The reason for Lieberman upending Netanyahu’s government
Israelis are going to the polls again over an issue that is as divisive as it is seemingly unsolvable. Should ultra-Orthodox (haredi) men serve in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), or not?
The former defence minister and leader of the Yisrael Beiteinu (right-wing secular) party, Avigdor Lieberman, is adamant that they should. Last year, he drafted a bill proposing annual enlistment targets for the haredi community that would increase each year. If the targets were not met, there would be financial penalties against ultra-orthodox institutions.
The bill infuriated the religious parties who were – and will again be – part of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing bloc. Without them, Netanyahu doesn’t have a majority in the Knesset (parliament).
The problem last week was that without Lieberman, he also doesn’t. The intractable position of both sides means that Israel is holding what many feel is an unnecessary election that will cost the country millions of dollars.
What’s more, it begs the question: does the IDF actually need these ultra-Orthodox soldiers, or are Israelis going to elections over something the IDF might not actually want?
I posed this question to a random group of Israelis. Every single one, without fail, told me that the IDF didn’t need soldiers who didn’t want to serve. They said these “soldiers” become a danger to themselves and others. This is backed up by figures.
The IDF is struggling with a shortage of troops. After a 2015 amendment to the country’s draft law, mandatory service for men dropped from three years to two years and eight months. By next year, there are plans to reduce it even further.
Lieberman’s proposal requires that more than 3 000 ultra-Orthodox men enlist each year, and just more than 600 take part in some kind of national service.
These numbers would then increase by a few percentage points annually. This is what all the fuss is about. But, and this is an important point, these numbers are still far short of making up the deficiency the army is grappling with.
Lieberman himself admitted that the battle was more symbolic than anything else.
And, it’s extremely emotive. An Israeli mother whose son is serving in the army told me, “We are talking about our children’s blood. There is a specific discrimination between our children and the ultra-Orthodox children. Fair is not even the word. I think our inner strength as a society is breaking. We are becoming two societies – it’s them and us. It’s them that don’t serve, don’t work. It’s us who serve, work, support them. It has become them and us. But we are one nation, and it shouldn’t happen.”
By contrast, a young yeshiva student I interviewed defended his decision not to go to the army. “An intelligence soldier or a non-combat soldier is not necessarily putting his life at risk,” he said, “and their contribution to Israel’s security does not fall short of those who do risk their lives. I never saw the mother of an infantry soldier complain to the mother of an intelligence soldier, and ask her, ‘How come my son is risking his life, and your son is not?’
“I am part of a ‘unit’ that preserves the Jewish intellect, and the Jewish mind. I think this is as important as any soldier. When the war is over, what will we have to come back to, what will we have left of our Jewish heritage if there are not ‘soldiers’ like me?”
When Israel was founded in 1948, religious communities who did not serve in the IDF and instead studied Torah were a small percentage of the total Israeli Jewish population. But the ultra-Orthodox community is growing quickly. By 2065, it is expected to make up a third of the population.
Still, as a reserve soldier who spoke to me insisted, “These are young men who don’t want to be in the army. What are we going to do? Force them? I don’t want to put my life in the hands of a soldier who doesn’t want to be there in the first place.
“There are so many willing, able, and hugely impressive young men and women who want to serve their country. We really don’t need a few hundred who will land up costing us more – both in terms of resilience and money.”
That much is true. The IDF spends twice as much accommodating haredi soldiers within an ultra-religious framework than it does others. Most come from relatively low socioeconomic backgrounds, and many are treated as ‘lone soldiers’ after being shunned and cast out from their families.
The close proximity to female soldiers is another reason why many ultra-orthodox men choose not to serve. As more women join combat units, this becomes another headache for the army to deal with.
There are some middle grounds like the Nahal Haredi battalion which comprises about 1 000 religious soldiers who spend half their day learning while serving in a fully segregated environment. Initiatives aimed at helping religious soldiers on their release from service can also incentivise such young men to serve, especially when one in two ultra-orthodox males is unemployed.
But for the IDF itself, the question of whether a few hundred more soldiers – religious or not – join its ranks is not consequential.
Much more pressing are its concerns about the proposed two-month service reduction next year, and receiving a larger state budget. The latter would help motivate soldiers to make a career in the military. It would also allow the IDF to outsource some basic services to civilian companies instead of relying on its troops to perform them.
In the long run, this would assist with the shortage in numbers much more than all the hysteria and attention around ultra-Orthodox conscription.
Having said all of the above, it’s worth pointing out that most Israelis believe that Lieberman is using this issue to upend Netanyahu. Not that he doesn’t care about the haredi enlistment issue – he does – but most people in Israel believe he cares more about becoming a future prime minister.
Helen Mirren to play Golda Meir in upcoming film
(JTA) Academy Award winner Helen Mirren will portray Golda Meir, Israel’s only female prime minister, in an upcoming biopic set during the Yom Kippur War.
Production Golda will begin later this year, according to The Hollywood Reporter.
The news follows the announcement last month of another star-powered production on Meir, a series titled Lioness led by Israeli actress Shira Haas of Unorthodox fame.
While Lioness will follow Meir from “her birth in Kiev to her American upbringing in Milwaukee, her role in the formation of Israel, and her rise to become the new nation’s first and only female prime minister”, according to a report in Deadline, Golda will focus on the turbulent Yom Kippur War period.
Along with the rest of Israel, Meir and her all-male cabinet were taken by surprise by the attack on the eve of the holiday in 1973 by Egyptian, Syrian, and Jordanian forces. The ensuing bloody conflict – chronicled in the recent acclaimed Israeli production Valley of Tears on HBO Max – shattered the nation’s growing sense of confidence at the time in an embattled region.
Golda will be directed by Israeli filmmaker Guy Nattiv, who won the 2018 Academy Award for best short for Skin, a film involving neo-Nazis that he later made into a feature.
“As someone who was born during the Yom Kippur War, I’m honoured to tell this fascinating story about the first and only woman to ever lead Israel,” Nattiv said. “Nicholas Martin’s brilliant script dives into Golda’s final chapter as the country faces a deadly surprise attack during the holiest day of the year, a core of delusional generals undermining Golda’s judgement.
“I couldn’t be more excited to work with the legendary Miss Mirren to bring this epic, emotional, and complex story to life.”
Bibi or not Bibi – is there even a question?
“Citizens of Israel – thank you!” wrote Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Hebrew on Twitter shortly after Israeli polls closed on Tuesday night, 23 March.
A few hours later, a delighted crowd welcomed him at his Likud party headquarters in Jerusalem. “Bibi, Bibi!” they shouted, filling a large hall with balloons, banners, and Likud COVID-19 masks.
But the excitement might be misplaced and premature at best.
As the hours ticked into Wednesday morning, the exit polls started changing their initial predictions. Only on Friday afternoon will the final tally be known.
What won’t alter is the fact that the prime minister’s Likud party won the most parliament seats by a large margin. President Reuven Rivlin will therefore task him first with forming a government. But then it gets tricky.
At the time of writing (at midday on Wednesday) exit polls predicted Netanyahu’s right-wing bloc fell short of the 61 seats it needed to secure a majority coalition. The kingmaker could well be the prime minister’s former ally and defence minister, Naftali Bennett. His Yamina (Rightwards) party won at least seven seats, and although Bennett avoided explicitly declaring who he would support, it’s widely expected he’ll join Netanyahu. In return, he’ll exact a high price in terms of ministerial positions and other powerful appointments.
This would bring Netanyahu closer than ever to a narrow government that would include the most extreme elements of Israeli society. Exit polls showed the Religious Zionist Party, that includes far-right and homophobic elements with roots in the overtly racist Kahanist party, receiving enough votes to enter parliament.
Yohanan Plesner, the president of the Israel Democracy Institute, warned that such a coalition could back Netanyahu’s attempts to find a political solution to his legal troubles. “In this case, it will be imperative that elected leaders from across the political spectrum, civil society organisations, and all those who advocate on behalf of a vibrant Israeli democracy, make it emphatically clear that the results of this election don’t constitute a license to promote radical proposals aimed at eroding the legal system and curtailing the rule of law. The health and vitality of Israel’s democratic system could hang in the balance,” he said.
Meanwhile opposition leader Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid (There Is a Future), said he, too, would try to build a coalition to “create a sane government for Israel”.
Speaking early on Wednesday morning, he declared, “At the moment, Netanyahu doesn’t have 61 seats but the change bloc does. We’ll wait for the final results but as it stands, there won’t be a government based on the votes of the racists and homophobes.”
The anti-Netanyahu bloc is far from a homogenous group, consisting of left, right, and centrist factions. They have fewer options in forming a coalition than Netanyahu. Should neither side succeed, it will be back to the polls for Israelis – the fifth election in two years.
Which in part explains why Tuesday’s turnout was the lowest since 2013. Voter fatigue and apathy are starting to sour even the most ardent supporters of Israeli democracy.
The lack of enthusiasm was most noticeable in the Arab community. Many residents confessed they had lost confidence in their representatives and the two main Arab blocs – the Joint List and the breakaway United Arab List (Ra’am), headed by Mansour Abbas – warned of a “disaster” due to the low turnout.
In the 2015 election, the Joint List became the third-largest party in parliament after it won 13 seats. In the 2020 election, it increased to 15, remaining the third-largest party until Yesh Atid split off from Blue and White to lead the opposition.
Earlier this year, Abbas quit the Joint List, indicating his willingness to join a coalition headed by Netanyahu. And the prime minister welcomed him. Whereas in the past Netanyahu “incited” against the Arabs, this time around, he changed his strategy and appealed to Arab-Israelis to vote for him.
He paid rare visits earlier this year to Arab cities in the north of the country purportedly to encourage citizens to get coronavirus vaccinations, but many were suspicious that he was taking advantage of the rift within the alliance of Arab parties.
Netanyahu appeals to some Arab voters because they believe he can make things happen. He’s also promised to focus on the growing violence and crime in the Arab community, economic issues, and the recent normalisation of Israel’s relations with several Arab countries.
As in the previous three rounds, this election was largely seen as a referendum on the tenure of Netanyahu. Personality politics has so overtaken the race that there has been almost no mention of the Palestinians after years of frozen peace talks.
The day before the vote, Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh described the election as an “internal” matter for Israelis, but decried the effect on Palestinians living under Israeli occupation.
Netanyahu used these elections to once again portray himself as a global statesman uniquely qualified to lead Israel through its many security and diplomatic challenges.
But unlike the previous election held last March, he didn’t have the support of former American President Donald Trump smiling alongside him in campaign posters. Instead, Netanyahu made Israel’s coronavirus-vaccination campaign the centrepiece of his re-election bid, repeatedly stressing that he was personally responsible for Israel’s impressively fast rollout.
Only a few short months ago, it seemed that COVID-19 would kill his chances of winning another election, and his critics still accuse him of bungling the management of the pandemic for most of the past year. But most Israelis appreciate his efforts.
This was the first election held in the throes of the pandemic, and five thousand additional polling stations were set up to deal with the situation. Workers in hazmat suits collected ballots in hospital wards while buses were parked outside some polling stations to serve as remote ballot drops for coronavirus-positive or quarantined voters.
As things stand now, it’s unclear if four rounds of elections have resolved the longest political crisis in Israel’s history. The country remains as divided as it has been over the past two years.
Israelis assists Eswatini with vaccine rollout
The success of Israel’s COVID-19 vaccine programme may seem like a far-away reality, but it’s actually much closer to home – over the border in fact. An Israel-based non-governmental organisation is working feverishly to assist Eswatini (formerly known as Swaziland) to build its COVID-19 response, including vaccine rollout, logistics, and public education.
The tiny landlocked nation has been hit hard by the pandemic, symbolised for many in the demise of Prime Minister Ambrose Dlamini four weeks after he contracted the virus. Now IsraAID, the largest humanitarian aid organisation in Israel, is helping it to pick up the pieces and turn its story around.
From earthquakes and hurricanes to epidemics and forced displacement, IsraAID has been at the forefront of responding to major humanitarian crises worldwide since 2001. It has worked in more than 50 countries and at any one time, has about 300 staff members worldwide.
A seven-member team from IsraAID landed in Eswatini on 8 March 2021 for a two-week visit. They were invited by the government, which has vaccines in the pipeline, and wants help with logistics and public education ahead of the rollout. The mission is being funded by South Africa-based Nathan “Natie” Kirsh, a citizen of Eswatini.
The global chief executive of the Kirsh Foundation, Carly Maisel, told the SA Jewish Report that Eswatini’s COVID-19 case load and death count probably exceeded reported numbers. “The country has the highest COVID-19 death rate in Africa, and the highest HIV prevalence in the world. With just more than one million people, nearly 60% of whom live under the national poverty line, it would be easy for Eswatini to be left behind in the global vaccination race.”
Speaking from Eswatini, Molly Bernstein, IsraAID’s development and communications manager, says, “We made it here on one of the first flights following Ben Gurion Airport’s reopening last Sunday. We arrived with experts who can give insight into the main aspects needed to implement a vaccination campaign of this kind: an operations expert; a psychosocial support expert; our medical sector lead and public health nurse; an epidemiologist and physician who specialises in vaccines; our head of global programmes; and a communications and public-outreach lead.
“Since the start of the pandemic, IsraAID has been working non-stop,” she says. “We have responded to COVID-19 in 17 countries worldwide. We aim to use the models we develop in Eswatini to inform further vaccination campaigns around the world, specifically in the global south, through a new Global Vaccine Access initiative. IsraAID has longstanding expertise in public health, emergency medical care, and mental health capacity building. We will utilise the know-how developed during Israel’s successful vaccination rollout to inform its planning in Eswatini, from here moving to other potential locations.
“This visit is an assessment mission to understand the capacity, assets, and needs on the ground, and identify how we can best support these aspects moving forward,” says Bernstein. “We’re working with the government to put together a plan.”
Because the country has been hit so hard, Bernstein says that a crucial component of its work will be to focus on mental health and resilience, particularly in regard to the country’s frontline health workers.
“In order to build an effective public health response, we have to think holistically and prioritise the needs of local communities. We are meeting many inspiring people here on the ground who want to work hard to help Eswatini push forward with vaccinations to decrease the day-to-day impact of the pandemic,” she says.
“The people of Eswatini, including community leaders, government officials, and everyone we’ve met, have been extremely warm and welcoming. They are excited about learning about the vaccination experience in Israel and working together as the rollout launches here in Eswatini.”
Maisel says that the Kirsh Foundation wanted to play a role because it believes that “successfully overcoming the pandemic will be possible only once there is equitable access and widespread adoption of vaccines across all nations”. The Kirsh family has responded to COVID-19 around the globe, particularly in Southern Africa, through food relief, unemployment support, medical equipment, and bridge-loan funding.
In addition, “Mr Kirsh’s roots are firmly in Eswatini, the place he calls home, and his legacy of philanthropy there is extensive,” Maisel says. “Eswatini is the country where he founded his entry into business and where he raised his family. It will forever be an integral part of his identity. Watching the country ravaged by COVID-19 has been heartbreaking for him and the Kirsh family.
“Since the beginning of the pandemic, the Kirsh Foundation has responded to short-term needs such as PPE [personal protective equipment] and food relief [in Eswatini],” says Maisel. “Additionally, the foundation has been examining how it can support the country over the long term, such as by sponsoring local oxygen capabilities.
“Now, we have partnered with IsraAID to help the nation and frontline health workers prepare for vaccine distribution and a potential third wave of the virus. Mr Kirsh speaks to the IsraAID team via video calls, and he has told them that they will have a universal effect on the country.”
IsraAID Chief Executive Yotam Polizer told the SA Jewish Report, “It’s ground breaking because there are few initiatives to support the global south during COVID-19, specifically with vaccination campaigns. It’s also ground breaking because it’s the first time that an Israeli organisation is using the expertise developed in Israel as part of its vaccination campaign, and is bringing this know-how to some of the world’s most vulnerable communities.”
The Kirsh Foundation has been a longstanding supporter of IsraAID’s world-renowned global initiatives. “Bringing together the two countries central to Mr Kirsh’s philanthropic vision was a ‘no brainer’ in this case,” says Maisel.
“IsraAID has become synonymous with rapid response to humanitarian crises around the world. We know that it’s up to the daunting task of preparing for a national vaccine rollout, not just because of its proven ability to deliver on its mission, but because of the unique insights it will bring from the unparalleled success of Israel’s vaccination campaign.
“We hope IsraAID will be able to leverage its experience in Eswatini to roll out its global vaccine initiative throughout the rest of Africa, where many countries are in need of its logistical and medical insight,” she says.
Asked if the organisation would carry out a similar mission in South Africa, Polizer says, “Our goal at IsraAID is to support the most vulnerable, regardless of politics. We’ve worked in countries that didn’t even have diplomatic relations with Israel, and we would be happy to support communities affected in South Africa in the future. We believe that through long-term humanitarian work, we can build bridges between people and countries. We would also love to discuss opportunities to partner with individuals and institutions in the South African Jewish community in the future. COVID-19 won’t be over for us, here [in Israel], until it is over for everyone, everywhere.”
- Apr 2021
- Mar 2021
- Feb 2021
- Jan 2021
- Dec 2020
- Nov 2020
- Oct 2020
- Jul 2020
- Jun 2020
- May 2020
- Apr 2020
- Mar 2020
- Feb 2020
- Jan 2020
- Dec 2019
- Nov 2019
- Oct 2019
- Sep 2019
- Aug 2019
- Jul 2019
- Jun 2019
- May 2019
- Apr 2019
- Mar 2019
- Feb 2019
- Jan 2019
- Dec 2018
- Nov 2018
- Oct 2018
- Sep 2018
- Aug 2018
- Jul 2018
- Jun 2018
- May 2018
- Apr 2018
- Mar 2018
- Feb 2018
- Jan 2018
- Dec 2017
- Nov 2017
- Oct 2017
- Sep 2017
- Aug 2017
- Jul 2017
- Jun 2017
- May 2017
- Apr 2017
- Mar 2017
- Feb 2017
- Jan 2017
- Dec 2016
- Nov 2016
- Oct 2016
- Sep 2016
- Aug 2016
- Jul 2016
- Jun 2016
- May 2016
- Apr 2016
- Mar 2016
- Feb 2016
- Jan 2016
- Dec 2015
- Nov 2015
- Oct 2015
- Sep 2015
- Aug 2015
- Jul 2015
- Jun 2015
- May 2015
- Apr 2015
- Mar 2015
- Feb 2015
- Jan 2015
- Dec 2014
- Nov 2014
- Oct 2014
- Sep 2014
- Aug 2014
- Jul 2014
- Jun 2014
- May 2014
- Apr 2014
- Mar 2014
- Feb 2014
- Jan 2014
- Dec 2013
- Nov 2013
- Oct 2013
- Sep 2013
Naale Elite Academy
Letters/Discussion Forums2 days ago
Protest not a creative solution to education funding crisis
Letters/Discussion Forums2 days ago
Looking for descendants of Lithuanian great-grandfather
Youth2 days ago
KDVP holds siyum for firstborn boys
Letters/Discussion Forums2 days ago
Only those on the frontline should be vaccinated
Voices2 days ago
Time for Israelis to pray for South Africa
Voices2 days ago
Join us for Yom Hashoah
Religion2 days ago
Finding faith in the hippo
Israel2 days ago
Helen Mirren to play Golda Meir in upcoming film