Thanks to the latest coronavirus directives, fewer Israelis than ever will set foot in a synagogue on the Yom Kippur holiday that begins on Sunday night.
Even some top Orthodox politicians are calling on the public to pray alone or attend quicker services outside synagogues.
If the country’s decision-makers follow that directive, it will give them more time than ever to think about what they did wrong over the past year and what apologies they owe the Israeli public.
According to Jewish tradition, God forgives sins between man and God on Yom Kippur, but sins between man and man need to be forgiven by the victims themselves. Nevertheless, it is so rare for politicians to apologize to the public that President Reuven Rivlin’s mea culpa about hosting his daughter for the Passover Seder during a lockdown made front-page news.
A politician apologizing is so newsworthy that Yom Kippur even features a haftarah (the portion from the Prophets read on Shabbat and holidays following the reading of the Torah) about a prophet/politician named Jonah who needed to be swallowed up by a whale to finally realize that he had made a mistake.
The Jewish calendar year that ended last week, 5780, featured blunders of biblical proportions – unforgivable errors that will take the country years to recover from.
It is hard to recall, but the year actually started with high hopes and expectations. Israel had just endured two costly and dirty elections, and there was no expectation that there would be a third.
The Central Bureau of Statistics reported that the unemployment rate hit a record low of 3.4% in December, and no one could have guessed at the time that a million Israelis would be unemployed by April 1.
COVID-19 surfaced only in a Chinese seafood and poultry market in December and did not make headlines in Israel until the first Israelis were infected aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship in February.
All three of those developments – in politics, the economy and health – got worse and worse as the Jewish calendar year went on, in ways even the worst pessimists could not have predicted in their most sinister dreams when 5780 began.
While not everything was under their control in a year that was unquestionably bad round the world, Israel’s politicians have plenty to apologize for when it comes to their roles in escalating the downward spiral.
LET’S START with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. His failure to reach a compromise with now-Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz by the December 11 deadline initiated the unprecedented third election in under a year that cost billions of taxpayer shekels, which might have been expendable before the coronavirus but is a tragic waste for the country in retrospect.
Future opposition leader Yair Lapid told the Knesset when the race began that the election ahead would be so intense and dirty that it should be limited to adult viewing.
“Distance your children from the television,” Lapid warned. “These elections will be a festival of hate, violence and disgust. Make sure your kids won’t be near the TV for the next three months, so they won’t see what their elected representatives are saying.”
While there was no violence, there was plenty of hate and disgust, culminating in Netanyahu allegedly sending a rabbi to Blue and White’s strategist, who confided in the clergyman that he was actually worried about Israel’s future under Gantz. The strategist did not know the rabbi was taping him or that his confession would be featured on the nightly news.
When a government was finally formed, Netanyahu made an error that could end up being remembered as politically fatal to himself. His hatred of Yamina leader Naftali Bennett led to leaving him out of the government, instead of accepting his request to be health minister.
Four months later, the numbers are startling: Nearly 7,000 new COVID cases in one day; 29 seats for Likud and 21 for Yamina, according to a poll conducted by the Midgam Institute and published Wednesday. All three numbers could have been very different had Netanyahu not let his personal animosity dictate his policies.
Arrogance is one of the sins Jews strike their hearts with their fists for on Yom Kippur, and Netanyahu displayed it with full force when he boasted of his achievements in the first wave of the virus in the spring.
He bragged that world leaders were asking him for advice, which looks laughable looking back, as Israel becomes the first country in the world to enter a second lockdown.
Since then, Netanyahu and his government have repeatedly changed strategies for tackling the coronavirus and failed time and time again, as Israelis’ health and economic well-being have suffered. As his trial approaches, Netanyahu’s time to handle the crisis will become more limited and his motives will be increasingly questioned.
ALTERNATE PRIME Minister Benny Gantz had a year to forget as well. While he did attain multiple fancy titles and a fancy Audi, he lost more than three-fourths of his supporters and much of his reputation, and it will be very hard to get them back.
Gantz’s Blue and White won the election just before 5780 began, drawing 1,151,214 votes and winning 33 seats, passing Netanyahu’s Likud. Had he succeeded in reaching a compromise with Netanyahu after the election, he would be prime minister now and Netanyahu’s political career would be over.
Instead, the latest polls predict only seven seats for Blue and White – and that is before his competition is clear. He is now entirely dependent on Netanyahu keeping political promises for him to become prime minister in a rotation agreement, and he has learned over the past year how little those promises are worth.
Blue and White voters who cast ballots three times hoping Gantz would be an alternative to Netanyahu got him the title of alternate prime minister, but that was clearly not what they had in mind. He entered the government promising to focus on stopping the coronavirus, and then did not ask for the Health portfolio for Blue and White in a serious manner. His mistakes since then, in four months of bickering with Netanyahu, are also unlikely to be forgiven by his former voters.
Gantz’s former political partner Lapid can say to himself that he honored his convictions by staying out of the government. But Lapid’s former friend turned bitter enemy Ofer Shelah said it best that the Yesh Atid Party leader must be doing something wrong if he is running third in the polls despite all the government’s mistakes.
Despite his reputation as an eloquent orator, he has not persuaded the undecided masses that he should be seen as Netanyahu’s alternative. Instead of running against Netanyahu, he now must deal with the annoyance of Shelah’s challenge in a party he controlled with no known opposition until recently.
Underestimating the bitterness of his former friend and letting it fester is the sin Lapid will have to ponder wherever he spends his Yom Kippur.
Bennett, who passed Lapid in the polls, is one of the few Israelis who could look back at the past year positively from a personal perspective. He went from second in Yamina behind Ayelet Shaked to second behind Netanyahu in poll questions about fitness to be prime minister.
But he is also not blameless, as Yom Kippur approaches. Had his Yamina Party been more modest in its requests during coalition talks, it is possible that Bennett’s ideas for fighting the coronavirus could have been implemented and fewer people could have died.
Bennett will have to try to be more modest in the year ahead despite all the positive poll numbers, or he could end up having lots to lament when looking back at 5781.
Arguably the biggest loser of 5780 was United Torah Judaism leader Ya’acov Litzman, who ended the year outside the cabinet. He went from being a respected health minister to the first MK diagnosed with COVID-19 after not following his own restrictions.
He is now saying he will never return to the cabinet, and while that could be said out of political tactics, the probe into whether he helped alleged pedophile Malka Leifer is intensifying. When she gets extradited to Australia, Litzman could be extradited out of politics for good.
Another politician whose career could end in the year ahead is Labor Party leader Amir Peretz, who went in one year from promising 15 seats to winning only three. Only two of those three have been loyal to him since he broke his repeated promises to not join a Netanyahu-led government.
He may be a cabinet minister now, but he lost his credibility along with the mustache that he shaved when he made promises to his voters that he did not keep.
But the Israeli politician with arguably the most to apologize for is Peretz’s former political partner, MK Orly Levy-Abecassis. She took votes from Meretz and used them to join Netanyahu’s government with a made-up ministry that takes funding away from the poor underclass she pretended to champion.
Were it not for the lockdown, perhaps Levy-Abecassis’s voters would come to where she lives on Kibbutz Reshafim just to watch her hit herself in her prayers. Her latest sin was to allegedly lie about residents of another kibbutz rejecting her request to live there, right by the pristine Hassi Stream.
A whale coming out of that stream and swallowing up Levy-Abecassis could be the ultimate conclusion to a year that the overwhelming majority of Israelis will try to forget.•