Monday, November 14, 2016

Turkish Airlines: Toronto to Tel-Aviv Review

I am writing this post on a plane on the way back from Israel.  I'm on Turkish Airlines, which is one of the few international carriers to offer trans-continental wi-fi for the whole flight.  It's not free - it's 9.99 Euros for two hours or 14.99 for 24 hours.  But it's great to have - especially if you are on a day flight and people are awake.
Over my 7 years of going back and forth between Toronto, Canada and Ra'anana, Israel, this was my first time flying Turkish Airlines  I had avoided it partially due to security reasons and partially for political reasons.  The relationship between Israel and Turkey has been strained over the past few years to say the least.

But I have to say that Turkish compares very favourably to almost anything else I have flown on this route.  I would put Air Canada at the top, since it is direct. Swiss and Lufthansa are also quite nice, despite the changeovers.  But I think I would prefer Turkish over Lot, Austrian, KLM or any of the different U.S. airlines.

Part of the reason I took the flight was timing.  It left at 10:30 pm from Toronto, which meant I was able to work all day in Toronto before leaving.  I will also say that price was a consideration as Turkish was much cheaper than other options for the days I was flying.

The aircraft from Toronto to Istanbul was decent -a 3-3-3 configuration.  The seats felt wide enough.  Each person has a large personal screen and an electrical outlet (that handles all types of plugs).  There are also USB ports for charging USB devices.  The entertainment system includes a range of movies, games, music and other items.

The flight attendants were very attentive.  They came around often and were friendly and helpful.

I ordered an Asian (Hindu) vegetarian meal, which was great.  There were also a few wine choices and lots of other drinks.  Like Air Canada and all of the European airlines, there is wine and bar service at no charge throughout the flight.

On arrival in Turkey, we had to take a shuttle bus from the plane to the terminal.  We then had to pass through personal security.  This was similar to other airports and nothing particularly eventful or problematic.

The airport terminal itself is huge and very nice.  Lots of shops - many very fancy, recognizable name brands. I only bought one item - a bottle of whiskey - and I was able to do so at a reasonable price.  There was a fairly wide selection.  On the way to Israel I also picked up some "Turkish Delight" at the request of a friend of mine.  There was quite a selection of different types all over the airport.

Inside the Turkish Lounge
A highlight of my stopover in Istanbul and a highlight of this flight was the Turkish Airlines lounge, which I was able to access as a Star Alliance member.  That's some lounge!  Spanning two stories, it features a range of different types of seating in a variety of areas, most of which are very comfortable.  Overstuffed couches, leather sectionals, dining table type seating to name just a few.

Turkish Lounge
There are food stations all over the lounge - like a buffet restaurant.  A coffee/espresso station, salad bar, fruit bar, crepe station, grill area, pizza bar and many others.  No shortage of food here....(though I'm not sure if they have many kosher options).

There is a golf swing area with a range of practice area with Sony PlayStations, showers, available Macs for use, a massage area, and a sleeping area with reclining chairs.  In case you are wondering, I did not wind up getting the Turkish massage...maybe next time.

I could probably go on and on but it is fair to say that I don't remember anything comparable from any of my other lounge visits in different airports.  As nice as the lounges are in Frankfurt and Toronto - or Zurich - this is a whole different league.

In case you are curious, I did see many Orthodox Jews on the flight and they did not seem to have any kind of problem flying with Turkish.  Certainly the Turkish planes did not seem to be as filled with Israelis or North American Jews as one might find on an El Al or Air Canada flight.  But the security seemed reasonably sophisticated and I felt safe.

My flight to Israel had a connection time of about 2 hours which worked out fine.  On the way back I wound up with an 8 hour layover because I was late in booking the flight, but I think that is generally avoidable.  There are several flights a day between Tel-Aviv and Istanbul.

All in all - thumbs up and I might do this more often....

A final note is that you must carefully look at the class code if collecting Aeroplan points is important.  Some classes of economy travel on Turkish Airlines do not allow for accumulation of any points.  For example, "U" class, as of June 2016, is in that category. 

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Activities in North Central Israel - Sakhne and ATV Trip

Photo of Gan HaShlosha National ParkWe took advantage of the hot summer weather to do a bit of travelling around Israel with some special guests.  While it is quite hot in Israel these days, it is also hot in much of North America.  So the temperature differential is not as great as at other times of the year, especially if the guests happen to be from St. Louis...

We started at Sakhne, also called "Gan Hashlosah" - the park of three.  This is a  huge spring water park.  The park is made up of three  connected pools containing natural spring water that is, apparently, 28C all year round.  There are waterfalls, a wading pool and various facilities.  Since this is natural spring water, the pools are filled with fish of all different sizes.  In fact, there are so many that you can expect to be nibbled on gently by schools of fish in different parts of the park.  But the water is beautiful, reasonably refreshing and fun.  There are shallower parts and some very deep areas.  There are lifeguards in most areas of the park.

All along the pools of water, there are areas to set up picnics, barbecues or to play some games.  As long as it isn't too hot, it would probably be a great place for ultimate frisbee, football or maybe some volleyball.

Since we were there in early July, it was close to 40C and it was quite hot.  We were able to spend most of the time in the water, in reasonably shady areas.  From Ra'anana, the distance to Sakhne is about 110 km on a mixture of highways and slower roads.  It takes about an hour and a half to get there.  The cost of admission is about 40 shekels a person, with other rates for seniors and soldiers.

After a few hours of enjoying the water, we decided to try something different and take a guided ATV ride.  We found a place that was about twenty minutes away from Sakhne called Xtreme B'Emek.  Located near Yokneam, Xtreme features guided rides on RZR ATVs.  They have two different types of vehicles - the slower ones, that can get up to speeds of 40 to 70 km/h and the faster vehicles that can get up to 100-120 km/h.  We went with the slower vehicles.

For about 100 Shekels per person ($25 USD these days), we took a 1 1/2 hour guided ATV drive through a national park.  We passed through a number of fields, some forest type terrain, small hills and some very bumpy roads.  Not very many animals along the way - a handful of cows and a fox or two.  But when we entered open field areas, we stepped on the gas and managed to get up to speeds of about 70 km/h or so, according to the guide.  It wasn't exactly "extreme" but it was quite fun. 

We were all wearing seat belts and sand goggles and travelled in groups of three per vehicle.  Our guide, Osama, was great. He was quite safety conscious and paid attention to the comfort level of the drivers in each vehicle in terms of vehicle speed.  The vehicles are all automatic and you need to provide driver's licence details for each driver - as well as sign an extensive waiver regarding damage to the vehicle and personal injury.

Our guide did not speak any English.  Neither did his guard dogs - a pit bull and a rottweiler.  That was all fine with us.  Our guests were dog lovers and these dogs were quite friendly around the guide.  We handled the communications with Osama which was fine for our guests. 

It sounds like it would be quite a bit of fun to try the faster vehicles but they are more than double the price.

There are hundreds of places that offer ATV trips in Israel.  This was my first trip and it was quite a bit of fun.  It sounds like these types of trips in the Negev or even better as long as the heat isn't too crazy.
We were considering other plans for the day as well but between these two activities, we felt like we had used up our time reasonably.  Overall, both are fun activities that we would recommend for a wide range of age groups.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Lieberman is new Minister of Defence: Major Political Development in Israel

Wading into the waters of Israeli political analysis can be hazardous.  The unexpected sometimes becomes reality.  Other times, one can be lulled into believing that there is a period of relative tranquility, only to face a sudden political earthquake.

I provided a few different comments on the last Israeli election in this blog in April and May 2015.  They are listed in the Contents By Topic.  One of my columns dealt with the decision of Avigdor Lieberman and his "Yisrael Beitenu" Party ("Israel, Our Home"), at the time, to remain outside of the government coalition.  It appeared, at the time, that Lieberman was not prepared to concede on all issues relating to the tension between religion and state in Israel.  In particular, he was not willing to participate in a government that had just turned over an enormous amount of power to several ultra-religious parties.

After a year of playing a vocal, active role in the opposition, Lieberman has suddenly and dramatically agreed to join the current government will become the country's new Minister of Defence.

The events leading up to this announcement were political theatre at is best - riveting, Machiavellian, and, for some political players, tragic.

As you may have read, the leader of the Zionist Union, Yitzhak Herzog ("Bougie") was named in a corruption investigation in late March 2016.  Perhaps coincidentally and perhaps concurrently, he became involved in talks with Prime Minister Netanyahu to bring his Zionist Union group into the current governing coalition and form a "national unity" government.  These reports seemed very strange.

On the one hand, it is hard to fathom that Bougie would be able to extract any palatable concessions from Netanyahu, given the current governing coalition.  Either Bougie would have had to convince Netanyahu to abandon several of his current coalition partners to form an entirely new government - or Bougie would have had to agree to join the coalition with little in the way of political gains to show for it.

Over the past several weeks, news reports in Israel were bubbling with stories that Bougie and the Zionist Union were about to join the government.  In fact, a press conference was scheduled for yesterday morning, presumably to provide some type of announcement as to where things stood.

However, at the last minute (or, according to plan, depending on what one might believe...), Prime Minister Netanyahu met with opposition MK Avigdor Lieberman and offered him the post of Defence Minister.  Lieberman accepted and the talks between Netanyahu and Bougie promptly came to a conclusion.  Lieberman will now take over the post of Minister of Defence, displacing the highly qualified Moshe "Bogie" Ya'alon, who had formerly between the Chief of Staff of the IDF.

This was a complete and total humiliation for Bougie Herzog.  He put his party's credibility on the line, as well as his own, by investing a significant time negotiating with Netanyahu.  According to Herzog, he and Netanyahu had come to an agreement on just about every issue and were all set to proceed with a deal when the rug was suddenly pulled out from underneath and Netanyahu decided to take a different partner to the ball.  The clock hadn't even struck 12 O'clock and Bougie turned into a pumpkin.

Herzog held a press conference last night.  He spelled out what he maintained were a whole range of political gains that he had achieved in his negotiations with Netanyahu.  According to Herzog, Netanyahu had agreed to work towards a two-state solution, to hold a regional peace conference immediately, to freeze certain settlement construction, and to take several other steps on peace initiatives.  However, Herzog noted that Netanyahu would not put any of this in writing.  Moreover, Herzog devoted a significant part of his après press conference to attacking Labour's number two in command and former leader, Shelly Yacomovitch, accusing her of sabotaging his efforts.  He vowed to stay on as leader and "rip apart the government from the opposition."

For Netanyahu, this was shrewd, Machiavellian machination.  He left Herzog and the Zionist Union utterly defeated and stabilized his governing coalition by adding several more Knesset members.  Netanyahu paid a moderately high price.  He exchanged a stable, predictable, well qualified, former IDF Chief as Defence Minister for the highly unpredictable Lieberman, who can be a loose cannon.  However, after more than a year since the last election, he has now managed to complete the exchange of Yair Lapid's "Yesh Atid" party for a a group of ultra-religious parties and can proceed unfettered with a right wing political agenda.  Herzog has been outed as hopelessly naive, impotent, incompetent or all three. 

It is hard to imagine that Netanyahu actually agreed to all of the concessions that Herzog claims.  Netanyahu would have had to pull apart his coalition completely and would have had to agree to many items that are diametrically opposed to his party's platforms.  It seems much more likely that he signaled some level of flexibility without any specific commitments.  It also seems more likely that this was all a series of political steps taken by Netanyahu to weaken the opposition, strengthen his governing coalition and secure three more years of mandate for his government.  Whether or not this is all in Israel's "best interests" may really depend on one's political perspective and philosophy.

 I will admit that I am surprised that the current governing coalition lasted this long.  Hanging on by a thread with 61 seats (in a 120 seat Knesset), the government seemed destined to break apart at any time since the last election.  However, it held together and this coalition, or a close version of it, is now likely to hold power until 2019.

Leading up to yesterday's announcement, Yair Lapid and the Yesh Atid party were the big beneficiaries of these coalition talks.  Polls suggested that Lapid's party had nearly doubled in support since the last election and the Zionist Union was bleeding support at an astounding rate.  If an election were held today, according to some of these polls, Lapid may have had a shot at winning the election.

However, mid-mandate polls may not mean that much when an actual election is distant.  A government that was barely hanging on by a thread has now been bolstered and that is a big blow indeed for the opposition parties and for Israel's centre-left.

The international fall-out will also be interesting.  Egypt has already expressed grave disappointment at this latest turn of events and other countries have provided less than flattering assessments of this development.

Unfortunately, I am quite concerned that some very rocky times lie ahead for Israel and the region.  Hopefully, Lieberman will demonstrated an unexpectedly high level of competence, diplomacy, tact and forethought in the coming days, weeks and months ahead.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Pesach 2016 תשע"ו

It is Pesach (Passover) in Israel (and around the world) and it is a very important and widely celebrated holiday here.  There are laws that prohibit stores and restaurants from selling bread and other Hametz for the whole holiday.  Students are off for more than two weeks.  Many others have taken a week or two off or are working at a half-time pace.  Even many soldiers are off....

Although Pesach is also called Hag Ha-Aviv - the "Spring Holiday," it certainly feels more like summer.  Temperatures are in the 30s throughout the country.  Combine all of these things and what do you get?  Thousands of Israelis travelling - out of the country and all over the country itself.  There are traffic jams everywhere.  National parks across the country are filled with people and the beaches are packed.
Hexagonal Pool Trail
We decided to join the crowds and take a day trip yesterday.  We drove up north, just past the Kinneret to a national park featuring the "Hexagonal Pool."  From Central Israel, this is about a two hour drive.  We left early to try and beat the traffic but it wasn't quite early enough. We faced our share of highway congestion.
Hexagonal Pool Israel
We still managed to arrive before the park was completely jam- packed.  The site entrance is right near "Had Ness" a small community north of the Kinneret.  On entering the park, you have a choice of taking a five hour hike, a 2-3 hour hike or 1 to 1.5 hour trip.  These are all the suggested times.  We chose the medium length path.  This is essentially a downhill hike through a winding path (at times involving moderately difficult climbing).  The trail is about 2.5 km - with the option of adding on about another kilometre.

At the bottom of the hike - Nirvana.  A beautiful Hexagonal pool serving as the base of a waterfall and the collecting pool for water from the Jordan river.  The water was about 18C - quite cool and refreshing.  The pool reaches a depth of 17 metres at parts.  But when it is 35-36C outside and you have just hiked down a 3 km trail, 18C water is incredible.
Hexagonal Pool, Israel

When the swimming is over, the fun starts.  Time to walk back up the trail - 2.5 km of uphill path.  The trail is reasonably steep and includes some very rocky areas and some real climbing.  In mid-day summer heat, after having walked 3 km down - this type of activity offers some challenge for people like me....but it was well worth it.

Golan Heights Winery
We got back to the car and considered other possible activities.  Amazing how Google can help with suggestions.  As it turns out, we were only about 10 minutes away from the Golan Heights Winery so we decided to make a quick stop.  I had been there before several years ago - but it is quite a nice place to visit.  We did not have time to do the tour and tasting though we browsed in the gift shop for a few minutes.  The prices were simply the same as one would find all over the rest of Israel though they had some wine selections that are hard to find.

We decided to find something to eat.  Since it was Pesach, we had, of course, brought along lots of food, featuring delicious Pesach rolls.  But no one really wanted another one of those rolls.  So we decided to look for a Kosher for Pesach Restaurant.  This can be a bit tricky.  Many restaurants are closed for the holiday.  We couldn't find anything suitable in nearby Katzrin - so we decided to drive down to Teveria (Tiberias) and find a place there.  We settled on a South American meat restaurant that was "Kosher l'Mehadrin" but, for kitniyot eaters of course.  We decided to eat there anyways and told them to hold the kitniyot.  They get lots of requests for this, apparently, so we were fine.

The whole kitniyot thing on Pesach is still confounding us.  Although the Conservative movement in North American opted to permit Conservative Jews to eat kitniyot this year - and many Israeli rabbis (Orthodox Ashkenazi included among them) have made that same decree in the past, we have continued to stick with the traditional Ashkenazi mode of avoiding rice, corn, beans and other legumes during Pesach.  This is particularly challenging if one wants to eat out.  We see restaurants across the country open for Pesach serving corn flour bread and rolls - and other kitynot-based bread substitutes.  But after 50 years of doing things a certain way, it is difficult to make the leap to switch over and start eating all of those other things on Pesach.  It is also creates an even bigger gap between Israeli and non-Israeli Jews.  So we skipped the tehina and humus and ate our skewers with matzah, cabbage and some other vegetables.

Today the temperature in Israel was even hotter - a veritable heat wave.  But there are predictions that things will cool off to "reasonable" by Friday, the last official day of Pesach in Israel this year.  Of course, Pesach will actually continue for those who observe it until Saturday night - since there would be no time between the end of Pesach and Shabbat to change over dishes, buy back Hametz, etc.,

So now we have a few days to find a Moroccan friend who is hosting a Maymuna (an end of Pesach celebration).  But until then we still have time to enjoy matzah brie, matzah lasagne, matzah rolls and other delicacies.  Chag Sameach to everyone - and make sure to eat lots of prunes.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Austrian Airlines - with Stopover in Vienna

It was about time to try a different route from Toronto to Israel so I decided to give Austrian Airlines another chance - and spend a day travelling around Vienna.  I have transferred through the Vienna Airport a few times but have never left the airport to spend the day touring.  So this was a first.

I had previous written a blog on transferring through Vienna from Toronto to Tel-Aviv back in September 2011 here.  But there were a number of points to update.

I booked this flight through FlightHub - which was quite reasonable these days and it was "low season" in any event.  I managed to get a flight with one way via Vienna and the way back direct on Air Canada.  So it really wasn't a bad way to spend a day in Vienna and it worked with my schedule.

Austrian Airlines has some quirky policies.  For example, in economy class you can only book a seat in advance if you want to pay.  Otherwise, you can reserve a seat when you check in 36 hours before departure.  It is not that you get a special seat for booking in advance - just a regular seat.  Even having special status on the Star Alliance system does not help.  I took my chances and booked my seats 36 hours before check-in - and the seats were fine.  There were many good seats available.  So I guess you just have to make sure to go online exactly 36 hours or so before your flight and book the seats.

The flight itself from Toronto to Vienna was fine.  It was a 2-3-2 configuration - so reasonably roomy seats compared to the new Airbus planes that Air Canada is using.  With a 3-3-3 configuration, those seats are quite cramped.

Austrian has updated its planes somewhat. So there is now a reasonably modern entertainment system with a decent selection of new movies as well as games, TV programs etc.,  I watched one movie and tried to sleep for as much of the flight as I could.

I ordered an Asian Vegetarian meal (which usually means curried chick peas and/or tofu on rice).  It was a much more substantial meal than I get on Air Canada and it was fine.  The Austrian flight attendants are highly visible, wearing hideous bright red outfits with white aprons.  But they walk up and down the aisles all flight.  They are constantly coming around with beverages, which is quite a contrast with, for example, El Al.

The flight arrived in Vienna at about 8:30 a.m.  My baggage was checked though so it was just a matter of walking through immigration and then heading out to see the city.  There is a luggage storage facility at one end of the Terminal (upstairs).  For 4 Euros a day per bag, you can check whatever you like.  So I left my carry on items there, other then essentials, and headed out.

The Vienna airport is connected to the train system.  You have a few choices.  You can take a higher speed express train from the airport to downtown Vienna for 14 Euros each way - and the ride takes about 16 minutes.  Or you can use the regular train system in which case the train makes a few stops and takes about 26 minutes.  I bought an all day transit pass - which cost 7 Euros.  There was a 2 Euro supplement to take the train from the airport but I was all set.  The trains do not come every few minutes - it is more like two or three per hour.  So my next train was not until 9:45, arriving at 10:15 or so in Vienna. The "express train" was not operating more frequently so the difference would have been negligible.

In any case, I took the train to the main Vienna station "Wien Mitte."  From there, I changed trains and headed over to "Stephensplatz" a very centrally located station for walking tours.

Vienna is a very historic city with interesting buildings, palaces, statues and museums throughout the city.  Just wandering around the streets is certainly an experience.

Holocaust Memorial - Vienna
I decided to start off in the old Jewish Ghetto.  I saw the Holocaust memorial and went into the first of two Jewish museums.  I really wouldn't say that there was anything particularly fascinating about the museum.  In fact, if anything, the history of the Viennese Jewish community is quite a sordid one.  Both museums note that Vienna had one of the largest, most vibrant Jewish communities in the world as early as 1150-1200 C.E.  In 1420, the entire community was expelled, massacred and/or converted (but mostly expelled and massacred as far as I can determine...).

 After about 100 years or so, the Jewish community took advantage of Austrian "tolerance" and began to return to Vienna.  The community faced many challenges until its eventual "emancipation," hundreds of years later.  Of course, not so long after the emancipation, there was Hitler, the anschluss and we all know the rest of the story.  After wandering through these two Jewish museums, one is simply left with the question of how any Jew could consider living in Austria given the history of that country.  Yet there is Jewish community now (albeit a small one) with a Jewish Community Centre and some other facilities.

For a taste of Austrian culture and cuisine, I decided to visit an Austrian Coffee House. I went to Cafe Central, which is quite a well known place.  I tried the house specialty - Viennese Cafe Melange, which was basically a cappuccino.  I also tried a coffee with Apricot liqueur which was tasty.  It was a fairly formal atmosphere - service from waiters wearing tuxedos with white aprons.  There is a newspaper gallery so that patrons can pick up a newspaper and enjoy a leisurely read with their coffee.

I left the coffee house and decided to wander the streets of Vienna and see the palaces, sculptures and churches.  I was getting quite tired but the weather was fairly decent and the city was reasonably manageable by foot.  I didn't bother taking the train even though I had an all day pass.  Instead I walked from place to place.

I didn't actually go inside and take the inner tour of any of the churches or palaces.  Partially, this was simply timing but it was also due to the fact that preferred to wander around outside.

By 4:00 p.m. or so, I was sufficiently tired out. I took the train back to the airport, picked up my checked luggage, hit the duty free shop and made my way over to the lounge.  I should note that the duty free prices in Vienna for whisky were quite reasonable - especially compared to the prices in Israel or Canada.  For example, a bottle of Glenmorangie Duthac (a splendid whisky in my view) was 70 Euros for a one litre bottle. That same whisky sells for $130 USD at the Israeli duty free shop...

The lounge was decent.  It had some food, drinks, comfortable seats and free wi-fi.  So I had some rest and relaxation time for a few hours until the flight.

The flight from Vienna to Tel-Aviv is only about 3 1/2 hours.  It is a Airbus plane with very cramped seats and no entertainment of any sort.  The flight was jam packed but it was a short flight, on time and uneventful.  The only problem was that it arrived in Israel at 12:40 a.m., which is a really lousy time to arrive somewhere.

All in all, I guess I can say I have had a small taste of Vienna.  Nothing that I saw while wandering around or that I read about in the travel book that I had with me is calling me to spend another day.  In fact, I would probably pay a fair bit more to avoid the connection time and skip another day in Vienna. This is quite a contrast with the day I spend in Amsterdam - which left me feeling that I could easily spend another week there....

In any event, it is nice to be back in Israel in time to practice Megillah reading, get everyone's costumes ready, cook up some treats and prepare for the Purim celebrations.

More on other topics soon....

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Latest Terrorist Attacks in Israel and Pew Study Link

We have been enjoying some unseasonably warm weather in Israel while dealing with a spate of Palestinian terror attacks.

Yonatan Azarihab, who was stabbed in a terror attack in Petah Tikvah on March 8, 2016, speaks from the hospital (Channel 2 screenshot)
Yonatan Azarihab
Yesterday, as U.S. Vice President Joe Biden was visiting Israel, Israelis fought back three different terrorist attacks in three different areas.  One attack occurred in Petah Tikvah.  The victim, Yonatan Azarihab, was stabbed several times in the shoulder and neck by a Palestinian attacker.  Though seriously injured, Azarihab pulled the knife out of his shoulder and used the knife to fight off the attacker.  The attacker, a 20 year old Palestinian, died of his wounds.  Azarihab is being treated at an Israeli hospital.

In another attack in Jaffa, a 21 year old Palestinian man ran down a a beach promenade stabbing several people in his path.  He injured twelve people and killed one.  Six of the injured were hospitalized, at least one of whom is in critical condition.  A local busker sprang to action by using his guitar to hit the attacker and slow him down before police arrived on the scene and shot the attacker.  The attacker killed an American student, Taylor Force, a U.S. military veteran, who was visiting Israel.  The Fatah website, which represents one of the strongest factions of the Palestinian authority, praised the attack as the work of a "martyr."

In a third attack, a Palestinian on a motorcycle opened fire on a police vehicle near the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem.  One officer was killed in the attack and a second was seriously injured.  Police eventually caught up to the terrorist and killed him.

The current wave of attacks has been ongoing since September 2015.  Hundreds of Palestinians have attacked Israelis across Israel. Although many of the attacks have been knife attacks, there have also been shootings, car attacks (where the attacker purposely drives into a group of civilians) and other incidents.  Many of the attackers have been killed by nearby bystanders, police forces or others arriving at the scene to fight off the attacks.

The attacks have generally not been condemned by the Palestinian leadership or even by Israeli Arab Knesset members.  Many of the attacks have been celebrated and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas has praised several of the attackers as "Martyrs."

One has to wonder about the end game for the Palestinians.  If they are of the view that the use of this type of violence will push Israel to make significant peace concessions, that would seem to be a mistaken assumption.  If anything, the Israeli political landscape has been shifting to the right as a result of these attacks.

A Pew Research Center study released this week reported that close to 50% of Israelis would now support a policy of transferring Israeli Arabs out of Israel.  To where?   Well maybe that is a corollary of the Palestinian position that the Palestinian state as part of a "two-state solution" should be emptied of its Jews.  If a "two-state solution" means that each people gets its own state, many interesting questions arise.  If each state has a minority of the other state's people - and provides full rights for that minority (as Israel now does for the Palestinian population), then it seems doubtful that many Israelis would push too hard for the expulsion or transfer from Israel of the Palestinians to the nascent Palestinian state.

But if it is a negotiated condition of a two state solution that Israel uproot any Jewish communities in the territory earmarked for the new Palestinian state and provide the Palestinian state with territory completely free of any Jewish residents, it is understandable that many would view the corollary to be a logical extension of the same premise. 

This is the position taken by Israeli Knesset Member Avigdor Lieberman of the "Yisrael Beitenu" party, which is currently not part of the governing coalition.  Lieberman would argue that this is what President Obama has referred to as "land swaps" where Israel would trade areas within Israel that have primarily Arab populations for areas of the West Bank that have primarily Jewish populations.

Funny enough, the Palestinian Authority view is that Israel should empty the West Bank of Jews as part of a territorial compromise and agree to accept Palestinian refugees into Israel itself rather than their new proposed homeland.  Obviously this makes no sense at all.  The whole purpose of a "two-state solution" would be that the Palestinians could resolve, completely, the issue of refugees within the borders of their new state.  Netanyahu and Lieberman have been criticized for taking this position as racist and intransigent.  But it is neither to accept that a two state solution means two states for two peoples.

Some 50% of Israelis apparently reject the premise of a "transfer," according to the study.  After all, Israeli Arabs comprise some 20% of Israel's population and are involved in all facets of Israeli life.  It is probably also incorrect to interpret the poll result as suggesting that Israelis who claimed to support a transfer would want to deport Arab Israeli citizens, proactively, outside of some type of political deal that created two ethnic nation states with a negotiated population exchange mechanism.

But this latest round of violence has impacted Israeli opinion. As the number of terrorist incidents on civilians within Israel continues to increase, Israeli attitudes towards Palestinians, Israeli and non-Israeli, continue to change for the worse.

Perhaps Palestinian leader Abbas figures that this is the way to force Israel into a deal and to gain international support.  But it seems to me that the current round of Palestinian violence has pushed things in the opposite direction. 

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Adventures of Used Car Buying in Israel

Buying a used car anywhere is challenging.  You never really know what you are getting.  Are you just buying someone else's problems?  It is always a risky venture.

That's no different in Israel.  But there are several advantages and disadvantages here that should be taken into account as well as some unique issues.

For starters, cost is a huge factor in any car purchase in Israel.  The price of automobiles in Israel is simply astronomical.  It is mostly taxes - which bring the price of a new car to 2.5 to 3 times the cost of the same car in a place like Canada.  So a new car - a relatively small one by Canadian standards like a Toyota Corolla or a Honda Civic - can cost more than $40,000 Cdn in Israel for a fairly basic model.  Ouch.

New immigrants to Israel are entitled to bring a new car with them at a reduced tax rate or they can use their "new immigrant privileges" to buy a new car in Israel at a reduced rate.  However, even with the reduction, the prices are still incredibly high, compared to North American costs. 

Another option is to consider a used vehicle.  Sure that is quite risky - but anyone living in Israel to begin with is not necessarily averse to risk...

We recently set out to find a used vehicle and it was quite an adventure.  We will probably only know after several months, or even years, if we made a good decision.  If it is any consolation, our local mechanic tells us that the car should be maintenance free for at least the next 15,000 km. 

How do you find that "diamond in the rough?"  Well, there are several good Israeli sites with large used car inventories, that change every day. is one example (translated as "2ndhand").  "" is another one.  (It goes without saying that everyone wins in Israel in a used car purchase situation...)

These sites generally include a mixture of private sellers and used car companies.  There are rental car and leasing companies selling cars and smaller private dealers.  There are also a few huge financing/sales companies that have offices across the country.  Many of the small used car companies disguise themselves as private sellers to try and avoid some of the initial stigma of a used car lot.  You do need to know Hebrew to use these sites though they are fairly user friendly with drop down menus to help narrow your search.

Of course, as with any car purchase, it is important to set a budget, figure out what cars are in the set range and then try to narrow it down.  There are hundreds of types of cars available in Israel.  Japanese, Korean, European, American and others.  The choices can be overwhelming.  Many are vehicles that you just don't hear about in North America.  Renault, Peugeot, Skoda, Dihatsu.  Then there are the Korean cars - Hyundai (spelled out as Yundai in Hebrew) and Kia - the Japanese cars (lots of Mazda and Toyota, some Suzuki, Honda and Nissan), German cars (VW, Audi, BMW) and many Fords....As in many other parts of the world, Toyota, Honda and Mazda, as well as the German cars are viewed by many as the more reliable vehicles.

Weather is also a big factor.  Since the weather here is so much easier on cars than the snowy winters of Canada and the northern U.S., cars can last quite a long time.

So we set out to look for a used Japanese car.  How do you describe a vehicle in Israel with about 100,000 km on it?  Generally - either "like new," "completely new" or in "perfect condition."  After some brief phone conversations, we went to look at a few of these "new, perfectly maintained cars."

One had several dents and looked like it had been in at least two accidents.  The seller had described it as in "completely new" condition - with only 98,000 km on it....okay....

We found another one that looked like a great deal.  It had about 95,000 km but really did look like it was in fairly great shape.  So we decided to arrange a licensed test of the vehicle.  Given that there are so many used car sales across the country, entrepreneurs have made things fairly easy for consumers.  You can take the car to "Computest" or "Supertest" and get the "complete buyer's test."  There are other companies as well.  These companies will run a battery of tests, top to bottom on the car including several computerized tests of all of the car's different systems.  You then get a complete booklet of all of the car's attributes and defects. 

So we hooked up the new-looking car....

Turns out it had been in two major accidents.  It had been repainted and much of the car had been rebuilt with third party parts.  Out of 19 systems tested, the car only passed 7.  Yikes.  That was an expense of about $140 that saved us thousands....

Back to the drawing board.

We went to see another car described as "like new."   It could only be described (by us anyways) as "beaten up."  We didn't even bother discussing a test.

Another "new"car was shown to us by its proud owner.  It had three or four visible signs of damage.  But the owner told us that he left the damage as is so that no one would think he had "covered up anything."  It looked reasonably good mechanically - the owner had a detailed service record booklet and was very proud of his maintenance efforts.  But repairing the various dents and getting a paint job would run about 5,000 N.I.S., assuming that everything else was perfect.

Needless to say, you definitely have to be prepared to kiss a lot of frogs to find the princess here.  Or, at least, to avoid finding the hidden ogre.

In one case, we spoke to the "owner" about a car that had a massive lien on it.  The owner wanted us to pay him first - then he would pay the lien holder - and once they released the lien (which could take up to 40 days, according to one Israeli site), he would then transfer the ownership.  I don't think so.  Remember that many people in Israel have negative bank balances.  So as soon as you pay the person, any money deposited would first go into the person's account to pay off the negative balance.  Who knows if the lien would ever get removed?...

So we kept looking.  We found two or three more options that look reasonable and started to look seriously at the transfer process.

The actual process of buying the vehicle (if and when you find one that is suitable) is reasonably easy.  You go to any post office with the seller.  The post office charges a fee of about 250 N.I.S. ($85) and checks to make sure that there are no liens or charges against the vehicle.  If everything is clear, the post office will provide ownership documentation instantly.

The buyer and seller can prepare and sign a sales contract - including the vehicle number, engine number, respective ID #s for the buyer and seller and other details.  Once the money is exchanged and the ownership is registered - the only thing left to do is insure the vehicle.  I found a fairly straightforward boilerplate agreement on the internet and modified it slightly to make it suitable. 

In Israel, all used cars are tested each year year and a passed test is a condition of the vehicle registration.  The total annual fee can be about 1400 N.I.S.  So buying a car that has recently been tested can mean quite a savings, of up to a year's worth of test fees.

For calculating the market value of the car, Israel uses two types of "price books" ("Mehiron") to set the value of cars when Israelis buy or sell them.  Many sellers will stick to the Mehiron price religiously.  There is certainly some room, depending on the number of kilometres on the vehicle and the condition - but the Mehiron is often a basis for negotiating.

So we actually found another one that looked like a reasonable deal.  It was about 45 minutes away.  The owners seemed like a decent couple....After a test drive and a visual inspection, it was back to another computerized test location.

This car fared much better.  A handful of repairs were needed with an estimated cost of about 2,000-2,500 N.I.S.  But the owners were willing to knock that off of the already reduced, agreed upon selling price.  So we decided it would be worth the risk.

We took the car to a local mechanic who confirmed that the cost would be close to the estimate.  These were mostly more in the range of maintenance issues than major problems of any kind.  But of course the brakes, rotors and pads, would all need to be changed....With a few other optional items that would need to be done soon, the initial mechanic's bill ran up a bit higher than anticipated, but still in the ballpark.  Supposedly, we wound up with a car in very good shape mechanically and aesthetically, that should be fine for a while

We were able to insure the vehicle fairly easily by phone.  We contacted a few different insurance companies.  Unlike Canada/ U.S., they don't ask you how far you will be driving each day or whether you have passed a driver education course.  However, they do consider driving record (for the past 5 years), record of driving offences (if any) and whether there any new drivers.  Our agent also asked if anyone in the family was a teacher..(this included near and distant relatives).  We came with up a family member's name and were able to get a 20% discount.  No details required....

Buyers may prefer to buy from a used car dealership which might include some type of warranty. But based on some examples we saw, the cost differential could be quite significant - perhaps 20% or 30% or even more.  And I am not really convinced that these dealerships are likely to be any more scrupulous than a private seller.

But buyers will always want to take any car to one of these testing places for a comprehensive test - and perhaps also to a mechanic, since the testing agencies do not open and check the brake systems.  Of course some sellers may have a full service book and one could check what services were last performed and when.  But you still need to check these things.

Buyers will also want to be extra careful about title to the vehicle and will want to ensure that they are buying the vehicle free and clear.  Although the post office will cover most of these checks, it is not fully comprehensive.  You can go the Ministry of Transportation to verify that the vehicle is free and clear of any liens or other encumbrances.

While buying a used car in Israel is clearly a shark's world,  companies like Computest and Supertest help remove some of the risk.  Ultimately, you can never remove all of the risk - but it is probably worthwhile taking a chance if you can get a good used vehicle for a price that is drastically reduced over the price of a new or almost new model of the same car.  Then again, I suppose I will have to report back in about two years on whether I still believe that to be the case.

For now, we will see how our "almost new" used car holds up....

The vehicle model, year, price and kilometre reading have been purposely withheld to protect the innocent....

Until the next update on this issue - happy motoring!