March 25, 2011

Israel, The Seat of Power...

Written by Larry Gordon   
Thursday, 03 March 2011 12:40  
Michael Ben Ari, one of the four Knesset members representing the rightist National Union (Ichud Leumi) party in Israel, believes that the uprising in some of the surrounding Arab countries is the best thing for Israel and the Jewish people.

We are spending most of what has become a beautiful sunny day looking out large Knesset office and dining-room windows, talking with several members who sit in the seat of power in the Jewish State. The governing body features 120 representatives, eleven of whom belong to Arab parties bent on doing harm to the growth and development of Israel. There are about another 20 or so who are assorted leftists, leaving about 90 representatives out of a population of more than seven million people to chart a course for the future of a country that is minuscule in size but looms large on the international landscape.

Reflecting on the experience, I wonder why these men and women spend so much time with representatives of media outlets that serve Diaspora Jews, people who are not part of their constituency and who cannot vote for their political parties. One MK gives me his personal cell number and says that anytime I am doing a story about Israel and its political or diplomatic situation and want a quote from him to just call him directly.

I believe that it’s not just about the attention that political personalities may need to advance through the system. Mostly it speaks to the fact that regardless of where we reside in the world, we all have a stake in the future of Israel and how it is impacted by the ongoing situation in the world.

Things are beautiful and calm in Israel, particularly in contrast to the growing tumult and air of revolution that is currently plaguing the Arab world. I’m sure you’ve seen the recent reference in the Torah about the stiff-necked nature of the Jewish people. Well, Moshe Rabbeinu’s assignation of that poignant characteristic  did not come with an expiration date, and its validity is very much in evidence in the Knesset building.

As a consequence, the philosophical mixture of the men and women remains steadfast and even firmer than their political positions may have been in the past. MK Ben Ari says all he wants is for the leftists in the Knesset to admit that they made a colossal miscalculation by dabbling in a peace process with the Palestinians, who remain bent on dismantling the Jewish State.

“There is no peace partner, and people like Haim Ramon and Binyamin Ben-Eliezer parade around like everything is normal and going well,” Ben Ari says. He adds that even Shimon Peres, Israel’s president, said recently that because there is such turmoil in the Middle East, now is the time for Israel to accelerate efforts to enter into a peace agreement with the Palestinians. “It’s delusional and wrongheaded, and they won’t admit it,” Mr. Ben Ari says.

Michael Ben Ari, though he is a member of the parliament of the most secure and indeed admirable democracy in all of the Middle East and perhaps the world, cannot, after almost two years in office, manage to secure a visa to visit the United States. He says the reason is his articulated association and admiration for Rabbi Meir Kahane, of blessed memory, whom he identifies as his mentor and inspiration. Ben Ari says that George Mitchell, special envoy to the Middle East for President Obama, made a point of specifically directing the State Department not to allow Ben Ari into the U.S. He is appealing that decision and hopes in the near term to secure permission to enter the country.

MK Yaakov Katz says that when we write about him, unless we refer to him as “Ketzaleh,” no one knows whom we are referring to. We had a relaxed lunch at midday in the Knesset dining room. To my left, dining with some guests, was veteran MK Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, a longtime member of the left-leaning Labor Party, a former minister in the Rabin and Barak governments, and a frequent visitor to Egypt as well as a close confidant of the now deposed president, Hosni Mubarak.

So here I am sitting with the arch-religious-rightist in Ketzaleh, and a couple of tables away is Mr. Ben-Eliezer. Ketzaleh gets busy on the phone, and his assistant, Harel, sees me looking over at Ben-Eliezer and says to me that, by the way, Ben-Eliezer was Ketzaleh’s commander in the IDF during the Yom Kippur War. I suppose that the fact that I do not care for Mr. Ben-Eliezer’s vision of Israel’s political future was displayed on my face.

Harel said of Ben-Eliezer that he was known as an extraordinarily courageous commander and fearless even when encountering enemy fire in war. Ben-Eliezer is 75 years old now. His politics, I was thinking, falls in line with what Michael Ben Ari was saying earlier that day, that those on the left simply cannot come to grips with their flawed approach to the Palestinians and peace.

Ketzaleh is an interesting man and is the one individual I know who personifies the consummate Israel experience cloaked in the mantle of Torah and faith in Hashem. And on top of all that, he knows his way around the nooks and crannies of the complicated Israeli political process. Though he is in his first term as a member of the Knesset, he conducts himself like a seasoned veteran. Today he does not hide the rather low regard he harbors for Prime Minister Netanyahu. “Netanyahu is an actor; what you see is not the real Bibi, and no one knows for sure where he will stand on any given day on the important issues,” says Katz.

As you know, Bibi leads the right-leaning Likud Party, which has traditionally been identified with the settler movement and continued building in Judea and Samaria. On that count, Ketzaleh tells us, “In the area of building in the territories, Bibi is the worst of all possible prime ministers.” He adds that all in the Knesset are aware that, except in name, Ehud Barak is the real prime minister.

Katz believes in the power of the Right in the Knesset and what can be accomplished for the benefit of Israel if the parties can somehow unite. A natural ally of Ketzaleh’s National Union is Habayit HaYehudi, but the two groups have differences that to this point have prevented them from working together. I asked Ketzaleh what the differences between the two parties are, and all he could say was that they are not about issues but rather about personalities. He then said he believed he would have an announcement to make on the matter in a few weeks. He believes the parties are very close to overcoming their differences and hopes to announce that in the next election they will be able to run as a bloc that currently controls seven seats in the Knesset.

“We must unite,” Katz says, “because voters are more inclined to vote for a party that has a more significant presence in the Knesset.” He says that in the last election, over 20 percent of the dati (observant) electorate cast their votes for Likud. He adds that he believes that in the next election, his faction as a united party can garner as many as 12 seats in the Knesset. That would make them a party to reckon with along the lines of Avigdor Leiberman’s Yisrael Beitenu.

Later that afternoon, we visited with Shas MK Nissim Zeev, who last year was in New York and spoke at an event in the Five Towns. Rabbi Zeev is a founder of the Shas party and a close confidant of Rav Ovadia Yosef, the former Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel and the guiding force of Shas. Our meeting, which was arranged by MK Zeev’s aide Shoshana Bekerman, was convened to discuss the matter of having the Jewish people declared by the United Nations to be the indigenous population of parts of Israel that include Judea, Samaria, Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights.

This would make it illegal under international law for the so declared people to be evacuated from their homeland. The feeling in MK Zeev’s office is that this will be the determining factor in finally putting to rest the long-held notion that Jews are occupiers in the Land of Israel (see story on page 21).

And finally we stopped in at the end of the day to say hello to Deputy Knesset Speaker Danny Danon. He was in another office at the other end of the Knesset building, where the immigration committee that he sits on was conducting meetings. He said that he is very focused on continued Jewish immigration into Israel and that earlier in the day the committee had decided to allow entry into Israel of the last group of Ethiopian Jews. “There are still 7,000 that want to live in Israel and we will be absorbing 200 per month until they are all here,” he said. He is also working actively on bringing many additional Jewish families to Israel from the former Soviet Union.

He said that as a member of the Likud, he was very concerned about the lack of building permits being issued in the territories and that after our meeting he was going to a Likud ministers’ meeting where he would express his concern directly to the prime minister. He added that the lack of building in larger West Bank communities like Ariel has made it impossible for young couples to make Ariel home, and that as a result it was progressively becoming an area dominated by older residents. Danon commented that he hoped this was not by design but only a consequence of the pressure from the U.S. not to build. The local papers in Israel reported the next day that Netanyahu had for now rejected their demand.

As you can see, each of the few MKs we met has his own special projects and concerns, though all at some point intersect with what is the greater good for the country. The Knesset is far from a simple governing body; on the contrary, it is rather complex and frequently difficult to comprehend. Add to that the fact that the major powers, including the U.S., Russia, the European Union, and the UN, are all observing with heightened concern every comment and move that emanates from members here. One cannot help walking away wondering what the future will bring. For now, this is just a tiny glimpse into the big picture of a very small but powerful and influential country.

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