Sunday, May 30, 2021

In Quarantine - and a Political Comment or Two

As you  might recall from my last blog (if you read it), I arrived on an Air Canada flight early Thursday a.m. and headed off to the Marriott Airport Hotel in Toronto for my "up to three day quarantine."  I took my Covid test on Thursay morning at about 6:00 a.m. or so.  After that, I headed off to the hotel on the Hotel Shuttle Bus - which was about a half hour wait.  I was put on a  "Covid floor" at the Marriott - where you are not supposed to leave your room - and meals are delivered three times a day.  Thankfully the internet service was decent.

Urban Kosher Lunch

I had ordered Kosher food and the meals were supplied by Urban Kosher, which is part of L'Chaim Catering.  The food was fine.  Breakfast both days was an omelet, grilled tomatoes, hashbrowns, a fruit cup and a muffin (one day blueberry, one day cranberry, in case you are wondering...).  The fruit cup was quite good with fresh berries, pineapple, dragonfruit, and some other fresh fruit.  Lunch on thursday was two sandwiches - one of cold grilled chicken, the other of cold roast beef.  It also came with a big chocolate cup cake, some celery and some carrots.  The lunch was, perhaps, the "weak link."  Dinner on Thursday was a grilled chicken breast in a terryaki sauce with mashed potatoes and a giant piece of chocolate cake along with a Caesar salad (pareve of course).  I appreciate that the Marriott arranged these  meals without any additional cost (unlike some of the other hotels that I called) and the food quality was fine, better than an airplane meal for sure.  My only criticism is that the caterer is apparently a meat and pareve caterer - so there are no dairy meals.  I would have prefered them to use a dairy caterer for the breakfast so that they could provide yogurt, cheese etc.,  But for a relatively short stay,  that is not a huge complaint.  Breakfast and dinner were served warm and the food was tasty.  Kol  Hakavod to Urban Kosher.
Lunch  Sandwiches

The Marriott provides some coupons for some cappucinos.  So I was able to call room service and order cappucinos.  I asked them to use the coupons to cover the cost of the coffees and they were happy to do so.  The coffee was pretty good - Illy coffee - so I had  two nice cappucinos with breakfast each day.

By 10:30 a.m. on Friday, I received my results, negative of course (since I have been vaccinated twice), and I was free to leave.  I still had a work meeting so I couldn't leave until about 1 p.m.  But at the time  I received the test results, I also received a message from the ArriveCan app asking me to confirm that I was "leaving the Hotel" and to confirm "where I would be spending the rest of my quarantine." 

Chocolate Layer Cake

In other words - these three are working together - ArriveCan, Switchhealth.ca  and the hotels.  They want to get you the results within one  day - and then ensure that you leave the hotel asap.   They know, in advance, that is how things will work but still insist that you buy a three day, pre-paid, non refundable hotel stay.  I tried asking at the hotel desk if there was anything they could do - but they were resolute and hid behind the Canadian government ("the Canadian government insists that it be a  three day non-refundable rate - we can't do anything about it.").  I have heard that some of the hotels are offering some refund if you leave early - but I'm not sure which.  I wanted to ensure that I had the Kosher  food - so I didn't find any of these hotels that were offering a partial refund.  Perhaps I will write to the Marriott as well but I doubt I will get anywhere.

It seems to me that a class action lawsuit against the  government of Canada would probably succeed. Under the Canadian Constitution - the Charter - the government could probably show that there was a "pressing and substanial need" due to the pandamic - to override the rights of Canadians.  That is  fine.  But under section 1 of the Charter, the government is also required to show that it infringed on people's rights to the minimum extent possible.  Here, I think they would have a big problem.  Given that people could drive across the border and not go to these hotels - it makes no sense to insist that only air travellers have to pay $1,200 extra or so to buy a "three day prepaid non-refundable" stay whereas those who fly to the U.S.  and take a cab back to Canada can circumvent the  process.  Especially since the government knows and expects that in 95% of the cases, travellers will test negative and will be able to leave within 24 hours.  They could have made it a 24 hour stay - and pushed to get the results within that time frame.  Or they could have insisted that everyone - land travellers and air travellers - stay the full three days.  This would have been drastic - but it would have been equal and fair to everyone.  There are probably many other possible solutions as well.  The point here is that a three day mandatory, non-refundable, stay is a significant overreach and  is not likely to meet a proportionality test, in my view.  Then again, I'm only an employment lawyer, so what do I know?

I expect that in the coming weeks, this policy will be abandoned and the government will start recognizing vaccination certificates.  I don't plan on bringing the class action lawsuit myself - but  I'm quite sure that a properly framed suit would have a very good chance of success.  Maybe someone else will decide to take this on.  

Israeli Political Update

Naftali Bennett
Sitting here in Toronto - I flipped on Israeli news channel 12 to watch two back-to-back press conferences - one by Naftali Bennett and  one by Benjamin Netanyahu.  It was fascinating to watch.  The Israeli public is really divided and there are protesters outside everywhere across the country - rallying either in favour of this new potential "change government" that Bennett is trying to form with Lapid or in support  of  Netanyahu and against the Bennett-Lapid plans.

Bennett spoke first. I actually thought it was quite a good speech.  He appealed to Israelis from across the political spectrum to make some compromises, form a stable government and avoid a 5th election.  He noted that he  had made extensive efforts to form a purely right wing government with Netanyahu but they were short of the votes - and it wasn't going to happen.  He stated that his government would not be a "left"  government - but one made up of left and right wing politicians and that it would involve compromises.  He said that some of its members would be "more right wing" than those in the current Netanyahu government.  He prommised that  he was going to make every effort over the coming 48 hours to form such a government - even though his second in command - Ayelet Shaked was not beside him and has not yet fully committed to this plan.  Bennett did not take any  questions.  He will spend the next 48 hours - until Lapid's mandate ends - trying everything he can to finalize arrangements and  take over the government from Netanyahu.

After a short TV break, Netanyahu spoke from a different location.  He was disturbed and unhinged.  He levelled every kind of personal insult at Bennett and repeatedly called Bennett a liar, a flip-flopper and someone who was  forming a left wing government despite the overwhelming support that he enjoyed from the country as the preferred choice for Prime Minister.  He attacked, in personal terms, the leaders and members of the left and centre parties that would make up the potential government - including Lapid, Michaeli, Horowitz and Zandberg.  He warned that this "change" government would be a danger to national security, to the army, to Israel's interests worldwide.  He compared Bennett's plan to take over - to the way governments are run in Syria, Iran and Turkey - governments that are formed, in his view, against the overwhelming national will and electoral preferences.  He said  Bennett was putting himself above the national  interest - and endangering everyone so that he could become the Prime Minister.  Isn't all this quite rich for someone who has dragged the country into four consecutive elections becauses of his personal legal troubles?  The language was Trump-esque - "only I can be the Prime Minister and ensure national security."  This despite the fact that if  Bennett succeeds in forming a government, it will be one that is made up of more than 50% support of the Israeli voting public.

Netanyahu's speech was aimed at members of the Yamina party, especially Shaked, who may not be happy about joining a compromise government.   It was also aimed at Gideon Saar's "New Hope" party - in an effort to try to get some of that party's members to cross the aisle.  As well, it was aimed at Netanyahu's base - and was a call to action for protests, name calling, threats and whatever else over the coming 48 hours.  

It is unclear what will  happen.  I don't think we can rule out the possibility that Netanyahu will somehow suceed in blocking this change government by doing something drastic over the next 48 hours.  He is pulling out  all the stops and exerting the maximum pressure that he can on as many people as possible.  Some of his supporters are calling Bennett and Saar "traitors" and using very extreme language and rhetoric to attack their opponents.  For Netanyahu, if he cannot  block the transfer of power, it will a devastating loss with significant personal ramifactions since he will now have no effective way of slowing, stopping or manipulating his ongoing corruption trial.  

It will be really interesting to see if Bennett and Shaked can withstand all of this pressure and form a change government.  The next 48 hours may  be one  of the most fascinating time periods in Israeli political history.  Hopefully, however things work out, it will all be done peacefully.  

Thursday, May 27, 2021

Trip To Toronto from Tel-Aviv, Israel

Hi.  Well this will be a bit of a different blog.  After about 14 months - I decided to try coming back to Toronto for a short trip.  I thought I would cover off all the things you need to do these days to travel from Israel to Toronto.  This will all probably change over the next few months - though hard to say exactly when.  Much of this will apply if you are coming from some other  country and arriving in Canada.

So here goes....

First of all - Air Canada is currently flying direct between Tel-Aviv and Toronto.  When I moved my reservation, they told me it was  once a week - but now it looks like twice a week.  The good news (from my point of view) is that they have changed the flight times.  They are now leaving Israel at 12:10 a.m. at night and arriving at 5:10 a.m.  I much prefer this over the 11:20 a.m. departure from Israel that they had been using for the past few years.  Travelling from Toronto to Israel, Air Canada is now leaving at about 9:30 p.m. and arriving in Israel 3:30 p.m. or so the next day.  This also preferable - though I didn't mind the  5:30 p.m. departure times.  I'd rather fly overnight  in general, especially if I am able to get an upgrade - which happens occasionally.

For people making new bookings and travelling from Canada to Israel - Air Canada is apparently offering insurance (including Covid coverage) with all reservations - and is allowing for flexible changes.  The tickets still seem to be moderately priced - and have not yet gone up to the traditional summer rates of $2,000+ per ticket - as far as I can see.  You should still be able to get a round trip ticket for between $850 and $1,200 Cdn. (As of the time I'm writing this - May 25-27, 2021).

As the travel date approaches, you must take a Covid-19 test at an acceptable provider within 72 hours of your flight departure time - which specifies your passport and flight information on the test in English.  So  I went last night (May 24, 2021) to the "Check2Fly" airport location, located at Terminal 3 of Ben Gurion Airport (in the  arrivals area, near Gate 2).  It costs 44 Shekels (about $18 CDN) for the "slow" test which is supposed to take up to 17 hours.  If you are in more of a rush, you can buy the 4 hour test, which has a higher fee.  You can either use the drive-through location at the airport (which we couldn't find due to lack of signage, despite circling the airport  twice) or the terminal location.  It took about 15 minutes to go through the line, get tested etc.,  My appointement was for 1:45 a.m. last night -  but we showed up at about 10 p.m.  (As typical Israelis, we didn't pay any attention to the actual appointment time).  No questions asked.  Just had to show proof of advance purchase and the other required documentation.  By 9 a.m. this morning, I had the results back - negative, thankfully.  (Not that I was expecting anything else, having received both doses of the Pfizer vaccine, like most Israelis).  Incidentally, the "drive-through" is apparently located in the  "cargo exit area" as you are coming up to Terminal 3.  But it is very poorly marked and hard to find.

Next I had to download the Canadian government cellphone application called ArriveCan and fill it out with all of my information, my "quarantine plan" for the next two weeks, height, weight, vital signs, sexual orientation, etc., Okay some of this was not required but it was pretty comprehensive.  There is a website option as well - that you can find here.  Once that was completed, I received a confirmation email from the Canadian Government with a bar code  that I will have to show on entry into Canada.

The most painful part of all of this - I had to book a "GAA" ("Government Approved Accomodation") hotel.  This can only be booked using the Canadian government site link (or calling the particular hotel directly) and it is really quite a scam.  At a minimum, you have to book and pre-pay for 3 days - even though you are allowed to leave the hotel as soon as you receive a negative result from your Covid test on arrival in Canada.  No refund of any kind if you leave early - even though everyone knows that 90% of the people or more will test negative and be able to leave - especially those coming from Israel who have been vaccinated.  Moreover, some of the eligible hotels  have normal rates as low as $65 per night - but you must use the "GAA" rate and pay $350 a night.  I guess at least $100 to $150 of that per night is a direct political contribution from the Liberal Party of Canada to the Hotel Industry but I digress.  Okay, the rate includes 3 meals a day - but I am quite sure they are not serving $200-$250 worth of food - even at hotel rates.  And since such a high percentage of people will leave after only a day or two - it is like those coupon sellers that rely on people to buy the coupons and never actually use them.  

I should note that you can't use third party websites - such as expedia, travelocity etc., - so I was not able to use American Express Travel - which would have given me a $200 credit against the outrageous hotel fee.  I tried - but the Amex representative looked into it and told me there was no way to do it.

I phoned a bunch of these hotels and asked about Kosher food.  Even though the Government site says that they are required to provide it - most said that they couldn't.  Some said you could order it at your own expense and pay for it.  Others said they just couldn't accommodate it.   The Sheraton said that they would include the Kosher food - but I would have to pay an additional charge of $45 per day for "delivery."  The Marriott Hotel on Dixon Road said that you could arrange Kosher food at no extra cost- if you request it with 24 hours advance notice.  So I did.  We will see what happens.

Next is the Israeli Exit application....This must be filled in within 24 hours of the departure.  I guess I can't fill this one out until late tonight - so we will see what's on it.  

I'm back.  I completed this form.  I tried to complete it 24 hours before the flight, as requested.  The flight is scheduled for 12:20 a.m.  But the website is apparently not set up with a live time function - so it would not allow me to complete the form on the 26th (early a.m.) for a flight leaving on the 27th early a.m.  In any case, this form asks for ID, contact information and declearations relating to your health - specifically that you are not currently diagnosed as a covid-19 patient, have not been in isolation over the past 2 weeks and have do not have symptoms.  It also asks you to agree that you understand that it is a criminal offence to make misrepresentations on the form.  Once you have completed it - you submit it online and  it sends you  back an authorization form and number that can be presented at the Israeli airport.  The form is available in English, Hebrew and several other languages.

Flight Day:

Checked  to see that the flight was in time - it is.  Current recommendation is to arrive at the airport four hours (*gasp*) ahead of the flight time.  Judging from the line-ups we saw on Monday night - when I came for the Covid test - this sounded like it might be needed.  So I showed up at 8:30 p.m. for a 12:30 a.m. flight.  Not a soul around.   Okay there were a handful of people but not many.

First stop was an outside checkpoint - before you can be let into the terminal.  This was a stop to check passports, covid tests and tickets.  It was quick - and they are giving passengers a  green bracelet to show that you can now wander around in the terminal.  Like entering an amusement park - including the three hour waits for some of the rides.

Becauase there were so few people, I zipped through the Israeli security line up, the baggage check line-up and passport control (which is now all automated).  By 9:00 p.m., I was through everything and ready to visit the deserted duty free shops.  Many of them were closed but of course the main duty free with alcohol  and perfume etc., was open.  Not many shoppers.  I guess since it has been a slow year, they decided to increase the prices.  There were very few decent sales, very high prices and a limited selection.  I still picked up a  gift for someone - since I found something that you can't find at the LCBO in Toronto but the price wasn't earth shattering.

I wandered through the terminal a bit but I would say that quite a high percentage of stores were closed.  The clothing stores, gift boutiques and a range of other shops were all closed.  The book store was open -  Steimatzky's - so I browsed a bit there.  Of course the Chabad Lubavitch stand was set up and active - trying to encourage Jewish men to come and  put on tefillin - in exchange, perhaps, for a small donation and maybe a reserved spot in the heavenly afterlife.  I didn't stop to chat with these folks so I guess I will have to continue to worry about the current trajectory of my soul.  Hopefully there is still time.

The Flight

My flight was on time as scheduled.  I arrived at the gate.  There were quite a small number of people waiting to board compared to the usual crowd.  Air Canada decided to do away with priority boarding and opted for the Israel "free for all" style boarding  process.  It wasn't so bad since there were only a small number of people.  I  overheard one crew member saying that there were 100 passgengers.

I managed to get an upgrade so I was sitting in business class, which is always nice.  The seats fold back completely into beds.  Unlike  the usual business class trip - there was no offer of fresh orange juice or champagne.  In fact, the alcohol for the entire trip was limited to only wine and beer.  They didn't even have  milk for  coffee if you wanted it.  I usually earn at least half of the cost of the fare by sampling the various wines, having a whisky and perhaps a cognac or two.  But no such luck this flight. I had a bit of wine with dinner but it was nothing memorable.

Everything was double wrapped in plastic with a certified clean stamp on it - including the blankets, the pillows, the travel kit, etc.,  So I unpacked everything and set up my "bed" to prepare for a  nice snooze.

The flight was uneventful,  smooth and only 11 hours long (in the air).  I remember the older planes taking closer to 13 hours to fly from Tel-Aviv to Toronto so this was quite nice.  

I had to deal with a crying, shrieking baby - who interrupted  everyone's  sleep.  I  guess their parents were  opting for the "let her cry herself  out" approach -  even if that meant disrupting the  sleep of the rest of the plane.   Once she finally calmed  down, an alarm  clock went off from someone's  phone a few seats over.  He couldn't be bothered to wake up and shut  it  off.   Seems like it buzzed forever. Finally he decided to  attend to it.  Most of the time, business class  is  fairly serene but today's  flight was certainly an exception.

I ordered the Kosher meal service.  About an hour or so into the flight, I was presented with a big box, hermetically sealed with the culinary offerings.  It was a chicken dish with some vegetables.  Not bad actually.  There was a fruit plate on the side with pineapple, watermelon, cantaloupe and apple.   A small piece of chocolate cake, a salad and a dinner roll (which I stayed away from) were all on the plate as well.   Nothing  like the fancy meals that  are usually served in business class but it was fine.  If you are thinking of travelling business class primarily to experience the food - maybe wait until things are back to normal.

Arrival In Canada

We arrived early at about 5:10 a.m.  It seems like they landed the plane at the furthest possible gate from civilization - I guess to give everyone a bit of exercise after the 12  1/2  hours on the plane (including boarding, taxiing etc.,).  

After the marathon hike to the customs area, I headed over to the Nexus lineup to check  in.  Normally, when you arrive with Nexus - you simply hand over the completed form and away you go.   This  time - I had to face the extensive questioning from the customs agent.  I had to show my proof of test taken in Israel, my hotel reservation and my confirmation that I had filled out all of the information using the ArriveCan app.  Since I had all of my ducks in order, I really wasn't hassled that  much.  The usual questions about  how long I had been out of the country, purpose of travel, how many bags I was bringing etc.,  But I was released reasonably quickly.

I should note that as I was  standing in line - I could overhear a few people who were exercising their right to "civil disobedience."  One person insisted  he was not going to stay in the mandatory quarantine hotel or even agree to be checked for Covid.  After a short shouting match, the officer called over a supervisor - who told him that he would be fined.  He said fine - or "fine away," I suppose.  There are a number of Facebook postings where people are claiming that  Canadian judges  will throw out  these fines if you challenge them as violations of Charter rights.  I have no idea whether that is correct (especially since the Charter includes section 1 which allows the government to prove that the steps are necessary - and the government may get some slack when there is a global pandamic.)  In any case, I am not about to find out.  I think they have upped the fines to $5,000 and I am simply not interested in paying that.  Frankly, I don't see why the government even offers that as an option.  In my view, if someone doesn't want to be tested - they should be sent to the government's two week mandatory quarantine hotel if they are a Canadian citizen and fined - an amount high enough to cover the  two week cost.   If they are not a citizen - and refuse to take a test, they should be put on a plane and sent back to wherever they came from.

Another person stated that they had not downloaded the "ArriveCan" app and were not going to use  it.  Another shouting  match with an officer - who asked "why did you decide you just don't have to comply with the rules?"  No intelligible answer that  I could  discern.

Just after customs, there was a big slow moving line-up.  It looked like everyone was stopping there but it turns out this was only for people who did  not have a proper Covid test to show the authorities.  Not sure how they left the country without one - but fortunately, I did not have to wait in this line.  A  bunch of people mistakenly started waiting there - until they were told they did not have to unless they had been sent there.

Off to pick up the luggage -  which was just the usual process, as was leaving the arrivals hall.

But as soon  as you leave the arrivals hall, you are directed to another area for your Covid  testing, run by "switch.ca."  I had pre-loaded the Switch app (as suggested on Canadian government sites) so I did not have to wait long here.  Had to go to one desk to check my passport.  They handed me a sealed kit and asked me to make sure that the sticker matched the kit and my ID.   Then it was down another hall to actually have the test done - a nasal swab only (unlike the Israeli tests which include nasal and throat swabs).  After that, I was given a kit with instructions for the  second test on Day 8.

Free to go?  Not yet.   Now I was directed to the various  hotel shuttle lineups.   I should note that  Toronto International  Airport does feel like a bit of a prison.   The various exit doors are closed and there are guards everywhere.  I went to wait for the Marriott shuttle - and hung around there for about half hour until it  came at 6:30 a.m.

Check in  at the Marriott was reasonably easy, though I wouldn't say that anyone was particularly friendly.  I had the feeling that they know they are scamming everyone by taking more than $1,000 for a three day say (probably almost three times their normal rate) and I suspect many of them even feel guilty about it.  They can hide  behind the government  and claim that it is a "government approved rate."  Doesn't make anyone feel any better but  I guess the Hotel employees can claim that they are not responsible.

They had a room ready for me and by 7 a.m. I was in my designated cell - sorry room - until I receive my negative test results, inshallah.  Apparently there are designated times when you can leave the room for exercise.  If you are a smoker, you can call down to pre-arrange a security-accompanied smoke break.  Not an issue for me - but in case you were  wondering.

I had pre-ordered Kosher food.  This was one of the few hotels which offered it - at no extra cost - even though the government of Canada web site stated that it would be available at all of the hotels.  Halal and vegetarian  - yes - at most hotels -  but Kosher - no.  Here is the first Kosher breakfast - it actually arrived hot... from Urban Kosher (under COR in case you are concerned about the hashgacha level).

That's about it.  I included lots of detail for those people who are thinking of doing this.  I suppose the main government purpose is to discourage travel as much as possible to limit the possible spread.  I don't really have a problem  with that purpose given the situation that  Canada has been in.  But this whole hotel program seems like a political boondoggle.   Especially the fact that  all of the hotels are charging a fully prepaid, non-refundable, exorbitant fee, even while knowing that most people  will leave after a day or two.

In any case, once I am cleared with a negative test - I will be  able  to go on to the second part of my isolation for the remaining time.   I will have to do a second test on Day 8 - which will be Thursday June 3, 2021.  Should be released on June 9th, assuming all goes well.  So hopefully I can see some friends and family members, whether  outside or at a nearby supermarket - after June 9th.

On the way back to Israel, all Israelis and Foreign Nationals must complete an "Inbound Passenger Clearance Form" which can  be found here.  But I guess I won't need that one or write about it until my trip back, whenever that will be.

Best of health and best regards to everyone.






Tuesday, May 18, 2021

May 18 2021: Israel-Gaza War Update and Other Updates

Irone Dome System
We are in day 9 of Israel's "Guardian of the Walls" Operation.  It is unclear whether this operation is going to end any time soon - or whether it is going to spread like a brush fire.  There are many different sources for news of these events - and once again, I have to say that I am not about to provide comprehensive news coverage.  For that, I would have to work 24/7 these days - just on publishing blogs.  But I wanted to cover a few things that are making news here.

Gaza Operation

As  you know, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, both recognized terrorist groups, have been firing rockets, aimed at civilians, towards Israel since last Sunday.  Fortunately for Israel, there are Iron Dome stations set up around the country which have been able to shoot down a high percentage of these rockets.  But Hamas has fired thousands of them - and quite a number have scored direct hits which have injured and killed civilians.  Two were killed today as a result of a rocket attack.  They were foreign workers from Thailand working in a factory.  These attacks are all aimed at killing civilians  That is the primary purpose of the Hamas and Islamic Jihad rocket fire.

The IDF has responded with a massive aerial bombardment.  It has targeted the Hamas underground tunnels that encircle Gaza and provide sanctuary for Hamas and Islamic Jihad fighters.  It has also targeted the homes of Hamas and  Islamic Jihad military leaders and a range of other targets.  Israel's army has made extensive efforts to avoid civilian casualties, including warning residents of attacks in certain places.  But despite those efforts a number of civilians have been killed along with a  much higher number of militants.   I should add that many of those who have been killed in Gaza have been killed by errant Hamas rockets.  Apparently, a sizeable number of the fired rockets don't make it out of the strip and explode or land in Gaza with often catastrophic results.

According to various news reports, Egypt is leading the efforts with Qatar, to negotiate with Hamas and Israel and try to bring about a cease fire.  According to some recent reports, the Egyptians told Hamas that if they were to stop firing rockets, Egypt would take the responsibility of ensuring that Israel  agreed.  Moreover, Netanyahu announced earlier today that we have "attained significant accomplishments," which some have interpreted as indicating that Israel is ready for a cease-fire.  But Hamas apparently refused the request and has continued to fire hundreds of rockets.   They are trying to get a major "achievement" - whether a significant hit on a civilian target, a military target, an economic target or some other type of "gain."  As long as Hamas continues to fire rockets, Israel will continue going after a wide range of  Hamas and Islamic Jihad targets in Gaza.

Internal Problems

Unlike in the case of some of the past Gaza wars and operations, Hamas and Islamic Jihad have managed to stir widespread sympathy and  participation in the form of rioting within Israel itself.  Last week, there were protests and riots in Lod, Akko, Nazareth, Haifa, all Israelis cities  with sizeable  Arab  populations.  I wrote  about this in an earlier blog.  In response, some extremist Jewish groups - including the Kahanist Religious Zionist party and its members reciprocated with comparable and equally deplorable attacks on Arab Israelis, under the auspices of "protecting" Israelis in the absence of the police.  There have been many arrests but it is unclear how extensive this problem will become.

In the desert - south of Beer Sheva, Bedouins knocked down highway lights and began throwing rocks and shooting at some passing cars.  Some roads were closed and Israel has had to step up security operations in the  South.  These are all considered "internal" problems but they have  stretched and taxed the Israeli police greatly.

North and East

A few rockets have been fired from Israel's northern border - from inside of Lebanon.  Last week, some of these landed in the water.  This week, some landed within Lebanon itself.  As of now, there are no significant signs that this war will expand to include Lebanon.  But the Middle East is somewhat of a tinder box and things could change at any time.

To our east, the Palestinian Authority called for a "Day of Protest" today.  Now, fortunately, this is apparently different from a "Day of Rage."  But nevertheless, there were at least  two incidents where Palestinians in the disputed territories fired live ammunition at Israeli troops.  The IDF fired back, of course.  The Palestinian leader Mahmood Abbas is very weak politically right now.  He has delayed elections in an effort to avoid suffering an embarrassing loss to Hamas and it is unclear that he can keep a lid on these  protests. 

Palestinians in these territories are heavily armed now as a result of various accords with Israel.  If the rioting and unrest spreads to include armed Palestinians in these territories, this could become a  full scale "Intifada" - this time with both sides using extensive live ammunition.  Great efforts are being made by both sides to  keep this from happening, but they will require a fairly early end to this war.

International

Israel tends to be fairly isolated internationally in these situations and has historically relied heavily on the United States, particularly at the UN and the UN security council.  There are only about 15 million Jews in the world and more than 1.8 billion Muslims.  So it is not surprising that Israel does not receive widespread support - irrespective of the specifics of any particular war or operation.  

To this point, most Israelis have been pleased to see that President Biden has held his ground in the face of significant international pressure - as well as significant pressure from many members of his own Democratic party.   These "progressive Democrats" and  some others have urged Biden to put  all of the pressure on Israel to stop the  operation but without corresponding calls for Hamas to end its rocket fire - or even a  recognition that the Hamas rocket fire was the source of this war in the first place.

For Israel, some of the statements from a handful of vocal Democrats, led by Bernie Sanders, Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar and others, have been outright frightening - and would lead to a significant U.S.-Israel rift if such sentiments were to become  policy.  On the other hand, Nancy Pelosi and others have bolstered President  Biden and refrained from taking the bait and turning  support for  Israel into a partisan issue.   

Ultimately, I certainly believe that the U.S. should  make meaningful efforts to bring this operation to a close and prevent it from spreading more broadly.  But that does not mean creating an equivalency between the actions of Hamas and the actions of Israel - or placing all of the onus squarely on Israel to end this war.  To this point, it seems to me that President  Biden has been dealing with this appropriately.  I would imagine that his actions now will also play into his future credibility with Israel and others in negotiating more long term solutions, which are desparately needed.  

At the same time, it seems clear that President Biden will only be able to hold out so long and that within a few days, the U.S. will begin to exert greater pressure on both sides to end the fighting  if the Egyptian efforts are not successful.  Prime Minister Netanyahu also seems to have begun to recognize that it is time to push harder for a cease fire even if, politically, he might prefer to stretch things out a bit longer.

A Bit of Israeli Politics

Yair Lapid, leader of the Yesh Atid party, has 15 days left to try and  form a government. But his putative partner, Naftali Bennett has officially abandoned him - and his potential Arab coalition partners have become politically averse to joining this type of coalition with corresponding aversion among some of Lapid's intended partners.  As a result, it seems highly unlikely that there will be a "Change Coalition" forming a new government in Israel over the next two weeks.

Prime Minister Netanyahu has circulated rumours that he is now negotiating with Gideon Saar, had of the New Hope Party (who was firmly in Lapid's camp before the war  started) and even with Benny Gantz, head of the Blue and White party.  It is,  of course, unclear whether there is any truth to these rumours or whether they are Bibi's way of trying to "divide and conquer" the  opposition.  Ultimately, a fifth consecutive election in Israel is becoming an increasingly likely event.  There may also be some chance that Prime Minister Netanyahu will succeed after all in forming an "all right wing government"  at the last minute to avoid another election.

Eurovision

Tonight is the semi-finals of the annual super-hokey "Eurovision" song contest. It was cancelled last year as  result of Covid.   Israelis love to watch it and pick the Israeli contestant by  running  a season-long reality show - "Rising Star."  The easy winner in 2019-2020 was the super -talented Eden Alene.  She has a powerful, wide-ranging, yet incredibly precise voice.  The judges were so impressed by  her first appearance in 2019's first episode, that it was instantly clear that she would win - even at the start of the three-month season.  Probably reminiscent of the year in which Kelly Clarkson won American Idol - 2002, I believe.   There too, it was instantly clear that there was a contestant that  no other singer could beat. 

Alene's entry in 2020, was the highly acclaimed "Feker Libi" which included a wide range of musical influences.  Many Israelis thought she had a very good chance of winning the contest.  But alas, Covid arrived and Eurovision 2020 was  one  of its casualties.

Since the 2020 event was cancelled, Alene was given another chance.  But the Israeli production team put together a new song called "Set Me Free."  The song is somewhat less compelling.  Now Ms Alene not only has an inferior song to work with - she is also facing the political fallout of the Gaza war.  Eurovision is a notoriously political event.  Given the events that are currently taking place - it is very unlikely that Alene will have a chance of winning - even though she is incredibly talented.  As cheesy as the contest is, we will probably try to watch some of it to support her but she is facing quite an uphill battle.  Even if she loses, I would predict that she will still become a superstar in Israel and perhaps, internationally as well.

Shavuot

Shavuot has come and gone here in Israel (it is only one day long whereas it is two days long everywhere outside of Israel).  I couldn't pass up on an opportunity to  include a small photo of my promised cheese blintzes which we were able to enjoy  over an outside evening dinner  on Sunday night - even despite the difficulties taking  place across the country.  There are still a few left so if you are planning a visit - just ask and we will save a few.

I think I will end this for  now by noting that I am quite excited, as a distraction to see the Toronto Maple Leafs playing against the Montreal Canadiens in the first round of this year's Stanley Cup playoffs (that's Ice Hockey in case you weren't sure).  While in Israel, that means watching games that start at 2:30 a.m.  Perhaps I will be in Toronto for some of the games though it doesn't look  like there will be any fans in the stands in Canada any time soon (unlike the U.S. where hockey arenas are being filled up thousands of fans as if the virus had ended).  Usually, the Toronto Maple Leafs find a way to  disappoint their fans.  After all, they have not won a championship since 1967.  I'm not optimistic that this year will be any different but I always enjoy watching hockey playoffs.

Hopefully things will calm down here in Israel very soon - and will stay calm in the rest of the world as well (I have seen some very disturbing reports of demonstrations and  violence aimed at the Jewish community in London and other cities around the world - including Toronto and Montreal).  

Wishing everyone the best of health and hoping to see some of you soon in Toronto - or, of course, here in Israel.







Friday, May 14, 2021

Operation "Guardian of the Walls" - Current Israel-Gaza War and Other Developments

This is a tough post to write.  There are simply so many things unfolding that a comprehensive post would be well beyond the scope of my blog.  Even writing 5-7 columns a day, I probably couldn't keep up with all of the breaking news.  But I wanted to highlight a few things on several different fronts.

Gaza-Israel War

First of all, the war with Gaza, operation "Guardian of the Walls," as it has been named by Israel, or whatever you want to call it, is continuing at a relatively high intensity.  Hamas and the Islamic Jihad are firing rockets at Israel, hundreds a day, and Israel is responding with drone and missile strikes as well as air raids.  Israel has been relying heavily on its Iron Dome defence system to intercept the Hamas rockets.  But the system is not infallible and a certain percentage of rockets are able to get through.  Some of these have landed directly on people's homes.  Yesterday a rocket hit a house in Petach Tikvah.  The day before, a bus was hit directly in Holon.  7 Israelis have been killed and quite a number have been injured from these rockets and their debris.

In response, Israel has targeted senior Hamas and  Islamic Jihad militants.  According to several reports yesterday, more than 10 members of the Hamas senior leadership were killed in one air strike.  Israel has continued to carry out a variety of strategies for fighting Hamas though, for obvious reasons, much of this information is not being publicized.  

Looking purely at the Israel-Gaza conflict, it is possible, perhaps even likely, that some form of cease fire will be reached within a week, if not sooner.  But  as with previous cease fire deals, it is unclear how long any such deal will last.  It is likely to be viewed by Hamas as an opportunity to restock its weapons arsenal.  Without any efforts from either side at reaching some sort of longer term political arrangement, this conflict seems destined to go on endlessly.  

And even though the pattern has been that these disputes have generally come to a cease fire within a relatively short time  frame, it is possible that this particular fight will continue to escalate more broadly.  According to some reports, Israel was preparing to send ground troops into Gaza.  Hard to say whether these are tactical reports - intended to bring about better cease fire conditions - or whether Israel has determined that this is a necessary step in this conflict.  I guess  we are going to find out in the coming days.

Domestic Strife

Since  this current Israel-Gaza conflict began, Israel has seen something that it has not witnessed since 2000 - extensive violence between Israeli-Arabs and Israeli-Jews.  

Violence has flared up in several Israeli cities and towns that have significant Arab populations - in Lod, Acre (Akko), Nazareth and Haifa as well as others.  In Lod, mobs of Arab hoodlums have firebombed two synagogues and been involved in lootings, attacks on civilians and several shootings.  In Akko, a number of Jewish owned business were burned down, an Israeli Jew was pulled out of his car and severely beaten and there have been several other incidents of violence by angry Arabs.

Violence has also flared up against Israeli Arabs in several towns - including Bat Yam, Lod, Haifa and other places.  In Bat Yam,  an Israeli Arab driver was dragged out of his car and severely beaten by a mob of Jewish hoodlums.  In Lod and some other cities, mobs of angry Israelis shouted "death to Arabs" and attacked several Arab civilians.

Although the police have become involved in some of these cases, and have made some arrests, they are apparently outmanned, overwhelmed and incapable of  controlling the  situation.  

Extremist groups on both sides are using social media to create mass gatherings which are quickly becoming violent.

Prime Minister Netanyahu is talking about depolying the army in some cities to try and restore peace - but the  army is not generally intended, equipped or trained to perform policing work.  Soldiers have no power to arrest anyone - and they are not trained for these types of disputes.

Events of the past few days have really opened up a long festering wound between Arabs and Jews in Israel - though it is only a minority on each side causing all of these disturbances.  But the fallout could be devastating for Arab-Jewish relations in Israel and for civility in general.

Political Ramifactions

As I have discussed recently, the potential "Change Coalition" that was about to sign a coalition deal - was a government that was going to depend, at least initially, on some Arab Knesset members.  With the outbreak of this latest Gaza War (Entitled Operation "Protect The Walls" by Israel), the Arab Israeli Knesset members announced that they could not support any Israeli government.  As violence began to break out in Israel between Jews and Arabs - the leader of Yamina, Naftali Bennettt announced that he could no longer support the "Change Coalition."  Instead he has begun negotiating with Netanyahu once more.  It may well be that the violent attacks by Israeli Arabs on Jewish sites in Lod, Akko, Haifa and other places - will shift the Israeli voting population to the right.  Netanyahu is pushing for a fifth consecutive election - and perhaps hoping that as a result of this round of violence, he and his right wing partners will gain a few more seats and be able to form the "fully right wing" government that they have been dreaming about.  This would be a government filled with Knesset members who wish to increase the conflict level with the Palestinians and take a variety of provocotive steps including limiting the power of the Israeli Supreme Court to intervene in human rights cases, adding more nationlistic language to the Israeli constitution, sending military troops to Arab populated towns in Israel to "bring calm" and taking a variety of other actions.  

There is no done deal yet but certainly the events of the, past few days seem to be putting Netanyahu  in a much stronger position to retain his leadership position, likely bolstered by a hard-right coalition.  With talk from Netanyahu and his coalition partners and supporters about increasing the military presence in civilian areas, limiting the powers of the Supreme Court, and other steps that they are considering, we are, unfortunately,  inching closer to Turkey in terms of leadership style and system. It will be a signficant blow to Israel's democracy. Hopefully something will prevent or change this trajectory.

Yair Lapid, leader of the Change Coalition, and the Knesset member currently holding the "mandate" has 19 days left to try and form a government.  After Bennett's announcement yesterday that Bennett would be supporting Netanyahu, Lapid took to the airwaves and to social media urging calm, calling on Arabs and Jews to take a  step back from internal conflict, pushing the notion that it is precisely in challenging times that people have to be creative and come up with workable long term, stable, political solutions.  It  was an impassioned address but one that may have fallen on deaf ears.  Given the events of the past few days, Lapid's chances of ousting Netanyahu and forming a Change Coalition government have become ever smaller.  

Escalation  

Last  night, three rockets were fired from Lebanon towards Israel.   Hezbollah was fairly quick to state that this was an "accident" or it wasn't them but it is unclear whether that was a taste of things to come or a small mistep.  Needless to stay, things will become completely crazy if Hezbollah becomes  involved in this war and begins firing rockets at  Israel.  Hezbollah has huge storage facilities with a massive supply of long range rockets.  Hezbollah is supported by Syria, Iran and, indirectly by China, which recently signed extensive long terms deals to  support Iran.  Hopefully, the people of  Lebanon will be able to prevent any kind of Hezbollah escalation or involvement  in this conflict, but it is a serious concern.

As I write this, Israel has been massing tanks at the Gaza border.  It is quite possible that the IDF will enter Gaza with ground troops, tanks, special forces and other units.  As discussed earlier, it is unclear whether this will happen but if it does, it could signify a very large  escalation of this operation.

When you combine all of this, I think it is fair to say that there is a feeling that the situation, overall, has  deteriorated quite  significantly in many different ways over the past two or three days.  I am really not sure where this is all headed but if a cease fire is not arranged shortly, this could well become a large scale, extensive military operation that will result in significant loss of life on both sides.  

Wishing everyone best of health, peace and security and hoping that things improve dramatically soon.

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

At the Edge of Change? Will Israel get a New Government?

Yair Lapid, Leader of Yesh Atid
We are at an historic crossroads in Israel.  Prime Minister Netanyahu has served as Israel's Prime Minister since 2009.  Over the past three years, he has led his party into four consecutive elections but  has not been able to put together a  stable government.  Plagued by a set of ongoing criminal charges, that are now being heard  in court as I write this blog, Netanyahu has faced an increasingly diverse and growing opposition to his continued rule.

After the last election, Netanyahu reluctantly entered into a rotation government with the Blue and White party, led by Benny Gantz.  But the government was paralyzed by opposing political aspirations and a reluctance by Netanyahu to take any actions that might stabilize the government.  His continued hope was that he could keep holding elections until he could win - and piece together a coalition government that would enable him to legislate an end to his legal problems.  As a result, Netanyahu refused to appoint a wide range of ministers, failed to propose or pass a budget, blocked key committees and generally put up roadblocks to the resolution of a wide range of issues.  Moreover, in some areas, he made key decisions on his  own without even keeping his ministers in the loop.  The government collapsed and a 4th election was held.

Once again, the results were inconclusive.  Netanyahu won a plurality of votes, with an estimated  25% support from the Israeli electorate.  But  even though he and his Likud party won 30 seats in the 120 seat Knesset, he could not seem to garner the support of the additional 31 members needed to form a government.  It was close.  Likud had the support of 16 ultra-religious Knesset members along with 6  members of the extremist Religious Zionist party.  But that only adds up to 52.

Netanyahu figured that he could negotiate with the Yamina party led by Naftali Bennett, which had 7 seats.  Bennett agreed but that only brought the Likud to 59, just two short of a government.  But no one else was budging.  Netanyahu decided that he could woo the support of the Arab party Ra'am to join his coalition with their 4  seats - either as an outside supporter of the government or possibly as a formal coalition member.  This would be a real watershed in Israeli politics - to have an Arab party become a full participant in a government.  But the Religious Zionist party balked and refused to have anything to do with Ra'am or to even consider joining a government that would be supported in any way by Ra'am.

At the same time, the opposition, led by Yair Lapid's "Yesh Atid" ("There is a Future") party actively negotiated with Bennett and offered his Yamina party a rotation government with 1.5 to 2 year terms for each leader.  This has been a fascinating exercise in political negotiations.  Yamina is a  right-wing religious party, heavily supported by settlers and other right wing groups.  Yamina's natural coalition partners would be Likud and the Religious Zionist party.  But the party is also more modern and nationlist than the ultra-religious parties that have been the common law spouses of Netanyahu for the past several years.  Unlike the ultra-religious, Yamina is supportive of strong secular education, military service, growth in science and technology  and other areas in which they could find common ground with Yesh Atid. 

This has created some internal division within Yamina.  The second in command, Ayelet Shaked, is a relentless idealogue.  She wants to defang the Israeli Supreme Court (as she  describes it) with plans to limit standing rules, change the judicial appointment process, pass a law that would allow the Knesset by a simple majority to overrule decisions of the court and take other steps to increase the power of the government at the expense of the courts.  She has insisted on being given the Justice  Ministry as part of any coalition agreement. But Lapid and the other prospective coalition partners including Labour, Meretz, Blue and White, and perhaps even Lieberman's party Yisrael Beitenu, all oppose all of these initiatives.  They are all strongly opposed to giving Shaked this ministry.

In my view, finding a way to placate Shaked while not going too far to alienate the  rest of the potential coalition partners will be one of the biggest challenges for Lapid if a government is to be formed.  I am still not entirely convinced that it can be done but I think they now have a better than 50% chance of putting a government in place within the next month or so.  Bennett and Shaked will probably realize that they don't have too many alternatives at this point.  Another election would likely be a disaster for Yamina - as its constituency would probably move right to the Religious Zionist party or left to Likud  or another party.  Plus, this may be  a once in a lifetime chance for Bennett to hold a term as Israel's Prime Minister while having won only 7 seats in a 120 seat parliament.  

If an arrangement can be reached, I do believe that we are likely to see a rocky but stable government which will have a very good chance at making it through the next four years.  It is true that everything  is unpredictable in Israel.  At the same time, I do think that Bennett and Lapid are committed to the idea that if they negotiate a deal, they will stick to it and carry it through.  This directly contrasts with Netanyahu, who clearly had no intention of honouring his deal with Gantz from the outset.  

We will know over the course of the coming month.  If a government cannot be formed, we will be facing a fifth consecutive election.  There is little reason, at this point, to think that a fifth election could provide something that none of the previous four have generated - a workable government.

Tragedy At Meron:

I am not going to write a great deal about the terrible tragedy at Mount Meron last Thursday at which 45 people died but I do have a few comments.  Meron is essentially an ultra-religious  pilgimmage site at which tens of thousands of worshippers gather every year to  pray at the grave of the second century Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai (Rashbi) to whom authorship of the Zohar has been attributed by many Orthodox Jews.  The site has been a political football for many years in Israel as it has seen the annual arrival of an ever growing number of pilgrims.  Different ultra-religious denominations have insisted on control of the site and have prevented the State from taking responsibility and turning it into a National Religious Site (which would include the active responsibility for ensuring the safety  standards, occupancy levels etc., of the site).  

Last Thursday, by some estimates, more than 100,000 people arrived at a site that is deemed safe for up to 10,000.  Ministers in the current Likud government, at the behest of  their ultra-religious coalition partners, insisted on limiting the State's ability to cap attendance and to oversee the event.  The resulting overcrowding and chaos led to these tragic deaths.

In the aftermath, everyone has pointed the finger at everyone else.  The ultra-religious have blamed the Supreme Court of Israel for refusing to turn the site into a National Religious Site (something the ultra-religious vehemently opposed).  The government ministers have blamed the police, the courts and others.  The sponsoring rabbis have blamed the "shortcomings of the people of Israel."  One influential ultra-religious Rabbi, Chaim Kanievsky said yesterday that the disaster was a "decree from Heaven" and that it could only be prevented by  women observing the laws of modesty more strictly.  Just as an aside, the Meron disaster was pretty much a men-only event.  So it would be quite a head scratcher for anyone to draw this causal connection.  But I digress.

Ultimately, I can only say that it was a horrible event and I offer my sincere condolences to all  of the affected families and my best wishes for a full and speedy recovery for all those who were injured.  I also hope that the government will institute a proper commission of inquiry, take appropriate steps to ensure that it does not happen again and, in general, review procedures for other sites that attract large crowds, including the Kotel and the har habayit/ Dome of the Rock.

Weather and Covid-19

It is very hot here.  Summer has arrived, though not officially.  The forecast for the next few weeks is between 28 and 30 and sunny with few if any clouds to be seen anywhere.  A  very high percentage of the population has been vaccinated.  Restaurants, concert halls, and just about everything else have reopened and there is a real sense of normalcy.  I am concerned that it may be a facade.  Considering the rapid spread of so many  mutations of Covid-19 across the world, it may well be that one or more variants will arrive in Israel that will send us back to a full closure.  I hope that this will not be the case but flights are being opened rapidly and it only takes one infected passenger to begin another round of a worldwide pandamic as we know from the Chinese-Italian experience.

Shavuot

Meanwhile, next week is Shavuot.  I usually use Tori Avey's Blintz recipe or a slight variation of it  - which seems close enough to the blintzes that my grandmother used  to make and passed along  to my mother (who hasn't made them in quite a while I think).  I might also make a cheesecake even though I am not a huge fan.  One of our  shul friends has an incredible recipe (I don't have it handy to publicize here).  In keeping with the dairy theme of Shavuot, perhaps an eggplant parmesan will also make an appearance.  

Shavuot is not only about eating dairy food. There is a tradition of studying all  night  on Erev Shavuot (which will be Saturday night, May 15th, 2021).  We  still have to decide where we will participate this year.  My favourite Shavuot events were years ago at Beth Tikvah Synagogue in Toronto.  The shul used a three-part model.  First there would be a study session  for about 45 minutes.  Each session would be led by someone different. After that, there would be a musical session with 20-30 minutes of singing.  Then it would be time for a food break for about 15-20 minutes.  Each break would feature different  food.  Repeat this schedule all night - starting at about 10 p.m. and running until 5 a.m. - and then hold an early morning Shavuot service.   We haven't found something equivalent in Israel though we have attended study sessions at a range of different places including our shul in Kfar Saba, Hod v'Hadar.  Here is the Hebrew version of the site.

That's about it for now.  I wish everyone the best of health and hope that the health situation will soon improve across the world.  I'll probably write again soon.  With any luck, by the time of my next blog, Israel will be on its way to a new, stable government.