Anshel Pfeffer

    How Israel’s Prime Minister got burnt by bread

    An arcane religious argument could bring down his government

    How Israel's Prime Minister got burnt by bread
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    Jerusalem

    For nearly ten months now, ever since his surprising elevation to the Israeli prime minister’s office, Naftali Bennett has been focused mainly on one thing. He has been trying to prove to Israelis that he can be every bit the master statesman his predecessor, the eternal Benjamin Netanyahu was. And by all accounts that has worked well.

    He’s had two successful meetings with Joe Biden and met twice with Vladimir Putin as well, the second of those meetings, a surprising flight to Moscow after the invasion of Ukraine began, was made in the hope of brokering a ceasefire between the two countries. He charmed world leaders with ‘green tech’ ideas at the environment summit in Glasgow and went on historic visits, the first official ones by an Israeli prime minister, to the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. But the rarified summit caused him to forget that back home in Jerusalem, he’s still the leader of Yamina, a small and crumbling right-wing party, whose members are finding it difficult to get used to life in a coalition together with left-wingers and Islamists.

    By joining the coalition and providing it with the necessary votes to finally oust Netanyahu, Bennett won the jet-setting job and with it all the trappings of power, including an isolating cocoon of security. His party colleagues were left to deal with Yamina’s voters, mainly right-wing and religious, at least a significant proportion of whom regarded the party’s participation in the coalition as an unjustifiable breaking of election promises. It wasn’t just their own voters. Netanyahu’s political machine, along with powerful rabbis and nationalist leaders, kept up the heat. The Yamina MPs were heckled and hounded for ‘betraying the Jewish people’, wherever they went online and in their faces, from Knesset committee rooms to their own homes and synagogues.

    It didn’t help of course that Yamina won only seven seats in the 120-member Knesset. One of its members refused to join even before the government was sworn-in, leaving it with six, and the entire eight-party coalition with the tiniest of majorities – only 61 MPs.

    On Wednesday morning, Bennett woke up to discover, from the media, that another of his members, no less than the coalition whip, Idit Silman, had decided to leave as well, leaving the coalition and opposition tied at 60 seats each. One of the reasons Bennett was caught by surprise was that the trigger for Silman’s departure was a minor matter of Orthodox-Jewish law, so obscure as to be ridiculous to many Jews and all but unexplainable to non-Jews.

    Orthodox Jews, and many less Orthodox Jews as well, refrain from eating leavened bread or other grain-based baked goods throughout the week of the Passover festival, which begins in a week. The historic reason for this is that when the People of Israel were liberated from slavery in Egypt, over 3,000 years ago, they were in such a hurry that the bread in their ovens had no time to rise and they baked matzo – thin unleavened bread instead. In commemoration, not only is matzo a staple of all Passover meals but any crumb of chametz – all forms of leavened dough, bread or cakes – must be cleansed from homes before the festival and remain out until Pessach is over.

    But then of course many Jews do not observe the full religious strictures and continue eating whatever they like over Passover, which has led to a long series of conflicts over the presence of chametz in the Israeli public sphere, such as in shops and restaurants. One of these conflicts is over whether secular patients in public hospitals, which over Passover serve particularly drab meals, can be allowed to eat the forbidden sandwiches and cakes brought by their visitors. Last year, the Israeli High Court, much reviled by the Orthodox establishment for upholding ‘progressive’ values, ruled that hospital security guards cannot rifle through visitors’ bags searching for baked contraband.

    A public remark on Sunday by the secular health minister Nitzan Horowitz, who is also the leader of Meretz, the most left-wing party in the coalition, that he was determined to uphold the High Court ruling, touched a nerve with the Orthodox Silman, who three days later was gone. At most it was just the final straw, she had been buckling under the pressure for weeks, while her husband had been holding secret talks with Netanyahu’s representatives, promising her a Likud seat in the next Knesset as well as a future cabinet position, should she defect. But no matter what part the sourdough had in her calculations, it was crumbs for Bennett.

    When the Bennett government was formed last June, few had much hope for its survival. It simply had too many internal contradictions. But the expectation was that it would collapse over objection from its Islamist element or over an argument between the left and right on settlement-building in the West Bank. No one expected arcane religious matters to bring down the coalition.

    The government hasn’t fallen yet – it can limp on without a majority for a while at least – and ten months is a sight more than most pundits gave it to begin with. But to survive in office, Bennett will need to give up his world travel plans and stick to home maintenance.

    Written byAnshel Pfeffer

    Anshel Pfeffer is a correspondent for British and Israeli newspapers and the author of Bibi: The Turbulent Life and Times of Benjamin Netanyahu.

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