The prison walls seemed to melt away, and all was well in the world as the open road beckoned
When Israeli voters trudge to the polls, they hope they’ve chosen men of vision; recently, though, all they’ve got for their pains are politicians making a spectacle.
Day after day (and often night after filibustered night as well), Knesset sessions have become a slugfest. The opposition excoriates the coalition, and the coalition thumb noses at their nemeses. Netanyahu trades barbs with Bennett; and MKs entertain each other on the taxpayer’s agorah with Superman jokes.
It’s enough to drive the unbiased observer to question: What are they there for, anyway?
After a grueling encounter with Israeli transport laws this week, which seems to have changed the fate of many motorists like myself, I can confirm that there is at least one Knesset member who’s worth his weight in gold shekels. Here, exclusive to Mishpacha, is the scoop.
It all began last Tuesday morning when a letter — of the faded, low-toner variety that marks government communications — arrived Chez Guttentag.
After the bureaucratese was deciphered, the contents were enough to give one heartburn. “Since you haven’t taken your mandatory driving refresher course within the allotted time,” read the epistle, “your license is hereby suspended.”
Drawing a modest veil over the reason why I’d had to take an eight-hour course followed by a driving theory test (I’d accumulated points, not of the good kind), I quickly realized that I was stuck.
With school ending and baking-hot summer holidays looming, I was left without legal means to drive. The next available course turned out to be weeks away; the Transport Ministry’s emergency hotline warned of a 48-hour turnaround time; and there was no one to hear my honest complaint that I had no idea my license was under threat.
There’s an old chareidi joke that when a light bulb needs changing, you call an MK — so that’s what I did.
It turned out that Degel HaTorah MK Uri Maklev had just finished a stint as deputy transport minister in the Netanyahu government. Maklev’s aide listened to the problem, and promised to check with one of the senior civil servants in the ministry what could be done in cases like this.
“In the meantime,” he advised, “go to the Transport Ministry office. The choice to reconsider the suspension is theirs.”
So bright and early the next morning, I presented myself at the modest branch of the ministry in Beit Shemesh — and was greeted with an iron wall, in the form of an uncompromising guard.
“Without appointments you can’t come in,” he said.
The next appointment, I discovered, was in two weeks’ time. Visions of a broiling, carless summer washed over me, and with Tehillim in mind, I texted Maklev’s aide once again.
“I can’t help you get an appointment,” he wrote. “But I’m working on something else.”
By Wednesday lunchtime, I had already resigned myself to a summer exploring Israel’s bus networks with overheating children in tow.
Then lightning struck, in the form of a Transport Ministry press release.
“For attention of drivers who’ve received notices in the last few days,” read the short text, forwarded by a friend. “All license suspensions have been delayed until the end of 2021.”
Checking online news reports, it turned out to be true, and it didn’t take long to find out what had happened. Uri Maklev had raised the problem with the ministry, who agreed that the suspensions were unfair since the test centers had been shut during the coronavirus lockdowns.
The prison walls seemed to melt away, and all was well in the world as the open road beckoned.
I’ll never know how many marooned motorists I rescued this week with my unexpected foray into Israeli policy-making. But the experience was a timely reminder of the vital role that MKs like Uri Maklev perform in the country’s functioning.
That’s because even the best-intentioned bureaucrats spend their lives building policies and crafting laws — like my sudden license suspension — at a distance from the people who have to live with them.
At its worst, detached policy-making can lead to social unrest: witness the Yellowjackets protests that rocked France in 2018. French elites were shocked to hear that cash-strapped ordinary people resented being forced to give up their polluting old cars to protect the environment.
Things are not normally as dramatic as that; but too often, ordinances handed down from on high in some ministry are simply unworkable in real life.
That’s where, in an ideal world, members of parliament can come in, acting as a high-profile lightning rod for complaints large and small. How often does that actually happen? It depends. In Israel, the champions seem to be chareidi MKs. Over the course of Covid, Israelis from across the spectrum used lawmakers like Degel HaTorah’s Yaakov Asher or Shas’s Michael Malkieli to cut through red tape for them.
And there’s a second lesson from the Saga of the License, which is a warning sign for the parties now in opposition.
The Knesset is no different than Washington, D.C., or Westminster — it’s not what you know, but who you know. MKs are only as good as their connections in Israel’s bureaucracy; the civil servant you helped yesterday is the one who can open a door for you tomorrow.
As the right-wing bloc rails against the perfidy of the Bennett-led government and vows to replace it tomorrow, many MKs know that they could be on the opposition benches for a while. And the longer they spend out of power and out of proximity to the civil servants who really run the country, the less they can help their constituents. Particularly for the chareidi public, which is vastly under-represented in the civil service’s decision-making forums, that’s a sobering thought.
So as I drove off into the setting sun, thanking Hashem for a license returned and meditating on the utility of politicians, I realized one thing.
After years of deadlock, Israelis of all stripes have a jaundiced view of their politicians. If more of the 120 MKs were Uri Maklevs, quietly working the phones for the man in the street, we’d be in a better place.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 870)
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