Unholy Alliances Emerge in Preparation for the Election of the Chief Rabbi

That strange sound coming from the Knesset this week could be traced to the back-scratching going on in its deepest recesses, as various factions sought to seal deals ahead of the upcoming election of the chief rabbi.

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As they do every Monday, the MKs of the joint Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu faction gathered for their weekly meeting in the Knesset. As almost always happens, they had to wait for the prime minister to make his entrance. MK Reuven Rivlin, who hadn’t attended a meeting of Likud’s Knesset faction for the past four years − the period in which he held the post of Knesset speaker − discovered anew that Benjamin Netanyahu is always chronically late.

Netanyahu and Yisrael Beiteinu’s leader, MK Avigdor Lieberman, voiced a few media-aimed words of sorrow over the deaths of four people in a Be’er Sheva bank, which had occurred not long beforehand. The media people were then asked to leave and the MKs and cabinet ministers got down to business.

Heading the agenda was the election of Israel’s new chief rabbis, slated for next month ‏(the election is carried out among a large group of rabbis and public representatives‏). Two private bills related to this issue will soon be submitted to the Knesset. The first attempts to breach the current age barrier and allow a candidate over the age of 70 to become chief rabbi. The underlying aim: to allow the election of Rabbi Yaakov Ariel as Ashkenazi chief rabbi. The second bill would allow a chief rabbi who has already served one 10-year term to be reelected. This legislation, if enacted, would pave the way for current Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar to serve yet another term.

Both bills are the product of a political-parliamentary deal between Habayit Hayehudi − which is backing Ariel − and Shas, which is fighting for Amar ‏(heir-apparent to Rabbi Ovadia Yosef‏) to stay on. Just as Shas must have Amar, so Habayit Hayehudi is desperately in need of a rabbi from the religious-Zionist movement ‏(rather than from the ultra-Orthodox community‏). If not Rabbi David Stav, then Ariel.

Party leader Naftali Bennett − who’s also the minister for industry, trade and whatnot − held a fraught meeting about this with Netanyahu this week, far from the cameras of Channel 99 and the prying eyes of a certain lady. He wanted to persuade the prime minister to muster Likud’s support for both bills in the Ministerial Committee for Legislation, and afterward in the House itself.

Netanyahu sat in an armchair, leaning back; Bennett sat across from him, leaning forward toward the premier, his arms flailing. Between them was Netanyahu’s parliamentary adviser, Perach Lerner, who acted as part-buffer, part-intermediary.

Netanyahu doesn’t mind doing Shas a favor in the form of pushing for Amar’s reelection: He hasn’t given up on the idea of bidding farewell to Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party and bringing the Haredim ‏(Shas and United Torah Judaism‏) back into the coalition. The problem is that if he helps Shas, he also has to help Bennett. Netanyahu has about as much desire to do a favor for his wayward former chief of staff − now the bro of his great rival, of course − as MK Miri Regev ‏(Likud‏) has to create a shelter for Sudanese refugees next to her home in Rosh Ha’ayin.

In the Monday morning faction meeting, a few participants said they felt uncomfortable with legislation of such a personal character. Also in agreement was foreign minister-in-exile Lieberman, who stated, “I am against personal laws.”

To that Rivlin retorted, “I suggest you don’t generalize. I can think of at least one personal bill that you are likely to support.”
Lieberman: “I have principles and I uphold them.”
Rivlin: “But your principles are not those of Likud as I am familiar with them.”

Lieberman: “I am sure that in the end we will be able to persuade you to vote with us also on the governance bill.” ‏(He was referring to the Knesset-trampling legislation submitted by MK David Rotem of Yisrael Beiteinu, which Rivlin, in defiance of Likud’s stance, voted against in preliminary reading.‏)

Rivlin: “You are wrong. I too have principles.”

Rivlin’s remark to Lieberman was prompted by a rumor which he and a few other senior Likud figures have heard. The rumor is that Benjamin and Sara Netanyahu want the Knesset to extend Shimon Peres’ term as president of Israel for two extra years, until the summer of 2016, which will be a year before the next scheduled general election.

At that point, Netanyahu will announce that he will not seek a fourth term as prime minister, but a seven-year term ‏(at least, in the meantime‏) as president. For Bibi to become president and Sara the president’s wife, they have to keep Peres in the President’s Residence for two more years. That will require an amendment to the Basic Law on the President of the State, and that was the ad-hominem legislation Rivlin was hinting at. ‏(Rivlin himself hopes to become president when Peres’ term ends in 2014. The president is elected by the Knesset.‏)

At the moment, this is only a rumor. In the January election, the parties headed by Netanyahu and Lieberman lost a combined total of 11 Knesset seats. Seven went to Lapid’s Yesh Atid party and four to Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi, the two salient symbols of the so-called new politics, with leaders in the fifth decade of their lives − as in the United States and England. By the time of the next scheduled election, Netanyahu will be 68. Biology is one thing he cannot triumph over.

Last week I reported here about the thought the premier has shared with a few members of his inner circle: to split from Likud and run at the head of a new party in the next election. He knows that if he wants to survive politically, he will have to offer voters something unconventional. His fear, which seems well justified, is that in 2017 the public will tell him: Thanks, but no thanks. A presidential term in the hand is worth more than a dubious fourth term as prime minister. And besides, he and Sara are already dubbed “the presidential couple” in the media, so it’s almost a done deed.

Pursuing the goal

The first reaction by left-wing politicians who read the interview Yair Lapid gave to The New York Times’ Jodi Rudoren on May 19 − and then heard the clarification he made in a meeting with his Knesset faction a few hours later − was, “Okay, he’s zigzagging again and showing typical Lapid superficiality.” This time, though, the superficiality lay with them.

In his first extensive interview to an international news organization since being appointed finance minister, Lapid voiced spectacularly right-wing views: opposition to the partition of Jerusalem; criticism and mistrust of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas; support for continued building in the settlements, and for offering economic benefits and incentives to those who want to make their home in the West Bank.

On the day the interview was published ‏(Sunday‏), Lapid met in the Knesset building with the members of his Yesh Atid faction − most of whom did not like what they read − to explain himself. “Anyone who thinks it is possible to achieve a political settlement that will not include two states for two nations, is wrong,” the finance minister declared. “We are not looking for a happy marriage with the Palestinians, but for a fair divorce.”

He did not retract a word of what he told the Times. His remarks to his party’s MKs consisted of nonbinding slogans. The term “two states for two peoples” has long since become a cliche that doesn’t even upset dyed-in-the-wool right-wing voters. What does upset them? Foregoing East Jerusalem and the Holy Basin around the Old City, for example, or freezing construction in the settlements, or embracing Abbas publicly. Those are the points that come up in every survey that examines the Jewish public’s opinions. Most of those asked do not want to give up the holy places, think that Abbas is chiefly to blame for the stalled talks, and do not support another construction freeze in the settlements, having seen that the last one was to no avail.

Lapid’s stated views in the past, as a journalist and columnist − and also in the election campaign ‏(before he won 19 seats and became the head of the second-largest party‏) − were radically different. In fact, they situated him in the Zionist center-left. But on January 22, he became an alternative − the only one at present − to Netanyahu, and as such he is obligated to political behavior of a different sort.

Lapid reached the obvious conclusion that the majority of Israelis reside in that electoral space between the center and the right. Anyone who wants to become prime minister in the next election had better not give the impression that he is left wing, or even center-left. Look what happened to Tzipi Livni and Shelly Yacimovich. Lapid’s supreme goal is to be elected prime minister.

Almost certainly, he is drawing on public opinion polls. Almost certainly, his American adviser, Mark Mellman − who worked with him in the election campaign and continues to advise him − is guiding him in this direction. Lapid alone knows what he will do when he is elected − if he is elected − prime minister.

A month ago, Lapid replied in the Knesset to no-confidence motions on the government’s economic policy. Meretz leader MK Zahava Gal-On called out that the peace process was paralyzed. “First of all,” Lapid replied to her from the rostrum, “the principle of two states for two peoples is contained in this government’s Basic Laws.” ‏(He’s wrong about that.‏) “And besides that, this government has only been serving for a month. I apologize that we have not managed to make peace in that short period. Wait another month, and see.”

A month later, Lapid gave an interview to The New York Times.

Odds and ends

1. The transportation minister, Yisrael Katz, has a golden retriever named Chubby. At the beginning of the week, Katz posted a photo on his Facebook page in which the dog was seen frolicking in a pond near the minister’s home in Moshav Kfar Ahim, near Kiryat Malakhi. “As he was swimming contentedly,” the minister waxed poetic on Facebook, “I gazed at the water and remembered the next reform I am soon going to implement: the reform of the ports.”

We can only imagine what Alon Hassan, the head of the Ashdod port workers committee, thought to himself when he saw the photo and read the text. Katz’s “open-water” reform could spark chaos in labor relations in the country this summer. The minister has a contingency plan to cope with every stage of the probable work stoppages: use of alternative ports; the lightning-fast enactment of a compulsory arbitration law to prevent strikes in essential services; and, if there is no other choice, bringing in port workers from abroad to replace the local strikers. Katz says he is fully in sync with Netanyahu on this issue. “In the end,” he says, “we will call the overhaul of the ports the Chubby Reform.”

2. On Monday, Finance Minister Lapid replied to no-confidence motions in the Knesset. The last time he did so, a month ago, a fierce confrontation erupted between him and the Ashkenazi Haredim from United Torah Judaism. That shouting match turned Lapid into the people’s hero.

This time, the Haredim remained silent. In the wake of the trauma they underwent the last time, the leaders of Shas and UTJ made a strategic decision to be mute when Lapid speaks.

“He’s in a bad way in terms of public opinion, and any intervention by us will only help him divert attention from his troubles to us. It’s best to let him stew in his own juices,” a Haredi MK explained. Indeed, Lapid looked disappointed this week on the rostrum, when he discovered he had no one to quarrel with.

IllustrationCredit: Amos Biderman
Transportation Minister Katz. His "open-water" reform could spark chaos in labor relations.Credit: Daniel Bar-On
Outgoing Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi Yona Metzger (right) and Chief Sephardi Rabbi Shlomo Amar.Credit: Uriya Tadmor

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