It was always about the court, even when it wasn’t: 8 things to know for May 22

1. It’s the court, stupid: The decision by Likud MK Miki Zohar, an outspoken backer of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, to reintroduce a bill granting the prime minister immunity from prosecution has some wondering exactly what the nascent government’s endgame is on the matter.

  • But media reports indicate Likud has no actual intention of following through with passing a law giving the prime minister and others automatic immunity.
  • Party sources told the Times of Israel this week that Likud had decided to drop the push for a new immunity law and make do with the existing one.
  • Speaking to the Kan public broadcaster, though, party sources say they will initially push for the new law, knowing it will probably be felled, at which point the immunity under the old law will seem like a more moderate position and become more palatable to lawmakers.
  • Yedioth Ahronoth also reports that Likud will pull back support for the new immunity law soon, and instead sally forth with the Supreme Court override bill to protect him from an attempt to strike down immunity that he assumes lawmakers will grant him under the current rules.
  • “The hubbub of the last few days, which continued at full strength in the Knesset yesterday, was just a planned maneuver,” the paper reports, citing Likud sources.

2. Refuge to the lawless: In Haaretz, Chemi Shalev sees through the apparent ploy.

  • “The question of Netanyahu’s parliamentary immunity has captured most of the public and media’s attention, but it is nothing more than camouflage. For months, Netanyahu and his confidantes have been floating various proposals for new laws that would grant Netanyahu automatic immunity, ignoring the fact that under current law and with his rubber-stamp majority in the Knesset, such immunity is his for the asking,” he writes. “The greater challenge facing the prime minister is to ensure that the Supreme Court won’t revoke his immunity, no matter how unreasonable, unconstitutional and politically motivated it is deemed to be.”
  • In Calcalist, Moshe Gorali writes that Netanyahu is correct in believing the Supreme Court will strike down his immunity, given the court’s precedent of only allowing immunity if its a case of a lawmaker accidentally breaking the law in the course of carrying out their job. In the past, court president Aharon Barak warned given automatic immunity would turn the Knesset into a “city of refuge.”
  • “Giving Netanyahu immunity means turning the Knesset into a city of refuge for criminals, giving elected officials license to break the law and evade [responsibility] under the umbrella of hermetic immunity that overrides the Supreme Court.”

3. Won’t somebody do something: Many are assuming Yisrael Beytenu chief Avigdor Liberman will enter the coalition, despite earlier indications he could be be headed for the opposition.

  • Israel Hayom, which for days warned that the nascent coalition was in danger of never being born, has now shifted to reporting on complaints from URWP that it is not being taken into account.
  • “We’re the prime minister’s stepchildren,” a party source laments.
  • But it’s not yet a done deal. ToI editor David Horovitz notes that Moshe Kahlon could still put the brakes on any override legislation that would endanger the country.
  • “It falls to him, in this final week as Netanyahu wraps up his coalition, to publicly declare that he will give no support to legislation, however disingenuously presented, that is designed to spare Netanyahu the democratic obligation to face up to the allegations of criminality against him,” he writes. “It falls to Kahlon to pledge that he will refuse to join, and do whatever he can to bring down, a new coalition that surrenders to any such effort by Netanyahu.”’
  • In Haaretz, former lawmaker Tzvia Greenfield writes that the Blue and White party should step up its fight, and enlist Tel Aviv’s moneyed masses to lean on lawmakers so they oppose Netanyahu.
  • “Without the engine of Israel’s real capital, with all its businesses and entrepreneurs, Netanyahu and Israel can’t survive. Therefore, Tel Aviv, most of whose residents voted for Blue and White and other opposition parties, must be enlisted to fill a key role in the struggle to prevent harm to the judicial system,” she writes.

4. The spy who doesn’t love us: Jonathan Pollard, the ex-spy whiling away his time in New York while he waits for his parole terms to expire so he can leave for Israel, granted a rare interview to Channel 12 news, telling the station that the government doesn’t care about him.

  • “It’s a question of priorities; there always seems to be something else,” he tells Channel 12. “To make me a priority would mean that the government actually cared about me enough to say ‘This is what we want, he’s done his time, it’s time for him to come home,’ in a forthright manner. And that simply hasn’t been done.”
  • The comments are rare for Pollard, who rarely speaks to the press (interviews he granted ahead of his sentencing in 1987 were seen as contributing to his harsh life sentence) but they fall in line with complaints he has been vocal about for years, accusing successive Israeli governments of not doing enough to help him.
  • Almost every headline focuses on Pollard slamming the Israeli government. Every one but one, that is.
  • In pro-Netanyahu Israel Hayom, the headline reads simply “Pollard: I want to make aliyah to Israel,” which might be news if it were, oh, 1985.

5. Smog B’omer: Wednesday night marks Lag B’omer, a minor kabbalist holiday that has morphed into an excuse to light things on fire, covering the whole country in a cloud of smoke and undoing any environmental gain that might arise from no-car day on Yom Kippur.

  • Fire officials are strongly recommending Israelis desist from having bonfires or at least keep them small, given the hot and dry weather conditions. They make the same call every year, but this year it actually is going to be insanely hot and dry. Nonetheless, it does not seem many are heeding them.
  • In Ramat Gan, the city apparently gave a synagogue permission to hold a literal dumpster fire in a parking lot.
  • Zman Yisrael’s Aviv Lavie calls Lag B’omer perhaps “the most hated holiday in Israel, cutting across sectoral lines, faiths and political beliefs.” That hatred is only growing, partially thanks to cities being more crowded, Lavie writes.
  • “It used to be that there were open spaces even in the centers of cities, but today it’s impossible to burn a bonfire without the smoke wafting directly into someone’s living room.”

6. And if that weren’t bad enough: This year there’s an extra reason to protest the holiday, with the honor of lighting a ceremonial fire on Mount Meron outside the tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, whose death Lag B’omer marks, going to sex criminal rabbi Eliezer Berland.

  • Last week, the Israeli Center for Cult Victims penned a letter to the authorities decrying Berland’s participation in the annual event, and were later joined by other women’s rights groups. Several dozen protesters also gathered outside the Israeli consulate in New York earlier this week to protest Berland’s participation in the Meron ceremony, which is funded by the state.
  • ToI’s Marissa Newman reports that the Religious Affairs Ministry, which runs the pilgrimage site, says it is powerless under the law to stop Berland, “ but signaled it would draw up new internal guidelines to exclude him in the future.”
  • In Haaretz, Esti Sasson writes that while Berland supporters fo not represent the Haredi mainstream, opposition is being smothered by “ultra-Orthodox politics (and Haredi media, which is an inseparable part of it) which supports it, whether by thunderous silence or aggressive silencing.”

7. What the rabbi saw: Just a few kilometers north of Meron, another kabbalist rabbi was recently hard at work divining the location of Hezbollah tunnels for the Israeli military, Zman Yisrael’s Avner Hoffstein and Anabel Zamir report.

  • Rabbi Yehuda, a hermit-ish fellow who lives in the Galilee and can “see other worlds” according to his followers, offered to help the army find the tunnels back in 2015, along with his right-hand man Rabbi Moshe.
  • Several officers say they went on patrols with the rabbi and he was able to correctly point where underground structures were. But while the mystic claims there are many more tunnels yet to be found, the army has decided to stop taking intel from him.
  • “We know about dozens more tunnels that are scattered along the border, in the north and in the south,” Rabbi Moshe tells Zman/ToI. “If the army were not so suspicious of everything that smacks of religion, then the major generals and brigadier generals with whom we spoke would give us a chance to help. It’s a shame.”
  • The army says in response that it “never relied at any stage upon citizens with any sort of abilities in order to locate attack tunnels. Rather, it used advanced technological and intelligence means only.”

8. Make Kela Alon great again: The location of the future Trumptown in the Golan Heights is no longer a secret, with the local council saying Tuesday it will inaugurate the site next to the tiny village of Kela Alon on June 12, with US officials and Netanyahu taking part.

  • As for a name, there is still no official announcement though a recent report pointed to Neve Trump (which can easily be transformed into Never Trump).
  • Visiting the site, Haaretz’s Allison Kaplan Sommer finds cows, fences, elderly Russians, a few homes and not much else.
  • “The larger buildings, which were once offices and community centers, look abandoned, some lacking walls or ceilings. A single room is kept in working order, with tables, chairs, desks and even air-conditioning. But the overall ambience is one of neglect — so much so that a decade ago, the place was deemed spooky enough to serve as the location for a television series, ‘Pillars of Smoke,’ about a cult-like kibbutz whose residents had mysteriously vanished,” she writes.
  • Asked about what the Trumpsformation of the town will mean for its current residents, one elderly woman says “ it could get better for us, it could get worse. … But I don’t know what’s going to happen. If we’re being honest, I don’t think anyone else knows what this means for us right now either.”

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