Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gestures during a special cabinet meeting for Jerusalem Day, held in the Western Wall tunnels in Jerusalem's Old City May 28, 2017. REUTERS/Gali Tibbon/Pool

Political bits and pieces: Bibi forever (for now)


1.

Israeli polls indicate that the in the last few weeks Israel’s political landscape has changed a little in favor of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The Likud Party is getting stronger, centrist Yesh Atid is losing power. The coalition is maintaining its current strength. The opposition is not in a better position to take over than it was two years ago.

What’s the reason for this? Trump might have helped Netanyahu by having a good and friendly visit. The opposition is relatively silent, because there’s no election in sight. It is also fractured. The Labor Party will be having a primary election in a month, and eight candidates are challenging the leader of the party – a fact that does not instill much confidence in the ability of this party to seriously challenge the dominance of Netanyahu.

2.

Elections? Netanyahu has no reason to push for another round of elections. Other parties in the coalition hardly have any incentive to initiate elections. The opposition does not have the power to force elections. This means no elections any time soon, unless Trump makes it impossible for the coalition to keep functioning by advancing a peace process of the kind that some parties can’t live with.

The chances of this happening? The visit makes it seem less likely. The polls makes the threshold of an intolerable peace process less clear. In other words: with a meager nine seats predicted by the polls, is it more appealing for the Jewish Home to quit the coalition (in the hope of having the opponents of a peace process coalesce around it) – or maybe the nine seats all but guarantee that the Jewish Home will not take the risk of leaving the coalition and becoming an almost marginal party?

3.

Looking at the race in the Labor Party, one can subscribe to one of four schools of thought:

A. It does not matter, the Labor Party is no longer important (11-12 seats in recent polls).

B. With the right leader the party can bounce back – so it actually does matter.

C. The Labor primaries are a first step in a long journey of building a united anti-Bibi front (hence it needs a leader that is willing to take part in building such a coalition, disregarding his own personal role in the ultimate political arrangement).

D. The primaries are a first step in an even longer journey of rebuilding the party – a process that is not about the next election, but rather about the more distant future.

4.

Another party is in trouble. The leader of the Haredi Shas party, Aryeh Deri, is under investigation. Deri is a convicted felon. In the past he was tried, convicted, served time in jail, and made a comeback. In fact, it was an impressive comeback of one of the most impressive natural leaders we have. Deri is not a small politician with a lowercase P. He is a leader of people, a symbol. He is the man preserving Shas following the death of its founder, Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef.

Of course, it is much too early to speculate on the future of Shas if Deri’s legal problems become impossible to overcome. Shas in not like Avigdor Lieberman’s Israeli Beiteinu (no Lieberman, no party). It is also not like the Likud Party (without Netanyahu, the Likud would still have the best chance to come on top). Shas is a question mark. It might survive without Deri, but this is not a certainty.

5.

Open questions:

Is Ehud Barak running for Prime Minister? (He is probably looking for an opening.)

Will anyone within the Likud Party challenge Netanyahu? (Doesn’t seem like it for now.)

Can Yair Lapid maintain his good ratings for another two years of relative silence? (Netanyahu wants him to dry for as long as possible, for now.)

Will we see a new left-of-center party? (Ego and chances for success will make or break such an option.)

Will there be a large anti-Bibi bloc? (Lapid could be the key, and currently he does not want to be a part of it.)

In first ruling, new Shas leader pans women in academics


The new spiritual leader of the Sephardic Orthodox Shas movement said women should not pursue academic studies.

Rabbi Shalom Cohen said in an official letter published Monday on the haredi Orthodox website Kikar HaShabbat that women’s participation in academic pursuits, including in haredi colleges, is a violation of Jewish law. It was Cohen’s first official ruling since assuming his position.

Cohen, the president of the Shas Council of Torah Sages, in April succeeded Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who died in October. Yosef’s daughter, Adina Bar-Shalom, in 2001 founded the Haredi College of Jerusalem, an institution supported by her late father.

“Our rabbis, the sages of Israel, unconditionally opposed academic study and even in the Haredi colleges, since a significant number of professors are university graduates and do not uphold the pure religious worldview on which the girls were raised,” Cohen wrote.

“In addition, the material in the colleges is based on research and scientific methods that contravene the Torah. Therefore, students should not even consider going to learn academic studies in any framework, since this is not the way of the Torah.”

 

Jerusalem highway to be named for Ovadia Yosef


A new highway into Jerusalem will be named for the late Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual leader of the Shas party.

Route 16, which will run near the neighborhoods of western Jerusalem and pass through Har Nof, where Yosef lived, will be named for the former chief Sephardic rabbi of Israel who died last week, Transportation Minister Israel Katz said Sunday.

“Route 16 symbolically makes a connection between two great men — [former prime minister] Menachem Begin and Rabbi Ovadia Yosef — through the two main entrances to the city,” Katz said, according to the Times of Israel.

[RELATED: Rav Ovadia Yosef: A personal eulogy]

The Begin highway also passes through Jerusalem and is undergoing expansion. The two roads are slated to connect to each other.

“Rabbi Ovadia was a great figure for the entire nation of Israel, and a great figure for the city of Jerusalem,” Katz said.

Construction on Route 16 is scheduled to begin next year.

Can Bibi’s wife Sara spoil Israel’s coalition?


Forging a coalition is, without a doubt, the most difficult part of the election process in Israel.

After a long, hard fought and often ugly election battle, it falls to the future prime minister to make deals with those who were, until recently, his nemesis all in order to obtain the required 60 Knesset seats necessary for his party to govern the country. Election planks and platforms are first weighed and then cast away in favor of the issues of power, control and of course, prestige.

Well before the final results were in, Benjamin Netanyahu placed calls to potential coalition partners. Immediate calls went out to the ultra orthodox Sephardi party Shas which then won 11 seats, the ultra orthodox Ashkenazi party United Torah which then won 7 seats and the anti ultra orthodox Yesh Atid (There is a Future) party which in the end won 19 seats.

The call Netanyahu did not immediately make was to the party that, to all appearances, is the natural partner to his own Likud/Yisrael Beitenu party. Netanyahu did not place a call to Ha Bayit Hayehudi (The Jewish Home) party, a modern Zionist orthodox party which garnered 12 seats, until late Thursday. And there is a simple reason for that.

Netanyahu's wife Sara did not want him to make the call. There is bad blood between Naftali Bennett, the leader of The Jewish Home, and Mrs. Netanyahu. The feud goes back to the time before Bennett headed and then sold a multi-million dollar start-up it goes back to the time when Bennett was chief of staff in the office of the prime minister.

Imagine the pressure in the Netanyahu household. Netanyahu needed to weigh the sides to weigh the wrath of his wife against his need for a successful coalition that would insure his position as prime minister. Not an easy decision to make. Sara has a strong hold on her man, but the pull of the prime ministry may be even stronger. Despite the protestations and clash of personalities, Bennett can only help Netanyahu and the phone call was made.

Sara Netanyahu is known to have a long memory and to hold a grudge. Many an adviser who crossed paths with this first lady ended with crossed swords and was tossed out with the trash. She is probably no different than Barbara Bush or Nancy Reagan or, for that matter, Hillary Clinton. But she is definitely less subtle. In the end Sara will probably lose this battle, but she will come back later with a vengeance.

Israel is thought to be so easily understood by Western commentators and analysts. Pollsters think that it is an easy nut to crack. But unless you understand the nuance of the country, unless you can read the people, commentators, analysts and pollsters will get it wrong every time.

They think that because English is so readily and often eloquently spoken and because so many Israelis have been educated in the United States or other Western countries that Israel is a Western culture. But it is not. Israel is almost Western, but it is also very much a Middle Eastern country — albeit a modern Middle Eastern country, and that makes all the difference.

Many western commentators don't really take the time to analyze Israel. That is why for months now commentators and analysts have been talking about the radicalization of Israeli politics and bemoaning the fact that mainstream Israel was leaning more and more to the right.

If this election teaches us anything it teaches us that they were wrong. Why were they so wrong? They failed to do their own analysis and instead, these observers of Israeli politics swallowed hook, line and sinker the Palestinian line. That line is simply anti-Israel. And so anything that is not decisively pro-Palestinian is seen by commentators as rabidly right wing and as an extremist point of view.

By now the picture of true Israeli society should be perfectly clear. The centrist Atid party with nineteen seats is now the 2nd largest party in the Knesset only after Netanyahu's Likud. And it will almost certainly insist on playing a major role in the ruling coalition. The most important platform put forth by Atid is the universal draft – a requirement that every Israeli serve in the army. This general platform resonated with masses of Israelis and was also referred to as 'an equal burden' to be shared by all Israelis, including Arab Israelis. This issue catapulted Atid into a major position in the 19th Knesset.

Interestingly, the other new and newly huge party in the Knesset, Habayit HaYehudi or The Jewish Home, now the fourth largest party in the country, believes in the same principle. And both parties believe in the breakdown of the power of the ultra orthodox rabbinate.

These two new parties, both led by young new political leaders, obtained a combined thirty Knesset seats. That is exactly 25% of the Israeli parliament. They are not extremist. They are a real reflection of the new Israel.

With Netanyahu and his 31 seats, Yair Lapid and his Atid party with 19 seats and Naftali Bennett and his The Jewish Home party with 12 seats these three parties combined have 62 seats, a perfect number to form a ruling coalition. They make up just over half of the 120 seats needed to form a government.

Sara Netanyahu had better start getting used to it. I think that her husband will be spending a lot more time with Naftali and Yair than he will with her in the very near future. The rest of Israel made the decision for him.

Abortion politics arrives in Israel


Israel’s paradoxical approach to abortion — the procedure is illegal unless approved by a committee, which gives the go-ahead to 98 percent of the requests — could radically change if a Knesset member has his way.

Nissim Zeev of the Sephardi Orthodox party Shas, who has said publicly that abortion is akin to “murder,” wants to make the procedure illegal after the 22nd week of pregnancy unless the pregnancy poses a danger to the mother’s health or the fetus suffers from severe defects and is unlikely to survive.

“This has nothing to do with women’s rights,” Zeev heatedly said in an interview. “I demand that we have a public debate on this campaign of murder.”

Political observers don’t think his measure will progress far, but Zeev has shined a spotlight on an issue that has never figured even vaguely in the country’s political campaigns. In fact, Israel does not even have an active anti-abortion movement.

Still, many rabbis, especially Charedi Orthodox, believe that the messianic redemption will be delayed until all souls are born. As a general rule, Jewish law allows abortion in the first 40 days of pregnancy and in cases where the life of the mother is in mortal danger.

“This is about the last thing we need right now — another conflict between the religious and the secular,” said one Knesset member from the coalition, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “We have enough political issues to deal with. Zeev has to understand that if it ain’t broke, it don’t need to be fixed.”

As a result, the legislator said, the proposal has been purposely buried in committee. Still, in Israel’s unpredictable political landscape, its existence on the dockets could bring it to the fore without warning.

It’s quite a contrast to the United States, where since the 1973 Roe v. Wade case legalizing abortion, the topic has been a heated political and social issue. The lack of controversy in Israel stems mostly from the large gap between law and practical reality.

The Israeli penal code states that termination of pregnancy is a crime that carries a prison sentence of up to five years. But the code also broadly addresses numerous circumstances in which an abortion may be legally performed, including benefit to emotional and financial well-being.

The procedure must be approved by a special committee with at least two physicians and one licensed social worker; at least one of the three must be a woman.

Yet approval is practically automatic if the pregnant woman is younger than 17 or older than 40; if the conception was a result of rape, incest or extramarital relations; if the pregnancy is likely to endanger the mother’s physical or mental well-being; or if the fetus has been diagnosed with a possible birth defect. 

Women also do not need the consent of any male, including the father of the fetus, nor do minors need the consent of parents or guardians. Israeli medical coverage offers an array of free testing for genetic and congenital birth defects.

Both Zeev and feminist organizations such as the Israel Women’s Network confirm that the committees approve 98 percent of requested abortions. 

Less than 10 percent of abortions in Israel are carried out after the 22nd week and some 20,000 legal abortions are performed in public hospitals every year in Israel, according to the Knesset research department. This does not include abortions performed because of concern for the mother’s physical health, which especially if there is any medical emergency are often not even brought before the committee.

It is unknown how many women avoid the committee — whether because they are between 17 and 40, or because of personal preference — and turn to a private doctor. Having an abortion is not a criminal offense and, according to binding legal norms, unless medical malpractice is involved, the physician performing the abortion will not be prosecuted. Private abortions cost $1,500 to $1,750.

Finally, making it impossible to know how many of the procedures are performed in total is that they can be listed as “medical interventions,” which can cover a broad category.

With all that in mind, most Israeli feminists and others favoring the availability of the option have been hesitant to challenge the status quo. But Zeev’s proposal may force their hand, acknowledges Tal Tamir, the director general of Women and Their Bodies, a feminist health organization.

The huge gap between the law’s paradoxical contradictions and practical life, she explains, reflects an attempt by Israeli society to live with all its internal tensions.

“On the one hand, some parts of Israeli society are very liberal, while other parts are very conservative,” Tamir said in an interview. “By making abortion illegal, the patriarchy maintains its hold over women’s bodies, but by making it available, it maintains a progressive, liberal facade.”

Indeed, there is a widely liberal, even permissive, attitude toward sexual activity in much of the Israeli secular culture. Secular schools provide coed sex education. The Israeli health plans don’t offer free birth control, but some high schools provide condoms through vending machines.

Further, the army provides at least one free abortion to every female soldier who requests one. While there is no civil marriage in Israel, civil law recognizes common-law marriage and cohabitation is commonly accepted.

Tamir says the prohibition on abortions for women 17 to 40 is another example of conflicting social pressures. 

“Israel is a very pro-natal society and carries a strong message that Jewish women should bear children, especially after the Holocaust,” she said. “We have the highest rate of IVF [in vitro fertilization] services — all paid for by the state — in the world. So women who are the ‘proper age to have children’ aren’t supposed to have abortions. But Israeli society also wants perfect children, so if there are defects, the abortion is considered OK.”

Furthermore, Tamir adds, the situation is discriminatory.

“Women who have the money go to private clinics. Underprivileged women are forced to go to a committee and plead their case,” she said. “And it really galls me that the state has the right to intervene in our bodies.

But, she says, “In the current political constellation, in which religious parties carry disproportionate weight, the situation could always be worse for women.”

Unlike Tamir, Knesset member Zehava Galon of the Meretz Party is determined to change the status quo. Last fall, she submitted a proposal to permit abortions for all women at any time, but the proposal failed to make it out of preliminary committees.

She insists, however, that she will continue to bring it to the Knesset for debate.

Yes, we cantankerous


ANALYSIS: Livni’s failure to build coalition could help or hurt in new elections


JERUSALEM (JTA)—With Israel now headed for new general elections probably some time early next year, supporters and opponents of Tzipi Livni are putting a very different gloss on her failure to form a governing coalition.

Opponents say Livni’s inability shows she is not yet seasoned enough to lead. Supporters counter that the reasons for her failure show precisely why she is the best candidate.

Livni says that had she been willing to give in to excessive political and budgetary demands by prospective coalition partners, she easily could have formed a government. Instead she took a stand.

The foreign minister, who won the Kadima primary in September to succeed party leader Ehud Olmert, portrays herself as a tough-minded patriot who sacrificed the premiership to stave off demands that would have hurt Israel’s national interest.

Her opponents suggest a less high-minded narrative: They say Livni bungled coalition negotiations because of a fundamental lack of experience.

Livni’s coalition effort was badly hurt by the adept political maneuvering of opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, the head of the Likud Party. Netanyahu was able to convince three of Livni’s prospective coalition partners—the Sephardic Orthodox Shas Party, United Torah Judaism and the Pensioners’ Party—that he probably would win in a general election campaign and would be more amenable to their political and budgetary demands than Livni.

Netanyahu focused on Shas, the largest of the three with 12 Knesset seats. The former prime minister spoke of renewing the “historic alliance” between Likud and the right-wing Shas, declaring that if he won the election Shas would be the first party he would ask to join his coalition.

Shas probably would have been a difficult nut for Livni to crack in any situation. Insiders say party leader Eli Yishai made a strategic decision several months ago to force early elections and pre-empt a looming leadership challenge from his charismatic predecessor, Arye Deri.

Indeed, there were serious doubts as to whether he had negotiated with Livni in good faith. Yishai made two key demands: an allocation of 1 billion shekels—approximately $260 million—for child allowances, and a promise that Jerusalem would not be up for negotiation with the Palestinians. On Jerusalem, Yishai demanded that Livni actually sign a letter vowing to exclude the city from future peace talks.

Even if she had been ready to meet the budgetary demands, the written commitment on Jerusalem was out of the question.

“No American president would return a call from any Israeli prime minister who signed such a letter,” Kadima negotiator Yisrael Maimon, a former Cabinet secretary, declared.

Other challenges also made it difficult for Livni to cobble together a coalition.

Such negotiations typically take place after elections, with a full four-year term looming. But because of Olmert’s resignation, Livni came in mid-term with elections no more than two years away.

The notion of spending an abridged term in the opposition was less of a deterrent for prospective coalition partners, and they consequently raised their coalition demands. Even the Pensioners’ Party produced a document with some $786 million worth of new demands.

In the end, Livni said, she had no choice but to stop the horse trading and go for early elections.

Olmert likely will stay on as the caretaker prime minister until a new government is formed after the elections. Though he is a lame duck – and a disgraced one at that, having resigned under a cloud of corruption investigations—Olmert may press ahead with his peacemaking efforts to turn the next election into a referendum on peace.

Olmert also could step down and hand over the premiership to Livni, giving her the incumbency advantage going into the next election. Some Kadima leaders are talking openly about urging Olmert to make such a move, but Olmert has not offered any indication that he is willing to consider it.

Livni wants to hold new elections quickly. According to law, a majority in the Knesset could have coalesced around another candidate for prime minister and thereby averted the need for early elections, but President Shimon Peres announced Monday that after meeting with party leaders, no such possibility existed.

Elections must be held by mid-February, but the Knesset could speed or slow down the process by passing a law to dissolve itself and set a precise election date. Livni prefers this route and has instructed the Kadima caucus chairman to submit a bill with an election date as early as possible.

Livni likely will base her campaign on her squeaky-clean image in an era of political corruption and argue that of all the candidates, only she can restore the public’s confidence in its government and politics.

She will cite her failure to form a coalition as evidence of her high-principled approach, and her refusal to sign the “Jerusalem letter” with Shas as proof of her sincere commitment to peacemaking with the Palestinians.

Netanyahu will emphasize his experience, political smarts and special economic skills—he is a former finance minister—in light of the global financial crisis. He also will claim to be the only candidate who can be counted upon to preserve a united Jerusalem.

Labor Party leader Ehud Barak, who was pilloried in the media for demanding special powers in his coalition talks with Livni, will stress his experience as a former prime minister as well as Labor’s long leadership tradition.

Labor and Kadima are facing a serious tactical dilemma: They will be competing for the same center-left political space, but if they attack each other too viciously, Netanyahu will be the main beneficiary.

In the latest polls, Livni is slightly ahead of Netanyahu, with Barak a very distant third.

A Yediot Achronot poll gives Kadima 29 seats, Likud 26 and Labor 11; Ma’ariv has Kadima earning 31 seats, Likud 29 and Labor 11.

In the Yediot poll, the left-center and right-religious blocs are tied with 60 seats each in the 120-member Knesset; Ma’ariv has the left-center ahead, 61-59. The next prime minister needs a minimum of 61 seats in his or her coalition.

Both polls show that the three large secular parties—Kadima, Likud and Labor—could easily form a national unity government of 66 to 71 seats on their own.

That means Yishai, who sparked the election by refusing to join Livni’s coalition, could find himself out in the cold.

Tzipi Livni to seek new elections as coalition effort fails


JERUSALEM (JTA)—Tzipi Livni has called for new general elections in Israel, saying she failed to form a coalition government.

Livni, the foreign minister and prime minister-designate, won the Kadima Party primary in September following Ehud Olmert’s resignation. But she was unable to assemble a governing majority and on Sunday said she would not ask Israel’s president, Shimon Peres, for more time to bring coalition partners on board.

Livni had managed to bring the Labor Party, led by Defense Minister Ehud Barak, on board, but she failed to reach an agreement with the Orthodox Shas party or other potential coalition partners to pass the 61-seat threshhold necessary to become prime minister.

Livni made her decision late Saturday night during a party meeting that included her main Kadima rival, Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz. The meeting was called after the Shas and Degel Hatorah, another Orthodox party, said they would not join Livni’s government. The Pensioners’ Party also announced Saturday night that it would was backing out of negotiations with Livni.

“After the primaries, I said that I believed in stability and was committed to seeing through the process of forming a government,” Livni told Israel’s Cabinet meeting on Sunday. ” Recent days have seen coalition demands become impossible, and there was a need to draw the line, to say ‘no more.’

“I was prepared to pass budgets I believe in for needy families and social causes, but when it became clear that every person and every party was taking advantage of the situation to make illegitimate demands—both economic and diplomatic—I decided to put a stop to it and go to elections.”

Although Peres is likely to recommend going to new elections, the president has three days to appoint another lawmaker to form a new government within 28 days. If the country goes to new elections, they likely will be held in February or March. Until then, Olmert will stay on as caretaker prime minister.

Can Livni form a coalition or are elections next?


With her primary victory in hand, prime minister-designate Tzipi Livni now has six weeks to form a government and stave off new elections. Theoretically, if she cannot form a government, President Shimon Peres could give someone else a chance before calling an election.

But there is no other viable candidate.

The Likud Party’s Benjamin Netanyahu wouldn’t consider such an offer because he prefers new elections. Polls show elections would deliver Netanyahu more than twice the number of seats Likud commands in the present Knesset.

Labor’s Ehud Barak is not eligible because he is not a member of the Knesset.

Whether the country is headed for an early election should become clear fairly soon.

Livni says she does not intend to be dragged into a long coalition-building process. If in about 10 days she believes the chances of forming a government are not high, she says she will lead a move for new elections herself.

Despite all the obstacles and the recalcitrance of some of her prospective coalition partners, however, Livni is far more likely to succeed in forming a government than to fail.

Much will depend on the enigmatic Barak.

On the day Livni replaced Prime Minister Ehud Olmert as Kadima Party leader, Barak shocked the political establishment by meeting with Netanyahu and declaring that he would only join a national emergency government if it included the Likud leader.

It was a double-edged ploy by Barak: Put the onus of blame for not joining a national unity effort on Netanyahu, whom Barak knew would refuse, and create the impression in Livni’s mind that he has an option of continuing to serve as defense minister in a Netanyahu government after elections and thereby upping the price for joining her coalition.

Barak’s maneuvering stems from the dilemma he faces: If he joins a coalition, he helps the untried Livni establish herself as a credible national leader; if he stays out, he risks taking a hammering in early elections.

His biggest fear is that Livni will use him to form a government and in three months or so, on a wave of popular acclaim, precipitate a national election.

Barak’s solution seems to be a readiness to join the coalition on two conditions: One, redefining the balance of power between him and Livni to create what he calls a “true partnership.” Two, a guarantee from Livni that as far as she is concerned, the government will hold together for the full two years until the next scheduled election in 2010.

Barak hopes to create the perception of a two-headed Livni-Barak government from which he, too, will emerge two years down the road as a serious candidate for prime minister. Indeed, all of Barak’s current coalition jockeying is about the 2010 elections.

Livni was quick to address Barak’s concerns. In her speech accepting her nomination as prime minister-designate, she appealed to Netanyahu to join a national unity government, spoke of a “true partnership” with Labor and promised that her government would be for the long term.

Barak phoned Livni to congratulate her on her speech, and senior Labor politicians now estimate the chances of a Kadima-Labor agreement are high.

On paper, Livni has three broad coalition options:

The Party Line


Nearly 30 political parties are vying in Israel’s Jan. 28
general elections.

According to the latest polls, about 15 parties stand a
chance of getting at least 1.5 percent of the vote, the threshold for getting
at least one of the Knesset’s 120 seats.

Following is a guide to the leading parties in the race:

Likud: The odds-on favorite, with a projected 32 seats in
the next Knesset, according to weekend polls. In 1999, when party leader
Benjamin Netanyahu lost the premiership to Ehud Barak, Likud won 19 seats in
the Knesset, considered a major defeat at the time. Now, under the leadership
of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, the party consistently has led in the polls,
despite recent allegations of corruption against party officials and members of
Sharon’s own family.

Traditionally, the party has opposed any territorial
concessions to the Palestinians and has also balked at supporting the eventual
creation of a Palestinian state. As prime minister, however, Sharon has agreed
to make “painful concessions,” but only after the Palestinians completely
renounce terrorism. Sharon backs the creation of a national unity government
with the Labor Party.

Labor: Labor has the largest number of seats — 25 — in the
current Knesset. But, according to the latest polls, the party will get only 19
seats in the next Knesset — a devastating blow for the party that led Israel
for the first 30 years of the country’s existence.

With much of the Israeli electorate turning rightward, party
leader Amram Mitzna’s stances have appeared too dovish to rally greater
support, according to the polls. Mitzna has called for building a fence to
separate Israel from the West Bank, a project already begun by the Sharon
government, but which has not moved as swiftly as some would like. Mitzna also
calls for abandoning Jewish settlements, those in the Gaza Strip first. He also
has expressed willingness to negotiate with whomever the Palestinians choose as
a leader, including Yasser Arafat. Last week Mitzna declared that he would not
join a national unity government with Likud, but he faces strong opposition on
this issue from other members of his party.

Shas: With 17 seats in the current Knesset, this fervently
Orthodox-Sephardi party might soon lose its place as parliament’s third largest
party. Polls show Shas losing votes to Likud, and according to the latest
polls, it will win only 10 Knesset seats this time around. Along with seeking
support for Orthodox causes, the party seeks generous state funding for poorer
Israelis. A member of past coalitions led by Labor and Likud, Shas adopted a
hawkish stance toward the Palestinians after the intifada began in September
2000.

Shinui: This dovish and secular party is the Cinderella
story of the current election campaign. Under the leadership of former
journalist Yosef “Tommy” Lapid, the party is expected to leap from six to 15
Knesset seats, making it the third strongest political force in the next
Knesset. Lapid’s main agenda is anti-clerical. He calls for the creation of a
secular national government, with no religious parties in power. He is
considered liberal on economic issues, and center-right on the Palestinian
issue.

Meretz: When Yossi Beilin, the architect of the Oslo accords
and one of Israel’s leading doves, recently left Labor to join Meretz, this
leftist party hoped the move would boost its chances in the elections. However,
recent polls show it will lose three of its 10 Knesset seats. Under the
leadership of Yossi Sarid, the party calls for Jerusalem to become the shared
capital of both Israel and an eventual Palestinian state. It also calls for the
disbanding of most all settlements in the West Bank and Gaza.

National Union-Israel Our Home: Led by Avigdor Lieberman, a
former director of the prime minister’s office, this hawkish bloc stands to
grow from seven Knesset seats to nine, primarily because of its clear stance
against any concessions to the Palestinians.

The National Religious Party: This pro-settler party is
expected to retain its current five seats in the next Knesset. Considered the
main political force behind the settlement movement, the party opposes any
territorial concessions to the Palestinians.

United Torah Judaism: This fervently Orthodox bloc, which
includes the Agudat Yisrael and Degel HaTorah parties, is expected to retain
its current five Knesset seats. The party opposes drafting yeshiva students and
strongly objects to any changes in Shabbat laws. It has been flexible on the
Palestinian issue, but in recent years adopted a more hawkish stance.

Yisrael Ba’Aliyah: This immigrant-rights party, which held
four seats in the outgoing Knesset, will have to settle for three in the next,
according to polls. Apart from fighting for the rights of new immigrants, the
party adopts a hawkish stand on the Palestinian issue.

One Nation: This workers-rights party seeks to close the
economic gap between the haves and have-nots. It currently has two Knesset seats,
and polls say it will have three in the next parliament.

Green Leaf: This party advocates legalizing marijuana. Polls
say it will make its debut in the Knesset with one seat.

Herut: This nationalist party is expected to retain its sole
Knesset seat after the elections. Led by veteran legislator Michael Kleiner,
formerly of Likud, Herut also features the candidacy of Baruch Marzel, a former
member of the outlawed Kach movement. The party is courting the fervently
Orthodox community — a move that prompted members of the Ashkenazi community to
urge co-religionists not to vote for any “non-religious” party.

Hadash-Ta’al: The latest coalition in the Israeli Arab
sector, combining Hadash, under the leadership of Mohammad Barakeh, with Ahmed
Tibi’s Ta’al movement. The two parties have four Knesset members in the
outgoing Knesset; the polls anticipate three in the next.

United Arab List: A coalition of the Islamic Movement and
the Arab Democratic Party, strongly influenced by moderate Islamists. It is
expected to lose one of its current five Knesset seats.

Balad: A nationalist, pan-Arabist movement, chaired by Azmi
Beshara, who calls for turning Israel into a country of “all its citizens” —
that is, for it no longer to be a specifically Jewish State. Beshara is
currently the only member of the party serving in the Knesset, but Balad is
projected to win two additional seats.  

The Shas Phenomenon


Israel’s political landscape has, over the past decade, been transmogrified by the growing strength of the ultra-Orthodox Sephardi party Shas (Sephardic Torah Guardians). But the conviction and recent jailing of party leader Aryeh Deri has only fortified Shas’ power among an electorate of largely disenfranchised Middle Eastern Jews; the party currently holds 17 seats in the Knesset, just behind Likud. The American Jewish community, which had not previously taken much notice of Sephardic Jewry, has been shaken by the Shas phenomenon. Last week, Hebrew Union College invited Dr. Zvi Zohar, one of Israel’s most astute observers of the socio-political scene, to give a lecture in Los Angeles on what many now perceive to be a permanent feature of Israeli politics.

A fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute, where he heads the Center for the Study of Halacha, Zohar has made Sephardic religious tradition a core focus of his numerous books and essays. (Hebrew Union College has tapped the scholar to consult on a new core Sephardic curriculum project, funded by a grant from the Maurice Amado Foundation, which will focus on major humanist thinkers of the classic and contemporary age.) Zohar argues that Shas is not a faithful reflection of the best this tradition has to offer.

“The leaders and hardcore cadre of Shas have very little do with Sephardi culture and tradition,” he says. “They have a strong Sephardi ethnic consciousness, but their religious culture and traditions reflect a deep assimilation into the charedi/Ashkenazi yeshiva world. That’s because of where they studied and grew up. They went to Agudath Yisrael schools and to Agudath yeshivot. However, they felt that within that world, there was ethnic discrimination against them, which led them to believe that they were never going to be able to get their fair share in that world.”

Shas was the dark horse in the 1984 elections. Led by Aryeh Deri, then a 25-year-old yeshiva graduate, under the spiritual leadership of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the new party, much to its own surprise, won four seats in the Knesset. From the start, notes Zohar, the call for Torah observance and pride in Middle Eastern Jewish roots reached the ears, and hearts, of Israel’s disenfranchised: Jews who had arrived from countries like Morocco, Iraq and Yemen, and who felt unacknowledged in Israel’s history books.

“Sephardi-Oriental Jews began to feel that the reason for the cultural degradation they endured happened to them because they were not being true to their own selves and to their own traditions,” Zohar explains. “They looked to their rabbis, who continued to symbolize and embody authentic Sephardi-Oriental life as it was lived in the old country, as the natural leaders of this movement.”

Many Shas voters, however, are not Orthodox in the strange charedi-Sephardi black-hat mold that has become the Shas image to the outside. They are, instead, Middle Eastern Jews who don’t study in yeshivas, who serve in the army and work throughout Israeli society yet continue to live according to the traditional rhythms of life experienced by their parents and grandparents in North Africa and the Middle East.

Ironically, Shas was established with the patronage of Rabbi Eliezer Schach, leader of the non-Chassidic or Lithuanian ultra-Orthodox yeshiva world, and the young Aryeh Deri was something of a Schach protégé. But as Shas’ power grew, it strained their relationship. During the 1992 national elections, said Zohar, things fell apart. “At a mass rally, in the presence of Yosef, Schach said, ‘Our Sephardic brethren are not yet ready for Torah leader-ship.’ ” The remark worked to the party’s benefit, handily securing Shas six seats in the Knesset.

During a talk at Wilshire Boulevard Temple, Zohar attempted to clarify many of the myths that have grown up around the Shas phenomenon. While the movement is known to be anti-Arab and anti-peace, Shas leaders have a history of pragmatism. Deri originally supported the 1993 Oslo peace accords, and Yosef established that land could be traded for peace as far back as 1980. He reiterated this position many times in intervening years and suggested that Middle Eastern Jews become leaders in the peace talks because they originate in Arab/Muslim cultures. Today, Shas commands 19 percent of the vote in the Knesset, but Zohar believes that the party does not continuously support “land for peace” trade-offs, and he says that the Shas electorate is internally conflicted on the peace process, so that there is no uniformly accepted position.
While nearly 50 percent of Israel’s population is Sephardi or Mizrahi in origin, Zohar insists that fewer than half vote for Shas. The poorer and more isolated the Sephardi voter is, said Zohar, the more likely it is he’ll vote Shas. “However, there are people of Mizrahi or Oriental descent who are prominent activists in other political groups which are not ethnically based. Moshe Katsav, the newly-elected president of Israel, is an example. He was born in Iran, is religiously observant, supports Oriental rabbis, but he belongs to the Likud party.”

Other Sephardi/Mizrahi voters in Israel support Avodah, Meretz and Likud over Shas, Zohar notes. And there are other Mizrahi movements which are secular and progressive in nature, the best-known among them being HaKeshet, the Rainbow Coalition.

What characterizes the Sephardi-Oriental religious tradition, which Zohar has been studying for the past 20 years, is an abiding humanism. Rabbis in this tradition often take the view that Torah-based Judaism is rooted in innovation and reinterpretation, rather than a fixed corpus of normative directives. From classic figures like Moses Maimonides, Judah Halevi, Moses ibn Ezra and Solomon ibn Gabirol, to modern and contemporary rabbis such as David Nieto, Elijah Benamozegh, Aharon ben Shimon, Eliyyahu Hazzan, Yitzhak Dayyan, Ben-Zion Meir Hai Uzziel and Hayyim David HaLevi, this tradition provides a method for integrating religious praxis organically with secular modern life.

The tradition of Sephardi/Mizrahi humanism unfortunately does not characterize, the Shas party leadership, which tilts toward fundamentalism. But after all, said Zohar, “The whole breakdown into Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, ultra-Orthodox, charedi, Reconstructionist and all of that is something, to my mind, which primarily reflects the European and North American experience, and is not the one Sephardim dealt with.

“The Sephardim have the notion that community should preempt ideology; you should not, because of your ideology and belief, break apart the unity of the community; and it’s better to have a community which is internally diverse than it is to have several communities which are internally consistent.”

During a recent class Zohar asked his students, rhetorically, what Jews gain from denominations. His answer: “Nothing. We gain that we know who not to listen to and who to despise without even hearing what they have to say.”

Sephardic News and Culture: www.ivri-nasawi.org

Political Gamesmanship


As sure as death and taxes, Israelis can count on a coalition crisis every year in the last week of December. It happened three times to the Likud’s Binyamin Netanyahu, and no one was surprised that this month it happened to his Labor successor, Ehud Barak.

By law, the state budget must pass the Knesset by midnight on December 31. In Israel’s system of multi-party coalitions, December is horse-trading time. This is the season for every party to extract as succulent a slice of the cake as possible for its institutions and interest groups.

If they don’t get it now, they suspect they won’t get it at all. Budgets have to be balanced.

The Sephardi ultra-Orthodox Shas, now the third largest party in the Knesset, is a master in this annual market place. Its agenda is narrow and sectarian, its deputies disciplined and obedient; what its spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, decrees is law. If he says quit, they quit. Yosef makes no secret that he ordered his 17 Knesset members to join Barak’s government for one reason only: to save Shas’s education network from bankruptcy.

Shas is a hybrid. It is a religious party and an ethnic party. It leaders are rabbis, with the kind of beards, black hats and dark suits that would look equally at home in a Lithuanian yeshiva. Most of its voters are blue-collar workers from the inner-city slums and neglected development towns, “traditional” Jews who go to synagogue on Saturday morning and soccer games on Saturday afternoon.

On the life-or-death issues that divide the nation, Rabbi Yosef is a dove who believes that lives matter more than territory, however holy. Most of his voters are hawks, who don’t trust the Arabs and idolized Menachem Begin before they discovered “the Rav.”

This year, Shas needed the taxpayers’ millions more urgently than ever. Its school network was in debt to the tune of 89 million shekels ($22 million), with not enough coming in, creditors losing patience and teachers’ salaries to be paid (or not paid) month after month after month.

Barak promised to bail them out, but conditionally. Shas had to open its schools and its ledgers to scrutiny. It had to close uneconomic and unregistered classes, fire corrupt administrators. And Education Minister Yossi Sarid, leader of the liberal Meretz, was determined to keep them to the bargain.

Although funding started to flow, Shas complained that it was too little, too slow. It accused Sarid of discrimination, against religion and against Sephardim. The budget season was the time to force Barak to call the Education Minister to heel. “If we don’t get the money, and a lot more besides,” they said, “we’re out.”

Barak and Finance Minister Avraham Shohat thought they had neutralized Shas by doing a deal with the other religious parties, the National Religious Party (NRP) and the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism. With their votes, the budget would squeak through, regardless of Shas’s 17. So, Shas would play ball.

The equation turned out to be less simple than Barak, the great problem-solver, calculated. Protesting that the Ashkenazim were getting money for their schools, while the underprivileged Sephardim were being left out again, Rabbi Yosef ordered his three cabinet ministers to submit their resignations. And, unexpectedly, United Torah announced that if Shas went, it would go too. It would not allow Tommy Lapid’s stridently anti-clerical Shinui, with six MKs, to score points by saving Barak from defeat.

In the end, Israeli governments have never fallen because of budgets. Principles are compromised, dissidents are paid off.

But Barak had an extra, more pressing reason, for keeping Shas on his team: the prospect of a peace agreement with Syria. Without Rabbi Yosef’s 17 good and true men, a treaty would probably not win the necessary absolute majority of 61 votes for Knesset ratification; without a goodly share of the 430,000 Shas voters, Barak would be hard-pressed to win the promised referendum.

Rabbi Yosef has been playing hard to get, consulting ex-generals of all political hues, and warning Barak not to take his dovish tendencies for granted. The Shas rank and file would relish instructions to vote against returning the Golan Heights to Syria. The Prime Minister faces a revolt from other, smaller coalition parties. Both the NRP and Natan Sharansky’s Russian immigrant Yisrael B’aliyah are already campaigning against the evacuation.

The Shas vote is a potent weapon in Rabbi Yosef’s locker. If Barak wants it, he will have to pay. And pay. And pay. Apparently he does. As The Jewish Journal went to press, Shas agreed to remain in the government.

Is There Room for Shas in Barak’s Tent?


During the wild victory party in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square on Election Night, a chant went up in the crowd: “Just not Shas!” Ehud Barak heard the same chant when he spoke early this week to a gathering of campaign activists. A booth with a fax machine in Kikar Rabin has already sent more than 20,000 faxes to Barak from his supporters, who urge him not to invite the meteoric Sephardic fervently Orthodox party into his governing coalition. Thousands of e-mails have been sent to Barak with the same message.

On Monday, when Barak’s coalition negotiating team sat down for preliminary talks with Shas’ people in a Herzliya hotel, a hang glider flew over with a sign that read, “Just not Shas.”

Yet Barak’s representatives say the incoming prime minister wants the party in the government — if it will agree to a set of strict conditions. Despite Shas’ popular image as the rising threat to Israeli democracy, there is a large body of opinion among the secular left-wing camp — including author Amos Oz — that favors including Shas in the next government.

Having won 17 Knesset seats (out of 120) in the election, Shas is now one of Israel’s three big parties, behind Barak’s One Israel (26 seats) and just behind Likud (19 seats). The left-wing Meretz and Shinui parties say they will not sit in a government with Shas (or with the Ashkenazic fervently Orthodox party, United Torah Judaism). On a recent TV talk show, Meretz Knesset Member Amnon Rubinstein was explaining that Shas had placed itself beyond the pale by attacking the justice system and by lionizing its party leader, Arye Deri, after he was convicted and sentenced to four years in prison for accepting bribes.

Labor Knesset Member Dalia Itsic replied: “Anybody who wants Shas to get 34 seats in the next election should keep them out of the government.”

In the audience, Shas activist Haim Barzilai chimed in: “Keep us out of the government and we won’t get 34 seats next time; we’ll get 40.”

In the pro-Barak camp, there is no love lost for Shas. The dispute is over tactics — whether Shas is more dangerous inside the tent or outside.

Author Sami Michael, a Barak and Meretz supporter, said that if Shas is kept out, “it will turn them into a kind of nonviolent Hezbollah or Islamic Jihad. Shas supporters are among the poorest and least educated Israelis, living in poor peripheral towns and urban slums. The anger and alienation they already feel will deepen if they feel they are deliberately being shunted aside.” Such a large constituency — 430,000 voters — cannot be disregarded, say those in favor of taking Shas in.

Another key argument for bringing in Shas is that the party is relatively dovish and will be an important political ally when it comes time for difficult concessions to the Palestinians or Syrians. “If it comes down to a choice between bringing in Shas, or bringing in the Likud and the National Religious Party, I would prefer Shas,” said Michael.

Hannah Kim, a columnist for Ha’aretz newspaper, disputed both these popular arguments. Shas thrives on feelings of alienation and has no interest in easing them, Kim wrote. “From the moment of its founding [in the early 1980s], Shas has taken part in every government coalition, but the party has nonetheless increased its constituents’ sense of alienation from the state…while, at the same time, creating a false image of a persecuted and unrecognized party.” She also disputed the claim that Shas was an ally of the peace process, noting that the party abstained in the Knesset vote on the Oslo accord and voted against the Oslo II accord.

Opponents of bringing Shas into the government say this would “dry up” the party’s funding sources for its vast educational and social services network. “Shas is a welfare state within a welfare state,” said Dr. Yossi Dahan, a researcher at the Adva Center, a progressive social think tank. Shas’ El Hama’ayan (To the Wellspring) school system, which offers cheap, all-day classes, including free bus transport and meals, is a powerful draw to Israel’s Sephardic poor. The system is almost wholly funded by the government. If Shas lost its leverage within the government, El Hama’ayan’s strength would be reduced drastically, Dahan said. (Dahan, however, favors Shas’ inclusion in the government for essentially the same reasons cited by Michael.)

Barak’s key demand of Shas is that Deri withdraw from the leadership of the party — not just in word, but in deed. Asked if Shas would agree to this, Barzilai replied, “Shas without Deri is like One Israel without Meretz and Shinui.”

Other conditions are that Shas give up the Interior Ministry; show respect for the rule of law; and run its various institutions openly, not in secret.

The implications of these demands are that Shas stop haranguing the courts, prosecutors and police; and that it shut down its approximately 40 pirate radio stations, some of which were openly calling for ballot stuffing on Election Day. Many leaders of One Israel have also insisted that Shas integrate El Hama’ayan into the public school system. An official close to Barak has said that if Shas agrees to these demands and carries them out, “then it won’t be Shas anymore.”

If Barak gives Shas substantial power in the government without first clipping its wings, he will alienate not only many of his core supporters but also his newest political ally — the Russian immigrants, more than 55 percent of whom voted for Barak, mainly because Netanyahu had grown too close to Shas and United Torah Judaism.

Yet after posting such astonishing gains in the election, Shas is not in the mood to have its wings clipped. If it comes into the government, it will come in as a senior partner. And if Shas goes into the opposition? “Then we’re going to make a lot of trouble for Barak,” said a Shas activist who didn’t want to be named. “It’s going to be a big mess.”