Twelve months ago, the month of Ramadan heralded the outbreak of violent clashes between police and Palestinian protestors in east Jerusalem, which within weeks escalated into all-out war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza and widespread rioting in Israel’s “mixed” cities.
This week, the first of Ramadan, at Damascus Gate, one of last year’s main flashpoints, the atmosphere was very different. As night set in, hundreds of Palestinians, mainly men, sat in cafes and restaurants and enjoyed the breeze after breaking the day’s fast.
“No-one wants trouble this year. It will only ruin the holiday and our business,” said one of the stall-owners. “Last year, everything was different because there was the threat of evictions in Sheikh Jarrah but the court ruling which suspended them has changed everything.
“The police are also acting differently. They haven’t brought the riot-trucks or horses.”
There were some scuffles, as a small squad of police in riot-gear arrested a few youths who threw bottles, but the crowd this time didn’t join in, and continued drinking coffee. The air around Damascus Gate in the previous Ramadan had been heavy with “skunk” spray and tear-gas. Now it was filled instead with sweet shisha smoke. Both sides seemed to be trying to calm things down.
As Ramadan began on Saturday night, an aide to prime minister Naftali Bennett said “his chief mission now is to ensure that this entire period of Ramadan, which includes Pesach, then the national memorial days and finally Independence Day, pass peacefully”. The emphasis, of course, was on preventing a major outbreak of violence related to Ramadan. But Mr Bennett’s main troubles this month may actually come from Pesach.
A passover exodus?
The resignation on Wednesday of Idit Silman from her position as a government whip and from the coalition altogether was a personal blow to the prime minister. Mr Bennett had trusted this member of his Yamina party to keep the government’s parliamentary business on track, despite her political inexperience. It was a blow to the entire coalition, which no longer has a majority.
One senior representative of a coalition party said on Wednesday morning: “The only really surprising thing about Silman’s resignation is that it took so long to come. Bennett can only blame himself. Instead of thinking he could bring peace between Russia and Ukraine, he needed to be keeping the peace within his coalition.”
Benjamin Netanyahu tweeted 'Welcome home, Idit' after Ms Silman's resignation
Ostensibly, the trigger for her resignation was a petty squabble with the left-wing Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz over the implementation of a High Court order on allowing private citizens to bring chametz to patients in public hospitals over Pesach.
Mr Horowitz had made a point of saying that he would enforce the court order forbidding hospitals to inspect visitors bags for the forbidden cakes and sandwiches. This irked Ms Silman who said: “It’s unacceptable. He’s sticking a finger in the eye of the entire traditional public, anyone for whom Jewish identity is important.” Few took her seriously, but three days later, she announced her bombshell resignation. While being religious, Ms Silman is far from being Charedi. She didn’t even mention the chametz argument in her rather vague resignation letter. The real reasons? The intense pressure she’s been under for months from right-wing friends and relatives to leave the coalition; and a deal, brokered between her husband and senior Likud member Yariv Levin, that in the next election she would receive a spot on Likud’s candidate list as well as the promise of a cabinet position, should Benjamin Netanyahu form the next government.
The former prime minister had been in on the deal and tweeted “welcome home Idit” as soon as the news broke. Mr Bennett remained silent as he huddled with his remaining party members in an effort to prevent further defections.
But as the dust began to settle on Wednesday, the excitement died down. The political arithmetic hasn’t changed that much. Mr Netanyahu now has 54 MKs in his column, still seven short of the majority he needs to form a government. It took him 10 months to get his first defector from the coalition; it’s hard to see him ever getting the seven more he needs. And while the entire opposition – including the Joint List, who will never support Mr Netanyahu – now has 60 members, that’s still one short of a majority to dissolve the Knesset, and not all the opposition parties are prepared quite yet to face the voters again, for a fifth time in four years.
The government will not be able for now to pass any major legislation, but it can function without doing so, at least until the deadline for the next budget in March 2023, which was going to be difficult anyway. For now, one government insider said on Wednesday evening, the main implication from Ms Silman’s defection, beyond putting legislation on hold, is that Mr Bennett will have to spend much less time on diplomatic missions to Moscow and Kyiv, and much more of his time in Jerusalem, keeping what’s left of his party and his coalition together.
A test of loyalty
If there wasn’t a major war going on in Europe, a spate of terror attacks and the government on brink of collapse, the main issue in the headlines in Israel over the past couple of weeks would have been the key testimony of state witness Shlomo Filber in the Netanyahu corruption case. Sometimes, there are crossovers between these stories.
Shlomo Filber, the former Likud party campaign manager and director-general of the communications ministry
Mr Filber had been the Likud party’s campaign manager before being appointed by the former prime minister as director-general of the communications ministry. Over seven days on the stand, he tried to dance a fine line between what he had told police investigators of the way Mr Netanyahu had urged him to intervene in regulatory matters, and what he hoped would be a less damaging version of events in court.
His problem is that while he is now a witness for the prosecution, he remains at heart a true Netanyahu loyalist. Four years ago, he signed a state-witness agreement in which he undertook to repeat exactly what he had told the investigators, in return for immunity from prosecution. But on the stand, in court, and for the first couple of days, facing Mr Netanyahu himself in the courtroom, Filber tried to tone down his original account, only to be forced back on track by prosecutor Yehudit Tirosh who at one point even threatened him that she would regard him as a hostile witness, voiding his state witness agreement and immunity.
If he had hoped to help his old boss, Mr Filber seems to have caused even greater damage, by repeating the damning evidence of Mr Netanyahu’s interventions on behalf of the Bezeq corporation while seeming very reluctant to do so. These claims are at the base of the bribery charges.
The prosecution’s questioning ended on Wednesday, as the court adjourned for a Pesach break. When they get back after the holiday, it will be the defence’s turn to cross-examine Mr Filber, but their job is much more difficult now. Though the witness has repeated all his original allegations against Mr Netanyahu, he did so with such reluctance that it will be hard to portray him as a liar out to get his old boss.
There was an intriguing aside which caused a minor stir in the courtroom on Tuesday the sixth day of his testimony. The prosecutor asked about the plans of another former Netanyahu aide and state witness, Nir Hefetz, to set up a pro-Netanyahu television channel, back in 2016. “[Hefetz] mentioned Roman Abramovich as someone who might invest in the channel.”
Somewhere in alternative universe, Mr Netanyahu is still prime minister, rather than the defendant in a corruption trial and Mr Abramovich is still a respectable businessman, owner of a Premier League football club and an Israeli television channel, rather than the sanctioned Russian oligarch.
Israel’s moral challenge
Sadly, the universe we are living in is still one where horrendous war crimes are being committed in Ukraine. This week, the world was horrified by the discovery of bound, half-burned bodies of residents left on the streets of Bucha by Russian troops. Footage of the atrocities emerged as the member of the Rada (Ukraine’s parliament) for Bucha, Olga Vasilevskaya-Smaglyuk was on an official government mission to Israel. For her, the images confirmed multiple reports she had been receiving from her constituents for weeks.
A member of President Volodymyr Zelenksy’s Servant of the People party and former journalist, Ms Vasilevskaya-Smaglyuk was chosen for the mission because she knows Israel well, speaks Hebrew and has many relatives and friends in the country. She is also very aware of how sensitive Israelis are to Holocaust comparisons, such as the one Mr Zelensky made in his speech to the Knesset three weeks ago.
“The president is a very direct person and says that he thinks,” she told me this week. “What he said in his Knesset speech came from his Jewish heart, not from the president of Ukraine.”
Her biggest concern is that as the war goes on, the interest in Ukraine around the world will decline. Her objective was to drum up support both from the Israeli public and the government. To that aim, she tried to tone down the previous Ukrainian criticism of Israel’s neutral stance – “we understand that you have Russia across your border in Syria and Israeli security comes first for Israel” – and even the demands for Israeli weapons: “Our generals know that Iron Dome isn’t the right system for us, but we would like to get other Israeli defensive systems.”
But as talk turned to Israel’s reluctance to join the sanctions against Iran she found it hard to hide her anger. “We met with foreign minister Yair Lapid who said that Israel won’t be a haven for Russian money, but meanwhile Israeli companies are still doing business with Russia,” she complained. “I think that some Israeli politicians, like politicians in other countries, are being funded by Russia.” But she wouldn’t name any names.