Thursday, May 28, 2020

Do the right thing

I felt compelled to write a letter to Prime Minister Netanyahu.  And, no, I am not holding my breath.

Dear Prime Minister Netanyahu:

In the 50 years that I have been a pro-Israel activist, and in the decade since I made Aliyah, I have never felt such a feeling of despair and shame.  Not about Israel and its people and promise, but about its leadership and politics.  I fear for the Zionist enterprise.

I have not always agreed with every policy or statement of the Israeli government and its political leaders.  But I have always been able to explain policies, put them in context, and demonstrate that they are part of the give-and-take of a robust Israeli democracy.

No longer.  I cannot explain how the Israeli democracy has a Prime Minister charged with serious crimes involving breach of trust and bribery, nor how he does not feel compelled to resign for the sake of the country.  It is difficult if not impossible to find any healthy democracy where this has happened.

You are, of course, entitled to a presumption of innocence and to a strong and full defense.  Part of that would be an aggressive counter-argument to the prosecution’s case.  However, to remain in office and to attack the judiciary and your opponents and to encourage the behavior of your allies in the manner you have undermines Israel’s democratic foundations.

I am ashamed of what you and some of your allies are doing.  I cannot defend or explain your actions.  You and your allies falsely and maliciously assert that the investigation and prosecution amount to an “attempted coup.”  You and your allies falsely and maliciously allege some vast conspiracy consisting of the media, the “left,” the police, the investigators, and the prosecution that is out to get you.

Incredibly, you allege that an Attorney General and police leaders that you appointed are part of this fantastic vast conspiracy.  Undoubtedly with your orchestration, some of your ministers and others beholden to you show up at your first Court hearing attacking the proceedings and those responsible for enforcing the law, questioning their legitimacy and thereby undermining faith in Israel’s legal and judicial processes and institutions.

Law enforcement and prosecution personnel have been viciously attacked and threatened.  The word “traitor” has been thrown around. They now require extraordinary security, and they undoubtedly and legitimately fear for their safety and that of their families.  Attacks on the judges involved have already begun.  If the judges rule against you, one can only imagine the attacks you and your allies will engage in.

On many occasions I have heard you boast about the strong, independent, honest Israeli judiciary.  You have heralded it as evidence of Israel’s democracy.  How do you explain your years of these assertions in light of your current attacks?  Were you lying then or are you lying now? Or did the corruption of these great institutions happen just in time to come after you?

I have also proudly held Israel’s judiciary out as one of its great democratic pillars, as have many of Israel’s strongest advocates.  How will any of us do so after the Prime Minister and many of his allies have spent months, probably years, tearing into that judiciary?

Prime Minister Menachem Begin chose not to annex Judea and Samaria.  He clearly refrained from doing so not out of fear of the reaction of any foreign country or person, including the President of the U.S.  If he held such fears, he would not have extended sovereignty over Jerusalem or the Golan Heights.

Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, who voted against the Camp David Accords and never feared defying anyone, including U.S. Presidents, also chose not to annex the territories.  Same with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who also feared no one and nothing.

And same with you, Israel’s longest serving Prime Minister.  You have had over a decade to annex Judea and Samaria, but you never did it.  The former Prime Ministers and you all knew the costs of unilaterally asserting sovereignty over substantial parts of the territories and effectively having jurisdiction over two or two-and-a- half million Palestinians: combined with the number of Israel’s Arab population, it places Israel’s Jewish identity in serious jeopardy.

It threatens the entire Zionist purpose.  You know that and you knew better than to do that.  And so you did not do it.  Until now.

In order to please your base, to consolidate your power, to ensure that you stay in office and out of jail, you are now willing to take this step and jeopardize Israel’s Jewish identity, the bi-partisan support of its crucial ally, its peace treaty with a country that provides an essential buffer, and more.

For nothing:  Israel already effectively controls the area.

Your family has given much to Israel and Zionism.  You have much to be proud of.  Your father was one of its great intellectuals.  Your brother gave his life in one of Israel’s greatest military feats.  He is a legend.  You served bravely in a storied unit, risking your life and suffering wounds.  You put Israel on its path to economic success, and you kept Israel safe and economically vibrant for over a decade as Prime Minister.

But what you, and what your allies are doing for you now, to allow you to stay in office and to escape the same justice system every other citizen is subject to, will tarnish your and your family’s legacy.  It will overwhelm all that you and they have done.  It will define you in history, and it may very well contribute to the destruction of Israel’s democracy and Jewish identity.

I implore you to do what is right: put your country and your family’s legacy first.  Resign.


Alan Edelstein

(Originally published in The Times of Israel)

Monday, May 18, 2020

We Beat Italy

After 18 months, three elections, myriad negotiation sessions, party splits, realignments, name calling, fear mongering, flirting, ministry-creating, and lots more that now seems de rigueur in Israel coalition-making, Israel has a government. Or, perhaps more accurately, two parallel governments, or one government with another in waiting.

There is the old saying: If you like law or sausage, don't watch how either is made. In this case, sausage is due an apology.

The intricacies of this deal make Rubik's Cube look simple. Indeed, this mishmash would confound Mr. Rubick himself. The agreement, negotiated by two candidates that have absolutely no trust in the other, creates some of the strangest governance provisions one could imagine.

The Israeli High Court of Justice held two days of hearings on eight petitions hearing challenges on the right of a Knesset member under indictment to form a government, as well as on the complex and convoluted coalition agreement between indicted Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu and former Opposition Leader and now "alternative" Prime Minister-to-be Benny Gantz.

The Court ruled that Netanyahu could be designated to form a government. It largely avoided ruling on the agreement, putting that off until the provisions enshrining the agreement in law were enacted. Those challenges should be coming soon. The Court did make some pointed criticisms of some of the provisions that would have required the most glaring revisions of law and process. The would-be coalition partners thereupon made some overnight revisions.

The High Court was damned if it did and damned if it didn't. If it ruled that Netanyahu could not be tapped to put a government together, or that substantial parts of the coalition agreement violated Israel's Basic Laws, which pass for a kind-of Constitution, it would have been accused of being a liberal, activist court that was thwarting the will of the voters and of undermining democracy.

Thanks at least in part to the coronavirus crisis and his leadership of Israel's positive response to it, and perhaps also a symptom of Israelis' election fatigue and their dread of going through a fourth campaign, Netanyahu's polling numbers are up. Polls indicated that notwithstanding indictments and other Netanyahu baggage, Likud would have won about 40 seats in new elections, a gain of about seven or eight seats.

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Thursday, May 14, 2020

An Evening Walk in Jerusalem

Israel has done very well coronavirus-wise. The number of deaths is quite low—about 250—for a country of about nine million.

A disproportionate number of the deaths and the infections are in nursing homes and the ultra-Orthodox communities, so the rest of population feels pretty safe.

The rate of infections has decreased considerably.  So, the country is “re-opening.”  Of course, we don’t know how many younger people are walking around without any symptoms but with the infection.

We live in a part of Jerusalem with lots of young people—post-Army, college students.  It’s usually a good thing.  Busy restaurants and cafes, festivals.  It’s lively and stimulating. But now many of the younger folks, seemingly impervious to the disease and apparently not overly concerned about unknowingly infecting their parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and me, are walking and jogging and shopping and talking without masks. 

Jerusalem is having its first days of really hot weather, which makes for beautiful warm evening walks.  The rainy spring has made for strikingly colorful flowers.  And there is nothing like a Jerusalem sunset, especially if there are a few clouds in the sky.

So off I went for a walk on a beautiful spring evening.  Taking a walk in the Coronavirus Age is a different experience, particularly if you are a senior and/or have some health issues.

It’s a bit like playing tag except that instead of darting here and there in order to tag someone, you dart here and there in order to avoid coming within two meters of a potential infected person or, if you were inventing new words, an infectee.

I walked up to the street behind my building and made a left onto Rehov HaNasi (the President’s Street).  I congratulated myself as I walked without stopping past the small ice cream shop with delicious ice cream if somewhat odd flavors, and on past the President’s residence.  It’s a wide street with wide sidewalks and so, it was fairly easy to move here, detour a bit there, walk faster here, and cross the street there, in order to avoid human contact.

Then I turned down a narrower, quiet, beautiful street with vegetation aplenty.  I noticed a man just standing on the narrow sidewalk.  There being no cars to speak of, I crossed the street at a bit of an angle.  Then I noticed up four or five meters a woman just standing on the sidewalk.

As I started to cross the street again, I looked up and saw a man davening (praying) on a balcony.  It being around sunset and this being, after all, Jerusalem, that did not surprise me in the least.
As I reached the sidewalk, I again noticed another man just standing on the sidewalk.  Yes, it was a beautiful evening for hanging out but, even given that, this seemed like a lot of just hanging out.

I moved to the middle of the street and kept walking.  The “joy” of the coronavirus: so few cars you can safely walk down the middle of a street in Jerusalem, even when it is not Shabbat.  I looked down the street.  All the way to the end at the little neighborhood park, in front of almost every building, there was a man or a woman standing.

I looked up and to both sides.  On one or two balconies on almost every building there was a man or woman praying.  It was a street-long outdoor, super-safe minyan (10-person prayer group) on a beautiful Jerusalem evening.

I listened closely as I walked down the middle of the street.  Sweet voices praying quietly.  Alone but together, if that is possible.

A Jerusalem moment.

No mechitzah (divider between men and women).  No women’s balcony, although there were balconies for men and women in this open-air street shul.

It seems fitting, and thought-provoking, that the street was named for Ahad Ha’am, an early Zionist intellectual who favored Zionism as a cultural and spiritual renaissance.

On my short walk up the middle of the street, I witnessed, and partook in just a bit, a brief but beautiful renaissance by regular people of Jerusalem.  On Ahad Ha’am— Hebrew for One of the People.

(Originally published in The Times of Israel)