Time on His Side

There's an uncanny resemblance between this photo of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and 'The Last Supper.'

Not every photograph of a table with a spiritual leader at the center and his emissaries, allies and relatives seated alongside in order of their importance is an allusion to "The Last Supper." But a photograph with Ovadia Yosef seated in the middle, illuminated by the light of a TV camera, his right hand stroking the left cheek of President Shimon Peres, with Benjamin Netanyahu and Eli Yishai looking cheerful on his left, tells a political story - a balance of power transformed into a fleeting portrait of leadership.

Seventeen faces are seen in full or in part in this crowded, highly detailed and fascinating photograph by Tomer Appelbaum, taken on February 3 at the Har Nof home of Rabbi Yosef. The occasion was a bar mitzvah party for Eli Yishai's son, Yair Zion Yishai (at the far left in an elegant hat ). Not much more than his straight, handsome nose is visible behind the outstretched arm of the sound technician from Channel 10 ). The Shas chairman and interior minister explained that he didn't want to put the 90-year-old Yosef to the trouble of going out to a big party in the freezing cold, and so a preliminary party, a "mini bar mitzvah," as he called it, was held in the rabbi's house. Netanyahu and Peres were invited, along with representatives of the ultra-Orthodox and mainstream media, of course. Ovadia Yosef's mood, said Haaretz reporter Yair Ettinger, who was present at the event, was excellent, and he showered the guests with praise, as well as with the affectionate little slaps for which he is known.

Ovadia Yossef
Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and friends. A fleeting portrait of leadership.

There are several types of affection evident in this photograph, and not just in the very light slap Rabbi Yosef is giving to Shimon Peres, who is almost the same age. The rabbi's personal secretary, Zvi Hakak, stands over him, supervising the goings-on, and he looks pleased. Peres' bodyguard, who stands behind him, is not moving; he is holding the edge of his suit jacket as if attaching the cord of an earphone. Netanyahu's bodyguard, who watched as the prime minister received a slap earlier on, is relaxed now and clasps his fingers together. Behind them stand various relatives, including the husband of the rabbi's granddaughter (in glasses, between the bodyguard and Hakak ), and several of them are laughing and enjoying themselves. Each has his particular function there, each his particular enthusiasm for the event at which they have all crowded around the table in the library.

The party at Yosef's home is a success. This photograph illustrates its success, the focus shifting between the rabbi's hand on Peres' cheek and the dimple on the cheek of Netanyahu. The latter is engrossed in polite small talk with Eli Yishai, who is the real reason for the party, yet is swallowed up and diminished within it. With the long-suffering, bowed-head stance he has adopted, Yishai just lets time take care of activating the Israeli amnesia mechanism that erases everything and allows him to distance himself more and more from his failures. Who even remembers the interior minister's actions in the past year? Who remembers the children of foreign workers who can't obtain legal standing, Yishai's recommendation that foreign workers with children here just tell them that "the trip is over"? Who remembers the Mizrahi girls who were rejected in ultra-Orthodox Ashkenazi schools? And most of all, who even remembers that in December, just about three months ago, there was a terrible fire in the Carmel and no materials to extinguish it when it began, so that it wiped out an entire forest and took the lives of 44 people? Who remembers that the interior minister is responsible for the fire-fighting services?

Yishai is holding on. After all, he wrote letters about fire-fighting and budgets and all his letters were rejected - so he said in the days after the fire. What more could he do? He's just a government minister with 15 years of experience in sectoral struggles. Time is working in his favor. He knows that anyone who doesn't resign, who doesn't accept responsibility, triumphs over decency. One can only imagine what would have happened had Netanyahu decided that the coalition could do without Shas.

Apparently, there would have been no need to cram into this room for a mini-bar mitzvah.