Analysis |

This Racist Bill Is a Juicy Gift for Israel-haters

Israel's democracy took a beating this week as Netanyahu continued to bulldoze through the contentious nation-state bill, and Minister Akunis once again acted in the spirit of McCarthy

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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Illustration: MK Akunis writes "McCarthy was right" on a wall while President Rivlin watches over the Knesset with a hammer.
Illustration: MK Akunis writes "McCarthy was right" on a wall while President Rivlin watches over the Knesset with a hammer.Credit: Amos Biderman
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

Hardly a week goes by without the government, its leader, a minister or members of the coalition trying to finish off Israel’s battered democracy. The nation-state bill in its original form, including the racist article letting towns and other communities discriminate and thereby remain “pure,” is the apex of creativity. Only the right wing could offer such a juicy gift to Israel-haters.

If Article 7b is removed, as is likely, the BDS movement will be the first to regret it. But those guys can rest easy: Our legislators and cabinet will provide them with plenty of other chances. The Knesset’s spring term is drawing to a close and the scent of an election is in the air. This isn’t the time for squeamishness.

Likud and Habayit Hayehudi are waging war over stray votes on the right. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who usually – especially over the past five years – prefers personal and political interests to state and national ones, is convinced he needs this law in the election campaign against Naftali Bennett. Last week the premier told coalition party leaders that he considers the nation-state bill vastly important. His auditors wondered how Israel has survived without a Basic Law on the issue, on the books. Where has he been all this time, when an election seemed so far away.

For the Prime Minister Netanyahu of 2009 to 2013, it wasn’t urgent to enact the legislation. The small, aging National Religious Party, which renamed itself Habayit Hayehudi (the Jewish Home), was facing extinction like a pterodactyl. Bennett wasn’t a strategic threat to Netanyahu, he was a forgotten prime minister’s chief of staff who was kicked out by order of The Lady, along with then-bureau chief Ayelet Shaked.

Life was worry-free and the nation-state bill could have remained in the freezer permanently. Netanyahu toyed with it for a moment and discarded it without any pangs of conscience after the Knesset speaker at the time, Reuven Rivlin, refused to allow a vote for exactly the same reason he objected to it this week – this time as president. “Let it be,” Netanyahu told Rivlin in 2010. “Just don’t say I agreed” to drop it.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Russian President Vladimir Putin and members of the Israeli delegation during their meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow, July 11, 2018. Credit: Yuri Kadobnov/AP

Given the internal disputes, it’s not yet clear what will be on the Knesset’s agenda next week, just before the MKs head for summer break. The last three days in parliament are usually a turbulent period. Opposition to the nation-state legislation is widespread. The ultra-Orthodox, or Haredim, are against any Basic Law. Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu is worried that the possibility of excluding people based on their religion will harm the party’s Russian-speaking voters whose Judaism is sometimes cast in doubt. Not much will remain after the text is honed and slashed.

Of all parties, Kulanu, which represents the statesmanship in the coalition, had no problem with the bill. The party’s leader, Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, chooses his battles carefully. He’s tired of being the right’s scapegoat; instead, he’ll fight like a lion over socioeconomic issues (more on that later) but less, if at all, over the rest.

With Kahlon and Kulanu having deserted the democratic front, Rivlin decided not to remain silent. He crossed the lines with his open letter to the special Knesset committee that’s debating the bill; the letter was sent on the morning of a committee meeting. He could have chosen a more temperate step – a statement, a “remark,” a leak. To Rivlin, the potential damage to Israel internationally, particularly in enlightened Europe, if the nation-state law is passed is strategic and demanded an appropriate weapon.

Before releasing his letter, Rivlin briefed Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit, who didn’t protest. He too considers the relevant clause a constitutional hazard with potentially disastrous implications abroad.

Not all of Rivlin’s advisers liked his decision. They were concerned that this time he was going too far. “If it’s not for this that I was elected, what am I doing here?” was the president’s rejoinder. “I meet with leaders on my junkets abroad and with those who come here, and I tell them that there’s no disparity between a Jewish state and a democratic one. That it’s precisely we, the Jewish majority, who are obliged to ensure full equality with the Arab minority. How can I sign a bill like this?”

Anyone who, after hearing the president’s pained words, refuses to sign off on the bill if it remains in its current version will do so at his own risk.

What Jabotinsky said

On Wednesday, the Knesset marked, as it does annually, Ze’ev Jabotinsky day, in memory of the leader of the pre-state Irgun underground and head of the Beitar movement, which morphed into Herut and then Likud. Fortunately for Netanyahu, he was on his way to Moscow to watch the World Cup semi-final and to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin about Syria – in that order, according to sources in the know.

He wouldn’t have enjoyed the comments bandied about by the main speakers – outgoing opposition leader Isaac Herzog and Yesh Atid chief Yair Lapid. Their remarks showed how far the party that Netanyahu has led for the past decade-plus has deviated from the vision, values and path of its founder. Indeed, it has thrown the latter’s doctrine into the trash; not a day goes by without Likud making a mockery of it.

Netanyahu traditionally presents himself as the executor of Jabotinsky’s doctrine. The prime minister’s late father, Prof. Benzion Netanyahu, was Jabotinsky’s secretary until the Revisionist leader’s death in New York, in 1940. It would be interesting to know what the elder Netanyahu would say to his son today about the nation-state bill with its distancing of Arabs from Jewish communities and its discrimination against the Arabic language. Possibly Benzion would read to Bibi what his revered leader said in his testimony in London before the Peel Commission on February 11, 1937. Here’s an excerpt (courtesy of a reader):

“When I speak of a ‘Jewish state,’ I mean adding, to the condition of a ‘state,’ a ‘national’ connotation I do not think it is desirable that the constitution of any state should contain special clauses explicitly safeguarding the ‘national’ character of it; I think the less of such clauses we find in a constitution the better.

“The best way, and the natural way, is that the national character of a state should be guaranteed ipso facto by the presence of a certain majority: If the majority is English, the state is English, and it does not need any special guarantees. So that when I pronounce the words ‘a Jewish state’ I think of a commonwealth, or an area, enjoying a certain sufficient amount of self-government in its internal and external affairs, and possessing a Jewish majority.”

Nothing could be simpler, clearer, more logical and fairer. Eight decades later, the Likud movement is far more Bezalel Smotrich than Ze’ev Jabotinsky. If only one of Likud’s 30 MKs comes out publicly against the bill and calls it by its name – ugly – that says it all. And once again it’s Benny Begin, the nagger, with his harping on democracy and all that.

As fate – meaning the prime minister – would have it, the speaker for the government in the session commemorating Jabotinsky was Science Minister Ofir Akunis.

MK Akunis.Credit: Marc Israel Sellem

This week, Akunis joined the sport of witch hunting, which had been pretty much copyrighted by Culture Minister Miri Regev, also of Likud. He rejected the appointment of Prof. Yael Amitai, a senior brain researcher with an international reputation, to an Israeli-German scientific committee. His reason: In 2005, Amitai signed a petition expressing support for Israeli soldiers refusing for reasons of conscience to serve across the Green Line.

Culture and science, the two ministries that are supposed to be free of politics, have become a farce under this government. They’re tools for political persecution, means for personal advancement by ministers who’ve made an art of being a functionary. Their narrowmindedness is their banner; to them considerations of state are an obscenity.

Akunis can be pleased with himself: He has contributed his two bits to demeaning Israel in the world community of brain researchers. When his party’s primary arrives, he’ll frolic among party branches and preen like a peacock over his heroic action. I showed her, I really let them have it, he’ll say. As long as I’m science minister, no leftist who supports refusal to serve will be appointed to any international committee.

"I'm an outstanding student of Menachem Begin," Akunis likes to say of himself. Even a leading brain scientist like Prof. Amitai would have difficulty deciphering lack of self-awareness of this scale. Begin was a liberal, a democrat and a zealous defender of human and civil rights. When he came to power in 1977 he refused to fire officials appointed under the previous administration.

If anything, Akunis is an outstanding student of a different politician active in the middle of the previous century. In December 2011, amid the public debate over legislation that targeted left-wing NGOs, Akunis told a reporter that the last century’s greatest witch hunter of all, Sen. Joseph McCarthy, “was right in every word.” Seven years have passed, the MK became a cabinet minister, and the McCarthyism bug that was dormant since his “every word” remark has made a comeback.

Moshe Kahlon heads to a cabinet meeting. Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Talk the talk

For a moment it seemed as if the explosion had already occurred and it was time to take out our digital calendars and save the date – for Election Day.

Initial reports from Sunday’s cabinet meeting evoked the brink of the apocalypse. The finance minister, who also heads the second-biggest party in the coalition, slammed the prime minister, ridiculed him publicly and dubbed him a philosopher who’s all talk and no action.

There’s only one philosopher in the government, namely Dr. Yuval Steinitz, the energy minister, who actually talks quite a bit, in fact quite a lot, but also does things. In this case he took Kahlon’s side. What riled the finance minister was Netanyahu’s attempt to torpedo the complex reform of the Israel Electric Corporation, which was prepared by two ministries with the agreement of two ministers, was approved in principle by the cabinet a month ago and was on its way to the Knesset for the first of three votes.

“You’ve been prime minister for 10 years,” Kahlon hurled at Netanyahu (well, actually nine years and two months), “and four more before that” (well, actually three), “and even if you’re prime minister for another 20 years you won’t do anything.”

In his ire, Kahlon added a total of two years to Bibi’s tenure as prime minister. But what’s important is not the time but the principle. And in principle, Kahlon’s lambasting of the premier was the type of incident that could trigger a crisis, a dismissal or a resignation. (Ariel Sharon wouldn’t have taken insults like that sitting down. In 1986, Shimon Peres caused Finance Minister Yitzhak Modai [Likud] to resign for calling him a “flying prime minister” in an interview because of his many travels around the globe. But Netanyahu is made of different stuff and has different considerations.)

After the meeting Sunday, the finance minister was invited to the prime minister’s office. Netanyahu didn’t say that it was all over between them, but asked innocently: Why are you attacking me?

“Because it’s impossible to work like this,” the still-seething Kahlon replied. “We decide in the cabinet on a reform, I work to implement the decision and you torpedo it. We decided on a reform of public broadcasting, we established a corporation and you attacked me. We decided on a reform for Sde Dov Airport, I transferred 5 billion shekels [$1.4 billion to the army and property owners], and now there’s a move to cancel it.”

As Kahlon put it, “We decided on a reform of the power industry. We worked like crazy in the treasury, day and night, we prepared everything, the reform was approved, the bill is ready and now you want to soften it. I can’t work like that, the civil servants can’t work like that. If you don’t want us to implement the cabinet’s decisions, let us know at the outset, not after we’ve finished working like mules.”

After Kahlon vented his rage, the conversation continued more calmly. The next day, the bill passed its initial vote in the Knesset. The legislation will be completed in the winter session unless the Knesset is dissolved beforehand and we enter an election campaign. The bill will probably remain alive in the next Knesset, too, under Knesset rules, but that will be a whole different ballgame.

Kalansua residents protest in front a police station in Taibe, July 11, 2018.Credit:

Collective punishment

The subject of violence and crime in Israeli Arab towns and villages, which is usually of no interest to Jewish Israelis, this week hit the headlines. In the town of Kalansua, 7-year-old Karim Jamhour was kidnapped in front of his house in broad daylight, forced into a car and possibly taken into the territory of the Palestinian Authority.

The reason: a financial dispute between the boy’s father, a building contractor, and the kidnappers’ family. This heartbreaking incident shows once again how these communities seem to exist in a totally different universe from the Jewish locales among which they’re firmly planted.

On Tuesday, the Knesset held various discussions in connection with “a day to mark the struggle against violence and crime in Arab society” in Israel. The events were initiated by MK Ayman Odeh, head of the Joint Arab List. Odeh invited Netanyahu, Rivlin, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan and the chairman of the Knesset Interior and Environment Committee, Yoav Kish, to take part in the main gathering on the subject. Netanyahu was a no-show, of course, but sent the cabinet secretary, Zvi Braverman. Rivlin, in a phone call to Odeh, explained that the president doesn’t take part in committee discussions, but invited Odeh to the President’s Residence on Thursday to talk about the issue.

Kish fired off a letter of refusal and reprimand. “I see the subject as being of great importance,” he noted, “but it’s inconceivable that an MK should request a discussion in Knesset committees about enforcement, the state’s authority, stamping out crime and the like, while on the other hand acting against that state and supporting terrorism against it.” (The final nine words were underlined.)

Erdan, too, declared that he wouldn’t take part, for the same reason. Mutual hatred flows between the public security minister and the Arab MKs. The main reason is the spate of fires on Mount Carmel two years ago, during which Erdan accused Israel’s Arab citizens of arson, and the evacuation in January 2017 of the village of Umm al-Hiran, during which police officer Erez Levi was run over and killed, and Yakub Abu al-Kiyan, a resident who was at the steering wheel, was shot to death by the police. Erdan immediately declared that Levi’s death was a deliberate attack. He hasn’t retracted that opinion since, even though no proof for his allegation has been found.

Odeh tried with all his might to get the minister in charge of the police to take part in the discussions. After Erdan refused, he asked Kulanu MK Eli Alalouf, a mutual friend of his and Erdan’s, to try to persuade the minister. Alalouf suggested that Odeh write a letter to the recalcitrant Erdan. He did, imploring the minister to attend despite their disagreements.

“The issue of violence in Arab society should stand above these disagreements,” Odeh had written in his letter, but Erdan was unmoved. Instead, he addressed the motion at the Knesset plenum, describing at length the police's activity in the Arab community during his three years as public security minister.

“Because of the relationship between us, Erdan isn’t willing to talk about cooperation,” Odeh told this writer the next day. “Is that how a minister should behave? The prime minister sent the cabinet secretary to the discussion I led, President Rivlin invited me for a meeting – and only the responsible minister refuses. The Arab community is almost 20 percent of Israel’s population, but 58 percent of the murders are committed in it. Isn’t that a fact that cries out to the heavens?”

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