IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi (Photo By Ori Shemesh – Image by the IDF spokesmen, CC BY-SA 4.0)

IDF Chief of Staff  Gen. Aviv Kochavi has signaled the new US administration that Israel is categorically opposed to a new nuclear deal with Iran. Speaking to a public gathering in Israel, he added that a return to the former agreement of 2015 is a “bad and erroneous approach.” Gen. Kochavi went on to say that the IDF is preparing ‘operational plans.’ In his words, “Iran is a regional and international problem – no one has any doubt that Iran aspires to become a nuclear weapons state and to use this capability.”

This is the strongest Israel reaction so far to reports that the Biden administration will seek to return to the former deal brokered by Barack Obama. Clearly, the IDF Chief of Staff would not have made such a strong declaration without the approval of Prime Minister Netanyahu. The IDF has now requested that the Israeli government allocate an additional several billion shekels to cope with the Iranian threat. At the same time, Israel’s top commander added,

“We are doing everything possible to avert a war that could result in a great number of missiles hitting Israel and it will not be simple.”

I wish to add that the Israeli expression ‘not be simple’ is a euphemism for ‘it will be very complex and rather bad.’

Are there now two separate Jewish nations in Israel?

Many Israelis believe the answer is ‘yes.’ The current clashes between Ultra-Orthodox religious Jews and the Israeli police have highlighted a fundamental rift in Israeli society. The Ultra-Orthodox Israelis pledge their allegiance not to the state’s elected government but to their rabbis, who currently oppose the temporary closure of their private school system amid the Covid crisis. They contend that ‘teaching Torah’ supersedes the state’s right to even temporarily close their schools, as is the case with other state-run schools. 

Two dangerous incidents have shocked Israel to the core. In the Ultra-Orthodox community of Bnei Brak near Tel Aviv, an unmarked police car was patrolling the area, possibly to report on illegal mass gatherings in synagogues, etc. A mob of young Ultra-Orthodox men spotted the police car and began smashing its windows. An Israeli policewoman was inside and later said that she “feared for her life!” Fortunately, other police vehicles arrived at the scene and extricated her and another policeman from the car, which the mob torched. 

Police reinforcements were rushed to the neighborhood in a show of strength, apparently illustrating who determines law and order in Bnei Brak! But to no avail – a day later, another gang of Ultra-Orthodox young men attacked a bus in the same city. They man-handled the shaken bus driver and also torched the vehicle. The bus driver was punched and threatened while the bus was burnt to a crisp by the cheering mob. 

These incidents sent shockwaves through the state. Clearly, it illustrated that Israel’s Ultra-Orthodox Jewish community takes its instructions from their rabbis rather than the democratically elected government. This is not to say one of their rabbis instructed them to burn a bus or police car, but demonstrates that they will determine that their schools and synagogues will carry on as usual despite Covid-19. 

Rabbi Kanievsky(By מוישימי – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0)

Chief among them is 93-year-old Rabbi Kanievsky, who refuses to even meet with Prime Minister Netanyahu and issues his edicts through a young grandson nicknamed “Yanky.” Bibi requested an ‘audience’ with the rabbi but was refused, and so he had to appeal to Yanky to try and cool off what is tantamount to an Ultra-Orthodox rebellion. Meanwhile, the Ultra-Orthodox politicians in the Knesset and the Israeli Cabinet publically declare their opposition to the violence while simultaneously insisting that their private school systems and synagogues (which are funded by the government) remain open. 

Moreover, young Ultra-Orthodox men are exempt from serving in the IDF as long as they continue their religious studies in Yeshiva Seminaries, which they do into middle-age while also marrying while still very young men. How do they manage? They receive a special small monthly stipend while their wives work part-time while also bearing an average of eight children along the way! The result is that the vast majority of Ultra-Orthodox families live in small 3-4-room apartments. When one of these young married men was asked what his wife would do if he quit his full-time religious studies in Yeshiva and got a job, he retorted, “She’d probably divorce me!”

This is the mindset that dominates Israel’s Ultra-Orthodox community, which is estimated to be approximately 15% of the overall population and increasing. There is another odd twist – Ultra-Orthodox spokesmen and full-time politicians in the Knesset contend there is a positive aspect to religious schools remaining open at this time. They argue that if the many children remain cooped up in their tiny apartments, this will spark a spiral in the spread of Covid-19. Our staff member, Rivki, says this is a perfect example of an oxymoron. It is fair to surmise this is the sharpest cleavage ever between Israel’s Ultra-Orthodox Jewish community and the rest of the population. It should be noted that the large community of religious Jews in Israel who always wear skullcaps do participate in the nation’s ‘normal life,’ holding jobs and serving loyally in Israel’s IDF. 

Prime Minister Netanyahu’s dilemma … 

Bibi grants concessions to the Ultra-Orthodox community in order to remain in power. For example, the PM grants the chairmanships of the Knesset’s all-powerful finance community to an Ultra-Orthodox politician, who holds the whip-hand in the passage of financial legislation. Now, in the midst of a very close election campaign, Netanyahu’s Likud party is dependant more than ever on the political support of the two Ultra-Orthodox parties serving in his coalition government. 

Netanyahu turns Keynesian economics upsidedown …

The polls indicate that at present, Bibi will not be able to form a new coalition government following the upcoming election on March 23. Faced with this electoral defeat, Netanyahu and Finance Minister Israel Katz have just announced a ‘giveaway’ program of special financial grants to all Israelis, rich and poor alike. In the US, this type of blatant monetary bribery of voters and the like was once described as “voodoo economics.” John Maynard Keynes, the father of modern economic theory, must be turning in his grave. Neither is it worthy of a graduate of MIT, Bibi’s Alma mater.

Earlier during the Covid crisis, Netanyahu also pulled the same stunt, after which the two top economists in the Finance Ministry quit in protest. Not to worry – this time, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit is likely to rule against the special economic grants as inappropriate in the middle of a tight election campaign. 

Tel Aviv Mayor and political candidate Ron Huldai (CC

Current election campaign about to blast off …

Look for some dramatic developments. Tel Aviv Mayor Rod Huldai may form a Centrist bloc with two small parties led by new Labor leader Merav Michaeli and Ofer Shelah. As mentioned earlier, the polls indicate Netanyahu may have trouble forming a new cabinet, although he is still leading the polls, followed by Gideon Saar, a breakaway Likud politician. Meanwhile, Bibi is set to appear in court shortly; this after his trial was temporarily delayed due to all court cases being put on hold during the Covid lockdown. And, for the first time ever, Ben Gurion Intl Airport is temporarily closed. 

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