Showing posts with label Bennett. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Bennett. Show all posts

Sunday, June 13, 2021

New Sheriff In Town - Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is Israel's New Prime Minister

It is a very historic day for Israel.   After 12 years under the leadership of Prime Minister Netanyahu, Israel is swearing in a new government - a "change coalition" made up of 8 different political parties - with members ranging from the far right to the far left.  The different parties all signed off on a coalition deal on Friday afternoon, clearing the way for today's swearing in ceremony.

The first order of business for the Knesset was to hear speeches from a range  of speakers - the leaders of the different parties - of both the outgoing government and the incoming administration.  The designated order was that Naftali Bennett, the incoming Prime Minister would speak first, followed by Prime Minister Netanyahu, the outgoing Prime Minister.

Bennett was invited to go first.  He had prepared a very carefully written speech - professional, conciliatory, stately and dignified.  But Netanyahu's supporters had other plans.  They had apparently decided that they would use every possible method to disrupt the  speech.  They hurled insults, abusive language and consistently disrupted the speech.  The House Speaker, who himself is a handpicked Netanyahu designate, had no choice but to start warning Knesset members that he would throw them out of the Knesset if they continued.  Soon he had to start ordering the removal of various Knesset members from the Religious Zionist Party, the Likud Party and the Ultra-Religious parties.  Frankly, it was embarrassing, childish and highly inappropriate.  At least 5 or 6 Knesset members had to be forcibly removed because they couldn't follow the basic decorum of listening to a speech from a political opponent.  One Israeli commentator said that it was as if those who had stormed the Capital in the U.S.  were actually the congress members and senators inside the Knesset.  It was simply disgraceful.

Bennett's speech was disrupted several times but he still managed to give it.  He thanked Netanyahu for his years of service and for many positive accomplishments.  But he also spoke about the  urgency of doing things differently, of working with people with opposing viewpoints, and of addressing many urgent issues facing the country.  He promised to try and work on behalf of all Israelis, even those who opposed him.  He mentioned that Israel may have disagreements with the United States on some issues - but he promised to work with the United States administration respectfully and work to return to a situation where support for Israel is bi-partisan in the U.S.  rather than partisan.  He laid out some of the government's proposed platforms and he introduced by name all of the incoming cabinet members.  He ended his speech by reciting the "prayer for the State of Israel" which is recited in synagogues around the world.  It was an emotional moment.

Yair Lapid was supposed to speak next.  After watching all of the disruption, he  decided to cut his speech short.  He stood up and said that he had  brought his 87 year old mother to Jerusalem (she rarely comes to Jerusalem) to see how a peaceful transition of power works in Israel, a country that did not exist when she was born.  He said she told him that she was simply embarrassed by the behaviour of the opposition Knesset members but she also said  - that this conduct by Netanyahu's supporters in the Knesset demonstrated why a change of government was so urgently needed.  Lapid said that was all  he was going to say at this time and he sat down.

Next it was Netanyahu's turn.  He was allotted the longest time  period as the outgoing Prime Minister.  Netanyahu began his speech, shockingly, by quoting the  lead prosecutor  in the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann  and claiming that he was standing here on behalf of the "millions" (in Netanyahu's case - the "millions" who had voted for him but would not have him as a leader).  This was an outrageous misuse of historical context - to suggest that the incoming government was a horrible and tragic event on the scale of the Holocaust.  

Netanyahu then proceeded with a review of the many accomplishments of his government, for which he took all of the credit personally.  Some  of this review was partially accurate, some was slanted and some was outright misleading.  For example, he noted that Israel is in a far better security situation today than it was 12 years ago.  That is probably true.  He claimed that his government had dramatically decreased the "gaps" and "inequalities" in Israeli society.  That is patently false.  He claimed that his government did more than any previous Israeli government to support the Arab Israeli community.  That is questionable and probably not accurate, even though at times the Netanyahu government invested significant amounts in certain Arab communities.  His tone was combative, irascible and condescending.  This was only the first part of the speech and just the beginning.   

For the second part, Netanyahu switched to a litany of attacks on the incoming government and, in particular, on Bennett personally.  This part of the speech was simply a page from the Trump playbook.  He insulted, derided and castigated his political opponents and this deal to create the new government in particular.  He used nicknames to make fun of certain Knesset members.  He stated that "unlike what has taken place in some places, he is not challenging the legitimacy of the actual ballots - they were counted properly."  But he is challenging the fraudulent misuse of the ballots by Bennett - who took right wing ballots and turned them improperly into a left wing government. He quoted Arnold Scwarznegger stating "I'll be back" and promised that it would be a lot quicker than anyone  expects.  He did not wish the new government success or provide any kind words for the incoming government or any of its members.  Instead, he simply promised to bring down the government as quickly as possible, with "God's help."  I can't say this speech was unexpected though I think some were a bit surprised at the complete lack of any hint of statesmanship or professionalism.  

There was then a break for a few hours.  During this time, the tv commentators reviewed and assessed both speeches.  Even the right wing commentators were somewhat taken aback at the conduct of the disruptive Knesset members during Bennett's speech.  In the meantime, Bennett announced plans to go to the Kotel for a special blessing after being sworn in.  At the same time, the Religious Zionist party and the Ultra Orthodox parties announced organized demonstrations at the Kotel and special prayers for the "downfall of the government."  We can clearly see that there will be rocky times ahead and it will be fascinating to see if this new government can hold things together.

There are definitely several concerns about the new government.  It is comprised of far right wing parties, far left wing parties, centrist parties along with an Arab Israeli party.  They will have lots of disagreements and they only have a razor thin margin of 61-59 to run the country.  If two Knesset members defect, the government will collapse.

Furthermore, there are genuine and legitimate complaints about the incoming Prime Minister Bennett.  His party only had 6 seats.  He had promised his voters, in writing, that he would not join a government with Lapid, even a rotation government.  He also promised that he would not sit in a government that worked with the Arab parties.  Many of his supporters are understandably upset and I can see that there was no reason that he should have been so unequivocal with his promises if he had no intention of keeping them.  In short, it is true that he  deceived his voters.

At the same time, most politicians tend to make all sorts of promises that they are often unable to keep.  Netanyahu also made a list of promises and broke many of them.  Bennett has insisted that, overall, the deal he has made involves a variety of compromises, all with a view to the best interests of the country at this point in time.  I think many Israelis will be prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt, at least for some period of time.

Changing Of the Speaker of the House

After a significant delay, the Knesset was recalled for the next order of business - the vote for a new speaker of the house.  The vote was held and Mickey Levy of the Yesh Atid party won with 67  votes (61 required for a majority).  For a bit, the outcome was uncertain, but in the end  the candidate of the change coalition was elected the new speaker of the house.  The outgoing speaker, Yariv Levine, in contrast to Netanyahu, was statesmanlike and professional.  He wished Levy the best of luck, shook his hand and said a few words about his own departure.  It was a welcome change of tone.

Voting in the New Government

Shortly afterwards, the full Knesset was invited to vote on the new government.  There was some tension since the government is being implemented with a  61-59 majority.   No wiggle room at all.  As the votes came in, there were 3 initial abstentions.  The vote sat at 60-56.   The speaker, of  course, only votes in the event of a tie.  The speaker asked if there were any missing votes.  Three Arab members changed their votes from "abstain" to against and the vote was now 60-59.  But that was it.  The vote was called and the speaker announced that Naftali Bennett is Israel's new Prime Minister.

Swearing In of the Ministers

The final step was the swearing in of the Prime Minister and the cabinet ministers.  Each person comes up and repeats, according to a set formula - which starts with "I, (full name), the son or daughter of (full name) and then either "may he/she live many more years in good health" or "of blessed memory" followed by the other parent's name.  It is incredibly emotional.  Some of the ministers were lucky to have parents and family members in attendance.  Others thought of their deceased parent or other family members as they took the oath and mentioned their names.  The cabinet features a wide range of members from 8 different parties.  Some of these parties have not been a part of any Israeli government for many years.  It was quite a sight.

Conclusions for Now

In some parts of Israel, people are celebrating, especially in Tel-Aviv.  There are many Israelis hoping that this new government will usher in a wide range of changes in many different areas.  Other Israelis are extremely upset and are planning to hold demonstrations, prayer gatherings and other events calling for the end to this government.

This  new government contains a large number of "right wing" members.  I don't expect things to change very much with respect to relations with the Palestinians in the very near future.  I would say that there is somewhat of a consensus on some of the issues in dispute - and  some of the policies that Netanyahu has promulgated.  For example, no Israeli government is going to be interested in negotiating the status of Jerusalem, discussing the settlement of Palestinian refugees in Israel or even negotiating a Palestinian state in the current climate.  There may, however, be more of an openness to meet and try to restart some negotiations on these and other issues with a view to trying to resolve some or all of the ongoing conflict with Palestinians.

The real change, however, is that this government is  the first one in a number of years without the two ultra-orthodox parties.  That may well prove to be the biggest element of change in the "change" government  Suddenly, the  budget might change and religious educational institutions that do not support mandatory military recruitment may start finding themselves with significantly reduced budgets.  Bennett promised to take away the monopoly over Kashrut from the Ultra-Orthodox and provide a wider range of options for Kashrut observers.  There may well be a range of positive changes in Israeli society that affect gender equality, education, the environment and many other areas, all of which can be tackled without having to appease ultra-religious interests.  

I really can't predict whether this government will be  able to hold up and if so, how long it might last.  The deal has been signed as a four year deal.  But with a such a thin margin, it seems unlikely that this government will make it through the full four year term.  But I suppose that is going to depend on what kind of priorities the government tackles and whether its actions are viewed favourably by the Israeli public, or at least a large part of it.

I do maintain and believe that there is a significant likelihood that we will see a much higher level of public discourse, respect within the government, cooperation, trust and a resolve to act in the public interest - all of which will be very different from the legacy that Netanyahu is leaving behind, particularly over the course of his final few years of this term in office.









Wednesday, June 2, 2021

Are We There Yet? Is Israel About to Have a Change of Government? Perhaps.

When I was younger, we would frequently take long family trips in the car, visiting our grandparents who lived in different cities.  Even as I got older, our lengthy car  trips continued with my sister moving to a city 13 hours away from Toronto (on a good drive).   As anyone who has taken these long car trips knows, the most frequently asked questions  from young  children (and even not-so-young "children") are  - "are we there yet?" and "when will get there?"  You know where this is going....

Israel Political Update

About a month ago, in Israel, Prime Minister  Netanyahu's "mandate" to try and form a  government expired as he was unable to form a 61 member coalition that is required to form a government.  He made various efforts to come up with a coalition but he was short by at least 2 seats in the 120  seat Knesset and could not seem to find the missing pieces anywhere.  So when the mandate expired, the President of Israel, Rueben Rivlin, turned the mandate over to the head of the opposition party Yesh Atid, led by Yair Lapid.  Lapid was given 28 days to try and piece together a government. These 28 days ended at midnight tonight (June  2, 2021), Israel time.

Coalition negotiations were tense, difficult and tiring.  Lapid was trying to put together a coalition made up of a range of very strange bedfellows.  The potential coalition included a far right religious party (Yamina - "the Right"), another fairly far right less religious party (Tikvah Hadashah) ("New Hope"), the centrist Yesh Atid party, the centrist Blue and White party (which had been Netanyahu's reluctant governing partner since March 2020), the Labour Party (left-centre), the left wing secularist Meretz party and an Arab Islamist party - Ra'am, led by Monsour Abbas.  Frankly, it sounds unfathomable.  What would hold such a diverse range of parties together in a coaltion deal?  They could pretty much all agree that Israel needed to oust Netanyahu.  And perhaps most of these parties could also agree that they would rather have a government without  the two ultra-Orthodox parties.  But otherwise, at first glance, it seemed hard to imagine what else they could agree on.

Despite these difficulties, just before the recent fighting with Gaza broke out, Lapid and Bennett were about to announce that they were forming a "change government" and Netanyahu would be ousted.  Shortly after the war broke out, Bennett announced that he was giving up on the idea of this change  government and that he would go back to negotiating with Netanyahu to form a "true right wing government."  The problem was that Netanyahu's mandate had expired and, in any event, even with Bennett, Bibi could not get past 59 seats.

So after the Gaza fighting ended, Lapid set out to restart efforts to put together this change coalition, without Bennett.  He negotiated with all of the different parties and then brought back his offer to agree on a rotation government back to Bennett under which Bennett would go first as Prime Minister or the first two years.  At first Bennett held out and continued to state that  he would not go along.  But after some further delays, Bennett made an announcement that he would now seek to enter into a coalition to form a "change government" since it was clear that Netanyahu could not form one.  It was either going to be a new government or another election.

Since Bennett's decision, the different parties have held marathon talks trying to piece together a  deal.  The deadline was midnight tonight.  As of yesterday, it was really 50-50 whether the parties were going to reach a deal.  Yamina's number 2, Ayalet Shaked, announced last night that she wanted a key seat on the judical appointments committee.  Not just any seat - she wanted to take the one that had been promised to the leader of the Labour party - Merav Michaeli as part of the newly negotiated coalition deal.  Shaked stated last night - that if she didn't get her way - there would be no "change government."  Shaked had been hoping to get the Minister of Justice portfolio but the other coalition members refused.  Her goal is to appoint a benchful of exclusively right wing judges - who can act, more or less, act as another branch of a right wing government, rather than as an independent body.  While serving as  a Minister in a past government under Netanyahu, she was involved in the appointment of a large number of such judges.  She constantly attacks and criticizes the courts when rulings are issued with which she disagrees.   As the deadline approached today - Shaked and her demand remained as one of two outstanding issues.  The other issue involved Monsour Abbas and the Raam party.

Lapid had been hoping to conclude an agreement by 11 a.m. this morning.  If that had happened, the new government could have been sworn in as early as Monday June 8, 2021.  But talks could not be completed.  The deadline came and went and there was no deal.  The next deadline was midnight tonight.  

As  a political  junkie, I had to flip on the three  Israeli channels (I'm using a streaming  device in case you are wondering)  and check in with channels 11, 12, and 13.  It was almost as exciting as a sporting event.  Would there be an agreement  by midnight or would the time expire - leaving Netanyahu to live another day politically?  In other words - are we there yet?  When will we get there?  And the additional question - will we get there?

By 10 p.m., there was still no deal.  One hold out  issue had been resolved - issues involving Monsour Abbas, and for the first time in Israel's history, an Arab party had agreed to be part of a government coalition agreement.  Now that was exciting - a true watershed - but it didn't mean that a deal had been reached.  Shaked and other members of Yamina were still holding out.  Apparently, members of Gideon Saar's New Hope party were also refusing to sign.

Netanyahu and his supporters were involved in all kinds of behind the scenes activities.  Netanyahu himself called Abbas and told him that he would get a better deal with Netanyahu (though Netanyahu had no actual government to offer him).  Netanyahu supporters sent death threats to Shaked, Bennett and other members of the Yamina party - as well as other party leaders of this coalition.  All were assigned additional bodyguards.  One Yamina member was told that if he supported the agreement - his house in Petach Tikvah would be burned down.  

Just after 11 p.m. Israel time, Lapid and Bennett  announced that a deal had been struck and all parties had signed off.  Michaeli agreed to a compromise resolution which mostly favoured Shaked.  Lapid and Bennett informed the President who offered his congratulations.  But it may take 11 days until the official "swearing-in" ceremony will take place.  Between now and then, Netanyahu will still try everything he can to retain power.  His party has been exerting extreme pressure on the members  of the two right wing parties - Yamina and and New Hope - trying to  convince them that it would be a sell-out to leave him and join a "leftist coalition."  Members of these parties have been called "traitors," "liars," "promise breakers" and lots of other names.  The rhetoric is extreme, heated and dangerous.  Given Israel's history and the assassination of Prime Minister Rabin Z"L, there is a serious threat of political violence.   It is concerning.  Are we there yet?  Not yet.  Will we get there?  Unclear.

So it is still a bit premature to offer a political eulogy for Netanyahu. He is known  as the "magician" and over the next 11 days, he and his supporters will try every possible trick to abort this in vitro government before it can come to life.  Even if the government is sworn in, it will face enormous pressure  trying to hold together such a diverse range of political actors. But I will say that both Lapid and, to a lesser extent, Bennett, have exuded a certain sense of calm, a need for compromise, dedication and professionalism that suggests that it may well happen.

Political commentators on the right wing of the spectrum are dumbstruck and remain filled with disbelief - and  some  hope that the  coalition will be stopped.  They were convinced that Netanyahu would not let this happen.  One leading TV commentator, Amit Segal, railed against the formation of this coalition on Israeli national  TV.  Another right wing commentator and outspoken Bibi supporter, Avishai Ben Haim, called it "one of the darkest days in Israel's history."

On the other hand, Lapid and Bennett have gone to incredible lengths to build a compromise coalition government that includes a wide range of voices and is based on decency, respect, service to the country and an interest in doing things differently.  I do believe that if the government is sworn in and is  able to last, it is likely to be one of the best governments that Israel has had in many years, if not  ever.   Will we get there?  I think there is a good chance that we will, though there are many obstacles and it is hard to say how long it will last.

Israeli Presidency

The Israeli Knesset also voted today to elect a new President.  The presidency is largely a figurehead
position - much like a monarch or the Governor General position in Canada.  There were only two candidates  - Yitzhak  "bougie" Hertzog and Miriam Peretz, an educator and public speaker who lost two sons  to the IDF.  

Herzog has quite the pedigree for this role.  His father, Chaim Herzog, was Israel's 6th President.  His paternal grandfather was the Chief Rabbi of Ireland from 1922 to 1935 and then the Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi of Israel from 1936 to 1959.  Herzog completed a law degree and worked in his father's firm for a number of years.  Even though he came from the left wing Labour party, Hertzog was viewed as an acceptable candidate across the political spectrum.  Even the Ultra-Orthodox parties were happy to vote for him, partially, it seems, out of respect for his late grandfather.  Suprisingly, the Likud party did not promote or actively support any particular candidate.

I heard an interview today with one Ultra-Orthodox Rabbi from the Torah Judaism party  who stated that Herzog was a Levi (part of the Jewish Priestly caste) and therefore he must be an acceptable candidate.  Perhaps, he went on to say, that this could be the start of a reimplementation of the Priestly class in leadership roles in politics throughout Israel.  

In any event, Herzog received 87 votes in the 120 seat Knesset and won  handily.  He will be sworn in at the end of President Rivlin's term over the summer.

Hockey Update

Since arriving back in Toronto,  I have been able to watch some hockey at sane hours.  Watching NHL hockey in Israel normally means watching at 2:30 or 3 a.m. This is quite disruptful to sleeping patterns.  

As a long time Toronto Maple Leaf season ticket holder - I have the same questions that I have been applying to my discussion of Israeli politics.  Are we there yet?  When will we get there?  Will we ever get there?

Over the past number of years, the Maple Leafs have opened up the vault and signed a number of very expensive players - our "superstars."  Toronto forward Auston Matthews led the league this year in goals scored.  The Leafs were heavily favoured against the Montreal Canadiens, who had barely made it into the playoffs.  

And yet, like in so many past years, the Toronto Maple  Leafs expired in the first round, beaten by Montreal in a 7 game series with nothing to show for that massive payroll.  It was enormously disappointing.  But then again, being a Leaf fan is always enormously disappointing.  The Leafs last won the Stanley Cup in 1967.  That drought does not look like it is about to end any time soon.  Are were there yet?  Certainly not.  Will we get there?  Who knows.  I would love to see a Toronto Maple Leaf Stanley Cup championship win - but I'm really not sure that I will ever see it.

Toronto and Covid Update

My final comments on my own trip to Toronto.  I wrote about it more extensively in my previous blog.  Since arriving in Toronto on May 27th, I have been using the "ArriveCan" phone app to check in and confirm that I am still healthy.  I have also received a bunch of robocalls.  Sample questions:  "Are you aware that you not allowed to have visitors or entertain people at your home?  Press 1 for yes, 2 for no.  Are you planning to have visitors or entertain people at your home during your quarantine period?  Press 1 for yes, 2 for no."  I'm not making this stuff up.  In any event, I'm getting to day 8, where I will have a zoom call with a nurse who will watch me complete my "day 8 Covid test."  After that, just 6 more  days to go.  Time flies when there is so much going on....

Sorry if I have bored you  with all of the Israeli politics - but, as you probably know from reading  some  of my previous blogs, it is one of my favourite topics - especially when there is so much going on.  It is so volatile, that everything I have written may change by the time you are reading this.   But hopefully my analysis will still be relevant.

I'm officially finished my quarantine on June 9, 2021, so looking forward to seeing whoever I am  able to see while in Toronto.  Best of health to everyone.





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.

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Another Election Update: Complete Craziness Here - and Other News

With less than one week to go for Prime Minister Netanyahu to form a  government, things are getting completely crazy here politically.  Netanyahu's chances of forming a government seem to be slipping away.  But not without a major struggle.  Netanyahu is pulling out all the stops to try to retain power.

It seems like he has a string of increasingly radical moves lined up - right up until the last minute next week when he will either succeed in forming a government with his final moves (whatever they might be) or one of the other two alternatives will win out - either a new replacement government or a fifth consecutive election.

Last week, Netanyahu started to see that his chances of forming a 61 seat coalition were looking grim.  He is trying to pull together two far right wing parties - Yamina and the Religious Zionist party and mix those parties with two ultra-Orthodox parties - and then have that whole package supported by the 5 seats of an Islamic Fundamentalist Arab party.  The Religious Zionist party has balked at the idea and has held a number of press conferences at which they have spewed anti-Arab rhetoric  and stated that they will not enter a government that is supported in any way, shape or form by any of the  Arab  parties.  Meanwhile, the Arab party, Ra'am, has naturally called on Bibi to reign in the rhetoric of his racist cohorts if he is really hoping to get  Ra'am support.

So Bibi came up with a new plan.  He decided he would call for a two track election system with a separate election for the position of Prime Minister  Obviously, this is an attempt to create a U.S. style President with separate executive powers and to  circumvent  Israel's current system.  As any constitutional student would realize, it doesn't mesh at all with a Parliamentary democracy.  It is a different governing system.  So, essentially, Bibi's position is - "if I can't win - we have to change the system so that I can."  One would have thought that this would be dismissed out  of hand, especially since it was tried and failed in Israel in the past.  But since Bibi only needs 61 votes to  get a proposal like this passed, he is pushing it as hard as he can.

Some of the actual changes that have been proposed are even more ridiculous.  The "Prime Minister" could be elected with only 40% of the vote.  He would then instantly have all of the powers of a sitting Prime Minister rather than an interim one - even if he could not cobble together 61 seats.  Further, under Bibi's plan (as presented by Aryeh Deri, the former fraud convict and current leader of the Ultra-Religious Shas party), the winning Prime Minister would instantly get 12 additional seats in the Knesset as a bonus for winning the 40%.  Taking everything into account, this is essentially a plan that one might see presented by Putin or Erdogan.  The problem is that Bibi only needs a bare majority to pass the plan and the issue is whether he can pay off or horse trade with enough members to get this proposal through.  So far, the leader of Yamina, Naftali Bennett, has said he would not support it but the possibility of Bennett changing his mind cannot be ruled out.

Seeing that his "direct election" plan did  not seem to be working out, Bibi upped the stakes.  Earlier today, he proposed that a Bibi loyalist, Ofir Akunis, be named to be the Justice Minister, a position that has been sitting vacant since the government collapsed (leading to the election).  Contrary to Parliamentary and cabinet procedure, he did not provide advance notice of intention to put forward a candidate.  Contrary to the current coalition deal with the Blue and White party, which is in place until a government is formed, he presented a Likud candidate instead of a Blue and White candidate (as required by the coalition deal).  And contrary to the Supreme Court's stated guidelines, he did not recuse himself from being involved in the appointment of a Justice Minister while he is in the midst of an ongoing trial.  

The Attorney General noted that this was an illegal nomination, an illegal vote and an illegal procedure.  Bibi effectively stated that he didn't care and demanded that a vote be held.  The vote was a tie which meant  that he could not proceed.  In lightning speed, the matter arrived at the Supreme Court  of Israel by the evening and will be heard  in greater detail tomorrow and perhaps even shown on live TV.  The Supreme Court does not want to wade into political decisions but Bibi's actions, by all counts, are a clear attack on the rule of law.  Not that he or his party are strangers to this type of attack.  After the last election, one of Bibi's henchmen, Yuli Edelstein, locked up the Knesset to avoid a vote which would have replaced the speaker of the house.  Even then, the Supreme Court was reluctant to interfere.  Some commentators have suggested that this is all part of a plan by Bibi to get the Supreme Court to rule against him so that he can run a populist campaign against the Supreme Court in the next election.  Does that sound familiar to anyone across the ocean? *Late Addendum - added at 1 p.m.  Israel time on April 28, 2021 - Netanyahu has now agreed to back off and allow Blue and White to continue to hold the Justice Minister position - his announcement came just three hours before the Supreme Court was scheduled to being the hearing.

Given the manner in which Bibi has been escalating his tactics, it is hard to predict what he  might try between now and May  4, 2021.  This week, he offered  to allow either Gideon Saar (leader of the New Hope Party and one of the most virulent anti-Bibi Knesset members) or Naftali Bennett (leader of Yamina) to go first in a two-year coalition deal.  His condition is that he would stay in the  Prime Minister's house and be called the "alternate Prime Minister" while some else  "officially" fills the role.  We don't know what else he has requested as part of these offers but his demands are bound to be significant.  Neither Bennett nor Saar have rejected the proposals outright but even if Bennett were to agree, Netanyahu could still be short of the 61 that he needs.

So all in all, it is fair to say that things are extremely volatile, unpredictable and, definitely, new and unique, even for Israeli politics.  That being said, it seems likely that things will go in one of three directions by May 4th.  If Bibi can come up with the right mix of promises, threats, payoffs, carrots and sticks, he might still form a government by the deadline.  I don't think we can rule it out yet.  It seems that he will need to convince Gideon  Saar or some of his New Hope party members to bend and join Netanyahu.  That would cause Bennett to join as well and would create a government.  But Saar has sworn up and down, over and  over, that  he wouldn't join Bibi.  So it will take quite a lot.  I think this is still in the 40% range, perhaps now a bit less.

On the other hand, Bennett, Saar and Lapid are actively negotiating to try and form an alternate "unity government" made  up of parties across the political spectrum.   They have many challenges, which is inevitable when one tries to combine such a disparate range of political philosophies.  From the far left, egalitarian, anti-nationalist Meretz party to the far right, extremely nationalist, religious Yamina party, held together by centrist Lapid of the Yesh Atid party.  And  this coalition might only have 57 seats unless they can recruit an Arab party or an ultra religious party.  It looks like a tall order to get to 61.  I'm still not convinced that the chance of this group forming a government is higher than 30 to 35%.  

And if you do the math, that leaves us with a 25-30% chance of another election, at least according to this prognosticator.  But we should know by May 4th or  shortly thereafter.  If it is to be a fifth election, it may be in August or September.  Perhaps by then, a greater number of Israelis living abroad will be  able to travel to Israel to participate in the vote.  For the last election, ballot stations were actually set up in the  Ben Gurion airport so that Israelis could arrive at the airport and vote before heading  off to a  quarantine.

Covid Update

As you probably know, things have been opening up everywhere here based on the use of a vaccination certificate system.  Concert venues, inside and  outside, restaurants, malls, sports events - everything is almost back to normal, for those with Green Certificates, at least.  But is it just a lull?  We are hearing of significant challenges now coming from the "Indian Variant" which may be impervious to the Pfizer  vaccine.  If a variant arrives in Israel that can  beat the vaccine, we may wind up heading back to square one - after a period of ostensible normalcy.  So far, Israel is still pushing ahead with plans to allow for international tourism (for vaccinated tourists only of  course), a resumption of the Birthright  Program and an expansion of flights, outbound and incoming.  But we really can't  say how long this "golden period" will actually last.  Hopefully, in Israel and the rest of the world, the vaccine will help turn things around in a lasting way.

Heat Wave and Upcoming  Holidays

As you might have seen - we reached temperatures of more than 40C last  week - more than 100F and it was only April.  Fortunately, things have cooled off somewhat and the weather is actually quite  nice now.  People are arranging their Lag B'Omer bonfires for Thursday night and planning their all night study sessions for the holiday of Shavuot which is 17 days after Lag Ba'Omer.  We are picking out our best Blintz and Cheesecake recipes and figuring out how we will best observe the Chag.  We may have to visit a winery or two between now and then to find some nice White or Rose wines that could best accompany our  anticipated dairy bonanza.

Board  Games

I don't mention it that  often  in this  blog - but as many of you might know, I have a hobby of collecting, teaching and playing a wide range of board games.  One of my future projects (hopefully sooner rather than later) is to design one myself.  These are complex strategy games - "Euro games" as they are often  called that include game categories such as worker  placement, territory control, engine building, and economic decision making.  They are rarely winner  take  all games but are won by the player who has amassed the highest point total.   Given that I have been here for such a long stint, I have found a few reliable partners - who are quickly becoming equally addicted.  Recently we have managed to play three fantastic games - Viticulture (which is all about developing and  running your  own winery), Brass Birmingham (an economic  game  set  in 19th century England) and Barrage (a  worker placement/economic game in which players build dams and try to control water  flow and develop energy).  These are all terrific games - so if anyone is looking for something fun to do when spending extra time at home - these games will all give your brain quite a workout.  Israel has a Facebook group called "Unbored  with Board Games" which has more than 10,000 members - who trade tips about different games, buy and  sell used games and arrange meet ups with each other.  So if you thought  board game playing was now a dead or non-existent past time - I think these numbers strongly suggest otherwise.  Board game playing is especially common among Shabbat observant families since most of these games can be played on a Saturday afternoon without violating any of the rules of Shabbat.  

That's about it for  now - waiting for the political fireworks here in Israel over the next  week or  so and wishing everyone the best of health!

 









Sunday, April 4, 2021

Post Passover April 2021 - Election Process, Bibi's Trial and Whatever Else...

Here in Israel, Pesach (Passover) came to an end last night, as Shabbat ended - at about 7:35 p.m.  After that, Israelis across the country headed out to Mimouna celebrations - wherever they could find some friends  of Moroccan heritage.  Moroccan Jews mark the end of Pesach with a party at which they eat lots of sweets and mufletta (a fried dough pastry) covered with honey or nutella.  This is not an evening for those on a low-sugar diet.   Moroccans generally offer an "open invitation" to all those who want to show up and come and join them.  I have never figured out how they are able to get everything ready so quickly - change over the dishes, get the kitchen ready etc., in time for a mimouna that starts so quickly after Pesach.  But we have attended a few over the years and they are lots of fun.  We  spent our evening putting away our Pesach dishes and were not able to get to a mimouna this year.

Last year, in Israel, there were no mimouna celebrations because of Covid-19.  This year, with so many people vaccinated and the infection numbers quickly dropping, there were big parties all over the country.  The same can be said for Pesach seders.  This year, many Israelis (us included) were able to attend traditional style seders with 15-20 people or more, whereas last year it was just immediate family members who live at the same address.  Hopefully, the Israeli experience is a sign that by next year things in Canada, the U.S. and other parts of the world will be back to some semblance of normal.

Now that Pesach is over, we have lots of interesting, significant and meaningful events coming up.

On the political side - we have two main events.

Monday April 5, 2021 will officially mark the start of the evidence portion of Netanyahu's trial.  There are over 300 witnesses and some of the witnesses will take a week or two, between examination-in chief and  cross-examination.  The trial is expected to last between 2 and 3 years assuming that it is not somehow resolved before it is completed.  The court will sit all day, three days a week, to hear the  evidence.  Netanyahu has sought permission to be absent from the court room at times and the court has agreed.  I'm not going to spell out all of the details as I have reviewed the charges that Netanyahu is facing in previous posts.  For example, in this post,  I covered come of the issues.  It remains my view that the trial will never actually reach a contested verdict.  One possibility is that Netanyahu will be able to cobble together an election victory at some point - and pass a retroactive immunity bill to end his legal problems.  Many of the would-be supporters of a new Netanyahu government on the right of the political spectrum are willing to support this approach.  As of now, however, Bibi does not have the votes for this.  

The other possibility is that if the trial is proceeding - and things are not looking good - Netanyahu will cut some sort of deal either involving a plea bargain, a pardon or a blend of a political and legal deal.  If, on the other hand, the prosecution's case somehow falls apart, perhaps because key witnesses pass away (or disappear), there is also a possibility that the prosecution could drop the case.  Of course Netanyahu insists that the latter option is what will happen, but I really doubt it.  No matter what transpires, it should make for fascinating political and legal theatre and generate quite a bit of interesting press coverage, complete with round-the-clock analysis.  As a lawyer, I am about as interested in this legal proceeding as any other that I can recall (other than some of my own great cases, of course).

Election Update

Tomorrow is also a very important day in Israel for dealing with the current election deadlock.

As you may know, Israel is a parliamentary democracy, modelled after England or Canada.  The official head of state, ceremonially,  is the President, who fills the role of the Monarch in Britain or the Governor General in Canada.  In other words, the President has very little actual power and is mostly a figurehead.

However, one of the key roles of the president takes place after every election.  (President Rivlin  has been working double or triple time the past few  years).  The President is taked with the role of asking one of the political parties, traditionally the party with the plurality of Knesset seats or the party that has the best chance of being able to build a coaltion with 61 seats - to try and form a government.  The leader of that party is then given 30 days to try and form a coaltion.  

So tomorrow, each party will come to the President's residence to meet with the President and tell him who they plan to recommend to form the government.  13 different parties were elected in the March 2021 elections, each of which attained more than 3.25% of the vote.  So starting at 8 a.m., President Rivlin will meet with 13 different representatives and they will all tell him what they intend to do and who they intend to recommend.  Or maybe they won't really but they have to recommend someone.

It sounds like tonight is going to be a long night of negotiations, promises, political calculations and perhaps some trickery and slight of hand as well.  Maybe some magic spells will also be cast along with some special blessings appealing to the Almighty.  By the time the sun rises in the morning, or perhaps a few hours after that (allowing for time for morning prayers for some), decisions will have been made and the parade will begin.

As of now, news reports indicate that no leader will receive 61 votes of support.  Netanyahu is likely to get 52 which includes his party (Likud) (30), the two ultra-orthodox parties (Shas and UTJ)(16) and the far right party - RJ the Religious Zionists (6).  If he could convince Bennett and the Yamina party to join him - he could get to 58 but that seems unlikely right now.  He is also trying to gain the vote of the Arab Islamic party Ra'am, which has 4 seats to offer. 

The other primary suitor is the Yesh Atid party led by Lapid.  As  of now, Lapid's party is likely to get 43 recommendations - which include Yesh Atid (17), Labour  (7), Yisrael Beitenu (Lieberman's secular nationalist party) (7), left wing Meretz (6), and perhaps the Joint List (Arab secular nationlist) (6).  There is a chance that the centrist Blue  and White leader Benny Gantz could recommend Lapid, which could add 8 more and bring Lapid to 51.   However, to this point, Gantz has stated that he will only support Lapid if he thinks that Lapid can form a government.

That leaves two parties - the right wing religious party Yamina (7) ("The Right") and the right wing  New Hope party (a break off from the Likud) with 6.  Naftali Bennett, the leader of Yamina, is insisting that he should be the Prime Minister.  He says that he is the only one who can form a right wing government that is an alterntive to the Likud.  He says he will not join Lapid because  Lapid is too far left.  So he has decided to recommend himself, barring some  kind of last minute deal.   That certainly throws a loop into things but it doesn't seem to get everyone any closer to a deal.

The other party is New Hope led by Gideon Saar.  Saar  says he will not recommend Netanyahu under any circumstances.  Although many of Saar's policies are similar to Bibi's, if not further right, he has stated several times (including this afternoon) that he is determined to eliminate corruption in politics and restore honour to political office in Israel.  That certainly sounds like a tall order to me....

Saar still has not announced who he will support but he stated before the election that he will not recommend Lapid.  So he must now decide between recommending Bennett in which case Bennett would have 13, recommending Lapid in which case Lapid would have as many as 57 or recommending himself (which can't be ruled out as a possibility).  Saying nothing is apparently not an option.

If Saar decides to go against one of his pre-election promises and opts to recommend Lapid, Lapid would either have 49 or 57 depending on whether Gantz also recommends Lapid.  With 57, Lapid would then have 30 days to try and form a government by finding a few more Knesset members or cutting some kind of deal, perhaps with one of the two ultra-religious parties.

If Saar recommends himself or Bennett, the President will almost certainly give Bibi the first chance to form a government.  Bibi, with his 52, will need to try and find 9 more seats.  Even if he were be able to convince Bennett to join him (they have been arch rivals for a number of years  now and Bennett is particularly despised by Bibi's wife, Sara), that would still only get Bibi to 59.  If Bibi fails to form a government, the President could give  Lapid a chance or the Knesset could dissolve and another election could be called.

Behind the scenes - there are two sets of negotiations going on.

Bibi is making all sorts of  promises to try and entice Bennett to join his coalition.  But even if he succeeds he will still only have 59 and he will need to find some defectors or he will have to rely on the support of the Ra'am party.  Some members of Bibi's party have started to speak about the possibility of Likud relying on Ra'am and have insisted that it is a non-starter. The far right RZ party has said that it will not join that coalition under any circumstances.  So Bibi will have to convince  some others to defect.  Perhaps he is hoping to break up Saar's party (like what he did to Blue and White the last time around) or perhaps he is hoping that he can entice Gantz to join him again.  As I have said previously, one can never count Bibi out but he is facing quite an uphill battle.

The other negotiations are taking place between Saar, Bennett and Lapid.  Saar and Bennett are essentially saying that together they have 13 seats (which is still less than Lapid's 17).  They are asking that Lapid agree to a rotation government in which they would share power, with Bennett as Prime Minister for half of the time and Lapid the other half.    For the parties to the left  of Lapid, including Meretz, the Labour party and the Arab Joint List, this is not very popular.  These parties do not want to replace Bibi, the right wing Likud leader, with someone who is even more right wing.  On the other side, members of Saar's party and of Bennett's do not want Lapid as the Prime Minister since they feel he is too far to the left.  If you add all of this up, it comes to 63.  However, that would be a bed full of awfully strange bedmates.  A left wing secular Arab party, a left wing secular mixed party (Meretz), a right wing religious nationalist party (Yamina) all sharing the same blanket.  The only thing they can all agree on is that they all want to kick Bibi out of the bed.

One possibility is that Saar and Bennett will try to woo the ultra-religious parties with their 16 seats to leave the Bibi camp and join them - perhaps instead of the Joint List and Meretz.  Would Lapid go along with this? Unclear.  For now, the Shas party says that it will refuse and it has sworn allegiance to Bibi.  The other party, UTJ, seems to be starting to waver.  The ultra religious parties do not want to be left out in the cold and will, at the last minute, do whatever it takes to avert that possible disaster.

I think that is about all I can say for now about what is going to happen.  How do I handicap all of this?  Okay - let's go with 40% that Bibi manages to come up with some kind of deal by finding some defectors, working over Gantz, or breaking up Saar's party and/or by relying on the Ra'am party.  Next, let's say 35% that we have another election by September or October.  Finally, that leaves a 25% chance that some kind of  alternate government can be strung together by Lapid, Bennett and  Saar.

You might say that I am being  fairly non-commital.  Fair enough.  But that is the current  state of Israeli politics.  I think this is a realistic assesssment of what we are likely to see. 

Other Events and Commemorations

Wednesday night  is Erev Yom Hashoah v'Hagvurah.  The day of Rememberance of the Holocaust and Heroism.  It will be 82 years since the start the second World War and 80 years  since the Nazis made the decision to begin operating death  camps to ramp up their systematic mass murder of the Jews of Europe.  Memorial events will be held across the country.  TV stations will show Holocaust themed  movies and documentaries all night and all day long (on Thursday) and a two minute long siren will blare across the country during which traffic across the country will come to a stand still.  Restaurants will be closed across the country on Wednesday evening as people walk to near by community commemorations.

The following week, April 14th is Israel's Rememberance Day for fallen soldiers and victims of terrorism.  And April 15th will be Israel Independence Day marking Israel's 73rd birthday.  I have written about both of these days in previous blogs.

I am not sure yet how  all of these events will be marked across the country as we are still easing out of the Covid-19 restrictions but I am certain that there will be all sorts of commemortations and festivities respectively.

As Pesach ends, the weather starts to warm up in Israel and beach season arrives.  In fact, we are expecting some very hot weather this week with a cool down by the end  of the week.   A bit of a taste of things to come perhaps.  By May, it will be quite hot here.  As the vaccine continues to work, I am quite sure that the beaches will be overcrowded this year, even if tourists won't yet be  able to join our Israeli beach goers.  Let's hope that by next year that, too, will change  back to some semblance  of normal.

Wishing  everyone the  best of health and hoping that you will all have the chance to come and visit soon!






Thursday, March 25, 2021

Israel Post Election Analysis March 2021: Results and Predictions

With more than 98% of  ballots counted, the results from the Israeli election of March 23, 2021 are almost final.  I am going to take a stab at analyzing the results and providing an update about the  possible direction things may take in the coming weeks.  I should note that the final results are due to be announced at 10 a.m. tomorrow, Israel time, but most commentators have indicated that few changes are expected.  Apparently the ballots have actually been tabulated but  the "official" statement has not yet been released.

On Wednesday night, Israelis tuned in to the news at 10 p.m. to hear the results of "exit polls" which, in Israel, are usually fairly close to the final results.  Three different TV stations announced their respective projections.  In two out of the three releases, Bibi was projected to have a 61 seat, bare majority - and perhaps, escape with a win.  But over the course of the evening, the projections were adjusted and the real results started coming in.  Bibi's bloc went down to 59 and it has remained there until now.

So here is where we are at.  This is Bibi's "bloc" - the parties that have pledged their allegiance to him and are willing to form a government under his leadership:

Likud (Netanyahu (Bibi)'s party): 30; 
Shas (Ultra Orthodox Sephardi) 9;
United Torah Judaism (Ultra Orthodox Ashkenazi) 7; 
Religious Zionist (Extreme Right Nationalist): 6

As you can see, this adds up to 52.  There are 120 seats in the Knesset so a coaltion must get to 61 to form a government.  Prior to the election, most commentators were predicting that the missing piece to this puzzle would be the "Yamina" ("The Right") party led by Naftali Bennett.  If the Yamina Party were to have received 9 or more, it would have been able to join this coalition and put the Likud over the top to form the government.

Yamina is generally a very right wing party, to the right of Likud.  Their platform includes an overhaul  of the justice system to allow the Knesset to override decisions of the Supreme Court, increased privatization of schools and  healthcare, annexation of the occupied territories  and reduction of taxes.  They  are quite comfortable with the coalition listed above but there are few, if any, other Knesset members willing to join this coalition and put it over 61.

At the same time, the leader of the Yamina party, Bennett, has been touting himself as a potential Prime Minister, able to bring together a wider tent than the Likud.  Yamina was hoping to get between 15 and 20 seats but wound up with 7.  During the campaign, Bennett repeatedly called for a leadership change though he stopped  short of saying that  he would refuse to sit in a Netanyahu government.  Along the way, Bennett stated that he would absolutely not  sit in a government led  by Yesh Atid (Lapid) and he would not join any government with the Arab  Joint List or even with Meretz.  So, he limited himself a great deal but most commentators expected that he would join his natural coalition partners, the right wing bloc if this would lead to the formation of a government.

On the other side of the ledger, here is what we have:

Yesh Atid (Lapid) (Centrist or perhaps centre/left) - 17
Blue and White (Gantz) (Centrist or perhaps centre/right) 8
Yisrael Beitenu (Lieberman) (Secular, right wing) 7
Labour (Michaeli) (left) 7
New Hope (Saar) (Right leaning, similar to Likud, but anti-Bibi) 6
Meretz (Horowitz) (Far Left, secularist) 6

This all adds up to 51, which is still a long way from the  61 required to form a government.

There are two other parties - the Arab Joint  List (Mostly secular, Arab) with 6 and the Ra'am Party (Religious fundamentalist Arab) (4).  These parties could be enough to join either faction and put that  group over the  required 61  but  that would be very unpopular, politically, in many Israeli circles.

Possible Directions - Can a Government Be Formed?

As many of you know, I am not a huge soccer (football) fan.  One of the reasons is the high likelihood of a tie.  No  sports event, that I can think of, is less satisfying than  watching two teams play to a 0-0 tie and then just leave the field and call it a day.  I much prefer hockey playoffs - where the teams play "sudden death" and keep playing, for as long as it takes, until someone scores.

Unfortunately, here in Israel, we seem stuck in a soccer-like tie with no effective tie-breaker.  After four consecutive elections, we do not have a clear result and we are  unlikely to have a  stable government any time soon.

I don't take too much  joy in stating that my blog predictions from March 11, 2021  were reasonably accurate and pretty much assessed the situation that we now have.  As we sit here now, Bibi and the Likud  party have four options for forming a government but they are all low percentage options from where we sit currently:

1.  Negotiate a deal with anther party or two:  One option for Bibi is to be able to convince one of the right or left centre "anti-Bibi" parties to join his government.  He could  offer all kinds of incentives and financial rewards, cabinet posts etc.,  In particular, he may try to convince the New Hope party under Saar, the Labour party (Michaeli) or the Blue and White party (Gantz) to join his coalition.  These other parties have all insisted that they will not join a Bibi-led government.  Last time around, Gantz gave in and made a deal.  Will he do it again?  It turned out very badly for Gantz.  Will Saar make a deal?  He has stated repeatedly that he won't.  Or perhaps Labour?  Labour could exact a very high  price from Bibi though they would have to compromise their principles.  I don't think we can rule this possibility out entirely.  Bibi is very talented and convincing and he is willing to promise just about anything.  The problem, though, is that the coalition he would be heading would be a very right wing leaning government.  He would really have to try and square a circle.  Overall, I think this is  quite a low percentage option.

2. Convince a few individual Knesset Members to "cross the aisle."
In Bibi's post-election speech on Wednesday night, he suggested that this (or option 1) would be his main plan.  He implored all of those members of the Knesset  who "agree with his agenda and his achievements" to join his coalition.  He will try to convince members of the New Hope Party, the Blue and White  Party or  perhaps even Yesh Atid to join his right wing coalition and put the bloc over 61.  Once again, I don't think we can rule this out entirely but I think it is going to be quite an uphill battle for Bibi.

3.  An Explicit or Tacit Coalition with Ra'am or the Joint List (Arab Parties)
Over the course of the campaign, Bibi knew that there was a chance that this is where things would wind up.  So he began courting one of the two Arab parties - the Islamist Ra'am party - to  consider supporting his coalition in exchange for potential support for some of the things Ra'am might want.  This is incredibly cynical politics by Bibi who has repeatedly undermined the legitimacy of the Arab  parties in previous elections, fearing that they could join the left and overturn his leadership.  If it was just the Likud party, this may have worked.  But the  Likud led bloc has  teamed up with a group of  parties that are much further right than the Likud including the anti-Arab, far right nationalist party the "Religious Zionist Party."  In short, Bibi's coalition partners, or at least some of them, are absolutely opposed to a coalition that is dependent on the support of a radical Islamist Arab party.  So this is still possible but seems unlikely.

4.  Bibi Departure
Right now, this does not seem to be very likely.  However, if Bibi were to resign, his Likud party could almost certainly form a government very quickly with a number of the different  parties on the "anti-Bibi" side of the ledger.  Bibi's criminal  trial is scheduled to resume on April 4, 2021.  If no government is formed and the trial begins to progress, there may well be a situation in which Bibi negotiates some  type of plea-bargain or political deal to end his trial in exchange for his resignation and  immunity.  I think this is a longer range possibility but it may be something that takes place before a fifth election in September or October.

Now on the other side of the ledger, the question is, can the "anti-Bibi" forces form a government or will we have another round of elections.  Here are the options:

1. Lapid-Led Coalition:

This would seem to be the best possibility, in an objective sense.  After all, Yesh Atid has 17 seats, the second highest number after Bibi and leads a group that adds up to 51 without the Joint List or 57 with the Joint List.  The problem here is that Lapid does not seem to have the ability to attract 10 more Knesset members to his  coalition.  One possibility would be a coalition with all 10 Arab Knesset members, including the Joint List and the 4-seat Ra'am party.  I don't think some of the right-Centre bloc  members will agree to this.  In particular, some members of the Blue and White party and some from the New Hope party may not agree.  So this seems unlikely, overall.

2.  Coalition Led by Bennett, Saar or Gantz

This is another possibility that is being  floated by commentators.  The idea is that one of these three leaders would have a better chance of building support among the centre and the centre-right than Lapid.  In particular, one of these three might be able to attract the United Torah Judaism party and/or Shas to join the coalition.   It sounds possible but I'm not convinced  it is going to happen.  Bennett seems  to me to be too far to the right for  the anti-Bibi bloc and this group would cover such a wide spread across the political spectrum that it is hard to imagine that they could all agree on anything.  

3.   Elections Round 5

As of right now, this looks like the most likely scenario.  What  will change between now and round 5?  Bibi will be deep into his trial, Covid-19 will be a thing of the past (in Israel at least) and the public will be even more sick of the idea of being dragged to a fifth  consecutive election.  In short, I do think that the  situation, politically, will become somewhat worse for Bibi if Israel goes to a  fifth election and, at some point, there will be calls for him to resign from within his party.  I think that many in the "anti-Bibi" bloc are banking on this as the most promising scenario.  I should note that, according to the deal that was signed into law during the last government, if no new stable government is formed by November 2021 and things are still up in the air, Gantz will officially become the Prime Minister in November of the interim caretaker government.  For Gantz and the Blue and White party, that might be worth waiting for.

Winners and Losers and Closing Comments:

I thought it might be worthwhile to add a few additional comments about winners and losers from this election and why.

In the winners category, it is fair to say that both Meretz and Labour are big winners  They both bounced up in numbers and had been considered by some forecasters to be on the verge of being ousted from the Knesset.  The left is still alive in Israel.  

The Blue and White party was also a big winner with 8 seats.  Gantz had entered a disastrous deal with Bibi which was criticized in many quarters.   But the Israeli public apparently felt that he had done so in the interest of helping the country out of a political crisis so it rewarded him with 8 seats.  

There were two other big winners.   The Religious Zionist party made it into the Knesset for the first time.  This collection of misogynist, xenophobic, homophobic far-right extremists picked up 6 seats.  Very few of the other parties  are interested in joining a coalition with this motley group.  The very fact that this party will sit in the Knesset is frightening to many inside Israel and worldwide.  

The  other big winner was the Ra'am party, the Arab Islamist party that splintered away from the Joint List.  Ra'am is now trying to use its new-found political clout  to influence the election results and serve as a king maker.  It remains to be seen whether Ra'am will be able to do that but the fact that it is even a possibility is a huge victory for Ra'am.

On the losers side of the ledger, it might be a bit early to say.  The New Hope party was very disappointed with only 6 seats.   Out of the gate, this party was hoping to get 15-20 and offer a real alternative to the Likud party.  That simply did  not happen.

Yamina was also strongly rebuked with only 7 seats.  Bennett was hoping to muster between 15 and 20 and thought he was on track to be a real alternative to Bibi.  He may still be able to work something out in his favour as discussed above, but he can't be happy with only 7 seats.

Bibi has to be disappointed as well.  With a high percentage of Israelis vaccinated and peace deals with the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco, Bibi thought that the timing of this election, just as everything was  reopening in Israel, would give him the best chance of winning the  election with a bloc of between 62 and 67.  But his bloc  underperformed dramatically and left  him in a very tenuous situation.  

The other  big loser, at this point, is the Israeli public.  We are faced with the very likely prospect of a fifth consecutive election, a caretaker government, no budget (there was no budget in 2020 and there is no budget for 2021) and no likelihood of a positive change  anytime soon.   Moreover, we now have two new extremist parties in the Knesset, the Religious Zionist party and the  Arab Ra'am party, both of which are very problematic for many people.

Despite all of that, we are ready to change our clocks and spring ahead tonight so that we can welcome the imminent arrival of the Pesach holiday.  A large number of Israelis have been vaccinated, Covid-19 is in decline and the vaccine seems to be working.  So despite the political logjam, there is a great deal of positive news in Israel, certainly compared to where things sat one year ago.  

Perhaps, while Israelis across the country are  enjoying  their four coups of wine at the Seder and opening the door for  Eliyahu (Elijah the prophet), a wind of inspiration will arrive and will lead to some unexpectedly pleasant political resolution.  After all, we always conclude the Seder with the statement  "next year in Jerusalem."  Since Jerusalem is Israel's capital  and the home  of the Knesset, maybe what we really mean is "hopefully, by next year, there will be a government in Jerusalem."  Inshallah (if it is a government  supported by Ra'am or the Joint List).

Wishing everyone a happy and healthy Peseach holiday.  Another update will follow  in a week or  two if there are some new developments to report.  

Sunday, February 7, 2021

February 2021: Covid Update, Election Preview and...

We didn't have Groundhog Day in Israel but we had "Tu Be'Shvat" about a week ago - where we marked the "New Year of the Trees."  People plant trees, eat a variety of dried fruits and, of course, have a bit of wine, to mark this minor holiday, which has made a major comeback in Jewish life since the founding of the State of  Israel in 1948.  Many synagogues and even some  secular organizations hold variants of a Tu B'Shvat Seder - a meal during which a variety of different fruits are eaten, a variety of wines are consumed and there is lots of discussion about the environment as well as other contemporary Israeli issues.  I actually attended two different Zoom events with participants from all over the  world.  A different way to celebrate than most years.   But a nice holiday concept.

So here we are in February 2021, and I thought I would cover a few different topics, which will be familiar to the readers of this blog.  I'll try and think of a few different things to add at the end.

Covid-19 Developments

This type of update could probably take up a whole blog but I will try to keep it relatively short.   As you may know, Israel has been vaccinating its residents at a blazing pace (compared to many other countries).  At its peak, the inoculation rate was up to about 200,000 shots a day.  For a population of 9.5 million, that is a very promising rate.

In fact, Prime Minister Netanyahu held a press conference about a month ago, where he promised Israelis that they would all be able to get  together with their extended families for Passover Seders in person this year.

In the  meantime, however, he warned that the virus was spreading at an alarming rate and the country needed a full shutdown.  So Israeli instituted a lockdown including a shutdown of the airport until the vaccination program could be closer to completion.

Weeks later, the virus is still spreading in Israel at an extraordinary rate.  54 people died over the weekend.  It is hard to project when things will really improve.  Experts are predicting that Netanyahu's Passover promise will not likely come to fruition and it may be a second consecutive year of Zoom Seders.  We will soon start to cook the virtual brisket.

According to some studies, the vaccinations are dramatically reducing the rate of infections for people over 60, of whom approximately 75% have been vaccinated.  But the virus is spreading rapidly among younger people, especially some of the mutated  versions of it.

On the good  news side, the Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv reported that it had developed a treatment that was successful in treating 29 of 31 seriously ill patients.  The hospital has requested approval to roll  out a wider test group and is confident that this relatively inexpensive treatment may be a very positive development.

At the same time, as the rate of vaccination continues to increase, Israel expects that the infection rate will begin to drop dramatically. It remains to be seen how long it will take to approach herd immunity or anything close to it.  Some commentators have estimated that it may not be until June or July 2021, even with the high rate of vaccination.

Despite all of this, including the high infection rate as of the time of writing, the government is reopening a  significant  part of the economy today - including many stores, hair salons, take out restaurants (up until now it was delivery only), and many schools.  There is an anticipation that there will be an increased infection rate over the coming weeks though the government is hoping that the vaccination rate will offset that.  I guess we may still wind up with a 4th closure.

Political Developments

As you might know, Israel has an election scheduled for March 23, 2021, the 4th election in the past 2 1/2 years.  This past Thursday was the deadline for the official entry of parties and  their respective slates.  A few newly formed  parties dropped out and there was also an amalgamation.  As of now, there are 14 different parties running.

The largest party is still Netanyahu's governing "Likud" party, a right wing nationalist party that is running at estimates of between 28 and 32 seats in the 120 seat Knesset.  There are also two ultra-orthodox parties that will almost certainly support  Netanyahu and they are estimated at having between 13 and 16 seats.  There is a newly merged ultra-right nationalist party running that is polling at between 0 and 5 seats.  It could be zero because the cut-off is 4 seats.  If a party  winds up with less than 3.5% of the popular vote, it does not make it into the Knesset and its votes are dispersed proportionately.  Netanyahu is hoping that this "Otzma-Noam" coalition makes it into the Knesset, since it would almost certainly support him.  So in this "Pro-Netanyahu" camp, early predictions put his potential coalition at between 41 and 53.  There are still more than 6 weeks to go, so a great deal can change.

Of course, Netanyahu would still need between 8 and 20 seats to put together a  coalition based on these numbers.  Where would that come from?  There are two more  right wing parties.

"Yamina" is a right wing party led by Naftali Bennett.  Yamina has been trying to outflank Netanyahu on the right.  It is crowded territory since it is also occupied by two other parties.  From interviews that I have seen, Yamina does not rule out joining a Netanyahu-led coalition, even though Bennett has Prime-Ministerial aspirations himself.  Nevertheless, they are predicted to get between 10 and 13 seats.  If they were to join Netanyahu, that could  get Likud to between 51 and 66.  Depending on actual numbers, that could be enough to form a very right wing government.

The other right wing party running is Gideon Saar's "New Hope" party which is a split-off from the  Likud.  This is the first election in which New Hope will be running.  Its leader has vowed not to enter a coalition with Netanyahu and has signed a live televised pledge to confirm his intentions.  But, of course, Israelis all remember the last election.  The previous  leader of the Labour party, Amir Peretz had vowed that he would  not join Netanyahu.  He had a large bushy  moustache that  was his trademark image.  He shaved  it as part of a "read my lips" promise not to join Netanyahu.  But shortly after the election, he joined in exchange for a cabinet position....He is now no longer the leader of the Labour party - or even a member.  

Saar is a very different candidate and has much more support  than Peretz had.  But ultimately, his agenda is very similar to Netanyahu's - much closer to Netanyahu than Peretz was.  He supports a continued expansion of the  settlements.  He is happy to enter a  coalition with the ultra-Orthodox.  He has, at times, defended  Netanyahu against some of Netanyahu's criminal charges.  In short, the only real difference is that he claims that is "not-corrupt" and is willing to put the country's needs ahead of his own.  Saarry but I have a hard time seeing it.  I believe that if Saar's only hope of being in the government is with a Netanyahu led coalition, he will make that decision even though he may negotiate a better deal than Gantz signed.  Saar's party is running at between 11 and 16 estimated seats, though I sense that their support could decrease between now and the election.

So at this  point, it looks like Netanyahu could have potential coalition members of between 62 and 80 assuming that he can leverage Yamina and Saar against each other, or get them both to join.  One of these options seems likely.

All that being said, the numbers can still change quite a bit.  These are, after all, only polls.

The leader of the opposition group is now Yair Lapid, still heading the Yesh Atid ("there is a Future") party.   Lapid's party seems to have some increasing momentum and is running at between 14 and 17 seats.   The party still has room to grow but there is a great deal of antagonism towards Lapid, especially among the Ultra-Orthodox and even many in the Orthodox sector.  For the last election, Lapid ran with Benny Gantz of the Blue and White Party.  Together, the two parties  received more than 30 seats.  But Gantz's half  of the party cut a deal with Netanyahu, joined the government and left the merged party.  As a result, the remaining part of Blue and White, led by Gantz, is polling at between 0 and 5 seats down from about 15.  They have been eviscerated since Gantz went against his whole raison d'etre and  joined Netanyahu.  Lapid, who refused to join Bibi and will continue to refuse, has kept his party's support.  He has also retained much more support from the public than Gantz.

The right wing secular party Yisrael Beitenu, led by Avigdor Lieberman is polling at 6-8 seats.  This party could  join Lapid or Saar but has said it will not join a Netanyahu  government.  It has held out  now for 3 elections so there is no reason to assume that they will fold.

Two left wing parties, Labour and Meretz are running at between 10 and 14 seats total.   Labour has had a resurgence. It has elected a woman as its  leader, the only Israeli party with a woman at the helm.  Merav Michaeli promptly held democratic elections for  the Labour slate and staked  out more traditional Labour-supported positions.  Under her leadership, the party has been growing and could rise much higher than its current polling numbers of 5 to 9 seats.  Labour will certainly not join Netanyahu but could  join Lapid or Saar if either have viable options to cobble a governing coalition together, provided  that  the Labour party can extract a reasonable  price for its support.

Meretz is a left wing secular party with focus on equality.  It has remained constant at about 5 seats and would also be willing to join Lapid or Saar  under the right conditions.  Meretz will definitely not join a Netanyahu led government.

Adding all of these numbers up, as of now, it appears that a centre-left coalition could cobble together between 35 and 40 seats.  If they were to add in the "New Hope Party" that could get them to between 50 and 55 seats.  Still short of being able to form a government. 

Rounding out the list of parties - we now have a fracture in the Arab parties.  In the last three elections, they ran as a coalition and received as many as 16 seats.  They have now splintered into two camps - one with estimates of 0-4 seats, the other with estimate of between 8 and 12.  The real issue is whether the Arab parties could  join the left-Centre coalition to string  together more than 61 and block Netanyahu.  Hard to say, though it is possible with the current  numbers.  It may all depend on what Saar wants to do with his New Hope.

Netanyahu has been courting the 4 seat Arab bloc and has met with its leader on several occasions.  He may even be hoping that these 4 will support his far right wing coalition bloc and enable him to get to 61 with Arab support.  This would be an incredibly cynical position to take since Netanyahu railed against the possibility of a left-centre coalition after the last election, which would have required the support of the  Arab parties.  Netanyahu called this type of government illegitimate, since it didn't have a "Jewish majority."  

There is one more centrist party called the "Economic Party" which is also running as an anti-Bibi party.  But they are currently not projected to pass the minimum threshold.  Led by three economics professors, they are confident that they will get between 5 and 8 seats and hope to focus on fixing the Israeli economy.  Hard to predict where they will wind up.

In short, after the next election, Saar may face the same choice that Benny Gantz had - either  make a deal with the Arab parties and somehow get to more than 61, make a deal with Netanyahu or call  yet another election.  Given that Saar is somewhat more to the right politically  than Gantz, it seems to me unlikely that he would enter a coalition deal with the Arab parties.  Much more likely that he would enter  an agreement with Netanyahu, despite his written pledge - if Netanyahu can get to 61 or more with his support.   

I have written more  than I planned about this, but it is all still premature.  We will have to watch polling numbers and see if anything changes between  now and March 23, 2021.  If the election were  held today, based on current numbers, I think Netanyahu would be  able to form another  government.  But things  could change drastically so the  next 7 weeks or so will be very interesting, especially if the economic party  and/or the Labour party can pick up seats at expense of Likud support.

Netanyahu's Trial

A short note to mention that Netanyahu's criminal trial is scheduled to resume tomorrow.  He is facing a variety of charges including bribery, corruption and breach of trust.  The trial has been delayed several times at Netanyahu's request for a variety of reasons - including the change of legal counsel, the political situation, Covid-19 and any number of other reasons.  His team has indicated that he will ask for another delay of the  trial  until after the  coming election. Of course, Netanyahu  is hoping that he can delay the matter until after the election and form a right wing coalition that will agree to a retroactive immunity bill.  There is a chance that a government made up of Likud, Yamina, Otzma and the two ultra religious parties would agree to this request but it is not clear at all, as of today, that this group alone could get to 61 seats and form a government.

If the trial does proceed, it will be a  fascinating legal and political event.  It is bound to be heated, dramatic and thoroughly entertaining - quite a spectacle.  From a legal perspective, I am very much looking forward to it. That being said, I doubt that it will ever take place - or at least, that it will not be completed.  In my view, it is likely to end  in one  of three ways - politically - with the retroactive immunity bill; legally with some type of plea-bargain deal; or hybrid politically/legally with a pre-emptive pardon from the President of Israel as part of a political/legal deal.  Based on the content of the various charges and Netanyahu's defences, it seems to me highly unlikely that he would take his chances with the defences he has put forward all the way through a trial.  But I guess we will find out soon enough - or perhaps over the next few years if Netanyahu's defence team can continue to drag things out as long as possible.

Other Notes

It is also Super Bowl Sunday today.  That means watching the game from 1:30 a.m. to about 5 a.m. Israel time.  I am up for it  - since it could be a fantastic game.   Two  very exciting teams.   Not too many people are interested in joining me at that time - and especially in the midst of  a pandemic - even though many of us have been vaccinated.  I'll be lucky if one or two other family members stay awake.  Also doubtful that there would be anywhere  to order a pizza from at that time - or that anyone would want to eat pizza at that time anyways, especially Israeli pizza, which for the most part is not particularly good.  In fairness, there are some decent places nearby that we have discovered during this lockdown year - so I guess pizza is still an option, as long as we order early and reheat it at half time.

We watched the Toronto Maple Leafs play last night.  That also started at about  2 a.m. Israel time.  The Leafs are off to an exciting start and have made some great line-up  changes.  They are  only playing other Canadian teams this year - so the competition level is not that high.    It is quite a challenge  to follow ice hockey here in Israel but every now and then I stay up to watch a game.  More so during the playoffs.

Overall, I haven't really been watching that much in the way of sports this year - other than  football, which will officially end today for a while.   I have no real interest in Israeli soccer or basketball - other than international competitions in which the Israeli national team is participating.  

Ben Gurion Airport is officially closed to most  travel until at least February 28th.  Air Canada has indicated that it is now only scheduling flights starting again on March 6, 2021.  These dates could still change.   But with the combination of new Canadian travel restrictions  and Israeli airport restrictions, it looks like those  of us who spend time in both Canada and Israel will be grounded for the foreseeable future.  

I wish everyone the best of health and will probably put together at least one more blog before the end of the month.