Wednesday, Aug 4, 2021

Stories from the Election Campaign-Elections for the Twentieth Knesset

Less than forty days remain until the elections for the Twentieth Knesset of the State of Israel. By law, Israeli elections always take place on a Tuesday. In this column, we will follow the events leading up to the elections and present some small stories - or some not-so-small stories - that are relevant to the process.

CHALLENGES FROM LEFT AND RIGHT

Last week, the Supreme Court overturned the decision of the Central Elections Committee to disqualify two of the candidates for the Twentieth Knesset: Baruch Marzel, who held the fourth spot on the list of Eli Yishai’s Yachad party, and Hanin Zoabi of the Arab list. The requests to disqualify them had come from the left and the right, respectively. In fact, several requests were submitted by the political left to bar Marzel from running, and several requests came from the right to disqualify Zoabi. On Thursday, February 12, the court debated both requests. It was the best show in town.

I was present for the discussions of the committee on both issues. It was infuriating to hear Zoabi speak with unbridled audacity, attempting to turn herself from the accused into the accuser. Ultimately, she was disqualified by an overwhelming majority: 27 members of the committee ruled against her, while only six were opposed to barring her from the race. The committee then deliberated over the requests to exclude Baruch Marzel. The results were also surprising, albeit in a opposite way. Although it seemed in advance that he would not be disqualified, he ultimately lost by a single vote: the committee voted 17 to 16 to exclude him from the race.

The main charge against Marzel was the accusation of racism.

The following is a quote from one of the organizations that challenged Marzel’s candidacy. The organization calls itself the Council Against Racism in Israel: “Throughout the years, Baruch Marzel was a key activist in the Kach movement, a movement that has been removed from the legitimate democratic process. Even though he ostensibly does not have any formal association with the Kach movement today, he has never taken any public step to dissociate himself from the movement’s path or from that of Rabbi Kahane.”

Indeed, Marzel is probably the leading disciple of Rabbi Meir Kahane Hy”d, who was murdered by an Arab in New York. I will let you in on a secret: When Rabbi Kahane was in the Knesset, Maran Rav Elazar Menachem Man Shach zt”l instructed us not to collaborate with him at all. He even suggested that we not be present in the Knesset plenum when he spoke. I still have a copy of Rav Shach’s written instructions on this subject.

In any event, both Rabbi Kahane himself and the Kach party were outlawed, and he was banned from running in Israeli elections. Twenty-five years later, Baruch Marzel’s opponents requested that the ban on Rabbi Kahane be extended to include him as well. Marzel argued in response that he had never violated the law.

The Central Elections Committee is a highly politicized body, and the results were more or less expected. It was also to be expected that the subject would be passed on to the High Court. There, too, the results were predictable: The court chose to preserve the balance and overturn both of the committee’s decisions, allowing both Marzel and Zoabi to run for the Knesset.

Announcing its rulings, the court said, “It has been decided by majority vote not to approve the decision of the Central Elections Committee for the Knesset to prevent MK Hanin Zoabi from being a candidate in the elections for the Twentieth Knesset. This means that MK Zoabi will be a candidate for the Knesset in the upcoming elections.” The Supreme Court voted eight to one to overturn the Central Elections Committee’s decision to disqualify her, and the exact same majority voted to overturn its decision regarding Marzel. In both rulings, the sole dissenting voice was that of kippah-wearing judge Elyakim Rubinstein.

SCREEN TIME

The chairman of the Central Elections Committee, Justice Salim Jubran, is forced to rule on endless appeals and challenges. Every possible pretext for an appeal is pounced upon by someone. Videos transmitted over the internet, propaganda, donations, and all sorts of other subjects are brought before the judge for some reason or another. Occasionally, the requests are downright bizarre. One of the parties running in the current elections is the party of the “Nachmanim,” as they call themselves. The party’s name is “Kulanu Chaveirim – Na Nach.” It consists of a handful of Breslover chassidim, those who are known for traveling around in an old commercial van and dancing at intersections to the sound of thundering music. They are somewhat entertaining and not harmful, but the idea of them running for the Knesset is rather strange. They claim to be confident that they will receive all 120 mandates. The truth, however, is that they simply want to use the screen time that is granted to every party that runs in the elections.

Perhaps some explanation is in order. Every party that runs for the Knesset is entitled to an allotment of broadcast time for campaign advertisements, both on television and on the radio. This is the law. The number of minutes allotted is based on the size of each party, but even new parties that are not currently represented in the Knesset are granted broadcast time, albeit much less than the established parties. These minutes of screen time are worth a fortune to someone with a message. In theory, if Arachim, Lev L’Achim or Keren Hashviis were to run for the Knesset, they would receive precious minutes on the screen at “prime time” that could be put to use for kiruv.

But back to the “Nanachim.” They submitted an appeal to the Central Elections Committee to bar Moshe Kachlon’s party from using the name “Kulanu.” Officially, the party is named “Kulanu B’rashut [headed by] Moshe Kachlon.” The Nanachim claimed that voters would be confused and vote for Kachlon when they really intended to vote for them. Kulanu’s legal advisor wrote in response that their appeal was “infuriating and quarrelsome.” The committee debated whether a citizen might mix up the two parties. Ultimately, the appeal was rejected.

A number of women appealed to the committee to disqualify the Yahadut HaTorah and Shas parties from running for the Knesset on the grounds that they are discriminatory, because their lists do not include any female candidates. That appeal was rejected. Another appeal was then submitted to require them to include women on their lists. That request, too, was rejected. More about that next week.

THE “GARIN TORANI” FACADE

The issue of public housing in the State of Israel comes up during almost every election season. There are apartments owned by the government that are rented to poor families at a minimal price. Advocates for the poor are constantly calling for the program to be expanded – for the quantity and quality of the apartments to be increased, for the criteria for eligibility to be relaxed, and for it to be made easier for the tenants to purchase their apartments. The Ministry of Housing is permitted to sell the apartments to various organizations at reduced prices. Recently – due to the elections, of course – the Ministry released a listing of its sales in response to a request from the state’s legal advisor, which came at the request of MKs Gilon (Meretz) and Levi-Abekasis (Yisrael Beiteinu).

The list revealed that the Minister of Housing, a member of the dati-leumi community, succeeded in working to the benefit of a good number of the institutions associated with him. It would have been interesting to see how the country would have reacted if his predecessor, Ariel Attias of Shas, had done the same.

And then there is another economic subject that has come to light in the course of the election campaign: The settlement division of the Zionist Union is meant to aid settlement activity. In 2014, its base budget was 53 million shekels. In actuality, though, after taking into account all the “transfers” and “supplements” it received from various sources, through the Finance Committee and the Housing Ministry, its actual budget for the year swelled to almost 500 million shekels. Apparently, the “settlement division” became a useful pipeline for funding various bodies established by Bayit Yehudi activists, especially for “Garinim Toraniim,” which are actually a useful invention, in principle, of the dati-leumi sector.

The connection between “settlements” and the Garinim Toraniim is a tenuous one, if it exists at all. Most of the Garinim are located in cities, and some of them are schools. Only a handful deal with kiruv, which is their actual purpose. But more than kiruv for mitzvah observance, they actually serve as kiruv to support Bayit Yehudi – in other words, political persuasion. The Garinim Toraniim have raided the public coffers and we have all been silent. We even embraced them. We haven’t even attempted to gather a fraction of the money budgeted for them. But why shouldn’t Yeshivas Ohr Elchonon in Teveria or the yeshiva of Rav Amit in Kiryat Malachi be considered like Garinim Toraniim for budgetary purposes?

The police are now investigating the settlement division. Its leaders have already jumped ship, claiming that they were completely unaware of what was going on. But let us just imagine what the people of Mafdal, who are always waiting to pounce on us and have filed numerous complaints with the police against us, would have done if it was Degel HaTorah or the Shas party behind this appropriation of funds.

COALITION FUNDS

Now for yet another subject of economic concern: The media has revealed that the Finance Committee has served as a means for transferring massive sums of money to dati-leumi institutions. The Chiddush (Chofesh Dat V’Shivyon) organization, which was founded by Reform Jews, along with Knesset members from the Labor party, was responsible for exposing the transfer of money. But the organization added to its report, “Let the chareidim not complain, for in 2011 and 2012, during Moshe Gafni’s tenure, about a billion shekels were routed to religious institutions. In 2010, 328 million shekels were defined by the Treasury in terms such as ‘coalition funds.’”

Now, that is exactly the point: “coalition funds.”

Every party that belongs to the coalition is entitled each year to decide where certain sums of money from the Finance Ministry will go. Shas, for instance, controlled 100 million shekels each year when it was in the coalition. Yahadut HaTorah controlled 50 million shekels annually. But herein lies the major difference between the chiloni parties and our own parties. For the chiloni parties, these funds are “extras,” but for us, they pay for our basic needs. The chareidi “coalition funds” are part of a ploy on the part of the Treasury: All the yeshivos and other chareidi institutions are granted only a tenth of their allotted funding at the beginning of the year, with the Treasury promising to fill in the remaining funds at the conclusion of the year. But, as the end of the year approaches, the Treasury drags its feet and uses all kinds of stalling tactics, until it finally announces in December that there is no money remaining. At that time, it advises – or, rather, compels – the chareidi parties to use their coalition funds to make up the shortfall in the yeshiva budget. The chiloni parties have no need for this money to fund their regular activities, since they never have to deal with a budgetary shortfall.

The Treasury officials know that the chareidi representatives have no way out of this situation. They know that our yeshivos and Torah institutions are our most precious commodities, and they themselves have nothing to lose. In the test of who will give in first, the Treasury always comes out on top. Once you have given in once, you have lost forever. MK Rabbi Avrohom Ravitz zt”l once told me, “We cannot give in on this matter, even if it means that the government will fall. The Treasury must include the funding for the yeshivos in the basic budget. They deliberately do not give us the funds, so that there will be a discussion on the subject at the end of the year. They thereby denigrate us and portray us as extortionists, and ultimately the funding comes out of our own money. If we were to be serious about this matter, they would give in.” But no one listened to him.

Recently, the financial newspaper, The Marker, took a poll of the various parties and found that they would all be willing to forgo the coalition funds in the future, with the exception of three parties: Yisrael Beiteinu, Shas and Yahadut HaTorah. Of course, for the other parties, these funds do not fulfill any vital needs. Their children’s education is guaranteed to be funded. But if Yahadut HaTorah and Shas were to give up the funding, how would they make up the shortfall? We would be willing to forgo the funds if all of the Torah institutions would be covered by the basic budget, without any tricks or political maneuvers. If our children are funded like every other citizen of the State of Israel, then we can give up our coalition funding like any other party.

WHERE IS THE SENSITIVITY?

Meanwhile, no one would believe the issues that are at the top of the public agenda today. The discussions in the public sphere are now revolving around the empty bottles at the Prime Minister’s Residence and the cosmetics purchased by Mrs. Sara Netanyahu. The “bottle scandal” erupted about a month ago, when it was revealed that the empty bottles from the Prime Minister’s Residence were being recycled. By law, a consumer is entitled to 30 agurot for every bottle or soda can that he returns. Suspicions were voiced that Sara Netanyahu used the money she received in exchange for those bottles, without reporting it. It is estimated that she recycled several thousand bottles each year, so that the sum in question adds up to a few hundred dollars.

It may sound like a minor issue, but it has made major headlines. Some agitators even demanded that the police open an immediate investigation. Anything and everything can happen during election season. But as it turns out, not only did the story not harm Netanyahu, it actually helped him. His popularity rose in the polls that were conducted immediately after the bottle scandal came to light.

Everyone was still waiting for the State Comptroller’s report on the finances of the Prime Minister’s Residence, which was released last Tuesday. Yosef Shapira, the State Comptroller and a judge by profession, released a brief but scathing report.

In truth, Netanyahu preempted the report – or at least he thought he did. Three days before it was released, an interior design expert was invited to the Prime Minister’s Residence and treated to a grand tour of the facility. He discovered rooms suffering from neglect, torn carpets, broken windows, peeling paint, and closets that were falling apart. His visit was filmed and released to the general public. It was a video that brought shame to the government, both due to the shabby appearance of the house and because of the level to which the current election campaign has stooped. Of course, the video itself was roundly criticized, and requests have been filed with the police to investigate who paid for the expert’s visit.

The State Comptroller’s report revealed what everyone knew: Mrs. Netanyahu seems to be an irredeemable spendthrift. The expenses of the Prime Minister’s Residence have risen every year to mammoth proportions. Large sums are being spent on prepared meals, cleaning help, gardening help, furniture, makeup, and clothes. One of the newspapers announced in huge block letters, “Shameful Exploitation – Yes. Smoking Gun – No.” In other words, the “royal couple’s” behavior may be legal, but it is worthy of condemnation. The comptroller noted, for instance, that it is impossible to understand why so much money was spent on prepared meals when there is a cook on staff at the Prime Minister’s Residence. He wrote, “The expenses of the prime minister, his family, and his guests are not consonant with the basic principles of proportionality, reason, frugality and efficiency. We would expect any senior public official to demonstrate greater sensitivity to the public.”

It is unclear whether this story will evolve into a criminal investigation and charges, but Netanyahu came out looking very bad as a result of the report, which is certainly not something he wanted on the eve of the elections.

AN ELECTRICIAN ON YOM KIPPUR?

The State Comptroller also found that the Prime Minister’s Residence had bypassed the legal guidelines to call an electrician who is both a member of Likud and a personal friend of the family. The electrician was hired to work at both of the prime minister’s homes – his official residence on Rechov Balfour in Yerushalayim and his private home in Caesarea – and has been compensated handsomely for his work.

The report relates, “Over the three months from September through November 2009, 10,500 shekels were spent, about 70 percent of the 15,000 shekels allotted for a full year. Moreover, it was found that during these three months, service calls were made on almost every weekend, including Yom Kippur.”

Yom Kippur? Is it possible that Binyaomin and Sara Netanyahu would violate every Shabbos and Yom Kippur to engage the services of an electrician? It sounds like an egregious breach of every principle. But I think the explanation is simple: The electrician actually worked during the week, but in order to make a greater profit, he wrote on his bills that his visits took place primarily on weekends and holidays, when the price is generally double or triple the usual rate.

If he did work on Yom Kippur, then we should be terribly ashamed.

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