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The right wing in Israel is in a deep crisis

Snap elections just weeks after Israelis went the polls are the result of a rivalry between Liberman and Netanyahu, but that’s just part of the story. The right is immersed in a crisis of identity, leadership, and politics.

By Meron Rapoport

Avigdor Liberman and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seen at the opening winter session of the Knesset, October 23, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Avigdor Liberman and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seen at the opening winter session of the Knesset, October 23, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

What happened to Avigdor Liberman? Why did he insist on cutting short what will become the shortest Knesset term in Israeli history? Was it his deep personal hatred for Netanyahu or was he simply settling a score? Was it an opportunity to build himself up politically before disappearing alongside his small, sectorial party?

Amid all the questions remains a point that has gone largely undiscussed: Liberman’s success at thwarting Netanyahu reflects a deep crisis among the Israeli right. It is a complex crisis that can be broken down into three parts: the divide between ultra-Orthodox and secular right-wingers; a crisis of leadership; and a political crisis regarding the future vis-a-vis the Palestinians.

Building a secular right-wing bloc

Let’s begin with the confrontation between Liberman and the ultra-Orthodox parties. Liberman has accused the prime minister of “giving in to the Haredim,” particularly on the issue of exempting ultra-Orthodox men from mandatory military conscription. On its face, it is difficult to understand why Liberman would care so much about ultra-Orthodox service in the army; he himself has sat alongside and at times allied himself with the ultra-Orthodox parties. So what has changed?

The answer lies in the results of the last elections. The two ultra-Orthodox parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, increased their electoral strength to 16 Knesset seats. Their power inside the right-wing bloc grew from one-fifth in the previous Knesset (13 out of 67 seats) to nearly a quarter (16 out of 65 seats). But this is only part of how the right is becoming more religious.

Bezalel Smotrich speaks to supporters of the United Right party, April 09, 2019. (Flash90)

Bezalel Smotrich speaks to supporters of the United Right party, April 09, 2019. (Flash90)

In the last Knesset, Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home party was seen as relatively moderate when it came to religious issues. But the differences between the religious moderates and the ultra-Orthodox parties have narrowed: from the treatment of the LGTBQ community to growing calls for gender segregation inside the IDF. The six seats won by the Union of Right-Wing Parties last elections means that 22 Knesset seats — one-third of the right-wing bloc — belong to religious parties.

Meanwhile, Liberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu is a sectorial party made up of mostly Israelis from the former Soviet Union. Most of its voters are older, secular, and in agreement with Liberman’s anti-Orthodox policies. Their worldview is far from that of the far-right religious parties and the ultra-Orthodox.

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The official Israeli rabbinate largely views Israelis from the FSU as non-Jews, which has a direct consequence on their ability to get married or buried in Israel, the right to eat non-Kosher food, and even get around on Saturdays. The tipping of the scales of power toward the ultra-Orthodox and the far-right national-religious parties could be viewed as a direct threat Israelis from the FSU and the personal attacks on Liberman these last few days may only deepen this rift.

That neither Bennett and Ayelet Shaked’s New Right party nor Moshe Feiglin’s Zehut party — both of which offered an ostensibly secular version of right-wing Jewish nationalism — did not pass the election threshold opened the door for a secular right-wing party, and perhaps even a secular right-wing bloc, which Liberman hopes to lead.

The fall of King Bibi

The right is in the throes of a major crisis of leadership. Aside from a small reprieve during the time of Ariel Sharon, Netanyahu has been the Israeli right’s unrivaled leader. Over the past decade, after winning four straight elections, the prime minister has come to be seen as a kind of magician, touched by the hand of god. He is not only the right’s figurehead — he is its top ideologue.

In an interview with The Marker, Dr. Gail Talshir showed how Netanyahu largely abandoned his Thatcherite economic policies following his defeat in the 2006 elections, which was widely attributed to the heavy cuts to the welfare state he implemented as finance minister. Instead, he adopted a discourse of “Jew versus Israeli.” The Jewish Nation-State Law is the continuation of this ideological process, which has succeeded in bringing into his tent national-religious voters, “traditional” Mizrahi voters (who vote mostly for the Likud), the secular right (historically part of Likud), the ultra-Orthodox in all their variations, and immigrants from the Former Soviet Union.

Likud member and Netanayhu rival Gideon Sa'ar. (Miriam Alster /Flash90)

Likud member and Netanayhu rival Gideon Sa’ar. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The indictments waiting for Netanyahu undermine his status the unquestioned leader of the right and have him in a tight spot. Many understand this. Gideon Sa’ar, his rival in Likud, certainly understands it and is building himself up for the day after Netanyahu falls. The same goes for Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz and Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan. Liberman, too, is aware. Sa’ar and other ministers from Likud cannot publicly turn against him while he’s still in charge but Liberman has nothing to fear and can therefore hasten the process.

Liberman knows something else as well: immigrants from the Soviet Union are not necessarily committed to many of the religious aspects of Judaism. They have no special commitment to the Land of Israel like the national-religious do, and thus Liberman believes they will follow him wherever he goes.

He’s not alone in trying to exploit Netanyahu’s weakness. Union of Right-Wing Parties MK Bezalel Smotrich’s demands in coalition talks were far more excessive than Liberman: nothing short of a legal and political revolution — an override bill that would defang the High Court’s ability to exercise judicial review and the partial or full-blown annexation of the West Bank — in addition to the appointment of party members to head the education and justice ministries. Smotrich also knew that Netanyahu’s wiggle room was limited, that he could not walk away and form a centrist government like he did with Tzipi Livni in 2009. Indeed, Netanyahu gave in to their demands. The override bill was never his idea; he even told Labor leader Avi Gabbay that he would forgo it should the latter join his coalition.

But Liberman went even further. Not only did he want to precipitate Netanyahu’s downfall — he wanted to be the one to dethrone the prime minister and to crown his successor, which he believes will lead a Likud-Gantz-Liberman government. Liberman knows that Netanyahu could not afford to pass a law conscripting ultra-Orthodox men without the ultra-Orthodox parties reneging on their promise to protect him from prosecution.

The right can’t make the Palestinians disappear

The right faces one more internal weakness. Over the past decade, Netanyahu has sanctified the status quo vis-à-vis the Palestinians. But the status quo is a fallacy — there is no vacuum and the Palestinians aren’t going anywhere. Even when the world’s attention is elsewhere, even when the U.S. president threatens to cut aid to the Palestinians, even when Saudi Arabia and the Emirates embrace Israel, the Palestinians remain.

Now it appears that a growing segment of the right is losing patience. The leadership of the Union of Right-Wing Parties is demanding immediate annexation and has been able to move large parts of Likud toward its vision. Liberman wants to crush Hamas, but both he and Smotrich know these are all empty words. There is no real political will for annexation and there is certainly no desire to send in troops and re-establish military control over Gaza.

U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at an event marking one year since the transfer of the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, May 14, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at an event marking one year since the transfer of the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, May 14, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

This is evident from the attitude toward Trump’s “Deal of the Century,” which will inevitably be postponed until a new Israeli government is formed (and may never actually be published). It was supposed to fit the Israeli right like a glove, yet many are now worried. They know that neither David Friedman, Jared Kushner, or even Trump himself can make the Palestinians disappear. The Palestinian decision to boycott the U.S.-led “economic workshop” in Bahrain is another example of the White House’s powerlessness, even as Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states stand by its side.

The gap between desire and reality is frustrating, especially considering that the right has been in control for more than a decade and enjoys a majority in the Knesset, the government, and among voters. Smotrich is taking out his frustrations on the judicial system, and thus fraying relations between Netanyahu and Israel’s elites. Liberman is taking out his frustration on the ultra-Orthodox and putting Netanyahu’s relationship with his allies to the test. Both of them reflect a loss of direction for the Israeli right. The right knows how to get into power, it has a majority of the Israeli public behind it — it just doesn’t know what to do with it.

Meron Rapoport is an editor at Local Call, where this article first appeared in Hebrew. Read it here.

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    COMMENTS

    1. Lewis from Afula

      Re: “The right is immersed in a crisis of identity, leadership, and politics.”

      Meron the Moron forgets to state that the Israeli political left has completely vanished. Labor Party is now polling below the knesset theshold.
      Talk about fake news………..wtf??

      Reply to Comment
      • Bruce Gould

        @Lewis: You ask “wtf?”. I would like to make an attempt to answer that question:
        Whatever is going on in the Israeli left has nothing to do with the premise of this article. Whatever the state of the left is in Israel, it doesn’t contradict the statement that “the right is immersed in a crisis of identity”. If the left in Israel is in state X it doesn’t imply that the right is in state Y. But since you bring up the left there is something to be said –

        https://www.haaretz.com/opinion/.premium-israel-s-brain-drain-is-the-flight-of-the-left-1.7312668

        The brains and the money of the left are abandoning Israel. That isn’t just a feeling, those are the facts. Benjamin Netanyahu’s supporters, who call leftists “sourpusses,” like to boast of the decline in emigration from Israel in the past several years. But when it comes to leftists, the exit numbers are worse than ever. The leftists are fleeing. It’s called brain drain. In Israel, brains and leftists are one and the same

        Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        The Israeli left did not vanish, it never existed in the first place.

        Yael Kahn speaks to this:
        “Indeed, the so called Israeli liberals are in fact Jewish supremacists and supporters of apartheid. Their main disagreement with Mr transfer Avigdor Liberman is in that they want these war crimes to be committed in secrecy and with a fake democracy veneer. They want to benefit from the settler colonialism and ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians, while retaining the fake image of an “enlightened” Israel.”
        https://972mag.com/liberman-israeli-liberals/141708/

        And Meron Rapaport is correct:
        The right can’t make the Palestinians disappear.
        The right is a collection of frustrated fantasizers.
        The right knows how to get into power, it just doesn’t know what to do with it.

        Reply to Comment
        • itshak Gordine

          If defending its national, historical and religious heritage of the Jewish people (which all peoples do, of course) is to be supremacist, then I am one with immense pride, like the vast majority of Israelis. You must understand that Israel is a Jewish state where minorities who respect laws can live in peace. For example, the inhabitants of the Arab town of Abu Gosh have always supported and fought for the State of Israel. They are respected and loved. Ditto for the Druzes.

          Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            @Itshak Gordine Ha-Levy: You should ask yourself why it is that you can’t ever speak in anything but Orwellian euphemisms and half-truths. I’m going to politely disagree with you that the national, historical and religious heritage of the Jewish people is racism, covetousness, idolatry of stones, brutal subjugation, land theft, militarism, and apartheid. According to you, the Jewish people and its nation state law, among others laws and practices, has an odd way of showing “love and respect,” and by those very terms you reveal what you really mean with that eternally creepy phrase, “the minorities can live in peace if they respect our laws.”

            Reply to Comment
          • itshak Gordine

            You are the specialist of leftist blah blah. Israel protects its heritage and its people. Like all the states of the world. All the rest is just verbiage.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            The vacancy of this is striking. “You are the specialist of leftist blah blah” is as contentless as if I said to you “You are the specialist of rightist blah blah.” Where’s the beef?

            Ad hominem, empty stock words, eery euphemisms, misleading but revealing use of “people” implying quite clearly that only Jews are people, misuse of “verbiage” (when you actually mean “I’m not used to normally complex thoughts I prefer slogans don’t disturb my smug insularity and my slumber”). For “verbiage” it would be better for you to substitute “a muffled droning sound I hear.” You know, the sound one hears when one clamps one’s hands over one’s ears because one is afraid to listen.

            Is the the heritage of the Jewish people throwing garbage and excrement on pedestrians in Hebron? Is the heritage of the Jewish people the incessant stealing of land by every brutal tactic and low, sneaky trick? Is the burning and tearing apart of other people’s olive trees and the beating of shepherds some weird Jewish ritual from the temple days? Is the heritage of the Jewish people, covetousness, cruelty and fanaticism? Is the heritage of the Jewish people a zero sum, gotta-grab-it-all selfishness? Do we celebrate on Pessach the Jewish people lording it over another people and exacting their virtual enslavement? I don’t think so.

            Reply to Comment
          • Rivka Koen

            There’s almost nothing Jewish about Israel. Its politics and culture are the definition of goyim naches. It’s anti-intellectual, chauvinistic, crass, mindless, and cruel. They should rename it the State of Edom.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            Is this, too, the heritage of the Jewish people, Halevy?:

            “Religious fundamentalism runs wild on military bases, where training involves nauseating misogyny, with rabbis commanding the commanders. Religious influence runs amok and the disgusting deeds of the Haredi Netzah Yehuda battalion (whose soldiers tortured a father in front of his son), which ought to have its name changed to the “Netzah Simon and Levi Brothers.” (Why? Read up on it in the Book of Genesis).”
            https://www.haaretz.com/opinion/.premium-kahol-lavan-s-

            Reply to Comment
          • Rivka Koen

            No more than ISIS is part of the heritage of Islam. It’s disgusting, brutal behavior hiding behind the guise of religion, and fundamentalism is the perfect disguise for such people, because it provides the absolute certainty necessary to deflect all criticism, to crush all nuance.

            But Islamic cultures have contributed immense wealth to the world, and there was a time when Jews worked side by side with them. It’s a great shame that this history has been perverted into this present conflict, where Jews fight our centuries-long friends and allies as a proxy for Western powers that killed millions of us less than 100 years ago. It’s a perversion of our cultural heritage above all, the way Israel is behaving and the way Jews worldwide are enabling it.

            With that said, it is now part of our heritage, and it has to always be. We can’t ever forget this, or we may do it again.

            Reply to Comment
          • Lewis from Afula

            There’s almost nothing psitive about America. Its politics and culture are the definition of hatred, bigotry and might is right. It’s anti-intellectual, chauvinistic, crass, mindless, and cruel. They should rename it “Uncle Scam”.

            There, fixed it for you, Rivka.

            Reply to Comment
          • Rivka Koen

            ¿Por qué no los dos?

            Did you expect me to not agree with that?

            Reply to Comment
    2. Joel

      A curious article. An attempt at serious discussion of religious vs. secular (over simplified, in my view, but a serious attempt). An interesting analysis of the political ramifications of Bibi’s legal problems, then the author puts on his Palestinian Glasses and finds that “The right faces one more internal weakness…the Palestinians aren’t going anywhere”. A Diplomatic Challenge- could be. A Moral Challenge- perhaps. A Security Issue- could be. An Internal Weakness- I’m afraid not. It’s not “internal”, and it isn’t driving internal Israeli politics.

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        Everything’s “could be” and “perhaps” except when you want it to be definitely “isn’t”? I don’t think this succeeds as an argument. What are “Palestinian glasses”? Something you put on when you want to actually see the whole picture and take off the Israeli narcissistic “we Israeli Jews are the center of the world and the only people that matter” glasses?

        Reply to Comment
        • Joel

          Pay attention. I am simply pointing out that The Palestinian Issue is not an internal weakness of the Israeli right. It isn’t internal. And wrong as you think it may be, it not a weakness.

          Would you at least agree that it isn’t i nternal?

          Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            I think my point is that it is simplistic to categorically say it is simply not an “internal” issue, whatever that means. In a sense the Palestinian issue TOTALLY drives internal Israeli politics. It may not be a SHORT TERM weakness of the right but LONG TERM the whole argument of this Magazine is that it IS a weakness of the right and this article makes that case explicitly:

            “The gap between desire and reality is frustrating, especially considering that the right has been in control for more than a decade and enjoys a majority in the Knesset, the government, and among voters. Smotrich is taking out his frustrations on the judicial system, and thus fraying relations between Netanyahu and Israel’s elites. Liberman is taking out his frustration on the ultra-Orthodox and putting Netanyahu’s relationship with his allies to the test. Both of them reflect a loss of direction for the Israeli right. The right knows how to get into power, it has a majority of the Israeli public behind it — it just doesn’t know what to do with it.”

            Reply to Comment
          • Joel

            No, the Palestinian issue doesn’t drive Israel politics, much as you wish it did. Israelis tried working for peace, but gave up on the Palestinian issue when the Oslo agreements and withdrawal from Gaza blew up in our faces. Literally.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            You no doubt believe this. The right wing Israeli public has a lot of smug ideas about this that are based on disinformation, on carefully crafted propaganda narratives. I shall provide three accounts that undermine your narrative.

            Part One:

            ‘”Israel has offered the Palestinians everything but they have turned down every offer and walked away.” Those making this statement go on to say that at Camp David prime minister Ehud Barak offered Yasser Arafat the whole shop, but Arafat was not interested in making peace. Arafat refused to give up the right of return and was not interested in a Palestinian state. The truth is that at Camp David Barak offered Arafat 89 percent of the West Bank with full Israeli control of Palestine’s external borders – the Palestinians called it a sovereign cage. Barak’s proposal included two east-west corridors under full Israeli control, cutting the West Bank into three cantons. Barak did not offer the Palestinians a capital in east Jerusalem, but in Abu Dis, which is outside of Jerusalem, and perhaps some control of the outlying Palestinian neighborhoods. Israel would continue to control all of the main Palestinian neighborhoods in east Jerusalem and the Old City. Barak demanded a place for Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount, which is what led directly to the failure of Camp David. On the issue of refugees, a total of six hours of talks took place in two weeks, during which time Arafat said that there had to be a solution for the refugees and that he could not give up the right of return on behalf of the refugees. This was the essence of Barak’s “take it or leave it proposal.” There isn’t a Palestinian alive who could accept it.’
            http://m.jpost.com/Opinion/Encountering-Peace-Debunking-myths-428662#article=6017N0MyRjhGNzJBQzhDRDlGODRGNDZCMDE1OEVBQzY2RTQ=

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            Part Two:

            ‘Years later Barak’s top advisors would come to lament the role they played in creating that spin. As Peter Beinart notes in his book, The Crisis of Zionism, Barak aide Tal Ziberstein admitted that the “no-partner” campaign was one of the things he regretted most. Eldad Yaniv, Barak’s former campaign adviser and well known politico who has worked closely with politicians of all stripes added: “Ten years later, there are still people who say, ‘We gave them everything at Camp David and got nothing.’ That is a flagrant lie… I was one of the people behind this false and miserable spin.”‘
            http://972mag.com/the-life-and-death-of-the-israeli-peace-camp/116979

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            Part Three:

            Seth Ackerman explains further the process of disinformation and myth creating:

            The Myth of the Generous Offer
            Distorting the Camp David negotiations
            By Seth Ackerman
            http://fair.org/extra/the-myth-of-the-generous-offer/

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            Part Five:
            Finally, you present Oslo as a thing *the Israelis* are disappointed in, which, as I see it, mostly gets it backwards. The Israelis, regardless off the intention of the initial signers, in practice used Oslo to entrench and extend the occupation, and I don’t think they ever acted in good faith with regards to it. It became a kind of trick, in which Area C, voila, became a kind of automatic, de facto, magically annexed territory that “everyone agrees we have control over by law, didn’t you realize this when you signed the Oslo Accords?” And Area B becomes a “disputed territory” and a thing to grab as much of it as they can, and Area A becomes the reservation the Palestinians get shoved on to by the colonists when the whole “process” is over.
            Oslo was, and is, a disaster alright, just not in the way the right wing would like us to imagine. The Palestinians should have realized that, regardless of what the architects of if intended, Oslo was inevitably going to be used to dispossess, used as a trick, basically, and in hindsight they never should have signed on to it without additional safeguards and guarantees. The settler population in the occupied West Bank is more than three times the size it was in 1993. That is not consistent with Israel ever acting in good faith. It ultimately used the Oslo accords to buy time and entrench the occupation and gobble up the land. As explained here:

            An agreement on indefinite occupation: Oslo celebrates 19 years [25 years now]
            By Noam Sheizaf | September 13, 2012
            https://972mag.com/an-agreement-on-indefinite-occupation-oslo-celebrates-19-years/55788/

            Reply to Comment
          • Joel

            Rather than look at your spin or Barak’s spin, let’s ask the basic question: Did Israel give anything in a pursuit of peace? And what did Israel get in return?
            What Israel gave was control of a large part of the West Bank (Remember the PA?), as well as Gaza.
            What Israel got was terror.
            These are plain facts.

            One can spin the history, or claim that “had Israel only done X Y or Z, things would be different”. But the average Israeli knows what we gave and what we received.

            By the way- why do you think Israel hasn’t been able to accept the “Right to Return”?

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            Excuse me but this is much too simplistic to be meaningful, it’s a kind of non-answer. Your question is not “the basic” one. In its dismissiveness is a contempt for the facts, and definitely contains an escape on your part from reading and engaging with anything seriously here. One sees the level at which “the average Israeli knows what we gave and what we received.” You throw around “terror” as an all-purpose explanation but it won’t wash. What have the Palestinians ever got from the Israelis except terror? The occupation is terror. A fact Israelis never seem to realize. (See “Israel is the terrorist,” by Ilana Hammerman, Haaretz.)
            The second intifada is a factor made to bear here more explanatory weight than it can carry. No one is excusing the violence but the fact is, had there been no second intifada and no violence by the Palestinians, Israelis would have felt very comfortable doing absolutely nothing but smugly repeat the mantras that “things are quiet, time is on our side, we are managing the conflict nicely and besides we gave them everything and they turned it down” and the settlers and the army would have proceeded violently apace, as they did anyway. (See: Noam Sheizaf, “Why do we only listen to violence?”, +972 Magazine.)
            You are cavalier with the word “spin.” Where’s the spin? You didn’t even read it. You internally contradict yourself.
            “X, Y and Z”? As everyone knows, there does exist an X, Y and Z that constitutes a minimum price that, if Israel paid, would forge an absolutely workable 2SS. Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated for giving far less than X, Y and Z.
            As for being able to accept the right of return, sorry, Israel has not been able accept anything, short of total annexation. Israel has never been serious about giving up occupied territory. An agreed upon downsized or token solution to the RoR is entirely workable, IF Israel ever gave a Palestinian leader enough else besides that he could have enough sell the deal to his people. Israel has never given nearly enough for a minimally fair and decent solution.

            Reply to Comment
          • Joel

            Ben, The lesson we (and I personally) have learned is clear. The peace process with the Palestinians, specifically the Oslo accords, backfired. This was a signed agreement, and it lead to hundreds being killed as buses exploded all over the country. You spin this with “Israelis only understand violence”- but where is the end of that? Guess what? The end is that Israelis get fed up with the “peace process”, get concerned about security, and vote for parties on the right. No, it isn’t fun, or nice, it’s not the dream, it isn’t the Progressive Future many would like, and it is not good for our kids to be dealing with this mess when they are in uniform. But terror is worse.

            This is reality.

            So, as it turns out, we do understand violence, but not in the way that you think.

            Reply to Comment
          • Rivka Koen

            Israel didn’t keep its end of the agreement, so why should Palestinians have done so? Settlements continued, Palestinian activists were held without charges for as many as ten years(!), and yet somehow it’s all their fault that they realized Israel was just paying lip service to the agreement and started fighting back?

            Reply to Comment
          • Carmen

            Thanks for your posts Rivka, too few female voices being heard.

            Reply to Comment
          • Lewis from Afula

            Most female voices in Israel voted for the Likud and its right wing allies.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            We all have to unlearn mistaken lessons we have learned in life if we are to grow.

            “but where is the end of that? Guess what? The end is that Israelis get fed up with the “peace process”, get concerned about security, and vote for parties on the right.”

            This is precisely the dynamic Noam Sheizaf illuminates with real insight and historical verisimilitude. Really I feel that in all of this exchange you have not read a single thing I have offered you. Instead you know what you know, and the problem with that is that it just ain’t so.

            Riva is correct.

            Reply to Comment
          • Lewis from Afula

            Ben needs to grow up and join the Real World.
            The Haaretz reading is filling his head with PLO propaganda.

            Reply to Comment
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