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Israelis and majority of Jews abroad wonder if Israel has gone from democracy to theocracy...

Visit of India's Prime Minister India indicates how important Israel is for India...

Tail wagging the dog in Jerusalem!...

It is mind-boggling. Never in the history of Israel's sacred ties with American Jewry has there been such a firestorm. And who lit the match - none other than the Prime Minister of the Jewish State, Bibi Netanyahu. Bibi, in a moment of utter folly, has endangered the country's national interest for the sake of keeping his job as prime minister. He sided with the Haredi ultra-orthodox Israelis by suddenly throwing out the window a compromise agreement, after five years of torturous negotiations, that would have granted Reform and Conservative Jews the right for men and women to pray together, as they wish, in a separate section of the Western Wall in Jerusalem (remnant of First & Second Jewish Temples). At present, the ultra-orthodox have a monopoly over prayer arrangements at the Western Wall. (For example, like many secular families in Israel, my two sons had their Bar Mitzvahs at the Western Wall. I was able to stand next to them, whereas my wife and daughter had to stand separately farther away and behind a barrier and a watchful custodian there to prevent them from entering).

And now Bibi has sided with the ultra-orthodox at the expense of other Israeli citizens and the vast majority of American and Canadian Jews ...

Talk about the tail wagging the dog! The 13 ultra-orthodox Knesset Members in the 120-member parliament threatened to topple Bibi's coalition government unless the deal was canceled. They hold the balance of power in the 67-member coalition. Bibi caved in and canceled the compromise at the very last moment. The Haredim have persistently exploited their balance of power to force both Likud and Labor to grant them special privileges such as not serving in the IDF as well as huge grants to men who study in religious seminaries - some, maybe most, then father an average of seven to eight children (according to a Knesset report) who are then financed by the state. Never have the ultra-orthodox wielded such political power in Israeli politics, and Bibi makes no bones about their being his 'natural political allies'. And now Bibi has sided with the ultra-orthodox at the expense of other Israeli citizens and the vast majority of American and Canadian Jews with all that entails.

Even Natan Sharansky the indomitable Prisoner of Zion, who endured years of solitary confinement in a Soviet prison, nearly cracked. Sharansky, who now heads the Jewish Agency that maintains close ties between world Jewry and Israel, was flabbergasted. Although he is a close personal friend, Sharansky went public blasting the PM's step. Privately he also pleaded with the PM warning of the fall-out from world Jewry. Meanwhile, Jewish leaders from the US and Canada got on the next plane and flew in to give the PM an earful. How could the Jewish state not grant equal rights to Reform and Conservative Jews, the vast majority, on how they wished to observe their Judaism? The rift is all the more perplexing because Bibi himself was educated in the U.S. and is a graduate of MIT, so he's not stupid. He also considers himself to be an expert on American politics. And how many times has he appealed to AIPAC for political help on Capitol Hill? But when the chips were down and his job was on the line, Bibi pandered to the ultra-orthodox. Moreover, the ultra-orthodox have also been pressing to halt all public transportation and the closing of all businesses on the Sabbath. There is, however, one topic, where Bibi has sort of bucked the ultra-orthodox - he has put on hold a step that would have solely recognized ultra-orthodox conversion. This after Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, himself an immigrant from the former Soviet Union, took a tough stand. There are thousands of Russian immigrants who are faced with the issue of conversion but oppose the stringent ultra-orthodox procedure.

Democracy or theocracy?

But how does Bibi now walk back the compromise for a Conservative-Reform section at the Western Wall?

In the fall-out, there are threats by Jews abroad to stop donating to Israeli institutions such as universities, hospitals and other public institutions. The dust has not settled and the PM is apparently scratching his head over how to resolve this conundrum. For example, he could have called the ultra-orthodox bluff about toppling the government. The Haredim have never had it so good and realize their best bet is to stick with Bibi and the Likud. As long as they do not oppose settlement building and do not support the two-state solution of the Centre-Left, they can milk a Likud government for nearly all they want. However there are limitations. One of them is for an Israeli PM to spit in the eye of Reform and Conservative Jews by implying their form of worship is not kosher. But how does Bibi now walk back the compromise for a Conservative-Reform section at the Western Wall?

On the other hand, the ultra-orthodox politicians are nobody's fools. Surely they will not want to risk killing the goose that lays the golden eggs by precipitating an early election they would be blamed for. And who can foresee who might win that election? At the same time, the Ultra-Orthodox politicians have been under strong pressure not to give an inch by their own media and rank and file. It may take some doing, but maybe Bibi will offer some more special payoffs - like even bigger budgets for their separate educational system or larger grants for Yeshiva students. The IDF still goes through the motions of issuing useless call-up orders for ultra-orthodox young men who are obligated to appear at induction offices (with proof they are studying at a yeshiva etc.) in order to get their deferral. Maybe Bibi will halt this inconvenience for them!

'Israel is important for India'...

Indian PM Narendra Modi (By Narendra Modi, CC BY-SA 2.0)

As for the PM, he rode out the storm for the moment by buzzing off on an official, previously planned trip to several European capitals. He'll be flying home to try and bask in a first ever visit by a Prime Minister from India, Narendra Modi. In recent years, ties with the world's largest democracy have been flourishing, but out of the limelight. Israel has sold vast quantities of weapons to India while also boosting its purchase of Indian goods. In separate interviews with Channel 1 TV, both the Indian and Israeli ambassadors heaped glowing praise for the partnership that has been cemented 'beneath the radar'. India views Israel 'as a reliable supplier of its defense equipment and technology' with an eye to establishing Israeli production lines in India.

During his three-day stay, Prime Minister Modi will not be meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, since the Palestinian leader made a recent visit to Delhi. The Indian ambassador stressed:

       'Prime Minister Modi's visit to Israel will be a message of how important Israel is to India'.



David Essing

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