My Word: Political roads traveled and roads not taken

Politics being politics, there will never be a dream team that suits all, and often there will be a nightmare that keeps half the population awake at night. 

 The Likud’s Yariv Levin presides over the plenum as new Knesset Speaker this week. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
The Likud’s Yariv Levin presides over the plenum as new Knesset Speaker this week.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

I recently received a couple of e-mails from Americans along the same theme. The wording was slightly different but the bottom line was: I will not be visiting Israel as long as the new government is in power. Strangely, I don’t recall the same people calling for a travelers’ boycott of the US while Donald Trump was president.

Whoever happens to be head of government should not affect the decision whether or not to visit during the Hanukkah or Christmas holiday season. 

Love might not be blind, but true love isn’t conditional. Israel has just come through five elections in less than four years. That could be potentially more disruptive to personality-based travel plans than the COVID-19 pandemic. Now you see him in the Prime Minister’s Office, now you don’t. Now you book a ticket; now one party and one government merges into another.

The coalition that Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu has created and plans to place in government – if the necessary legislative changes can be passed ahead of the December 21 deadline – is definitely right-wing. Far-right, indeed, comprising Likud, Shas, Religious Zionist Party (RZP), United Torah Judaism (UTJ), Otzma Yehudit and Noam. The list of traits of some of its leading members range from chauvinist to homophobic and some are zealously ultra-Orthodox. Note, however, that despite the demonization by the soon-to-be opposition, there will be women and an openly-gay former justice minister, Amir Ohana, in positions of power. Democracy and human rights did not die.

Politics being politics, there will never be a dream team that suits all, and often there will be a nightmare that keeps half the population awake at night. 

Amir Ohana at a special cabinet meeting in the Golan Heights (credit: AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS)Amir Ohana at a special cabinet meeting in the Golan Heights (credit: AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS)

There is no small measure of hypocrisy involved.

I had no problem with having an Islamist party in the previous government, but it would be hard to make the case that Ra’am MKs and their voter base formed a bastion of LGBT rights, and I don’t know of any Jewish ultra-Orthodox politician who condones having more than one wife at a time while there has been a bigamist Muslim lawmaker whose parliamentary seat was unchallenged. The Left and far-Left managed to sit around the same cabinet table with the Islamists with very different views. 

I was also concerned that Avigdor Liberman was finance minister while a member of his Yisrael Beytenu party chaired the Knesset Finance Committee that was meant to oversee the ministry’s work – all this while more than one party member was serving jail time for corruption. Not exactly squeaky clean but I didn’t hear a squeak.

No, I don’t like the thought of Noam head Avi Maoz having an educational ministry post leaving him in charge of extracurricular studies and content. I was not in favor, either, of outgoing Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton (National Unity Party) introducing gender programs into kindergartens. Let kids be kids.

A large part of the electoral support for the new government obviously stemmed from the pendulum effect as policies, well-meaning or otherwise, boomeranged.

As religious journalist Ofra Lax has noted, the fear of the secular public concerning having someone Orthodox in the Education Ministry did not start with Maoz. It is educational to note that reservations were voiced about every previous education minister wearing a kippa, including Naftali Bennett, Rafi Peretz, Shai Piron and going back to the National Religious Party’s Zvulun Hammer in 1977. Some were better than others, as is true for every minister, but the sky didn’t fall. There doesn’t seem to have been a mass phenomenon of secular children becoming orthodox and vice versa, depending on who held the top spot in the ministry.

As usual, focusing on the identities of the new ministers – assuming the government is established in the coming days – takes the spotlight away from the point that should come under examination. The Education Ministry, which is the highest-funded of all government departments, nonetheless suffers from huge problems, particularly with gaps between schools in more affluent areas and those in the so-called social periphery. 

A good education – and in Israel’s case that includes learning Jewish history and understanding why we are here – should not be a luxury. And while we’re at it, I would like to see all Jewish pupils being taught a decent level of spoken Arabic and all Arabic-speakers learning Hebrew. Incidentally, there are probably more similar shared cultural values among the religious of all religions than among the secular.

This week, the appointment of Likud’s Yariv Levin as Knesset Speaker (whether temporary or permanent), to help push through four bills necessary for Netanyahu to be able to abide by his coalition agreements and establish the new government, was more cause for concern for some. But passing legislation specifically in order to help create a new government is not new either. It doesn’t take a history degree to dig up examples. Indeed, the cumbersome idea of having a prime minister and an alternate prime minister from different parties (à la Bennett and current PM Yair Lapid) comes to mind. 

The number of ministerial posts and ministries being created to try to keep coalition partners happy is also unwieldy. Inflation is not good. Quantity does not beget quality. 

Here, too, it is not only Netanyahu who is at fault. Despite Lapid’s election promise to keep the number of ministers down to a manageable 18, the Bennett-Lapid “Change Government” swiftly changed that. It became hard to keep track of the number of ministers and their posts – 27 when last I counted – and many of those ministers left their status as MKs under the so-called Norwegian Law to allow more people on the parties’ list a piece of the pie, at the taxpayers’ expense.

The soon-to-be opposition sticks to its guns when it comes to rhetoric about haredim not serving in the army, ignoring the fact that Arab citizens also don’t serve, and there is an overall drop in the number of those wanting to serve in a combat unit.

Ahead of the annual 2022 National Security and Democracy conference last month, the Israel Democracy Institute published a special survey that found “a large plurality of Jewish Israelis who would prefer that their children serve in the IDF’s technological units (45% for men, 44% for women) and only a small percentage want to see their children serve in the elite combat units (men: 9%, women 3%) or other combat units such as infantry or the armored corps (men: 5%, women 2%).”

Data published in 2020 showed that 32.9% of those required to do mandatory service do not enlist at all and another 15% do not complete their military service, with at least a third of males getting exemptions for mental health reasons. 

This, then, is one of the challenges facing the IDF as much as whether haredim serve.

Having a former chief of staff as the defense minister is no guarantee of accountability. On the contrary, there is an old boys network that can look out for each other. And there is also no reason that the (non-elected) Israel Police commissioner should not have more civil oversight.

Promises (or threats) by Lapid, Gadi Eisenkot and others to revive mass protests against Netanyahu – the return of the “Just not Bibi” rallies – are a mix of hyperbole and hysteria. There is no doubt that these elections were democratic and valid. Promising to take to protesting outside the Prime Minister’s Residence is more disturbing than democratic. We should be thankful that they stop short of threatening to storm it. 

“How do you feel about the fact that public transportation in your city will cost more, just because you are not ultra-Orthodox?”

Yair Lapid

Calling the Netanyahu government “the most radical government in the country’s history,” Lapid this week asked in the Knesset: “How do you feel about the fact that public transportation in your city will cost more, just because you are not ultra-Orthodox?” As a car-free person who relies only on public transport, however, I recall the cost coming down under Shas leader Deri and going up recently under Labor leader Merav Michaeli’s reform.

The quality of the work of ministers should be judged by the results, not by fears and wild predictions fueled by outside interests. There is no point in playing the blame game before the government even reaches the starting line. That way we’re none of us going to get anywhere.

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