It was, as many noted, the ultimate Israeli split-screen moment: On Monday morning, April 5, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu entered the Jerusalem District Court to hear the opening arguments in the state’s cases against him while on the other side of town, a Likud delegation was entering the President’s Residence to ask Reuven Rivlin to give Netanyahu the mandate to try to form a coalition following the elections.
It’s not just the TV screens that are split: The country is divided.
Many people have given up calling Netanyahu by name – any name. He’s no longer Benjamin Netanyahu or Bibi, the childhood nickname he wishes would be dropped. He’s the “Crime Minister” or “The Accused.” The “Anyone but Bibi” camp is undergoing its own name change, increasingly being referred to as “The bloc for change.”
Nonetheless, it is indisputable that in the last election – the fourth in two years – more than one million citizens placed ballots clearly marked Likud “headed by Netanyahu” in the ballot box; Likud won by far the most votes – 30 seats compared to the 17 of its nearest rival, Yesh Atid led by Yair Lapid.
I don’t envy Rivlin. Seven years ago, Netanyahu did everything he could to try to prevent Rivlin from becoming the head of state. Neither of them could have imagined then that Rivlin would be called on five times to determine who has the mandate to try to establish the government. Noticeably breaking with tradition, the president did not pose with the party heads for an official photo after the inauguration of the Knesset this week. He did, however – as he has throughout his soon-to-end term in office – call for unity.
“I believe in this people,” declared the president from the Knesset podium. “I believe in it because that is the lesson history, ancient and modern, has taught me. I believe in it because this people has proved its might during this plague. I believe. Believe in yourselves, too.”
The country is in the midst of that only-in-Israel period which starts with Purim (the holiday marking the survival of the Jews despite the plotting in the ancient Persian court), continues to Passover, celebrating the Exodus from Egypt – another story of survival and the birth of the Jewish nation – and on to Holocaust Remembrance Day, commemorating the genocide in which six million Jews were slaughtered simply for being Jews. Next week, we mark Remembrance Day for IDF fallen and victims of terrorism and immediately after that Independence Day. There can be no greater contrast than that back-to-back juxtaposition. Nor nothing more Israeli.
On the morning of Yom Hashoah and the eve and morning of IDF Remembrance Day, sirens are sounded and everything comes to a halt. True, there will always be members of the media and the users of the social media searching to find the examples of the ultra-Orthodox Jews or Arabs who don’t stand in silence for the siren, but nonetheless those who carry on as normal are in the minority.
On Yom Hashoah I commemorate relatives of my extended family and people. On Yom Hazikaron, I remember friends – and the children of friends – who fell in war or were murdered by terrorists. I pay my respects and try not to deepen the divides by deliberately seeking out those who act differently.
This is when the split-screen phenomenon is most evident on social media – when all my Israeli friends are sharing low-key memories and impressions that seemed detached from whatever is going on elsewhere in the world.
Every year, I recall the words of iconic Israeli writer Haim Gouri. Many Independence Days ago, in 1992, he told me in an interview: “We are a people of ups and downs, euphoria and pathos, pride and pique. Everything about us is drastic.
“Look even at the weather: We had snowstorms and brilliant sunshine the same month this year. Every day there is a sudden sunrise and an equally dramatic sunset, but there is no twilight. Hazal [The Sages] wrote: ‘The [Jewish] people is compared to the dust of the ground and to the stars of the sky. When they sink, they sink down into the dust; when they rise, they rise into the stars.’”
No wonder so many Israelis think of this season – and life in general – as an emotional roller-coaster.
This year the contrasts are even more marked. Last year, the COVID-control restrictions kept us at home. Israelis from different religious communities were all deprived: no family Seder nights for Passover, no Easter celebrations, no Ramadan gatherings. There were no collective memorials or graveside family gatherings for Yom Hazikaron (Remembrance Day), no mass celebrations for Yom Ha’atzmaut (Independence Day).
This year, Israelis are coming out of the corona era (while fearing opening up will bring in new variants). Even the much vaunted vaccination campaign was very Israeli – from zero to the vast majority of the adult population in a matter of weeks. Unfortunately, so too, were the arguments over whom to credit – and this week there were reports that Pfizer was refusing to deliver more vaccines until payment had been sorted out: The political rivalry between Netanyahu and Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz got in the way, with Gantz refusing to attend the meeting where the funding should have been approved.
And that is also part of this year’s splits and split screens – having a weak “alternate prime minister” rather than a strong leader of the opposition.
The COVID pandemic brought us together and drove us apart. It increased tensions between secular and ultra-Orthodox, Jews and Arabs, haves and have-nots. It seems symbolic that the Knesset sworn in this week brought together both the radical right wing like Itamar Ben-Gvir and Avi Maor and Islamists on Mansour Abbas’s Ra’am list. Prepare for clashes but don’t rule out strange alliances and agreement on certain issues.
And while the Joint List in the last Knesset refused to vote in support of the Abraham Accords that normalized relations with Gulf states, when the Knesset was sworn in this week, their MKs demonstrably refused to pledge allegiance at the inauguration ceremony. It’s typical and cynical: on the one hand, decrying the lack of government and police action to deal with the rising homicide and violent crime rate within the Arab sector, on the other denouncing Israel as an “apartheid, police state” – all the while enjoying the considerable perks that come from being a member of parliament.
Somehow we must find a means to move forward – seeking what unites us and the common benefits; avoiding the national pastime of turning every minor incident into a major affair.
No progress can be made until the “blocs” stop blocking each other. Someone has to be in the government; others have to lead a strong and relevant opposition. There are too many issues that need to be dealt with – health, education, the economy, infrastructure, welfare of those in need and the environment. And that’s without mentioning the security needs, particularly as Iran seeks a way to persuade the world to ignore its threats and support of global terrorism.
The country needs a functional government with a workable budget. And it needs to reform the political system.
As President Rivlin said in his address at the Knesset inauguration this week, “If we are not able to find a new model of partnership that allows us to live together here in mutual respect and genuine shared commitment to each other, our national resilience will be in real jeopardy.”
The word resilient is often used to describe Israel and Israelis. We’ve been through a lot – more than most. And we need to find a way to remain here: arguing, singing, standing in silence, and sharing our split-screen moments together.