Showing posts with label Bibi. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Bibi. Show all posts

Sunday, September 5, 2021

The Netanyahu Years by Ben Caspit: A review

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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!

 









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.  

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

LSAT Style Israel Election Puzzle 2021 and Other News


The Israeli election will be held on March 23, 2021.  To get you ready for the election, I have come up with an LSAT  style problem that you could work on starting next week.  This problem may be so complex, depending on actual results, that I am giving you a head start so that you can begin working on it even before the election results are formally announced.

Just a refresher about the problem style.  To get into law school, you have to write the LSAT.   One of the sections is a series of logic questions.  Something like this:

There are 8 people at a table, A through H.  

A hates B and C and would prefer to sit near F.

D will only sit between B and E and or between A and G.

C must sit directly across from E.

F and G must sit at least two seats apart from each other.

The table is a rectangle with 3 seats on each side and 1 on each end.

Which of the following statements is true?  (I'm not going to list all the statements). (Eg. F can sit next to E, G must eat Sushi, B cannot sit across from H, etc., True or False...)

I did reasonably well on the LSAT but that was a few years  ago.  Okay, many years ago...

Here is the more complicated 2021 Israeli election version....

The Israeli Knesset has 120 seats and you need a combination of at least 61 elected Knesset members to form a government.

A.   The Sephardi Ultra-Religious Shas party (Estimated to get 7 or 8) will only agree to a government formed by Likud (Bibi - estimated at 28-32).  They will absolutely not agree to go with Yesh Atid (Lapid)(Estimated at 18-22) or Yisrael Beitenu (Lieberman) (Estimated at 7-8);

B.  The right wing New Hope party (Saar) (Estimated at between 7 and 9) will absolutely not go with Likud.  However, they will go with just about anyone else other than the Arab parties (or maybe they will).

C.  The right wing secularist party Yisrael Beitenu will not go with either of the two Ultra-Religious parties, Shas or United Torah Judaism (Estimated at 7-8) but will go with just about any other parties, other than the Arab parties (or maybe they will).

D.  The centrist Yesh Atid (Lapid) will go with any other parties other than Likud and the far right Religious Zionist Party (Ben-Gvir) (Estimated at 4-5 if they make it in to the Knesset).  

E. The left wing Labour Party (Michaeli) (Estimated at 5-7) and left wing secularist Meretz (Horowitz) (Estimated at 4-5 if they pass) will not go with Likud or the Religious Zionist party.  They will recommend Lapid and they might agree to go with Yamina (Bennett) (Estimated at 9 to 12) or New Hope.

F. The far right wing Yamina party will not go with Meretz or the two Arab parties (estimated at 9 to 13 and 4-5 respectively if the 4-5 group passes).  Yamina will not agree to join a government led by Yesh Atid.  They don't rule out joining a government  led by New Hope or Likud.  They don't rule out "allowing" Yesh Atid to join a government that they  lead.

G. The extreme right wing Religious Zionist Party will recommend Likud and wants to join a Likud-led government.  Bibi says they can be in the government but not get any cabinet posts.  Lapid, Meretz, Labour, and the Arab Parties have ruled out joining a government with the Religious Zionist Party.  The Religious Zionist Party says that it will not join any government that is supported by the Arab Parties.

H. The Ultra-Religious, Ashkenazi, United Torah Judaism (Estimated at 6-8) will recommend Likud.  They might join New Hope, Yamina or even Yesh Atid with the right offer.  

I. The centrist Blue and White Party (Ganz) (estimated at 4-5 if they pass the threshold) say they will not go with Likud again....and that they will recommend Yesh Atid to form the government.  But for the right price, they might change their minds.  Though they swear they  won't.

J.  The Arab parties are unlikely to join any potential coalition formally.  However, they might support a government explicitly or tacitly from the outside or perhaps this could be one of the first times that they actually join the government.  As listed above, some of the parties including Yamina and Religious  Zionists insist that they will not join a government that is in any way reliant on the support of the Arab parties.

Starting on Tuesday night or early Wednesday next week, you can take all of this and try to figure out how to come up with a governing coalition agreement that has at least 61 members.  You have four weeks though you can apply for an extension of three more weeks.  You can offer any combination of cabinet posts, legislative promises, cash for constituents, future government posts and, pretty much any other enticements that  you think of to get the different parties to change their positions on who they are willing to sit with.  Remember, you don't necessarily have to commit  your promises to writing and, even if you do, you certainly don't have to honour them all later.

Ready...Go!.

In other news, an anonymous group installed a statute of Bibi in central Tel-Aviv, looking like Golem from Lord of the Rings....Some have suggested it is a picture of Bibi in a prison cell. 

No one has claimed credit and the statute was removed, fairly quickly.  It is not the first time that protest artists have unveiled statues of Bibi.   I'm not going to list all of the different interpretations that have been suggested of this particular sculpture.

In other news, restaurants across Israel are opened for business, the infection rate is rapidly declining, the rate of people becoming seriously ill is rapidly declining and the vast majority of new cases, including those who have become seriously ill, are people who were not vaccinated.  Things are looking very promising as the vaccine rollout continues.  This may translate to a very optimistic outlook for North America and other parts of the world that are properly administering the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.  Not sure that these results  will apply to people innoculated with the other available vaccines or in cases where governments administer vaccines without following the proper timelines for doing so.

Pesach is 10 days away.  It is unusual this year with a Saturday night start which makes things that much more difficult for people who observe the holiday.  All of the dishes will need to be changed over one day early on Friday - and bread eating becomes an issue on Friday night and Saturday morning.  Although it is permissible, it gets a bit tricky where the hametz (leavened products) have already been removed from the house and symbolically burned.  I suppose we can eat some bread on the balcony just before the meal....

As you know, Passover is observed differently in Israel - only one Seder instead of two.  As of now, it looks like many people are planning to have large family gatherings, perhaps even "pre-Covid" size  and that plan is likely to be blessed by Bibi himself, along, of course, with his ultra-religious coalition partners, unless infection rates start increasing rapidly between now and next week.

I couldn't resist mentioning that one of the parties running in this election, the Shas party, has been using this lovely slogan "Choose God, Vote for the Shas Party."  They have also been proclaiming that it is a "Mitzvah" (a good deed, according to Jewish law) to vote for Shas.  The accompanying picture for these campaign slogans is one of the  former Rabbis and inspiration for Shas, Rabbi Ovadia Yoseph who died in 2013.  In Israel, we are used to seeing pictures of the deceased Lubavitch Rebbe, Schneerson, with the slogan "Long Live the Messiah," plastered on buses and buildings.  But Shas seems to have outdone the Lubavitch and actually linked Rabbi Ovadia Yoseph to God rather than to a mere messiah.  

I guess we will see soon enough if the outstretched hand of the Lord will ensure that Shas and Bibi are able to form a government together and bless them all with "Get Out of Jail Free" cards so that they don't have to waste valuable time facing ongoing criminal proceedings.  It would indeed be ironic if the Lord were to bless the secular parties instead of the Ultra-Orthodox after such earnest supplications, but I guess His plan will only be revealed in the coming weeks, maybe months.  Either way, it is worth remembering that Pesach is the "Holiday of Freedom,"  which in this case could mean freedom for Bibi or alternatively, freedom for Israel from Bibi.  Israeli voters, observant and non-observant, believers and non-believers, Jewish and non-Jewish, will soon decide.  

I will try to write one or two more  blogs over the next week or so with all of the exciting election news.  Wishing  everyone the best of health and all the best in preparing for Pesach or other upcoming holidays that you may be celebrating.









Thursday, March 11, 2021

Pre-Passover Blog - Election Analysis and Vaccine Update

 

This picture was taken earlier this week.  Just after Purim ended, the Matzahs arrived - signalling the pending arrival of Passover (Pesach).  Stores here don't seem to go as crazy as the stores in Toronto with Kosher sections.  They don't cover the shelves with paper or otherwise close off the "Kosher  for Passover " areas hermetically.  But they do carry quite a variety of products.  And just as Pesach arrives, they actually seal off all of the  non-Pesach products so you can't even buy them for 7 days unless you go to an Arab area or a part of Israel in which the stores are willing to take their chances with law enforcement.  It doesn't really affect us since we observe the holiday but some people go out of their way during  Pesach to drive to a nearby Arab down and have some pita and humus.  For the most part, the only "pita" you can get in many parts of Israel during Pesach is made with potato flour (sometimes corn flour for the kitnyot eaters) and it may not be particularly tasty.

This year, as Pesach is about to arrive, we have quite a bit going on in Israel.  As you may know, we have an election scheduled for March 23, 2021.  It will be the fourth election in the past 3 years and, if the polls are to be believed, it is unlikely to result in a stable government.  So we may face a fifth election soon enough.

Election News and Analysis

There are 14 parties runnning for election in the 120-seat Israeli Knesset.  Israel has a proportional election system in which everyone simply votes for the party of their choice.  There are no ridings, districts or other divisions of the country.  The cut-off percentage for making it into the  Knesset is 3.5%, which ensures that a party has 4 seats if it makes it into the Knesset.  If a party that is running winds up with less than that, their votes are simply allocated on a percentage basis to the parties that made it in.

If you would like to follow along with all of the latest polls, this Wikipedia link shows the latest poll results.  According to most of the latest polls, 13 parties are likely to make it into the Knesset.   The question is - what happens the day after the election with such a wide variety of parties?

At  this point in time, Prime Minister Netanyahu ("Bibi") and his Likud party are  the clear front-runners with most polls estimating that they will get between 28 and 32 seats.  After that, the fun begins.  To form a government, the party must come up with a coalition of at least 61 seats to have the confidence of the Knesset.  

Bibi can count on the support of both of Israel's ultra-religious parties - Shas and United Torah Judaism.  Both parties have pledged their eternal loyalty to Bibi in exchange for promises to fund yeshivas, support the ultra-religious establishment and ensure that the ultra-religious have key cabinet portfolios.  Shas has been running campaign adds that compare Bibi to the Messiah and claim that a vote for Shas is a vote for the Kadosh Baruch Hu (a vote for God).  These two parties combined are likely to get between 14 and 16 seats.  So that means that Bibi has between 42 and 48, depending on how things go.

After that, things get a bit murky.  There is a new, merged, far-right national religious party running, the Religious Zonist party ("RZ").  They are running close to the cut-off line in most polls but if they make it into the Knesset, they could wind up with 4 or 5 seats and they will happily support a Likud government.

This means that Bibi  could now be at between 42 and 53, depending on whether the RZ party makes it in and the general results.  Here, the options become challenging but not insurmountable.

One party that  is polling at between 10 and 13 seats is the "Yemina" ("Right") party, led by Naftali Bennett (a fellow Ra'anana resident).  (Though he lives on the "other side of the tracks," having made his fortune by selling shares of a successful high-tech company).  Bennett has stated that he would like to replace Bibi and become the Prime Minister.  At the same time, his attacks on Netanyahu have not been particularly vociferous.  His party is self-described as a solid right wing party - nationalist, pro-religious, free-market and in favour of signficant changes to the judicial system in Israel to limit the power of the Israeli Supreme Court. For the most part, his party is a natural ally of the Likud party and is likely to join Likud under the right conditions.

This means that with all of the above, Likud could be at between 52 and 66.  If they are over 61, they will almost certainly form a government under  Netanyahu's leadership.  Such a government would be made up of Likud, Yamina, RZ and the two ultra-religious parties.  It would be one of the most right wing governments in Israel's history.  It is likely  that this  government would agree to pass legislation granting Bibi immunity from his ongoing criminal proceedings.  It would also proceed with various right wing policies dealing with the Palestinians, issues of religion and state, limiting the power  of the courts to conduct judicial review  proceedings and  many other areas.  One commentator stated that this type  of government would put Israel somewhere between Hungary and Turkey - on a path towards fascism but not quite there.  Perhaps that anyalysis might be a bit extreme.  But from my perspective, this type of government would be very frightening.

If this collection of right  wing political parties winds up at between 52 and 59, things get really interesting.  They may be unresolvable and simply lead to another election.  But  again,  the actual numbers will be key.

If this "bloc," including Bennett winds up with 56 or less, they will have a very difficult time forming a  governmment. They would have to convince one of the other left or centre parties to  join the bloc, even though the other  parties have all vowed that they would not do so.  Bibi's options here would include convincing a 4 or 5 seat Blue and White party to join him, the "New Hope Party" which is made up of  former Likud members or, perhaps the Labour party.  Bibi has a formidable knack for working these situations out.  He would  play the different  parties against  each other and do whatever it takes  to get to 61.  Ironically,  he may  even  find a way to rely on a small 4 or 5 seat Arab party "Ra'am" that could make it in to the Knesset.  It is hard to imagine that  such a hard-core, far right government would agree to be beholden to a small anti-Zionist Arab party but Bibi is definitely willing to do whatever it takes to stay in power.

If he is able to do this and  create a coalition but  with parties  other than the "right-wing" parties, he may not be able to get his immunity bill passed.  And the other parties might temper the right wing agenda.   So this may be a slightly better alternative than the first scenario.  

Given the current polls one of these two scenarios seems to be the most likely outcome of the coming election.

The chance of the "anti-Bibi" parties  forming a government looks slim.  The Yesh Atid party is the current leader of this bloc and is running at between 18 and 21 seats.  They could, perhaps, count on the New  Hope party to join them, which could  add 9 to 12.  Add in the Labour party (4-7), the Israel Our Home  Party (7-9).  That all adds up to between 38 and 49.  If the left wing Meretz party passes the threshold with 4 or even 5 seats, that could get this bloc to 53 or 54.  Maybe they could also add in Blue and White, if it passes the threshold, with 4 or 5 seats.  On the low side, all of this only adds up to 46 seats.   On the high side, it adds up to 57.   But some of these parties are competing against  each other for votes, so it is unlikely that the number  would be as high as 57.  

Assuming this  "left-centre bloc"  obtains between 50 and 55, there would be two possible scenarios for forming a government.  One would be to rely on the support of the Arab party - the "Joint List" as supporting the  government from the  outside or as actually joining the government.  It is not clear that all of these bloc members would agree to this arrangement. In particular, the New Hope party may not agree.  

The other possibility would be to convince the Yamina  party to join the group.  As discussed above, they are idealogically much more  comfortable with Bibi.  Bennett seems to feel that he can offer his party's  support  to this bloc in exchange for  an  agreement that  he becomes the Prime Minister.  But negotiations over policies in this scenario would be extremely complicated and in my view, close to impossible.  Alternatively, he could  agree to join  a Lapid-led government in exchange for getting some fairly senior posts for himself and his senior party members.  This all seems unlikely unless Bibi's numbers are low enough to convince Bennett that he has no choice.

Lastly, there is a distinct chance that the split will be close to 50-50  and  no one  will be able to form a government.  We will then face the prospect of several weeks, if not months, of negotaitions, all while Israel is led by another  interim caretaker government.  Unfortunately, this sounds like a distinct possibility.

To add to all of this, the election is just three days before Pesach.  Everything closes down in Israel for  Pesach.  We  may not even have all of the official results of the election by the start of the holiday.  Buckle up - we are in for a very turbulent  period.

Positive News - Vaccine  Effectivenesss

On the positive side, a large percentage of the Israeli population has now been vaccinated with both doses of the Pfizer vaccine.  The numbers of newly infected Israelis are dropping rapidly.  More importantly,  the numbers of people  who are  becoming seriously ill are also dropping.  Things have been opening up since Purim (Feb 25, 2021). Even after about two weeks  of many places opening up, the new infection rate has not skyrocketed as some predicted it might.

This past Sunday, Israel opened up restaurants.  Outdoor seating for those who have not been vaccinated  and indoor seating only for those who have a "green pass" to show that they have been jabbed.  Concert halls, sporting events, wedding halls and other event venues are all opening up for those who have a green pass.  I guess we will see over the next few weeks if the vaccine is as effective as it seems to be so far.

Bibi is putting  all of his eggs in the vaccine basket  for this political campaign.  If the rate of infection continues to dwindle, he will try to take credit for getting Israelis vaccinated ahead of most other countries and argue that this is something only he could have done.  Bibi will say that nothing else matters  - his corruption, the economic policies of the past year or two, the ultra-orthodox-secular tensions, and many other difficulties.  Instead, he will focus on two areas - one is the vaccines and the other is the peace-deal breakthroughs that Israel has had with the UAE, Bahrain and  Sudan.  If Israelis buy what Bibi is selling, he  could wind up at 35-40 seats which would allow  him to form a new government quite easily.  So far the polls suggest  that this has not happened but  we still have almost two weeks to go.

I will try to put together at least  one more blog just before the election and perhaps a few afterwards, in between getting ready for Pesach.

Wishing everyone the best of health!












Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Final Blog of 2020 - Covid, Elections, Sports and a Few Other Items

As 2020 draws to a close (good riddance), I thought I would squeeze in one more blog - a pot pourri of  selected issues related to Israel, on some of the topics that I have been writing regularly.  There are many things to discuss but I don't want to be too repetitive.  So here goes...

Covid-19

In some ways,  I think it is fair to say that Israel is in the midst of a good news/bad news period in dealing with the pandemic.  On the one hand, the virus has been spreading rapidly, including the "British mutation," the "South African mutation" and now the "Indian mutation."  There have been more than 3,500 new cases a day recently  and 10-15 people have been dying daily, if not more.   This is all, of course, the bad news side of things.  

As a result, the Israeli government instituted a 3 week partial lockdown starting on December 21, 2020.  Unlike the first lockdown, public schools have remained open.  Non-essential retail establishments are closed and restaurants are permitted "delivery only" but no take-out service.  The airport has remained open and Israel has not instituted testing for all arrivals.  The government attempted to institute a mandatory quarantine plan in government-sponsored hotels but that soon fell apart.  It is fairly clear that at least some of the out of control spread of the virus has been the result of travellers arriving back in Israel and failing to follow any proper quarantine rules.  This has been the case since the initial outbreak in March, 2020 and the government has been unwilling to take necessary steps to stop it, largely for political  reasons.

On the good news side of the ledger, the Israeli government has ramped up its vaccination program to the tune of more than 120,000 vaccines a day.  For now, Israelis who are over 60 years of age, front line health care workers and those with extremely serious medical conditions are the only ones being vaccinated.  

Israel, as you may know, has a public  health care system.  It is somewhat like the Canadian system,  though instead of one "OHIP" - there are a few different Health Care organizations - and Israelis can choose which one they wish to join.  They are all under the umbrella of the Ministry of Health, so they are each funded by the government.   There are additional user fees and optional enhanced plans - though these tend to be priced quite reasonably.  

So it is these health care providers - Maccabi, Clalit, Leumit and Meuhedet, that have set up stations across the country and are using smart phone apps, web sites, and their computerized systems to arrange appointments and roll out the vaccines as quickly as possible.  By all accounts, it seems to be working quite efficiently.  The providers have set aside the second vaccination dose for each person that receives the shot and have booked a second date automatically 21 days after the first dose.  

Government estimates are that more than 80% of Israelis in these higher risk groups will have received their second dose by mid-February 2021.  The general population is expected to start receiving the vaccine within the next week or two, with the government currently hoping to have close to 50% of all Israelis fully vaccinated by the end of March, 2021.  It sounds optimistic, but given that the providers are managing to vaccinate more than 120,000 people a day, it seems quite possible.  

It remains to be seen whether the vaccine is as effective as touted, how it will deal with new mutations and how long the inoculation will last.  We also don't know yet whether the vaccine will prevent people from spreading the virus to others.  But there is certainly a feeling in Israel that we are nearing the end, even though there are still some very difficult months ahead.

Politics

As you may know and as I mentioned in my last post, Israel is heading to the polls for the 4th time in the past 2 years on March 23, 2021, just a few days before Pesach (Passover).  

If I were to try to cover all of the different political developments, I think I would need to write several columns a week, if not daily.  New political parties are sprouting up like weeds and it is far too difficult to try and make any predictions at this point.

But here are a  few of the highlights.

One of Likud's most senior members, Gideon Saar has formed a new party called "New Hope" and he has taken several Likud members with him.  Reported polls have estimated between 15 and 20 seats for New  Hope though I think it is far too early to start counting these  votes.  Saar has staked out his ground as a "solid right wing" alternative to the Likud led by  Netanyahu.  As far as I can tell, this seems to mean just about all of the same policies as the Likud without the alleged corruption.  Saar has vowed that he will not form a government with Bibi but we have heard that before from the Blue and White Party.  I'm skeptical.

Saar joins "Yamina" - the "Right," led by Naftali Bennett in a reasonably crowded field of right-wing nationalist parties.  

It is probably fair to include the Blue and White party in that camp as well, since the left and centrist members of that party split away when Blue and White entered into a coalition government with Likud in March 2020.  Yesterday Ganz announced that he will remain on as party leader and that he is  not giving up.  Polls show that the Blue and White party is running at about 5 seats and is flirting with coming in below the minimum electoral threshold.  Most commentators seem to agree that Gantz was thoroughly humiliated by Netanyahu but, for now, Gantz has elected to stay on.

Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai

In another development yesterday, the mayor of Tel-Aviv, Ron Huldai, also held a press conference and unveiled his new party called "The Israelis."  Huldai's party is intended to offer a bit more of a left-centre approach than Blue and White.  Politically, it would probably fall somewhere between Yesh Atid and Meretz, though it remains to be seen how Huldai's party differentiates itself from those other two left-centre parties.  I have not yet seen any poll predictions as to how many seats The Israelis would get but they might make things interesting.

There are other developments as well, including key politicians leaving different parties and joining some of these new ones but I am not going to get into all of the details.

The long and the short of it is that Bibi is facing several challenges from the right, the centre and left.  Most of these challengers have stated, quite unequivocally, that they will not agree to an "immunity bill" that gets Bibi out of his legal problems.  They have also stated that they will not enter a coalition agreement with Bibi and his Likud party but I think the election results will really determine whether that promise can be upheld.

All of that being said, there is lots of time between now and the cut off date for new parties to enter the election campaign, which does not occur until mid-February I believe.   So the only thing that seems reasonably certain is that there will be many new developments between now and the election.  As of now, it looks likely that Israel will elect a fairly right wing government, with or without Bibi, but a lot can change in a few months.  It does, however, seem like quite a long shot that Bibi will be able to get a "Get out of Jail Free" Card in the form of an immunity law.  In the meantime, his criminal trial is scheduled to continue in February 2021.

Sports

There are a few interesting sports stories that are worth mentioning.

One of the big sports stories in Israel in 2020 is in NBA basketball.  The Washington Wizards drafted Danny Avdija 9th overall in this year's NBA draft.  This was huge news in Israel since 6 foot 9 inch Avdija was born in Israel on Kibbutz Beit Zera.  Very few Israeli basketball players have made the NBA and he is the highest drafted Israeli ever.

Many people have been staying up until the wee hours to watch Washington Wizard games even though cheering for the pitiful Wizards has been a disconcerting proposition to date.  Through four games, all losses, Avdija has averaged 7.5  points a game and 5 rebounds.  Not earth shattering but it is early.  I confess that I jumped on the bandwagon and watched the first game but since I am not a huge basketball fan, I have only done this  once.  If I were to watch middle of the night basketball in Israel, it would probably be my home town Raptors, though I understand they are also off to an equally dismal start.  Generally, I tend to save the basketball watching  for the playoffs, if at all.  

A second big sports story is in the world of soccer, or football, depending on your preference.  As you might have seen, UAE Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Nahyan bought 50% of the Beitar Jerusalem Football Club.  The deal was announced soon after the peace deal between the UAE and Israel.

This is really quite fascinating.  Beitar is known for having  a very right wing fan base, who have, at times, chanted anti-Arab slogans at football matches.  They sing several vulgar songs at Beitar matches and have also been known to show up at pro-Bibi political rallies.  For years, Beitar had  no Muslim players on its side unlike many of the other teams in the Israeli league.  So it is quite remarkable that of all teams, the Sheikh has decided to purchase and rehabilitate this team, in the spirit of "Muslim-Jewish cooperation" as he puts it.  It will be really interesting to see how the fans react and how this all works out.


Lastly, on the sports side - is the world of ice hockey.  One of my friends sent me a link to an article that referred to a recent UAE-Israeli ice hockey match played  between the UAE Mighty Camels and the Bat Yam Chiefs.  I don't really recall seeing anything about it in the Israeli news but there is always hope that hockey will attract  more fans and  participants over time, especially with the relatively recent opening of a full size arena near Netanya.  And of course, it is nice to see yet another sign that the peace between Israel and the UAE may develop into the warmest peace deal yet between Israel and its Arab neighbours.   I guess we could say that the ice was broken quickly between these new peace partners.

As far as hockey goes, I have been staying up late to watch the World Junior Ice Hockey tournament.  These games have been on somewhere between 1 a.m. and 3:30 a.m. Israel time.  Three games, three big wins for Canada so far.   Canada has not faced stiff opposition yet so I look forward to seeing how they will play against Finland tomorrow night - and then in the  playoff round starting next week.  The World Junior Tournament is one of my favourite sports events to watch since you get to see so many future ice hockey stars trying to impress NHL scouts.  I am quite thankful to have a working VPN and streaming set-up.  It does take a toll on my sleeping patterns though.

Holidays

As I discussed in my last post, Chanuka is not a really big deal here, other than the ubiquitous donuts, and once Chanuka ends, everything is pretty much back to its normal schedule.

I thought  about the time-honoured tradition for American (and some Canadian)  Jews of eating Chinese food on Christmas Eve.  But it is really not a thing in Israel for several reasons.  For one, it is not a holiday here so everyone is simply on a regular schedule and does not have the time to get together that they have in North America, where everything is closed for the holiday.  

Secondly, and more challenging here is the difficulty of finding decent Chinese food. Although Israel has many different types of cuisine - including sushi and "pan-Asian" restaurants all over the country, there are very few decent Chinese restaurants and even fewer that are Kosher.  

That hasn't stopped me from trying to fill the void every now and then.  My hot and  sour  soup is pretty decent and I have made a range of other dishes.  But I think Chinese food is something that  is sorely lacking in Israel.  Perhaps an opportunity for a budding post-virus restauranteur?  Not me, that's for sure.

New Year's Eve here is known as "Silvester," named after Pope Silvester I.  Many Israelis celebrate with parties and festivities, though it is not an official holiday in Israel so everything is open as normal on New Year's Day.  Not sure what people will do this year in the midst of the pandemic but we happen to have some champagne choices on hand in case we want to go crazy...  

Food Developments

I couldn't let the year pass without commenting on something really interesting.  An Israeli company,  Aleph Farms, has been producing cell based meat grown from animal cells in a lab.  The company has been producing steaks and burgers.  No animal slaughter required.  

Another company, "Redefine Meat" has been producing 3D printed steaks which are made using digital models and food formulations but no actual animal products.  The steaks apparently have a very authentic taste. 

There are several other Israeli start ups also working in the meat alternative industry,  which is rapidly growing.  

Aleph Farms Alternative Meat
Many observant Jews are examining whether these products are to be considered Kosher, and if so whether they are meat, dairy or "pareve."  Questions also include what kind of supervision might be  required, and  whether the original cells have transformed into something else in the course of growth and production, such that they are no longer "meat."  Needless to say, these debates are likely to provide Rabbis and Yeshiva students across Israel and the Jewish world with a great deal of food for thought.


There's lots more to say but I will have to save some of it for 2021.  This has probably already been too long but I hope that you have found some of it to be interesting reading.

Best wishes for a happy and healthy 2021.