Sunday, September 5, 2021

Rosh Hashanah 2021 - Update Blog

Shana Tova.  I haven't written too much lately but this is a "two for the price of one" day - or in Israel, as they say a "1+1."  I have already written an article about Ben Caspit's book, The Netanyahu Years and I am adding this more general article about a few other topics.


First of all, a bit on travelling.  I wrote two blogs earlier this year about my trip to Canada and then return to Israel  during  Covid restrictions.  Those blogs both need to be updated  as things have changed but here is the short version, based on my most recent experience.  When  flying to Canada now, if you are double vaccinated, with one of the "acceptable vaccines" (which does not include the Russian Sputnik vaccination or the Sinovax from China), you only need a test in the departing country (a PCR test) and proof of your two vaccinations.  You can put this all in the ArriveCan app (which you can download from the  Android Play store or the Apple store) and, unless you are selected at random for an additional test, you can waltz through the border by showing the required items to a customers officer.  I have my doubts that this policy will  remain in place, especially as infection numbers  continue  to rise - but I guess we will see.  I should note that to leave Israel, travellers are required to get "exit permission" by completing an online form that provides information about testing, vaccination  status and current symptoms.  It is fairly quick and easy.

Arriving in Israel, things are continuing to change rapidly.  As of Friday  September 3, 2021, if you are triple vaxed, you do not need to go into quarantine on arriving in Israel as long as you test negative on arrival.  Everyone, including the triple vaxed, must do an airport PCR test, which costs 80 Shequels (about $33 Cdn) and you get results within a day or so.  If you are negative and triple vaxed, you are then free to go.  I was only double so I was in a different category,  If you are only double vaxed, you still require a one week quarantine period, even if you test negative on arrival.  You can get released by going for a test on your 6th day after arrival and then you are officially released on day 7, without any official further notification from  the Ministry of Health. My results from the airport test came back within  about  10 hours but that didn't change my status.  I'll go do my test on Wednesday night after Rosh Hashana ends and I'll get my third shot on Thursday (assuming my test results are negative).

As far as I understand it, only Israelis  or those with immediate family in Israel can come to Israel.  Israel has not yet opened its borders to tourists and other categories of travellers.  


Meanwhile the Covid  numbers in all categories in Israel are quite high.  The number of people testing positive has been over 10,000 a day and has just now started to decline, which some are attributing to the rollout of the booster shot.  The number of seriously ill  patients, who are hospitalized is hovering around at around 600 and there have been 10-20 deaths a day.  These are gruesome numbers for a country that, at one point, had under 10 new cases a day and almost no daily deaths.  Percentage-wise, it is still a far greater share of the unvaccinated population that is testing positive and becoming seriously ill.   But there are many hospitalized patients who had received  two doses, mostly more than 6 months ago.


I don't have too much to say at this point about Israel's current political situation other than there seems to be some sense of relative stability and motivation on the part of the constituent governing parties to keep the government together.  A budget has been proposed  and passed through cabinet and  has now passed through a first reading in the Knesset.  We  haven't had a budget passed since 2019 so this marks a very different change in direction from that which was taking place under Netanyahu's stewardship.  The current government is putting forward many different proposals,  some  of which are  more popular than others.  It is a government made up of a wide range of voices, ideologies and aspirations but there seems to be a sense, for now, that these MKs are committed to working together for the good of the country.   In my view, it is refreshing and I am reasonably optimistic, at  least in the short to medium term, that we will have a measure of stability.


If you are in Israel, the big sport is usually football (soccer as some of us might say) and of course the big tournament is the upcoming 2022 World Cup.  The Israeli  national team won a huge game yesterday - beating the Austrian national team 5-2 in a key qualifying match.  Israel sits second in its 6 team group after playing its first 5 matches.  It still has  5  games to play but it is off to a good start.  The next game is huge - a game against Switzerland on Tuesday night (the second Erev Rosh Hashana).  After that, Israel will play twice in October and twice in November.  If it manages to catch and pass Switzerland and  finish  first in the group (which is highly unlikely), it would make it into the World Cup  automatically.  If not, the 8 teams with the next best records will all be put into a group and four of them will make it after playing a "home and  home"  series against their designated opponent.  Israel has only made it to the World  Cup once in the history of its national team.  It is still far too  early to start ordering flags but with this huge victory over Austria, the prospect of a berth is still real.

Yamim Nora'im and Chaggim

It is yet  another unusual year for the celebration of key holidays  Technically, I am in "isolation" until Wednesday night, so that means no in-person live attendance at any shul - though I'm not entirely sure  I would have gone in-person  in any event.  For Rosh Hashanah, one option will be to conduct our own, in-home, Rosh Hashanah service,  without a minyan (at least 10 adults), which is what  we did last year.  We have a shofar and most other items  (we don't have a Torah scroll).  Another option would be to join an online service.  We  could join a local service, such as  the broadcast from our shul, Hod vehadar, or we could join  the broadcast from one of  many other shuls across  Israel that are steaming their services.  In fact, we could sleep in and start services at 4 p.m., by watching a streamed  service from Toronto (Beth Tikvah Synagogue  would be our choice), New York (Park Avenue, perhaps?) or we could stay in bed  until 5 p.m.  and then watch a service from St. Louis.   Unless we have had way too  much wine on Erev Rosh Hashanah, I doubt anyone  will be  sleeping in until 4 p.m., even with the jet lag.  And we generally don't use computers or tvs on Rosh Hashanah.  So I guess we have a day or two to decide what to do....

For Yom Kippur, we gathered in a friend's backyard last  year in Ra'anana and conducted the service.  There were only about  12 or 13 of us and some may not be available this year.  So I'm not sure  what we are  going to do.  We still have a week or so to decide, though if I am going to lead Kol  Nidrei and Neilah again, I will have to do some serious practising....

Music and Entertainment

Israel's "Rising Star" music competition ended this week.   The  winner, American-Israeli Tamir Grinberg, won by a significant margin.  It seemed clear to the judges the  first  time they heard him sing that he would probably win, much like when Kelly Clarkson first appeared on American Idol or Eden Alena appeared two years  ago in Israel's "A Star is Born"  competition.   There are some contestants, that come along  every once in a while, who are so good that it seems that it will be impossible to beat them no matter who shows up as the challengers.  I have included a YouTube clip with Grinberg singing from a few weeks ago with the eventual runner up contestant, so you can  judge for  yourself.

Over the past couple of weeks, I watched  the 9 episodes of Hit and Run, the new "thriller" starring Lior Raz of Fauda fame.  It wasn't Fauda but it was fun to watch, reasonably intense and contained lots  of twists  and  turns.  The dialogue is in Hebrew (with subtitles) and English and the movie was shot in Israel and New York.  There is a fair bit of violence, at times graphic.  But I guess that is the genre.

I also watched Ted  Lasso, which has nothing  to do with this blog, Israel or any of the other topics that I usually cover.  If I really stretch things, I could point out that I mentioned the Israeli national football team earlier in my blog and the  show is about a British fictional Premier league  football team....coached by an American football coach with no knowledge of soccer....but I'm not sure that creates a real tie-in.   I was a bit skeptical about  Ted Lasso for the first couple of episodes but since then, I have really enjoyed it.  

So there it is - that is my shmorgasbord blog for today - just before the Jewish New Year - covering a few  selected topics that I thought you might find interesting.  I would like to wish everyone a happy and healthy new year  - and I hope that I will have the chance to see  or speak to many of you soon.

One of my favourite social media postings recently - was this one (I don't take the credit for it but I'm not sure who posted it) - "as we approach Rosh Hashanah and  think of both asking for forgiveness and repentance, we should heed the wise words of Rabbi Led of Zeppelin, who sang, "yes there are two paths you can go by, but in the long run, there's still time to change the  road you're on."  If you are too  old, too young, or too musically disconnected to get the reference, send me a note and I'll explain.  

Shana Tova!

The Netanyahu Years by Ben Caspit: A review


Over the past week, I read Ben Caspit's book on former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, The Netanyhau Years.  It was a quick and interesting read, primarily covering the time period between 1999 and 2015.

Caspit is an Israeli journalist who writes for Ma'ariv, a slightly right of centre publication.  The book was translated by Ora Cummings.  I would say that the translation was quite choppy at times and probably needs a number of edits.

This is not a classic historian's biography with footnotes, references and details of sources.  Rather there are a great deal of unattributed quotes, anonymous sources and even references to "rumours" and "urban legends."   For  example, after Netanyahu was caught cheating on his current wife, Sara (his third wife), he and Sara lawyered up and reached an agreement on how they would continue their relationship.  According to some sources, there is a written agreement that spells out in detail how everything is supposed to work.  Caspit refers to the existence of the document as an "urban legend,"  though in this case, his assumption is that the document exists. No further sources or details are provided. 

I should also note that the book only covers the period up to the end of the Obama presidency.  There are a good few chapters to write about Netanyahu during the Trump years  and about  the developments with Netanyahu's criminal charges and about Netanyahu's political moves all since 2017, the time of the book's original publication in Hebrew.  

Overall, as someone who avidly follows politics and history, I enjoyed reading the book.  It was at times repetitive, and the organization was a bit disjointed.  Some of it was written chronologically and other parts were written thematically.  So the last two parts of the book include a section on Netanyahu's dealings with the Palestinians and his dealings with Iran.   Earlier, the book flows in a more chronological manner, covering a year or two at a time.  

Caspit covers some of Netanyahu's background growing up, his relationship with his parents, particularly his father, his move to Israel and the devastating  loss of his older  brother Yoni, who was killed in the Israeli raid on Entebbe.  He also covers some of the details of Netanyahu's relationships with his three wives and the impact that  each of these women had on his career, his circle of friends, his motivation and goals.  These parts of the book flowed well and provided quite a bit of interesting background information.

But the majority of the book deals with Netanyahu's relationship with political rivals and friends, at home and abroad and Netanyahu's decision making processes over the years.  Caspit  covers the relationships that Bibi built up with wealthy American and Israeli donors over the years, his close relationship to U.S. republican politicians and influencers, his battles with fellow Likud members over the years and Netanyahu's primary goal of remaining in power at all costs, which is, more or less, one of the themes of the book.

A great deal of Caspit's focus is lost opportunity.  He asserts that Netanyahu had so much popularity for  a period of time, that he could have advanced a joint Israeli-U.S. peace process  with the Palestinians that would have created a  period of medium to long term stablity for Israel vis-a-vis the Palestinians.  Caspit also lays a fair bit of blame at the feet of Abbas, the Palestinian leader, for the failure of the peace process, so it remains unclear how, even if Bibi had made certain decisions, Abbas would have agreed.  Caspit outlines several "secret" tracks of negotiation that were taking place - the Peres-Abbas track, which he maintains was very close to a deal, the "London Track" which was also close to a deal and some other secret initiatives.  On balance, however, his conclusion seems to be that Netanyahu could have made a deal if he had really wanted to do so.  I'm not sure that this is accurate.

Caspit also maintains that if Bibi had taken a different approach with then President Obama, Netanyahu could have partnered with the U.S. to negotiate a much better Iranian deal.   Caspit's thesis here seems  to be that the U.S. was not prepared to create any sort of realistic military option, either its own, or an Israeli option as an alternative to the negotiated nuclear deal with Iran, especially since Israel was not willing to show any flexibility on other policy issues, such as peace initiatives with the Palestinians.  Therefore, the  U.S. was ultimately negotiating from a position of weakness and gave in, unnecessarily, to several Iranian demands  that saw the deal allowing Iran to develop nuclear weapons over a period of 10 years.  Caspit partially blames Bibi for this, since, he asserts, that rather than working with Obama, Netanyahu decided to attack the President at  every opportunity, support the Republicans, even publicly, and make it a mission to try and prevent Obama from winning a second term.  This was obviously a failed strategy in Caspit's view.

That is not to say that Caspit  blames  Netanyahu entirely.  With respect to Obama's mideastern policy, I think it is fair to say that there is little here that is very complimentary of Obama  and his team.  From the beginning of his presidency, Obama sent a very hostile message to Israel by visiting Egypt and Jordan and skipping Israel.  This right away limited U.S. credibility for a country trying to broker a peace deal by being a partial guarantor of Israel's security.  After that, over the course of an 8 year period, there were several snubs, humiliations and questionable political  moves, going both ways. Caspit details many of them. 

With respect to Israel, Caspit has some harsh  words for several U.S. and Israeli diplomats and politicians, including George Mitchell, Hillary Clinton, Martin Indyk, Rahm Emanuel from the U.S. side, Ron  Dermer, Gideon Sa'ar, and a number of others from the Israeli side.  I think it is fair to say that some of his harshest criticism is reserved for Sara Netanyahu.  Given her guilty plea to state criminal charges, her record of scandals and flare ups, much of this may be warranted.  But Caspit spends a fair bit of time covering mistakes and misteps by many political actors, not just  Bibi, that caused such a deterioration in the Obama-Netanyahu relationship, the disintegration of the peace  process and other outcomes.   Overall, there is "lots of blame to go around" and some of Caspit's analysis seems, perhaps, intended to justify some of the positions that Netanyahu took to ward off antagonistic or mistaken policies and proposals advanced by the U.S. that were not in Israel's long term interest.  

Despite these efforts at "balance," Caspit is extremely critical of a number of Netanyahu's moves over the Obama years.  Netanyahu's decision to accept a speaking invitation at the Capitol at the behest of the congressional Republicans and to go ahead and make a presentation there without even informing President Obama in advance was unprecedented and a serious violation of diplomatic protocol.  Netanyahu's decision to announce new settlements just as then Vice-President Biden was arriving in Israel for a  key visit was also quite a poke in the eye.  And the fact that Netanyahu kept President Obama and/or Vice Biden waiting for very lengthy periods for a several meetings was another example of Netanyahu's conduct that  bolster Caspit's conclusion  that Netanyahu went out of his way, on several occasions to try and humiliate Obama and Biden in a manner that was highly unstatesmanlike at best, and thoroughly inappropriate.  

Caspit does a great deal of editorializing.  He tries to write about what Netanyahu must have been thinking, his political and personal calculations, his massive ego, his messianic complex and his enormous sense of self-entitlement.  Those who are supportive of Netanyahu might view much of this as overblown, unsupported and much conjecture.  But since the writing of the book, with political events that  have taken place in Israel since 2017, including developments in Netanyahu's criminal trial, it seems to me that a great deal of  what Caspit has to say is probably not so far off the mark.

Here is Caspit's ultimate conclusion, which is, more or less, the thesis of the book:

"Netanyahu's story  is one of miserably missed opportunity.  Ever since David Ben-Gurion...Israel has never had a leader with the kind of unlimited credit given to Netanyahu....he could have done anything he wanted...."

"As time went by, the real objective of the Netanyahu regime was molded: to remain in power.  He failed to block Iran, he destroyed the peace process, contributed to the growing delegitimizing of Israel in the world, and was forever striving to the right, in a never ending chase  after the mythical electoral "base" that will enable him to remain in power one more  term, another year, longer and  longer...."

"Netanyahu could have gone down in history as a leader who influenced the future of his people, who brought Israel to a new place and burst  through the cul-de-sac into which the Jewish state was forced in the seventh decade of its life.  Instead...he...left behind nothing at all."

Now that last part may be excessively harsh.  There will certainly be those who will argue that Israel's  economy is in a better state than it was  when Netanyahu took office, that foreign relations have improved, especially with peace treaties with some  of Israel's neighbours (although these came into effect after the  book was written) and that there were other successes.  But in other ways, the final four years of Netanyahu's premiership, after the book was written would bolster Caspit's thesis even further.

Between 2017 and 2021, it is quite arguable that Netanyahu's  sole objective was to stay in power and avoid his criminal proceedings.  He was responsible for bringing Israel to the polls on four consecutive occasions and refused to propose or pass a state budget for  more than 2 years.  Few legistlative initiatives were passed or even proposed, other than those that would somehow help or assist  Bibi with his  ongoing issues.  The pursuit of legislated immunity from criminal proceedings seemed to be Bibi's overriding objective, but despite his four attempts, he couldn't seem to muster the majority require to implement it.  By contrast, since  the current  government has taken power, there have been a rash of legislative initiatives in areas including public transportation, the environment,  agriculture and a host of other areas.  

Ultimately,  if and when Caspit decides to update the book and add in a few more chapters, there seems to be very little that has taken place in Israeli  politics that will cause Caspit to change his thesis very much, if at all.  In fact, as the Netanyahu criminal trial continues, and evidence continues to emerge about Netanyahu's involvement in a wide range of very questionable activities, Caspit will probably double down on his thesis.

I plan to read Anshel  Pfeffer's  book as well - Bibi - The Turbulent  Life and Times of Benjamin  Netanyahu.  I would be suprised if Pfeffer's ultimate conclusions are  very different  but  I'm sure it will bring a different perspective.  Stay tuned for my "compare and contrast" blog once I have read that book.