Political Survival at the Expense of the Country

Living in Israel during these difficult times regionally (are there any times that are NOT difficult here?) certain things become self-evident.

I am certain that Prime Minister Netanyahu (or Bibi as he is usually called) loves Israel.  I am equally certain that he sincerely cares about our future and is deeply committed to our security and long term existence in this region. But, sadly, I am also 100% sure that the most important thing to him, seemingly beyond those already mentioned, is his desire to stay in office at any cost.

How else to explain his acquiescence to the far-right religious elements in his cabinet by last week overturning three cardinal achievements of his prior term as Prime Minister.  And what were they?

First the earlier law that permitted some 30 Orthodox city rabbis in Israel to perform state-recognized conversions to Judaism has now been re-cast so that only those among the 30 who are approved by the Chief Rabbinate will be so authorized.  But given that the Chief Rabbinate is controlled by the ultra-orthodox who opposed the reform in the first place, it is doubtful that any of these 30 rabbis will ever be authorized to perform conversions, putting the control of the entire process back in the hands of a handful of people who are not known for their worldly outlook on these issues.

Second the Cabinet approved the transfer of authority over the rabbinical courts from the Ministry of Justice to the Religious Services Ministry, once again giving the authority over those courts to the ultra-orthodox.  This effectively puts the responsibility for the rabbinical courts into the hands of the ministry headed by David Azoulay.  This is the same David Azoulay who earlier this week said in a radio interview:  “A Reform Jew, from the moment he stops following Jewish law, I cannot allow myself to say that he is a Jew.”  Really?  This is the man who now controls the rabbinical courts who hold sway over all issues of personal status in Israel?

Third the Cabinet approved the transfer of authority over the conversion system from the Religious Services Ministry to the Prime Minister’s Office as part of the coalition agreement when the government was formed earlier this year.  This way Bibi can do the bidding of the Shas party on this issue as their pulling out of the coalition would bring down the government.

So clearly, even though the great mass of the Israeli population thinks that these moves are not in the best interests either of Israel or the Jewish people, the Prime Minister understands that in order to stay in power, this is what he must do, the good and welfare of the state be damned.

But I do not accuse him solely of creating this situation.  After the elections earlier this year an opportunity existed to form a unity government that would have kept the extremist elements out of the cabinet.  But the opposition failed as well by not looking at the whole picture and doing what would have been best for the country in these very difficult times when the entire region around us is in chaos.   The failure of the opposition to swallow its pride and try to come to terms with the Likud in a unity government contributed to the current state of affairs where:

  • A minister of the government who labels Reform Jews “not Jews” and the Prime Minister does not demand his immediate resignation;
  • The head of the Ministry of Health who will only allow himself to be called Deputy Minister because his religious beliefs do not allow him to call himself a Minister in this country that, as he sees it, was established by man rather than by God;
  • A Ministry of Foreign Affairs without a minister, with the Prime Minister acting as Minister even though the courts this week ruled that the Prime minister cannot also simultaneously head other ministries.

And the list goes on all because at the end of the day the current Prime Minister’s most important job is staying in power and the opposition is too self-centered to help him make things right.  So everyone looks the other way or comes up with some Chelm-like accommodation.

It reminds me of the story of Chaim Yankel, a resident of Chelm, who made his neighbors proud by being the first member of his town to be accepted into medical school.  While making rounds, a doctor points out an X-ray to a group of the medical students.  “As you can see,” he says, “the patient limps because his left fibula and tibia are radically arched. Chaim Yankel, what would you do in a case like this?”  “Well,” ponders Chaim Yankel, “I suppose I’d limp too.”

And that’s how this most high tech of high tech countries solves its political problems.  We nod our heads and say, “I suppose I’d limp too.”  Even though we all know we can do so much better than that.

About the Author
Sherwin Pomerantz is a native New Yorker, who lived and worked in Chicago for 20 years before coming to Israel in 1984. An industrial engineer with advanced degrees in mechanical engineering and business, he is President of Atid EDI Ltd., a 33 year old Jerusalem-based economic development consulting firm which, among other things, represents the regional trade and investment interests of a number of US states, Ontario and Hong Kong. A past national president of the Association of Americans & Canadians in Israel, he is also Chairperson of the Israel Board of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies. His articles have appeared in various publications in Israel and the US.
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