Just before the budget was approved, a belief that verged on a wish took hold: When it becomes clear that the government’s survival is assured, at the latest by the scheduled rotation of the premiership in August 2023, the ultra-Orthodox will reevaluate.
Not that the Haredim would join the coalition, but it would be possible to do busines with them and gain their support in crucial votes. They would cease their blind flocking behind Benjamin Netanyahu (“the pied piper of Balfour Street,” as Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar has called him), who condemned the ultra-Orthodox to the worst fate of all: being in the opposition. They would be grateful that the stipends and the yeshiva world hadn’t been harmed in the budget, they would sober up and cut their losses by cooperating on specific issues.
These expectations have been dashed. Shas and United Torah Judaism aren't heading for a hudna but for an intifada. Not reconciliation but chaos. At a meeting of the two Knesset caucuses this week, Shas chief Arye Dery defined the rules of the game. The following are excerpts from a recording uploaded on the Kikar Hashabbat website.
“For many years I was a member of the security cabinet. There is very great danger in the Iranian nuclear project. But the danger of everything [the government] is doing to change Israel's Jewish identity is far greater. ... They want to throw away the phylacteries, the ritual fringes and the Torah and burn Shabbat, and are we going to smile at them and speak with them? I don’t even say hello to them in the Knesset. A person at war for himself and his family doesn’t meet with someone who wants to kill him.”
Shas promises that it will soon announce a series of actions, maybe even “a million-man march.” The arena of the struggle is moving to the street. The ultra-Orthodox have despaired of the Knesset. In the Knesset committees and on the floor they're usually defeated, except for small, random victories. Their presence in the building is shrinking, but their allegiance to Netanyahu is growing. Their rhetoric is growing exponentially more extreme. They're putting up walls of fire between the two camps. The bridges have long been burned. Now they're concentrating on scorched earth.
“The Haredim started at 200 kilometers per hour and have revved up,” a cabinet member who heads one of the coalition parties told me this week. “It's the spirit of Netanyahu. In the past six months the other shoe dropped for him: He isn’t going to get back in power by parliamentary moves. He has climbed down from the Gantz option” – a rotation with Defense Minister Benny Gantz – “that was ridiculous anyway.
“We have solidarity, we’re overcoming the disagreements, we’re solving problems, and where we can’t, we postpone. And he has understood another thing: The Likudniks aren’t taking to the streets, not even for him. Without the Haredi armies, without the battalions of settlers, he doesn’t stand a chance.”
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And it’s not just the ultra-Orthodox who are raising their stakes and the height of the flames. On Wednesday Likud lawmaker Shlomo Karhi went up to the Knesset podium to defend his bill to establish a “constitutional court.” This was a futile proposal, like everything Karhi does in the Knesset. He used most of his allotted minutes for a wild attack, even by his own distorted standards, on Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit. This was a particularly repulsive performance. So what’s new? A lot.
Until now, the Likud lawmakers were saying, huffily, that Bennett and his government are legal but not legitimate. Karhi, however, declared in the Knesset that “Bennett is serving without legal authority,” adding that Mendelblit is serving as “an attorney general without legal authority.” He has a case pending against him, he has invented a criminal offense, he has threatened witnesses, he has dragged us into four rounds of elections.
The reader will say: Nu, okay, so Karhi said it. But the donkey was speaking for the Messiah. Netanyahu, who is not present in the Knesset when lawmakers make speeches (he only shows up for votes), came in and sat down as Karhi began. He fixed a serious gaze on Karhi, as if Winston Churchill were addressing the nation in wartime. When the speech ended, Netanyahu got up and didn’t come back even to vote. The message was internalized, one lawmaker told me: This is what Bibi wants to hear from all of us.
As the cabinet minister noted, the coalition land mines have been neutralized, for now. The bill to allow the Shin Bet security service to track cellphones in the battle against the coronavirus wasn't brought before the full Knesset this week. Gantz got an agreement in principle from lawmaker Mansour Abbas that his United Arab List would support the military conscription law that’s coming up for a vote. Without the support of the four leglislators in Abbas' party, the legislation will not pass.
Meanwhile, the planned residential construction at Atarot that had threatened to create a crisis with the Americans is off the table. The delay was achieved cleverly. The regional planning and building committee discussed a Housing Ministry plan to build 9,000 apartments there for Haredim. In the past, and more than once, the Prime Minister’s Office asked to withdraw the plan, pinning its request on “a diplomatic issue.”
Bennett, who hesitated to do what Netanyahu did, turned 10 degrees to the right and to the left at the same time. He found a shabbes goy – the Meretz cabinet members. They asked their representatives on the committee to demand two surveys – one by the Environmental Protection Ministry on the effect the construction would have on the environment, and one by the Health Ministry on the effect it would have on health.
There was no way the committee wouldn’t grant the request, which would mean the postponement of the entire process for at least a year. As Construction and Housing Minister Zeev Elkin figured it, if Environmental Protection Minister Tamar Zandberg drags it out, it could take a year and a half. Nu, so by then supposedly Yair Lapid will already be sitting in Bennett’s chair. After him the deluge, and after that the construction.
Another frog in Meretz’s throat
In about two weeks the cabinet will hold a meeting in the Golan Heights. Elkin will propose approval of a building plan aimed at doubling the population of the Golan. Under the plan, by 2026 about 7,000 homes will be on offer in the Ramat Hagolan region and the city of Katzrin. The cabinet will also approve the establishment of two new communities, Assif and Matar.
Officials at the Prime Minister’s Office were concerned that the Meretz ministers would boycott the meeting and embarrass Bennett. I asked Meretz chief Nitzan Horowitz whether there was any basis for concern.
“No,” he said, “I see no reason for us not to be there.” I also posed the question to his No. 2, Zandberg. Evening came, then night fell. Nearly a whole day went by before she replied. Finally, she declared that she doesn’t boycott the Golan.
Yes, the decision was made, but it was a difficult birth. When the issue first came up more than a month ago, the Meretz chiefs discussed this to-be-or-not-to-be question. Settling the Golan isn’t the party’s policy. The Golan has long been a consensus issue, not only after Yitzhak Rabin, Netanyahu and Ehud Barak didn’t get anywhere negotiating with the Syrians (under Assad the elder). After all, the civil war followed (under Assad the younger), replete with its Islamic State and Iranian footholds.
Still, Meretz has always treated the Golan as an occupied territory that will be put on the table in any future talks with Syria. The party hasn’t declaratively changed this policy. And though there’s zero likelihood of those talks happening, presumably a certain faction of the party’s voters, the purist faction, will grimace. If former party chief Zehava Galon were in Horowitz’s shoes, there’s no way she’d be going up north with her ministers on December 26. This has been confirmed.
Zandberg, the environmental protection minister, brought up a practical question in the discussion: A portion of the development budget that will be brought for the government’s approval will go to her ministry for green projects. Horowitz wondered: If we don’t participate and the plan is approved, do I have to take the money? In the end, it was decided to attend. The environment took precedence over the party. How will they vote? We’ll see. Maybe they’ll abstain.
The Golan story is another chapter in the famous series of bellyaches that Meretz is enduring. Without this party the coalition lacks a pure leftist force. The United Arab List isn’t leftist. The Labor Party’s people are leftist but not its brand. The Meretz lawmakers feel they’re the ones having to swallow most of the frogs. They’re the ones paying most of the price.
On Wednesday evening the following people met in the office of Meretz whip Michal Rozin: Cabinet Secretary Shalom Shlomo, the foreign minister’s adviser Dani Vesely, United Arab List whip Walid Taha and his Labor Party counterpart Ram Shefa. Then the thorn in the coalition’s backside, the Citizenship Law that bars most Palestinian spouses of Israelis from obtaining residency rights, came up for discussion.
Ever since it failed to be renewed in the Knesset about five months ago, Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked, for whom that law is the apple of her eye, has been trying to win the necessary majority. Meretz and the United Arab List, which supported renewal in July in coalition discipline, announced that this time they would oppose it if the humanitarian concessions for certain family-reunification applications – which they agreed on with Bennett – weren’t in the new draft.
At the meeting, pressure was put on Meretz to compromise. No way, Rozin said, we compromised last time. Now solve it without us. She complained to Vesely: Lapid promised us that Yesh Atid would back us and like us demand that promises be kept. And now you’re coming to us with demands.
Voices were raised. This is a political incident, Rozin said to Shlomo. It’s not possible that the cabinet won’t take our needs into account. I don’t bring up LGBTQ legislation and religion-and-state legislation because I know that Bennett’s Yamina party is opposed.
It can’t just be from one side. If you think I’ll advance a right-wing policy I’ve always opposed only because my party has three ministers who are having a great time in the government, forget it. Even if Nitzan instructs the caucus tomorrow to support it, we won’t agree.
The meeting blew up. No agreement is in sight. Shaked, who had hoped to pass the law next week, will have to postpone it again. And again. When will it be passed? When the sun rises in the West, a coalition source told me. Israel will apparently have to continue to exist without that racist law.
A letter spewed out last week from the fax of the director general of the Prime Minister’s Office, Yair Pines. The signature was that of Asher Hayoun, the opposition leader’s chief of staff, but the spirit, the blood, the breath came from the opposition leader’s wife.
In the letter, the director general was asked “to act to retract the original decision and prolong AT LEAST” – emphasis in the original – “the providing of security protection for the prime minister’s wife and children.”
Reminder: Just before Netanyahu’s departure from the Prime Minister’s Office, the ministerial committee on the Shin Bet security service determined that his sons Avner and Yair and his wife Sara would receive a government car with a chauffeur and security protection 24/7 for at least another year. This was scandalous even when their home was the prime minister’s residence. It was unprecedented – and at a cumulative cost of millions of shekels.
The new government also established a Shin Bet committee, headed by the prime minister, who appointed Religious Affairs Minister Matan Kahana as his representative. The committee met, examined the relevant material and decided that there was no justification for the continued waste. The bodyguards, the cars and the chauffeurs will be taken from the three family members six months after the forming of the government. It might be said: 12 and a half years too late.
In the letter, Hayoun listed the reasons for Netanyahu’s request. The text (which was first published on the Walla website) is astounding. It conveys hysteria mixed with pleading and threats, spiced with passive-aggressive seasoning. The reasons in a nutshell: Netanyahu worked against “enemy states” whose agents will try to take revenge on members of his family, they’ve already been “marked, a “blood reckoning” is underway between the “states” and the entire family.
The paragraph that reveals the opposition leader’s helpmate is this: “Moreover, a tsunami of public support exists for the former prime minister, support that is totally unprecedented. As this wave of support grows stronger, there is a real concern that a lone terrorist will take the law into his own hands and do everything to prevent former Prime Minister Netanyahu from returning to power by harming him or a member of his family.”
It must be noted that Benjamin Netanyahu, like all former prime ministers, receives security protection – also in his capacity as opposition leader. It seems that the “blood reckoning” with enemy states is piffling relative to the reckoning he’ll face at home with Sara and Yair if he doesn’t manage to revoke the evil decree.
On Sunday Kahana will convene the committee – in a meeting planned in advance – to ratify the decision to change the security protection for all three Netanyahus. The Shin Bet will present its position. Presumably whatever is decided will be entirely correct and based on precedent and facts, and in stark contrast to what Netanyahu did to then-Defense Minister Bennett.
Three months after Bennett completed his stint on May 17, 2020, Netanyahu ordered Minister Yisrael Katz to convene the ministerial committee and immediately lift Bennett’s security protection, including the guard’s booth at the entrance to his home. As a rule, defense ministers have security protection for five years after leaving office. The protection for Moshe Ya’alon, for example, is only expiring now.
What Netanyahu did was petty, vengeful and irresponsible. Well, that’s Netanyahu. Bennett didn’t send him pathetic letters and didn’t plead. Fortunately, the enemy states restrained themselves in that case.
Back to square one
Five weeks after the failure of the right-wing rally in Tel Aviv, the demonstrators returned to the same compact place, Habima Square, to prove that they’re capable of more. The message was aggressive: “We want a Jewish state.”
In a video and comments on social media, Netanyahu, the one everybody knows is good for the Jews, spurred his constituency to show up. But just like last time, he didn’t show up. Right-wing demonstrations without the right-wing leader are like a Caesar salad without the Caesar.
No official explanation for his absence was provided, but it’s clear he’s not too keen on the people who go up and speak on the stage, their crazy, unbridled and violent language. It’s best not to stand beside them as they spew their slander in all directions.
He’s an artist at going with the extremists while not being there.
I watched the speakers on the stage. They competed in their ignorance and viciousness, in slinging mud at the justice system, in wild incitement against the Supreme Court, the Arab community and the Reform and Conservative Jews. The best stuff came from the heads of the religious racist caucus, Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir, and some of the Likud backbenchers whose loudness is their art.
Karhi proposed imprisoning the attorney general “in the monkey cage where Nir Hefetz sat,” referring to Netanyahu’s former media adviser who turned state’s evidence in one of Netanyahu’s corruption cases. “This government,” Karhi said, “is selling our national strength every day to the Islamic shura council.” His caucus colleague Galit Distal Atbaryan honked like a goose: “Academia, the court, the state prosecution, the media and the police have carried out a coup against the people’s choice.”
And Likud’s Eli Cohen was there. The man who started out as a lawmaker and minister in the center-right Kulanu party has become a Bibi-ist and a racist. “We didn’t establish a state to hand it over to the Muslim Brotherhood, to supporters of Hamas who want to destroy the State of Israel,” he said.
To fill up the huge empty islands that stuck out in the square last time, they had to bring in massive reinforcements. The settlers were called in to avert a disgrace. The rabbi-operatives of Smotrich’s Religious Zionism party published statements of support, not to mention their buses from throughout the West Bank that dropped knitted skullcaps and the female equivalents onto the square.
Money wasn’t lacking: funding from outside Likud. It has been the same thing since Chabad in 1996, the demonstrations against Ehud Olmert, the free tabloid Israel Hayom and the perks in his private life – see the lavish-gifts case. He’s the initiator, he’s the publicizer, and sometimes he also dictates the wording. He has his private troops who will always find the leisure time and means to demonstrate, both day and night if necessary, in front of attorneys’ homes, politicians’ homes and courthouses, whether the cases against the king himself are the issue or just lawsuits against his son, the prince of darkness.
Back to Habima Square. It was more crowded than last time but not full, about 2,500 people. This didn’t stop the speakers on the square from later, on social media, thanking “the tens of thousands of demonstrators.”
The traffic on nearby streets flowed as usual. The police stood around with nothing to do. A woman in a black tank top and her partner in sunglasses taunted the crowd: “Bibi is finished! Come back in four years!” The demonstrators looked at them amused. We all know about the right-wingers’ demonstrations. They’ve all revolved around ideological issues: the Oslo Accords, a Palestinian state, the Gaza disengagement, the negotiations over the Golan Heights.
Not this time: The ideology was the loss of power. That was what they mourned, an absence that’s hard for them to swallow six months later. Their concern for the fate of the “Jewish state” is a facade. The state is perfectly fine, no less Jewish than a year ago or a decade ago. It’s a little more democratic and egalitarian toward the Arab minority, part of which is represented in the government.
That’s what’s killing them – that Mansour Abbas and his United Arab List are in a government with Bennett, Lapid, Sa’ar and Avigdor Lieberman, and not with Netanyahu and Likud’s Yoav Kish, who courted them without that cry of “shame! shame!” that they’re shouting now. When it emerged that Abbas might enable Netanyahu to form a coalition (in return for an overflowing goody basket), he was the national sweetheart, the people’s pet. He was invited to Balfour Street four times, where Abu Yair fawned all over him. Now he’s an existential danger.
The day after the demonstration, Abbas tweeted: “I went into politics on a mission of values and morality to promote tolerance and true partnership for the benefit of all the country’s citizens. It isn’t enough to pray for peace, you have to act to achieve it, first among all the citizens of Israel. Ben-Gvir and Smotrich haven’t learned Jewish history. Blood libels and false accusations were the province of Jew haters. The two of them are following in their path.”
It would be interesting to know if he’s still dreaming about an alternative coalition on the same team as the people who are calling him a fifth column and an enemy of the people.