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A Comment on the Recent Knesset Fiasco

Sometime during or just after high school, I saw a film where the main character sticks his head out the window in New York City and yells “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.” All these other people then stick their heads out of their windows and start yelling the same thing. I don’t remember anything else about the film and have no recollection of the context but I vividly remember the sense of absurdity and frustration that characterized the entire scene.

I have to say that there is a part of me that feels like putting my head out the window and yelling something similar.  What I would probably yell would be: “I can’t take these politicians anymore!”  And I would venture to say that if anyone in Israel started yelling this on a crowded street this week, he would be joined by just about everyone regardless of their political position.  What we have just witnessed in Israeli politics is nothing short of absurd.

A brief explanation:  National elections were held on April 9th.  The Likud party got the largest number of votes and Netanyahu received the support of a total of 65 out of 120 MK’s to form a coalition government.  Netanyahu then needed to close coalition agreements with each of the smaller parties so that he could head a government supported by those 65 MK’s.  But something went horribly wrong.  Just a few days before the 42-day deadline approached, early last week, we learned that the negotiations had stymied.

The two key parties or groups of parties that could not agree with one another were Yisrael Beteinu, a right-wing mostly secular party headed up by Avigdor Lieberman, and the ultra-Orthodox parties.  The subject seemed to be the draft law.  For years, the ultra-Orthodox have resisted the draft and have received various exemptions from the draft from various governments.  Typically, they ensure these exemptions as conditions of their entry into any government. And typically, every prime minister from the right and from the left has given in to their demands.

But recently the Supreme Court knocked down the massive exemptions and demanded that the Knesset draft a law that limits these exemptions in a way that creates a more balanced, more equal treatment of the Ultra-Orthodox as compared to the rest of the population.  Haggling over the law has been going on for many months and, in fact, it was one of the issues that pushed Netanyahu to call for early elections.

As the deadline loomed, the Ultra-Orthodox dug in their heels and Lieberman dug in his.  But here the stories diverge.  Each side claims that they offered reasonable compromises that the other side rejected.  The Likud accuses Lieberman of bad faith negotiations which Lieberman denies categorically.  I have seen and heard conflicting claims and I have no idea who to believe.  But in the end, Netanyahu failed miserably in getting these two sides together.  Rather than go back to the President who would then ask another party or MK to put together a government, Netanyahu disbanded the Knesset and called for early elections.  For the first time in history, a Knesset has been disbanded before it even formed a government.  Elections are in September which will mean that Israel will be led by a provisional government for nearly a year and a Knesset that barely functions.

This is not the way to run a country.

I stayed up past midnight to watch the Knesset vote to disband itself.  And the entire time I could not believe what I was seeing.  I could not understand how it was that leaders of this country would go to elections, for the second time in less than a year, with the enormous expense to the taxpayer, and not find a way to avoid it.  What became inordinately clear is that too many politicians care more about their seats than they do about their country.

I personally have a great deal of sympathy for Lieberman’s position regarding drafting the ultra-Orthodox.  As a religious Zionist, I too value Bible study and believe that young men and women who want to devote themselves to religious pursuits should be encouraged to do so.  But not at the expense of military or national service.  I have four sons who studied in Yeshiva for many years, including two who are now rabbis.  But they all did military service.  And the military accommodated them by shortening their military service in exchange for their yeshiva study.  But they still served.  Why can’t the ultra-Orthodox do the same?

The vast majority of Knesset members feel the same way and it could have been easy for the Knesset to pass the draft law.  But the system rewards the smaller parties who hold the larger ones hostage.

But there is another issue that played a huge role in this fiasco.  There are so many MK’s representing large numbers of citizens who have become blinded by rage against Netanyahu.  While he is being investigated on corruption charges their rage has become so pathological that it cannot be reasoned with.

If the Likud were led by any other leader, they would have been able to form alternative governments with some of the other centrist parties, either leaving out the extremists or forcing them to compromise.  And that would certainly have been in the best interests of the country.

What will elections accomplish?  Chances are the results will be very similar to what we have today which means they will not resolve the impasse.  But the issue is one of values.  It should not be decided on the strength of one or two votes because a politician figured out the best way to twist someone’s arm.  This is an issue that requires discussion, respect, clear thinking and most of all, the setting aside of personal interests for the greater good.

The day after this vote, I asked a friend of mind what he thought.  He said: “there are two people who should resign from politics — Lieberman and Netanyahu.”  And I would add Litzman — the ultra Orthodox extremist.

We are tired of politicians who will do anything to hold on to their seats, who have forgotten that they have been entrusted by the country to serve the citizens not to manipulate them.  There are burning issues at hand— Trump’s Deal of the Century, the threat from Iran.  Netanyahu has been a master at handling these issues but he has lost the respect of so many at home.  I wonder if he can still govern?

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