Two events in the past week have greatly strengthened my faith in the resilience of the Israeli democratic system, despite the unending attacks on it brought about by the current government. Both events involve the High Court of Justice (HCJ) on the one hand, and – believe it or not – the modus operandi of our prime minister on the other.
The first event concerns the current proceedings in the HCJ regarding the unending saga of the natural gas outline.
After all the words that have been uttered on the subject I have no doubt that a much more balanced outline could have been worked out, which would ensure that all the gas reserves are developed in a timely manner to the benefit of both the gas companies and the Israeli public, while taking both security and economic considerations into account.
I have no illusions about the current petitions to the HCJ bringing about some dramatic change. However, the whole process has certainly taught our prime minister an important lesson on what he can and cannot get away with, when it comes to both Knesset and judicial oversight of his policy.
I don’t think we know to this day why back in August 2015 then economy minister Arye Deri refused to help Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu avoid bringing the whole issue to the Knesset, which he could have done had he decided to invoke article 52 of the Antitrust Law, which would have enabled the government to disregard, for foreign policy or security reasons, all the antitrust provisions as they applied to the gas outline.
Due to Deri’s insistence, Netanyahu was forced to make an appearance at the Knesset Economics Committee headed by opposition MK Eitan Cabel, though Cabel was lenient with him insofar as he let him avoid answering tough questions “his own way” – meaning that he dodged giving answers to any of them.
Now that the issue has been brought to the doorstep of the HCJ Netanyahu has actually been required to appear in person, as economy minister (Deri resigned the post in November) to explain why it was important to implement article 52 of the Antitrust Law, and on February 14, when he is to make his historic appearance in court, he will undoubtedly find it much more difficult, if not impossible, to avoid providing some straight answers.
However, no matter what the outcome, and even if Netanyahu is able to declare at the end of the process that “when I want something I get it” (a statement he made on the subject on September 7, 2015), at least he will have learned that the road to getting what he wants is a “Via Dolorosa” of democratic obstacles.
The second event that has strengthened my faith in the resilience of Israeli democracy was the government’s decision at its meeting on January 31 to adopt the recommendations of an advisory committee on the issue of prayer arrangements at the Western Wall, which was headed by former government secretary Avichai Mandelblit.
The days of the Messiah have not come, and if it weren’t for a long series of HCJ rulings, and some very harsh messages from American Jewry, that seems to be losing faith in Israel as the state of the Jewish people, the current step would never have been adopted.
What the advisory committee proposed is that the current Western Wall compound continue to be run by the rabbi of the Western Wall according to conservative Orthodox religious practices, and that to its south, a new compound be developed where the Conservative and Reform movements, and the Women of the Wall, will be able to hold religious services in a pluralistic fashion, free of Orthodox establishment interference.
How did Netanyahu manage to get the religious members of his government to swallow what is for them a bitter pill, one which could well contain the seeds for a more substantial change in the religious status quo in future? We do not know exactly what went on behind the scenes, but we do know that the government did not hold a vote on the adoption of the advisory committee’s conclusions, only on their implementation. In the new regulations the words “Reform,” “Conservative” or “Women of the Wall” are not mentioned. However, even under all these constraints Health Minister Ya’akov Litzman, Interior Minister Arye Deri, Religious Services Minister David Azulai, Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel and Minister of Immigrant Absorption and Minister of Jerusalem Affairs Ze’ev Elkin – all haredim (ultra-Orthodox) or National Religious – voted against the resolution.
Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, who voted in favor of the resolution as “a lesser evil,” belittled the importance of the new arrangement, claiming that within three generation it would become irrelevant because the Reform movement in the US, at least, would vanish through assimilation. Well, we know who has been granted the power of prophecy since the destruction of the Second Temple.
While the passage of the resolution after 27 years of struggle over non-Orthodox Jewish prayers at the Western Wall was certainly a historic event, some of the badmouthing that accompanied it somewhat marred the event.
“Clowns,” said chairman of the Knesset Finance Committee of the Reform movement, promising that Orthodox Judaism would never grant it recognition.
In the Knesset plenum MK Bezalel Smotrich spoke of the non-Orthodox streams of Judaism as being a lie, and said that in Judaism there is only a single truth: Orthodox Judaism. MK Yoav Ben-Tzur (Shas) mocked Women of the Wall as nothing but provocateurs intent on sticking a knife into the heart of Jewish tradition, mocking their religious practices.
But there were also other voices. One of them was that of MK Rachel Azaria (Kulanu) – who is herself religious (Orthodox) – who argued that under the current status quo, it is not only non-Orthodox Jews who are not made to feel welcome at the Western Wall.
She offered a long list of complaints she had received over the years (both as member of the Jerusalem Municipal Council and as an MK) from persons and organizations who were humiliated by “modesty usheresses” (sadraniyot tzniut). Having undergone such an experience myself in the past, I know exactly what she was talking about.
Of course, no one can force an Orthodox Jew to recognize non-Orthodox streams of Judaism, and one cannot stop anyone believing that his brand of religion is the only one that represents the truth, though with all the streams of Orthodox Judaism that are prevalent in Israel today, with religious “authorities” saying almost everything and its opposite, the term religious “truth” has become extremely elastic.
We do not know what went on behind the scenes that led Netanyahu to act on this issue now, when there are so many other burning issues on the agenda. However, given the fact that we know he did not shirk boisterously confronting some rebellious Likud ministers – including Elkin and Levin – what we learned is that Netanyahu can be stubborn not only when it comes to issues like Iran and the natural gas outline, but also concerning respect for all sections of the pluralistic Jewish people.
On the basis of an interview that Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi David Lau gave Channel 2 over the weekend, it sounds as if the Orthodox establishment might still try to foil the government’s decision. Hopefully Netanyahu will continue to stand fast.
The writer is a political scientist and a retired Knesset employee.