Wednesday, January 30, 2013

When The First Station opens this spring, it won’t be for railroad passengers but for shoppers, diners and culture buffs.

When The First Station opens this spring, it won’t be for railroad passengers but for shoppers, diners and culture buffs.

The Old Jerusalem Train Station today.

In the late 1800s, the introduction of the Jaffa-to-Jerusalem rail line revolutionized travel in the Holy Land. And from 1892 to 1998, the solid stone Ottoman structure at the junction of Jerusalem’s German Colony, Baka and Abu Tor neighborhoods served as its eastern station house.

But when the trains stopped running to downtown Jerusalem, the building fell into disrepair and the rail yard behind it was left to the weeds. Several ideas for repurposing this prime location were floated over the years, and finally the venerable venue will be getting a new life this spring.

Renamed The First Station, the 130-year-old Israel Railways property is to be a new culture and culinary hub in the capital city.

Vintage locomotives will dot the wood-decked, 4,000-square-meter former rail yard filled with food stalls, café tables, benches and umbrella-topped vendor carts. Inside, black-and-white photos from the station’s past will line the refurbished walls encompassing three gourmet restaurants, a pub and exhibition spaces for musical, literary and artistic events.
A drawing of the complex to open in the spring.

There will be an adjacent bike path linking The First Station with Train-Track Park, a walking and cycling promenade under construction by Israel Railways and the Jerusalem municipality.

Just like its Jaffa twin

The NIS 35 million ($9.3 million) train station refurbishment is financed by the municipality through its Jerusalem Development Authority in addition to business owners and the same private investment group that transformed the station house at the other end of the line — Tel Aviv-Jaffa’s Hatachana — into a chic complex of cafés and restaurants, designer shops and art galleries.

Both buildings were designed in classic 19th century European and German Templer style, the Jerusalem one of limestone and the Jaffa one of sandstone because those were the local materials available.

As they did in Jaffa, the investors have pledged to work with preservation architects to retain the façade and footprint of the original building. According to their agreement with Israel Railways, they will operate The First Station for 10 years and then it will revert to the company.

But it’s a good bet that the venture will be successful enough to continue as is, because it provides another anchor for the already rich cultural offerings in this historic area of Jerusalem not far from the Old City.

Right across David Remez Square is the Khan Theater; down the road is the Jerusalem Cinemateque and the Menachem Begin Heritage Center; the Jerusalem Theater is a 10-minute walk’s distance; and the Sherover Cultural Center is now being built in Abu Tor.
Here is how the old station used to look.

Mayor Nir Barkat is banking on this new site to shore up Jerusalem’s reputation in the non-religious sphere. Except for kosher eateries that are branches of national chains, everything in The First Station will be open on Saturday – as is the Cinemateque but not much else in the capital city.

“The mayor made this decision a long time ago after considering all sides, and he does not want to hurt or offend anyone,” project spokeswoman Gili Katz tells ISRAEL21c. Barkat’s intention, she adds, is to give secular and non-Jewish residents and tourists in Jerusalem something attractive to do on Friday nights and Saturdays.

It goes without saying that the mayor – and the investors – also intend for The First Station to become a popular new destination for all of Jerusalem’s diverse populations of culture-seekers, whether they are residents or visitors. And it is not only meant for adults; children’s activities are to be part of the regular schedule of events at The First Station.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

And the Winner Is…No One

And the Winner Is…No One

By Donniel Hartman

Political campaigns are about winning. Politics is about compromise.

Israel's political process, with its plethora of sub-parties, has a Middle Eastern shuk quality to it, with each group hawking its wares and vying for the electorate's attention. The frenzy of the shuk atmosphere is fueled by a zero-sum-game reality, whereby each merchant is competing for the buyer's limited dollar, and each party for the citizen's vote. A dollar spent in one location, and a vote cast in one direction, is a dollar and a vote taken from one's competitors.

Israelis have a deep affinity for the multiparty system, for it maintains this shuk consciousness – maximum competition coupled with a maximized system of choice. Each person counts and each person gets to locate his or her vote within the sub-sub-sub party to which they feel at present the greatest affinity.

The challenge of coalition politics within this multiparty system is that while founded on a shuk consciousness, it can only succeed if it transcends it. While in theory there can be a winner in a multiparty election, in the divided reality of Israeli society, the only competition is over size, both objectively and relative to the other parties. We associate the term, "winner," with the party which made the most unexpected gains, and "loser," to those who failed to actualize their or the public's projections. But in fact, however, there is no winner. Everyone at best gets only a part of a pie that they have to share with their former competition.

A coalition is a form of partnership. While the voting share and influence vary, contingent both on the party's size and significance for the stability of the coalition, it is a partnership nonetheless. A partnership, however, cannot be created within a shuk mindset and a zero-sum-game attitude. If it is, it will be by definition a limited partnership, limited not by its legal charter, but limited in time and limited in effectiveness.

When a party thinks it has won it either enters into a coalition with an arrogance which insists on the acknowledgement by others of its leadership and power, or stays out of the coalition because such an acknowledgement is not forthcoming.

The future of Israel's political system and culture is not dependent on changing our multiparty system or raising the threshold for entering the Knesset, but on changing our mindset from a zero-sum game consciousness to one of win-win. Win-win is rarely a quality of reality but rather a decision on how to perceive reality. Win-win becomes possible when one ceases to think in zero-sum game terms and recognizes that the achievement of a part of one's goals and aspirations is also a win. It is this process which opens the door for the other to attain "their win" alongside yours.

In the aftermath of the election the shuk posturing has already begun: who won't sit with whom and who will sit with whom only on condition that their demands, A, B, C, and D, will be fulfilled to their fullest. If the shuk analogy falls short, its most apt replacement is that of a cockfight and the posturing which it engenders.

It is time for us all to recognize that none of us has won. More Israelis have chosen Benjamin Netanyahu as Prime Minister than any other alternative; this is really the only significant and legitimate consequence of being the largest party. A majority of Israelis, however, do not want Netanyahu to rule solely on the basis of the Likud Party, its Knesset members, and its platform. While this statement is far from revelatory, its significance is not limited to Benjamin Netanyahu but first and foremost to the other parties within our system. Whether you grew in size or not, whether you beat the expectations or not, all the parties must recognize a simple fact: you did not win, and as such you are obligated to reflect on the compromises that you must be willing to make in order to best serve your constituents.

Compromise is not a consequence of unbridled hunger for power or an unchecked desire for a Cabinet seat and its car; it's the prerequisite of a partnership and the sense of responsibility to contribute to the future direction of our country. Can Yesh Atid and Shas sit together in a coalition partnership? Certainly. Can the Tenuah and Bayit Hayehudi join forces in one government? Certainly. The difference between "can" and "will" is bridgeable when each understands that the consequence of not winning obligates each to compromise on certain aspects of their core ideologies. That is the prerequisite price of not winning.

The challenge facing Benjamin Netanyahu and in fact the challenge facing our country is to what extent we can field a coalition which is a partnership aimed at serving our country and not a coalition which masks a shuk consciousness that aims to use it as a temporary springboard for the next election, when "we" can win.

In the weeks preceding the election, the rhetoric was naturally vicious and unnecessarily arrogant. The airwaves and social media were filled with voices drunk on the fantasy of winning. The sobriety demanded by not winning is now the call of the day, as we must look across political divides, not in order to disqualify but to engage. One of the lessons of the rabbinic tradition is that compromise is not a compromise but is in fact superior to truth, for the former enables peaceful coexistence and consequently common social life.

We Israelis know how to compromise when there is a grave external threat which spreads an umbrella of necessity over the stain of compromise. Our challenge is to cease to look for an umbrella and to embrace compromise both as the just result of the electoral process and as the highest value of our Zionist aspirations: to live together as one people, safe in our home, and building a society in which the sum total of our parts is a foundation and catalyst for greatness.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Israel's two big cities had vastly different voting patterns

Israel's two big cities had vastly different voting patterns

The White City and the Holy City, in a sense, represent Israel’s two polar extremes, and nowhere is this more pronounced than in how each one votes.
By Judy Maltz

Tel Avivians take advantage of the warm weather on Election Day. Photo by Ofer Vaknin

Netanyahu casts his ballot in Jerusalem, Jan. 22, 2013. Photo by GPO

Barring major traffic, the drive from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem takes less than an hour. But as most first-time visitors will quickly take note, despite this physical proximity, Israel’s two biggest cities are worlds apart.

Tel Aviv is on the coast, Jerusalem in the mountains. Tel Aviv is humid, Jerusalem dry. Tel Aviv is overwhelmingly secular, Jerusalem predominantly religious. Tel Aviv is known for its nightlife, Jerusalem for its holy sites.

The two cities, in a sense, represent Israel’s two polar extremes, and nowhere is this more pronounced than in how each one votes. Borrowing terminology from abroad, Tel Aviv has become the equivalent of America’s “Blue States” and Jerusalem, its “Red States.”

A city-by-city breakdown of the latest election results shows that Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party was the biggest winner in Tel Aviv, capturing close to 21 percent of the vote in the country’s cultural and business capital – compared with 14 percent in the entire country. In other words, more than one out of every five Tel Avivians voted for the party that turned out to be the big surprise of this election, emerging as the second-largest party after Likud-Beiteinu with 19 Knesset seats.

Just for comparison’s sake, Yesh Atid, which didn’t exist until this election, barely won 7 percent of the vote in Jerusalem, where the big winner was the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party, which captured 22 percent of the vote. UTJ took just 5 percent nationwide, and in Tel Aviv, the Ashkenazi-Haredi party barely crossed the 1 percent threshold.

Interestingly, the one and only similarity in election outcomes in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem was that in both cities Likud-Beiteinu – the party that despite its disappointing showing held onto its position as Israel’s largest party with 31 Knesset seats – came in second place.

Another party that did much better in Tel Aviv than elsewhere was Meretz, which won more than 14 percent of the vote in the White City. In Jerusalem, by contrast, the leftist party captured only about 4.5 percent of the vote, similar to its showing nationwide. The party managed to double its Knesset representation from three to six seats.

The Labor Party, which until a day ago was considered the frontrunner for the title of Israel’s second largest party, also captured a much larger share of the vote in Tel Aviv than it did in Jerusalem, emerging as the third-biggest party in Tel Aviv. Close to 17 percent of Tel Avivians voted for the party that ruled Israel for its first three decades of existence, as compared with barely 7 percent in Jerusalem. Nationwide, Shelly Yacimovich and her list won 11.5 percent of the vote.

What Labor was for Tel Aviv, Shas was for Jerusalem. Shas emerged as the third-largest vote-getter in Jerusalem, winning 15.5 percent of the ballots in the capital. In Tel Aviv, by contrast, the Sephardi-Haredi party barely took 6 percent of the votes, compared with a stronger showing of close to 9 percent nationwide.

Another first-time party, Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah, which ran on a platform of returning to negotiations with the Palestinians, captured barely 2 percent of the vote in Jerusalem, compared with more than 7 percent in Tel Aviv, and 5 percent nationwide. By contrast, the extreme right-wing Otzma Leyisrael party – which apparently did not get enough votes to get into the Knesset – did better than Livni in Jerusalem, where it got almost 3.5 percent of the vote, compared with just 1 percent in Tel Aviv.

A similar number of voters went to the polls in each of the two cities – 394,134 in Tel Aviv and 373,238 in Jerusalem – but the percentage of eligible voters who cast their ballot was higher in Jerusalem, where it reached 65 percent, compared with 62 percent in Tel Aviv, and 63 percent nationwide. That could easily be chalked up to the unusually warm, sunny weather that seemed to draw many people to the beach.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The consequences of Israel’s vote

The consequences of Israel’s vote

By Uriel Heilman

Yair Lapid, head of the Yesh Atid party, casting his vote in Tel Aviv during the general elections for Israel's 19th parliament, Jan. 22, 2013. (Gideon Markowicz/Flash90)


(JTA) -- A few observations about the Israeli election results:

Right-left split changes, but not a game-changer:From an outsider’s perspective, Israel would seem to a very politically unstable place. The biggest party in the previous Knesset, Kadima, crashed from 28 seats to a grand total of two. The No. 3 party, Yisrael Beiteinu, hitched its wagon to the ruling party, Likud, but their combined list lost about a quarter of its seats, down to 31 from 42. Meanwhile, a party that didn’t exist until a few months ago, Yesh Atid, emerged as the 120-seat Knesset’s second-biggest party, with 19 seats.

Yet despite the swapping of party labels, not too much has changed in the right-left power split. Yes, the right wing lost a little ground -- from 65 seats in the last Knesset to 60 seats in the new one. But within the rightists' camp, votes moved from the more moderate Likud right to the farther right Jewish Home party. Furthermore, it would be a mistake to lump all the centist and left-wing parties together. The biggest winner of the center, Yesh Atid, espouses positions on Palestinian-related issues not dissimilar from Likud's in many respects: both favor negotiations with the Palestinians (though skeptics say Likud's position is more rhetorical than genuine), both favor retaining the large Jewish settlement blocs in the West Bank and both oppose any division of Jerusalem. Most notably, Yesh Atid's leader, Yair Lapid, has made clear he wants to join a coalition with Likud, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Even if centrist parties like Yesh Atid are lumped together with leftist ones, they constitute a minority of fewer than 50 seats; the balance goes to the Arab parties.

New priorities: With Israelis deeply pessimistic about the chances for imminent peace, a significant number of voters went for parties that made socioeconomic issues, not security, the centerpiece of their campaigns. Yesh Atid ran a campaign about social and economic issues, and Labor leader Shelly Yachimovich, who led the party to 15 seats, up from eight in the last Knesset, virtually ignored security issues in her campaign. This represents a sea change from the old days, when campaigns were all about security. Tzipi Livni's Hatnua bucked that trend, emphasizing peace with the Palestinians. The result: six seats.

New faces: The 19th Knesset will see a plethora of new members, with more than a quarter of the parliament occupied by first-timers, most of them from Jewish Home and Yesh Atid. Jewish Home is led by a son of American immigrants to Israel, businessman-turned-politician Naftali Bennett, and Yesh Atid is guided by Lapid, a former TV personality and the son of the late politician Yosef "Tommy" Lapid.

Women: The new Knesset will have more women; Yesh Atid leads the way with eight female representatives. The Likud-Beiteinu list has seven, Labor has four, Meretz has three and Jewish Home has two. Hatnua and Hadash each has one. Among the newcomers will be the body’s first Ethiopian-Israeli woman, Penina Tamnu-Shata of Yesh Atid, an attorney who immigrated to Israel at age 3 during Operation Moses.

The end of Kadima: Twice in its short history, the Kadima leader occupied the prime minister’s office. But in just one election cycle, the party went from Israel’s largest faction to just two seats. Various factors doomed Kadima: the rise of Yesh Atid, whose socioeconomic-focused platform and charismatic leader peeled away centrist voters; Livni’s failure to gain adherents for Kadima and subsequent defection to her new party, Hatnua; and Shaul Mofaz’s decision to join, albeit briefly, the Likud-led ruling coalition. It’s not the end of centrist politics in Israel, but it appears to be nearly the end of the road for the party started by Ariel Sharon as a breakaway from Likud.

Bibi weakened: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s supporters used to herald him as Bibi, King of Israel. So did Time magazine just a few months ago. But with the combined Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu list falling by a quarter after what was widely panned as a lackluster campaign, it’s difficult to make the case that Netanyahu’s star is burning brighter. He’s almost sure to capture the premiership again -- now comes the horse trading that is Israeli coalition building -- but it seems it will be more for lack of an alternative than enthusiasm for Netanyahu.

Hello, Naftali Bennett: If there was any enthusiasm on the right wing this time, it appeared to be for Naftali Bennett, leader of the newly constituted Jewish Home party (itself a successor to the National Religious Party). The party captured 11 seats, up from just three as the NRP in the last Knesset. Bennett, who supports annexation of parts of the West Bank, is likely to apply pressure on Netanyahu to shift further right on security issues.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Film follows ‘Hava Nagila’ from shtetl to staple

Film follows ‘Hava Nagila’ from shtetl to staple
New documentary explores Hasidic song’s unlikely journey from pogrom-plagued Ukraine to Bob Dylan concerts and Olympic gymnastics routines

NEW YORK (JTA) — You’re at a wedding or bar mitzvah when you hear it — the opening notes of a familiar tune that irresistibly carries you and other guests to the dance floor for the rousing dance circle ritual.
Does “Hava Nagila” work this kind of magic because it was handed down at Sinai and thus encoded in the Jewish DNA? Or is it a tale from the European shtetl, albeit with a timeless message and an irrepressible melody?

It is these questions that Roberta Grossman addresses in her new film, “Hava Nagila (The Movie),” which will screen Tuesday at the New York Jewish Film Festival before hitting US theaters in March. The film, three years in the making, explores the phenomenon behind the iconic folk song and seeks to explain why the melody has been so beloved over the years. “When I first started doing research for the film, people thought I was crazy, and I was worried I wouldn’t find anything substantial enough,” said Grossman. “But what I really found was that this song is a porthole into 200 years of Judaism’s culture and spirituality.”

Grossman’s inspiration for the film came from memories of dancing to the song at family affairs. A product of what she calls a “religiously assimilated but culturally affiliated” background, Grossman said twirling with family members while “Hava Nagila” blared in the background was a tribal moment with spiritual resonance. Part of a generation raised on the 1971 film adaption of “Fiddler on the Roof,” she knew the song cold, but understood little about its origins. Turns out, it doesn’t go back nearly as far as Sinai. The song was first sung as a Hasidic niggun, or wordless melody, in the court of the the Ruzhiner rebbe, Israel Friedman, who lived in the Ukrainian town of Sadagora in the 18th century.

California filmmaker Roberta Grossman spent three years researching the song’s history. (Courtesy of “Have Nagila The Movie” via JTA)

A Jewish shtetl in the Pale of Settlement, Sadagora often was subjected to pogroms, and Hasidic leaders encouraged music as a way to combat the tragedies of everyday life. When a wave of European immigrants moved to Israel in the early 1900s, they took their niggun with them, where it later became representative of Zionist culture.

In 1915, the prominent musicologist Abraham Zevi Idelsohn adapted the song with Hebrew lyrics. Three years later he unveiled his new variation at a Jerusalem concert. “Hava Nagila,” literally “let us rejoice,” went on to hit its peak popularity in the 1950s and ’60s, and became a favorite pop tune for American Jews.

“It’s unclear if Idelsohn really knew the extent of how far his song would go, but after that concert celebrating the British victory in Palestine, the streets of Jerusalem erupted, and the song took off,” said Mark Kligman, a professor of Jewish musicology at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.
“Israel was a vacuum at that point, with immigrants from all over who had very little in common. They were dealing with their identity, and the need for music, and this song unified them,” he said. The film notes how popular ‘Hava Nagila’ became with non-Jewish musicians such as Lena Horne, Connie Francis and Celia Cruz.

Decades later, the same is true. The song is widely covered — Bob Dylan, Ben Folds and Regina Spektor have performed it. Last summer it was the soundtrack for US Olympian Ally Raisman’s gold-medal-winning performance in the floor exercise at the London Games. And though the Wall Street Journal noted recently that some see it as cliche and avoid having it played it at their affairs — Grossman refers to these folks as “Hava haters” — it may be the most popular Jewish song on the planet.

In the film, which includes a hora dancing tutorial, Grossman journeys to Sadagora and other obscure places where the song hit. The film notes how popular “Hava Nagila” became with non-Jewish music lovers, and features musicians such as Lena Horne, the Cuban-American salsa performer Celia Cruz and the pop singer Connie Francis. Grossman skillfully portrays “Hava Nagila” as a symbol of American Jewish identity, and postulates that future generations will continue to see the song as iconic — with or without the eye rolls. Through the film, she seeks to give the song some depth beyond the overplayed ditty at bar mitzvahs. Viewers must decide if the song can still be redeemed.

“I believe that ‘Hava’ has actually accrued a great deal of meaning and depth on its long journey from Ukraine to YouTube,” Grossman said. ” ‘Hava’ ‘s journey is our journey. By understanding where ‘Hava’ has come from, we understand where we have come from and more.”

Monday, January 14, 2013

Who would Maimonides vote for?

Who would Maimonides vote for?

Your cut-out-and-keep guide (okay, your bookmark and reopen guide) to the runners and riders (sorry, parties and politicians) who’ll be running our lives

“We are running a real democratic state, a real democratic parliament, and the system works,” Knesset Speaker and Likud MK Reuven Rivlin told foreign reporters in the Knesset this week. “Unfortunately, from time to time we have a lot of problems dealing with the idea of democracy.”

Rivlin was referring specifically to the complex interface between the Knesset and the Israeli Supreme Court, but his caveat about Israeli democracy might equally have applied to our electoral system, which will be gallumphing to center stage on January 22. We labor under an unreformed process of pure national proportional representation, in which every Tomer, Dikla and Rabbi Haim is capable of convincing him or herself they have a chance of entering parliament… and quite a few of them are right. Result in 2013: Thirty-plus parties competing for votes, and as many as a dozen of them likely to enter the Knesset. For the voter, it presents a dilemma fit for a Solomon, or a Maimonides (of whom more later).

On February 5, two weeks after we vote, the new cohort of 120 lawmakers will be sworn in at a festive event in the Knesset. By then, President Shimon Peres will have spoken with the leaders of each party that did make it into the Knesset, hearing their recommendations regarding which party leader should be charged with the task of building the new governing coalition. That’s when the hard bargaining over coalition agreements begins.

Which parties are likely to get their legislators into the Knesset? Who’ll fall by the wayside? Here is an overview, in order of projected strength. (Spoiler alert: Kadima doesn’t make it.)
Likud-Yisrael Beytenu

Led by Benjamin Netanyahu (Likud) and Avigdor Liberman (Yisrael Beytenu)
Hebrew ballot sign: מחל
Seats in 18th Knesset: 27 (Likud) + 15 (Yisrael Beytenu) = 42
Projected seats in 19th Knesset: 34-35

Despite polls indicating that the center-right Likud — which headed a relatively stable government for four years — was cruising to an easy reelection, party chair and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided in September to join forces with former foreign minister Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu party, which derives much of its support from the Russian immigrant population. There has been much debate about what led the two former rivals to unite, but there can be little doubt that both are disappointed with the poll results heading into election day. US political strategist Arthur Finkelstein, who advises the campaign, promised 45 mandates for the united list. But then again, Finkelstein also predicted Mitt Romney would be the next American president.

Still, the disappointing poll results — 34 for the alliance in The Times of Israel’s poll a few days ago — do not change the fact that Likud-Beytenu will most likely become the Knesset’s largest faction, all but guaranteeing that Peres will ask Netanyahu to build Israel’s 33rd government. In this role, Netanyahu will have several key decisions to make: Should he hold vacant a senior ministerial portfolio for Liberman, who was indicted for fraud and breach of trust last month and might either be banned from public office for years or free to reenter politics in weeks? Should he opt for a rightist coalition with the settlers and the ultra-Orthodox? Or is it preferable to give the government a more moderate look by getting one or two centrist parties aboard?

Analysts say Netanyahu is keen on the second option, because he wants to marginalize his former chief-of-staff Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home, the Likud’s competitor on the right, and because his own party took a sharp right-wing turn, ousting veteran relative moderates such as Dan Meridor and Michael Eitan (along with Benny Begin) from the party list and replacing them with nationalist hardliners. Indeed, for the first time, Moshe Feiglin gained a realistic spot, and while it is unlikely that Feiglin will be given a cabinet post, his controversial views — which include the desire to build a Third Temple and to offer Palestinians half a million dollars per family to emigrate – have raised eyebrows.

After establishing a government, the prime minister will have three major issues on his agenda: First of all, he needs to pass a budget. If he fails, the law calls for new elections. Next, a new law regulating the military draft must be passed, as the Supreme Court struck down the previous arrangement, which let Haredim evade service. But most of the prime minister’s attention may be devoted to the Iran threat. Netanyahu warned late last year that “by next spring, at most by next summer,” the regime in Tehran would move to the final stage of its plan to build a nuclear weapon, which Israel is determined to prevent.

A worker on Tuesday prepares ballot boxes for the January 22 elections at a warehouse in Shoham, near Tel Aviv, before they are shipped to polling stations. (photo credit: Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

The Palestinian issue will most likely take a backseat — unless facts on the ground dictate otherwise. While nominally pursuing a two-state solution, Netanyahu is not keen on restarting a diplomatic effort to reach a final-status agreement with the current Palestinian leadership. Some Likud MKs have pledged to again submit legislation that would advance a slow process of de-facto annexation of the West Bank, efforts that Netanyahu had to quell in the previous Knesset. Whether he will be able to spare Israel the embarrassment of such a law advancing in the coming term will depend on the composition of his coalition.

Led by Shelly Yachimovich
Hebrew ballot sign: אמת
Seats in 18th Knesset: 8 (13 before Ehud Barak and four others split to form the Atzmaut — Independence — faction, which is not running)
Projected seats in 19th Knesset: 17-21

Under Yachimovich, Labor has made the firm decision to focus on what’s happening within Israel and not on where its borders should be drawn and what lies across them. In other words, the party that governed Israel for its first three decades no longer places the peace process with the Palestinians at the core of its platform. Rather, the stress is on socioeconomic issues.

A former journalist, Yachimovich is viewed as stronger and more credible on issues of housing, education and health than on security issues; her Knesset slate also features Stav Shaffir and Itzik Shmuli, two leaders of the 2011 social protest movement. Besides former defense minister Binyamin (Fuad) Ben-Eliezer and Omer Bar-Lev, the former commander of the army’s Sayeret Matkal elite unite, the party line-up lacks a recognizable personality from the security establishment who would lend it more clout and gravitas in this area.

Labor has largely recovered from the stormy days caused by Barak’s departure, though polls suggest not sufficiently to threaten Netanyahu. Still, after many months of refusing to rule out joining a Netanyahu-led coalition, Yachimovich announced recently that there are only two options: “Either the Labor Party under my leadership forms the government, or we will lead the opposition.”

According to the recent Times of Israel poll, 46 percent of likely voters have a positive view of Yachimovich (even though she reveals in a current television ad that she labels each Tupperware container in her freezer to help her remember what’s inside). In other words, if everyone who liked her voted for her, Labor would gain 55 seats. Thing is, a similar 46% also like Netanyahu. According to public opinion research analyst Stephan Miller, “as Yachimovich attacks the prime minister and announces her refusal to sit in a government with him, she is therefore essentially focusing her campaign on a [much smaller] target group, the 24% of voters (29 seats in Knesset) who like her but dislike the prime minister.”
Jewish Home (and National Union)

Led by Naftali Bennett
Hebrew ballot sign: טב
Seats in 18th Knesset: 3 (Jewish Home) +4 (National Union) = 7
Projected seats in 19th Knesset: 14-16

This list, built on a merger of the former National Religious Party and the “moderate” faction of the far-right National Union (everything’s relative), is the big winner of the campaign so far. Before political greenhorn Bennett — a former member of an elite army unit and a high-tech millionaire — beat out two veteran lawmakers for the chairmanship two months ago, no would have believed this party would get more than eight seats – and those were the optimistic forecasts. Now it looks like Jeremy Gimpel, placed 14th on the party’s Knesset list, has a very good shot at becoming the first US-born MK since Meir Kahane.

The new hero of the settlement movement, though he lives in Ra’anana, Bennett did two things that turned him into a rising star. He modernized the Knesset list, shaking off the NRP’s old sectarianism by bringing in the likes of Ayelet Shaked, a secular woman from Tel Aviv. And he said in an interview that he would rather go to jail then follow an IDF order to evacuate Jewish settlers in the West Bank. A national outcry ensued, and while Bennett later partially retracted (saying he was speaking in a personal capacity rather than adovocating mass refusal, but still maintaining that the “black flag” of illegality would apply to any such order), Netanyahu thought he could thwart Bennett’s rise in popularity by attacking him for the ostensible endorsement of insubordination. It didn’t work. After Netanyahu said that whoever refuses IDF orders has no place in his government, Jewish Home’s fortunes in the polls continued to rise.

Evidently, potential voters were not deterred by the stance of the man who previously served as Netanyahu’s chief of staff and head of the settlers’ Yesha Council, or by his vision for the West Bank. His so-called Stability Plan calls for Israel to annex Area C, the approximately 60% of the West Bank territory that is home to an estimated 4% of the Palestinian populace — an “imperfect plan” (according to Bennett himself), but evidently attractive to many Israelis.
Yesh Atid

Led by Yair Lapid
Seats in 18th Knesset: 0
Projected seats in 19th Knesset: 10-11
Hebrew ballot sign: פה

“We have come to change” — that’s the slogan of this centrist party, which promises to do away with the “old politics” of sectorial interests and instead serve all Israelis. To achieve that goal, former journalist Yair Lapid — the son of the late justice minister and staunch secularist Yosef (Tommy) Lapid — assembled a team of wannabe politicians from many parts of Israeli society. Yesh Atid is also the only party that doesn’t field a single MK, past or present.

Rabbi Shai Piron (photo credit: Nissim Lev)

Yesh Atid (like Labor) focuses on socioeconomic issues, and one of Lapid’s main criticisms is that too much government money goes to ultra-Orthodox yeshivas. His list includes, at number 17, US-born “modern Haredi” rabbi Dov Lipman, who made a name for himself fighting Haredi extremists in Beit Shemesh. Meanwhile, bizarrely, the No. 2 man on Lapid’s list, national-religious educator Rabbi Shai Piron, raised eyebrows a few days ago when he said that Bennett’s Jewish Home was a “good and worthy” party and that he would vote for it… if it wasn’t for the fact that he is running on the Yesh Atid ticket.

Led by Eli Yishai, Aryeh Deri and Ariel Attias
Hebrew ballot sign: שס
Seats in 18th Knesset: 11
Projected seats in 19th Knesset: 10-11 seats.

All important decisions in this ultra-Orthodox party are still being suggested to made by 93-year-old former chief rabbi Ovadia Yosef, one of the most revered Torah scholars of this generation. In the Knesset, his faction will be jointly headed (in theory) by the dull but dependable Eli Yishai, who as interior minister made headlines mostly with his fight against African migrants, the returned political wunderkind and ex-convict Aryeh Deri, who says he’ll fight for the country’s old and poor (and intriguingly featured his mother in a campaign ad), and Housing and Construction Minister Ariel Atias. But Deri is the real star, and a dominant figure in the party’s campaign ads.

Currently, the “Union of Torah-Observant Sephardim,” as the party is named officially, is taking flak for a racist television ad. The controversial spot depicts a “good Jew” under the wedding canopy who reacts with disgust when he finds out that his bride-to-be, a blond Russian-speaking bombshell, was not born Jewish but is joining the tribe via an ostensibly much-too-lenient Yisrael Beytenu-sponsored conversion system. It’s ironic, critics pointed out, that a party that was founded to battle ethnic discrimination is now putting down other ethnic minorities. Condemnations of the ad poured in immediately, and the party agreed to pull it. All very predictable, and all unlikely to harm Shas at the polls.

Led by Tzipi Livni
Hebrew ballot sign: צפ
Seats in 18th Knesset: 0
Projected seats in 19th Knesset: 5-9

Hatnua means “the movement” in Hebrew, but after too many scatological jokes, her spokesman decided the party should be referred to as “The Tzipi Livni Party” — a request universally ignored. Livni was once a fast-rising Likud minister, then she joined Kadima, served as former prime minister Ehud Olmert’s foreign minister, succeeded him as party leader, failed to defeat Netanyahu in 2009, lost the Kadima leadership early last year, and quit politics — only to return with this new party.

Some analysts believe Livni will quit politics again after the elections, if she doesn’t achieve her electoral goals, dooming Hatnua; sorry, The Tzipi Livni Party. But obviously others have more faith in her staying power: She was able to co-opt two former Labor heads, Amram Mitzna and Amir Peretz, who were frustrated that their former political home no longer seeks to focus on the peace process. (She also managed to get seven Kadima MKs to join her, with the vital campaign funding they brought with them.) Livni also incorporated the Green Movement, which in 2009 almost made it into the Knesset. The faction is headed by American-born Alon Tal; placed 13th on Hatnua’s list, though he has little chance of becoming an MK.

A recent Times of Israel poll predicts particularly poor election results for Livni. Likely voters overall view her more negatively than positively. And almost half of those who actually like her believe that socioeconomic issues are the most important ones, not Livni’s central campaign topic, the conflict with the Palestinians.
United Torah Judaism

Led by Yaakov Litzman
Hebrew ballot sign: ג
Seats in 18th Knesset: 5
Projected seats in 19th Knesset: 5-6

This ultra-Orthodox faction comprises two parties: the Hasidic Agudat Yisrael and the non-Hasidic (so-called Lithuanian) Degel Hatorah. Litzman, who was born in Germany and grew up in the US before becoming Israel’s most powerful Haredi politician, is a follower of the Gerer Rebbe. He currently serves as deputy health minister because, formally, his party does not want to be part of a godless Zionist government ruling the Holy Land. Issues of importance to his faction are mostly related to retaining the status quo regarding the Haredi place in society, such as fighting any proposal to draft yeshiva students.

The Haredi world also frowns on frivolous use of the Internet, which is why UTJ does not have an official website. It did, however, film a television ad, which, because very few of the party’s usual constituents will see it, focuses on topics of importance to everyone. For instance, the clip claims UTJ is the only party that “really fights for senior citizens in a country that has lost it values.” Surprisingly, the political message is followed by a catchy pop jingle promoting “[United] Torah Judaism, because we’re allharedim [devout] for the future of society.” Needless to say, this is sung by an all-male group.

Led by Zahava Gal-On
Hebrew ballot sign: מרצ
Seats in 18th Knesset: 3
Projected seats in 19th Knesset: 4-6

Meretz is the Knesset’s only Zionist left-wing party, advocating the immediate implementation of a two-state solution based on the Arab Peace Initiative. A recent poll published by the Israel Democracy Institute and Tel Aviv University found 100% support among Meretz voters for a peace treaty based on the principle of two states for two peoples. To compare, 88 percent of Hatnua and 80 percent of Labor voters support a two-state solution based on these terms.

Meretz supporters wear masks depicting Shelly Yachimovich, Tzipi Livni and Yair Lapid, protesting their alleged willingness to join a Netanyahu government, December 17, 2012. (photo credit: Roni Schutzer/Flash90)

Founded in 1992 as an alliance of left-wing parties Mapam, Ratz and Shinui, Meretz has also long fought for a stricter separation of church and state, advocating public transportation on Shabbat and the granting of equal legal status to all streams of Judaism. Neither peace nor religious pluralism are topics of particular importance to most Israeli voters these days, so a fair showing is expected, but nothing to compare with the glory days when Meretz had a dozen MKs.

Led by Mohammad Barakeh
Hebrew ballot sign: ו
Seats in 18th Knesset: 4
Projected seats in 19th Knesset: 4

Hadash — an acronym for Democratic Front for Peace and Equality — is an Arab-Israeli non-Zionist party hoping to rebuild “an effective, radical left within Israeli society.”

The biggest faction making up this list is Maki, Israel’s Communist party, yet Hadash’s parliamentary work doesn’t focus on disseminating the teachings of Lenin and Marx. Rather, it engages heavily in environmental and societal matters. For instance, MK Dov Khenin, No. 3 on the list, is credited with the law that extended maternity leave to 14 weeks. The party calls for a total Israeli withdrawal from territories gained in 1967, full civil equality of Arabs and Jews, women’s and workers’ rights and economic reforms. Hadash wants to set minimum wages at 60 percent of the average wage and raise benefits for families with children by 40 percent.

Led by Ibrahim Sarsur
Hebrew ballot sign: עם
Seats in 18th Knesset: 4
Projected seats in 19th Knesset: 4

No Arab party has participated in any of the 32 governments that have ruled this country since 1949, and that is not going to change in 2013. This faction is probably best known for the often controversial statements and actions of Deputy Knesset Speaker Ahmad Tibi. A physician by profession, Tibi was an adviser to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and has been an MK since 1999. According to its platform, the party fights for full equality of Israel’s Arab minority as well as the establishment of a Palestinian state, including a “right of return” for Palestinian refugees.

Led by Jamal Zahalka
Hebrew ballot sign: ד
Seats in 18th Knesset: 3
Projected seats in 19th Knesset: 3-4

Founded in 1996, Balad (an acronym for National Democratic Assembly) is another Arab-Israeli party that will never make it into the government. Its founder Azmi Bishara adopted the cry for “a state of all its citizens” — calling for equal rights for Jews and Arabs; some of the party’s MKs are known for more antagonistic attitudes.

Hanin Zoabi (center) and Jamal Zahalka (left) at the High Court of Justice (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Bishara himself now lives in Qatar, having fled Israel under suspicion of helping the Hezbollah terror group in Lebanon. And Hanin Zoabi, in 2010, sailed aboard the Mavi Marmara, the flagship vessel of the flotilla that tried to break Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip. Right-wing MKs got the Central Elections Committee to ban her from running this time, but the High Court of Justice overturned the decision, to the applause of Israeli legal experts, who argued a strong democracy must tolerate even extremist views.
Parties that are fighting for their survival

In Israel’s still unreformed electoral system, MKs are elected by pure proportional representation. If a party gets, say, half the votes nationwide, it wins half the 120 seats in parliament (though no party has ever managed that). There is no constituency accountability for MKs, who are chosen by the parties by various more and less democratic means. A party needs to gain 2 percent of the national vote to clear the threshhold and gain representation in parliament.

The following three parties are hoping to clear that threshold — two are split-offs from larger lists and one, amazingly, was the outgoing Knesset’s biggest party. Our recent poll suggested none of them will make it. Another 20 or so parties are also running. We’ll tell you more about them after January 22… if they defy all conventional wisdom and win seats.
Am Shalem

Led by Haim Amsalem
Hebrew ballot sign: ץ
Seats in 18th Knesset: 0 (Amsalem was a Shas MK, who parted ways with the party)
Projected seats in 19th Knesset: 0-2

Maimonides (photo credit: Wikimedia commons)

Created by Rabbi Haim Amsalem, the (almost) eponymous party presents itself as the enlightened, modern version of Shas. Born in 1959 in the Mediterranean port of Oran, Algeria, Amsalem moved to France as a child and served two years as the chief Sephardic rabbi in Geneva, Switzerland, before immigrating to Israel. After a falling out with the party due to his unorthodox views, especially regarding the ultra-Orthodox’s need to enter the military and workforce, he left Shas, claiming its leaders had “betrayed their voters.”

Shas “once had a reason to exist, but failed. It was created first of all to fight discrimination. It did a thousand other things, but not that,” he told The Times of Israel recently. Amsalem is the only recognizable name on his party’s list, which is “the vote of the brave,” according to its campaign slogan. This is topped by the hard-to-verify (or disprove) claim, made in Amsalem’s TV ad, that the medieval scholar Maimonides would vote Am Shalem if he were alive today.
Otzma Leyisrael

Led by Arye Eldad and Michael Ben Ari
Hebrew ballot sign: נץ
Seats in 18th Knesset: 0 (both men served as MKs, with the National Union)
Projected seats in 19th Knesset: 0-2 seats

After Jewish Home formed an alliance with the Tekuma party (which belonged to the National Union), two politicians from the faction’s more hawkish flanks split off to form this new party: the secular Arye Eldad, of Hatikva, and the skullcap-wearing Michael Ben Ari, of Eretz Yisrael Shelanu. They are joined by other far-right politicians, including the US-born Baruch Marzel, the list’s No. 3.

Some Jewish Home supporters encourage those right-wing activists for whom Jewish Home is deemed too moderate to support Otzma Leyisrael for strategic reasons: If Otzma Leyisrael enters the Knesset, some of Bennett’s supporters argue, it would make Jewish Home appear less extreme and thus render it more likely to get a Netanyahu coalition invite.

Sheets of newly printed ballots at a printing house in Jerusalem Thursday. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/ Flash90)

Led by Shaul Mofaz
Hebrew ballot sign: כן
Seats in 18th Knesset: 28
Projected seats in the 19th Knesset: 0-2

Founded by Ariel Sharon in 2005, Kadima will most likely not live to see its 10th birthday. Only three out of 803 respondents, or 0.4 percent, in the recent Times of Israel survey said they would vote for the party, the largest in the outgoing Knesset.

Data from that survey shows how the list’s 28 seats are divided — with a vast 41 percent of former Kadima voters undecided as of a few days ago, and looking for a new party to support. Some 20 percent are switching to Labor, 13 percent to Yesh Atid, and about 10 percent each to Hatnua and Likud-Beytenu.

Kadima’s ads feature an array of local politicians vowing they’ll vote Kadima, plus former prime minister Olmert saying there is no worthier politician than its leader Shaul Mofaz. Presumably Olmert does believe one politician is more worthy and, some pundits say, would rather like Kadima to still be around if and when he is clear of his legal troubles and ready to make a political comeback — if not in the 19th Knesset, then maybe in the 20th.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The Negev offers something for everyone

The Negev offers something for everyone.

Not just a dusty desert, the Negev offers something for nature-lovers, eco-tourists, archeology buffs, spa vacationers and even wine connoisseurs.

 Photo by Michel Arad.

Looking for a new place to explore next year? The Lonely Planet recommends Israel’s Negev Desert as the No. 2 tourism destination for 2013. And Conde Nast Traveler named Beresheet resort in the Negev city of Mitzpeh Ramon as one of the world’s best new hotels.

“For decades the Negev was regarded as nothing but a desolate desert. But today, this region is a giant greenhouse of development. Think eco-villages, spa resorts and even wineries. In the next few years a new international airport at Timna is scheduled to open, followed by a high-speed railway to Eilat and more hotels,” the Lonely Planet explained.

The Red Sea resort city of Eilat is the best-known tourist site in the Negev, with its luxury beach hotels, coral reef, snorkeling and diving, and many other attractions.

About 15 miles north of Eilat in Timna National Park, you can tour the world’s oldest copper mines, take a paddleboat out on a manmade lake and enjoy magnificent desert scenery. Between Timna and Eilat is the Hai-Bar Yotvata Nature Reserve, which specializes in breeding animals mentioned in the Bible and other endangered desert species.
Jeep trips through the Negev are a great way to see the sights. Photo by Michel Arad.

But there’s much more to the Negev than these two southernmost gems. In a later article, we’ll explore Beersheva, the unofficial capital of the Negev at its northern border.

For now, let’s take a look at Ramat Negev, a region spanning the central third of the Negev — more than a million acres, equaling one-fifth of the territory of the state of Israel. It’s bordered on the north by Yeruham and on the south by Mitzpeh Ramon.

Mitzpeh Ramon

The new Beresheet Hotel sits on the edge of the Ramon crater (“machtesh” in Hebrew), the biggest natural crater on Earth. At 28 miles long and five miles wide, the machtesh is the focal point of the city of Mitzpeh Ramon, which means “Ramon Overlook.”

Guided walking, biking, camel and open-jeep tours will take you into the vast crater, but first learn all about it at the Mitzpeh Ramon Observatory. Backpackers can rent gear and spend the night in the crater; the Green Backpackers hostel expressly caters to their needs.
The new luxury Beresheet Hotel at Mitzpeh Ramon. Photo by Assaf Pinchuk

Other accommodations at or near the machtesh include the Silent Arrow Desert Lodge, the Adama Dance Company and Inn, the Israel Youth Hostel Association’s 47-room guest house and Succah in the Desert.

While in Mitzpeh Ramon, check out the five-year-old Rajum winery, on the Tzel HaMidbar Ranch, and the Alpaca Farm with 400 South American llamas and alpacas.

Ramat Negev

According to Raz Arbel, head of the Ramat Negev Regional Council’s tourism department, most of the area is comprised of little agricultural villages and kibbutzim – all worth a visit.

“It is interesting for tourists to meet the pioneers with creative minds who built businesses here and are eager to show visitors what they have done,” Arbel tells ISRAEL21c.
Nabatean Spice Route in Avdat.

He recommends spending two days in Ramat Negev, a 90-minute drive from Jerusalem or Tel Aviv.
“Start in the Nitzana area, the forest settlements on the border of Egypt, with a lot of history from 2,300 years ago.” You can rent a bike at the Nitzana Community Center, and arrange for an informal English-speaking tour.

Nitzana, whose claim to fame is 700 acres of sweet cherry tomatoes irrigated by brackish water, includes five villages. Ezuz is the largest, with a Solar Energy Park, recycling museum, archeological sites, café and several bed-and-breakfasts including the eco-lodge Zimmerbus, created from old vehicles. Nearby is the Be’erotayim Khan (desert inn), offering Bedouin accommodations and camel tours.

Kadesh Barnea, established in 1979, boasts a winery and bee house.

The winery, opened in 1999, produces 100,000 bottles a year using Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Shiraz, Cabernet Franc, Mourvedre, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay grapes. Arbel says people laughed at the founder when he announced his plan to grow vines in the sand, but he was successful.

People also initially scoffed at the Ukrainian immigrant who started Negev Nectars, where visitors can watch the activity in the hives through a glass enclosure. True, there aren’t many wildflowers in the desert, but he started his apiary with a hive he found in a tree. Negev Nectars produces eucalyptus, desert flower and acacia varieties.
Hiding Bedouin Village.

Be’er Milka, the newest village in Nitzana, was established five years ago by pomegranate and herb farmers. One of the farms, Shirat Hamidbar(Song of the Desert), provides a full explanatory tour of its medicinal herbs and plants.

Going east from Nitzana along Road 211 is Shivta National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that began as a caravan stop on the ancient Nabatean Spice Route. It’s open free, all year long.

Hot springs in the desert

Due north of Shivta is Revivim, founded in 1943. The 12 originators of Kibbutz Revivim grew such lovely gladiolas and cucumbers that a visiting UN committee in 1947 came away convinced that the Negev should be part of the nascent Jewish state. Today the kibbutz has the biggest dairy and olive orchards in the region; a topiary garden; Hai Negev desert animal reserve; and a mud-brick khan for overnight guests.

Within the Revivim area is Neve Midbar, which houses a water park and hot springs spa. Accommodations at the nearby Negev Junction include the Desert Ship (Sfinat Hamidbar) Bedouin guest house and the Mashabim Holiday Village.

Going southeast, you’ll come across Sde Boker (“Morning Field”), best known as the retirement home of Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion. You can tour his house, library and gravesite. Next door, Midreshet Ben-Gurion boasts a lively pub, the Spice Road art gallery, and a bike shop offering an English map of off-road cycling trails in the area.
Naot Goat Farm.

Sde Boker is also the home of the Ramat Hanegev Birding Center and the Sde Boker Winery, opened by a native Californian in 1999. The winery has a new visitors’ center and its own vineyards full of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, Carignan and Zinfandel grapes.

Near Sde Boker is a family farm growing Moroccan argan nuts for their highly prized oil. It has a B&B, as do all the other farms in the Sde Boker area, says Arbel.
Neve Midbar water park.

South of Sde Boker is Ein Avdat, a stream surrounded by hiking trails, springs, groves and wildlife. Avdat National Park, contains reconstructions from an ancient Nabatean city on the Spice Route, also a UNESCO World Heritage site. Carmey Avdat, a family farm that uses 1,500-year-old terraces to water its vineyards, has guest cabins and a gallery promoting local artists.

Taking Road 40 south toward Mitzpeh Ramon, you’ll find farms, art galleries and small wineries open to visitors. Arbel recommends Naot Goat Farm with its meat restaurant and store selling local goat cheese, honey, wine and olive oil.

About four miles north of Mitzpeh Ramon is Hiding Bedouin Village, where 30 families have created an ecological tourist village. Arbel says that the proprietor, Salman Sadan, speaks fluent English and offers tours, tea and traditional Bedouin hospitality.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Israel’s New Two-Party System: A Force for Extremism

Israel’s New Two-Party System: A Force for Extremism

By Donniel Hartman

A new feature has emerged in Israeli politics this election season: the evolution of our political culture into a de facto two-party system similar to the Republican and Democrat divide in the U.S., referred to here as the Right and the Center-Left. There are indeed two sectorial groups outside this divide - Haredim and Arabs. However, the former will join either of the two "parties," depending on which is willing to greater serve the interests of its sector, while the latter always remains in the opposition.

It is true that these two parties are subdivided into multiple, mini-parties. However, the fact that the two major parties on the Right have amalgamated, and the third is running on the platform of being their coalition partner, while on the Left, politicians are jumping from sub-party to sub-party, avoiding a formal unification primarily because of ego, are all evidence of the fact that the old, multiple party system is dead.

Voters and politicians are no longer loyal or bound to a sub-party but to the larger party bloc and shift their affiliations very freely within this bloc without feeling any remorse or nostalgia. The sub-party is but a means and a platform to serve them without any ability to generate sustained loyalty. Thus for example, Amir Peretz can wake up in the morning as one of the leaders of the Labor Party and go to sleep at night as one of the leaders of Hatnuah, itself formed by Tzipi Livni, the former leader of the Kadima Party. Those who see all of this as opportunism fail to realize the profound shift within Israeli political culture from the multiparty to the two-party system.

Similarly, the dramatic growth in popularity of the heretofore religious Zionist sectorial party, the Bayit Hayehudi, with the support of secular former Likud loyalists, the significant infiltration into the Likud list of individuals and ideologues who are using the Likud base to mainstream positions which in the past were the domain of the extreme Right, and on the Left, with the disintegration of the popular base of Kadima, the largest party in the last Knesset, and their redistribution within the Center-Left "Party," are again evidence of the fact that the electorate is thinking within the context of a two-party model, with the sub-parties being merely the vehicle du jour to best represent their core commitments.

While this emergence of a two-party system generates greater clarity for the electorate and promises stability for the government, the fact that, as distinct from the United States it is based on sub-party components, creates a foundation for a particularly toxic and destructive phenomenon. Because most voters are already clearly aligned within one of the two blocs, the primary campaigns of the sub-parties are not against those within the other bloc but within their own. This reality generates a move to unnecessary radicalism, as each attempts to brand itself as unique.

In the current election season, the right-wing party, which will win the next election, is plagued by a competition amongst its sub-parties as to who is more "pro-settlement," more "anti-Abbas," and more vociferous in protecting and caring for the "Jewish Israel."

In the past, the conventional wisdom was that you could only win an election in Israel from the center. While Binyamin Netanyahu, from the perspective of those on the Left, is clearly on the Right, the cornerstone of his political success was his laying hold to the position of the Center-Right. His embrace of Benny Begin, with his steadfast commitment to democracy and liberalism, and Dan Meridor, a longstanding supporter of both of these values, as well as moderation in foreign policy, together with his 2009 Bar-Ilan University speech and ongoing vetoes of most of the anti-democratic legislation put forward by the Knesset, all served to make Netanyahu both electable and acceptable to a broad spectrum of Israelis on both sides of the political divide.

In this election, however, not only is Netanyahu going into the electoral battle without the above allies, but more and more of his party members believe that the most effective way to combat the Bayit Hayehudi is to outflank it on the right. In this context, the Bar-Ilan speech accepting a two-state solution in theory is now a liability, and spokespersons for the heretofore Center-Right Likud allow themselves to vocalize a nationalistic, xenophobic, and at times even anti-democratic rhetoric that in the past never would even have been considered.

One of the lessons of the last US election is that you cannot win the country from either extreme, and the Republican Party, if it wants to return to power, will have to look carefully at the consequences of a platform that represents the radical right within their party. The advantage that the Republican Party has is that it lost the election. There is nothing like the harsh reality of failure as a force to generate reevaluation and refocus.

In the Israeli dual-party, sub-party system, however, such a corrective does not exist. The right-wing party will win on the basis of a center-right majority within Israel. However, this center-right will be governed by individuals and platforms which represent extreme sub-party ideologies.

There are some who find comfort in the belief that election rhetoric does not represent day- after Election Day policies. This is the case only when there are moderating forces at the table. In our frenzy to win the sub-party battles, however, we have stacked the deck against moderation, and I am fearful that we lack the internal forces to heal ourselves.

As we move toward the end of the election season it is critical that Center-Right voices emerge with moral and ideological clarity, compelled by a vision of what will be good for the country, regardless of its significance in the sub-party conflict. It will be a mistake if these voices remain silent, waiting to emerge in the safety of the day after the elections. A culture, rhetoric, and public discourse about policy are taking root in these elections which will not be easily uprooted in the future. As our rabbis teach us, if not now, when? Every day that this discourse is allowed to rule dramatically changes not the outcome of this election but the future of Israeli society.

Finally, sub-parties on the Center-Left must enter into the fray, not as voices in the opposition but as unabashed coalition partner aspirants. The cynics will say that in doing so they are expressing a void of values and a commitment to power over ideology. Nothing could be further from the truth. Politics is about using power to actualize ideology. In the new Israeli two-party system, we don’t need a national unity government. We need sub-parties from both "parties" to join together to save us from ourselves.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Saying goodbye to Nili

Saying goodbye to Nili

Last week we said goodbye to our baby. Well, technically she was never “our” baby, but for nearly five incredible months Nili (not her real name), a beautiful, delicate-featured newborn baby girl lived with us, until last week when she was officially adopted by her new family. For whatever reason, her biological mother was unable to raise her, and so until all the bureaucratic details for adoption were worked out, we took care of her, and loved her with all our hearts. We saw her very first smile, heard her first gurgles and laugh, clapped wildly for her the first time she rolled over, and then last week, with tears in our eyes, we kissed her as she left for her new life with her new family.

Actually, this is the second time we said goodbye to a foster child. The first baby was with us for almost a year and a half. He was just starting to walk and had a few words – nana (banana), up, ball. Watching as Nili drove away brought back memories of the same scene with him. It’s been almost two years since he left and there isn’t a day that goes by that we don’t think about him.

The Bible is full of stories about childless women who finally become pregnant and have children. Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel spring to mind. In the book of Samuel, the familiar pattern is played out, where the barren woman, Hannah, has to endure a co-wife who has multiple children, and who, according to the Midrash, uses her superior fertile status to taunt poor Hannah. Finally, desperate, Hannah pours out her heart to God, and promises that if He grants her a child she will dedicate him to the service of God. God hears Hannah’s plea, she becomes pregnant, and soon after giving birth she keeps her promise. She delivers him to the Temple in Shilo where he is raised and eventually grows up to become the prophet Samuel, one of the greatest leaders of the Jewish people.

How traumatic it must have been for Hannah to give up this child, the answer to all her prayers! Although the text never says it in so many words, a close reading hints at the difficulty Hannah had in parting with her baby. Right after she gives birth her husband pays a visit to the Temple, but she doesn’t join him, preferring to wait until the child is weaned. In the space of the next three verses, the notion of “until the child is weaned” is repeated four times, as if the phrase is ringing in her ears, looming over her. With each passing day that she nurses her baby, the inevitable separation draws closer.

And yet, when the time finally comes, Hanna does leave the child at the Temple. Perhaps she is able to do so because she understood something that we only fully comprehended through the experience of fostering. No child is ever your personal property, an object to possess and do with as you please. Each child, your own or one in your care, whether with you for a short time or a longer one, is a temporary gift from God, a cherished present not to be taken for granted. True love for a child sometimes means letting go, setting them free to follow their own path and fulfill their own destiny.

Because we were constantly aware that Nili’s stay with us would soon come to an end, we learned to truly open our hearts, to live and love – her and our own 7 children – being fully in the moment, pushing aside the typical dreams and plans for the future that usually occupy so much of a parent’s thoughts and only concentrating on the immediate present.

Our deep, profound, and unconditional love for two complete strangers, taught us something else too; that our responsibilities to care for children are not limited to “our own” children. Funny things started to happen when we became foster parents. On a plane once, a mother was trying to comfort her crying baby. We went over and asked if we could try, and took the baby for a bit. It was a natural gesture, because we – the generation of parents – are meant to aid and care for the children – all of them, anywhere. Our two foster children taught us that our responsibility goes beyond the parochial and the particular in a kind of expanding ripple effect.

When the opportunity to foster Nili came up, we asked our kids what they thought, having gone through this once before. The response was unanimous. Although saying goodbye to the first child was the hardest thing they had ever done, it was so worthwhile, they said, that they wanted to do it again. And that is what we focus on now, as the hole in our hearts is so raw and fresh. We tell the kids that they did wonderful things for Nili, gave her love and joy, a sense of humor and a feeling of belonging and lots of self-confidence, and that those things will stay with her and shape her personality for the rest of her life, wherever she goes and whatever path she chooses.

We wish little Nili a wonderful, rich life, full of happiness and good times, with her new family who will most certainly love her as much as we do. She probably will never even know that there are people far away that think about her every day and have her in their hearts and in their prayers always. Goodbye Nili.

(Written by Baruch Sterman together with Judy Taubes Sterman)