Showing posts with label Covid-19. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Covid-19. Show all posts

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.









Thursday, January 14, 2021

2021 - The Start of Some Changes in Israel?

Welcome to 2021.  In some places it is far from clear that we have turned a "new leaf" or left 2020 behind.  Given the recent political events in the U.S., the various Covid-19 mutations, the overburdened hospitals in so many places around the world, many people are wondering how to use the restart  button for this year.   Ctrl-alt-del doesn't seem to be working.

Here in Israel, we have begun the new Gregorian year with a mixture of political and health challenges, but also with a substantial measure of optimism.

On the one hand, the spread of Covid-19 has hit record highs, reaching up to 10,000 new cases a day last week and early this week.  Since the case load has been quite high for a while now, this is meant an increasingly high number of  Covid deaths, which tend to spike about 2 to 3 weeks after people are infected.  Numbers have reached 40-50 deaths a day, which is quite high for a country of only 9 million people.  

As a result of the growing numbers, Israel has instituted a third "shut down."  Once again, most workplaces are closed, other than those deemed essential.  Synagogues and other houses of worship are limited to 5 people inside with up to 10 outside.  Restaurants are offering delivery but are not supposed to be allowing "take-out" service.  Some places, like falafel shops, are allowing you to call from inside the drug store next door and ask to have your food delivered there.  This is apparently within the guidelines... Malls are closed, although the grocery stores, liquor stores, drug stores and  stores in a few other categories are still open.  

Government experts estimate that it may take 2-3 weeks to see the results of this lockdown.  This is the first lockdown in which Israel has now begun to insist that passengers leaving the country or arriving must be tested.  Up until now, surprisingly, this was not the case.

So we have roadblocks set up across the  country where police are stopping drivers and asking people where they are off to.  If your reason for travelling is not on the acceptable list, you can be fined 500 shekels (about $200 Cdn).  Permissible reasons for being out include grocery shopping (within a kilometre of your  home), drug store, getting vaccinated, getting tested for Covid-19, helping an elderly parent or grandparent and many others.  This has provided a great deal of fodder for Israeli comedy shows with parody skits of these interactions between police officers and people trying to come up with excuses quickly enough to avoid a fine.

Sometimes, as with so many other things, real life examples are sufficient comedic material themselves.  For example, a young Israeli was stopped earlier this week and told the officer that he was visiting his grandmother.  The officer asked for the name and plugged the name into a database.  Unfortunately, the grandmother had been dead for more than 2 years.  Nice try but that is definitely a fine!

Some people have decided to take their chances and disregard the rules entirely.  Police broke up a house party last week with more than 100 guests.  They were all fined 500 Shekels each and the owner was  fined 5,000.  But I understand that this is the case all around the world.  In fact, I would say that, for the most part, people in Israel are wearing masks when out, keeping distances in lines in supermarkets and  generally conscious of trying to follow the rules, or most of them.  Or some of them.

On the optimistic side, Israel has been a world leader in obtaining vaccines and rolling them out.  Israel has purchased significant quantities of vaccines from both Pfizer and Moderna, though far more from Pfizer.  Apparently, Israel offered to pay Pfizer significantly more per vaccine than the retail value, perhaps as much as three times the price.   Together with this agreement, Israel also signed a deal to provide Pfizer with information about the results of the vaccines, supposedly on a no-names basis. The exact terms of the deal have not been publicized.

The bottom line is that Israel began vaccinating its population en masse in late December.  For the most part, it has been quite orderly.  Vaccination stations were set up all around the country with big tents.  Appointments were available by phone, app, or web site.  At first, front line health  workers were vaccinated, followed by all those over 65 or people over 60 who were high risk.   Soon afterwards, the age was lowered to 60 officially (55 unofficially in many places).  

During this time period, Facebook and Whatsapp groups sprung up to help Israelis find vaccination sites.  There are a number of groups like "Vaccinations Between Friends" on  Whatsapp where Israelis who aren't in the current vaccination group can get information about which sites have "extras" on particular days so that they can show up and get in line.  Tens of thousands of Israelis have managed to get vaccinated this way.

The country's medical system quickly ramped up the vaccination rate to 150,000 to 200,000 a day.  According to recent estimates, more than 2 million people in Israel (including yours truly) have received their first dose.  Yesterday marked the start of the rollout of second doses.  At the same time, the qualifying age was lowered to 50, with talk that it will be reduced to 45 by early next week.

Many people who have received the second dose are reporting various symptoms that last for several hours or even  a day or two.  But for the most part, more serious reactions have been quite limited.  It remains to be  seen whether the rollout of the vaccine will dramatically change the pandemic situation here as expected and if so, how quickly.  The Israeli government has indicated that all citizens who wish to be vaccinated will be able to get the vaccine by the end of March (both doses).  Earlier this week, one Cabinet minister clarified that they meant everyone would have the first dose by the end of March and the second dose by late April, 2021.  

Israeli medical experts have reported that the vaccine provides significant protection starting at 14 days after the first dose, reducing the possibility of infection by more than 50%.  Both Pfizer and Moderna have estimated a success rate of more than 95% after the second dose.  I guess we will see shortly if these estimates are accurate.

The Israeli government has indicated that it is rolling out a plan to issue "Green Vaccination Photo ID cards" that look like drivers licences or health care cards - for all Israelis who have received the vaccination. These cards will be provided approximately 7 days after the second dose.  Israelis with these Green cards will be able to fly outside the country, return to Israel from a trip without isolation, go to concerts, sports events, restaurants etc.,.  I'm waiting to see whether other countries will recognize or  honour these cards - assuming that they are actually provided as planned.

So the optimistic news in Israel is that with such an aggressive rollout of the vaccine, Israel may be able to rid itself of the pandemic by May or June, assuming that the vaccine actually works.   If this all goes as  anticipated, it will be very good news for other countries as well and the world may really be able to turn the corner by mid to late 2021.  As long as Pfizer and Moderna can keep up with the demand for vaccines.  

Israeli Politics

I will save most of the Israeli election news for a later blog.  As you may know, we have an election scheduled for March 23, 2021, just days before Pesach (Passover).  Prime Minister Netanyahu is facing new challenges to his right and to his left although there still may be a consolidation of some of these parties between now and election day.   Candidates and political parties  actually have until early February to finalize their slates so it would be worthwhile to weigh in at that point once we see what the political landscape looks like.

Netanyahu's criminal trial is set to continue in early February 2021.  He is still hoping that he can get a 61 seat Knesset majority and pass a retroactive immunity bill to avoid facing these charges.  

Interestingly, or perhaps there are other adverbs, Netanyahu has embarked on a program of visiting Arab Israeli cities and asking Arab Israelis to vote for his Likud party.  Apparently, he is willing to offer some goodies in exchange for support of his immunity bill.  Now this is somewhat surprising since Netanyahu has spent the past several years attacking Arab Israeli politicians and making every effort to exclude them from any coalition.  In fact, he has argued that any government that relies on Arab Israeli support for its majority would be illegitimate.  How ironic would it be if he were to rely on exactly this support to try and get a retroactive immunity bill passed?  In any event - more politics in future blogs.

Lighter Notes

On the entertainment site, as you might have heard, "Shtisel" has returned for a third season.  Israeli TV station Yes Drama (Channel 5) has been showing the episodes on Sunday nights at 9 p.m. Israel time and  they are also showing up on youtube  the next day, though without translations.  You might need a VPN to watch them.  We have been enjoying the show.  I think it has been 3  episodes so far - not sure how many there are in the series.  In case you haven't seen it, I believe that the first two seasons are still on Netflix. 

Israel also has a variety of comedy shows that focus on political satire, especially impersonations of current politicians.  "Eretz Nehederet" ("A Wonderful Country") is one of these shows.  Many of its episodes are available on Youtube, some with subtitles.  It can be very funny, though it is hit or miss, much like Saturday Night Live.

Another show that has been increasing in popularity is called Zehu Zeh ("This is it").  The show is made up of a comedy troupe of five septuagenarians - who had a very popular comedy show back in the  70s.  They decided to get back  together and make a comeback which has included short satirical skits, impersonations and musical pieces.  I thought I would include a new release. Just last week they decided to put out an original song written by one of their colleagues and produced by a 30 something music  manager that they hired. 

It is called "The Pizza in Your Heart" - written about the search for the perfect slice of pizza and what happens when you finally find it - or how disappointing it can be to realize that maybe the slice that you dreamt of is not what you were really looking for after all.  It's all very tongue in cheek.  Although the idea might sound a bit cheesy, I think it's quite  fun. (Sorry about that).

Meanwhile, we are getting  some nice rainy  weather over the next few days, so I will have to postpone barbecuing.  I can't complain because it is still close to 20c outside.  I was happy to watch the Toronto Maple Leafs'  season opener last night (even though it was on at about 2 a.m. local time).  It was an overtime win for the boys in blue.  And I'm looking forward to NFL playoff weekend, especially the chance to see the Buffalo Bills try to get their second playoff win in 25 years.  As a Toronto hockey fan, that sounds all too familiar.  

Wishing everyone the best of health, Shabbat Shalom and a much improved 2021.














Sunday, October 18, 2020

Mid October 2020: Partial Opening After 2nd Wave in Israel


Israel began to reopen today after a month of extensive Covid-19 closures.  Not everything re-opened but the national parks and the beaches opened their doors.  It is probably fair to say that the  beaches were never really closed.  People were attending regularly and, for the most part, police were staying away.  There was an exception that permitted people to go to the beach (but not enter the water) for purposes of "exercising."  So where the police did happen to show up at the beach - groups of backgammon playing bong-smokers suddenly became super active - doing jumping jacks, push-ups and other exercises in the sand.  While the police officers watched and waited...

Another restriction that ended today prevented people from travelling more than  one  kilometer from their  homes.  Except for grocery shopping, drug store purchases, household  necessities, buying a lulav and  etrog, moving, helping a senior family member and a host of other reasons.  So the question here was not whether people were following the restriction but which of the many exceptions they could quickly come up with if stopped by the police at a roadblock.  Failure to come up with a legitimate reason quickly enough could result in a significant  fine.

Schools also opened up from JK to grade 6 across the country, even in "red" areas.  It seems unlikely that this will last for more than a week or two but I guess we will see.  The government opted to open everywhere rather than selectively for fear of acting in discriminatory fashion.  Many of the "red zones" are ultra-Orthodox ("Haredi") areas and the government did  not want to upset the Haredi members of its coalition.  So schools opened up everywhere.  This is likely to lead to a widespread increase in the infection rate which is now running at about 2,000 new infections per day.

Despite these rules limiting openings to elementary schools, the Haredim announced that they would open everything up, through grade 12 as well as Yeshivas for post-grade 12 age students.  They simply announced that they would not follow the rules and so far, the government has not taken any  official action to close these institutions.  We essentially have a "state within a state" in many parts of the country.

Mass demonstrations against the Prime Minister also resumed this week.  There were large scale  demonstrations near the official Prime Minister's residence on Saturday night as well as in Tel-Aviv. While many  of the protesters have been wearing masks, they certainly do not appear to be following social  distancing rules.  Last night, there were several accounts of violent attacks from pro-Netanyahu anti-protesters who showed up at the demonstrations to disrupt and beat anti-Netanyahu protesters.  As  of the writing of this blog, I have no concrete information about who is organizing the counterdemonstrations.  Hmmm....

I should mention, coincidentally of course, that one of Netanyahu's most senior cabinet ministers, Miki Zohar, the Deputy Prime Minister was the subject of a frightening radio interview this week.  Earlier in the week, some audio recordings had been mysteriously released.  The recordings contained discussions with the sitting Attorney General of Israel, Avihai Mandelblit, from many years earlier   The recordings had nothing to do with the current criminal charges against Netanyahu.  In the interview broadcast this week - Zohar threatened that several additional recordings would be  released and there would be an "earthquake of information" released about the current Attorney General if he did not drop all charges against Netanyahu.  When asked if he was making a threat he said "no I'm  making  a promise."   Now I may not be a criminal lawyer, but that certainly sounded like about as open and shut a  case of blackmail/extortion as one could possibly dream up.

In other news, how about some political polls?

On the home front, some new Israeli polls have shown a sudden and  dramatic drop in support  for  Netanyahu.  Current polls put him at about 27 seats (he currently as 36) and put Naftali Bennett at 24.  Overall, the right in Israel is still in position to win an election and form a government.  But there are suddenly options that this would be a different kind of government with substantially reduced power for Netanyahu.  In fact, there are options for a government to be formed that would exclude Netanyahu and the Likud party.  This is the first poll in several years that has shown that  as a real possibility.  At the same time, there is no election currently scheduled and we do not know when one will be called.  So it is all very hypothetical.  I remain skeptical but there are at least some signs that the landscape here may be changing.

In another poll, Israelis were asked about the upcoming U.S. election.  Apparently, 73% of Israelis indicated that they would  prefer Trump.   Among Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox Israelis, the percentage  swelled to over 90%.  But when Israelis who self-identified as "centrists" or "leftists" were asked, they favoured Biden 55-45%.  So if the President loses on November 3, 2020 as some now expect, he might consider coming to Israel.   After all, Trump just said at a rally last week that he might "leave the country" if he  loses the election.  Maybe if he  loses, he will pardon himself and  come build a new golf course and hotel  complex  near Netanyahu's home in Caesarea.  The challenge for  Netanyahu is that unlike Trump he can't grant himself a pardon.   If Netanyahu loses the next Israeli election, he may have to spend a great deal of time somewhere other than on one of Trump's  golf  courses.   Say, a more confined location.

The weather  is still quite nice here.  So now that  national parks have opened up, a trip to one of them one day this week sounds like a really attractive idea.   We are anxiously awaiting the start of strawberry season over the next few weeks.  As you may know, fruit and vegetables are very seasonal and very local here.  The strawberries are fantastic but it is a fleeting season, lasting from  November through April, or maybe May.  But there are several different types of strawberries - juicy, very sweet and  quite unlike others that I have had, even  at the peak of the farmer's market in mid-summer in Toronto.  Jerusalem Artichokes (See photo above) are now in season so I tried making some soup this week with  a  bunch  of them and it was fantastic.  Recipes available on request.  And there are also some enormous and delicious mangos in season.  Or, of course, you can pick up a $25 pineapple...(ouch!).  

To round  out things, shopping malls, most other "non-essential" stores and restaurants, including outdoor patios, all remain closed even though the airport has reopened.  Travellers to Israel are required to quarantine for 2 weeks unless they are coming from "green countries."  But only travellers holding citizenship or having certain categories of family in Israel can enter the country in any event - and then only with advance permission.  That being said, some countries are  apparently willing to accept Israeli tourists - so there are flights leaving Israel for leisure purposes to Greece, Bulgaria and some other destinations.  No plans to join any of these flights any time soon.

Wishing everyone a wonderful week and the best of health.



Monday, October 5, 2020

October 2020 Update

We are now in the midst of the holiday of Sukkot - also known as "the time of our  happiness," the "holiday of  booths," and the time for travelling and trips abroad for many Israelis.  Not this year, generally.  At least not the travelling part.  Israel is in the midst of a nation-wide shut-down of sorts so travelling is fairly limited.  But Sukkot (booths) are still everywhere - and people are celebrating the holiday.  

It has been a very strange and unusual holiday season though that is certainly  not unique to Israel, unfortunately.   The interesting question is how this will change things in a long term way.  In so many respects.  But that could  really be the subject of a very long blog.  Maybe the next one.  This one will be a bit more anecdotal I think.  I'll cover some personal reflections about the holidays, Israel's current Covid-19 situation, the Israeli government and anything else that springs to mind before the end of these comments.

The Holy Days - Some Personal Reflections

Rosh Hashana came and went.  One initiative in Israel was to have people with Shofars walking  around (on the  second day of Rosh Hashanah, the Sunday) and blowing their shofars so that people could get the chance to hear them.  In Ra'anana, the City set up various points around the city where there would be shofar blowing at different times.  Another  initiative was to tell people to go out onto their front lawns, their balconies or their backyards and blow  their shofars at 11 a.m.  I took part in this one - and noticed at least one neighbour enjoying my attempts to sound like a real shofar blower.  I guess I have another year to practice.   Makes me wish that I had learned to play the trumpet in school instead of the saxophone.  

In any event, it was just our immediate family and we opted for a service  in the house rather than joining the various zoom options or finding an outdoor service that was following the rules.  But we were lucky to have each other and although we missed the rest of our families, it was still a meaningful New Year commemoration.

For  Yom Kippur, we spent a fair bit of time discussing what to do.  We usually run  a small service in Ra'anana, a satellite service for Kehilla Hod v'Hadar (which is in K'far Saba).   In the past, we have not held Kol Nidrei here but have walked to K'far Saba.  We usually then have Shacharit, Mussaf, Minhah and  Neilah in Ra'anana.  

This year, we decided to hold the tefillot outdoors in one of the member family's backyard.  It was too hot to hold a morning service there but we ran a Kol Nidrei service and Minhah/Neilah outside.  We  were all spaced apart, wearing masks and outside.  Just between 11-13 of us.  I think it was my first time leading Kol Nidrei in about 35 years.  So there was a fair bit to prepare.  Neilah was a bit easier since I have been leading it for the past 6 or 7 years I think.  But it worked out  nicely and I am glad we were able to hold this service.

Next up came Sukkot.  We put up our Sukkah - and once again - it was just our immediate family  having meals inside.  The Israeli government has imposed a 500 shekel fine for "attending a meal in a non-family member's sukkah" (defined as someone who doesn't live in the same home).  But I think the fine is really viewed as a 500 shekel fine for those who weren't quick enough (or pre-organized enough) to have a reasonable excuse, when asked, to avoid the fine.  In any case, we have waved the lulav (the palm branch) and the Etrog (the Citron), sat in the Sukkah and enjoyed some nice wine.  After all, it is still the time of "our happiness" and the wine helps.  

The Closure, Covid-19 and Israel

Back to the closure.  The Israeli government has instituted a form of closure - but it is certainly not "hermetic."  In fact, it probably has more holes than a  hunk of swiss cheese.  So police have set  up road blocks all over the place.  But they are only stopping random cars - and then there is a very long list of exceptions to the closure.  The exceptions include:

- going out to buy a lulav and etrog

-going out to perform the mitzvah of Kapparot (until the end of Sukkot) (i.e. swinging a chicken over your head to get rid of your sins;

-buying groceries, essential household goods, medicine etc.,

-exercising (on your own or with a family member from the same house);

- demonstrating (against or for) the government (within 1 km of your house) (I haven't seen too many demonstrating in favour of the current government);

- attending a synagogue service (outdoors, with less than 25 people, within 1 km of your home);

The list goes on and on.  This is just to provide a bit of flavour.  

Overall, there is a sense here in Israel that Covid-19 is really out of control.  We reached close to 10,000 new cases a day last week, in the aftermath of Rosh Hashanah.  We have seen an increasingly high number of seriously ill patients and  a growing number  of fatalities.  Although the government has now imposed a closure as a way to try to deal with it - it is not a well- planned or well thought out response to the pandemic.  It is not being accompanied by steps to assist businesses, business owners and workers that will enable them to manage the economic side of the crisis.  It is being applied universally, all over the country, even though there are clearly pockets of high infection rate areas that probably warrant a different approach from those areas in which the infection rate is low.  It is unclear how this will all play out or what steps the  government will take to try and address the situation.  But we know that the virus can spread at exponential rates.  10,000 new infections per day is quite frightening and is  bound to lead to a great deal of stress on the health care system in Israel, the hospitals and support  systems across the country.  

The Current Israeli Government   

As you may know, the current Israeli government is a coalition government made up of opposing parties, generally quite hostile to each other,  who have been unable to follow the coalition agreement that they put  together themselves.  So, for example, the parties signed an agreement that they would pass a two year budget as one of the first items of business.  But Netanyahu reneged and insisted on a one-year budget only (which would be a budget for the period Jan 1, 2020 to December 31, 2020).  Blue and White continued to insist on a two year  budget.  A stalemate resulted and the decision was put off for two or three months.  As a result, there is no budget for the current year in place.  The government is running on "interim budget measures."  

Netanyahu is looking for an opportunity to pull the plug on this current government and  call an election.  He is hoping that he will be able to piece together a 61+ seat right wing government and get retroactive immunity for himself to clear him of the various criminal charges that he is now facing.  But polls have shown that Netanyahu is losing some support - to the "Yamina" (Real Right) party of Naftali Bennett.  Netanyahu is concerned that he will lose negotiating power and that he may not be able to get the immunity bill or the government that he wants.  So he has now become hesitant to call an election. We therefore have somewhat of a stalemated government that cannot agree on steps to take but is also reluctant to call another election.  This cannot continue for too long.  It is likely that the government will soon crumble and a new election will be announced - perhaps in December or January.

Meanwhile, there are protesters across Israel, spread out and following the new rules of protesting within  1 km of  their  homes.  For the most part, these protests have not been violent and have simply been made up of a wide range of citizens protesting against various aspects  of the operation of this current government under Netanyahu's stewardship.  That was  not  entirely the case on Saturday night in Tel-Aviv, where police on horses and in full riot gear used quite a bit of force to disperse a largely non-violent group of protesters.  

A primary concern is that a Prime Minister facing a range of criminal charges, is trying to make various decisions that could directly impact on his own situation.  For example, which judges to appoint in the courts, which civilian appointments (chief of police) and what to  close versus what to leave open across the country.  During the first closure, in March/April, one of Netanyahu's first steps was to close the courts while leaving many other places open - ostensibly so that he would not have to show up for an impending court appearance.

Many  other  people are protesting the lack of an economic plan, the impact of a closure on so many people without proper support and  the general perception that decisions are being made for political reasons  primarily rather than reasons based on epidemiological necessity or medical and scientific evidence and requirements.

At the same time and to be fair, it is unclear that this large number of protesters will be able to change the political results at the ballot box whenever the next election is held.  In other words, it may well be that they are made up of a large and  vocal minority.  That remains to be seen.

Schadenfreude

I must conclude this post with a comment on Schadenfreude.  

In Israel, I would not say that mask wearing and physical distancing has been viewed as a "left-wing plot" or confined to left segments of society.  In fact, Netanyahu himself has been very clear about wearing a mask,   proper steps to distance himself from others and urging Israelis to follow suggested steps to deal with the virus.  Of course some  of his ministers have not always gone along and  have viewed themselves having a special exemption from the rules that everyone else is urged to follow.  But it is not necessarily a "right-left" fault line. 

In fact one of his ministers is  now the subject of a great deal of press coverage.  Minister Gila Gamliel went to a shul  for Yom Kippur with her father in law - who was under a quarantine order due to exposure to the virus.  Some 28 people who attended services at that shul have now been diagnosed as having the virus.  There are many other similar stories.

As the virus spread in Israel, many in the ultra-Orthodox community refused to close synagogues, wear masks, follow physical distancing guidelines or close learning institutions.  One of the leading ultra-Orthodox rabbis of the Lithuanian ultra-orthodox community, Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky had insisted back in March that synagogues and yeshivas remain open since "cancelling Torah study is more dangerous than the virus."  He is later reported to have told his followers  not to get tested - since positive results would lead to a shut down of their institutions.  In any event, at age 92, he has now been diagnosed with Covid-19 although his condition is apparently improving.   According  to at least one report last week,  more than 40% of all cases of covid-19 are in the ultra-orthodox community.   Rabbi Kanievsky eventually agreed to issue a press release urging followers to adhere to guidelines.  But the virus is rampant  now in his community.

Likewise, of course, it is perhaps not surprising that President Trump has also contracted the virus.  He has held countless rallies  with unmasked supporters, refused (for the most part) to wear a mask himself and belittled those  who are taking the virus seriously.  When the Israeli  delegation flew to Washington to sign a peace deal with the UAE, Trump insisted that the delegation members not wear masks at the ceremony.  There was a heated negotiation but the Israelis largely gave in with some exceptions.  

Similarly, at Trump's Supreme Court nomination announcement last Saturday, the attendees did not wear masks or follow any physical distancing guidelines.  Is it at all surprising that Trump and  so many of his colleagues have been infected?  While we can all hope for the complete and  full recovery of the  President, I think we can also all hope (and pray) that the President will change his tune and start urging Americans to follow some common sense guidelines to minimize their chances of getting infected.  Maybe instead of attacking Biden for wearing a "huge mask," he'll decide to start wearing one  himself.  Regularly.  Assuming he recovers.

Sports Comment

September began with some  cautious optimism on my part cheering for some Toronto  teams.  The Raptors, Maple Leafs and Blue  Jays all had a shot to the make the playoffs and I was hoping for an interesting playoff season.   The Maple Leafs and Blue Jays exited with barely a whimper.  This was especially disappointing for the hockey team which had so much talent and so much promise.  But another year is in the books, which means that Toronto has  now gone 53  years without winning a hockey championship.  Ouch.

The Raptors were hoping to repeat their feat of  winning the NBA championship but without their superstar from last year Kawhi Leonard.  For the Raptors, it was also a premature and disappointing exit.

So what is a Toronto sports fan to do?  Well, the remaining team of interest - which has never one a championship - is the Buffalo Bills (okay, not Toronto but close  enough).   The  Bills are off to a 4-0 start this year and have an excellent young quarterback.  So that is very exciting.  Worth staying up for here in Israel.

Finally - and I think I got this wrong in an earlier blog - the Israel national soccer (football) team will play Scotland on October 8th for a chance to get to the delayed 2020 Euro championship.  If Israel beats Scotland, it will have to play the winner of a Norway-Serbia match on November 12th.  So that match will be this coming Thursday - and it really will be one of the biggest soccer matches for the Israeli side in many years.  I am not normally a huge soccer fan - but this will be an exciting event to watch.

I wish everyone a Chag Sameach (Happy holiday) and Mo'adim L'Simchah (Enjoy these times joy) and a home that the coming year brings us much better news from all across the world.  Keep in touch!


Monday, July 6, 2020

New Wave and New Closures in Israel

The Israeli government acted with determination in March 2020 and took extensive steps to close down a great deal of the country.  Perhaps, too many businesses were shuttered.  But the tight closure worked with respect to the virus.  As a result, Israel had relatively "good" Covid-19 statistics.  On a per capita basis, the rate of infections was low.  The mortality rate was low.  Prime Minister Netanyahu was happy to appear on TV and take credit repeatedly for his foresight - and to compare Israel favourably to countries like Italy, Spain and the U.S.

Later on, the country began  opening aggressively.  Wedding halls were allowed to host events with 250 people.  Yeshivas and synagogues were opened up.  Funerals were opened to 250.  Bars, pubs and restaurants around the country were opened and carried on as if there was no pandemic.  Even high schools across the country were holding proms and graduations as live in-person events instead of on zoom.  

Granted there was significant economic pressure to open things up and allow people to earn a living.  But the government opened up too many things, too quickly.

Now, here we are in early July.  Israel's numbers have gone from less than 20 new cases a day in early June to more than 1,200 new cases a day over the past few days.  Throughout that growth period, the bars, wedding halls, yeshivot and synagogues remained open along with so many other places.  All of a sudden - Netanyahu - who had looked like he was navigating difficult and uncharted waters properly - now looked like he was captaining a boat that had sprung several bad leaks.

So he called together his "Corona cabinet" to make some new and urgent decisions about what to close.  Buses will be limited to 20 passengers with no air conditioning (because the AC might spread the virus).  Restaurants will be allowed to have 20 people inside and 30 people outside but wedding and banquet halls will be shut down completely.  Yeshivas will remain open - and so will the beach....

Frankly, it sounds like the government has no idea what to do - and is facing pressure from several sectors of society which are trying to promote their own interests.  We know that more than 100 students from a Yeshiva in B'nai Brak were recently diagnosed with Covid-19 - yet the Yeshivas will be able to remain open.  

Wedding halls, whose owners and operators have struggled so dramatically over the past two months - will be required to close.  They won't even be able to run functions for 50 people.  But beaches will stay open.  I guess you can have a wedding on the beach....It is hard to find any logic in this.

Here in Ra'anana, there were several high school proms and graduations.  Few if any participants, including teachers, principals and students, wore masks or observed physical distancing.  Not surprisingly, several students at various high schools in Ra'anana have now been diagnosed as positive with Covid-19 and high school students across the city have received messages telling them that they are now required to go into mandatory isolation.

The difficulty is that the Israeli public is becoming more and more cynical about the restrictions imposed - especially given the lack of any cohesive logic.  This is a government that previously opened up huge Ikea stores early on after the widespread close  - even while shopping malls across the country remained closed because the then minister of health was a buddy of the owners of the Ikea Israel franchise rights.  

So now it is unclear whether the Israeli public will be willing to follow these new restrictions and whether they will work.  If they do not, Israel will have no choice but to impose another full closure within the coming weeks.  That will be disappointing, but the country will continue to everything it can to try and avoid what is taking  place in some of the harder hit countries.



 



Friday, April 17, 2020

Post Pesach Update Blog

Pesach has come and gone though the world-wide Covid-19 craziness has not left us yet.  I hope everyone is staying healthy.  This time, it is a blog about nothing in particular - just a few random updates on different things going on.  Some people seem to like reading these types of blogs the most.  As  usual, I welcome any responses and comments.

Pesach 2020

Passover has come and gone.  Here in Israel it is only 7 days so it goes by a bit more quickly than in North America (or anywhere else outside of Israel).  We only have one Seder.  Since we only had five people at our Seder (our immediate  family), we shouldn't have needed as many Pesach dishes.  But somehow it didn't seem to be that much less work than usual.  Changing over all the dishes, preparing some special Passover foods and making sure you have everything you need - is still a lot of effort whether you are having 30 people for dinner or just 5.  We might even have enough frozen brisket left over to last us through Rosh Hashana.

We had our annual family debate over whether to switch to eating kitniyot (legumes, rice etc.,) during Pesach.  Although we could not come up with too many great reasons  for continuing our Ashkenazi practice - other than tradition (and the possibility of hosting non-kitniyot eating guests) - we slogged through another year without eating humus, rice, corn or other kitniyot.  Since most restaurants were closed this year on hol hamoed (the intermediate days of Passover) because of the virus, there weren't many external temptations (like the pizza places that usually open up during Pesach using corn flour crust).  We had our family at home and cooked all of our meals in the house so it wasn't really too problematic.  The holiday even went by  quickly, it seemed.

We  considered following the Moroccan custom of making mufleta after the end of Pesach (essentially a fried dough served with honey or jam).  It would have been a "mini- Mimuna" (A Moroccan post-Passover party) since it would have been only the five of us.  But in the end, since none of us were Moroccan, we didn't really feel a compelling urge to spend the time making the mufleta.  Instead we spent the evening turning the kitchen back to its normal state and then made some pasta.

Covid-19

Israel, like most other countries, is still in a state of lock-down.  A range of stores are open including supermarkets, local convenience stores, hardware stores and take out restaurants.  But malls are still closed, many other businesses are closed and many Israelis are feeling the  challenge of economic hardship.

Israel has done a reasonable job at keeping the spread rate relatively low and, more importantly, the mortality rate down.   According to the latest statistics, Israel had a total of 12,855 active cases as of yesterday, including 97 new confirmed cases.  148 people have died, including 6 yesterday.  For the country, the overall mortality rate, tracked as "deaths per  million residents" is at 17.  By way of comparison, that number is 105 in the U.S., 413 in Spain, 202 in the UK and 32 in Canada.  So Israelis are cautiously optimistic that the country will emerge from this crisis with a relatively low number of casualties.

The challenging discussion now is how to open the economy back up so that people can get back to work.  The Israeli government is proposing a plan to gradually open up sectors of the  economy starting on Sunday and then to track progress after about two weeks.  Depending on the effect and the spread rate, the government will then decide if it can re-open more sectors.  This seems like a reasonable approach although there are obviously many Israelis who are suffering a great deal as a result of the economic disaster that the virus created.

Israel is not alone or unique in this regard.  According to some reports, the U.S. has not hit its peak yet and sits had more than 650,000 cases with more than 34,000 deaths.  Fortunately, the mortality numbers are much lower so far in the U.S. than some people had predicted.  Many people are feeling the pain of economic hardship that an economic lock-down brings.  The challenge for the U.S., like Israel and everywhere else, will be to find a way to reopen the economy without causing a massive spike in the infection and death rate.

Zoom and Religious Services

One of the big "winners" in the current  situation has been Zoom.  People are setting up Zoom meetings for everything - family meetings, club get-togethers, game playing, exercise classes and religious gatherings.  I have been scheduling quite a number of business meetings over Zoom and I am certainly thankful that this technology enables me to continue to run my business from a great distance.

For Passover, we considered the option of joining a big Zoom Seder with friends but  decided instead to run a more intimate family Seder.  We jumped in to say  hi to our extended family Seder in North America (at  about 3:30 a.m. our time) but that was on the second night - which wasn't really still a holiday for us.

Some synagogues have been wrestling with the challenges of Shabbat and holy days.  Since Covid-19 has meant the suspension of physical attendance at services, many  people have pushed for a replacement.  Some synagogues, including some Orthodox synagogues have decided that a daily minyan (a prayer service with at least 10 people) (or even a shiva) can be held through Zoom. I have attended some online services during the week.

Holding services by Zoom on Shabbat and chaggim is more of a challenge, halachically.  Although there are Conservative synagogues around the world that have been broadcasting their services for many years now, these have involved a passive camera, set up on a timer, before shabbat to enable people who are home-bound to watch a broadcast of a service.  Presumably, the people who are watching could set up their computer on a timer as well if they choose to do so.

A Zoom service is a bit different.  Since there is no actual service taking place with a minyan that could be broadcast, the service itself is by definition much more of an active on-line event.  The organization of Conservative Rabbis in Israel determined that this would not be appropriate halachically and recommended prohibiting these services on Shabbat and other religious holy days.

This has led to quite an active debate at our kehillah in Israel.  Some members feel that the halacha is outdated and that the emergency nature of the current situation demands a change to accommodate the spiritual needs of members.  Others are concerned at chipping away at the notion that the kehillah is still a halacha-based shul and that Zoom services on holy days are outside of that framework.  Certainly that is the decision of the Masorti leadership in Israel.

I am a bit torn here.  Although we (as a family) do tend to drive to our synagogue (knowing that we are not really supposed to), we try to keep a number of aspects of Shabbat.  We  don't use the TV or computers.  It would be a pretty big change for us to start participating in an active Zoom service on a Shabbat morning and I don't think that is right for us personally at this time.  I recognize that many  people have other needs and other opinions and this is certainly one of those issues that  has the potential to cause a major rift in some synagogues.

I suppose that if synagogues remain closed for an extended period of time, there may be more and more pressure to come up with creative solutions and a larger number of rabbis may start revisiting some aspects of halacha.  But hopefully, things will turn around sooner than anticipated and we will not have to deal what type of pressure.

I should note that we have been invited to our first Zoom wedding on Sunday (b'sha'a tova to our dear friends).  We  have also, unfortunately, had to deal with a few Zoom shivas over the past few weeks.  Neither of these scenarios would have been imaginable previously.  Needless to say, the world will continue to change in many ways as the Covid-19 crisis unfolds.

Conclusion

That's about it for now.  Hopefully many people are taking advantage of the time at home to do some different things.  We have been cooking some new and interesting dishes, playing some of our board games and trying to do some on-line fitness activities.  We have also been catching up on Fauda and enjoying the concerts that are being broadcast on Israeli TV every evening.  I am definitely looking forward to the One World concert being organized by Lady Gaga on Saturday night.

Most importantly I am hoping that as spring arrives, we will see things improve across the world.  Let's hope for a cure, a vaccine and the best of health for everyone.

I didn't deal with Israel's political situation in this blog - still a mess - and no solution in sight.  But more to come on that next week.

Shabbat Shalom from Ra'anana.




Monday, April 13, 2020

Mid-Passover Report: Politics, Covid-19 and Pesach in Israel

Yemenite Passover Matzah 
In my last post, I stated that Israel finally had a new government.  Well as it turns out "rumours of a new Israeli government are greatly exaggerated...."  As you might recall, when we last looked at this topic, Gantz had apparently surrendered to Netanyahu and agreed to support a supposed "national unity government" with the stated goal of helping the country at the time of a national crisis.  This caused Gantz's Blue and White party to split apart with only half of the elected Blue and White MKs prepared to accept the deal.  Gantz tried to sell the deal by arguing that he had extracted several concessions from Netanyahu and the Likud party including a number of high profile cabinet positions, an agreed upon leadership rotation after one and a half years and a few other agreements.  But while many of these items had apparently been hammered out into a deal after several weeks of negotiations, Netanyahu had not signed on the dotted line.  Yair Lapid, one of the leaders of the faction within Blue and White that refused to go along, argued that Netanyahu could not be trusted and that Gantz was committing political suicide.  Gantz ignored the warnings and pushed ahead.

Days went by and the agreement was still not signed.  Netanyahu began telling Gantz that he had to have more concessions in order to finalize the deal.  He wanted an agreement to annex parts of the disputed territories while Trump was still the President.  Netanyahu demanded a veto over any judicial appointments,  even as he had agreed to have Blue and White appoint the Minister of Justice.  He wanted key decisions made by the Minister of Justice and by the Minister of Internal Security to be made with his approval.  In other words, once Gantz had prematurely split apart his party and indicated his willingness to enter a coalition with Netanyahu, Netanyahu realized that Gantz had been defeated and began to insist on further concessions.  Netanyahu now saw that Gantz had very little political ability to resist and saw that he could continue to try and reach his ultimate goal of getting an immunity deal to avoid his ongoing criminal trial (the start of which had already been delayed by Netanyahu's hand-appointed justice minister).

The clock continued to tick and sure enough the initial 30 day period for forming a government came to an end without any agreement.  Gantz requested a two week extension but President Rivlin declined (earlier today) since he saw no chance that Gantz could actually form a government.  But he did not pass the mandate over to Netanyahu.  Instead he exercised an Israeli law to allow any Member of Knesset to form a government over the next two weeks.  If no government is formed, Israel will have a fourth election - presumably in September.

A fourth election would be Netanyahu's preference.  In the current negotiations. he eviscerated Gantz.  Gantz was left looking weak and useless.  He made a whole series of concessions to Netanyahu and wound up getting nothing out of it.  It seems unlikely that he will run again if there is a fourth election.  He would have no support from two-thirds of his party and even the other one third might not support him. Netanyahu  probably believes that there will be no suitable centrist alternative and he may be able to get the additional three or four seats that he needs to form a narrow right wing government or even more.  Netanyahu will also argue that Israel has done a reasonable job containing the Covid-19 crisis, especially in comparison to many other countries, and that he is largely responsible. 

I should note that Netanyahu also managed to convince Labour leader Amir Peretz to join the coalition talks.  Peretz, before the election, had shaved his moustache and said "read my lips, I I will not join Netanyahu."  But somehow, inexplicably, he decided to take the remnants of the once proud left wing Labour party and join Netanyahu in exchange for a cabinet post and some other minor concessions (unsigned of course).  This is surely the death knell for the Labour party and a significant blow to any left wing opposition to Netanyahu.

So all that is left on the centre and the the centre left to oppose Netanyahu - are the remaining half of the Blue and White Party (consisting of Yesh Atid led by Yair Lapid and Telem led by Moshe "Bogie" Yaalon), the Meretz party (which has been reduced to a handful of seats) and the Joint Arab List (many of whom are staunchly anti-Zionist).  The opposition will have a short window to find a new leader (or agree to run under Lapid or Yaalon) and convince the public to stick with them.  Since a  big chunk of people were prepared to support the idea of a coalition government under Netanyahu, this will be a difficult task.  And Netanyahu knows it.  He also knows that this is his best chance of getting an "immunity bill" to end his criminal proceedings.

This may still end with further concessions by Gantz and some sort of deal over the next two weeks.  But a fourth election is also becoming a very realistic option.


Covid-19

Israel, like most other countries, continues to struggle to contain the spread of Covid-19.  Currently, Israel has about 1,300 cases, which puts it 25th in the world when looking at cases per million population.  In terms of deaths per million population, Israel's number is at 13.  Canada is at 19, the United States 67 and Italy 367.  The Israeli government has also announced that there are several thousand available ventilators.  Even if many of the people who are currently affected become more seriously ill, Israel's hope is that it will have an adequate availability of ventilators to avoid the situation that was taking place in Italy and Spain.

Israel is still under a wide ranging lock-down.  Supermarkets are open and other essential services.  But the number of services deemed "essential" was recently reduced.  For the Passover holiday, the Israeli government mandated a complete ban on leaving your home for a distance of more than 100 metres other than for urgent medical attention or a handful of other reasons.

The government has also instituted more severe lock-downs in certain areas of the country.  Some of the highest infection rates are being reported in ultra-religious neighbourhoods in B'nei Brak and Jerusalem.  The Health Ministry tried to institute a closure of these areas but some of their proposals were blocked by the current Health Minister Litzman, who is himself a member of the Haredi (ultra-religious) community.  The closure of B'nei Brak went ahead initially but it has apparently been eased up somewhat.  News reports have indicated that a high percentage of the Covid-19 patients who are classified as in serious and critical condition are members of the ultra-religious community.

The Israeli government instituted a program to give each family 500 shekels per child aged 18 or younger to ensure that people could buy food for Passover.  The money was delayed and did not arrive in time for the start of the holiday and it is unclear when it will arrive.  Even if they had received this 500 shekels (about $130 USD), many people in Israel (like most other countries) are suffering from a lack of work, lack of income and some very difficult economic challenges.  The government is trying to develop a plan to reopen sectors of the economy gradually if it can do so while continuing to minimize the Coronavirus spread.

Pesach

I think this was one of the smallest Passover Seders we have ever had.  Although we knew several people hosting Zoom Seders, we opted to hold a Seder with just our nuclear family.  We asked each person to prepare an activity, lead a discussion or prepare a section of the Haggadah.  We arranged to have some really nice wine ready and we probably had enough food prepared for a Seder of 20 or more.

It worked out really well. Since we had five willing participants for reading, singing and discussions, we had a very active evening.  The wine also helped.  We wound up finishing at about 3:30 a.m., which was late for us, even compared to our usual Seder with 25 or 30 people.  I guess we had a "captive audience" and no one had to be anywhere.  No one was driving home afterwards and no one had anything to do that was pressing the next day.  We had lots of really nice singing, some really fun activities and some pretty decent food.  It was a really special evening - lots of naches for us as parents.

Because of the time distance, it  didn't really work out well for us to join the huge family Zoom Seder - which started at 2:30 a.m. Israel time - though we dropped in to say hi  at some point after we had finished our Seder.

I should mention that Israel, unlike the U.S. and  some parts of Canada, has had no shortage of toilet paper.  But instead we wound up with an egg shortage. Yup, right before Passover, an egg shortage.  As you know, you need many eggs to make just about anything for Passover since can't use yeast or other leavening agents.  We were able to get 30 from a friend (whose brother has a  Moshav) and we were also able to buy a few of the last remaining organic eggs at the corner  store.  We still have a few left so it has not been a disaster for us by any stretch.  But hordes of Israelis were running around everywhere before the start of the holiday, clamoring desperately for some eggs for the holiday.
Imported Eggs Arriving in Israel


Here in Israel, the holiday officially ends on Wednesday night.  Tuesday night marks the start of the second "Yom Tov" - which runs until sundown on Wednesday.  There  will likely be another complete closure of the country though it has not yet been announced.  No one will be hosting any large scale "maymuna" celebrations (the customary Moroccan party marking the end of Pesach - celebrated by Israelis everywhere - even non-Moroccan Israelis) though I was thinking  about making some Mufleta (the Moroccan bread/pastry served at a Maymuna).

Then it will be time to put away all of the Passover dishes, switch the kitchen back to Hametz and hope that well before next year things will have gone back to "normal."

B'Shana Haba'ah B'Yerushalayim - Wishing everyone the best of health and Mo'adim L'Simcha.

Monday, March 30, 2020

Israel Update - Government, Covid-19 and General Lockdown

Hi.  I have a bit of time so this blog might be a bit longer than usual.   I have divided this post  into three parts - the government, the virus and some miscellaneous stuff.  Lots going on, I guess....

Israeli Government

As you might  have read, we finally have a government in Israel after three elections.  It is quite similar to the government we have had up until this point, with the addition of about 18 members of the now splintered Blue and White opposition party.  Netanyahu is still the Prime Minister, for at least the next year and a half and the ultra-religious parties are still part of the government.  Yamina, the right wing nationalist party, is also still part of the new coalition.

As you probably know, we went through three elections and we were still mired in a stalemate.  Netanyahu and his right wing bloc had a total of 58 Knesset seats, leaving them 3 short of being able to form a government.  The opposition included 15 members of the Arab Joint List party, some of whom are virulently anti-Zionist.  But with the Joint List members, the Blue and White party, led by Benny Gantz was able to cobble together 62 seats and was attempting to move ahead with a new government.

This plan created quite a bit of uproar in Israel.  Many of Gantz's critics and even some of his supporters noted that he and other Blue and White members had promised that they would not form a government relying on the support of the Joint List.  Of course Blue and White had also promised that it would not join a government that was led by Netanyahu.  The Likud party figured that Gantz was bluffing and there was no way Gantz could go ahead and build a government relying on the Arab parties.  So the Likud party stuck with Netanyahu and the full right wing bloc and insisted that Gantz's only move was to give up and join them.  Netanyahu stated over and over again that if Gantz did not join him, there would be a fourth election.  He also stated that because of the Covid-19 outbreak, the nation was in a crisis and that the only thing Gantz could do to help save the country would be  to join Netanyahu, on Netanyahu's terms.

For Blue and White, many of its members hoped that by proceeding to take certain steps towards forming a government with the Joint List, the  Likud and/or its right wing bloc would start to crack under the pressure. At some point, the Likud bloc members would realize that unless they made significant concessions towards a genuine unity government, they would all be out of power and Israel would be controlled by a left centre government with support from 15 Joint List members.  Gantz moved things along in this direction.  He developed a plan to replace the speaker of the house, Yuri Edelstein, with a new speaker from the Yesh Atid faction of his party and he also planned to introduce some new legislation including a bill that would prevent Netanyahu from being Prime Minister in the next government until his criminal charges were addressed.

But as the new Knesset members were sworn in, Edelstein, acting under Netanyahu's direction, closed the Knesset  and refused to hold the vote that would have led to his replacement.  The Blue and White party sought direction from the Supreme Court of Israel, which ruled that Edelstein had to open the Knesset.  But Edelstein refused.  Instead, he tendered his resignation along with a 48 hour window for it to take effect.  This meant that the Knesset would continue to be closed and he could not be replaced.  It was a calculated move by Bibi to buy more time and continue negotiating with Gantz while he was still in a position of power.  Bibi continued to threaten that if Gantz did not give in to his demands, that would create a fourth election.  He also called on Gantz to "put Israel above all else" and join his government.  Bibi and his bloc members were prepared to openly disregarded the order of the Supreme Court as a delay tactic to put more pressure on the opposition.

At  the same time, Gantz lost considerable bargaining power.  Two Blue and White members, Zvi Hauser and Yoav Hendel, decided that they would not agree to support a government that was relying on the support of the Arab parties.  Another member, Orly Levy, also stated that she would vote against any proposal that would include the Joint List.  So the Blue and White party was now left with the potential support of only 59 with considerable confusion about what Hauser and Hendel might do in the event of any given vote.  One additional member of Blue and White started to indicate that he would defect as well.  Faced with all of this internal pressure along with the pressure from Bibi and political pressure from the right, Gantz conceded defeat and agreed to join Bibi's government, against the wishes of about half of the members of his own coalition group.

To try to paint the rosiest picture possible, Gantz claimed that he had extracted genuine concessions and that this was a necessary move for Israel at this challenging time.  Although the deal includes equality between the number of Blue and White cabinet ministers and the number from the entire right wing bloc - 14 or 15 each initially and now maybe up to 17, it leaves Netanyahu in place as the Prime Minister for at least 18 more months.  It also includes a provision to change the law and allow Netanyahu to serve as a cabinet minister while facing indictment.

A significant number of Blue and White members were outraged.  The Blue and White party itself had been made up of three different factions.  Two  of them rejected this deal and decided to split.  Yair Lapid's party Yesh Atid and the Telem party led by Moshe (Boogie) Ya'alon both left Gantz's party, taking 18 members with them.  That left Gantz with 16 to join Netanyahu's government, of whom 15 will be cabinet ministers.   The government will have a massive cabinet with between 28 and 34 cabinet ministers to try and keep as many Knesset members as possible happy.

Meanwhile, Lieberman, who had held the balance of power with 7 seats, has been left out in the cold.  He is not part of the new government and was unable to force the Likud to agree to a true national coalition government between the two big parties without the ultra-religious parties.  This new government is likely to continue the same direction with respect to state-religion issues, which is a major defeat for the Blue and White party and its supporters and for Lieberman.

Meanwhile, the left wing coalition between the Meretz (secular democratic) and Labour (socialist) party has also fractured.  Before the election, a key Labour Party member, former Labour leader Amir Peretz, said he would shave his trademark moustache so that people could "read his lips"  to prove that he would not join a Bibi-led government.  Today he seems poised to join the Netanyahu government, leading his coalition partners to split off into another faction.  It is unclear why Peretz feels that it is so urgent to abandon his party's principles and join this government but that is what appears to be taking shape.

Yair Lapid and the Yesh Atid party will stay with the Telem party and look like they will be the official opposition.  Yesh Atid and Telem both broke away from the Blue and White party as a result of this deal.  Only Lapid and Ya'alon seem to have been prepared to  weather the pressure from Netanyahu and stay the course towards trying to bring about genuine change in the Israeli government.

In the end, after three elections, Israel has another right wing-ultra-religious government, led by Netanyahu, who continues to await the start of his criminal proceedings.  A major defeat for the centre and the left in Israel and another big win for Netanyahu who is truly a master politician and an unrivaled manipulator.  Like many other politicians, he is ready willing and able to use every trick in the book to retain power.

Covid-19 Update

Like the rest of the world, Israel continues to grapple with the spread of Covid-19.  As of yesterday, there were about 4,300 cases in Israel.  There have been 16 deaths and there are about 80 people in serious or critical condition.  The government, led by direction from the Ministry of Health, has implemented wide-spread restrictions on movement across the country.  Many businesses are closed including most non-essential retail establishments, restaurants (other than for take-out and delivery) and all forms of entertainment.  These restrictions may have helped to limit the spread and allow the hospitals to prepare for the impending onslaught of patients who will require respirators and ventilators in the coming weeks.  It is unclear whether the combination of restrictions and preparations will suffice but Israel is doing everything it can to stay ahead of the curve.  Prime Minister Netanyahu has gone on TV regularly to introduce new, increasingly harsh restrictions.  He has also been warning Israelis that the steps are necessary to ensure that Israel does not turn into Italy, Spain, or the United States.  In one TV appearance last week, he suggested that the U.S. may wind up with close to 500,000 fatalities and that Israel would likely wind up with more than 10,000.  We will continue to hope that these predictions are not accurate and that we will soon find a vaccine or a cure for this disease.

Miscellaneous Other

I saw the meme that is circulating  - "I miss those days when I could voluntarily choose to skip going to synagogue."  Well, our shul, Kehillat Hod VeHadar, has been building up a series of Zoom shul meetings.  Our shul has not implemented Zoom services on Shabbat for halachic reasons but it has been running Kabbalat Shabbat (before Shabbat) and havdalah (after Shabbat) with more than 50 different zoom windows open and somewhere between 50 and 100 people attending.  Not bad for a shul with only a few hundred families.  Like Synagogues around the world, the Kehillah will continue to develop online learning opportunities, classes and other meetings while in-person attendance is not feasible.  I see that Beth Tikvah Synagogue in Toronto is also headed down that path as are many other congregations.  Families are gearing up for Zoom Pesach seders.  I think we are likely to hold an intimate Pesach Seder for just the five of us rather than a Zoom event.  But I guess we have a bit of time to decide.

Israeli TV station, channel 12, has been broadcasting concerts each night at midnight on TV as well as other concerts at different times on its website.  We have seen some terrific concerts  including Idan Raichel, Rami Kleinstein, Amir Dadon and Keren Peles.  Others have been less memorable but it is a great initiative.  All of the concerts are performed live at an empty Zappa Club in Tel-Aviv.

Like many other people, we have been doing lots of cooking.  Trying out some new recipes.  We made some homemade pizza - even the sauce was from scratch.  Tried out a recipe for long ribs, a Spanish Frittata, and a whole roasted chicken (mixed recipes from a friend and a family member).  Lots of other ideas coming up.  I have a humus recipe from one good friend and a channa masala recipe from another.  And it is nice barbecue weather.  Trying to keep the recipes reasonably healthy and limit the amount of wine that is consumed with the meals.  And trying to do some exercise using a phone app - to keep off the weight.  We haven't really made a dent in the whisky collection yet but if this isolation period continues long enough - we might start.

Israel has made great efforts to bring Israelis home from all over the world.  El Al has played a significant role in this - despite the enormous financial and existential difficulties it is now facing.  Some flights were sponsored by donors, businesses and other contributors to ensure that people could come back home for free or at a greatly reduced rate.  Other flights were were arranged by El Al itself or by travel agencies or other airlines.  Everyone arriving home (including our family member...) has had to go into a two week self-isolation.  So we are grateful for all of the efforts of these airlines and travel agencies and happy to be going through that now with our self-isolated family member.  We are looking forward to the end of the two week period - right before Pesach.

Obviously there will be no travelling for  me (or anyone else) for a while - who knows for how long - but hopefully there will be clients  who are happy to meet virtually.   I hope that my friends with big family events including bnei-mitzvoth and weddings will see all of this subside super quickly or will find ways to make alternate arrangements that are equally meaningful.

It is a strange world without any sports events, entertainment outings or other of the usual events that we have been so accustomed to enjoying.  Our beloved Toronto Maple Leafs will once again be denied the opportunity to win the Stanley Cup (they haven't won since 1967 and they probably weren't going to win this year...).

How quickly everything can change.  We take so many things for granted and we realize now how suddenly everything can be so different.  It brings ever increasing meaning to so much of the liturgy that we read on Yom Kippur.

I wish everyone the best of health and hope to try to keep in touch regularly with as many of you as possible.  Let's hope that we got through this much quicker than expected.










Thursday, March 19, 2020

Israel Continues to Fight on Two Tracks

Like most of the rest of the world, Israel continues to battle the growing threat of Covid-19.  The number of confirmed cases surged to over 400 yesterday.  However, Israel also ramped up its testing numbers dramatically.  So it is unclear whether the virus spread significantly over the past few days or whether we are simply conducting more testing.  However, to date, there are no confirmed deaths as a result of the Coronavirus in Israel.  So far, the heath care system is managing - but things seem very tenuous.  The Israeli government announced this morning that Israel had obtained more than 100,000 test kits and plans to increase testing levels very shortly.  The obvious hope is that Israel will be able to stave off the type of situation that is now occurring in Italy, Spain and some other countries.  But it is unclear whether efforts will be successful.

At the same time, Israel is continuing to experience a very serious political crisis.  There is only an interim government - and it is one that did not win a majority of  support in the most recent elections.  As you may know, Netanyahu's Likud party was only able to put together a coalition of a total of 58 Knesset Members, which is less than the required 61 to be able to form a government.   That 58 includes two Ultra-religious (Haredi) parties and the Yamina party.  Netanyahu has insisted that any "national unity" government with the Blue and White party must include these additional three parties, they are parties with only 7 or 8 seats.

In response, the largest "opposition" party Blue and White has been running a two pronged strategy.  One the one hand, they have been negotiating to form a unity government with Netanyahu - but only as long as he makes significant concessions.  In order to reach a deal, Likud will need to share power with respect to key cabinet posts and Ministerial positions, components of the governments agenda and a range of other matters.  To date, it has shown very little willingness to do so.

Blue and White will simply not agree to delay or cancel Netanyahu's criminal proceedings.  He is facing significant criminal charges and has dragged Israel into three consecutive elections in an effort to win a majority and legislate away his legal challenges.  So far,  this strategy has bought him time but has not produced his desired result.

Blue and White's alternate strategy is to form a government that relies on the support of 15 elected Arab members of Knesset.  Some of these members are anti-Zionist and hostile to the State of Israel as a Jewish state.  Others are not.  This plan has been roundly attacked by the right in Israel and elsewhere as an attack on the values of the Jewish state.

The Blue and White party is not proposing any action that would harm Israel as a Jewish state.  The recognition of elected Arab members of Knesset is logical and appropriate.  After all, Israel has Arab Supreme Court Judges, police officers, doctors, lawyers and every other occupation you can imagine.  Like with any other coalition agreement - or other arrangement, the Blue and White will have to make some concessions while ensuring that any such concessions are in the interest of the State of Israel.

Netanyahu and the Likud party have made far reaching concessions over the past few years to the "Yehadut HaTorah" party which is largely an anti-Zionist party.  Significant amounts of money have been diverted from the health care system, the public education system and other areas to be funneled into ultra-orthodox Yeshivas and other institutions.  Similarly the "Shas" party is also supported by many ultra-orthodox who do not serve in the Israeli army, study secular subjects or work in the general workforce.

One of the main demands of the Blue and White party - supported by both Lieberman's party and the coalition of left wing parties - is to shift back the secular/religious balance in Israel - to take back some of the power that Netanyahu has given these groups over the past few years.  Based on the past few elections, there is clearly a majority in Israel who would support moving things in this direction.

At this point, Netanyahu has not been able to form a government.  However, he is acting as if he has complete and total authority.  He has held press conferences at which he insists that he won the election since his party had more votes  than the Blue and White party, even though he can't put together 61.  He has instituted increasingly severe restrictions on Israeli society to control the spread of Covid-19.  While that may be laudable and even required, he has done so without any real legal authority or oversight.

Netanyahu's government closed down the courts at 1 a.m. - the day before his criminal trial was about to begin.  His representative, Yuli Edelstein, shut down the Knesset yesterday after 1 minute - to avoid allowing a vote that would remove Edelstein from office.  Netanyahu authorized the secret service in Israel - to track cell phones and credit cards - to be able to enforce self-isolation rules for Israelis who are supposed to be self-quarantined.  Restrictions are likely to become more severe, bringing Israel into a state of almost complete Martial Law.

No one really disagrees that Israel urgently needs to take dramatic steps to stop the spread of Covid-19.  Even many Israelis who generally oppose Netanyahu would agree that he has taken some important and timely steps to keep Israel ahead of the curve.  Israelis urgently need to follow the isolation recommendations of the World Health Organization and so many disease control experts around the world.  Does that extend to the necessity of monitoring the cell phones of all citizens?  That is unclear.

At the same time, these steps have to be made by an accountable government with oversight and input from members of a majority government.  There may be things that are being missed or areas in which we are overstepping.  In some cases, we may not be going far enough.  Having majority support also increases the likelihood of full support from the public.  For the most part, Israelis seem to be cooperating but there must be people who are concerned about such a narrow concentration of power.  This can generate skepticism even if the actions taken are correct.

Israel urgently needs to form a government that can react properly to this current health crisis.  The most logical resolution is a shared power arrangement between the Blue and White party the Likud party - as a first step - without the various smaller parties that each side has also relied on for support.  But to date, Netanyahu  is insisting that any deal include all three of his coalition members - while excluding the Arab Members of Knesset.

In this context, the Blue and White's alternate plan is important and reasonable.  Once the Blue and White party demonstrates that it can and will form a government, even a minority government - Netanyahu will be forced to realize that he needs to make concessions in the national interest.  Or his party needs to do so.  So far, they are not at that point.  Most of the actions of Netanyahu to date - suggest that he is hoping that a fourth election will finally be the one to help him get rid of his criminal problems.

In the meantime, Israelis find themselves under a Martial Law system.  New decisions are being made every day that tighten restrictions - and these decisions are being made by one person - who did not win the most recent election - with little or no oversight.  Very dangerous time for the country on two different tracks.