Kafe Knesset for June 26
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Kotel compromise, conversion on the chopping block: The day after the cabinet capitulated to Haredi demands, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is getting a cold shoulder from some leaders of Diaspora Jewry. The Jewish Agency Board of Directors canceled its planned dinner at the Knesset’s Chagall Hall tonight, and shifted its entire agenda to discuss the ramifications of the decisions. The Reform movement also canceled a meeting with the prime minister. Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky released a sharply worded response to the votes, expressing “deep disappointment,” and pointing out that Netanyahu said the Kotel should be “one wall for one people.” He added that the decision “signifies a retreat…[that] will make our work to bring Israel and the Jewish world closer together increasingly more difficult.”
A quick reminder: The compromise allowing a non-Orthodox section of the Western Wall to be expanded was officially put on ice. Also approved was a bill giving the Israeli chief rabbinate a monopoly over conversion. meaning that anyone whose conversion they don’t approve does not automatically qualify under the Law of Return. This latter bill cleared an early hurdle. The Western Wall vote was a bit of a surprise. Yes, Kafe Knesset reported it on Friday, but that’s a bit late to stick a new item on the cabinet’s agenda. Even Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel, a fervent opponent of egalitarian prayer at the Kotel, didn’t know it was coming. The only members of the cabinet to vote against canceling the outline were Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman and Energy and Water Minister Yuval Steinitz. Immigration Absorption Minister Sofa Landver, of Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu party, submitted an appeal of the conversion vote, meaning that it can’t go to the Knesset until the entire cabinet debates and votes on it.
Today’s faction meetings in the Knesset were all about the Kotel controversy. President of the Union of Reform Judaism Rabbi Rick Jacobs and Chief Executive of the Conservative Movement’s Rabbinical Assembly Julie Schonfeld were very popular guests. The two rabbis even sat next to Yair Lapid as he made his statement to the press opposing the decisions. Lapid said in English: “Don’t give up on us — we’re not giving up on you. We are one people.” Liberman said the Haredim are trying to turn Israel into a theocracy, “from a Zionist state to a halachic state.”
Haredi parties were on the defensive. Senior UTJ MK Moshe Gafni stated that after consulting with legal experts, freezing the Kotel compromise was the best way to prevent the Supreme Court from intervening in what happens at the Western Wall. Gafni noted that the Haredi parties would have allowed the status quo if the non-Orthodox movements had not appealed to the courts. Gafni accused Reform Jewry of trying to intervene from abroad. He observed that if they ran in Israeli politics, they wouldn’t get even one seat in the Knesset. According to Gafni, “the Reform movement is screaming like someone who murdered his father, and then went to the court and said “have mercy on me, I’m an orphan.’” Shas chairman Arye Deri said that people are only complaining because the move happened in a right-wing government. “If we were doing this in a left-wing government, we would be praised for protecting tradition and the sanctity of the Kotel. They want to use us to dismantle the government and bring down Netanyahu. We won’t let anyone take apart what we worked to build for 70 years.” And then Deri added that he’s not trying to be divisive: “Every Jew can come to the Kotel and pray.”
Our take: The decision reverberated throughout the political sphere, but, it is unclear is how much the average Israeli cares about religion and state issues when it doesn’t directly connect to their tax rates or IDF service. Netanyahu, for one, has very little to worry about electorally — his Likud base isn’t fighting for non-Orthodox Jewry, for the most part, and quite a few of them strongly oppose the Conservative and Reform movements. And on the other political side, respected Army Radio broadcaster Razi Barkai, whose left-wing and secular bona fides are undoubted, asked Jewish-American guests more than once this morning: “If you want to influence Israel, why don’t make Aliya and vote here?” (To be fair, though, he dedicated close to an hour to the topic). Barkai’s question may show his disregard for Diaspora Jewry, but it is the crux of the matter in Israeli politics. Public opinion polls show that the importance of Diaspora Jewry to Israelis is waning. And Diaspora Jews don’t vote. So, making a quick calculation, Israeli politicians realize that they don’t need to do what Diaspora Jews want in order to survive — but they generally do need to appease the Haredim to keep a coalition together. Notice that hardly anyone voted against it, and even Liberman isn’t exactly threatening to bring down the government over religion and state. Of course, that brings up the question — are politics really everything? Don’t some things come before staying in your seat? Well, it seems we got our answer on Sunday.
Sheldon Adelson and his wife Miriam arrived at the police special investigation Lahav 433 offices this morning. This interview relates to the File 2000 investigation about alleged connections between the PM and Adelson’s main business rival in Israel, Arnon (Noni) Mozes, the publisher of Yediot Aharonot. This is Sheldon Adelson’s second interrogation, after being summoned for the first time while President Trump was visiting Israel, but it is a first for Miriam, who is considered by the police to be “vital” to the investigations, as she is considered very influential inside the Israel Hayom newspaper. Meanwhile, Adelson and Netanyahu participated in a Birthright gala event yesterday and reportedly avoided any contact and didn’t even shake hands. Later this week, they will be attending another high profile event, as both of them are expected to attend the Ariel University Medical School inauguration ceremony. Adelson donated $20 million for expanding the West Bank university, which is expected to double its size within the next five years. The BB-Sheldon duo will be joined by Education Minister Naftali Bennett. There is growing speculation among Israeli pundits that Adelson has decided to abandon his support for Netanyahu, and perhaps has chosen Bennett, as his new golden boy. On the other hand, a source close to Bennett told Kafe Knesset that, “Sheldon is shopping.” While the Education Minister and Adelson have known each other for years, nothing special happened on that front yet, and in Bennett’s office, they don’t take the hiring of extremely pro-Bibi (and pro-Trump) journalist Boaz Bismuth as Yisrael Hayom’s editor-in-chief as a friendly sign.