Wednesday, September 16, 2020

The "Abraham Accords" - Are We Any Closer to Middle East Peace?"


We watched the signing of the "Abraham Accords" yesterday with interest.  It was a big deal for Israel.  After all, any time that Israel can sign peace treaties (okay, normalization treaties) with other Arab countries, that is bound to be a big deal.  The deal and the process have elicited some very polarized reactions so I thought it would be worthwhile to provide a  few comments about this  process.

First of all, I think it is fair to acknowledge that, however we got here, this type  of deal is a favourable and beneficial deal for most players in the region.  Although it may be characterized primarily  as an "arms deal" between the U.S. and the UAE wherein the U.S. will now sell F-35s and other weaponry to the UAE, there is more to it than that.  The UAE and Israel have begun to negotiate deals and arrangements in a wide range of areas including technology, medicine, energy, tourism and, yes, defence.  This type of relationship, if it proceeds, will lead to a much warmer peace than Israel has with Egypt or  Jordan.  If it takes root and develops, it may well lead to a very different Middle East.  Other countries may come along and the peace between Israel and Egypt may develop further.   Israelis may soon find  themselves  visiting more Arab  countries regularly and vice-versa and that is exciting.

At the signing ceremony yesterday, including the accompanying press conferences, President Trump stated that he expected "5 or 6 other countries" to come along very soon.  Apparently, after the press conference he upped this to "7 to 9."   Now, I don't really think, given the track record, that anyone has any great reason to believe very much of what this president promises.  Who knows what these other countries are demanding in the negotiations?   Or how far apart they really are?  Or whether any of these deals can really be closed?  But I will say this - if Israel were to be able to enter deals with 5 or 6 other countries - including some large and significant ones - that would have to be considered a huge step towards Middle East  peace and a brighter future for the whole region.  So far, the names I have heard mentioned include Oman, Sudan, Morocco, Lebanon, and, ultimately, Saudi Arabia.  It would certainly be a huge credit to Trump and Kushner if they were able to close most or all of these deals.

If the other countries do not fall into line as expected, yesterday's  deal may not amount to very much and  may not change much in the region.  Some indications from yesterday's proceedings support a pessimistic view about the  whole ordeal.   Neither Bahrain nor the UAE brought their heads of state.  Instead, each side brought their foreign ministers (secretaries of state, if you will).  For Israel, the Foreign Minister, Gabi Ashkenazi (part of the Blue and White wing of the governing coalition) was left at home and did not attend with Prime Minister Netanyahu.  In fact, press reports here indicate that he wasn't even aware of the contents of the deal.  Neither the Israeli cabinet nor the Israeli Knesset have yet voted to approve the deal and it is unclear that anyone, other than Netanyahu, is aware of its full contents.

Prime Minister Netanyahu and the representatives from the UAE and Bahrain all spoke glowingly about President Trump.  That seems to have been one of the  key terms of the deal.  In fact, Netanyahu did not even acknowledge the foreign representatives from the UAE and Bahrain until later in his speech.  He did  not speak about plans for Israel and the UAE.  One might have thought he could  have publicly invited the UAE and Bahrain leaders to visit Israel during this speech or he could have reviewed some of the hopes and aspirations that citizens of each country might have.  But instead, the focus was on Netanyahu himself as well as Trump.  It is a shame that Netanyahu seems so willing to go  along with turning Israel into a partisan issue in United States politics.  I am not convinced that this is a policy that is in Israel's interests  long term, especially if Trump should lose the  November election.

For their part, the representatives of the UAE and Bahrain also went along with the cue to lavish praise upon President Trump,  repeatedly.  All that was missing was  an official ring-kissing procession.   They both said little about Israel but called for peace across the Middle East.  The Bahraini representative called for a "just  resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian" conflict but really did not discuss what was so great about this particular deal for Bahrain and Israel respectively.  The ceremony, overall, had the feel of a campaign rally for Trump and Netanyahu rather than a key diplomatic event.

Critics of the deal and of the Trump-Kushner approach to the Middle East  have argued that Trump has titled U.S. policy towards Israel and has effectively taken positions that Bibi himself would have put forward.  In some cases, this  is fair comment.  the Trump administration has cut aid to the Palestinians, has recognized Jerusalem as Israel's capital and has recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights.  The Trump administration has also put together a "Deal of the Century" proposal for peace between Israel and the Palestinians without Palestinian involvement.  And  yes, it is a fairly one-sided document.

That being said, the Trump-Kushner proposal, does call for an independent Palestinian State, something rejected  by Netanyahu,  his Likud party and the various parties to the right of Likud in the  Knesset.  It does not include all of the territory that the Palestinians would like and  it does  not include a right of return to Israel for the many Palestinian refugees.  But it does include territorial compromise by Israel and  it is a negotiable plan rather than the a bottom line.  It is unclear whether there would be any negotiations regarding Jerusalem.

It is true that  this approach tilts towards Israel.  But it has also true that previous plans including  the Arab League Plan and the Clinton plan tilted, almost  completely, to the  Palestinian side, especially the Arab League Plan which called for a Palestinian state on pre-1967 borders including  the Old City.  Even where Israeli leaders were willing to go along with a plan that included most of these terms (i.e. the Clinton plan in 2000) that was not acceptable to the Palestinians.  I  do think that a Clinton-type plan left the station shortly after Arafat rejected it.  Especially after political changes in Israel that were probably linked, to some extent, to the rejectionist approach of the Palestinians at the time.

For years the surrounding Arab countries have  been willing to support Palestinian intransigence by characterizing Israel as the main enemy and  threat in the  region and refusing to enter into peace and  normalization deals with Israel - for fear of having been viewed as  betraying the Palestinian cause.  But over the course of the past 53 years since the 1967 war and 72 years since the establishment of the State of Israel, this has been a failing policy.  It has led to  a great deal of war and violence, terrorism, perennial refugee camps and has helped bolster dictatorial regimes in the region who have  used the Palestinian cause to suppress their own populations and  downplay  other criticism about how their countries are run.  And it really hasn't brought the Palestinians any closer to their own state.

The current approach led by Trump and  Kushner marks a  significant departure from this failed policy.  On the  one hand, the U.S. has tilted towards Israel in some areas, much to the chagrin of the EU, the "progressive wing" of the Democratic Party, Turkey, Iran and some other countries.  On the other hand, the goal of the policy seems to be to  bring in other Arab nations, to become friends and allies of Israel - but also to help work towards a resolution of the Israel-Palestinian conflict in a way that is more realistic. 

It is noteworthy that Netanyahu has called the deals with the UAE and Bahrain "deals from strength" that trade "peace for peace" rather than "land for peace."  But Netanyahu is being disingenuous.  As  part of these deals, Israel has agreed to refrain from unilaterally annexing any of the disputed territories and has also agreed not to oppose a U.S. decision to sell the UAE F-35s.   

The Crown Prince of the UAE states that he believed that the UAE could be in a much better position to assist with the Israeli -Palestinian conflict if it were viewed with some measure of trust and  friendship by Israel.  The UAE and Israel have taken steps  to build that relationship since as early as 2010.  But this does mark  a new  phase - and concurrently, a potentially new level of influence for the UAE in its dealings with Israel.  By including a requirement that  Israel abandon any proposal  to unilaterally annex land, some of which is earmarked for a future Palestinian state, the UAE has signified that it will take an active role in trying to bring about a resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

That brings us to the current situation.  There are really a few very different routes that  this process may now take.

If Trump and Kushner are correct that this process has the potential to bring about a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians - I believe that Saudi Arabia would be the key turning point.  Saudi Arabia may well have the clout to insist that it will only sign a full peace deal with Israel if the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is resolved.  

In this scenario, a proposal or  plan may be developed that is somewhere between the Trump-Kushner plan and the Clinton Plan.  It would result in the formation of a Palestinian State and a full resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian  conflict.  The problem is that it may not be acceptable, initially, to the Palestinians or even the Israelis.  But here the hope would be that the combination of the support  of a large number of other Arab countries, financial, economic and other  assistance for the Palestinians would leave the Palestinians with no other real alternatives.

On the other side of the equation, Netanyahu has actively campaigned against the creation of a Palestinian state and has suggested that he opposes this part of the Trump-Kushner plan.  He stated this repeatedly during the last Israeli election campaign.  But at some  point, if pushed by Trump and  Kushner - and with the possibility of having  diplomatic relations, even  warm ones, with a large number of countries in the Middle East, Israel may also have no other real alternative but to accept the deal.

On the other hand, no matter what Trump, Kushner or Netanyahu do, there will continue to be rejectionists in the Middle East.   Iran, Turkey, Qatar, Hezbollah and Hamas have all registered their strong opposition to this approach and the Palestinian Authority has called the UAE and Bahrain "back stabbers."  If the other Middle Eastern countries will not go along with the  Trump-Kushner approach and if the PA decides to  turn to violence as its response (as it has many times in the past), an Israeli-Palestinian deal may be as far off as it has ever been.

If, in November, Trump is re-elected, he may decide to pressure Israel to accept a plan that he can sell to the other Arab countries - and ultimately try to use those countries to get the Palestinians to agree  as well.  There are a lot of "ifs"  here and Trump is very unpredictable.  And, of course, there is a still a good chance that he will not be re-elected.

If Biden is elected, he will have a difficult decision to make.  If he takes the Obama approach to the Middle East, that would mean trying to open up negotiations with Iran immediately, restoring funding to the Palestinians unconditionally and cooling the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia, the UAE and  others.  This may effectively end the current track of pushing for peace deals between Israel and neighbouring countries as a first step  towards peace.

But if  Biden is elected and  he can be convinced that some genuine progress has been made  - and the U.S. is close to brokering a peace deal between Saudi Arabia and  Israel (that also involves an Israel-Palestinian deal), Biden might even continue a version of this path.  He  will almost certainly restore funding to the Palestinians either way and try to re-open dialogue with the PA.  But he might not tilt U.S. policy back to where it was under Obama.

Overall, I think this is all a great opportunity for Israel.  The Palestinians rejected the Clinton plan in 2000 and lost what was probably the best proposal they might ever get from Israel.  They probably regret having done so even if they will not publicly admit it.  At this juncture, if Israel could reach a deal with the Palestinians, along the  lines of what has been proposed by Trump and  Kushner, it would probably be about the best deal Israel could hope to get even if the final deal involves additional Israeli concessions.  If it is a deal that would also involve full peace deals with most of the  surrounding Arab countries, it would be an opportunity that Israel would probably not want to pass up.  

While President Obama and Netanyahu had a great deal of public  quarrels, the U.S.-Israel relationship remained very strong throughout  Obama's presidency.  This was the case despite some of the steps taken by Obama over the course of his presidency, especially his support for anti-Israel UN resolutions at the very end of his second term and the dispute with Israel over the wisdom of the Iranian nuclear deal.  But at the same time, throughout the  Obama presidency, the U.S. continued to cooperate with Israel fully in  a wide range of technological, military, economic and  other areas despite the often successful efforts of Netanyahu to portray the situation otherwise.  President Obama did not take any significant steps to try and impose a deal on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

If Biden is elected, he may well look at all aspects of the Obama-Netanyahu relationship and find a way to do things a bit differently.  He  may want to restore the public perception of the U.S.-Israel relationship as one that is non-partisan even while repairing the U.S. relationship with the Palestinians.  He will have a challenging  time with Netanyahu in this regard but if the ultimate result is comprehensive peace between Israel and the Palestinians with most other Arab countries in agreement - it may make sense to continue a version of the Trump-Kushner approach even if a Biden vision is viewed as being a bit more balanced.  








Friday, September 4, 2020

September 2020 Blog: What's New In Israel (Limited Survey)

We are quickly approaching the High Holy days - Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur - and I haven't written anything in about two months.  So I figured that it was about time to provide some  comments - not necessarily connected  about things going on here in Israel.  I have actually been here for quite a stretch now - given Covid-19 - but I have still been quite busy professionally.  After all, my line of work is a busy one these days.  So this blog will be a bit of a stream of consciousness - about a few different topics.  We'll see how that  works out.

Covid-19

As you may know, Israel was one of the early leaders in keeping a lid on Covid-19.   The country was virtually shut down for a period of time in March/April - including airports, malls and most everything else commercially other than essential services.  Israel managed to get the number of new Covid cases down to less than 10 a day.  It looked like the virus would disappear.

But the government did not accompany that closure with a support plan for affected businesses or furloughed employees (although many employees were eligible to collect Employment Insurance and will now be able to do so until June 2021). It was a quick, complete and probably half-baked closure plan.  Soon enough, many  sectors of the economy tanked and  the pressure on the  Israeli government to reopen was tremendous.  As a result, the government  (which itself was in quite a bit of political  turmoil) implemented an equally half-baked re-opening plan and opened just about everything very quickly.  Before you could say "Russian vaccine," there were 500 people at weddings and planeloads of infected people arriving on international flights, primarily from the U.S.  The numbers began to climb rapidly.  But the government had expended its political capital on its initial closure plan - and on its haphazard opening plan.  I think it is  fair to say that it lost the public trust (if it ever really had it).  The numbers climbed drastically and Israel has now hit numbers in the range of 3,000 new infections a day, while at the same time having reduced the number of tests.  The government is internally divided and has not really come up with any plan to combat the every increasing spread of the virus.  

The latest plan announced on Wednesday night is an impending closure of 30 "red" cities in Israel - due to come into effect on Monday.  (Heaven forbid you should  implement it immediately - that would interfere with the enjoyment of Shabbat - or in the case of the Arab towns and cities - the enjoyment of Friday...).  As of the writing of this blog, I don't think anyone can assume that the proposed closure will definitely go ahead.  We may not know for sure until Sunday night. But stay tuned.

The Chaggim / Yamim  Nora'im

As mentioned, the Holy Day season is quickly approaching.  Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are only weeks away.  This is the time of year when synagogues are usually packed with wall to wall worshippers.  If the infection rate for Covid-19 is still this high, the Holydays could be real  "super-spreader" events and we could see the numbers rise to tens of thousands of new infections a day.  The Israeli government is torn in trying to figure out how to deal with this.

On the one hand, the scientific advisors to the government, including the special "Covid-19 Project Manager" are urging the government to shut down or  dramatically limit synagogues to no more than 10 or 20 worshippers and  to hold services outside as much as possible.  But the current Israeli government includes a large number of ultra-religious members of Knesset.  They are urging the government to permit full worship in synagogues.  I guess it is fair to say that many of them figure that whether or not they get the virus is a decision made from  above, rather than one affected by actions they might take here on earth.   And given the general lack of trust that the Israeli government has engendered through its earlier mishandling of closures and openings, I would imagine that the  ultra-orthodox community will  simply disregard any government orders that affect worship for the High Holydays.

Even for those of us who are more moderate in our approach to observance, figuring out the Holydays is a real challenge.  Our synagogue is planning to conduct a  few different services - some inside and some outside to keep the number of worshippers really limited - and to allow for physical distancing.  But we have still been wrestling with whether it sounds safe to go.  We normally play a significant role in these tefillot, our family reads from the Torah (all three of our "children" - they can't really be called "children" now), and participates in leading the services.  I have lead Musaf on Rosh Hashanah and for other services.  So I guess we have a short window to decide what to do.

For Yom Kippur, we  usually run a satellite service in Ra'anana.  Sometimes it has even been at our house, though the past few years, we have used the facilities of another synagogue in Ra'anana.  But this year, we have a range of opinions and issues.   How to keep the numbers down to 20, where to hold the services and other issues.  Things to deal with in the coming weeks  I guess.  But some of this falls on yours truly as one of the organizers of these  services.   So something to think about in the coming weeks (while working on preparations for leading Kol Nidrei and Neilah).  

The Peace Deal with the UAE

Israelis are quite happy with the recent announcement that Israel would establish full diplomatic relations with the UAE.   What's not to like?  Israel has apparently been working on relations  with the  UAE going back to 2010.  There have been many unreported exchanges so for some it is not a surprise.

Interestingly, the current Israeli government did not put the proposed peace deal to a vote in the Knesset or even in its own cabinet.  In fact, Netanyahu apparently kept his Blue and White coalition partners in the dark about the deal.

It certainly looks like the terms of the deal included an agreement by the U.S. to sell F-35s to the  UAE,  an agreement by Israel to cancel its proposed unilateral annexation of parts of the disputed territories and, in exchange, full diplomatic relations including active tourism, scientific, academic and cultural exchanges and ramped up economic trade.   I doubt that  the Israeli government would have opposed the deal although, in a democracy, the  deal probably should have been presented to the government for approval.

As you know, President Trump sent Secretary of State Pompeo on a whirlwind tour of other countries in the Middle East to try and convince them follow the UAE.  Israel is hoping to reach peace deals with Bahrain, Oman, Sudan, Morocco and, eventually, Saudi Arabia.  But these  countries apparently made it clear that they will only agree to peace with Israel if there is a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians.  Both Netanyahu  and Trump seem to be helping each other and trying to bolster their respective electoral prospects even though a new election has not yet  been announced in Israel.  I can imagine that if Israel were to announce peace deals with four or five countries between now and November, even without resolving the Palestinian issue, this would still give Trump and Netanyahu significant  boosts.  On the other hand, if the UAE  is the only country to  agree, the deal may not affect the political landscape in either place.

Meanwhile, many Israelis are already planning their flights to Dubai.   With permission to fly over Saudi Arabia having been granted, the flight will take only 3 1/2 hours.  UAE hotels have already announced that they are planning to offer Kosher food.   And the UAE is looking to support the opening of  a number of synagogues.  This is all very exciting.  If Israel could find a way to reach peace deals like this with a number of other countries in the region, the world would really start to look like a better place.

In the meantime, the UAE may decide to take a more active role in negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.  Perhaps the Palestinians will take a new look at their "bottom line" demands as they realize that more and more countries in the region are about  to make peace with Israel.   Likewise, the Israeli government may be willing to make some concessions  if the concessions are  tied to a broader Middle Eastern peace agreement.  The  obstacles today, aside from the Palestinian Authority, seem to be Turkey, Iran, Syria and perhaps Qatar along with Hezbollah, Hamas and other extremist movements.  One never knows what the future brings but there is reason  to believe that, overall, the UAE deal is a hopeful development and the first of many steps to come.

The Israeli Government

The current Israeli government is a very unstable one - made up of a coalition of various political enemies.  Every few weeks, there is a threat the government will fall and new elections will be called.  The latest threat came as a result of the budget.  Netanyahu's Likud party had signed a deal calling for a two-year budget as part of the coalition agreement that it entered into with the Blue and White party.  But, Netanyahu soon saw that his political support was rising after he eviscerated the Blue and White party in coalition negotiations.  He is still hopeful that he can win a new election outright and get a "retroactive immunity deal" that would eliminate his current ongoing criminal proceedings.  He became  worried that a two year budget might mean no new elections for two years.  So he announced that "circumstances had changed" and the government needed a budget for one year only (just until the end of 2020).   Of  course the Blue and White party called foul and claimed that this was a violation of the coalition deal.  It certainly was.  But Netanyahu pressed ahead.  In the end, Blue and White partially conceded and the parties agreed that they would put off  deciding anything for another two months.  So the Israeli government carries on without a budget and without any immediate plans to implement one.  And no election will be called for at least the next two months. Some commentators have ruminated that Trump asked Netanyahu to hold off on having another election until after the U.S. elections in November.  But I haven't seen anything concrete to back up that rumour.  

Either way, we have no budget, an ongoing coalition made up of political enemies and no definitive plans to do anything.  But no plans to change these circumstances.  Go figure.  

Some Sports Comments

I couldn't let this blog pass without commenting  on the Leafs  and the  Raptors.  Watching North American sports is a bit challenging in Israel for a few reasons.   The games aren't shown on most channels and with the time difference, it can mean watching big games from 2 to 5 a.m.  

But  some of us here were up to the task, especially since I have no real interest in watching Israeli soccer or basketball.  Of course it  was tremendously disappointing to watch the  Toronto  Maple Leafs make their annual early exit.  For those of you who have no idea what I am talking about - or don't really care - the Toronto Maple Leafs have not won an NHL ice hockey  championship since 1967.  So being a fan of the Leafs is a recurrently painful undertaking.  

The Toronto Raptors, on the other hand, are the defending world champions, having won their first NBA basketball championship last year.  Although this year they are now without their former team superstar Kawhi  Leonard, who signed as  free  agent to go play for the LA Clippers.  This  year, the Raptors won their first round of their title defence but were  losing 2-0 in the second round to the Boston Celtics.  Last  night,  we had the good fortune of watching the Raptors win by one point with no time on the clock and a three-point buzzer beater.  Very exciting.   So they are still alive.

In case you are wondering, we are  using  a Virtual Private Network to be able to watch Canadian channels....Israeli channel 59 (On Yes) shows some games  but certainly not all of them.  Previously we subscribed to Fox  Sports Israel.  But it stopped broadcasting in Israel last year.  So watching NHL, NBA and NFL games in Israel has become an even bigger challenge.

In other sports news, football news to be exact, the Israeli national team is playing against Scotland tonight in a playoff game that could see Israel make it into the next Euro championship.  It is one of the most meaningful soccer games that  the Israeli national team has played in many years.  If they win tonight, they have game on Monday night that will decide whether or  not they advance.  The problem of course is that tonight's game conflicts with Shabbat...

Final Comments

It has been unseasonably hot here the past few days - mid to upper 30s C (high 90s for those of you on the F scale).  When you combine that level of heat with a mask - it becomes very uncomfortable to be outside for very long.  Though we can get to the beach for an early morning walk in less than 15 minutes and at that time of day, it is still very nice.  We are hoping to do something fun over the Labour Day Weekend.  (It's not really Labour Day or even a long weekend here in Israel, but since my schedule is a Canadian work  schedule, we might as well enjoy).

Shabbat Shalom to everyone  and all in the best in preparing for the coming holidays.  And enjoy the long weekend - the "last weekend of summer" in Canada and many parts of the U.S.  Here we probably have at least two more months of really nice weather coming up until we get that "horrible" winter weather - 15-20 C and occasional showers.  Best regards and stay in touch! 





Monday, July 6, 2020

New Wave and New Closures in Israel

The Israeli government acted with determination in March 2020 and took extensive steps to close down a great deal of the country.  Perhaps, too many businesses were shuttered.  But the tight closure worked with respect to the virus.  As a result, Israel had relatively "good" Covid-19 statistics.  On a per capita basis, the rate of infections was low.  The mortality rate was low.  Prime Minister Netanyahu was happy to appear on TV and take credit repeatedly for his foresight - and to compare Israel favourably to countries like Italy, Spain and the U.S.

Later on, the country began  opening aggressively.  Wedding halls were allowed to host events with 250 people.  Yeshivas and synagogues were opened up.  Funerals were opened to 250.  Bars, pubs and restaurants around the country were opened and carried on as if there was no pandemic.  Even high schools across the country were holding proms and graduations as live in-person events instead of on zoom.  

Granted there was significant economic pressure to open things up and allow people to earn a living.  But the government opened up too many things, too quickly.

Now, here we are in early July.  Israel's numbers have gone from less than 20 new cases a day in early June to more than 1,200 new cases a day over the past few days.  Throughout that growth period, the bars, wedding halls, yeshivot and synagogues remained open along with so many other places.  All of a sudden - Netanyahu - who had looked like he was navigating difficult and uncharted waters properly - now looked like he was captaining a boat that had sprung several bad leaks.

So he called together his "Corona cabinet" to make some new and urgent decisions about what to close.  Buses will be limited to 20 passengers with no air conditioning (because the AC might spread the virus).  Restaurants will be allowed to have 20 people inside and 30 people outside but wedding and banquet halls will be shut down completely.  Yeshivas will remain open - and so will the beach....

Frankly, it sounds like the government has no idea what to do - and is facing pressure from several sectors of society which are trying to promote their own interests.  We know that more than 100 students from a Yeshiva in B'nai Brak were recently diagnosed with Covid-19 - yet the Yeshivas will be able to remain open.  

Wedding halls, whose owners and operators have struggled so dramatically over the past two months - will be required to close.  They won't even be able to run functions for 50 people.  But beaches will stay open.  I guess you can have a wedding on the beach....It is hard to find any logic in this.

Here in Ra'anana, there were several high school proms and graduations.  Few if any participants, including teachers, principals and students, wore masks or observed physical distancing.  Not surprisingly, several students at various high schools in Ra'anana have now been diagnosed as positive with Covid-19 and high school students across the city have received messages telling them that they are now required to go into mandatory isolation.

The difficulty is that the Israeli public is becoming more and more cynical about the restrictions imposed - especially given the lack of any cohesive logic.  This is a government that previously opened up huge Ikea stores early on after the widespread close  - even while shopping malls across the country remained closed because the then minister of health was a buddy of the owners of the Ikea Israel franchise rights.  

So now it is unclear whether the Israeli public will be willing to follow these new restrictions and whether they will work.  If they do not, Israel will have no choice but to impose another full closure within the coming weeks.  That will be disappointing, but the country will continue to everything it can to try and avoid what is taking  place in some of the harder hit countries.



 



Sunday, May 24, 2020

The Trial Begins: Netanyahu's Criminal Trial Officially Starts

It was a wild and crazy opening to a trial that will surely be one of the memorable events in the history of the State of Israel.  Prime Minister Netanyahu arrived today at the Jerusalem District Court for the official opening of his trial.  This was really only a date to read out the charges and set dates for the continuation of the trial.  But it was a polarizing and fascinating spectacle.

The Prime Minister arrived at the courtroom as part of a televised convoy of vehicles, all part of his security detail.  He then took to the steps of the courtroom and stood in front of a group of supporters including fellow cabinet ministers, members of his government and the other accused.  He gave a lengthy speech attacking the police, the prosecutor's office, the left and just about everyone else.  Given that his government has been in power for such a lengthy period of time, at least some of this vitriol had to have been directed at his own government.  After all, some of the people responsible for investigating him were his own appointees and designates.

Netanyahu argued that the three criminal cases that he is facing have been "sewn together" and add up to nothing.  He  spoke about pressure that the State used to obtain cooperation of State witnesses.  And he said "the people of Israel will judge him."  He went on about his electoral successes and the number of people who voted for him.  The TV stations  here broadcast the full speech - which went on for quite a while.  It was a call to the public to stand by him and provide unconditional support, no matter what might occur.

At the same time, there were busloads of Netanyahu supporters, from across the country, who had arrived to show their support for Netanyahu, "no matter what happens."  This may have been organized by Netanyahu's legal team but so far, there is no evidence of that.  The interviews with several of these witnesses were riveting and frightening.  "The "Kadosh Baruch Hu will protect him and ensure that justice is done," said several of those who were interviewed, using various other terms for the divine intervention that they are expecting.

Others attacked the court system, the prosecutor's office, the judges and the Israeli left.  Several of them played religious songs and danced in front of the courtroom as if they were at a wedding.  One 12 year-old girl was interviewed, standing next to her father, and said she had decided to come to the demonstration instead of her bat-mitzvah party.  She wanted to stand for "truth and justice," she said.  "They are harassing the Prime Minister," she continued, "they should just leave him alone...think about all of the great things he has done  for the country."  "I would rather be here standing for truth and justice than having a bat mitzvah party."  My only reaction to that was "wow."

There were also several protesters demonstrating against Bibi, but they didn't seem to get very much press coverage.

Ultimately, Netanyahu delayed taking a seat inside the courtroom until all of the press had left so that he could not be photographed sitting in the accused's dock.  And so it began.  As might be expected, Netanyahu's lawyers argued that he required an extensive time period to prepare and review the charges, well into 2021.  They had a new lawyer on the team and would need extra time to get up to speed. The prosecution argued that he has been aware of the charges and was provided with extensive evidence and materials quite some time ago.  They pushed for an early date for the continuation of the trial.  The three judges reserved and will announce a schedule later today or some time tomorrow.  

Earlier this week, several Israeli TV programs and news reporters conducted in-depth reviews of the three cases against Netanyahu.  They were able to do this based on the public release of transcripts of witness examinations, text messages, emails and evidence provided by Netanyahu himself.

The most serious set of charges involves the Bezek telephone company and its press subsidiary "Walla" which operates a Hebrew language on-line news service.  The prosecution alleges that Netanyahu provided extensive regulatory favours to Bezek which allowed them to earn millions of dollars over a period of two years.  In exchange, the prosecution alleges that the CEO of Bezek agreed to provide Netanyahu with favourable news coverage on Walla.  The prosecution has put forward a huge number of emails, text messages and other communications showing that Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, were sent articles in advance and given the opportunity to edit them and change them to make them more favourable to Bibi.  In some cases, Bibi and Sara were provided with advance copies of video interviews and allowed to splice them, delete sections and change the context of the interviews.  

Netanyahu's defence is that politicians always try to influence the media..  He argues that this is part of the game and can't be criminal.  His lawyers call this case an attack on the freedom of the press.  They claim that merely obtaining favourable press coverage cannot be the subject of a bribery case.  In fact, Netanyahu's legal team recruited world famous law professor Allan Dershowitz to come to Israel and make that argument at Netanyahu's preliminary argument last year.  Essentially, the argument was that even if Netanyahu provided something of value to Bezek (worth millions of dollars), he didn't get anything of value in exchange since "favourable press coverage" has no value.  Not surprisingly, the Israeli court dismissed this preliminary argument out of hand.  I imagine that Dershowitz's arguments in support of Trump would have also met the same fate if they were made before any panel of objective judges.  

Netanyahu did not speak about the other two criminal counts.  According to one count, he received hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of champagne and cigars from Israeli/American business people over a period of several years.  The gifts are well documented and not disputed.  In exchange, it is alleged that he provided them various favours, including, for example, assisting one to try and get President Obama involved in a business visa matter.  Here, Netanyahu's primary defence seems to be that "there is nothing wrong with getting some gifts from your friends..."  His lawyers have also said that if a good friend asks for a favour, of course you are going to help out.  They simply claim that there is no linkage between the two.

The third set of criminal charges also involve allegations of breach of public trust involving another news organization and an attempted deal to arrange favourable publicity.

Netanyahu has the right, as do all accused, to be considered innocent until and unless he is found guilty.  However, there is a great deal of damning evidence here and the legal defences that he is putting forward do not seem likely to assist him in getting out of this completely.

For that reason, Netanyahu has invested significant effort in trying to get legislation passed that would retroactively eliminate the charges and provide him with immunity.  However, under the current government coalition deal, has not been able to extract that concession.  If this current coalition falls apart and there is another election, before the trial is concluded, Netanyahu might still be able to use the political process to get himself out of legal trouble.  There is probably a reasonable bet on Netanyahu's part that this would be his best way of dealing with these issues.  After all, he came within 3 seats of being able to get those concessions after the most recent election and he has now eviscerated Gantz and his Blue and White Party.  It is quite possible that if a fourth election is called, Netanyahu may be able to cobble together a 61 seat majority "immunity coalition."

If that doesn't work, he may yet negotiate some sort of plea bargain deal, down the road.  His wife Sara negotiated a plea bargain deal last year which saw her agreeing to plead guilty and repay some of the money that she had fraudulently obtained from the state.  

If the case somehow makes its way all the way through a trial and through to a conclusion, it will be intense, highly contested, dramatic and unpredictable.  And throughout, Netanyahu is certain to continue using his out of court time to call on the Israeli public to accept only one conclusion to his legal problems, whatever the evidence might show and whatever the judges might otherwise decide.

Stay tuned, although  this trial is not likely to continue before the end of all of the Jewish holy days in late October, 2020 and it may not even start until months later.







Monday, May 4, 2020

Some Improvements in Israel and Some Ongoing Arguments

Israeli Supreme Court
Well here we are in May, 2020 and our Prime Minister is claiming victory over Covid-19.  Okay, not exactly, but at a news conference earlier this evening, he pointed out, repeatedly, how much better Israel has fared than many other countries with similar sized populations.  All because, he argued, Israel took very aggressive steps much earlier than these other countries.  He mentioned Italy, Spain, the United States and others.

Using various charts and  graphs, Netanyahu showed that Israel has seen a tremendous reduction in its infection rate, a reduction in the number of daily fatalities and a reduction in the number of seriously and critically ill patients.

It is true that the steps taken, largely at the behest of professionals working in the Ministry of Health, have helped Israel to fare reasonably well in comparison.  But it is unclear that this means that Israel can now open everything up and pretend that the virus has gone.  If there is a resurgence, everything will have to be shut down again quite quickly.  According to Netanyahu, it will take about two weeks to make that assessment.

In the meantime, the Israeli government has loosened many restrictions.  Malls and outdoor markets will be open on Thursday May 7, 2020.  Visits to see family members, including grandparents are now permitted - though "no hugging" is recommended.  Gatherings of up to 20 people are now permitted.  (Up until now, this was only permitted if it was an outdoor prayer service).  Weddings on Lag B'Omer may be permitted with up to 50 people - though it wasn't clear if the limit will be 20 or 50.  All students are expected to return to schools by the end of May.

People will still be expected to wear masks when they are out  and gloves are recommended though not mandatory.  We took a walk today around Ra'anana.  While there were some people without masks, we concluded that most people were complying.  In some shops, proprietors were following all of the restrictions diligently.  In others, things were a bit looser.  Okay, much looser....But the infection rate in Ra'anana has been reasonably low so it is fair to assume that many people here are following the rules.

Some other cities in Israel have been much harder hit, most notably, Jerusalem, B'nei Brak and some other areas. However, it does appear that things are improving somewhat in most of the country.  It remains to be seen whether this will be a blip or whether it will mark some genuine progress.  The Israeli government has indicated that if all goes well, it intends to permit  gatherings of 50 or more people  - for weddings, funerals etc., by June 17th.  Not sure yet what this will mean for restaurants - though it may be good news for those with outdoor patios.

Today also marked the second day of arguments before the Israeli Supreme Court over whether or not to permit the coalition deal with the Blue and White party to proceed.  Various groups  have brought petitions to the Court arguing against the deal.  I am not going to review all of the legal arguments but I will highlight a few of them.

Under Israeli law, a "Prime Minister" can serve even while under indictment for serious offences.  However, other MKs cannot continue in their posts and ordinary "Ministers" are required to step down if charged with certain serious offenses.  The new coalition agreement contemplates that Netanyahu would serve as the Prime Minister for the first 18 months and would then step down to a lesser position.  However, under current Israeli law, that would require him to resign altogether until the serious charges that he faces were resolved.  The solution that Netanyahu concocted is that he wouldn't still be called the "Prime Minister" but Gantz would be the "Alternate Prime Minister" who would effectively run everything after the rotation date.  But because Netanyahu would still be called the "Prime Minister" he would not be forced to resign.  Israel would effectively have two Prime Ministers which seems to go against Israel's quasi-constitutional Basic Law.  (Israel does not have an actual constitution). 

The Court chewed on this one for a while today.  Ultimately, some members of the Court suggested that they may delay deciding until it actually becomes an issue 18 months from now.  But Netanyahu's lawyers urged the Court to make a decision now.

The coalition deal would also require a freeze on all new appointments in government including a number of key positions which have been dormant for some time.  Netanyahu's lawyers argued that it was all because of Covid-19.  Some of the Supreme Court judges asked how the two were in any way related...For example, the President of the Court asked why Covid-19  would prevent the government from appointing a new Chief of Police.

I have to confess that, as a lawyer, I enjoyed watching a chunk of the arguments.  It was fascinating to compare legal discourse in Canada to that in Israel.  It was a very heated argument at times - and certainly the type of language that was used was much more colourful (and at times informal) than one might hear at the Canadian Supreme Court, most of the time.  My Hebrew is good enough to catch most of it though I probably missed some nuances, some references to previously decided cases and some other phrases common only in Hebrew legal usage.

From what I could gather, there is a strong reluctance on the part of the judges to interfere in the election process.  They do not want to be seen as overriding a democratically elected government formed though a back and forth negotiation process.  At the same time, they are wary of upholding laws that would violate the Israeli Basic Law and chip away at Israel's democracy and commitment to the rule of law.  Towards the end of the hearing, the justices signaled that they needed to hear further arguments about two key issues and gave the Likud lawyers 24 hours to amend the proposed law or put forward better arguments.  It would be really difficult, however, to predict what decision will follow that additional argument.

Changing the topic, the weather here is heating up and the big holiday of Lag B'Omer - national bonfire day (effectively) is approaching.  Beaches are not yet open but just about everything else will be soon - and reopen beaches cannot be too far off.   Many people are now out and about and there is a feeling of some optimism across the country.

For  many, however, a huge part of the Israeli economy is tourism.  So many businesses across the country rely on the tourism industry.  Hotels, restaurants, merchants, tour guides and so many others.  It is really unclear when Israel will be able to reopen its borders to tourists, when the airports will reopen and when things will really turn back to some semblance of normal.

But I suppose that is the same just about everywhere else.  We will all just have to hope that things improve dramatically everywhere, the sooner the better.  Wishing everyone the best of health.




Friday, April 17, 2020

Post Pesach Update Blog

Pesach has come and gone though the world-wide Covid-19 craziness has not left us yet.  I hope everyone is staying healthy.  This time, it is a blog about nothing in particular - just a few random updates on different things going on.  Some people seem to like reading these types of blogs the most.  As  usual, I welcome any responses and comments.

Pesach 2020

Passover has come and gone.  Here in Israel it is only 7 days so it goes by a bit more quickly than in North America (or anywhere else outside of Israel).  We only have one Seder.  Since we only had five people at our Seder (our immediate  family), we shouldn't have needed as many Pesach dishes.  But somehow it didn't seem to be that much less work than usual.  Changing over all the dishes, preparing some special Passover foods and making sure you have everything you need - is still a lot of effort whether you are having 30 people for dinner or just 5.  We might even have enough frozen brisket left over to last us through Rosh Hashana.

We had our annual family debate over whether to switch to eating kitniyot (legumes, rice etc.,) during Pesach.  Although we could not come up with too many great reasons  for continuing our Ashkenazi practice - other than tradition (and the possibility of hosting non-kitniyot eating guests) - we slogged through another year without eating humus, rice, corn or other kitniyot.  Since most restaurants were closed this year on hol hamoed (the intermediate days of Passover) because of the virus, there weren't many external temptations (like the pizza places that usually open up during Pesach using corn flour crust).  We had our family at home and cooked all of our meals in the house so it wasn't really too problematic.  The holiday even went by  quickly, it seemed.

We  considered following the Moroccan custom of making mufleta after the end of Pesach (essentially a fried dough served with honey or jam).  It would have been a "mini- Mimuna" (A Moroccan post-Passover party) since it would have been only the five of us.  But in the end, since none of us were Moroccan, we didn't really feel a compelling urge to spend the time making the mufleta.  Instead we spent the evening turning the kitchen back to its normal state and then made some pasta.

Covid-19

Israel, like most other countries, is still in a state of lock-down.  A range of stores are open including supermarkets, local convenience stores, hardware stores and take out restaurants.  But malls are still closed, many other businesses are closed and many Israelis are feeling the  challenge of economic hardship.

Israel has done a reasonable job at keeping the spread rate relatively low and, more importantly, the mortality rate down.   According to the latest statistics, Israel had a total of 12,855 active cases as of yesterday, including 97 new confirmed cases.  148 people have died, including 6 yesterday.  For the country, the overall mortality rate, tracked as "deaths per  million residents" is at 17.  By way of comparison, that number is 105 in the U.S., 413 in Spain, 202 in the UK and 32 in Canada.  So Israelis are cautiously optimistic that the country will emerge from this crisis with a relatively low number of casualties.

The challenging discussion now is how to open the economy back up so that people can get back to work.  The Israeli government is proposing a plan to gradually open up sectors of the  economy starting on Sunday and then to track progress after about two weeks.  Depending on the effect and the spread rate, the government will then decide if it can re-open more sectors.  This seems like a reasonable approach although there are obviously many Israelis who are suffering a great deal as a result of the economic disaster that the virus created.

Israel is not alone or unique in this regard.  According to some reports, the U.S. has not hit its peak yet and sits had more than 650,000 cases with more than 34,000 deaths.  Fortunately, the mortality numbers are much lower so far in the U.S. than some people had predicted.  Many people are feeling the pain of economic hardship that an economic lock-down brings.  The challenge for the U.S., like Israel and everywhere else, will be to find a way to reopen the economy without causing a massive spike in the infection and death rate.

Zoom and Religious Services

One of the big "winners" in the current  situation has been Zoom.  People are setting up Zoom meetings for everything - family meetings, club get-togethers, game playing, exercise classes and religious gatherings.  I have been scheduling quite a number of business meetings over Zoom and I am certainly thankful that this technology enables me to continue to run my business from a great distance.

For Passover, we considered the option of joining a big Zoom Seder with friends but  decided instead to run a more intimate family Seder.  We jumped in to say  hi to our extended family Seder in North America (at  about 3:30 a.m. our time) but that was on the second night - which wasn't really still a holiday for us.

Some synagogues have been wrestling with the challenges of Shabbat and holy days.  Since Covid-19 has meant the suspension of physical attendance at services, many  people have pushed for a replacement.  Some synagogues, including some Orthodox synagogues have decided that a daily minyan (a prayer service with at least 10 people) (or even a shiva) can be held through Zoom. I have attended some online services during the week.

Holding services by Zoom on Shabbat and chaggim is more of a challenge, halachically.  Although there are Conservative synagogues around the world that have been broadcasting their services for many years now, these have involved a passive camera, set up on a timer, before shabbat to enable people who are home-bound to watch a broadcast of a service.  Presumably, the people who are watching could set up their computer on a timer as well if they choose to do so.

A Zoom service is a bit different.  Since there is no actual service taking place with a minyan that could be broadcast, the service itself is by definition much more of an active on-line event.  The organization of Conservative Rabbis in Israel determined that this would not be appropriate halachically and recommended prohibiting these services on Shabbat and other religious holy days.

This has led to quite an active debate at our kehillah in Israel.  Some members feel that the halacha is outdated and that the emergency nature of the current situation demands a change to accommodate the spiritual needs of members.  Others are concerned at chipping away at the notion that the kehillah is still a halacha-based shul and that Zoom services on holy days are outside of that framework.  Certainly that is the decision of the Masorti leadership in Israel.

I am a bit torn here.  Although we (as a family) do tend to drive to our synagogue (knowing that we are not really supposed to), we try to keep a number of aspects of Shabbat.  We  don't use the TV or computers.  It would be a pretty big change for us to start participating in an active Zoom service on a Shabbat morning and I don't think that is right for us personally at this time.  I recognize that many  people have other needs and other opinions and this is certainly one of those issues that  has the potential to cause a major rift in some synagogues.

I suppose that if synagogues remain closed for an extended period of time, there may be more and more pressure to come up with creative solutions and a larger number of rabbis may start revisiting some aspects of halacha.  But hopefully, things will turn around sooner than anticipated and we will not have to deal what type of pressure.

I should note that we have been invited to our first Zoom wedding on Sunday (b'sha'a tova to our dear friends).  We  have also, unfortunately, had to deal with a few Zoom shivas over the past few weeks.  Neither of these scenarios would have been imaginable previously.  Needless to say, the world will continue to change in many ways as the Covid-19 crisis unfolds.

Conclusion

That's about it for now.  Hopefully many people are taking advantage of the time at home to do some different things.  We have been cooking some new and interesting dishes, playing some of our board games and trying to do some on-line fitness activities.  We have also been catching up on Fauda and enjoying the concerts that are being broadcast on Israeli TV every evening.  I am definitely looking forward to the One World concert being organized by Lady Gaga on Saturday night.

Most importantly I am hoping that as spring arrives, we will see things improve across the world.  Let's hope for a cure, a vaccine and the best of health for everyone.

I didn't deal with Israel's political situation in this blog - still a mess - and no solution in sight.  But more to come on that next week.

Shabbat Shalom from Ra'anana.




Monday, April 13, 2020

Mid-Passover Report: Politics, Covid-19 and Pesach in Israel

Yemenite Passover Matzah 
In my last post, I stated that Israel finally had a new government.  Well as it turns out "rumours of a new Israeli government are greatly exaggerated...."  As you might recall, when we last looked at this topic, Gantz had apparently surrendered to Netanyahu and agreed to support a supposed "national unity government" with the stated goal of helping the country at the time of a national crisis.  This caused Gantz's Blue and White party to split apart with only half of the elected Blue and White MKs prepared to accept the deal.  Gantz tried to sell the deal by arguing that he had extracted several concessions from Netanyahu and the Likud party including a number of high profile cabinet positions, an agreed upon leadership rotation after one and a half years and a few other agreements.  But while many of these items had apparently been hammered out into a deal after several weeks of negotiations, Netanyahu had not signed on the dotted line.  Yair Lapid, one of the leaders of the faction within Blue and White that refused to go along, argued that Netanyahu could not be trusted and that Gantz was committing political suicide.  Gantz ignored the warnings and pushed ahead.

Days went by and the agreement was still not signed.  Netanyahu began telling Gantz that he had to have more concessions in order to finalize the deal.  He wanted an agreement to annex parts of the disputed territories while Trump was still the President.  Netanyahu demanded a veto over any judicial appointments,  even as he had agreed to have Blue and White appoint the Minister of Justice.  He wanted key decisions made by the Minister of Justice and by the Minister of Internal Security to be made with his approval.  In other words, once Gantz had prematurely split apart his party and indicated his willingness to enter a coalition with Netanyahu, Netanyahu realized that Gantz had been defeated and began to insist on further concessions.  Netanyahu now saw that Gantz had very little political ability to resist and saw that he could continue to try and reach his ultimate goal of getting an immunity deal to avoid his ongoing criminal trial (the start of which had already been delayed by Netanyahu's hand-appointed justice minister).

The clock continued to tick and sure enough the initial 30 day period for forming a government came to an end without any agreement.  Gantz requested a two week extension but President Rivlin declined (earlier today) since he saw no chance that Gantz could actually form a government.  But he did not pass the mandate over to Netanyahu.  Instead he exercised an Israeli law to allow any Member of Knesset to form a government over the next two weeks.  If no government is formed, Israel will have a fourth election - presumably in September.

A fourth election would be Netanyahu's preference.  In the current negotiations. he eviscerated Gantz.  Gantz was left looking weak and useless.  He made a whole series of concessions to Netanyahu and wound up getting nothing out of it.  It seems unlikely that he will run again if there is a fourth election.  He would have no support from two-thirds of his party and even the other one third might not support him. Netanyahu  probably believes that there will be no suitable centrist alternative and he may be able to get the additional three or four seats that he needs to form a narrow right wing government or even more.  Netanyahu will also argue that Israel has done a reasonable job containing the Covid-19 crisis, especially in comparison to many other countries, and that he is largely responsible. 

I should note that Netanyahu also managed to convince Labour leader Amir Peretz to join the coalition talks.  Peretz, before the election, had shaved his moustache and said "read my lips, I I will not join Netanyahu."  But somehow, inexplicably, he decided to take the remnants of the once proud left wing Labour party and join Netanyahu in exchange for a cabinet post and some other minor concessions (unsigned of course).  This is surely the death knell for the Labour party and a significant blow to any left wing opposition to Netanyahu.

So all that is left on the centre and the the centre left to oppose Netanyahu - are the remaining half of the Blue and White Party (consisting of Yesh Atid led by Yair Lapid and Telem led by Moshe "Bogie" Yaalon), the Meretz party (which has been reduced to a handful of seats) and the Joint Arab List (many of whom are staunchly anti-Zionist).  The opposition will have a short window to find a new leader (or agree to run under Lapid or Yaalon) and convince the public to stick with them.  Since a  big chunk of people were prepared to support the idea of a coalition government under Netanyahu, this will be a difficult task.  And Netanyahu knows it.  He also knows that this is his best chance of getting an "immunity bill" to end his criminal proceedings.

This may still end with further concessions by Gantz and some sort of deal over the next two weeks.  But a fourth election is also becoming a very realistic option.


Covid-19

Israel, like most other countries, continues to struggle to contain the spread of Covid-19.  Currently, Israel has about 1,300 cases, which puts it 25th in the world when looking at cases per million population.  In terms of deaths per million population, Israel's number is at 13.  Canada is at 19, the United States 67 and Italy 367.  The Israeli government has also announced that there are several thousand available ventilators.  Even if many of the people who are currently affected become more seriously ill, Israel's hope is that it will have an adequate availability of ventilators to avoid the situation that was taking place in Italy and Spain.

Israel is still under a wide ranging lock-down.  Supermarkets are open and other essential services.  But the number of services deemed "essential" was recently reduced.  For the Passover holiday, the Israeli government mandated a complete ban on leaving your home for a distance of more than 100 metres other than for urgent medical attention or a handful of other reasons.

The government has also instituted more severe lock-downs in certain areas of the country.  Some of the highest infection rates are being reported in ultra-religious neighbourhoods in B'nei Brak and Jerusalem.  The Health Ministry tried to institute a closure of these areas but some of their proposals were blocked by the current Health Minister Litzman, who is himself a member of the Haredi (ultra-religious) community.  The closure of B'nei Brak went ahead initially but it has apparently been eased up somewhat.  News reports have indicated that a high percentage of the Covid-19 patients who are classified as in serious and critical condition are members of the ultra-religious community.

The Israeli government instituted a program to give each family 500 shekels per child aged 18 or younger to ensure that people could buy food for Passover.  The money was delayed and did not arrive in time for the start of the holiday and it is unclear when it will arrive.  Even if they had received this 500 shekels (about $130 USD), many people in Israel (like most other countries) are suffering from a lack of work, lack of income and some very difficult economic challenges.  The government is trying to develop a plan to reopen sectors of the economy gradually if it can do so while continuing to minimize the Coronavirus spread.

Pesach

I think this was one of the smallest Passover Seders we have ever had.  Although we knew several people hosting Zoom Seders, we opted to hold a Seder with just our nuclear family.  We asked each person to prepare an activity, lead a discussion or prepare a section of the Haggadah.  We arranged to have some really nice wine ready and we probably had enough food prepared for a Seder of 20 or more.

It worked out really well. Since we had five willing participants for reading, singing and discussions, we had a very active evening.  The wine also helped.  We wound up finishing at about 3:30 a.m., which was late for us, even compared to our usual Seder with 25 or 30 people.  I guess we had a "captive audience" and no one had to be anywhere.  No one was driving home afterwards and no one had anything to do that was pressing the next day.  We had lots of really nice singing, some really fun activities and some pretty decent food.  It was a really special evening - lots of naches for us as parents.

Because of the time distance, it  didn't really work out well for us to join the huge family Zoom Seder - which started at 2:30 a.m. Israel time - though we dropped in to say hi  at some point after we had finished our Seder.

I should mention that Israel, unlike the U.S. and  some parts of Canada, has had no shortage of toilet paper.  But instead we wound up with an egg shortage. Yup, right before Passover, an egg shortage.  As you know, you need many eggs to make just about anything for Passover since can't use yeast or other leavening agents.  We were able to get 30 from a friend (whose brother has a  Moshav) and we were also able to buy a few of the last remaining organic eggs at the corner  store.  We still have a few left so it has not been a disaster for us by any stretch.  But hordes of Israelis were running around everywhere before the start of the holiday, clamoring desperately for some eggs for the holiday.
Imported Eggs Arriving in Israel


Here in Israel, the holiday officially ends on Wednesday night.  Tuesday night marks the start of the second "Yom Tov" - which runs until sundown on Wednesday.  There  will likely be another complete closure of the country though it has not yet been announced.  No one will be hosting any large scale "maymuna" celebrations (the customary Moroccan party marking the end of Pesach - celebrated by Israelis everywhere - even non-Moroccan Israelis) though I was thinking  about making some Mufleta (the Moroccan bread/pastry served at a Maymuna).

Then it will be time to put away all of the Passover dishes, switch the kitchen back to Hametz and hope that well before next year things will have gone back to "normal."

B'Shana Haba'ah B'Yerushalayim - Wishing everyone the best of health and Mo'adim L'Simcha.

Monday, March 30, 2020

Israel Update - Government, Covid-19 and General Lockdown

Hi.  I have a bit of time so this blog might be a bit longer than usual.   I have divided this post  into three parts - the government, the virus and some miscellaneous stuff.  Lots going on, I guess....

Israeli Government

As you might  have read, we finally have a government in Israel after three elections.  It is quite similar to the government we have had up until this point, with the addition of about 18 members of the now splintered Blue and White opposition party.  Netanyahu is still the Prime Minister, for at least the next year and a half and the ultra-religious parties are still part of the government.  Yamina, the right wing nationalist party, is also still part of the new coalition.

As you probably know, we went through three elections and we were still mired in a stalemate.  Netanyahu and his right wing bloc had a total of 58 Knesset seats, leaving them 3 short of being able to form a government.  The opposition included 15 members of the Arab Joint List party, some of whom are virulently anti-Zionist.  But with the Joint List members, the Blue and White party, led by Benny Gantz was able to cobble together 62 seats and was attempting to move ahead with a new government.

This plan created quite a bit of uproar in Israel.  Many of Gantz's critics and even some of his supporters noted that he and other Blue and White members had promised that they would not form a government relying on the support of the Joint List.  Of course Blue and White had also promised that it would not join a government that was led by Netanyahu.  The Likud party figured that Gantz was bluffing and there was no way Gantz could go ahead and build a government relying on the Arab parties.  So the Likud party stuck with Netanyahu and the full right wing bloc and insisted that Gantz's only move was to give up and join them.  Netanyahu stated over and over again that if Gantz did not join him, there would be a fourth election.  He also stated that because of the Covid-19 outbreak, the nation was in a crisis and that the only thing Gantz could do to help save the country would be  to join Netanyahu, on Netanyahu's terms.

For Blue and White, many of its members hoped that by proceeding to take certain steps towards forming a government with the Joint List, the  Likud and/or its right wing bloc would start to crack under the pressure. At some point, the Likud bloc members would realize that unless they made significant concessions towards a genuine unity government, they would all be out of power and Israel would be controlled by a left centre government with support from 15 Joint List members.  Gantz moved things along in this direction.  He developed a plan to replace the speaker of the house, Yuri Edelstein, with a new speaker from the Yesh Atid faction of his party and he also planned to introduce some new legislation including a bill that would prevent Netanyahu from being Prime Minister in the next government until his criminal charges were addressed.

But as the new Knesset members were sworn in, Edelstein, acting under Netanyahu's direction, closed the Knesset  and refused to hold the vote that would have led to his replacement.  The Blue and White party sought direction from the Supreme Court of Israel, which ruled that Edelstein had to open the Knesset.  But Edelstein refused.  Instead, he tendered his resignation along with a 48 hour window for it to take effect.  This meant that the Knesset would continue to be closed and he could not be replaced.  It was a calculated move by Bibi to buy more time and continue negotiating with Gantz while he was still in a position of power.  Bibi continued to threaten that if Gantz did not give in to his demands, that would create a fourth election.  He also called on Gantz to "put Israel above all else" and join his government.  Bibi and his bloc members were prepared to openly disregarded the order of the Supreme Court as a delay tactic to put more pressure on the opposition.

At  the same time, Gantz lost considerable bargaining power.  Two Blue and White members, Zvi Hauser and Yoav Hendel, decided that they would not agree to support a government that was relying on the support of the Arab parties.  Another member, Orly Levy, also stated that she would vote against any proposal that would include the Joint List.  So the Blue and White party was now left with the potential support of only 59 with considerable confusion about what Hauser and Hendel might do in the event of any given vote.  One additional member of Blue and White started to indicate that he would defect as well.  Faced with all of this internal pressure along with the pressure from Bibi and political pressure from the right, Gantz conceded defeat and agreed to join Bibi's government, against the wishes of about half of the members of his own coalition group.

To try to paint the rosiest picture possible, Gantz claimed that he had extracted genuine concessions and that this was a necessary move for Israel at this challenging time.  Although the deal includes equality between the number of Blue and White cabinet ministers and the number from the entire right wing bloc - 14 or 15 each initially and now maybe up to 17, it leaves Netanyahu in place as the Prime Minister for at least 18 more months.  It also includes a provision to change the law and allow Netanyahu to serve as a cabinet minister while facing indictment.

A significant number of Blue and White members were outraged.  The Blue and White party itself had been made up of three different factions.  Two  of them rejected this deal and decided to split.  Yair Lapid's party Yesh Atid and the Telem party led by Moshe (Boogie) Ya'alon both left Gantz's party, taking 18 members with them.  That left Gantz with 16 to join Netanyahu's government, of whom 15 will be cabinet ministers.   The government will have a massive cabinet with between 28 and 34 cabinet ministers to try and keep as many Knesset members as possible happy.

Meanwhile, Lieberman, who had held the balance of power with 7 seats, has been left out in the cold.  He is not part of the new government and was unable to force the Likud to agree to a true national coalition government between the two big parties without the ultra-religious parties.  This new government is likely to continue the same direction with respect to state-religion issues, which is a major defeat for the Blue and White party and its supporters and for Lieberman.

Meanwhile, the left wing coalition between the Meretz (secular democratic) and Labour (socialist) party has also fractured.  Before the election, a key Labour Party member, former Labour leader Amir Peretz, said he would shave his trademark moustache so that people could "read his lips"  to prove that he would not join a Bibi-led government.  Today he seems poised to join the Netanyahu government, leading his coalition partners to split off into another faction.  It is unclear why Peretz feels that it is so urgent to abandon his party's principles and join this government but that is what appears to be taking shape.

Yair Lapid and the Yesh Atid party will stay with the Telem party and look like they will be the official opposition.  Yesh Atid and Telem both broke away from the Blue and White party as a result of this deal.  Only Lapid and Ya'alon seem to have been prepared to  weather the pressure from Netanyahu and stay the course towards trying to bring about genuine change in the Israeli government.

In the end, after three elections, Israel has another right wing-ultra-religious government, led by Netanyahu, who continues to await the start of his criminal proceedings.  A major defeat for the centre and the left in Israel and another big win for Netanyahu who is truly a master politician and an unrivaled manipulator.  Like many other politicians, he is ready willing and able to use every trick in the book to retain power.

Covid-19 Update

Like the rest of the world, Israel continues to grapple with the spread of Covid-19.  As of yesterday, there were about 4,300 cases in Israel.  There have been 16 deaths and there are about 80 people in serious or critical condition.  The government, led by direction from the Ministry of Health, has implemented wide-spread restrictions on movement across the country.  Many businesses are closed including most non-essential retail establishments, restaurants (other than for take-out and delivery) and all forms of entertainment.  These restrictions may have helped to limit the spread and allow the hospitals to prepare for the impending onslaught of patients who will require respirators and ventilators in the coming weeks.  It is unclear whether the combination of restrictions and preparations will suffice but Israel is doing everything it can to stay ahead of the curve.  Prime Minister Netanyahu has gone on TV regularly to introduce new, increasingly harsh restrictions.  He has also been warning Israelis that the steps are necessary to ensure that Israel does not turn into Italy, Spain, or the United States.  In one TV appearance last week, he suggested that the U.S. may wind up with close to 500,000 fatalities and that Israel would likely wind up with more than 10,000.  We will continue to hope that these predictions are not accurate and that we will soon find a vaccine or a cure for this disease.

Miscellaneous Other

I saw the meme that is circulating  - "I miss those days when I could voluntarily choose to skip going to synagogue."  Well, our shul, Kehillat Hod VeHadar, has been building up a series of Zoom shul meetings.  Our shul has not implemented Zoom services on Shabbat for halachic reasons but it has been running Kabbalat Shabbat (before Shabbat) and havdalah (after Shabbat) with more than 50 different zoom windows open and somewhere between 50 and 100 people attending.  Not bad for a shul with only a few hundred families.  Like Synagogues around the world, the Kehillah will continue to develop online learning opportunities, classes and other meetings while in-person attendance is not feasible.  I see that Beth Tikvah Synagogue in Toronto is also headed down that path as are many other congregations.  Families are gearing up for Zoom Pesach seders.  I think we are likely to hold an intimate Pesach Seder for just the five of us rather than a Zoom event.  But I guess we have a bit of time to decide.

Israeli TV station, channel 12, has been broadcasting concerts each night at midnight on TV as well as other concerts at different times on its website.  We have seen some terrific concerts  including Idan Raichel, Rami Kleinstein, Amir Dadon and Keren Peles.  Others have been less memorable but it is a great initiative.  All of the concerts are performed live at an empty Zappa Club in Tel-Aviv.

Like many other people, we have been doing lots of cooking.  Trying out some new recipes.  We made some homemade pizza - even the sauce was from scratch.  Tried out a recipe for long ribs, a Spanish Frittata, and a whole roasted chicken (mixed recipes from a friend and a family member).  Lots of other ideas coming up.  I have a humus recipe from one good friend and a channa masala recipe from another.  And it is nice barbecue weather.  Trying to keep the recipes reasonably healthy and limit the amount of wine that is consumed with the meals.  And trying to do some exercise using a phone app - to keep off the weight.  We haven't really made a dent in the whisky collection yet but if this isolation period continues long enough - we might start.

Israel has made great efforts to bring Israelis home from all over the world.  El Al has played a significant role in this - despite the enormous financial and existential difficulties it is now facing.  Some flights were sponsored by donors, businesses and other contributors to ensure that people could come back home for free or at a greatly reduced rate.  Other flights were were arranged by El Al itself or by travel agencies or other airlines.  Everyone arriving home (including our family member...) has had to go into a two week self-isolation.  So we are grateful for all of the efforts of these airlines and travel agencies and happy to be going through that now with our self-isolated family member.  We are looking forward to the end of the two week period - right before Pesach.

Obviously there will be no travelling for  me (or anyone else) for a while - who knows for how long - but hopefully there will be clients  who are happy to meet virtually.   I hope that my friends with big family events including bnei-mitzvoth and weddings will see all of this subside super quickly or will find ways to make alternate arrangements that are equally meaningful.

It is a strange world without any sports events, entertainment outings or other of the usual events that we have been so accustomed to enjoying.  Our beloved Toronto Maple Leafs will once again be denied the opportunity to win the Stanley Cup (they haven't won since 1967 and they probably weren't going to win this year...).

How quickly everything can change.  We take so many things for granted and we realize now how suddenly everything can be so different.  It brings ever increasing meaning to so much of the liturgy that we read on Yom Kippur.

I wish everyone the best of health and hope to try to keep in touch regularly with as many of you as possible.  Let's hope that we got through this much quicker than expected.










Thursday, March 19, 2020

Israel Continues to Fight on Two Tracks

Like most of the rest of the world, Israel continues to battle the growing threat of Covid-19.  The number of confirmed cases surged to over 400 yesterday.  However, Israel also ramped up its testing numbers dramatically.  So it is unclear whether the virus spread significantly over the past few days or whether we are simply conducting more testing.  However, to date, there are no confirmed deaths as a result of the Coronavirus in Israel.  So far, the heath care system is managing - but things seem very tenuous.  The Israeli government announced this morning that Israel had obtained more than 100,000 test kits and plans to increase testing levels very shortly.  The obvious hope is that Israel will be able to stave off the type of situation that is now occurring in Italy, Spain and some other countries.  But it is unclear whether efforts will be successful.

At the same time, Israel is continuing to experience a very serious political crisis.  There is only an interim government - and it is one that did not win a majority of  support in the most recent elections.  As you may know, Netanyahu's Likud party was only able to put together a coalition of a total of 58 Knesset Members, which is less than the required 61 to be able to form a government.   That 58 includes two Ultra-religious (Haredi) parties and the Yamina party.  Netanyahu has insisted that any "national unity" government with the Blue and White party must include these additional three parties, they are parties with only 7 or 8 seats.

In response, the largest "opposition" party Blue and White has been running a two pronged strategy.  One the one hand, they have been negotiating to form a unity government with Netanyahu - but only as long as he makes significant concessions.  In order to reach a deal, Likud will need to share power with respect to key cabinet posts and Ministerial positions, components of the governments agenda and a range of other matters.  To date, it has shown very little willingness to do so.

Blue and White will simply not agree to delay or cancel Netanyahu's criminal proceedings.  He is facing significant criminal charges and has dragged Israel into three consecutive elections in an effort to win a majority and legislate away his legal challenges.  So far,  this strategy has bought him time but has not produced his desired result.

Blue and White's alternate strategy is to form a government that relies on the support of 15 elected Arab members of Knesset.  Some of these members are anti-Zionist and hostile to the State of Israel as a Jewish state.  Others are not.  This plan has been roundly attacked by the right in Israel and elsewhere as an attack on the values of the Jewish state.

The Blue and White party is not proposing any action that would harm Israel as a Jewish state.  The recognition of elected Arab members of Knesset is logical and appropriate.  After all, Israel has Arab Supreme Court Judges, police officers, doctors, lawyers and every other occupation you can imagine.  Like with any other coalition agreement - or other arrangement, the Blue and White will have to make some concessions while ensuring that any such concessions are in the interest of the State of Israel.

Netanyahu and the Likud party have made far reaching concessions over the past few years to the "Yehadut HaTorah" party which is largely an anti-Zionist party.  Significant amounts of money have been diverted from the health care system, the public education system and other areas to be funneled into ultra-orthodox Yeshivas and other institutions.  Similarly the "Shas" party is also supported by many ultra-orthodox who do not serve in the Israeli army, study secular subjects or work in the general workforce.

One of the main demands of the Blue and White party - supported by both Lieberman's party and the coalition of left wing parties - is to shift back the secular/religious balance in Israel - to take back some of the power that Netanyahu has given these groups over the past few years.  Based on the past few elections, there is clearly a majority in Israel who would support moving things in this direction.

At this point, Netanyahu has not been able to form a government.  However, he is acting as if he has complete and total authority.  He has held press conferences at which he insists that he won the election since his party had more votes  than the Blue and White party, even though he can't put together 61.  He has instituted increasingly severe restrictions on Israeli society to control the spread of Covid-19.  While that may be laudable and even required, he has done so without any real legal authority or oversight.

Netanyahu's government closed down the courts at 1 a.m. - the day before his criminal trial was about to begin.  His representative, Yuli Edelstein, shut down the Knesset yesterday after 1 minute - to avoid allowing a vote that would remove Edelstein from office.  Netanyahu authorized the secret service in Israel - to track cell phones and credit cards - to be able to enforce self-isolation rules for Israelis who are supposed to be self-quarantined.  Restrictions are likely to become more severe, bringing Israel into a state of almost complete Martial Law.

No one really disagrees that Israel urgently needs to take dramatic steps to stop the spread of Covid-19.  Even many Israelis who generally oppose Netanyahu would agree that he has taken some important and timely steps to keep Israel ahead of the curve.  Israelis urgently need to follow the isolation recommendations of the World Health Organization and so many disease control experts around the world.  Does that extend to the necessity of monitoring the cell phones of all citizens?  That is unclear.

At the same time, these steps have to be made by an accountable government with oversight and input from members of a majority government.  There may be things that are being missed or areas in which we are overstepping.  In some cases, we may not be going far enough.  Having majority support also increases the likelihood of full support from the public.  For the most part, Israelis seem to be cooperating but there must be people who are concerned about such a narrow concentration of power.  This can generate skepticism even if the actions taken are correct.

Israel urgently needs to form a government that can react properly to this current health crisis.  The most logical resolution is a shared power arrangement between the Blue and White party the Likud party - as a first step - without the various smaller parties that each side has also relied on for support.  But to date, Netanyahu  is insisting that any deal include all three of his coalition members - while excluding the Arab Members of Knesset.

In this context, the Blue and White's alternate plan is important and reasonable.  Once the Blue and White party demonstrates that it can and will form a government, even a minority government - Netanyahu will be forced to realize that he needs to make concessions in the national interest.  Or his party needs to do so.  So far, they are not at that point.  Most of the actions of Netanyahu to date - suggest that he is hoping that a fourth election will finally be the one to help him get rid of his criminal problems.

In the meantime, Israelis find themselves under a Martial Law system.  New decisions are being made every day that tighten restrictions - and these decisions are being made by one person - who did not win the most recent election - with little or no oversight.  Very dangerous time for the country on two different tracks.



Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Live Music - Concerts in Your Family Room - In Response to Coronavirus

It seems that we are all united around the world with the feeling that we are caught in a vice that is tightening.  Announcements in Canada, Israel, the U.S.., the E.U. and so many other places around the world seem to bring increasingly strict measures aimed at slowing the spread of the Coronavirus.  We don't know how bad it is going to get or when it will be over.  We might be reassured that parts of Asia seem to have been able to get it under control.  On the other hand, we look at Italy, Spain, German and some other countries and it is very concerning.  Things may get completely out of hand in the U.S. (and many other countries) very soon.

Here in Israel, much has been shut down.  Restaurants, bars, malls and many other places.  So many people are working from home.  Grocery stores are open, drug stores, gas stations.  As of yesterday, banks were moving to  close most branches and do  most things virtually.   Health care workers are overwhelmed and are bracing for a sudden and massive explosion in the number of cases.

With all of these challenges, some musicians are doing their part to make the world a better place and bring some joy and happiness to people, many of whom are in self-isolation.  Israeli's Channel 12 with Mako has been running a series of live concerts with no audience - held at Zappa Clubs in Israel.  As you might know, Zappa is a chain of small concert venues - with night club seating and meal service.  We have been to quite a number of concerts at different Zappa locations.  The Zappa in Jerusalem is Kosher and has a great menu.  And, of course, you are sitting very close to the performers with a great view.  But I digress.

On Saturday night, Israel's Channel 12 broadcast a live show by Idan Raichel.  It was just him and his piano - playing a half hour set and talking to the audience.  He encouraged people to open their windows and sing along with their  neighbours and then send recordings back to the Mako website and to him.  Reichel was very cognizant of the messages he was sending.  He performed alone and spoke about the need to follow the latest health directives while still enjoying life.  It was really quite an excellent performance. "We have the capacity to bring out the best in ourselves when we all join together." That's my  loose translation of one of his comments. 

Last night, we watched Keren Peles perform.   Another excellent performance.  In contrast to Raichel, Peles had a bunch of other performers with her on stage (some sitting very close to her...despite the 3 metre recommendation...).  She sang duets with a few different singers but also played some solo pieces.  I wasn't as familiar with her music, but she was great.  She mixed her wonderful piano playing with powerful, emotional vocals. 

Mako/N12/Zappa are continuing to line up more concerts with Israeli performers in the coming days.  It is really something that can bring a bit of smile after a day of hearing all kinds of terrible news reports.

Maybe this is something that the world will pick up on.  I already saw that some North American performers were trying to line up a big virtual concert for April 1st, 2020.  I also read a report that the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra had performed a live streaming concert to an empty hall. 

With so many sports events shut down - and large scale events out of the question, maybe our musicians and their sponsors can help fill a void and bring a bit of music and joy to the hundreds of thousands of people who are stuck at home - either in self-isolation or as a result of current conditions.

Continued wishes for the best of health to everyone.