Editor's notes: Playing fair politics

It is time Israel decides what it wants to be – a “Jewish state” or a “State for Jews.”

By
January 5, 2017 22:45
Hebron shooter

Elor Azaria sits to hear his verdict in a military court in Tel Aviv, Israel, January 4, 2017. (photo credit: REUTERS)

 
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After 12 years of investigations, an indictment was filed in December 2012 against Avigdor Liberman.

Then foreign minister, Liberman was charged with breach of trust while the larger case – suspicions of money laundering – was closed.

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In October 2006, Ehud Olmert came under investigation.

It was the first of many probes, for one of which the former prime minister would eventually be sent to jail. It would take though almost three years for Olmert to be indicted.

I mention these two cases since this cannot be allowed to repeat itself with the current investigation against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit has a responsibility to investigate politicians and to rid the government of corruption but at the same time to do so fast and not to drag his feet.

As long as Netanyahu – or any prime minister – is under investigation, a cloud lingers over every decision he makes. When Ariel Sharon announced his plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip, one politician coined the phrase: “The size of the withdrawal is the same as the size of the investigation.”

In other words, this politician claimed, Sharon was pulling out of Gaza simply to appease the Left and to stave off an indictment. Whether the politician was right or wrong no longer makes a difference. Decisions made by a prime minister under investigation will always be viewed with skepticism.

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That is why this investigation needs to be limited to just a few months. This is important for two reasons: governmental stability and fairness to the prime minister.

As long as Netanyahu is under investigation, every other member of his cabinet is thinking how to replace him, and that affects their decisions, undermining the entire government’s ability to properly function. The government is essentially paralyzed.

Elected officials should be held to a high standard, but they should be treated fairly. If the investigation reveals that Netanyahu committed a crime, he should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. But if, within several months, it turns out that he didn’t, he should be left alone to do what the people need him to do – lead.

***

If there is one lesson Elor Azaria can learn from his verdict on Wednesday, it is that the politicians who supposedly support him are actually working against him.

Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev, Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Likud MK Oren Hazan and others have only exacerbated Azaria’s situation by calling for his release over the last 10 months. Their attacks on the IDF and refusal to accept the verdict handed down on Wednesday have not helped his case.

What Azaria probably doesn’t yet understand is that while these politicians might seem like they are his friends, they don’t really care if he sits in jail for a year, two or three. For them, he is simply a political pawn, a tool they can use in their ongoing competition over who is more right-wing than the other.

How do I know? Because some politicians couldn’t even wait for the judges to finish reading the verdict before releasing their statements to the press. By 1 p.m. Wednesday, almost every politician in Israel had released a statement – either on Twitter or Facebook, or in radio and TV interviews.

The one person who surprisingly remained quiet was Netanyahu. This was interesting considering that in March, after Azaria’s arrest, he personally called the soldier’s father.

“As a father of a solder, I understand your distress,” Netanyahu told Charlie Azaria in the controversial phone call.

It was controversial, since a prime minister doesn’t call fathers of suspects being charged with manslaughter, and by doing so he appeared to be undermining the rule of law.

But then came Netanyahu’s response to the verdict on Wednesday. Nearly seven hours after everyone else, at 7:51 p.m., just minutes before the nightly news, the prime minister posted the following statement on his Facebook page: “This is a difficult and painful day for all of us... I call on all citizens of Israel to behave responsibly toward the IDF, its commanders and the chief of staff. We have one military which ensures our existence. IDF soldiers are our sons and daughters, and they have to stay above all controversy. I support pardoning Elor Azaria.”

Netanyahu’s statement completely ignored the trial that had just ended. There was no reference to the public’s need to respect the legal process and the importance of the rule of law. People were demonstrating on the streets cursing the IDF chief of staff and police had just announced that they were beefing up security for the judges. The prime minister though had nothing to say about the need to respect their verdict. It was as if it didn’t exist.

Also, the final line – “I support pardoning Elor Azaria” – seemed a bit out of context, like it was just thrown in as an afterthought. On the other hand, Netanyahu had no choice but to add it. After Bennett, Regev and so many other politicians called for Azaria to be pardoned, Netanyahu could not remain silent. If he had, it would have chipped away at his standing as the leader of the Right.

Israel places its soldiers in impossible situations and at the mere age of 18 expects them to make decisions on matters of life and death. Hebron, where Azaria committed his crime last March, is one of the most complicated places in the West Bank. This reality is definitely not black and white.

Nevertheless, once the court made its decision, it needs to be respected. Israelis do not want to live in a banana republic with anarchy and lawlessness. To prevent that from happening, the legal process needs to be defended, not undermined.

Once sentenced, Azaria can ask President Reuven Rivlin for a pardon and can also submit a request to OC Central Command Maj.-Gen. Roni Numa to have his sentence reduced. Considering that he has spent the last 10 months under house arrest, Azaria could be out of jail in just a few months.

For this to happen, the political circus needs to end. If the politicians care so much about Azaria, they should leave him alone.

***

It was hailed as historic and unprecedented. An Israeli government decision to establish a 900-square meter pluralistic prayer platform
at the Kotel.

The vote held on January 31, 2016, was the result of years of negotiations and compromise. Beyond the establishment of the platform, the government was supposed to finally give progressive Jewish movements – Reform and Conservative – quasi-formal recognition, something they still lack today in the Jewish state.

When the cabinet finally brought the issue to a vote, it passed with a clear majority – 15 ministers voted in favor. Only five against. While it seemed like a decisive victory, one former minister who voted for the plaza told me recently that Likud Minister Ze’ev Elkin, a close Netanyahu ally, whispered to him right after the vote: “Don’t worry. It will never be built.”

A year has now passed and Elkin seems to have been right. Not only has the prayer plaza not been built, it seems Israel is starting to look a bit like the countries around it. New legislation, proposed by Shas and sitting on the Knesset’s docket, would criminalize pluralistic prayer at the Kotel. Women could find themselves sent to prison for wearing tefillin or a tallit.

Israelis have always celebrated their country as the only place in the Middle East where all monotheistic religions can pray freely. Hanukka and Christmas, which fell this year on the same day, was a perfect demonstration of this unique regional religious freedom.

Unfortunately, though, Israel is still not a state where everyone can pray freely. Apparently, some types of Jews have less rights than Christians and Muslims.

Netanyahu will not implement the deal. His political survival right now is fragile enough considering the new police investigation against him. Haredi threats to topple his government if he goes ahead with the plan will keep it on ice. Nevertheless, Netanyahu needs to stop Shas’s bill. One senior member of the coalition told me this week that it will not be easy. If Shas demands the legislation be brought to a vote and again presents Netanyahu with an ultimatum, it will be hard to say no.

It is time Israel decides what it wants to be – a “Jewish state” or a “State for Jews.” A “Jewish state” is what Israel is today – the country runs according to the Jewish calendar, its vacations are the Jewish holidays, Hebrew is the official language, Torah classes are taught in schools and the rabbinate has a monopoly over life-cycle events like marriage, divorce and death.

A “State for Jews” is something different. While it is true that under the Law of Return Reform and Conservative Jews – even those not considered Jewish by Orthodox Halacha – are granted citizenship, they do not yet have equal rights. They are not allowed to pray the way they want, to marry the way they want or to celebrate their religion the way they want.

A “State for Jews” would be a state where all Jews are equal. Where all Jews are given the opportunity to practice their religion the way they believe. A “Jewish state” can exist alongside a “State for Jews.” It is time they do.

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