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The Coalition's Mission Impossible Kicks Off as Netanyahu Becomes Joint List's Gofer

What made Netanyahu suddenly join the Haredi war on women's prayer at the Kotel? ■ No party in Israel has changed its DNA as fast as Lapid's Yesh Atid ■ Ayman Odeh makes the biggest racists in the Knesset work for him

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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Illustration.
Credit: Amos Biderman
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

Being in the opposition is tough for Shas chairman Arye Dery. Restlessly, he prowls the corridors of the Knesset, torturing himself for not having done more to prevent the breakup of the Benjamin Netanyahu-Benny Gantz government. And where can a Jew turn for succor for his troubled soul? Or events for his empty agenda? The Western Wall.

That is his project at the moment. Together with lawmakers from the United Torah Judaism and the Religious Zionism parties he has set himself the goal of preventing the implementation of the agreement for non-Orthodox worship at the site. More than five years after it was approved (and mothballed) by the Netanyahu government, the High Court of Justice is about to order the state to carry out the arrangement aimed at allowing egalitarian and mixed-sex worship at the wall’s southern plaza.

The main beneficiaries are of course Reform and Conservative Jews, along with the Women of the Wall – an organization fighting for their right to pray there with tefillin and prayer shawls, which are traditionally reserved for males.

Every Rosh Hodesh, the monthly holiday celebrating the arrival of the new moon, the start of a new month in the Jewish calendar – they are subjected to cursing, spitting and pushing by bullies. Most of the bullies are Haredim and religious Zionists, for whom the Western Wall is an Orthodox synagogue.

The ultra-Orthodox commissioned surveys. They found that in their community the Kotel is an emotional issue that arouses more identification and sentiment than conversion and kashrut, other hot-button issues. This is an interesting process, testifying most of all to the growth of Zionist ultra-Orthodoxy.

After Israel gained control of the Old City of Jerusalem in the 1967 Six-Day War, the Kotel became a far more meaningful national-religious symbol for the non-Haredi, “knitted kippa” religious Zionist community, not for Hasidic courts.

“In the first stage, a million won’t show up,” the Haredi journalist Israel Cohen told me, “but 40,000 or 50,000 will.” Despite Dery’s magnified presence at the front of the battle, he says, the moving spirit behind the initiative to thwart the arrangement are the Haredi Zionists, or Hardalim.

Dery is raising funds for the campaign. He is being aided in his efforts by Liba (also spelled Leeba) Yehudit, an ultra-extreme Hardali group that is already posting on social media statements such as Prime Minister Naftali “Bennett is dividing the Kotel” and “We are all in the battle for the Kotel.” The intention is to organize many large demonstrations and mass prayers and to make and distributive provocative videos depicting LGBTQ weddings at the holy site.

Women of the Wall protesting at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, last week. Credit: Noam Rivkin Panton

On Thursday of last week, the day before Dery, United Torah Judaism MK Meir Porush, Religious Zionism MK Bezalel Smotrich and their friends planned to go to the Kotel to prevent Women of the Wall from praying, Dery tweeted out an open invitation, as follows: “I am calling upon everyone to whom the Kotel is important to come and pray with us so that the sacred site will not be desecrated, heaven forbid” – by the prayers of women, of course. A few hours later, former prime minister and current opposition chair Benjamin Netanyahu retweeted Dery’s call.

In January 2016 Netanyahu’s cabinet approved the arrangement, with a wink and the tacit agreement of his Haredi partners. He celebrated the agreement, lauding it as a fair compromise, and in conversations with leaders of North American Jewry he promised to implement it.

Today he sees it as a desecration of all that is holy. He is a thoroughly secular individual, an atheist according to acquaintances – but a woman praying harms what is dearest to his heart. In his darkest days, and he has had quite a lot of them, he never went so low as to muster to the side of the most benighted elements of Israel’s religious and Haredi communities.

He was and remains their ally. He showered them with state funds and appointed them to positions of power, in order to maintain his own power; but he never expressed support for the clericalism that is manifested in their attitude toward every non-Orthodox Jew, male or female, who seeks to pray at the Kotel peacefully. Now he has crossed even that line.

Netanyahu’s retweet of Dery’s exhortation was not a slip of the keyboard. Facing many long and bitter months in the opposition, and bleak months in the Jerusalem courtroom of Judge Rivka Friedman-Feldman, he is trying to do what he had tried unsuccessfully in the past: Set the streets on fire and pit people against one another.

For years he incited against the left, the elites, the Arabs, the media, the police, the judicial system and even people in his own party. Anyone who wasn’t with him became a target of his poisoned arrows. Now he is directing his fire at the streams of Judaism that aren’t part of his “full-full-right” coalition. Strife is the bedrock of our existence; the Western Wall is only an excuse.

All his efforts to sow chaos in the country during the past 150 days have failed. His Bibi-istst supporters are spewing their filth all over Twitter and Facebook but they are staying home. He pinned hopes on last week’s demonstration of the right at Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square, which was downsized to Habima Square due to the extent of the response to it and even there it turned into to be a total fiasco.

His hope that the phenomena of the determined demonstrations against him at the official residence on Balfour Street in Jerusalem would reproduce themselves on Chipman Street in Ra’anana, outside the Bennett family’s home, was also disappointed.

His sole recourse was to turn to outsourcing, with the guys from his bloc. From them cometh his help. A Haredi source told me that staff in the opposition leader’s office are calling up the heads of Hasidic courts to nudge them: Nu? So when are you taking to the streets? They are burning to have things go up in flames here.

Mine clearance unit

Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid met after the national budget was approved. A huge obstacle had been neutralized. The government is immune to toppling but its troubles haven’t ended. Nor will they ever end. Not in this coalition. A huge mine field stretches before them.

They decided to appoint two teams, from Bennett’s Yamina and Lapid’s Yesh Atid parties, to map out all of the problems: from the U.S. consulate in East Jerusalem to construction in the territories and the Evyatar settlement outpost; from Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s military pensions law, the inquiry commission on the purchase of submarines and patrol to the draft bill that would prohibit a criminal defendant from forming a government; from the Western Wall arrangement to the reforms in matters of religion and state. They will map it all out and build an action plan for each of the issues.

I want to resolve all these matters simultaneously, said Bennett. Not consecutively but synchronously. To that can be said: Good luck. (Incidentally, the matter of the consulate has been resolved, at least between him and Lapid. Both of them announced it will not be reopened.)

In addition to the problems Bennett and Lapid are having with their coalition partners, the prime minister is also perturbed by a problematic parliamentary representation. Bennett’s fellow Yamina colleagues, taken collectively, border on being space aliens. A little shop of horrors whose shelves embarrass him on a daily basis.The members of Yamina weren’t planted there by Netanyahu, as one might suspect, but rather were chosen by the chair himself, Bennett.

PM Naftali Bennett and future PM Yair Lapid at the Knesset, on Monday. Credit: Emil Salman

Fortunately for us, apart from him there are only six of them (formally, MK Amichai Chikli is also still there.) What would have happened if the early public opinion polls had held steady and Yamina had come into the Knesset with 20 lawmakers, or 15. All of whom had been chosen by the same person, with the same butcher’s tweezers?

Outwardly, Bennett is backing his colleagues. During these six months they have been going through a meat grinder the likes of which haven’t been seen here, powered by Netanyahu’s noise machine and he is defending them in closed conversations.

Bibi gets forgiven for hallucinatory inventions but every statement from coalition chair MK Idit Silman will be examined a thousand times. He also has a complaint about the media: So as not to look as if they are being overly nice to the government, they are being excessively harsh toward his lawmakers. Let’s hope he doesn’t start calling the media biased. We’ve been there, done that, and had enough.

Principles out, government in

Yair Lapid likes to tell a story from his childhood: Every year on May 1, his father Tommy would take him along to work at the daily newspaper Ma’ariv. “Pay attention, Yair my son, the ‘Reds’ are marching outside but we are coming to work on this day,” he’d say. The son grew up and matured, his hair turned white as he clung to liberal economic ideas, supporting the free market and opposing the big labor unions.

This week, the Yesh Atid chairman announced he intended to establish a faction in Israel’s largest union. “Yesh Atid in the Histadrut” sounds grating, almost like the far-right “Otzma Yehudit in the Democracy Institute” or “United Torah Judaism in the Na’amat Movement of Working Women and Volunteers.” This is no doubt one of the most astounding acrobatic flip-flops in Israeli politics in the modern era.

Lapid replied to anyone who asked him about the change with a flowing, very Lapidish statement. “It’s not the ideology that has changed; it’s the aims,” he explained to his caucus members. “We are a ruling party and we have to think like a ruling party; we have to be at every power center, take up positions and be present everywhere it is possible to change the reality.” Even in the despised Histadrut headquarters building on Alosoroff Street in Tel Aviv.

There is not and there never has been a political party in Israel that has undergone such an extreme metamorphosis in such a short time. This transformation is much deeper than a shape-change. It is DNA that has been replaced. It is a religious conversion. The Yesh Atid of June 2021 resembles that of November 2021 only in the personae who are running it.

The famous principles were taken out one after the other at a dizzying pace, as though they were contestants in the Squid Game: the size of the government, coalition costs, entry into the Histadrut and the appointment of family members within Zionist institutions.

Most recently, his wife Lihi’s sister was appointed to the board of directors of Keren Kayemeth Leyisrael – Jewish National Fund without pay and resigned because of the media pressure. Also, a second cousin of Lihi’s was appointed to a paid senior position in the Zionist Federation. Both of these are superfluous, corrupt and very well-funded organizations, which Lapid had never liked. Lots of thing could be said about him, but who wouldn’t want to have a brother-in-law like him?

In the case of the coalition talks earlier this year, Lapid retreated from two of his ironclad principles, which every child could recite by heart: a cabinet of 18 ministers with no ministers without portfolio, and distribution of the coalition funds among the partners.

In his defense, it must be said that he at least tried to insist, said something, muttered something. The other seven parties, including the puritans in Labor and Meretz, went along happily, without even trying to pretend. Then the replacement MKs inundated the Knesset en masse like mushrooms after a strong Norwegian rainstorm.

“You aren’t remembering how fragile it all was,” he explained to his lawmakers and party activists. “There were parties that were just looking for a reason to walk out, slam the door and flee. I brought Naftali and Gideon” – Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar of New Hope – back in from the corridor dozens of times.

"The United Arab List informed me five times they were pulling out of all the agreements. So yes, we paid dearly, and on issues we believe in. That’s the price of establishing the government. Without it, we’d be sitting in the opposition today and Netanyahu would have personally chosen the members of the search committee for appointing the new attorney general.”

Lapid knows how to pluck the strings of conscience in those who are disgruntled. When they hear the words “Netanyahu,” “opposition” and “attorney general,” they imagine the extent of the horror – and they tell themselves: So be it.

How does it feel to be an idealist (or at least a person who sees himself as one) who has become a pragmatist almost overnight? Lapid sees what has happened to hm and to his party as an inevitable process of maturation. Two months from now, on January 8, Yesh Atid will mark the 10th anniversary of its founding.

At first it looked like an ambitious, pretentious initiative bursting with one man’s ego (“Are you mad?” former prime minister Ehud Olmert said to him back in the day. “Who needs another centrist party? Join Kadima”). Since then, Yesh Atid has become Israel’s second-largest party, and one of the most stable of them. It has survived numerous elections, setbacks, embarrassments and resignations.

The appointment of a relative to KKL-JNF was a mistake that would have suited the old Lapid. Had the sister-in-law been from the Netanyahu-Ben Artzi family, the columnist he once was would have given a beating to someone defending the appointment on the ridiculous grounds that it was a “voluntary” position.

The criticism of Lapid was appropriate. He too understands he erred. But the horrified reactions by the ones who corrupted the civil service and the government, mainly from Likud and Shas, who acted shocked to the core by the extent of the corruption, is Theater of the Absurd at it best. Or worst.

The sister-in-law, incidentally, was appointed in July, shortly after the government was established. (Lapid wasted no time.) The story came out only now, four months later. Someone sat on the information and waited for the right moment. The eve of the vote on the national budget, the failure of which would have led to dispersing the Knesset and an early election, was viewed as the most suitable timing for causing chaos in the coalition.

The vote was thus deemed the right moment to release the recordings of Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked dissing Lapid, to release the recordings of Naftali Bennett opining that the rotation of the position of prime minister wasn’t going to happen, and to expose the affair of the poor man’s KKL-gate. All of this good stuff rained down on Lapid, maker of the coalition and the alternate prime minister, within a very short period. We know him, they said in Netanyahu’s circle. He’s a kid, he’s capricious, he will stalk out in a tantrum. But no, he isn’t any more. He has grown up.

Reality show

Every Wednesday, the Knesset hall, as seen on Channel 99, provides the most fascinating, stormy and addictive reality show on television. For aficionados of the genre, of course. The pace is faster than “Survivor,” the interests are more transparent than on “Big Brother” and the relationships are more complex and contrived than on “Married at First Sight.”

But none of those series contain cursing and displays of racism and bullying like what we see from Likud MK Dudi Amsalem. The man is incapable of opening his mouth without unleashing a barrage of insults, curses and lies. It is recommended to keep children away from the television.

Head of the Likud Benjamin Netanyahu at the Knesset, on Monday. Credit: Emil Salman

And it isn’t as though he adds honor to the Knesset in any other aspect. In the budget discussions, for example, he lounged around for hours in the Knesset hall, nearly lying down, wearing just a simple T-shirt as if he were at home before his afternoon snooze.

Wednesdays are the Ground Zero for every coalition, and certainly for a minimalist coalition of only 61 out of 120 lawmakers. One MK falls ill (this week it happened to be Sharon Roffe Ofir of Yisrael Beiteinu) and the safety net is in danger. When a legislator is sick, and a Knesset member decides to break with party discipline, the way Mazen Ghanaim did this week on the bill to build a hospital in his hometown of Sakhnin, the coalition loses.

Joint List head MK Ayman Odeh (Hadash) proposed the bill. Just as Likud and Religious Zionism try to embarrass Yamina and New Hope by submitting ideological legislative proposals, the Joint List takes aim at the United Arab List. Odeh submitted the proposal only after he received from Ghanaim a promise that he would vote for it. In the past, Ghanaim was the mayor of Sakhnin and intends to run again in two years.

If Roffe-Ofor had been present in the Knesset Hall, the proposal would not have passed. He got lucky, Odeh. He ought to send her flowers.

And since Odeh is known as a righteous man, others do his work for him. The biggest racists in the Knesset voted in favor; Bezalel Smotrich, the one who expressed regret that David Ben-Gurion “didn’t finish the job” of expelling all the Arabs of Israel in 1948, supported it. Itamar Ben-Gvir did, too.

So did Amsalem, after spending a very long time beforehand disrespecting deputy Knesset Speaker Mansour Abbas, who was presiding over the session. “What have we come to that we [the Jews] need to get approval from you [the Arab],” he spat out at him, shaking his head in anger.

Ah, and Netanyahu. He once again proved himself as the Joint List’s executive contractor. Three times Likud helped it thwart or pass laws that are at the heart of Likud’s ideology: the law to prevent family reunification proposed by Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked, the proposal for a parliamentary committee to look into irregularities in appointing Arab teachers and now, the hospital in Sakhnin. Bibi is [MK Ahmad] Tibi’s gofer, and Odeh’s, too.

Odeh spoke after the vote with the coalition managers. Do you want us not to be oppositional all the time? Pass the law and get construction of the hospital moving, he told them. Make no mistake, he stressed, we don’t want Netanyahu and Smotrich and Ben Gvir to come back.

Head of the Joint List Ayman Odeh at the Knesset, last week. Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Seventy percent of our public are interested in the coalition’s survival. Our voters saw what went on at Habima Square. Oh yes, they know what to expect if those people return to power. Our relationship has a future, said Odeh in an attempt to be persuasive, but meet us half-way.

This is just sweet talk, a senior government official told me. He’s full of it. Odeh and Tibi don’t believe Netanyahu is coming back in any scenario. They want an election, only to wipe out Abbas' United Arab List.

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