Israel feels on the brink of Jewish apocalypse

For the first time since Benjamin Netanyahu returned to power in 2009 there is a majority for replacing him


Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds a press conference at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem on March 16, 2020. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90

With 35 minutes to go until the midnight deadline on Wednesday, Yair Lapid called President Reuven Rivlin, who was at the final of a football tournament, and notified him that he had managed to form a government.

It’s a significant milestone — the first time since Benjamin Netanyahu returned to power in 2009 that there is a majority for replacing him.

And it’s a historic moment. With Ra’am’s decision to join, this is the first time since Israel’s establishment that an Arab-Israeli party will be part of the government. However, it is far from sealed. The new government will be sworn in only when it passes a confidence vote in the Knesset, and that could take over a week, due to the procedural wrangling.

In that time, Mr Netanyahu will continue trying to pick off wavering members of the new coalition, especially from Naftali Bennett’s Yamina party, to deny them a majority.

If he succeeds, there will be no new government and Mr Netanyahu will remain caretaker prime minister until after yet another election is held. But whatever the outcome, there’s already an atmosphere of a Jewish apocalypse.

On Sunday night, Naftali Bennett burned his last bridges with his old boss and mentor, saying that Netanyahu was “leading the entire state of Israel to his personal Masada,” which is just slightly unfair seeing that Mr Netanyahu had agreed to a ceasefire with Hamas just nine days earlier and could hardly be accused of wanting to fight the Romans to the death. On Tuesday, in an interview with a Charedi newspaper, Moshe Gafni, leader of United Torah Judaism (UTJ), accused far-right politician Bezalel Smotrich for being “a sicarii who can break everything and burn the barns with the grain.”

Mr Gafni was alluding to the group of Jewish zealots who during the siege of Jerusalem 1,951 years ago had defied the rabbis and burned down the food-stores, forcing the besieged Jews to fight the Romans and leading to the destruction of the temple.

Mr Smotrich’s sin is a double one, in Mr Gafni’s eyes. First, in the election two months ago, he successfully appealed to “his” Charedi voters, winning over many thousands of them (with Mr Netanyahu’s tacit backing). Then, when he arrived in the Knesset triumphant with six seats for his Religious Zionist list, he refused to countenance any form of coalition cooperation with the conservative-Islamist Ra’am party.

As a result, there is no majority for a Netanyahu government and the Charedi parties, UTJ and Shas, are about to be cast out into the wilderness of opposition.

Mr Gafni’s branding of Religious Zionists as a bunch of irresponsible barn-burners to blame for the imminent formation of the new Bennett-Lapid government is an attempt to deflect the blame away from the familiar old guard of strictly Orthodox politics.

Mr Gafni, currently the chair of the powerful Knesset Finance Committee, along with his UTJ co-leader, Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, and Shas leader Interior Minister Arye Deri, all go back together to the late 1980s, when the young Ambassador Netanyahu also arrived on the scene, quickly taking Likud by storm.

Now they stand to lose not just their influential government positions but also the intimacy with power they had emjoyed for so many years.

And just like Mr Netanyahu, who will carry on trying every last resort, temptation and threat he can use on wavering MKs before the vote approving the new coalition in the hope of holding on to power, they are also using what they have to try and avert the disaster of going into opposition.

What they have on their side is God — or at least God’s representative on Earth, the members of the Charedi parties’ Torah Sages Councils. On Tuesday morning, UTJ’s council issued the warning that the potential new government would be no less than “a chilul hashem [desecration of God’s name]” and that if, “God forbid it transpires, it will be an action which is an affront to heaven, which is a bitter and terrible sin.”

Shas’s council of Torah Sages went even further, calling the new government a “sentence of immediate spiritual extermination hovering over the whole of the people of Israel”, adding furthermore that, “anyone who supports the formation of such a government is declaring: I have nothing to do with the God of Israel.”

The fire and brimstone has a very non-spiritual target — the politicians in the new government who hope in the future to form governments of their own with the Charedi parties. The threat is that they will never cooperate with them in the future. So far, at least, the threat doesn’t seem to be working.

Shura authorisation

This time around, the Charedi Torah Sages councils which once decided the fate of coalitions have been replaced by a different council that most Israelis had never heard of before this week.

On Wednesday evening, as the clock was ticking towards the deadline for forming the new government, the Shura (consultative) Council of Ra’am — the main decision-making forum of religious and lay-leaders of the conservative-Islamist party which would be for the first time a member of an Israeli government — gathered to authorise the agreement brokered by charismatic party leader Mansour Abbas.

For the first time, a Shura Council was about to determine Israel’s fate.

The personal touch

At least one Israeli election has been decided, decisively. On Wednesday at noon, Isaac “Bougie” Herzog was elected in a secret ballot as Israel’s eleventh president with 87 Knesset members voting for him, the highest number of votes any president has won.

It’s debatable how important or necessary, the largely ceremonial role of the president is, but Mr Herzog’s landslide victory over Miriam Peretz (who received only 26 votes) teaches us a number of important things about Israeli politics.

This is the second astonishing win in a row achieved by Mr Herzog.Three years ago, he was elected chairman of the Jewish Agency in a unanimous vote by the Agency’s board of governors, the first chairman to be elected to the post without the endorsement of Israel’s prime minister.

But before that, Mr Herzog’s name was hardly synonymous with any election success. In the 2015 Knesset elections, when he led Labour, he went into the final stretch ahead of Mr Netanyahu’s Likud in all the polls, only to be beaten at the ballot box by a six-seat margin.

After the election his team, who adored him on a personal level, were full of complaints over his indecisiveness, lack of focus and the fact that he would always answer his personal phone to whoever called him, even during crucial strategy meetings.

Running in an election for the leadership of an entire country, especially one against a ruthless opponent like Mr Netanyahu, calls for a certain type of relentless passion and drive that Mr Herzog simply lacks.

On the other hand, when it came to spending years personally charming a small selectorate — the Jewish Agency’s board of governors or the Knesset’s 120 members — no-one else comes close.

Mr Herzog assiduously built up his supporters’ base, forsaking no-one, and the results prove how effective he was. Mr Netanyahu, on the other hand, has never been successful at getting a candidate elected as president. As Likud leader, he tried his hand four times at presidential politics and failed. Each time, a majority of the Knesset voted against his wishes. This time around he simply stayed out, refusing to endorse either Herzog or Miriam Peretz.

Perhaps it’s a by-product of his dominance over the political scene that the only time MKs get a chance to vote in a secret ballot they relish the opportunity to go against him.

It certainly reflects his one big failing as a politician. Master as he is at everything else, he cannot maintain the loyalty of his colleagues.

If he is forced in the coming days to finally leave office, it will be down to that failing.

He hasn’t been beaten by the left but by his former advisors and ministers, Naftali Bennett, Avigdor Lieberman and Gideon Sa’ar, all once so loyal and now the architects of his downfall.

Consorting with bigots

l There is one thing both Mr Netanyahu and the new president actually have in common.

Mr Netanyahu strove to bring the far-right Kahanists into the fold, forcing them to merge with other far-right parties into the Religious Zionism list. As a result of which, Jewish Power leader Itamar Ben Gvir is now a Knesset member.

Back in the 1984 election, when Rabbi Meir Kahane, the founder of the Jewish supremacist movement, was elected to his single term in the Knesset, he was shunned by right and left alike.

Likud MKs joined their colleagues in abandoning the plenum whenever Rabbi Kahane got up to speak.

And when the then-President Chaim Herzog summoned the party leaders to consult with them on the identity of the next prime minister, he refused to invite Rabbi Kahane.

His son, the now president-elect Herzog, courted Kahane’s successor, Itamar Ben-Gvir, for his vote.

It didn’t work. Mr Ben-Gvir was one of the few who voted for Mrs Peretz, but his toxic strain of racial politics has been allowed to taint yet another Israeli establishment.

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