Tag Archives: Politics

Menachem Begin Heritage Center, Jerusalem

Standing at entrance to Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem
Standing at entrance to Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem

One of the first things you notice when you walk in the Menachem Begin Heritage Center is the fabulous view of the Hinnom Valley and the Old City walls through the large arched windows on the eastern side  the building. It takes an effort to remember that only 50 years ago the view of the walls would have been much less pleasant. The valley was then No Man’s Land, between Israel and Jordan, full of weeds and the barbed wire. The beauty of the city walls was there, but hidden.

I’ve been to the Begin Center several times, and the lobby was always almost empty. This week it was full of people wearing name tags dangling from blue ribbons around their necks. We had come during the international conference of Israel studies, which is not an event advertised in the newspaper we read. Like many international conferences, its “official language” was English, so throughout the lobby we heard a familiar language. I wished I could see the titles of the presentations, but the schedules were reserved for conference participants only.

We had signed up for an English language tour of the Begin Museum. The museum is the section of the Heritage Center that presents the life of the former Prime Minister and his legacy The videos in each room would be in Hebrew, but we could hear them translated through our headphones.

Before we went in to the museum, our guide asked what people knew about Begin. Most of the answers offered were from the last quarter of his life: peace talks with Egypt, Anwar Sadat’s visit, Nobel Prize. I contributed that he was head of the Irgun (also called Etzel) in World War II and until the Irgun was totally integrated into the IDF in mid 1948. 

Each room focuses on a period of Begin’s life, in chronological succession. Photographs on the walls surround the video screen so that visitors can absorb a feel for each period and see some of the people he worked with. Almost every video included clips of speeches he had made. After the first room or two I turned down the volume on my headphones, so I could hear the original Hebrew. I was surprised by two discoveries. First, I could understand him! He spoke clearly and slowly enough that even if I didn’t get every word, I knew what he was talking about. The man had opinions and strong beliefs, and had no trouble expressing himself. And then I realized what an effective and powerful speaker he was. I’m old enough to remember when Likud won the 1977 election and Begin became Prime Minister. I remember Sadat’s visit, the Camp David talks and accord, and the Nobel Prize ceremony. But I don’t remember ever hearing him make an important speech before a crowd or in the Knesset. Hearing these clips was a revelation.

The other woman in our small group of six visitors was about our age (I later found out she is a few years older than me). Other than our guide, she was the only one not wearing translation headphones. In the introductory room, where they briefly mentioned the election Likud won, she seemed very moved by a video of the announcement that Menachem Begin would be the new Prime Minister. It was almost as if she was reliving the experience. Later, she verbally disagreed with the guide’s explanation of an incident in 1948, when the IDF, under orders approved by Prime Minister David Ben Gurion sank the Altalena just off the coast of Tel Aviv. The ship carried essential arms and ammunition brought by Begin’s Irgun to Israel. Thousands of people saw the attack. They breathed the smoke from the wreck for two days.

As the guide led us to the next room, I asked the woman what she had wanted to add. She said her father was a doctor, and he had taken care of some of the people from the Altalena. They had told him that the firing had been in one direction only—from the shore at the ship. Begin, on shipboard, had ordered the Irgun members not to fire back. He refused to allow Jews to kill Jews. The Palmach members of the IDF had received no such order, and continued to fire at Irgun members in the water, those trying to swim away from the sinking ship. Later in life, Begin would say that he wanted to remembered as someone who had prevented a civil war.

After the museum tour, we admired the view of the Old City from the terrace. It was too hot to stay out there for very long, so we climbed the stairs at the south end of the terrace to see the archeological excavation.

The Begin Center is built into the side of the hill that descends into the Hinnom Valley. As with many building projects in Jerusalem, when they began to dig for the foundation, they found something very old. Here they found tombs from the First Temple period. In Israel, it is possible to determine the period a burial

 First Temple period tombs behind the Menachem Begin Center in Jerusalem
First Temple period tombs behind the Menachem Begin Center in Jerusalem

cave was used by how the dead are treated. These tombs feature stone slabs with a round indentation at one end. The dead were placed on these slabs, dressed in shrouds, with their head resting in the indentation. At the end of the official mourning period, one year after the death, the family would return to the tomb and remove the bones to a repository located under the slab. When the Bible refers to someone being “gathered to his fathers” as a synonym for ”died,” it means the phrase literally.  

Near the burial caves the workers, under the supervision of archaeologist Dr. Gabi Barkay, found another, later, burial cave. This one contained the graves of Roman soldiers of the 10th Legion from the late Second Temple period. This was the Legion that laid siege to Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple in 70 C.E. The cave was used for other purposes during World War I, as evidenced by supplies left there by the Turkish army.


Knesset Election 2015

Two months ago, the biweekly magazine Jerusalem Report cover story was “Netanyahu’s Gamble.” Two days before the Israeli election, it looked as if Netanyahu was about to lose that gamble.

Israeli election wall poster for Likud/Netanyahu
Israeli election poster: It’s us or the Left. Only Likud. Only Netanyahu.

Many consider Netanyahu the ultimate politician, a master of the art of getting elected. So how did he get into that position, fighting for his political life?

It all started when he fired two of his most powerful opponents from the cabinet, because of their outspoken opposition to some his policies. It did not seem terribly risky at the time—Tzipi Livni (HaTnua) and Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid) were rivals of each other. There was no danger of them getting together to form a united opposition. When they left the government, they took their parties with them. Within a few days other members of their parties resigned and the governing coalition crumbled.

What came next was a surprise to many. Livni joined with Buji Herzog (Labor) to form a new party, HaMachane HaZioni (Zionist Camp). The Zionist Camp quickly became the party to beat. Weekly polls showed them either even with Likud (Netanyahu’s party) or a few percentage points ahead. Since percentage points mean Knesset seats, it looked like Likud was on the skids. And in a bold step, the party leader dropped his childhood nickname—he is no longer Buji, but Yitzhak Herzog, or simply Herzog. This fact did not deter some journalists, who continued to refer to him as Buji. In his campaign Herzog frequently referred to his family’s long history of service to the country, citing his grandfather Yitzhak Herzog, the first chief Ashkenazi Rabbi of Israel, and his father Chaim Herzog, the sixth President of the country. Having a family that has served the country is good background, but it says nothing about his plans for the future.

Israeli election poster for Herzog: Balanced and Responsible
Herzog: Balanced and Responsible Leader

The major Zionist Camp issue was economic, particularly the lack of affordable housing. They also advocated giving up parts of Judea and Samaria, including East Jerusalem. Jewish access to holy places would be limited, if not cut off entirely, as it was from 1948 to 1967. This position rankled many, because even people who do not care about Hevron or Ariel care about Jerusalem. To many, giving up Jerusalem is anti-Zionist.

Bayit Yehudi (Jewish Home) immediately appealed to the official elections committee. They claimed that the new party had chosen a fraudulent name—it was not Zionist. The Zionist Camp shot back with its own complaint that Bayit Yehudi’s name was fraudulent—it was not truly Jewish. And in one of those “only in Israel” moments, both complaints were thrown out by the election committee chair, an Arab Supreme Court judge.

The Arab parties did something unexpected—four of them united to form one party, called the “Joint Arab List.” By campaigning together and pooling their votes, they could earn more votes (= Knesset seats) than as four separate parties fighting each other. In doing so, they would gain influence on the choice of Prime Minister, and perhaps even become part of the governing coalition as ministers in the cabinet.

The Knesset has almost always included Arab members. Arabic and Hebrew are both official languages. Stories are regularly published about a Jewish Knesset member making remarks in perfect Arabic and being answered by an Arab in impeccable Hebrew.

The number of Arab legislators has always been small in comparison to the proportion of Arabs in the population, for several reasons. Many Arabs choose not to vote, because doing so gives legitimacy to the Jewish state. Despite living in Israel and benefiting from Israeli health care, education, and utilities, they do not recognize the state. In some Arab towns there is little recognition of an election campaign even taking place. Jewish candidates do not visit because of physical danger and Arab candidates do not feel those towns are worth their time.

Some Arabs claim they cannot vote because they do not possess an Israeli passport. This is a misconception. Any official ID—Israeli ID, which every citizen has, driver’s license, or passport—can be used at the polling place. And in some places, polling stations are simply not near. This last is a somewhat circular reason. People don’t vote because there are not enough polls, and polls are not in their area because people don’t vote.

Israel, with all its diversity, spawns multiple political parties. As a result, no party has ever received a majority of votes. Therefore, the government has always been a coalition, cobbled together by the head of the party that receives the most votes. In times of crisis, a unity government is called for by the President or Prime Minister, and the head of the opposition joins the cabinet. That is how Menachem Begin, the head of the opposition under several Prime Ministers, first became a member of the government, in May 1967. If the head of the leading party cannot get enough other parties to join a coalition within three months, the President invites the head of the second party to try. In 2009. Kadima won the most seats, but its head, Tzipi Livni, could not negotiate an agreement to create a majority coalition in the Knesset. So the President asked Netanyahu, head of Likud, to form a government. Livni ended up head of the opposition for the following three years.

In the two weeks before the election, the Zionist Camp pulled ahead of Likud. The last pre-election polls, published Friday, showed Zionist Camp winning 24 seats to Likud’s 20. By law, no pre-election polls may be published in the four days before the election, but that’s when things here got really interesting.

Sunday evening Likud and Bayit Yehudi held a giant rally in Tel Aviv. They proudly filled Rabin Square and streets around the square with supporters, demonstrating the power of the Right. They drew many more supporters than the Leftist parties had pulled a week earlier. In Israel, election laws are very strict. No rally or political activity may feature an entertainer. So Naftali Bennett picked up his guitar and led the crowd in singing “Jerusalem of Gold.” Bennett may be a good politician, but a singer he is not. I doubt anyone who listens to the YouTube recording of his rendition of “Jerusalem of Gold” would classify it as “entertainment.”

Bayit Yehudi election poster
Stop apologizing. The Right of Israel

Monday evening, Tzipi Livni announced she was withdrawing from one of the key conditions of the agreement with Herzog. The two of them had agreed to rotate as Prime Minister. Herzog would be PM for two years, followed by Livni as PM. Apparently, a private poll found the party would earn two additional seats if only Herzog would serve as head of the government. So less than 12 hours before the polls were to open, Livni renounced her claim to the prime minister’s chair.

And then there was the Obama factor. He is rumored to be the moving force behind V15, a group of Americans who poured money into a campaign to influence the election. Their unofficial slogan was “Anybody but Bibi.” Because of President Obama’s lackluster statements about counter terrorism, withdrawal of support for Israel, and his comments about Israeli policies, there is much anti-Obama sentiment in the country. So his unspoken support for “Anybody but Bibi” may have actually helped Likud’s campaign.

Election day was warm and sunny. Voter turnout was the highest in years. Exit poll results were announced after the polls closed at 10 PM predicting the Zionist Camp would end up with the most Knesset seats. Herzog, Livni, and the left celebrated. Then the official results were released.

As predicted by the earlier polls, Zionist Camp had 24 seats. But Likud, to the surprise of almost everybody, had 29 seats. The Joint (Arab) List had 14 seats, the third largest number. Ten parties will be seated in the 20th Knesset in two weeks.

The only official task the President of Israel has of real significance is inviting someone to form a governing coalition and become Prime Minister. By tradition, he invites the head of the party with the most Knesset seats. It is taken for granted that Netanyahu will be Prime Minister. Everyone is busy guessing who he will choose to be in his government. All he has said so far is that he expects to have it in place in a month.

Israeli Elections Explained

The Israeli election system is relatively easy to understand in theory, yet in practice it is much more complex. In the US, you decide whose opinions and ideas match yours and vote for him or her. The election of the head of the government is disconnected from the election of the legislature. You can vote for legislators of one party and a President from another party. And there are usually only two major parties in elections. Even if someone else runs for the Presidency, he generally runs alone. When Ross Perot and Ralph Nader ran for president, they were not joined by candidates from their party running for Congress.

Israel, in contrast, has a parliamentary system. You vote for the party whose stance on issues of importance to you match your preferences. The head of the party that earns the most seats in the Knesset (the legislature) then becomes head of the government (Prime Minister). But…here it gets complicated.

Disclaimer: I am not an expert, and this is not meant to be a complete guide to Israeli politics or elections. For authoritative guidance, please consult a qualified politician or Rabbi.

Each party is allotted a number of seats in the Knesset based on the proportion of votes it receives in the election. Each party makes a list of candidates, which is done in different ways by different parties. Some parties, such as Likud (Unity), have primary elections. In others, the important people (either the equivalent of the party’s Board of Directors or the party head alone) decide who will be on this election’s list.

2015 election--party choices and envelope
Ballots & official envelope to put your choice in

Many parties put the name of the party head in their official name, or at least show the name in their advertisements. The party head will be the Prime Minister if they win a plurality of seats and can form a coalition with several other parties For example: In the last election, we had “Likud-Beytenu under the Leadership of Benjamin Netanyahu for Head of Government,” and  “There is a Future Headed by Yair Lapid.”

Each party had to submit its list of candidates last week to the election board, so we now know 26 parties are running. Of course, since the current polls predict the front running party will earn less than 26 seats in the Knesset, most people on party lists know they will not get elected. Rather, they have been given their spot on the list as an honor or a reward for prior work. For some parties, such as “Stop Feeding Our Children Porn,” even number one is an honorary spot, because any party that does not get at least 3.25 % of the votes does not get seated.

No party has ever received a majority of votes (seats). So the head of the party which receives the most votes then negotiates with other parties to get them to join his/her party in a coalition. Of course, in forming a coalition, the party head must agree to some positions or actions that are contrary to the party’s positions. And this gives minority parties their power. The heads of these parties tell the potential Prime-Minister-to-be what they want in exchange for joining the coalition. I know several people who vote for one of the religious parties, even though they know they will not to elect a Prime Minister. They vote for these parties to get enough seats so that the party can influence government activities. And it works–almost every government has included religious parties in the coalition.

Like anything Israeli, what seems clear ends up being more complicated or illogical than it first seems. For example, one of the requisite conditions for a religious party to join the government is appointment of the Deputy Minister of Health.  If it was so important to them, you may ask, why did they not insist on the position of Minister of Health? The ministers, as chief officers of government departments, are members of the cabinet. In the opinion of the Rabbis, all cabinet members  are responsible for all actions taken by the cabinet. If a religious man were minister, he could be responsible for actions that are contrary to strict interpretation of Halakha (Jewish law). The Deputy Minister does not carry the weight of that responsibility. So who is Minister of Health? No one. The chief administrator of the national health department is the deputy to a nonexistent person.

With 26 parties, the newspapers run several stories every day about the elections: what the parties propose to do if elected, what the major candidates from each party are doing, what they are saying about each other.  Subtlety has no place in Israeli electioneering. I still remember a billboard I saw a few years ago. It featured a photo of an influential Rabbi, and the words: “It is forbidden to vote for Ariel Sharon.” Or maybe he wasn’t quite so influential–Sharon became Prime Minister. In 2013, I frequently saw a poster proclaiming  “Bibi (Netanyahu) is good only for the rich.” Another stated, “Only Shas cares about the underdogs.”

The actual voting process here is basically the same as when the country was founded. Because there was a huge immigrant population, few of whom could read Hebrew, each party was assigned a one letter symbol. Remembering one letter is possible, even for people who don’t know the alphabet or can’t read the name of the party they prefer. Today, because of the increase in the number of parties, most parties get a two letter symbol from the Bureau of Elections.

Postcard notification of polling place for Israeli election, 2013
Postcard notification of polling place, 2013

To vote, you show your official ID, drivers license, or passport at your polling place, and receive an opaque envelope. You then go into a voting booth, which is equipped with stacks of paper printed with party symbols. You place a paper with the symbol of the party of your choice in the envelope, seal the envelope, and deposit the envelope in thballot box. And then go to the beach or a national park–election day is a national holiday. Although there is no school and most offices are closed, restaurants and theaters remain open. Grocery and drug stores may open, but must close before noon, by law.

The small slips of paper printed with party symbols tend to migrate. Children seem to love them, and take a few when they get a chance. And thus, the voting slips end up littering the streets for several days following the election. But that too is part of democracy, Israeli style.

For more details, check this article on Tablet.