NOTE: I’ve just published a new piece, Israel’s “AI Kill” against Iran has no long-term strategic benefit, but profound moral and legal ramifications at The New Arab. It comments on Israel’s “achievement” as the first country in the world to assassinate someone using artificial intelligence. It critiques the NY TImes article extolling the virtues of the Mossad’s murder of the father of Iran’s nuclear program, Moshen Fakhrizadeh. This is my first piece for New Arab since 2016 and I’m delighted to be contributing to this fine publication.
The President of the State of Israel is an honorific post with little in the way of actual political power. The closest the job ever comes to real political decision-making power is when he has to name the prime minister. In the past few deadlocked elections, Pres. Rivlin attempted to force coalitions on somewhat unwilling partners. He used suasion in that case to facilitate an outcome that would benefit the nation.
Despite its limited role, it is a post that is coveted and sought by political leaders, usually as a reward for service to their Party or State. Isaac Herzog was a loyal Labor Party operative for decades. For his service, he was named chairman of the Jewish Agency (another sinecure offered to the politically-connected) following the decade or more in which Natan Sharansky served in that role.
Herzog has mostly been a plain vanilla politician. He never had the fire in the belly to run for prime Minister. Though he served as Labor Party leader, it was on its downhill slide. All this history was one of the reasons he could win posts like the Jewish Agency head or the presidency.
But in the past few days, a series of scandals has shocked Herzog, the current Israeli president, who’s never been especially associated with such controversy.
Last week, Herzog commuted the sentence of attorney Gila Naftalin and released her from prison. She had been serving a two year sentence for falsifying documents, testifying falsely under oath, and engaging in fraud. Among the most serious of her crimes was forging a will claiming a deceased client, who had once been nanny of Naftalin’s own children, had bequeathed an estate worth well over $1-million to the attorney. The woman’s daughters were thus cheated out of their own inheritance. In another case, she stole over $300,000 from a different client.
Herzog commuted Naftalin’s sentence against the recommendation of the State Prosecutor who noted that the defendant had not completed her rehabilitation program. It worried that if released she might resort to the same criminal behavior. Yet among Herzog’s claims was that every relevant state legal authority consulted approved of his commutation of her sentence.
Why did Herzog free her? Because Naftalin is the sister of Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, the rabbi who controls the Kotel. And why is this pertinent? Because Rabinowitz won his job after lobbying by the then-political advisor to Prime Minister Ehud Barak. Who was this advisor? You guessed it: Isaac Herzog. Thanks to Hannah Kim who revealed a good deal of this dirt on her Twitter timeline.
In case Herzog needs a recommendation for prisoners who truly deserve clemency or commutation, I offer Dirar Abusisi, who isn’t even guilty of the crimes for which he’s rotted in prison for ten years. And Marwan Barghouti, who may or may not be guilty of the crimes for which he was convicted. But if released he could singlehandedly negotiate an end to the conflict. Depending of course on Israeli willingness to compromise and negotiate in good faith (all doubtful propositions, I’m afraid).
Rabinowitz as Kotel Rain-Maker and Enforcer
There are obvious reasons why Rabinowitz coveted this position. Obviously, being the senior religious authority responsible for one of the holiest sites in Judaism is a great honor. But there are less obvious benefits. Rabinowitz runs the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, a US charity with $21-million in assets. Among its donors are some of the wealthiest far-right pro-Israel families in the country including the Falics of Duty Free America Shops. Rabinowitz even penned a column in the Jerusalem Post memorializing one of the Falic brothers:
This Friday, the 10th of Tevet, will mark two years since the passing of Fima Falic, of blessed memory. He was a special man, a Kohen, a lover of the nation of Israel and the Land of Israel, a lover of Jerusalem and a friend of the Western Wall. Much has been written and much is yet to be written about this man and the family he left behind. But one of the things I often recall is his blessing of his children and grandchildren every Friday evening. From the sidelines, I was always moved by seeing that while doing so, his heart was filled with glory and pride, tears and joy. May this be for the transcendence of his soul.
What Rabinowitz doesn’t mention is that the Falics are major funders of some of the most violent Kahanist groups and settlements. Among them the anti-miscegenist Lehava and Ateret Cohanim, which steals Palestinian homes as part of its Judaizing project in East Jerusalem. The Falics also spent extravagantly in founding the Psagot West Bank winery.
The Western Wall Foundation funds the archeological digs at the Kotel, which are part and parcel of the religious war with the Waqf Islamic authorities at Haram al Sharif. The Foundation is a key facilitator of the nationalist project of laying a Jewish claim to this contested sacred space. Its non-profit status means that the US taxpayer is subsidizing this religious war through the tax-deductions offered to American donors. Further, one of the Foundation’s directors is Jay Marcus, whose Central Fund for Israel is the largest US funder of Israeli settlement colonies.
Rabinowitz’s position also makes him responsible for the degradation meted out to non-Orthodox women who attempt to pray at the Kotel. That includes violent assaults against Women of the Wall, defiling holy prayer books, spitting on worshippers, and calling police to arrest leaders of the group.
Though Isaac Herzog is a long-time funtionary in the Labor Party, he is directly responsible for the appointment of a rabbi as the Kotel’s spiritual custodian who has presided over tremendous religious violence and hatred at the site.
Herzog’s father was an IDF major general, also president of Israel, and a founder of one of Israel’s most powerful law firms, Herzog Fox Neeman (his grandfather was chief rabbi of Ireland and pr). Herzog fils is a lawyer as well. Rabinowitz and Herzog have a longstanding close relationship. But I haven’t been able to determine how it developed.
There is more: Naftalin was represented in her clemency filing by former deputy state prosecutor, Shuki Lemberger. Why is this pertinent? Because Lemberger’s brother Mumi, is currently deputy state prosecutor. The judge in Naftalin’s case levelled severe criticism on the prosecution for taking seven years to bring her case to trial. Given the conflict of interest involved in one brother representing Naftalin and the other representing the prosecution, this can be no accident.
Shuki Lemberger’s nephew (the son of Mumi) is married to the daughter of Supreme Court Justice Noam Solberg. Solberg is especially known as the first justice to be a settler living in an Israeli colonial settlement. Attorney Gonen Ben Yitzchak has already filed a complaint against Herzog in Naftalin matter. If it reaches the Supreme Court what are the odds that Solberg would recuse himself? Highly unlikely.
Though these may seem like minor scandals compared to the enormity of the suffering Israel inflicts every day on Palestinians, it’s important to establish the pattern of corruption and self-dealing that is at the heart of the Israeli state.
If you are poor, Mizrahi, a woman, or Palestinian you can hope for nothing within the state system. But if you are rich, powerful, well-connected, male and Ashkenazi you can work the system to your benefit. This systemic corruption is a feature of Israel. It could not be the racist apartheid state it is without the endemic domestic injustices outlined here.
Silverstein has published Tikun Olam since 2003, It exposes the secrets of the Israeli national security state. He lives in Seattle, but his heart is in the east. He publishes regularly at Middle East Eye, the New Arab, and Jacobin Magazine. His work has also appeared in Al Jazeera English, The Nation, Truthout and other outlets.