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....
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.
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.
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.