For some observers of the Israeli political scene, there’s only one thing that matters. For the Biden administration, the crucial question is whether the outcome of the maneuvering in Jerusalem between the various political parties will result in a situation that will allow them to begin the process of undoing former President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
If Biden has held back on his consulate plans until now, it is due to his foreign-policy team’s worries that raising the issue at an inopportune time would jeopardize the stability of Israel’s multi-party coalition government. The administration doesn’t want to do anything that might bring former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu back to power. So it has been waiting for the coalition to pass a budget—something the Knesset hasn’t done the last years during which it has been paralyzed by the electoral deadlock between Netanyahu and his opponents—before the reopening.
Such a move places the current government led by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and his partner, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, in a difficult position. If they don’t fight the Americans on this point, they will be betraying their promises to defend Jerusalem. But a tough stand could mean that the government, which has more left-wing support than that from the right, would fall.
And that is something that they are unlikely to allow to happen, even if it means swallowing this insult from Biden. If there is anything that the Knesset debate over the budget illustrated, it is that political survival and not defending Jerusalem is all that matters to those in the government, including Bennett. At the same time, it’s equally clear that Netanyahu and his allies are equally hypocritical and that all they care about is engineering his return to power, regardless of the consequences.
Bennett’s hypocrisy was on full display in the budget battle.
The key to saving the government was increased funding to the Israeli-Arab sector. The inclusion of an Arab party in the governing coalition was a historic breakthrough that was a positive development for Israel. The decision of Mansour Abbas and his Ra’am Party to participate in the governing of the country, as opposed to other Arab parties, to continue to act as if their only obligation was to go on opposing Israel’s existence rather than serving their constituents was good for Israel.
But the payoff he demanded for allowing Bennett and Lapid to govern was more funding for Israeli Arabs. In principle, that was also the right thing to do since the Arab sector is generally underfunded and ill-served by the government—something that is as much the fault of corrupt and uncaring Arab politicians as it is the indifference of their Jewish counterparts.
Part of the package Bennett was asked to accept, among the items Ra’am demanded and got, was funding for a non-governmental organization linked to the party. Rather than going to help Arab-Israeli orphans, as was claimed by Ra’am, the connection between the NGO and the Hamas terror organization that rules the Gaza Strip led to a reasonable suspicion that the money was going to be funneled to Hamas or to one of its fronts, sparking outrage from both right-wing opponents of the government and families of victims of terrorism. This is hardly surprising since Ra’am’s ideology is Islamist and very much in sympathy with Hamas, even if it has clearly moved on from that group’s rejectionism to its current more realistic policies.
Had this happened on the watch of any government not led by him, Bennett—a stalwart right-winger himself—would have been among those orchestrating protests and demanding that the budget be amended to prevent this from happening. Instead, he and the rest of his Yamina Party, as well as those from the other right-wing members of the coalition in the New Hope and Yisrael Beiteinu parties, either shrugged or pretended that it wasn’t true.
Yet any sympathy for the justified outrage on the right needs to be tempered by remembering that the only reason that Bennett and Lapid were able to get away with including an anti-Zionist and Islamist party like Ra’am is that Netanyahu tried to do it first. Although he wasn’t able to seal the deal with Ra’am in order to get it to support a new government led by him, Netanyahu’s negotiations with Abbas allowed Bennett to do the same. Moreover, we know that had Ra’am decided to throw in with the Likud leader, the price for his support wouldn’t have been any different for Netanyahu than it is for Bennett.
But that wasn’t the only example of political hypocrisy and irresponsible behavior in the week that the Israeli budget passed.
While the passage of the budget was a blow to Netanyahu’s hopes of returning to power for at least the next year, he still seems confident that, one way or another, he will eventually unseat Bennett and Lapid. To do that, he needs to keep his alliance with the haredi parties Shas and United Torah Judaism—together. That means kowtowing to the whims of the haredim, whether or not it is good for Israel.
That’s what led Netanyahu to lend his support on social media to a call by the haredim for a demonstration at the Western Wall.
The reason for the call was the annual Rosh Chodesh prayers for the beginning of the new month in the Hebrew calendar by Women of the Wall, a non-Orthodox group that has been carrying on egalitarian services at the women’s section at the holy site. The haredim, including those who have been entrusted by the state with the administration of the Western Wall Plaza, see their presence as a provocation since the women, as is the custom in Conservative and Reform congregations, wear kipot, tallit and tefillin. But the women and their supporters insist that the wall, or Kotel, is not an Orthodox synagogue but a national shrine that belongs to all Jews, regardless of their denominational affiliation or beliefs.
That has led to a monthly battle at the wall for years in which women attempt to pray as their increasingly aggressive opponents attempt to shout them down with whistles and abuse, in addition to pushing and shoving. Though ordered by the Israeli courts to protect the women, the police generally stay out of the situation, leaving the women and their supporters on their own.
This problem might have been solved by the Western Wall plan put forward by former Jewish Agency head Natan Sharansky in 2016 that would have expanded the cramped egalitarian prayer area outside of the main plaza in the archeological park at Robinson’s Arch, which is itself often closed or taken over by Orthodox worshippers looking to exclude the non-Orthodox. But Netanyahu went back on his promise to carry out the plan in order to please his religious coalition partners. Though Bennett and Lapid have promised to take up the project, it isn’t any more of a priority for them than it was for Netanyahu.
During his time as prime minister, Netanyahu often emphasized the importance of treating all streams of Judaism with respect and ensuring that the Kotel belongs to everyone, not just the ultra-Orthodox. Yet this week, Netanyahu went further than merely going back on his word on the wall. He actually retweeted a call from Shas leader and political ally Aryeh Deri for members of his party to turn out early on Friday morning to disrupt the service being held by Women of the Wall.
It is one thing for the haredim to claim that the Kotel and plaza should be treated as an Orthodox synagogue. However, their tactics of violent bullying and intimidation are deeply wrong and inconsistent with the rule of law. For Netanyahu to endorse this sort of thuggery isn’t just hypocritical; it’s irresponsible. More to the point, if he really is planning on becoming Israel’s leader in the future, then he shouldn’t act like he is writing off the views and sensibilities of the overwhelming majority of American Jews who identify with non-Orthodox streams. Treating them and those Israelis who share their beliefs as expendable is not in the best interests of either Israel or the Jewish people. Indeed, rallying their support for the Jewish state—as Netanyahu claimed was a priority when in office—requires him to avoid any connection with the kind of outrageous behavior that is part and parcel of the Orthodox harassment of egalitarian worshippers at the Kotel.
Of course, as is the case with Bennett and Hamas funding, coalition math is Netanyahu’s only priority these days as he flails away trying to get back into office. Meanwhile, the challenge facing Israel’s government on issues like Iran and Jerusalem from the Biden administration gets short shrift as their unseemly scramble for power in the Knesset continues.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.