Tel Aviv Diary: Israel Is Shaken by Political Scandals

2014-12-08T205014Z_941327984_GM1EAC90DCM01_RTRMADP_3_ISRAEL-POLITICS
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leaves after a vote to dissolve the Israeli parliament, also known as the Knesset, in Jerusalem December 8, 2014. Baz Ratner/Reuters

Looking from a distance, one would expect that an election in Israel at this time would likely focus on questions of war and peace. After all, Israel fought a war this past summer in which all of its major cities came under missile fire, and that same enemy is now threatening—once again—to resume the war if Israel does not lift the blockade on Gaza, (a blockade mostly emanating from Egypt, whose government despises the Hamas government in Gaza).

Alternatively, elections might pivot around the concern that the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, has begun to gain control of areas alongside Israel's border with Syria. Elections might also concentrate on Palestinian attempts to gain recognition of their status as a nation state from the U.N., without having any negotiations toward that end.

All of these are possible hot-button election issues—and the elections are still over two months away. However, at the moment the two most important news items spotlight what looks like the largest corruption scandal in the history of Israel, a scandal that might destroy Israeli foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu party and the internecine warfare taking place in the Shas party (now split into two) over disputes regarding who are the true disciples of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the party's spiritual leader, who died this past year. As a result, the current head of Shas resigned.

In the past few days, Yisrael Beiteinu has been rocked by scandal. Faina Kirschebaum, the Deputy Interior Minister and close confidant of Lieberman, along with the secretary general of the party, a former minister and others have all been accused of participating in a widespread, well organized corruption ring that promised governmental or party money in return for personal kickbacks.

Over 30 people have been arrested. The fact that Faina Kirschenbaum has parliamentary immunity is the sole barrier stopping her from being arrested. The expectation is that these very much ongoing criminal investigations will shortly announce additional ministries and government officials who are currently under a cloud of suspicion.

While this is not the first time that people from within the Yisrael Beiteinu party have been investigated, (e.g. Lieberman was investigated for over 10 years, with one case dropped and him being found not guilty in a second) the other times were complicated cases that involved foreign funds or appointments. The current cases are much easier for everyone to understand; i.e. money would be allocated in return for kickbacks. No one knows where the scandal will end and whether it will go beyond the Yisrael Beiteinu party.

The second fight has been between the two ultra-Orthodox Sephardic parties Shas and the breakaway The Nation Is With Us party. A video was released yesterday showing the recently deceased Rabbi Yosef saying derogatory things about Arye Deri, the present Shas party head. The clip has created a great deal of consternation in the party and among the supporters of Shas.

Today, the children of Rabbi Yosef, including the current chief Sephardic rabbi, went to their father's grave to pray for forgiveness over what was done to his memory by the unflattering video. After the revelation of additional bad things said by Rabbi Yosef about the actions of Deri came to light, Deri resigned as the head of the Shas party.

The accepted wisdom is that both events will help the right. Both Avigdor Lieberman and to a lesser extent Deri have made it clear that their support after the next election was up for grabs—that they might not recommend Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and could potentially support Labor's Yitzhak Herzog.

Many think the result of these party scandals might be additional support for Netanyahu's party the Likud. More likely they will result in support for either the HaBayit HaYehudi, led by Naftali Bennet (a party to the right of Likud) or to the new party started by Moshe Kachlon.

Albeit in very different ways, either result could endanger the continued leadership of Netanyahu.

Media historian Marc Schulman is the editor of historycentral.com. An archive of his recent daily reports from Tel-Aviv can be found here. He is also a columnist for the Times of Israel.