Shock and Law

On keeping silent when protest is necessary, and launching protests that will reach the right target audience.

Even if the manner in which Rabbi Dov Lior was detained did not show perfect wisdom and judgment on the part of the police, what happened afterward was terror in its most basic sense: the subjection of the country's citizens to fear and anxiety by a gang of rioters. Anyone who saw them up close - as they descended the hills of the West Bank, assaulted the Supreme Court building in Jerusalem and tried to force their way into the home of the deputy state prosecutor, Shai Nitzan - saw violent civil revolt against the institutions of the state.

The Supreme Court is located a hill-and-a-half away from the Prime Minister's Office. During the entire time, Benjamin Netanyahu sat there, received reports of what was going on in the backyard of the neighbors across the way - and was silent. Only the next day, under pressure from the media and in the wake of a public rebuke by opposition leader Tzipi Livni, did he issue a short statement in which he declared that the law applies to everyone.

Dov Lior Cartoon - Amos Biderman - July 1
Amos Biderman

After news broke that Osama bin Laden had been liquidated by the Americans, Netanyahu released a recorded statement to YouTube within about a quarter of an hour, in which he was seen surrounded by Israeli flags.

At high noon on Wednesday, Netanyahu's right-hand man Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman, who is responsible for the battered and bloodied State Prosecutor's Office, appeared in the Knesset and replied to parliamentary queries that dealt, among other issues, with Nitzan and the detention of Lior. Neeman referred the questioners to the Public Security Ministry, saying: "I am not familiar with the case and I have no idea what is being done in connection with it. The Israel Police dealt with this case. I cannot make declarations about cases I know nothing about."

Not a word of support for the state prosecution, not a word of condemnation of the rabbi and the demonstrators.

That same day, 18 MKs, most of them members of the coalition, sent a message to Neeman expressing their shock at Rabbi Lior's detention, and demanding that the team headed by Nitzan that is responsible for investigating offenses related to freedom of expression be disbanded immediately. At the time of writing, no voice or even whisper of support for the prosecution has emanated from the justice minister's bureau.

What are the hooligans who ran amok in the streets of Jerusalem this week - and who are threatening to reprise their rampage, and even outdo themselves, if Rabbi Yaakov Yosef, who has espoused views similar to those of Lior, is also taken into detention (if he hasn't been already since press time ) - supposed to conclude from this? That they have an implicit sanction, from the prime minister on down, to go on running wild, beating up policemen and physically threatening the very bastion of Israeli democracy?

The forgiving spirit, kowtowing and submissiveness displayed in the face of both the extreme right and the ultra-Orthodox public did not begin in the past two years. But this government, more than its predecessors, specializes in turning a blind eye and in sending signals of support to domestic, hostile elements that would like to destroy the country even before Iran's missiles have the opportunity to do so.

Tale of two protests

Two public protests reached a peak this week. The first, a demonstration by various celebrities against the continued captivity of Gilad Shalit, took the form of their spending an hour in what was dubbed "Gilad's solitary cell." The second was the protest by consumers against the ridiculous price of cottage cheese.

The first protest was tainted by a slew of commercial and personal interests embodied by models, singers and entertainers alike, each of them out to promote an agenda of their own and were filmed as they sat for an hour in a "prison," which was actually a room in Herzliya Studios. Above all, the protest was not aimed at the right "address," which is Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Indeed, it's more than likely that in that camp, they took heart from the display of sentimentality on the part of the elite of the Israeli party scene. By contrast, the second protest was authentic, focused, void of personal motives, free of gimmicks and had a clear target.

The case of Gilad Shalit is simultaneously a personal, family and national tragedy. It's a case of a democracy doing battle against a terrorist organization with both hands tied behind its back. No consumer protest will help here.

On the other hand, the outrageous price of food is Israeli chutzpah on the part of greedy conglomerates and tycoons who are getting richer at the expense of the lower and middle classes. The initiators of the boycott did well not to ask the likes of Oz Zehavi and Yael Bar Zohar to model cottage cheese avoidance. That would only have harmed the struggle.

The cottage cheese battle is first of all a good lesson in modesty. The name Zehavit Cohen (the CEO of Tnuva, the huge food corporation ), which until a few days ago appeared hundreds of times in the economic pages enveloped in an aura of respect and high regard, is now synonymous with superciliousness, insensitivity, aloofness and failure. Sic transit gloria.

This is also a good lesson for our leaders. Today it's Zehavit Cohen and cottage cheese, tomorrow it should be Bibi Netanyahu and Yuval Steinitz and the prices of water and housing. They have even more to lose than Ms. Cohen.

Missing finger

According to informed sources in Likud, Benjamin Netanyahu intends to use the party convention in late December as a platform for inserting into the amendments to the Likud constitution a clause that will allow him to add two or three candidates of his choosing to the list of Likud candidates for the 19th Knesset.

Why? Because he wants perhaps to offer those additional slots to someone from Ehud Barak's Atzmaut faction, a means of expressing his gratitude to Barak, whose defection from Labor in January to create a separate Knesset faction helped keep Netanyahu's government in power. And also because for the past two years Barak, who is considered a moderate and well-regarded figure abroad, has been marketing Netanyahu as a responsible leader who is always on the verge of presenting a peace plan.

Likud ministers and MKs will do everything possible to thwart the change to the rules. Every guaranteed slot in the list downgrades a Likud representative who has been lawfully selected (in terms of Likud primaries ) after much toil. The convention will vote on this clause in a secret ballot; the delegates will be instructed unequivocally by their ministers and MKs to vote against it, and there is no reason why they should disobey them.

This being so, the prevailing assessment now - also in Barak's new Knesset faction - is that Netanyahu will not try to guarantee anyone a slot, but will appoint Barak a "professional" defense minister after the elections, as he appointed Neeman (who is not a Knesset member ) justice minister in the present government. However, in contrast to the justice portfolio, the defense portfolio is an in-demand political and coalition item. It's hard to believe that after the next election, Netanyahu will be in such a strong position that he will be able to dispense with the crucial coalition bargaining card of the Defense Ministry and give it to Barak again.

On top of all this, an appointed minister such as Neeman cannot vote in the Knesset. In dramatic cases, of which the Israeli parliament has seen plenty, even one vote can be decisive. In the winter of 2003, Likud under Ariel Sharon won a sweeping election victory, garnering 38 seats, which became 40 seats thanks to the unification with Natan Sharansky's faction. On the eve of forming his second government, Sharon had many promising coalition options. But as the talks with the other factions wound down, he summoned to his office the two people who were in charge of the coalition negotiations: the then-freshman MK Gideon Sa'ar, whom Sharon had designated to be the chairman of the Likud faction and of the coalition, and his confidant and bureau chief, Uri Shani.

"I have a problem," Sharon told them. "I have two positions of minister without portfolio available and three candidates: Uzi Landau, Meir Sheetrit and Dan Meridor." In contrast to Landau and Sheetrit, Meridor had not run for a Knesset seat, but Sharon had promised to appoint him minister anyway. "What do I do?" Sharon wanted to know.

"It's obvious," Shani said. "Meridor is an amputee."

Sharon and Sa'ar looked at him incredulously.

"Meridor is an amputee," Shani repeated, "he doesn't have a finger [i.e., he won't be able to vote in the Knesset]. Sheetrit and Landau will be the two ministers. Meridor is out."

"Just a minute," Sa'ar said, "let's not rush into things. There are two important committees in the Knesset - Foreign Affairs and Defense, and Constitution, Law and Justice - and maybe one of these men will be ready to forgo a ministerial appointment and head one of those committees? That way we can appoint Meridor, too."

"I will check with them," Sharon said. A few hours later, he summoned Sa'ar and Shani again, and told Sa'ar and Shani: "They both prefer to be ministers." Thus was sealed the fate of the "finger-less" Meridor, who had to wait until 2009 before returning to the cabinet table - under the patronage of Sharon's greatest rival, Benjamin Netanyahu.

Identity crisis

Twelve days ago, in the weekly cabinet meeting, the prime minister urged the cabinet ministers "to be Kahlons." On Sunday, shortly before the end of the cabinet meeting, the ministers were asked, as they are every week, to approve trips abroad by their colleagues. Thus, the proposed trip by Moshe Kahlon to attend a conference of communications ministers came up for a vote.

Unusually, Minister Benny Begin asked for the floor. "Mr. Prime Minister," Begin said. "I spoke with Moshe last week. I raised a certain matter with him. I told him I had tried for three or four days to be a Kahlon, but without success. Maybe the prime minister will give me three or four pointers on how to be a Kahlon?"

"Look," Netanyahu said, "it's also possible to be a Steinitz, Katz, Sa'ar, Meridor, Silvan [Shalom], Gamliel or Bogey [Ya'alon]."

Begin did not relent: "You know Moshe. He smiles nicely, but keeps all his cards close to his chest. How does one become a Kahlon? I asked Zvika [cabinet secretary Zvi Hauser] to issue a government pamphlet: 'How to Become a Kahlon in 10 Easy Steps.' He told me, 'The treasury won't approve it.'

"Mr. Prime Minister," Begin continued, "this matter has gone further than you intended it to. Last Friday my children said, 'Dad, you will never get to be a Kahlon in your life.' Accordingly, I ask you to exempt people above the age of 65 from the necessity of being one."

Netanyahu concluded, by declaring: "Okay, so let everyone be a Begin."