When last I wrote about the painful electoral situation in the US, I said I would return to news about Israel very soon. And so, here I am. But as I began to consider the focus for this posting, a familiar sense of sadness came over me: There is so much that is not as it should be!
Although – I am quick to note – there is certainly hope for better days going forward. I have considerable confidence that we will move to much better times.
Thank Heaven, the number of new corona virus cases has gone down now, and there is a real prospect of a partial lifting of the lockdown next week. But it’s been a tough haul – continues to be a tough haul – with many stressed and depressed, both because of economic difficulties and a sense of isolation. This is our second go-round after numbers had risen alarmingly.
Part of what has made it difficult has been the failure of our government to send a unified message. It was nothing short of maddening when one thing was being said by Prime Minister Netanyahu, something else by Minister of Health Edelstein (pictured), and perhaps something else by Corona Tsar Gamzu.
To a person, we fervently hope that the numbers will continue to diminish and all will be well.
But the manner in which this situation has been handled – which has been an abysmal failure in terms of communicating unity – is emblematic of a larger, serious, problem.
It’s not just that officials having responsibility for corona decisions have been publicly disagreeing with each other instead of disagreeing behind closed doors and coming forward with one statement. Factions without our society have been at each other, as well. There is no question but that struggling with the corona virus has seriously heightened tensions, but the situation has been difficult, if not intolerable.
A high percent of corona cases developed within the Haredi community. The reasons for this are complex: there are, for example, very large families living in small quarters. But there have also been instances of Haredi groups disregarding the rules – religious leaders, for example, who declared that Torah study took precedence over all and encouraged large groups in Yeshivas to continue to gather.
The Haredim, for their part, have been resentful that they are being singled-out, while other groups are cut more slack. In particular, this was with regard to the thousands of people (overwhelmingly young and secular) who had come to the streets to demonstrate noisily – raucously – against the prime minister. For a brief interval they were restricted but with loosening of the lockdown will be back on the streets again.
There was a feeling in the Haredi community that the democratic right to demonstrate was viewed by authorities as more important than the religious command to pray and study. And I would not say they were wrong.
None of this has been pleasant. It is my perception that Haredi adherence to the corona restrictions increased over time. But when things quiet down a great deal of work must be done so that different groups might better understand each other. And the relationship between the police and the Haredi community is part of what must be examined.
Herb Keinon’s piece on understanding the Haredi perspective on the corona virus is helpful in this regard:
“Those who are not Torah people don’t understand that Torah and mitzvot are what sustain Israel,” Bnai Brak’s Rabbi Moshe Shaul Klein (pictured below) is quoted as saying.
“Without Torah and mitzvot, we have no life.
“There are opinions among the doctors that gatherings should be prevented to prevent infection. And that is right – gatherings cause infections. But there is a need to distinguish between gatherings for optional activities, and gatherings to perform a mitzvah…
We must know that the perspective of the doctors is not the Torah perspective. A Torah perspective is very different.”
With all of these tensions, we have also been witness to the infighting of the dysfunctional unity government. This is nothing new, and I have reported on different aspects of this for some months now. There is a sense that the government is not stable. And in a difficult time such as we are enduring now, this is particularly unsettling.
I do not intend to report on this in any detail. It is too wearisome and details of who said what to whom are probably of scant value.
The big question – and it has been the big question for some time now – is whether the government will last, at least until it is time for Benny Gantz, who is presently defense minister and alternate prime minister, to assume the mantle of prime minister. There is a considerable body of opinion that Benyamin Netanyahu does not intend to let that happen.
The deadline for passing a budget was this past August 25; legally, without a budget by the deadline the country automatically goes to elections. Ostensibly the fight between Netanyahu and Gantz was over passing a one-year or two-year budget. A two-year budget had been called for in the unity agreement, but Netanyahu was maintaining that a one-year budget would allow more flexibility, which was necessary with the corona crisis.
Neither one would budge; that there were political considerations at work is obvious on the face of it. A two-year budget would have brought Gantz into his time as prime minister.
At the very last minute, a bill extending the deadline for 120 days was passed, with both Likud and Blue & White supporting it after a preliminary go-round. This compromise bill was brought forward by MK Zvi Hauser (Derech Eretz). Now the budget must be passed by December 23. For a while it appeared that this would be the point at which Netanyahu would create an impasse, which would automatically trigger elections 100 days hence, in late March.
But more recently Netanyahu pledged that he would see a budget passed in December. Whether he actually does, remains to be seen – he may not even know himself yet, depending on circumstances.
One factor was clear with regard to his recently expressed readiness to pass that budget: Netanyahu had gone way down in the polls, and his nemesis Naftali Bennet (head of Yamina, in the opposition) had gone way up.
It is broadly thought that Netanyahu’s drop in popularity was as a result of his poor handling of the corona crisis. The upsurge in corona cases that occurred after the restrictions of the first lockdown were lifted has been attributed to the fact that the prime minister encouraged people to go out and enjoy themselves rather than advising caution. Now he is stepping very slowly to avoid a repeat of this situation, but some are of the opinion that the second lockdown was draconian and that the upsurge might have been handled differently.
In the end, whatever the cause for Netanyahu’s drop in the polls, it very likely dampened his enthusiasm for an election.
Recently, Bennett joined with Yair Lapid (chair, Yesh Atid) – who is negative and caustic, and tilts left — in a no-confidence motion in the Knesset: I was not happy to see his alignment with Lapid. But Bennett said he knew that motion would not pass; this by way of explaining why it was OK to join with Lapid. My impulse was to ask, why join such a motion then. The answer, of course, it that it was Bennett’s way of showing he is prepared to stand against Netanyahu.
We are facing some tough political tussles going forward.
One pundit recently observed that the prospect of elections is awful, and the only thing worse is continuing with this government. There may be something to that.
What I will not discuss here (at least not yet) are Netanyahu’s court cases, coming up soon, and as well as other issues involving possible investigations into charges of his alleged wrong-doing. One probe has been closed by the attorney general but there is the prospect of another. The situation is complex and convoluted, and, of course, along with everything else, highly politicized.
While I have considerable discontent with how he has handled several matters, I remain convinced that there is so much political input into the legal charges against him that he has been done an injustice.
However…while treating him justly is of considerable significance, the problem here is that Netanyahu is so enmeshed in this situation that it is sometimes difficult to discern when he acts for the nation and when for his legal protection.
Binyamin Netanyahu still has followers who adore him, and has much good to his credit. But the aura of invincibility that surrounded him for so long has faded considerably. According to a report in the JPost today, over half of Israeli voters want him to quit. The raucous anti-Bibi demonstrations called for him to step down because of his indictments, even though the law does not require him to do so.
It is a question now of what comes next, and when. But he does not acknowledge this: As far as he is concerned, he’s not leaving.
What we desperately need now is a political figure of sterling integrity who actually places the needs of the nation – and not political concerns or animosity towards others – first. I don’t know if such an individual exists in today’s climate.
Yesterday, October 15, the Knesset overwhelmingly approved the Abraham Accords with the UAE and Bahrain. I had hoped to look at this in some detail but have decided to close now, as Shabbat preparations call me. I will return to examine our shifting relationship with Gulf Arab states in some detail – which it requires.
I end on a happy note with a quote from the exceedingly popular Israeli actress Gal Gadot (Wonder Woman):
Asked how she manages to stay so happy, the she said, “I am lucky.”
“I say thank you every morning. In the Jewish culture there’s a prayer that you’re supposed to say every time you wake up in the morning to thank G-d for, you know, keeping you alive….
“You say ‘modeh ani,’ which means ‘I give thanks.’ So every morning I wake up and step out of bed and I say, ‘Thank you for everything, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you.’ ”
“Nothing is to be taken for granted.”
Indeed she is correct: nothing is to be taken for granted and we must be grateful for all our blessings.
Above I have described a good deal of what we are struggling with here in Israel. Going forward, I hope to also share good news, which must not be neglected.