Op-ed: Day 145 of the war

Half of Israel stays away from democracy * Friction helps Biden and the PM * SIMs signs

In an Israel grappling with the trauma of Oct. 7 and the war, it is understandable that local elections were not a priority. But it’s a shame, nonetheless, that so many didn’t vote

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

This handout photo released by the Israel Defense Forces on February 27, 2024, shows soldiers casting their municipal elections ballots at a polling site in the Gaza Strip, amid the war there against Hamas. (Israel Defense Forces)
This handout photo released by the Israel Defense Forces on February 27, 2024, shows soldiers casting their municipal elections ballots at a polling site in the Gaza Strip, amid the war there against Hamas. (Israel Defense Forces)

This Editor’s Note was sent out earlier Wednesday in ToI’s weekly update email to members of the Times of Israel Community. To receive these Editor’s Notes as they’re released, join the ToI Community here.

For the best part of a year, after the Netanyahu coalition in January 2023 unveiled its intended subjugation of the independent court system, hundreds of thousands of Israelis took to the streets in defense of our democracy. The vast weekly nationwide protests asserted that the coalition of right, far-right and ultra-Orthodox did not have a mandate to unilaterally destroy the sensitive balance of power between the elected majority and the judiciary — the only entity in our system of governance capable of reining in anti-democratic abuse by the political leadership.

The protests only ended when Hamas invaded southern Israel on October 7 and slaughtered 1,200 people, Israel was plunged into war, Hezbollah opened a second front on the northern border, and hundreds of thousands of reservists were called up.

But the rallies have restarted again in recent weeks, pegged now to demands for immediate general elections.

Protesters have been mobilized afresh by proof of the government’s critically wrongheaded pre-October 7 policy of trying to buy off Hamas; Benjamin Netanyahu’s ongoing refusal to acknowledge his responsibility as prime minister for the failure to prevent the Hamas onslaught; the abiding dysfunction of the government in managing most aspects of the impact of the war on the citizenry; the coalition’s determination to maintain the untenable exclusion of the ultra-Orthodox community from military and other national service even as the IDF cries out for recruits and moves to lengthen mandatory and reserve service; criticism over the handling of hostage release efforts, and more. On Saturday night, just like the old times pre-war, the protests were violently confronted by mounted police and water cannons.

And yet, on Tuesday, when authorities defied predictions of chaos to enable the public to exercise, mid-war, the cherished democratic right to vote — in municipal elections held everywhere but in evacuated communities close to the Gaza and Lebanon borders — fully half the electorate did not turn up.

Protesters demanding ultra-Orthodox military conscription demonstrate outside the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, February 26, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In secular Tel Aviv, heartland of the anti-Netanyahu protests, where a strikingly high turnout for non-coalition candidates could have signaled the depth of anger, voter participation, as reported on the Interior Ministry’s official website at this writing, was an ignominious 40.6%. (There was never much doubt, it should be noted, that Mayor Ron Huldai, an opponent of the coalition, would be reelected, defeating another opposition figure, ex-Yesh Atid MK Orna Barbivai.)

In Jerusalem, where non-ultra-Orthodox residents perpetually complain about rising Haredi power, the turnout was a yet more dismal 31.5% — a statistic exacerbated by the large Arab population’s ongoing boycott of municipal elections. The ultra-Orthodox parties are consequently poised, for the first time, to gain a majority on the 31-member city council, depending on the final tally.

The ultra-Orthodox turnout everywhere in Israel — in both national and local elections — is always reliably high, and that clearly appears to have been the case on Tuesday as well. The breakdown by neighborhoods in Jerusalem is not available as of this writing. But there’s a pretty obvious pointer in Bnei Brak, the overwhelmingly ultra-Orthodox Tel Aviv suburb, where turnout was a healthy 70.2%.

Israel gave the entire electorate a day off work to make sure there was no impediment to voting. The authorities even set up polling stations deep inside Gaza for the large numbers of soldiers fighting there.

Israel is grappling with the trauma of October 7 and the ongoing war. It is understandable that local elections were not a priority. But it’s a shame, nonetheless, that half the public stayed away.

Ultra-Orthodox Jew at the headquarters of United Torah Judaism party in Beit Shemesh, outside Jerusalem, during the Municipal Elections there on February 27, 2024. (Yaakov Lederman/Flash90)

A complex deal, US-Israel friction, and Ramadan

How fares the complex, fraught negotiation on a new hostages-for-Palestinian terror prisoners deal and an accompanying truce in the IDF war to destroy Hamas?

Nobody who’s talking really knows and, unsurprisingly, those who really know aren’t talking.

We think that a US-formulated draft, agreed in principle by Israel and conveyed to Hamas by Qatari and Egyptian mediators, provides for the potential release of 40 Israeli hostages — women, children, the elderly and the sick — in return for some 400 Palestinian security prisoners, during a six-week truce, with the potential for further exchanges and pauses to be negotiated.

We think that Israel’s leadership broadly, though not absolutely, endorses the terms. We hear that Hamas, via Qatar, has denounced them and still wants an Israeli commitment to end the war without completing the dismantling of Hamas’s military and governance capabilities — something Israel refuses to contemplate — but that this does not amount to a complete Hamas rejection.

US President Joe Biden eats ice cream at Van Leeuwen Ice Cream, February 26, 2024, in New York, as Seth Meyers watches. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

We know that US President Joe Biden, ad-libbing over his ice cream cone, said on Monday that he hopes for a deal by next Monday, March 4, a strikingly definitive statement that apparently had Israeli officials scratching their heads.

We think that the IDF is holding off from a major operation in Rafah, where four Hamas battalions are intact and bolstered by gunmen from elsewhere in the Strip, to give time for a deal to come to fruition.

We know that Biden and his administration have yet to be persuaded that Israel has a viable plan for evacuating the million-plus Gazans in Rafah, to enable it to tackle Hamas there without causing unthinkable harm to noncombatants, and that the IDF presented its Rafah plan to the war cabinet on Monday night.

We know that Biden hopes a temporary deal will “change the dynamic” and ultimately set in motion a process to end the war, ensure Hamas is removed from power, and create momentum ultimately leading to a two-state solution with a reformed Palestinian Authority governing in both the West Bank and Gaza.

We think that the notion of a two-state solution in the foreseeable future has minimal support in Israel in the aftermath of October 7, even among Israelis who regard eventual separation from the Palestinians as the only means of ensuring Israel can remain democratic and majority Jewish.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a press conference at the Prime Minister’s Office, Jerusalem, February 17, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)

We can see that Biden’s frequent talk of Palestinian statehood, and his repeated criticisms of the far-right component of Netanyahu’s coalition, make political sense for a US president battling for reelection amid considerable hostility from within his own Democratic Party for his support of Israel’s determination to destroy Hamas.

We can see that Netanyahu’s rejection of the US vision of Palestinian Authority rule in Gaza and of a fully sovereign Palestinian state makes political sense for a prime minister determined to remain in power despite October 7, convinced that his prospects keep improving the further that black Shabbat recedes, and well aware of the electorate’s current opposition to, and fear of, strengthening Palestinian independence.

And, finally, we recognize that Ramadan is barely a week and a half away, and that its advent  — and especially the risk of violence at the Al-Aqsa compound atop the Temple Mount, and for that violence to spread deeper into East Jerusalem, and to every other internal, adjacent and regional front — has the potential to rewrite everything we know and think we know.

SIM shortsightedness

Overnight October 6-7, dozens of Hamas terrorists in Gaza put Israeli SIM cards into their mobile phones.

There was only one practical reason why they would have done so — to enable  them to communicate from inside Israel, where Gaza’s mobile phone networks do not provide coverage.

And yet, while Israeli intelligence registered what was going on, the military-security establishment decided that the process was either a drill — because they’d seen it happen before — or, in a worst-case scenario, that it presaged a minor effort by Hamas to breach the border. A Shin Bet team dispatched to the border area reported nothing noticeably amiss. A few hours passed without incident, and defense officials determined that further investigation could wait till morning.

Palestinians ride on an Israeli military vehicle taken from an army base overrun by Hamas terrorists near the Gaza Strip fence, in Gaza City, October 7, 2023. (Abed Abu Reash/AP)

The SIMs story was revealed this week by the pro-Netanyahu TV station Channel 14, which broke censorship to report it and falsely inflated the figure to 1,000 Israeli SIMs installed, the better to hype the defense establishment’s failures and to purportedly distance Netanyahu from them. The PMO quickly issued a statement claiming Netanyahu had known nothing about the incident until the Channel 14 broadcast, then backtracked to acknowledge that he was told about it, with the accurate number of SIMs, a few days into the war.

There is, of course, no place for spin surrounding the cataclysm of October 7. The revelation of yet another staggering piece of intelligence information that should have shattered the political and military leadership’s insistence that Hamas was not bent on mass murder only underlines the unfathomable, unconscionable scale of the failure — the failure that, 145 days later, continues to overshadow all of our lives.

Most Popular
read more: