos in the country, preserve the status quo, maintain the Jewish character of the state, and effectively plug the breaches in the dam of religious observance that is threatening to burst and flood the country. Why, then, does everyone seem to be thirsty for their blood? Do all these critics have any better ideas to offer? Do they have some sort of magic solution to the quandary? Let them convince Avigdor Lieberman to support the law, or Dudi Amsalem to retract the exclusion of Eilat.

It is possible that we are not very good at explaining ourselves to the public. This week, I was sitting in the Knesset next to a chareidi Knesset member, with a chiloni young man facing him across the table. The young man was well-dressed, wearing an elegant necktie and no yarmulke. In the past, he was one of the senior activists of the Yisroel Beiteinu party and an aide to Yair Shamir, the son of Yitzchok Shamir, who served on behalf of the party as Minister of Agriculture. Today, he holds a prestigious position in one of the government ministries. He spoke about his own views regarding Shabbos, and it was impossible for me not to be impressed.

“I have heard mayors of cities such as Givatayim or Carmiel talking about preserving the municipal characters of their cities,” he said, adding that he saw no validity in their arguments. “There is also such a thing as the national character of the country,” he explained. “Does anyone believe that the character of a city takes precedence over the national character of the state? Besides, imagine what would happen if the head of the Gezer Regional Council decided that for the sake of the municipal character of all the communities in Gezer, all the stores in the area must be vegetarian. Would that be acceptable?” He added another interesting point: “You are not managing to get across the most important point – that religious values should also be a consideration.” That idea, in fact, was enshrined in a law requiring the Minister of Labor to consider the Jewish angle before granting a Shabbos work permit. “There is no shame in that,” the man said. “We are not like any other country. In the State of Israel, religion is a factor that must be taken into account. I, as a chiloni, believe in that.”

I took note of another cogent point that he made. “You, the chareidim, have missed an important consideration – the fact that allowing grocery stores and shopping centers to be open on Shabbos will deal a deadly blow to the incomes of tens of thousands of small business owners. Most of these people do not have the means to hire workers for their stores, and they are therefore unable to be open on Shabbos. If the larger stores are allowed to be open, then these people will lose half of their customer base during the week as well, and their revenues will drop precipitously. Is that the right thing to do?”

His point was that the Supermarket Law is vital from a socioeconomic perspective, and not merely from a religious standpoint. The entire country was up in arms when Teva threatened to lay off its workers and when factories in the south were in danger of closing down, yet it has no problem with the idea of depriving thousands of business owners of their livelihoods, relegating them to the unemployment rolls and adding them to the statistics collected by the National Insurance Institute. Then there is an alternative that is even worse: Should they be forced to open on Shabbos? That would be the worst possible outcome. It would mean that as a result of secular coercion, thousands of people would lose their weekly day of rest, a right that is an inherent component of Israeli society. That would effectively strip the state of its unique Jewish character.

Kudos to Attorney Paz

On that note, some words of appreciation are due to Tali Argaman, Moshik Goldstein, and Orana Tzadok, the threesome who fought to prevent the city council session in Givatayim that legalized conducting business on Shabbos in the city. They worked together with two organizations, the Shabbos Equality Coalition and the General Union of Businessmen and Independents in Israel. Their argument was based on a technicality: The members of the council didn’t have enough time to study the subject before the session, when the mayor planned to pass an ordinance allowing some of the stores in the city to open on Shabbos. In light of this argument, Judge Koby Vardi accepted their petition. That is not to say, though, that the Israeli court system has suddenly developed an affinity for tradition.

Their attorney, Uri Yisrael Paz, is especially deserving of praise. (I believe that Paz is the same attorney who represented the soccer players who refuse to play on Shabbos.) I read the 20-page document that he submitted to the court as a rebuttal to the city’s response. It is a masterfully written document that provides an incredibly clear picture of the situation.

I also read the judge’s later decision. Of course, the judge accepted the city’s response and revoked the injunction, permitting the city council to convene on December 31, 2017. The council, of course, took advantage of that ruling and met on the designated date, when they decided to permit chillul Shabbos in Givatayim. Why did the judge decide to support the city, you ask? As I said, the Israeli court system has not developed an affinity for Jewish tradition.

State Witnesses – An Outrageous Practice

Meanwhile, MK David Bittan, a member of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s inner circle, is being dragged further into a criminal investigation. Bittan is suspected of taking bribes during his tenure as deputy mayor of Rishon Letzion. Today, he is a prominent member of the Knesset, who served as chairman of the coalition until just a week ago. According to the media, which receives a steady stream of leaked information from the police, Bittan is in serious legal trouble. Two of his friends have already betrayed him and signed agreements to serve as state witnesses against him. Their own sentences will be reduced in exchange for testifying about everything they know concerning Bittan’s activities.

Two months ago, David Bittan was interviewed by Orech Hadin, the publication of the Israel Bar Association. The interview dealt with a variety of subjects, both professional and political, including the use of state witnesses. Bittan’s answers take on new meaning in light of the events that have transpired since that time.

Regarding the rally in support of Prime Minister Netanyahu, Bittan explained, “Everything that has been done to the prime minister has been very painful to the activists of the Likud. Therefore, we wanted to invite all of them to show their support for him. We must also never forget that Binyomin Netanyahu is also a human being, and with such a major assault on him, he was also deserving of support and a means of gathering strength for the battles he will have to fight. The rally was my initiative.” The question now is who will lend backing to Bittan himself, for the battles that await him in the near future.

“I spoke with the prime minister,” Bittan revealed at the time, “and he told me that I would become a minister before the end of the term, since there are changes that are going to take place. I don’t know which portfolio I will be given; we didn’t go into those details. Why not now, you ask? Because the prime minister told me that he doesn’t have a replacement for me yet in my current position.”

By now, as you certainly know, a replacement for Bittan has already been found. And in light of recent developments, I imagine that Bittan would be very pleased to forgo any sort of portfolio. “If we make it through the winter in peace,” he predicted at the time, “this government should survive until the scheduled elections in November 2019.” The question now is whether the government will indeed make it through the winter in peace – and if Bittan’s own political career will survive this winter as well.

When he was asked why he had spoken out against the media, Bittan explained, “We can’t allow them to continue bombarding the public with unfounded stories about imminent indictments of the prime minister and strong evidence against him. To date, the evidence against him has not led to an indictment, and now that there is a state witness, none of what they said until now is relevant at all. So why did they inundate the public with lies and misleading commentaries for no reason? They should apologize to the Israeli public.”

Bittan was asked for his opinion about the use of state witnesses, and he replied, “I think that the use of a state witness in an investigation is outrageous. There was a time when state witnesses were used in cases dealing with organized crime. Today, the police are very quick to enlist a state witness instead of performing an actual investigation, investing the necessary resources and doing their jobs in a thorough fashion. Aside from that, what is the message that this approach conveys? It sends the message that anyone who works for a public figure can commit any crime he wants, and can then extricate himself from it by making accusations against the public figure for whom he has worked for years. I do not believe that is an appropriate message at all. We need to continue investigating our public figures, but that is not a reason to turn a blind eye to other people who have committed crimes.”

The interviewer asked Bittan if he felt that the police were too quick to resort to using state witnesses. “I believe so,” he said. “I think that the job of the police is first to investigate and gather evidence in every way possible, not to take the easy way out by using a state witness. The use of state witnesses in the investigation of white collar crimes must be avoided as much as possible.” And he is absolutely right.

Garbage in the Street

When I arrived at the Knesset on Sunday morning, I found two municipal garbage trucks unloading piles of refuse in front of the Ministry of Finance. I had received advance warning that something was to happen, since the Officer of the Knesset had sent a message informing everyone that the main entrance to the Knesset would be blocked, and that access to the building would be possible only via the Supreme Court building or the emergency exit. The entrance to the Knesset wasn’t actually closed, but the two piles of garbage blocked the path to the Finance Ministry, which is located opposite the Knesset. In my mind, the heaps of garbage seemed to be to be an apt metaphor for the current state of affairs. The exercise was part of an ongoing struggle between the city of Yerushalayim and the Finance Ministry over the special budget allocated to the city. Every year, they clash over the exact sum to be released to the city.

Who decided to place these mounds of garbage outside the Finance Ministry? Who is the “genius” who believed that this ploy would achieve results? And whom did he consult before taking this step? To his credit, it should be noted that he is fighting this battle on behalf of the residents of Yerushalayim, a group in which I myself am included. Perhaps it shouldn’t reflect poorly on him if his strategy didn’t achieve its goal. In fact, if the Finance Minister remains obstinate in his refusal to release the special budget for Yerushalayim, and all of the city’s citizens suffer as a result, no one is likely to take the blame. Well, the man who has been fighting this battle is none other than the mayor of Yerushalayim, Nir Barkat.

At night, when I left the Knesset, I watched as the sanitation workers cleared away the garbage in the frigid cold. I imagine that it was only the darkness that obscured the red flushes of embarrassment that must have colored their faces. There were two garbage trucks there again, but this time they were doing the exact opposite of what they had done in the morning: clearing the garbage off the street. I found a valuable lesson in this scene as well: If you make a mistake, you should correct it as soon as possible.

This is the way our city operates – with a foolhardy show of bravado in the morning, followed by an attempt to minimize the damage at night. And who is to say that the decision-makers on the national level, or even those in the army and intelligence services, do not follow the same pattern? In fact, whenever the government declassifies the protocols of cabinet sessions from years ago, we are astonished to discover how easy it is to cross the line between sensible management of the country and irresponsible leadership. We have seen officers in the army making major decisions that were driven purely by their egos, and ministers in the cabinet acting like brainless fools for the pettiest of reasons. Even more than that, we might have achieved a peace agreement with our enemies long ago, averting many wars, if not for this sad pattern of behavior. Who knows if this is actually the underlying basis of all of our international relations?

Appearances Can Be Deceiving

It was a Sunday evening on Rechov Brandstatter in Bnei Brak. A young boy came home toting a small bag full of refrigerator magnets, which advertised a business that had recently opened in the area. The boy’s father, a dedicated yungerman, asked his son where he had obtained the magnets. “I collected them from the doors in the building,” the child replied proudly. As it turned out, the owner of the business had made the rounds of the apartment buildings in the neighborhood, affixing a magnet to the steel front door of every apartment, in order to advertise his establishment. The child had decided to collect the magnets from every door on his way home.

“But maybe it was gezel,” the father pointed out.

“Why?” the boy asked. “The magnets were on the outside of the door!”

The yungerman told his son, “You may be right, but I would be happier if you would return the magnets to our neighbors’ doors.” The child did as he was told.

The next day, the father was approached in shul by a scowling neighbor. “Aren’t you embarrassed?” he demanded.

“Embarrassed of what?” the father asked, taken aback.

“You decided to hire out your young son to place advertisements on people’s doors! Is that an appropriate job for a little boy?”