With two months to go before Israelis go to the polls, the Labor Party opened a statistically significant lead over Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud for the first time since its mid-December alliance with Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah.
Of six polls released last Thursday and Friday, January 15 and 16, one — also the largest poll, with 830 respondents — showed Labor winning 24 seats to Likud’s 20 in the 120-member Knesset, while another showed Labor leading 25 seats to 22. The remaining four polls showed Labor ahead by one or two seats, the gap that’s separated the two parties as they’ve scrabbled for the lead over the past five weeks. (All the latest polls can be found here.)
Most observers called Labor’s new lead a post-primary bump, following the January 13 party vote that boosted women and popular young social activists to the top of the slate. At the same time, Netanyahu might be suffering from the bad publicity he got from his clumsily planned and executed trip to Paris for the post-Charlie Hebdo solidarity demonstration.
The polls don’t change the fact that the Likud still holds an advantage in the bargaining to form a coalition that will follow the election. The Likud has a natural ally to its right in Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home party, which has been polling consistently in third place with about 16 seats. Labor’s equivalent to its left is Meretz, which is polling at 5 or 6 seats. Thus Likud begins the post-election coalition bargaining with a solid 38 to 40 seats lined up, while Labor begins with about 30.
Labor’s coalition-building disadvantage could potentially be closed by Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party, which left the Netanyahu coalition on particularly bitter terms in December and is widely considered unlikely to go back into a new Likud-led government after the election. Netanyahu himself vowed December 23 that he wouldn’t give Lapid a ministry in a new government. All this suggests that Yesh Atid will likely be in the Labor camp when the post-election bargaining begins.
Lapid will drop considerably from the 19 seats he won in the 2013 elections, but his fall doesn’t seem likely to be as severe as once feared. He was polling in single digits through much of December. Polls last week showed him winning from a low of 7 to as many as 12 seats.
Lapid is a double-edged sword for Labor, though. If the current poll numbers hold up — and with slight variations they’ve been remarkably stable for a month — then any conceivable Labor-led coalition will have to include the Haredi parties, Shas and Torah Judaism.
Alert readers may have read my column from last week, explaining what the World Zionist Congress is about, how the American delegation is elected and why anyone should care enough to vote.
Well, the online polls are now open. To register and vote, you need to pay $10 (via credit card) and affirm that you are Jewish (no details as to how that’s defined), live in the United States, will be 18 by next June 30 and agree to a rather bland statement of principles known as the Jerusalem Program of 1968, the text of which appears on the form. For your convenience I’ve copied it below, after the jump.
Click here to register and vote.
You’ll find a list of the 11 parties running slates of candidates. Each party name is accompanied by a link to its platform and another link to its candidate slate, listed in order. Whatever percentage of the total vote a party gets, that’s the percentage of the 145-member American delegation it can fill.
You’ll note that while most of the parties make it pretty plain who they are, if not in their name then at least once you click on the platform, several have names and platforms that sound like each other and give no clue as to who or what you’re voting for. Here, then, is a quick guide for the perplexed voter:
All bets are off regarding the outcome of Israel’s March elections, thanks to a massive corruption investigation involving senior figures in Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party. See the details here.
Early signs suggest it could cripple his political career, even though he hasn’t been implicated. And it might badly hurt the chances of the Labor-Livni alliance to lead the next government.
More than two dozen people were arrested on Wednesday on suspicion of involvement in a huge bribery and kickback scheme. They include a deputy cabinet minister, a former cabinet minister, top party officials and numerous current and former local government heads and non-profit managers. Allegations include demanding and paying kickbacks in return for government budgets and contracts as well as hiring relatives of government and party officials.
The top suspect, Knesset member Faina Kirschenbaum, is deputy interior minister, secretary-general of the party organization and one of Lieberman’s closest confidantes. One of the allegations is that the Beef Cattle Growers’ Association gave her daughter Ranit a job in return for certain considerations.
Hours before Israel’s Knesset voted Monday evening to disperse and head to elections, Prime Minister Netanyahu asked the finance committee to approve an “emergency” grant to settlements in the West Bank of some 160 million shekels ($40 million).
Netanyahu was acting in his capacity as acting finance minister, following his firing last week of incumbent finance minister Yair Lapid.
The allocation request was blocked in committee by the ranking representative of the opposition Shas party on the committee, Yitzhak Cohen. Cohen is an outspoken peace advocate and a close ally of Shas leader Arye Deri.
A revote on the settlements grant was then rescheduled for Tuesday by committee chair Nissan Slomiansky of Naftali Bennett’s settler-backed Jewish Home party.
On Monday evening, following the committee’s rejection of the settlements grant, the Finance Ministry submitted a request to the committee for a $38 million allocation to the Shas school network, Ma’ayan HaTorah.
Lapid’s party, Yesh Atid, condemned the school funding request as an attempt to buy Shas’s votes for the settlement grant. Yesh Atid asked the Knesset legal adviser to investigate, but was turned down.
Cohen of Shas countered that the school allocation was merely an installment of a routine allocation to Shas schools, contained within the 2014 state budget approved by the Knesset months ago. He said it would not affect Shas’s votes on the settlements grant.
The Finance Ministry confirmed Cohen’s account of the allocation request. However, the prime minister’s office said it was unaware of a previous approval for the allocation.
The settlements request included 95 million shekels ($24 million) in direct grants to settlements for security and other needs, plus 70 million shekels ($18 million) for operating costs of the Settlement Division of the World Zionist Organization.
The Settlement Division is a nominally independent body, attached to the non-profit WZO but funded by the government, that carries out most of the contracting work for settlement construction and expansion in the territories. Its status as a stand-alone section of an international non-profit organization is a little-known but important part of the reason why the settlement movement is frequently able to operate outside the normal constraints of Israeli law.
The determination that the Israeli infantry officer thought to have been captured is in fact dead has changed the trajectory of Israel’s military campaign in Gaza, Operation Protective Edge, which now appears to be winding down.
Military officers were quoted by Walla News and Haaretz late Saturday night as saying that IDF engineers will be finished within a day with the demolition of the 31 Hamas attack tunnels that have been identified leading into Israel. Numerous Israeli and Palestinian news outlets report that troops have begun withdrawing from the populated areas of the Gaza Strip to a staging area along the border fence, where they will remain until the Israeli government decides its next steps. The government said it will continue air strikes against rocket launchers and other offensive targets.
Even before Friday’s abortive cease-fire, the question of how much longer Israel should continue the operation was becoming a political football in Jerusalem last week. Senior military officers told reporters that the mission they were assigned was nearly done and that they were waiting for the government to decide whether to push on or pull back. Cabinet ministers on the right replied that it was up to the military to decide whether the country was safe or not.
The question appeared to become moot Friday morning after a Givati infantry brigade officer, Second Lieutenant Hadar Goldin, 23, was reported to have been snatched by Hamas gunmen during an ambush near the city of Rafah and spirited away into a tunnel. Troops closed off Rafah and began a house-to-house search for the missing officer. That led to expectations of a prolonged dragnet like the one conducted in the search for the three kidnapped yeshiva students in the West Bank in June.
On Saturday evening, however, the army’s personnel chief and chief rabbi reported that they had determined that Goldin was dead, relying on “medical, halachic and other considerations” based on “evidence from the battlefield.”
That reopened the political debate over whether Operation Protective Edge was nearing its end or approaching a new stage, and what would constitute victory. Prime Minister Netanyahu spoke to the press (Hebrew, English) at IDF headquarters Saturday night and essentially punted: He indicated that the army had done a fine job in taking care of the tunnels, but said that operations would continue as needed.
Avigdor Liberman at Likud-Beiteinu campaign rally, December 2012 / Getty Images
Israeli Foreign Avigdor Liberman announced today that he was pulling his Yisrael Beiteinu party out of its electoral alliance with Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud. The two combined forces in a joint electoral slate in advance of last year’s Knesset elections, but never merged the two parties into a single organization.
Liberman isn’t taking his party out of Netanyahu’s governing coalition, he told a press conference this morning. Nor is he quitting his job as foreign minister. Still, the split of the erstwhile Likud-Beiteinu alliance into two separate Knesset caucuses leaves Netanyahu in a precarious position, commanding just 20 lawmakers in his 68-member coalition.
Liberman’s split with Netanyahu comes after days of increasingly harsh squabbling over policy toward Hamas. Liberman has repeatedly called for the government to step up its attacks on Hamas, including a reoccupation of Gaza on the scale of Operaiton Defensive Shield in 2002. On Saturday, appearing in the southern city of Sderot, he slammed as “unthinkable” and “a serious mistake” Netanyahu’s offer to Hamas of a restored cease-fire, or “quiet in return for quiet.”
The dispute reached a climax at the weekly Sunday cabinet meeting, where Netanyahu and Liberman traded insults while ministers on the right lined up with Liberman and Netanyahu’s strongest support came from his usual critics to his left, including Yair Lapid, Tzipi Livni and environment minister (and onetime Labor Party chief) Amir Peretz.
Netanyahu now heads a coalition of five parties in which his own Likud, nominally the governing party, holds a plurality only by the narrowest margin. Of the coalition’s 68 lawmakers (in the 120-member Knesset), 20 belong to the Likud, 19 to finance minister Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, 12 to economy minister Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home, 11 to Liberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu and 6 to justice minister Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah.
Im Tirtzu, the right-wing Israeli truth squad best known for bashing the New Israel Fund, allowed itself a victory lap this week after taking credit for an “emergency” gathering in the Knesset on “delegitimization of Israel.”
Unfortunately, as with so much else the organization touches, the facts of the case are a bit murky. Im Tirtzu claimed in a press release afterward (full text appears below) that it had participated in a meeting of the Knesset Caucus on the Struggle Against De-legitimization of the State of Israel. The meeting’s topic, it said, was “organizations claiming to be Zionist, but which actually espouse BDS philosophies,” alluding to Im Tirtzu’s conspiratorial view of the New Israel Fund. The meeting had been convened, the release said, “as a result of Im Tirtzu’s campaign” to link the New Israel Fund with the BDS movement.
But a news report on the pro-settler news site Arutz Sheva-Israel National News said the caucus had convened “for an emergency discussion on the topic of anti-Israel boycotts in the wake of the rise of the extreme right in Europe.” The report cited Im Tirtzu leader Matan Peleg as one of a string of speakers, most of whom focused their remarks on European antisemitism, the shooting attack at the Brussels Jewish Museum and what’s been described as a link between the shooting and anti-Israel incitement.
The delegitimization caucus is one of 132 such groupings of Knesset members registered with the speaker’s office to advance specific causes. They range from promotion of Israeli-Arab peace to annexation of the West Bank, higher education, autism awareness, Israeli Arab economic development and a one-member “Tuesdays without meat” caucus.
The May 27 meeting reportedly drew several dozen attendees, including a half-dozen guest speakers, all but one of them right-wing specialists in left-wing perfidy, as well as seven Knesset members. The seven included four from the settler-backed HaBayit HaYehudi-Jewish Home party, two from Yisrael Beiteinu and one, caucus chairman Nissim Ze’ev, from Shas.
According to several reports, including a detailed account at the Haredi website Kooker, Ze’ev opened the meeting with a declaration that “delegitimization leads to anti-Semitism and antisemitism leads to terrorism.” He called for “dealing with” sources of funding for organizations that promote delegitimization and “exposing their true face,” as there are some that “pose as Zionist organizations.”
African asylum-seekers protest outside Israel’s Holot detention center in the Negev, February 2014 / Getty Images
Prime Minister Netanyahu’s chief of staff, Harel Locker, has asked the state’s mismanagement watchdog to bury an upcoming report on the treatment of African migrants and asylum seekers, on grounds that publication would harm Israel’s international relations and national security.
The report on migrants is due out in May as part of the annual State Comptroller’s Report, which reviews the performance of government agencies. The report is expected to charge that the government has no consistent policy for dealing with the tens of thousands of African migrants and asylum seekers who have entered the country since 2007 by illegally crossing the border from Sinai. By a combination of inaction and direct intention, the report is said to claim, the government has subjected the migrants to an inhumane and arguably illegal regime of harassment and dehumanization.
About 50,000 people entered before the influx was effectively cut off last year by the construction of a border barrier similar to the security barrier cutting off the West Bank. Most are from Sudan and Eritrea, where many claim they were subject to government persecution. Israel’s interior ministry has taken the position that nearly all the migrants are simply looking for work, not fleeing persecution.
The government has granted group protection to the migrants from those countries, shielding them from deportation to their home countries where they might face persecution or death. But nearly all have been prevented from applying for refugee status, which would afford them rights to employment, housing, education and social services as well as access to identity and travel documents under the 1951 United Nations Convention on Refugees to which Israel is a signatory. As a result, most have gravitated to impoverished south Tel Aviv, where they subsist in a sort of legal limbo. The emergence of the massive migrant population has prompted fierce protests from residents of south Tel Aviv and led to repeated social tensions.
The comptroller’s report is said to accuse the government, particularly the prime minister’s office, of failing to coordinate the numerous ministries and agencies involved in the migrants’ treatment, allowing agencies to shift responsibility from one to the next and avoid formulating any long-term policy. Although the influx has largely ended and several thousand have been induced to relocate to third countries at Israel’s expense, the vast majority are expected to remain in Israel indefinitely if not permanently.
Most controversially, the report is believed to charge that Israel’s handling of the migrants puts it in violation of the U.N. refugee convention, which was drafted, largely at Israel’s initiative, in response to the international abandonment of Jewish refugees during World War II.
Those who read my Friday blog post about the Israel-Diaspora deliberations going on in Jerusalem this week might have noticed that I mentioned a paradox in the way the discussions are going, but I never detailed the substance of the paradox. The sun was setting over the Mediterranean before I had a chance to finish my thought. So let’s try it again.
There are two main topics on minds of delegates attending the governing council meetings of the Jewish Agency, the World Zionist Organization and the Jewish Federations of North America. One is Jewish religious pluralism in Israel—the monopoly of the Orthodox rabbinate over Jewish religious life and the limits and hurdles placed before non-Orthodox denominations. The other is the Pew survey of Jewish Americans released October 1, with its stark intimations of a steady dilution in the strength of non-Orthodox Judaism. News summary], full survey report.
The first, religious pluralism, tops the agenda of Reform, Conservative and other liberal delegates to the various meetings. They make up a majority of the American delegations at all the major gatherings. True, Americans aren’t a majority at these events; Americans make up about 40% of world Jewry, Israelis another 40% and the rest of the world about 20%, and the non-Orthodox denominations are weak outside America. But the liberal denominations have formed an alliance with the left-wing Zionist delegations from Labor and Meretz, partly to counter the longstanding alliance between Likud and Orthodox. The result is that the liberals dominate wherever you look.
Jerusalem is having an unusually mild fall. November began amid sunny skies, temperatures in the high 60s, light breezes and just the slightest hint of feathery drizzle to announce that after a bone-dry October, the rainy season was finally about to return.
Diaspora Jews are returning too. No, not the waves of immigration that generations of Israelis have been impatiently waiting for. These are the pro-Israel charities and advocacy organizations that gather periodically to review their work, pump up their spirits and sort out their differences. There’s a host of interlocking and overlapping boards, councils and delegate assemblies that meet in various parts of the world at various times of year. This week, in what’s apparently intended as a show of force at a time when Israel’s leadership feels it needs it, they’re coming to town at once for a rolling series of seminars, committee meetings, pep rallies and gala dinners, punctuated by walking tours and hokey musical performances.
Most Israelis hardly notice. It’s keeping Israel’s senior leaders busy, though. President Shimon Peres, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and various cabinet ministers have been hopping from hotel to convention center and back, delivering mostly the same speeches to mostly the same faces in slightly different formats. Peres talks again and again about the miracle of Israel’s growth and her love of peace. Netanyahu talks about the threats to which Israel will never surrender. Most eloquent is Natan Sharansky, the chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, who talks about the challenges of the Jewish future, the meaning of courage and his days in a Soviet prison, though with his thickly Russian-accented English nobody is ever sure exactly what he’s saying.
First, there’s the annual General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America. That’s the big one. It meets in a different city every November, usually in America but once every decade or so in Jerusalem. It starts on Sunday afternoon. It usually draws thousands of delegates from across North America, though it’s being whispered around town in worried tones that attendance numbers are down this year.
Then there’s the annual Assembly of the Jewish Agency, the Jerusalem-based social service body that gets most of its money from the federations. Its governing bodies are split roughly half-and-half between the federation donors who raise the money and Israeli politicians and bureaucrats who spend it. The agency Assembly started on Friday and ends Sunday night, when the federation Assembly begins. The agency’s smaller board of governors convenes after the federation Assembly ends next week. For the senior leaders in the System, as this network of organizations is known—people like Sharansky, board chairman James Tisch and key local federation leaders and Israeli agency department heads—that’s a week and a half of solid, mind-numbing meetings.
With the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations operating under a tightly sealed cone of silence imposed by Secretary of State John Kerry, Middle East policy junkies have developed an elaborate guessing game that takes the form of a will-he-or-won’t-he dissection of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s intentions.
The idea is to examine what’s known about Netanyahu’s past, his psychological makeup, his current actions and his relationship with the rest of his Likud party, and then to guess whether he’s likely to embrace a two-state peace agreement that’s broad enough for the Palestinian side to buy into—assuming that they’re serious about making a deal as well. For aficionados of the game, the end point is to decide whether Bibi Is Ready to Cross the Rubicon.
The Rubicon was all the rage in the hallways of the Washington Convention Center during the J Street conference this week. Given that it’s J Street, one might have supposed going in that the popular answer would be No, that Bibi isn’t ready to cross. But that wasn’t the case. Talking to Knesset members, Israeli and American policy wonks and journalists, the betting was more or less even. And if you listened closely, what it really came down to was a sort of Israeli version of the Hastert Rule.
I refer, of course, to the rule imposed on the Republican majority in the House of Representatives by former House speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois, under which a bill normally didn’t come to the floor unless it was backed by a majority of the majority. That is, a bill had to have the backing of a majority of the Republican caucus. Only in extraordinary circumstances would the speaker let a bill come be passed by a minority of the Republicans joined by a large number of Democrats. The Israeli equivalent is the rule that the prime minister doesn’t bring a bill to the Knesset unless it’s first approved by a majority of his Cabinet and of his own party.
Israel’s latest announcement of permits for 1,200 new housing units in the West Bank and East Jerusalem has stirred a hornets’ nest of angry responses. Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said it could undermine the negotiating process before it’s even started. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said America does “not accept the legitimacy of continued settlement activity” and had communicated its “concerns” to the Israeli government. And Haaretz diplomatic correspondent Barak Ravid wrote in a scathing blog post today that Bibi Netanyahu still hasn’t decided whether he’s ready to “cross the Rubicon.”
The 1,200 units cleared for developers’ bids by the Housing Ministry are only one in a series of provocative moves in the last week. The Defense Ministry’s West Bank Civil Administration announced last week that 878 new units have received the second stage of clearance. And the cabinet voted August 4 to put 90 settlements, including four formerly illegal outposts, on the “national priority” list of 600 communities eligible for government grants, tax breaks and more. Haaretz’s Barak, quoting a “senior Israeli official close to the prime minister,” wrote that “on one hand,” Netanyahu
has stepped into the water and started marching toward the other bank. But on the other hand, he is looking back every few seconds, and for every step forward, he is allowing the current to push him back three steps.
Only the settler news service Arutz Sheva-Israel National News seems to have noticed that nothing actually happened. The new settlement announcements are just that—announcements, the service notes disapprovingly. Turning the talk into action requires a great many interim steps. Here’s how it breaks down:
The race for chief rabbi of Israel has been getting ugly since the collapse of a proposed deal between Shas and Jewish Home to elect their respective favorites. The deal would have amended the Chief Rabbinate laws to permit a second term for the incumbent Sephardic chief rabbi, a Shas favorite, and eliminated the age limit to permit the election of a favorite of the hardline, pro-settler of Jewish Home. The deal collapsed over liberal support for a more moderate Ashkenazi contender, as well as opposition to anything that benefits Shas.
The leading candidate for Sephardic chief rabbi is now Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, chief rabbi of Safed and son of the late Mordechai Eliyahu, former chief rabbi and longtime spiritual mentor of the National Religious Party. The younger Eliyahu is currently the subject of furious behind-the-scenes politicking by liberals who want to stop his candidacy, led by Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Labor Party lawmaker Eitan Cabel. The reason: a long record of extreme racism, including his notorious 2010 dictum forbidding the sale or rental of homes to Arabs.
Livni, whose Justice Ministry would be in charge of Chief Rabbi Eliyahu (since the Sephardic chief rabbi is the head of the rabbinical court system, which is under the Justice Ministry), met with Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein last month to look for legal ways to block Eliyahu. Weinstein was dubious about the legal grounds, according to Nahum Barnea in today’s Yediot Ahronot. Barnea quoted Livni as insisting: “This is intolerable. After all, we’re talking about the position of chief rabbi. What will his election do to Israel’s image abroad? He mustn’t be elected.”
Livni wanted to base legal action on an indictment issued against Eliyahu in 2002 on charges of racism after he called for the expulsion of the Arab population of Safed. Weinstein pointed out that the state attorney’s office dropped the charges in 2006 after Eliyahu agreed to apologize, which would undermine the legal grounds for blocking him now.
On Wednesday, however (presumably after Barnea had filed his Friday Supplement column), Haaretz reported that Weinstein had agreed to conduct a legal inquiry if Eliyahu’s name is formally put in nomination.
The Haaretz story linked above includes some of Eliyahu’s most controversial quotes. The Israel Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism has put together a longer list of Eliyahu’s most objectionable public statements.
Barnea points out, however, that stopping Eliyahu could be a mixed blessing. His main competition, Barnea reports, is Rabbi Avraham Yosef, a son of the former Sephardic chief rabbi and current Shas party mentor Ovadia Yosef. Though less prominent in the press, Barnea says, Yosef could be considered even more racist—and misogynistic and anti-democratic, to boot—than Eliyahu. In part this is a reflection of their ideological backgrounds: Eliyahu comes from the religious Zionist movement and recognizes the legitimacy of the state and its institutions, while Yosef emerges from a Haredi worldview that’s much more ambivalent on the question. It’s said, though, that Avraham Yosef is considered something of an extremist even within his own family.
To make his case, Barnea put together a list of parallel statements by the two for comparison. Here’s my translation:
That fight within the Jewish Home party over nominations for chief rabbi has more to it than meets the eye. True, it opens up a fault line within the religious Zionist movement, between the liberal wing that backs Rabbi David Stav and the more religiously conservative wing that backs Rabbi Yaakov Ariel. But it’s also a test of Arye Deri’s authority in his new position as sole head of the Sephardic ultra-Orthodox Shas party. And that has powerful implications for, of all things, the peace process.
The internal fight within the Jewish Home has been building for weeks as leaders of the so-called Hardal wing (Hardal is an acronym for Haredi Dati Leumi—the mainly settler-based wing of the religious Zionist movement that’s moving more and more in the direction of Haredim on ritual matters) have been pushing back against party leader Naftali Bennett’s oh-so-cozy relationship with secularist Yair Lapid. The feud came to a head yesterday (Sunday) when a group of senior Zionist rabbis convened under the leadership of Rabbi Haim Druckman to endorse Ariel. This is reported to be part of a deal with Shas and its old-new leader, Arye Deri, under which Ariel becomes Ashkenazic chief rabbi and Shlomo Amar, a Shas favorite, gets an unprecedented second 10-year term as Sephardic chief rabbi.
The 150-member chief rabbinical council, which chooses the chief rabbis, has been controlled for decades by Haredim and has been moving further to the right on matters of marriage, divorce, conversion, burial and everything else under the rabbinate’s jurisdiction. This trend reached absurd proportions in 2007 and 2008, when Haredi rabbis began wholesale annulment of conversions officiated by special rabbinical tribunals under Druckman’s leadership. Those tribunals had been set up a decade earlier, after long negotiations involving the Reform and Conservative movements, aimed at easing the increasingly strict standards of conversion. (Basically, Haredi rabbis have a very high benchmark for judging whether the convert actually intends to live an Orthodox lifestyle—if not, the conversion is ruled invalid.) The annulments were finally overruled by Israel’s Supreme Court just last week.
At the other end, growing numbers of young non-religious Israelis have been choosing not to get married because of the unpleasantness of dealing with the Haredi rabbis who dominate the state rabbinate. Some go to Cyprus for a civil wedding, some ask a local Reform rabbi to officiate even though it has no legal status, and many simply live together.
Responding to the trend, a group of liberal Orthodox rabbis in 1996 formed Tzohar, a rabbinical union that performs user-friendly weddings. Since then Tzohar has been playing cat-and-mouse with the Chief Rabbinate, which requires couples to be married by the local municipal rabbinate in the town where they live. Tzohar is a national organization and sends rabbis around to work with couples wherever they live, using loopholes to get around the municipal registration requirement.
Last fall Tzohar supporters began mounting a campaign to boost the group’s CEO, Rabbi David Stav, for Ashkenazic chief rabbi. Not surprisingly, the campaign has aroused the ire of the current Chief Rabbinate. Stav has the support of Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party, Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah party and Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party, all of which are secular parties with a handful liberal Orthodox figures in the leadership of each.
Shas, the Sephardic Orthodox Israeli political party founded by Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, is experiencing what looks increasingly like an internal power struggle. The rebels represent something that most people didn’t even know existed: the party’s progressive wing.
Shas was launched in 1984 by Yosef and his protégé, Aryeh Deri. The platform included strict Orthodoxy coupled with Sephardic ethic pride, along with a progressive economic agenda, described in the party’s platform as “social democratic,” aimed at the party’s mostly working class base. It also had a foreign policy based on Yosef’s endorsement of trading land for peace. In 1999, however, Deri was sentenced to three years in prison for taking bribes. In his place as party chief (and interior minister) Yosef appointed the hawkish, deeply conservative Eli Yishai, who has steered the party ever further to the right in the past decade. Yishai is now commonly referred to as the most right-wing member of the Netanyahu cabinet.
Yosef, now 90, has been more hesitant about territorial compromise in recent years, but ordered Yishai to accept last spring’s settlement construction freeze despite Yishai’s objections. He has also balanced the hawkish Yishai against the more dovish and economically progressive Ariel Attias, housing minister and party No. 2, while visibly appearing to lean toward Yishai. Yosef’s image has suffered from his verbal outbursts against Palestinians, giving him a reputation as an opponent of the peace process despite his support for it and deepening the alienation between Shas and the left.
Yishai is now under siege, badly weakened by the scandal that erupted after the Carmel forest fires exposed the neglect of the country’s fire-fighting apparatus, which is under his ministry. Yishai claims he is being made a scapegoat, a victim of anti-Haredi bigotry. But that’s only part of his trouble. Reports have been rife for months that Deri, having completed the seven-year ban from public life that followed his release from prison in 2003, is now angling to return to the party leadership. He doesn’t deny the reports. Increasingly in recent days, the unrest within the party ranks is being linked to Deri.
We’ve been talking a lot lately about the rising proportion of ultra-Orthodox or Haredi Jews in the Israeli population, and the various challenges it poses to Israeli society. Most dramatic are the declining proportion of 18-year-olds who will be available for military service, since the great majority of Haredi men claim an exemption as full-time yeshiva students, and the economic problems created by all those adult yeshiva students.
Well, there are some dramatic new developments in the past few days that haven’t gotten much play over here. The biggest news is the open revolt of a Haredi member of Knesset, Rabbi Haim Amsallem of Shas, who has caused a furor among Haredi leaders by calling openly for a sharp reduction in yeshiva deferments. He wants army deferments limited to outstanding students who are headed for the active rabbinate. Everyone else should go into the army and then go to work. He’s said it before in Haredi forums, but he caused an explosion November 5 when he laid out his views in a controversial Maariv interview, hinting that he’s thinking of quitting Shas and forming a new religious party that works for moderation and coexistence. Party leaders are demanding that he quit the Knesset and let Shas reassign his seat, but he says he won’t, even if he’s told to do so by the party’s spiritual patron, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef.
Meanwhile, in a sign of the mounting concern in the army over the growing numbers of young men going to yeshiva instead of the army, the head of the Israel Defense Forces manpower division, Major General Avi Zamir, called a press briefing November 18 to report the latest numbers. As reported in Maariv, Zamir said that by 2020, just 10 years from now, fully 60% of Israelis (he’s apparently referring to men) will not go into the army or won’t finish their three-year compulsory service. Most of the increase is a result of the burgeoning Haredi population, he said.
And in a closely related story, Haaretz reported that the IDF Logistics Department has admitted it has frozen the number of one-year deferments granted to draftees to spend a pre-army gap year in certain traditional programs, mainly volunteer service in underprivileged neighborhoods, pre-army training academies and the Nahal fighting-and-farming corps that prepares units to join or form kibbutzim. The deferments are being cut back because of the army’s growing worries over troop strength, mainly because of yeshiva deferments.
Maariv’s ace reporter Ben Kaspit reports in an article (Hebrew only) posted on the paper’s Web site Thursday morning that Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual mentor of the Shas party, has endorsed a freeze on new Israeli construction in East Jerusalem in order to maintain good relations with the United States.
According to Kaspit, Yosef made the comments to Israeli President Shimon Peres during Peres’s Passover courtesy call to the rabbi on Friday morning, April 2. He cited sources who were present at the meeting. Yosef is quoted as saying Israel “must do everything to settle matters with the United States, we must pay any price to restore relations, we must not provoke the nations of the world…” He is further quoted as saying that it’s possible to stop building in Jerusalem for a certain period and focus efforts on other regions such as the center of the country, and there would be no harm in resuming construction in a few years, after the crisis has passed.
Yosef has been a longtime advocate of trading land for peace. His party leaders tend to be far more hawkish than he is, but follow his instructions on critical votes.
Shas party chairman Eli Yishai, Yosef’s chief disciple and the Cabinet’s most vociferous opponent of compromise in Jerusalem, reportedly told Maariv in response to a query about Yosef’s words that nothing of the sort took place. The president’s aides declined comment.
Kaspit speculates that Yosef’s statements will complicate Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s efforts to deflect White House pressure for a construction freeze on grounds that his coalition would collapse.
When Israel’s Interior Ministry announced approval of plans for 1,600 new homes for Orthodox Jews in East Jerusalem on Monday, March 8, embarrassing the visiting Vice President Joe Biden, Interior Minister Eli Yishai of the Sephardic Orthodox Shas party found himself in the hot seat. After toughing it out for two days while the heat kept rising–President Obama himself singled out the Shas leader for blame at one point–Yishai decided to eat some humble pie.
Not a big helping, mind you. In talmudic terms his slice of pie might be described as kazayit–no bigger than an olive and therefore not legally actionable. He apologized for the timing of the announcement, but not for the construction plan itself. As the Jerusalem Post reported,
Yishai did not call the vice president directly but he passed along a message that he regretted the timing of the announcement, which was not discussed with him or with other senior ministry officials. He said he was unaware that a planning committee in Jerusalem would be discussing the matter during Biden’s visit and that had he had known about the matter, he would have recommended that the announcement be delayed.
“The approval was a purely technical matter and we had no intention of insulting or seeking a confrontation with the US vice president,” Yishai said in radio interviews.
Still, you might suppose that the gesture cleared things up and got Yishai and Shas back in the good graces of the White House. But you would suppose wrong. Eight days later, on Thursday, March 17, an editorial appeared in Day to Day, the Shas party’s official daily newspaper, calling President Obama a “Palestinian stone throwing youth in East Jerusalem, and not a strategic leader,” according to a report in Haaretz.
Shas is a relative late-comer to Israeli politics. It arose in the mid-1980s as a voice for the grievances of the so-called Mizrahi Jews, immigrants and children of immigrants from the Arab and Muslim world. So it’s an outfit that knows a thing or two about prejudice and discrimination.
As the party organ explained it, Obama’s demand for a building freeze in East Jerusalem is “a creative solution coming from an Islamic extremist.”
But, it said, the president’s supposed Muslim faith hadn’t prepared him for the complexities of the Middle East. “He does not understand his mistake, but at the end of the day, it will harm him and the U.S.,” the editorial said.
“While Obama is a Muslim, he does not know the Arabs who live amongst us. Today it is here, but tomorrow it will be in the U.S. and Europe.”
Bibi Netanyahu is due in Washington next week to address the annual AIPAC Policy Conference. Nahum Barnea of Yediot Ahronot, the lead political commentator at Israel’s largest-circulation newspaper and widely considered the dean of Israeli journalism, has some advice for him. If you’re relying on the Jewish right as your main base of support in the United States, you’re walking on thin ice. It’s a bad bet.
It’s something you don’t hear much from Israelis, though it’s gaining currency.
Here’s some of what Barnea has to say:
When Benjamin Netanyahu will arrive at the AIPAC Conference in Washington next week, he will be received with great enthusiasm. The audience will stand up and applaud. The youngsters will cheer. The venue will settle down only once the chairman repeatedly appeals for quiet. The Israeli prime minister will feel like a rock star; like a conqueror.
The loudest of all will be the boys in the knitted skullcaps; the decedents of Orthodox families. Meanwhile, the wealthy individuals on stage will grace Netanyahu with the warmest embraces; most of them are major Republican Party donors. The clash between Netanyahu and the Obama Administration is their finest hour. Israel’s confrontation with Obama is their entry ticket to the non-Jewish world of Republican America.
The occasion will be intoxicating, but possibly deceptive as well. For a moment, the prime minister of Israel will forget where he came from and whose interests he represents. The sobering up process shall come later.
Israel is gradually losing the support of the liberal camp within America’s Jewish community. This is a process that did not start with Netanyahu, Lieberman, or Eli Yishai. It has many reasons and not all of them have to do with the policy of Israeli governments or with the occupation. Many members of this camp stay away not only from commitment to Israel but also from commitment to Judaism.