Tel Aviv Diary: Bibi Under Pressure From All Sides

"Women of the Wall" activists, wearing Jewish prayer shawls and tefillin, leather straps and boxes containing sacred parchments, which Orthodox Jewish people traditionally reserve for men, during an event teaching people how to put on the tefillin, near the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City, February 7, 2016. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has suffered setbacks of praying at the Western Wall, offshore oil exploitation and a soldier who shot a Palestinian terrorist in cold blood. Baz Ratner/reuters

It's been a difficult few days for Prime Minister Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu. One would have expected that the ongoing stabbings of Israelis would have undermined the prime minister's standing, but these attacks have had little effect, with not a single demonstration held against the government's security action, or inaction.

Instead, it is a series of unrelated events, on a variety of fronts, that have shown Netanyahu's weakness.

On Sunday, the Israeli Supreme Court struck down an agreement between the government of Israel and several gas exploration companies slated to commercialize gas fields off Israel's Mediterranean coast.

The legal reason for the Supreme Court's ruling revolved around the government's promise the Israeli parliament would not make any changes to the agreement for 10 years. The High Court ruled the government could not make such an assurance in a contract, only the parliament was authorized to do so.

This case has special significance, since over the last few months the prime minister has taken the lead role in promoting the gas commercialization agreement. Netanyahu even took the unprecedented step of appearing before the Supreme Court—in person—to argue the case in defense of the agreement.

Netanyahu's problem has been that he does not have the votes in the Knesset to pass any agreement on the gas deal. On most matters, he can count on his coalition to pass almost any law.

However, a number of ministers have recused themselves from voting on the gas deal, claiming a conflict in interest. Unfortunately for Netanyahu and the status of the gas deal, fidelity to the coalition does not trump conflict of interest, and ministers are free to abstain from voting on this issue and deny Netanyahu the majority he desires.

The second surprise for Netanyahu relates to the Western Wall in Jerusalem and a group named Women of the Wall.

Israel's Western Wall, (known as "the Kotel") is the site most sacred to Jews. It is part of the retaining wall of the Second Temple built by King Herod, and Jews have been coming there to pray for a millennium.

Since Israel gained control of the area, during the Six Day War, the site has been administered by Israel's Ministry of Religious Affairs. As such, the rabbis in charge have been ultra-Orthodox (as is the case with religious officials elsewhere in Israel).

The rabbis of the Ministry of Religious Affairs have enforced the Orthodox Jewish practice that men and women must pray separately, and thus there are separate men's and women's prayer sections at the wall.

Initially, women from the Reform movement, later joined by women from the Conservative movement, have been taking a more active part in services, reading the Torah and leading morning services. In recent years, women from the modern Orthodox community began to participate more actively in prayers as well.

For the last 25 years, Women of the Wall have been conducting regular monthly prayer sessions at the wall, often trying to read from a Torah scroll during services led by women and in which women participate fully.

The ultra-Orthodox have often tried to block the Women of the Wall, at times leading to violent confrontations involving the police. The Women of the Wall took their cause to the Supreme Court, which backed their position.

The prime minister's office became involved and, after much discussion, put forth a plan that would create an alternative prayer site to the south of the current Western Wall Plaza (in a continuation of the current Western Wall prayer site) to be administered by a committee that would include representatives of Reform and Conservative Jewry. All sides agreed to the plan.

The proposal was passed by the government with representatives of the ultra-Orthodox parties effectively looking the other way (i.e., not wanting to contribute to a coalition crisis over the agreement and seeing the compromise as the best of bad choices from their standpoint).

For reasons that remain unclear, the rabbis who lead the ultra-Orthodox community became incensed by the agreement and called on their political leadership (who are required to follow their dictates) to do whatever it takes—including leaving the government—to stop the deal.

The ultra-Orthodox politicians then made it clear to Netanyahu that they would bring down his government if he follows through with the agreement officially sanctioning non-Orthodox prayer at the Kotel, championed by Women of the Wall, along with the Reform and Conservative movements.

This week, Netanyahu decided to back down, admitting he is having difficulties implementing his own plan and announcing the formation of a new commission to examine the issue and return with recommendations within 60 days. The Women of the Wall, as well as the representatives of the Reform and Conservative Jewry, are furious, stating they will not accept any change to the originally announced agreement.

While Netanyahu believes the support of American Jewry is important, since they do not vote in Israel and are not part of the coalition, expectations in Israel are that Netanyahu will bend toward the will of the ultra-Orthodox.

But that is not all. Netanyahu's newest headache relates to the fatal shooting of a Palestinian militant by an Israeli soldier. This incident was caught on camera.

Based on what could be seen from the video, it is clear the soldier arrived on the scene after the attack occurred and after the perpetrators had been shot. It appears the soldier then took out his gun and killed the wounded militant, without provocation or orders.

An immediate controversy developed within the army, even before the film clip was released. It was evident something untold had taken place and an investigation was launched.

When the video was made public, there was some public outcry. Minister of Defense Moshe Yaalon and Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot immediately condemned the killing, declaring this shooting violated the norms of the Israel Defense Forces. The soldier in question was arrested on suspicion of committing murder.

The prime minister did not directly condemn the actions of the soldier, but gave public support to the defense minister and the army chief of staff.

Immediately politicians on the far right wing, led by the education minister and the head of the Bayit Yehudi party, decried the fact that the soldier was being publicly lynched. Even if the soldier had made a mistake, they argued, it should not be considered murder.

Knesset member Naftali Bennett and Netanyahu reportedly got into a heated discussion over the matter at the cabinet meeting earlier in the week. In the meantime, Netanyahu is caught between his need to support the defense minister and the army chief of staff and the views of his right-wing supporters (along with parts of the larger public) who think the soldier is being unjustly accused.

On March 29, Netanyahu tried to pacify his right-wing base by ordering the army to stop returning the bodies of dead militants, despite the fact that the army disagrees with this policy.

Still, no one believes the Netanyahu government will fall over any of these issues. He has successfully navigated more treacherous political waters before. But while Netanyahu has no real credible rivals, Israeli politics remains anything but predictable, and anything could happen.

Marc Schulman is the editor of

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