Benjamin Netanyahu Is Choosing His Friends More Wisely

Zev Chafets

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- It’s always dangerous to declare a political turning point, but occasionally the real thing comes along. It is possible we have just had one in Israel, as the country moves toward a new election in September.

The moment came recently when Bezalel Smotrich, who was considered the front runner for the post of justice minister in the interim government being put together by Netanyahu, offered a preview of his legal philosophy to a gathering of orthodox rabbis in Jerusalem. Smotrich, leader of the small Union of Right Wing Parties, has no obvious qualifications for the job, but under the Israeli coalition system that is not an obstacle. His party was due two ministerial seats.

Smotrich told his audience that he would like to see Israel’s current, secular legal system replaced by Biblical law as it was practiced in the days of King David and King Solomon. There were reporters and cameras present at this event and the remarks quickly turned into a test of whether Netanyahu valued his own power base or Israeli democracy more.  

Former Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, Netanyahu’s ally turned political nemesis, led an immediate chorus of denunciation. Smotrich’s remarks seemed to validate Lieberman’s accusation that Bibi was now wholly in the hands of religious extremists who control the coalition’s balance of power. In fact, most of the political rabbis don’t really want to replace the legal code with Deuteronomy — the present system works just fine for their interests — but they could hardly say so. They applauded Smotrich.

Bibi is not what you could call pious. But for political reasons he is generally loath to criticize anything the rabbis even pretend to favor. This time, though, the politics worked the other way. The vast majority of Israelis (many of them Likud voters) are vehemently opposed to replacing secular democracy with a theocracy, or handing over the courts to religious fundamentalists.

Within hours, the prime minister declared that Israel will emphatically not be governed by the laws of the Bible. That was the end of Smotrich’s candidacy for the justice ministry. Bibi instead  picked parliamentary backbencher Amir Ohana, Likud’s only openly gay Knesset member. Smotrich was appointed to the lesser position of minister of transportation. In the wake of the controversy, a reliable poll of his own religious party found that only 15% want Smotrich as party leader. Forty percent prefer a secular female candidate, Ayelet Shaked, who isn’t even orthodox. 

Some on the left dismissed the appointment as a ploy to keep a Bibi loyalist in the the role while the prime minister’s legal trials are taking place. But Ohana is by no means the only Bibi loyalist who could have been tapped. And, in any case, a minister of justice has very little leverage in this situation.

Picking Ohana, and sending him to the Gay Parade as Bibi did directly afterward, was the prime minister’s way of refuting the  charges that Bibi is an enabler of the ultra-orthodox agenda. Expect more such gestures.

If so, this would be a healthy shift in Israeli politics. The platform of the ultra-orthodox parties is unrepentantly self-centered. It demands for its sons and daughters a full exemption from military service. It expects government subsidies for these unemployed draft dodgers. Lately the ultras have been pressing for the segregation of females at public events on the grounds of sexual modesty. And they insist on maintaining Israel’s prohibition of civil marriage or divorce, even if that means hundreds of thousands of Jewish Israelis, who do not meet orthodox standards of Jewishness, are unable to marry in their own country.

Many Israelis hate this coercion but vote for Bibi because he personifies national security. This time hawkish voters have options. The centrist Blue and White alliance is led by three generals who can’t credibly be called weak. There is also Lieberman -- a hawk’s hawk despite Bibi’s laughable effort to label him a leftist. 

In other words, Israelis are seeing things they haven’t seen before: A gay Likud Minister of Justice; a secular woman credibly contesting for leadership of the religious Zionist party; and an attack from the right on Netanyahu’s career-long partnership with the ultra-orthodox parties.  Is it a turning point?  One can only hope.

To contact the author of this story: Zev Chafets at zchafets@gmail.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Therese Raphael at traphael4@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Zev Chafets is a journalist and author of 14 books. He was a senior aide to Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and the founding managing editor of the Jerusalem Report Magazine.

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