Year in review: The highs and lows of Israeli politics in 2017

Here’s hoping for more good news in 2018.

December 30, 2017 13:08
PROTESTERS CALL for the resignation of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over police investigations

PROTESTERS CALL for the resignation of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over police investigations for suspected corruption at a demonstration in Tel Aviv in January. The banner says ‘A corrupt government must go.’. (photo credit: BAZ RATNER/REUTERS)

On January 2, 2017, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu started off his year with a police interrogation, setting the tone for a political year dominated by the fallout from investigations into allegations that he received illegal gifts from businessmen and attempted to negotiate sympathetic coverage in Yediot Aharonot in exchange for weakening its competitor Israel Hayom.

Days later, the “French bill” was on the agenda, which was based on a French constitutional provision that exempts the president from criminal investigations – except in the Israeli version, it would apply to the prime minister.

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The highly controversial bill was replaced by a different proposal later in the year, the “police recommendations bill,” which would bar police from recommending to the attorney-general whether to indict or not at the close of an investigation. That bill went through many changes in recent months, including narrowing its scope to not even include Netanyahu’s investigation, but is still the opposition’s top target ahead of a Knesset vote that’s been postponed many times.
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The weekly demonstrations against corruption, which often looked more like rallies against Netanyahu or Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit, grew larger and larger until they no longer fit in Mandelblit’s Petah Tikva neighborhood and in the last few weeks of the year moved to Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard.

At the end of January, Police Chief Insp.-Gen. Roni Alsheikh said the investigations into the prime minister’s conduct would end in the coming weeks, but Netanyahu ended his year much as he began it, and was questioned again over Hanukka.

In February, security forces evacuated the Amona outpost on the Supreme Court’s orders, after vigorous attempts by the Right to prevent the demolition. The evacuation ended with a standoff at the Amona synagogue, with 100 people barricaded inside, who were eventually removed by the police.

Days later, the government passed an unprecedented law to retroactively legalize 4,000 outposts and “apply sovereignty” in Area C of the West Bank in the parlance of the Right, or “annex” it, per the Left. The law made huge waves when it passed, but as is the case with many controversial bills, it hasn’t actually been applied yet.

In March, former Joint List MK Basel Ghattas signed a plea bargain, after he was caught on camera in late 2016 smuggling cell phones, documents and other items to Palestinian terrorists in prison. Ghattas agreed to resign from the Knesset and serve two years in prison.

In April, conversation about the Palestinians’ payments to terrorists and their families – the more Israelis they kill or maim, and the longer their prison sentence, the more money they get – heated up.

Yesh Atid MK Elazar Stern proposed an Israeli version of The Taylor Force Act. Drafted by Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and named after an American student and military veteran killed in a terror attack in Jaffa in 2016, Graham proposed to cut off US aid to the Palestinians unless the payments are stopped. Stern’s version would cut tax payments to the Palestinian Authority until the terrorists’ salaries are no longer being paid.

The Taylor Force Act passed in the House in December, while Stern’s bill is still stuck after passing a preliminary vote. Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman has promised it will be ready to go to a first reading in the coming weeks.

May was the month that US President Donald Trump visited Israel, which was a massive diplomatic event, but it had its political sides, as well.

There was the selfie seen around the world. The Knesset’s class clown, MK Oren Hazan of the Likud, snuck into Trump’s reception on the tarmac at Ben-Gurion Airport, even though he wasn’t invited, told POTUS that he’s “the Israeli Trump,” and snapped a photo, even though Netanyahu reached over and tried to push Hazan away.

Trump opted out of giving a speech in the Knesset because there was no guarantee that he wouldn’t be heckled – another blow to the legislature’s reputation, which wasn’t that great to begin with. In response, the Knesset passed a zero-tolerance policy for heckling during foreign leaders’ speeches, which is expected to be put into effect for the first time when US Vice President Mike Pence visits.

When Trump’s overwhelmingly friendly visit ended and the dust settled, the Likud and Netanyahu’s popularity surged in the polls.

The US President’s visit to the Western Wall with his daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner touched many hearts, but the Haredim saw it as a political opportunity to stick it to non-Orthodox Jews. Ultra-Orthodox politicians and pundits pointed out that Ivanka went to the women’s section and respect ed the Kotel’s rules, unlike those who want egalitarian prayers.

Which brings us to June, when Netanyahu indefinitely froze his agreement to create a state-recognized egalitarian section at the Western Wall, infuriating Conservative and Reform leadership. The decision sent shock waves through mainstream American Jewry, and the Jewish Agency released an unprecedentedly angry statement. This issue continues to be a point of tension between the Israeli government and much of the American Jewish establishment.

In the Knesset, the usual handful of MKs in the opposition who are in touch with Diaspora Jewry made statements against the Kotel compromise’s cancellation and there were some meetings in the Knesset Immigration and Diaspora Affairs Committee, but the matter didn’t go much further than that. And that’s an important thing to note, as well, because it just emphasizes the huge gap between what Israelis care about – security, followed by the cost of living and housing tend to top polls – as opposed to what US Jews seem to care about when it comes to Israel.

Still, the prime minister’s capitulation to the demands of Haredi parties Shas and United Torah Judaism set the stage for later controversies on matters of religion and state, which had greater success in catching the Israeli public’s attention.

The two biggest news events in July happened within a week of each other. First, Labor elected political neophyte Avi Gabbay as its leader. Gabbay is not and has never been a member of Knesset; he was briefly environmental protection minister for Kulanu, but resigned after about a year, when Liberman became defense minister. Since his unexpected ascension to the top of a party of which he had been a member for less than a year, the surprises have continued. Gabbay has tried to pull his party more to the Right to appeal to centrist voters, saying things like settlements don’t have to be evacuated for a peace deal and, citing a controversial Netanyahu quote, that the Left forgot how to be Jewish and needs to get more in touch with tradition.

Four days later, terrorists attacked on the Temple Mount, killing two policemen from the Druse community. The government decided to put up cameras and metal detectors at the entrances to the holy site – in addition to the more invasive security measures that Jews already had to undergo when visiting – and Muslims rioted. After several days of violence and negotiations involving Jordan and the Trump administration, the metal detectors were removed, except for the ones at the entrance for Jewish visitors.

August and September are the silly season for political news in Israel. With the Knesset on a long recess until after the High Holy Days and Sukkot, there isn’t that much going on and little things tend to get inflated into major news stories. Here are a couple of strange stories:

One morning in August, the entire Israeli news media seemed to be occupied by one thing only: Will the aforementioned Knesset scandal magnet Oren Hazan get into a fistfight with trouble-making Jordanian lawmaker Yahya Mohammad Alsaud?

It all began when Hazan tweeted negative comments about Jordan, saying Israel is too kind to the neighboring state. Alsaud challenged Hazan to a fight on the Allenby Bridge between the two countries; Hazan said he would be there, but only to talk. Hazan and Alsaud both recorded their preparations on social media. Alsaud recorded live video while sitting in traffic on the way; the asthmatic Hazan tweeted photos of himself breathing into an inhaler and said Israeli Olympic bronze medal-winning judoka Oren Smadja called to give him tips for the fight. In the end, Netanyahu ordered Hazan to stay away and the day ended without a rumble.

This was also a summer in which Netanyahu’s son, Yair Netanyahu, got an inordinate amount of attention, thanks to his social-media alter-ego Yair Hun. After Netanyahu Jr. was caught allegedly not picking up after the family dog, Kaya, on a walk, he and left-wing think tank Molad got into a Facebook fight, which in the ensuing months turned into defamation lawsuits.

Not long after that, the prime minister’s son posted a diagram on Facebook that he called “the food chain” featuring Jewish billionaire George Soros, who funds left-wing causes and organizations in several countries, controlling the world, via other conspiracy theory figures like lizard people, known as Reptilians, and the Illuminati or Freemasons. Those figures, according to the graphic Netanyahu shared, control former prime minister Ehud Barak, who controls failed Labor candidate Eldad Yaniv and former Prime Minister’s Residence superintendent Meni Naftali, leaders of the weekly anti-Netanyahu protests in Petah Tikva. He was broadly rapped for spreading antisemitic tropes, and eventually deleted the post.

Later in the year, at his father’s birthday party, Yair Netanyahu announced that he will never become a politician.

The Knesset began to look like it had a revolving door in October with Zionist Union MKs Manuel Trajtenberg and Erel Margalit resigning to return to academia and venture capitalism, respectively, and Meretz leader Zehava Gal-On quitting the legislature to focus on building up her party.

They’ve brought the grand total of people who resigned from the 20th Knesset – not counting those who stayed ministers or deputy ministers – to 15. That’s a record number, not counting the wave of resignations to join Kadima when it was founded. The reasons have varied from going to jail for security offenses (see March), to MKs being accused of sexual harassment, to people preferring their pre-parliamentary careers.

A resignation that was big news in November was then-health minister Ya’acov Litzman’s, the culmination of months of controversy over public violations of Shabbat. Shas and UTJ had made threats several times this year when Israel Railways did construction work on Shabbat, and the Grand Rabbi of Gur, the hassidic sect to which Litzman belongs, put his foot down. Litzman had to resign, because ministers have collective responsibility for government decisions. However, he’s remained a member of Knesset, and de facto continues to control the Health Ministry even though Netanyahu technically holds the portfolio now.

In order to keep the Haredim in the coalition, while trying not to totally alienate non-Orthodox voters, Netanyahu came up with a compromise package. The government drafted a bill that will allow Litzman to run the Health Ministry as a deputy minister. It’s also working on the “minimarkets bill,” which will grant Interior Minister Arye Deri the discretion to block any new municipal laws opening stores on Shabbat, and a bill that will require the labor minister to consider religious sensitivities when deciding whether to approve work on Shabbat. However, the Shas push to stop soccer games on Shabbat was stymied, and railway work on the day of rest will continue. In the ensuing weeks, Yisrael Beytenu made a lot of noise opposing the “minimarkets bill,” a nd the coalition had difficulty whipping up votes, but they managed to get it through a first reading.

The Knesset has been in Jerusalem, Israel’s capital and seat of government, since 1949. It was in Jerusalem in January, and remained in Jerusalem in December, when Trump recognized the city as Israel’s capital and vowed to move the US Embassy there. Still, Trump’s announcement was the rare moment of near-consensus in Israeli politics, and the reaction from Zionist parties in the Knesset was and remains overwhelmingly positive.

Here’s hoping for more good news in 2018.

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