It’s been an eventful week, what with the General Election and all. On Monday, I was stopped in the Ben Yehuda pedestrian mall by a TV crew and asked if I minded answering a few questions for the Russian News. I replied, naturally, that I don’t speak Russian. (For some reason, I am often mistaken for a Russian immigrant, mostly by other Russians. Must be the blue eyes – but then again, I’m quite often asked if I’m Moroccan!?) Anyway, they said it didn’t matter, I could speak in Hebrew and they would translate. So, after some hesitation (being a very private sort of person), I said yes. I was then asked to describe my feelings, as a citizen, on the eve of elections. I spoke of the many dilemmas facing us (the voters) but I also said – and I firmly believe – that the most important thing is that we should go out and vote, because it is a privilege not enjoyed by large swathes of the world’s population. In fact, it is right that we should celebrate Election Day as a holiday. For two thousand years, we – the Jewish People – were disenfranchised throughout most of the world. For two millenia, we waited for the chance to elect our own government and rule ourselves. Now, in fact, we’re spoiled for choice . I swear, I entered the polling booth, and stood behind the screen where the voter selects a voting slip bearing the designated letter of his or her chosen party and places it in an envelope which can then be sealed. As I said, I stood there – for at least two minutes – and hesitated. Finally, having made my choice and having dropped the envelope in the ballot box, I went on my way with a lighter heart. But for the rest of the afternoon, I continued to wonder if I had done the right thing.
Now that the elections are behind us and the results are known, the task of actually putting together a coalition is what occupies us all. As the largest party, with 31 mandates, it is most likely that this task will fall to Benyamin Netanyahu’s Likud Beiteinu party. If things turn out as I hope, he will go for a fairly narrow coalition with Yair Lapid’s new Yesh Atid (“There is a Future”) party (19 mandates) and Naftali Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi (“The Jewish Home”) party (12 mandates). That would give him a total of 62 mandates (there are 120 seats in the Knesset) and would enable him to push through legislation putting an end to the absurd situation whereby only a very small proportion of haredim (ultra orthodox Jews) serve in the army and when they do, it is because they volunteered. I believe even the religious Habayit Hayehudi party, whose members do serve in the IDF, would support this. The ex-con Aryeh Deri of the Sephardic ultra-orthodox Shas party has insisted that there is absolutely no way this will come to pass – although he has agreed that steps should be taken to “encourage” more young, ultra-orthodox men to enlist (voluntarily, of course). I can already hear the veiled threat of mass demonstrations by the haredim, which, if experience is anything to go by, will quickly turn into riots. Now, don’t get me wrong – I do not hate haredim and I would much prefer for the goal of equal service for all to be achieved with good will on both sides. But I just don’t see that happening. Lapid wants everyone to do national service, either military service or civilian national service (working, say, in hospitals, schools, community centres, with the sick and the elderly etc.) – and that also includes religious girls, and the Arab population. The Arab Knesset members also oppose this, by the way – like the haredim, they want equal rights but aren’t prepared to undertake equal obligations. In fact, their objection (against both military and civilian national service, whether voluntary or compulsory) is based more on their opposition to “the Zionist State” – whereas the haredim claim (and many of them may sincerely believe) that studying Torah day and night is a contribution to Israel’s security as great as serving in the army.
However, I digress. Lapid wants a cap to be put on the number of yeshiva students who will receive a deferment of their military service. Deri opposes this. But such a cap would, in fact, be returning the situation to the one envisaged by David Ben Gurion way back in the early days of statehood, when he agreed to grant exemption from military service to 400 yeshiva students, because so many Torah scholars had perished during the Holocaust, the centres of Jewish learning in Europe had been destroyed and it was necessary to rebuild what had been torn down. That imperative no longer holds true. Furthermore, the numbers of yeshiva students (real or fake) has been steadily rising and now tens of thousands of haredim not only do not do any kind of national service but are also supported by the State while they “study”. Even when previous governments tried to compensate by passing legislation which would reward young men and women who had served in the army with special grants, the ultra-orthodox parties used their clout as coalition partners of whichever party was in government to extort changes in the legislation so as to grant the same financial incentives to any family where one of its members had served in the army or performed civilian national service – thus enabling Israel’s detractors to claim that the law discriminated against Arab citizens.
So the question is – are we prepared for a showdown? Or could Lapid live with a situation where there is no cap on the number of exemptions/deferments for haredim but in which only individuals who have completed their national service – whether military or civilian – would receive financial benefits? I believe many citizens who are sick of haredi extortion would, in fact, be willing to settle for this. From something Aryeh Deri said, however, I get the feeling the haredim would not. As I said, with the narrow coalition I have described, Netanyahu could force the issue. But Netanyahu is always worried about the Day After Tomorrow and would probably prefer a wider coalition to rely on when facing the international issues now facing us. One of the people in Lapid’s party declared that they would not join a coalition which was not prepared to get negotiations going again with the Palestinians. But this is ridiculous. It was the “Palestinians” who halted the negotiations. It was the “Palestinians” who, after Netanyahu declared (and implemented) a ten month moratorium on building in the West Bank, in order to create favourable conditions for negotiations with Abu Mazen, refused to come to the negotiating table unless Israel agreed in advance to return to the pre-1967 borders, and accept the “Right of Return” of all the “Palestinian refugees” to the whole of “Palestine”, including the area within the Green Line which marks the internationally accepted Israeli border! Evidently, no-one explained to Abu Mazen that the point of “negotiations” is to - well, negotiate. In fact, the lie that it was Israel which has refused to negotiate has been so oft-repeated and so widely propagated by anti-Israel newspapers and TV networks, such as The Guardian, the BBC and CNN, as well as our own Loony Left, that it seems to be taken as obvious and understood by one and all. Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi party wants Israel unilaterally to annexe certain areas of Judaea and Samaria (the “West Bank”). Some people – the ones who warned that if Netanyahu was re-elected as Prime Minister, we would lose American support – claim that annexation would lose us even more support.
But let’s face it - nothing we do is right. As I pointed out above, we didn’t even get credit for halting “settlement building” in the “West Bank” for ten months.
Might as well be hanged for a sheep as for a lamb.