Thursday, November 12, 2020

Hula Valley Nature Reserve and Har Odem Winery

Hula Valley Nature Reserve

Hula Valley Nature Reserve

One of the distinct advantages of being in Israel  this time of year is  the weather.  While we may hit some  rainy weather  soon, for the most part we have continued to enjoy very comfortable temperatures, mostly in the mid 20s (C) or 70s if you prefer Fahrenheit.  There are many national parks in Israel, most of which are within a one to two hour drive from Ra'anana.  So there are numerous opportunities to go for a hike, a swim or a combination of both.  We are also only about 15 minutes away from the beach, so that is always another option.

Of course this year has been a very different year all around the world and Israel is no exception.  Most of the national parks have been closed for much of the time since the initial Covid-19 outbreak in early March, 2020.  So we haven't really been able to travel around to all of these wonderful sites.

Over the past few weeks, Israel has moved to a version of "phase 2 reopening" which has included the opening of national parks.  So we decided to take a Sunday trip and visit one of the most incredible sites in Israel - the Hula Valley Nature Reserve.  In short, the Reserve is a bird sanctuary, acting as a major stopover  for birds migrating between Africa, Europe and Asia.  One estimate is that 500 million birds pass through the area each year.

The prime season for seeing the  birds is between late October and mid-March, during which time there are hundreds of thousands of birds in the park each day.  

You can visit the park in a number of different ways.  The main park route is a path that is about 8 km long.  You can walk the trail, rent bicycles (single bikes or multi-person  bikes) or you can rent a golf cart.  If you explore the park on your own, you can see several different birds, especially if you are visiting close to sunrise or sunset hours.

We had visited the park previously a few years ago and rented a group  bicycle for five of us.  But we were there in the middle of the day (little did we know). Although we saw some birds, we were  a bit disappointed.

This time we arranged to take the "Sunset Treasures Tour."  This is a one hour group tour on a big tractor-pulled wagon - that looks like it can seat about 40-50 people normally.  During these Covid-19 times, we were all spaced out and grouped in "capsules" with 3 seats separating each group.  Everyone had to wear a mask.

But this tour was simply extraordinary.  The tractor is able to enter areas that are normally off-limits and drive right alongside flocks of birds without scaring the birds away -  because the tractor is the same type  as the park's feeding  tractors.  As you can see from the photos above, we drove right up to enormous flocks of birds, turned off the engine and sat quietly watching  them.  Hundreds, if not thousands of birds ascended and descended as we watched.  

We had an outstanding tour guide who was well equipped with very high powered  binoculars.  She was able to point out a wide range of  birds including spoonbills, pelicans, herons and many others.  The vast majority of the birds in the park are common cranes.  While they may not be the world's most beautiful bird, it is quite  incredible to see  so many of them chirping  and squawking in one place.

Before taking the sunset tour, we made our way through the park.  We didn't  see  nearly as many birds but we still had some great views.  Our guide recommended trying the "sunrise magic" tour as well, which means getting to the park at about 5 a.m. - for a pre-booked tour.  Sounds tempting and we might try it one  day but the Sunset Treasures tour at about 5 p.m. is somewhat more manageable.  This was so fantastic that we might even do it again before  the end of the season.   

The Hula Valley Reserve is located in northern Israel not too far from Kiryat Shemona - which is at the border between Israel and Lebanon.  It is about a one and a half hour drive from Ra'anana or other parts of central Israel.  For anyone in Israel between November and March, this is really a special experience.

Har Odem (Odem Mountain) Winery

Before arriving at the Hula Valley Reserve, we looked for a winery to visit that we hadn't yet toured.  Pickings were  slim these days because of Covid-19 and most wineries were not open for the full tasting experience.  Some, however, have their wine stores and gift shops open.  

We decided to visit the Har Odem Winery (Odem Mountain Winery), which is located in the  Golan Heights, in northern Israel.  It  is about  25 minutes away  from  the Hula Valley Reserve.  Odem is a winery that was founded in 2003 by the Alfasi family.  It is described as the "northern most winery in Israel" with grapes growing at an elevation of between 1100 and 1200 metres above sea level.  

The grapes are grown on volcanic soil and the vineyards are snow covered for much of the winter.  The weather in the spring and summer is quite nice.  A variety of different grapes are grown.

Because of Covid-19, we were not able to arrange a full wine tasting.  But we were able to buy a bottle of Nebbiolo-Syrah and drink it outside.  Nebbiolo is not a commonly grown grape in Israel so this is a unique blended wine.  There were a few tables set up so the four of us chose one and enjoyed  this rich tasting wine along with some perfect weather.   The winery representative, Erez, I believe, was knowledgeable, friendly, funny and helpful.  He brought us a nice platter of cheese and bread to go with the wine (all local goat cheeses and local breads) (and all kosher) and spoke to us about the full range of Odem wines.  We quite enjoyed the unique wine that we tasted, though it was a bit on the pricey side at 180 shequels (about $72 Cdn).  But this was one of their higher end wines.  Since we bought a few, we received a discount so the price worked out to be better than full retail.  The winery also has a few white wines, a range of red wines starting with the winery's basic cabernet and some other varietals at about 69 shq ($28 Cdn).  The winery store also sells locally produced olive oil, jams and locally made ceramics.  It was quite a nice store and quite a nice winery to visit.  We did also pick up some of the olive oil and a delicious cherry jam.  

Forni Stone Fired Pizza in Rosh Pina

By the time we finished the sunset tour, made a pit stop and left the Hula Reserve, we were getting hungry.  And it was probably close to 8 p.m.  So we drove to the nearby town of Rosh Pina and set out to find something to eat.  All the restaurants were only running take out services due to Covid-19 so we were going to have to eat outside or in our car.

We managed to come across Forni Stone Fired Pizza - a strictly Kosher pizza place ("Kosher l'Mehadrin").  We thought about it for a bit and then decided to order.  The pizza was thin crusted Italian style pizza.  We picked our toppings, placed our order and waited.

The service was prompt and friendly and the pizza was ready quite quickly.  It was reasonably priced and very tasty. 

We are hard to please when it comes to pizza since as a general rule, the pizza in Israel is not great.  This is probably due in part to the lack of really good mozzarella and other hard cheeses.  Sometimes the pizza sauces are also quite bland.  In Ra'anana, for example, there are just aren't many pizza places that I would recommend.  

But Forni pizza was quite good.  One of our foursome said that it was the "best pizza she had eaten in Israel."  We have had some good pizza over the years, in Jerusalem, in K'far Saba and maybe  even at one or two of the places in Ra'anana.   So that is a pretty good compliment.  This crust was done really well.  The sauce was tangy and the cheese was tasty.   All of us enjoyed it.  So next time we are in Rosh Pina and hungry, we have a place to go.  Not that we are in Rosh Pina that often but you never know.  

In fact, whenever I think of Rosh Pina, with its estimated population of about 3,000, I think of a song written by Natan Zach Z"L who died this past week.  The song was sung by Israeli singer Nurit Galron, called "Pizmon Hozer" ("Repeating Chorus").  I first heard it in the mid-1980s.  It starts off with the words:

I went to Kiryat Shemona - but I had nothing to do there.

I continued to Rosh Pina - but I had no one to talk to there....

In fairness to Rosh Pina, the lyricist continues on, sung soulfully by Galron, to mention other places where there was nothing going on  - including Haifa, Holon and Ashdod and ultimately, the sea.  But the first verse always seemed to stick out in my head - that there was nothing to do in the small town of Rosh Pina.  My association is reinforced by the memory of being stuck in Rosh Pina in 1986 on a Friday afternoon after the last bus had left the town just  after 2:00 p.m. with no way to get back to Jerusalem.   

But now I know there is at least one thing to do there - I can get some pretty decent pizza to eat.  So I now have a new association in my head when "Rosh Pina" pops up.  And it's a tasty one. 

Shabbat Shalom and best of health to everyone. 

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

U.S. Elections, Israeli Politics and Remembrance Day 2020

It is Remembrance Day, 2020, eight days after the U.S. election.  Amidst the ongoing turmoil in the U.S. and the almost equally tenuous situation in Israel, a blog post is overdue.  On Remembrance Day, we reflect on the high price that we have paid to fight for freedom and democracy - the millions of civilians and soldiers who lost their lives to ensure a better  future for everyone else.  And of course, we often think of what might have been if the Allies had not emerged victorious by the end of the Second World War.

I haven't provided this introduction to be overly dramatic.  But there are very real concerns facing democracy in the United States and in Israel and I think some context and discussion is relevant.

As  of the writing of this blog, the U.S. is really at a crossroads.  We await the "official" results even as most major U.S. networks, including pro-Trump networks like Fox News, have called the election in favour of Joe Biden.  

On the one hand, I accept that either candidate is entitled to ensure that full and final results are tabulated and certified.  Arizona, Georgia and North Carolina have still not been called.  The margins are very slim and there are still many votes left to be counted.  North Carolina seems highly likely to go to Trump.  It is within the realm of possibility that Arizona or  Georgia or  both could be flipped as a result of lawful counting.  But even if Trump managed to take both Arizona and Georgia, which seems unlikely but possible, that would still leave him behind 279-259.  

What next?  Again, on the legal side, it is possible that a legitimate recount of Wisconsin could flip the state.  The margin is very small.  However, this seems unlikely.  Trump won Wisconsin by a very small margin in 2016 but the result was upheld.  There is no reason to believe that the Wisconsin ballot counters are off by so many votes.  They seem to know how to oversee closely contested elections.  

Winning and flipping Arizona, Georgia and Wisconsin would be highly improbable  but if the votes bring those results legitimately, it would not be undemocratic or improper.  On the contrary, it would be entirely democratic and appropriate if that  was what the actual votes showed.  

But assuming that Trump loses at least one of those three states, there is no real path to re-election for Trump other than the use of the judicial system to mount a large-scale attack on the U.S. voting process - in states that Trump has lost.   This is where things become frightening. 

The margin in Pennsylvania is more than 40,000 votes and is likely to wind up being more than 70,000-80,000 votes.  As of the writing of this blog, no evidence has been presented that would come close to invalidating that many legal votes.  But Trump seems to be convinced that if he can bring any argument at all to the Supreme Court of the United States (even if he is defeated at lower court levels), his battalion of three newly appointed justices will combine with two or three of the existing right-wing judges on the Supreme Court and uphold any argument that he puts forward, even one which disenfranchises more than 40,000 voters.

I am hopeful that we will not get close to  this scenario, but it is a terrifying one.  This type of ruling, if it were to occur, could only be characterized as a court-sanctioned coup.  We have already seen the U.S. Supreme Court tilt an election to the Republicans in a ridiculously partisan 5-4 decision in Bush v. Gore.  We can only take solace in the notion that Florida in 2000 was unclear in any event and a decision  in Gore's favour at that  time may not have resulted in a Democratic victory.  If the Supreme Court were to side with Trump in the present circumstances, it would be a very different situation, by orders of magnitude. 

You might be wondering how this all relates to my blog.  I think there are a few different responses.

First of all, Israel and its leadership are watching the U.S. results as closely as any other country in the world, if not more so.  Prime Minister Netanyahu has invested a great deal in his personal relationship with Trump.  In the last Israeli election, Netanyahu posted billboards all over the country with giant pictures of him and Trump posing together with the message that only Netanyahu could continue the special relationship with President Trump and the United States.  Netanyahu has placed most, if not all, of his eggs in the Republican basket.  He has cooperated with Trump to try and shift support for Israel to a partisan idea in the U.S. in the hopes of moving voters to the Republican party.  

Although President Obama took some actions that were viewed as hostile to Israel's interests, the Obama administration was very supportive of Israel in many other ways.  The U.S fully supported Israel during the  Gaza war, improved military and technological cooperation and handed off a very strong U.S. - Israel relationship to Trump.  There are some real questions about the Iran nuclear deal that was signed under Obama.  Additionally, it is unfortunate the Obama snubbed Israel at the beginning of his administration and refused to visit while he was "in the neighbourhood."  His support for an anti-Israel U.N. resolution on the way out the door at the end of his second term was odious.  But it is very misleading to conclude that the Democratic party has gone along with Trump's efforts to make Israel a partisan issue.  There are many leading Democrats who are very supportive of Israel and if Biden wins the election and takes office, it will be very important for Netanyahu and Israel to work with Biden constructively.  

At the same time, Trump deserves credit for moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, for cutting off funding to Palestinians until they agree to end the "pay for slay" program and for advancing peace agreements between Israel and other countries in the region.   A Biden administration may reverse some of these policies and that may not bring the region any closer to peace.  Hopefully Biden will be more supportive of Israel than Obama was in some areas.  Indications are that this is likely.

All of this has put Netanyahu in a quandary.  He has invested so much energy and political capital in mobilizing support for the Republicans that he found himself in an awkward situation staring at a likely Biden victory.  Even as news networks across the U.S. were calling the election in Biden's favour, Netanyahu resisted recognizing his  buddy's  election loss.  While leaders of several other countries congratulated Biden, Netanyahu held out for more than 12 hours after which he finally felt forced to offer his best wishes.  Unlike the leaders of Russia, China, Turkey, Brazil and a few others, Netanyahu recognized that he would have to say something.  Notably, he has avoided calling Biden "President-elect" but he has sent at least one lukewarm message.  

This is not  Netanyahu's first awkward moment resulting from his pro-Republican partisanship. Weeks before the election, in a conference call with world leaders, Trump asked Netanyahu to confirm that "sleepy Joe" wouldn't have been able to bring about these peace deals with UAE, Bahrain and  Sudan.  After a long pause, Netanyahu demurred and  mumbled that Israel is happy to get the support of any  U.S. leaders who can provide assistance.  Trump's face told the whole story.  He  was  quite displeased with Netanyahu's response.  

Following the election,  Netanyahu was again faced with the question of how to keep Trump happy while not damaging Israel's political interests with a new U.S.  administration.

Netanyahu himself is in a very questionable situation.  He remained in power after the March 2020 elections by cobbling together a coalition with the biggest opposition party - Blue and White - which then promptly fractured into two parts, only one of which joined Netanyahu's coalition.  Key terms of that coalition deal included a two year budget (until the end of 2021) and a rotation agreement under which coalition partner Benny Gantz would become the Prime Minister in September 2021.  

Eight months have passed and no budget has been presented.  Netanyahu has taken the position that times have changed and the government should now only pass a budget that  covers 2020.  That would leave him something to argue about and a reason to break apart the coalition and  call a new election in early 2021.  Needless to say, the Blue and White party have demanded that Netanyahu honour the coalition deal and agree to a two-year budget.  The matter is headed for a showdown by the end  of November at which time the government will fall if a budget agreement is not reached.

Netanyahu is still holding out hope that he can win an election and put together a  right wing coalition.  His criminal trial is scheduled to resume in January 2021.  He is facing three different sets of charges for bribery, breach of trust and corruption.  Over the past three elections, he has been hoping that he can put together a coalition that would agree to legislation that would retroactively eliminate his criminal problems.  This would be a shockingly anti-democratic move but he  seems to have quite a large number  of Israel Knesset members who would be prepared to support this type of bill, though not he has not yet been able to get more than half the Knesset to sign on.

Unlike the U.S. President, the Prime Minister of Israel does  not have the power to pardon people (or himself).  He can seek a pardon from the President of Israel, who holds an otherwise largely ceremonial figurehead role, much like the Queen in England or the Governor General in Canada.  So Netanyahu will require a Knesset majority of some sort if he hopes to get his legal troubles to vanish.  On the other hand, I am quite convinced that if Trump eventually relinquishes his office (or is forced to do so), he will pardon himself and many many others, including family members and friends just before leaving office.  It remains to be  seen whether the U.S. Supreme Court will uphold this use of a self-pardon.  Certainly there appear  to be 3 or 4 judges would almost certainly side with Trump.  I suppose that Gorsuch, Coney Barrett and Roberts will be the real decision makers,  though I am beginning to feel more confident that Roberts would not go along.

In short, looking at all of this, we are facing some very real tests of democracy in both the U.S. and Israel.  The fight in the U.S. may extend into January as various court challenges, recounts and other steps are all addressed.  I offer my hope that honesty, fairness and integrity will prevail in both the recounts and any judicial decisions.  In Israel, things may not be decided any time soon.  There may be an election in the coming months but it may be followed by still more elections if Netanyahu is unable to win and rid himself of his criminal charges.  

In both cases, democracy  and freedom will only prevail if the eventual election results reflect the actual votes of the people and if the voices of the people are heard, upheld and implemented.  In assessing recent actions taken by Trump, including the spread of demonstrably false claims, and the efforts to disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of  voters, we should remember the history lessons that we think of, especially today.  And remember how easily a vibrant democracy can quickly slide into totalitarianism.