Showing posts with label Gantz. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Gantz. Show all posts

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tragedy At Meron:

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

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

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

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

Weather and Covid-19

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

Shavuot

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

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

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





Thursday, March 25, 2021

Israel Post Election Analysis March 2021: Results and Predictions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Possible Directions - Can a Government Be Formed?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Lapid-Led Coalition:

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

2.  Coalition Led by Bennett, Saar or Gantz

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

3.   Elections Round 5

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

Winners and Losers and Closing Comments:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

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

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

Covid-19

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Politics

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

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

But here are a  few of the highlights.

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

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

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

Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai

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

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

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

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

Sports

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Holidays

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

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

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

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

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

Food Developments

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

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

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

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


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

Best wishes for a happy and healthy 2021.





Monday, December 21, 2020

Post-Chanuka, Vaccinations Starting, 2020 On the Way Out

 

It has been a crazy year - not only in Israel, of course, but around the world.  But perhaps there is a sign of light at the end of the tunnel.  On Saturday night, Prime Minister Netanyahu took one for the team - and presented himself to be the first person vaccinated in Israel with the Pfizer vaccine.  The vaccination was shown live on prime TV at 8 p.m.  

After a lengthy broadcast of all of the preparations for the big event, various medical personnel and security personnel were shown preparing the area for the big event.  The podium was polished and the microphone was carefully cleaned.  At 8 p.m. exactly, the Prime Minister showed up, gave a short speech (as did Likud Minister Yuli Edelstein) and then Netanyahu sat down for his vaccination.  Interestingly, his personal doctor administered the vaccine rather than the nurse who mixed it (which is apparently a breach of the hospital's rules).  In fact, three different medical personnel were seen on live tv handling the vaccine - two of whom weren't wearing gloves - before passing it to the gloveless doctor - seen in the photo.  Not sure if they will also broadcast  Netanyahu's return to the hospital in 21 days for his second dose but perhaps they will pay a bit more attention to hospital protocol for the second dose.

Admittedly, this is all a digression.  The good news, as reported by the  Israeli government and in various news outlets, is that Israel has begun vaccinating its citizens actively as of yesterday.  Medical stations, equipped with appropriate freezers, have been set up across the country and estimates are that Israel will be able to administer 60,000 vaccinations per day.  Israel has apparently purchased 8 million doses from Pfizer and several million more from Moderna.  At this rate, close to 2 million Israelis may be able to receive their first dose by the end of January.  If things continue at this pace and there are no snafus, it is quite conceivable that Israel will have vaccinated the majority of its residents by mid 2021.  I suppose it remains to be seen whether the vaccine actually works and whether that will effectively end the problem, at least in this country.

In the meantime, some commentators have characterized the atmosphere in Israel, in some sectors as "end of course" or "end of semester."  The idea is that often at the end of a school year (or some other type of course, perhaps an army training course) once all the hard work has been done - people become very lackadaisical about doing anything more (like, in this case, wearing masks, refraining from having parties etc.,).  But this is quite dangerous.  The vaccine is only being rolled out now and it will take months until it is administered fully.

At the same time, the current infection rate in Israel is very high with more than 2,000 new infections being reported daily.  The government has been debating various responses to the growing spread including shutting down the airport completely, shutting down all commerce other than "essential services" and sealing "red zones."  Yesterday, two flights arrived in Israel from Great Britain.   The passengers were all sent to government-arranged quarantine hotel accommodations.  At least 25 passengers refused and were sent back to Great Britain.  The concern apparently related to the latest mutation of Covid-19 which has been spreading in Great Britain.

Several weeks ago, Israel had designated the UAE a "green" country and decided to allow travel without quarantine back and forth between Israel and UAE.  Cynics among us might say that  this was partially intended to bolster the  nascent peace deal between the  UAE and Israel.  In any event, this resulted in thousands of Israelis flocking to Dubai - to attend parties, weddings and other gatherings all without wearing masks or taking other precautions.  Some groups of Israelis flew whole wedding parties to Dubai where they could hold "normal" weddings without any restrictions.  Others, like Israeli singer Eyal Golan, flew to Dubai just for some fun and partying.  Golan actually came back and was diagnosed as having Covid-19, though he is apparently doing fine now.  Still others, according to media reports, have been travelling to UAE for another well known purpose - sex tourism.  I suppose Covid-19 might be the least of the problems for some of these travellers.

In any event, Israel has now determined that there are no "green countries" and that all travellers will now be required to quarantine on return to Israel, even those coming from the UAE, despite any political ramifications, real or imagined.  It will apparently take effect three days from now - so I suppose there is still time for a quick whirlwind UAE simcha or some other type of equally rapturous event.  I think we will stay home, thanks.

In other news, and maybe I sound like a broken record here, if you have read my past columns, the current Israeli government is on the brink of collapse.   A vote on a non-confidence motion is expected either tonight or tomorrow.  If the government falls, there is talk of a March 23, 2021 election date, though that remains to be finalized.  Under Israeli law,  the 2020 budget  must  be passed by December 23, 2020, a date that was already moved back with previous legislation.  Since there is still no budget in place, either for 2020 or 2021, the government is set to collapse even without a non-confidence motion.  

There has been significant negotiation between Netanyahu's Likud party and Gantz's Blue and White party to reach a compromise, delay the date once again and keep this government alive with some urgent political CPR.   Over the weekend, there were reports that a deal was reached to resolve the crisis.  However, the concessions made by Gantz to Netanyahu to avoid an election were apparently too much to stomach for some of Gantz's Blue and White party members and it does not look like Gantz will be  able to get the full support of his party to keep the coalition together.

On the other side of the aisle, a long serving, high ranking Likud member, Gideon Saar, recently announced that he was leaving the Likud party and setting up his own party called "New Hope."  Does this sound familiar?  It is a very recurrent theme in Israeli politics.  In any case, Saar has been able to take a bunch  of Likud members with him and is running at 15-20  potential seats in the Knesset according to some polls.  Saar describes himself as a right wing politician, fully committed to most, if not all of Netanyahu's policies, other than, perhaps, those  dealing with the rule of law, on which Saar states that he is committed fully to the fight against corruption and the rule of law.  Saar has stated that he is not prepared to join a government led by Netanyahu following the next election.  I think I remember Gantz saying very similar things....

In any event, polls suggest that Netanyahu may now have a difficult time forming a government after the next election, but I wouldn't rule him out.  The Covid-19 vaccine is being rolled out, the economy may start to improve - and Netanyahu will figure out what kind of campaign is likely to work best against his latest foe.  Netanyahu  is a seasoned politician who  knows how to tackle difficult challenges.  His nickname is "the magician" so we will see if he can pull yet  another election win out of his hatful of tricks.

Netanyahu has refused to agree to pass state budgets for 2020 or 2021 because the coalition deal that he signed with Gantz stated that if the government were to fall for any reason, Gantz would become interim Prime Minister.  The one exception was if the government were to fall because of a budget disagreement, in which case Netanyahu would continue to be the Prime Minister until the next government was formed.  So once Netanyahu decided that this government wasn't working to his satisfaction the only choice he had for bringing down the government was one related to the budget - so that he will remain on as the interim Prime Minister throughout the next election campaign. 

Netanyahu's criminal proceedings are scheduled to continue now  in early February, having been delayed several times.  He is facing charges of breach of trust, corruption and bribery.  If convicted, he could face a lengthy prison term.   Given the past  pattern, it is likely that  Netanyahu will seek  a further adjournment, perhaps until after the pending election, though it is not clear that it will be granted  by the court this time.  He is still hoping for the "big win" in the election that would get him a coalition government with a retroactive immunity bill to end all of his legal troubles.  That does not look like a probable outcome at this juncture, even if Netanyahu wins the election and is able to piece together another government.

Chanuka has come and gone.  In Israel, the big culinary emphasis around  Chanuka time is donuts rather than latkes.  

Bakeries try to come up with all sorts of eye-catching designs.  Many of the donuts are jelly filled but I saw a really wide variety of options  - pistachio-crème, chocolate mousse, lemon, strawberry and even tehina (sesame paste) filled calorie bombs.  Fortunately, I don't really have a weakness for donuts.   We picked up a few for the first night of Chanuka but they looked better than they tasted.  

On the other hand - I do have a weakness for homemade potato latkes, especially the way both of my grandmothers and my mom used to make them.  Just good old fashioned ingredients, potato, onion, eggs,  salt, pepper and maybe a bit of baking powder and flour (too hard to find matzah meal in Israel when it is not Passover time).  I tried to learn a bit from all three teachers.  I also made some homemade applesauce to accompany the  latkes with our Friday night dinner.  And one night we ate a dairy meal and had a few with sour cream.  The latkes probably did more damage than the donuts - but it has not turned  out to be a lasting problem, thankfully.  

It was nice to be here for the full Chanuka holiday this year, even though there were few of the normal festivities due to the pandemic. But the weather has been fairly moderate, low 20s C (high 60sF) with some rain here  and there.  One of the nice things about being in Israel, for someone who is Jewish, is the almost complete absence of Christmas this  time of year.  I don't say that in a way that is intended to offend anyone - but December is always the time that I felt the least Canadian and most like an outsider.  

From early November (if not sooner), in Canada, the radio stations play non-stop Christmas music, malls and stores are filled with it everywhere - and everything revolves around Christmas until it ends.  Many other Canadian immigrant and minority groups have just  accepted all of this as the trappings of being "Canadian" and assimilated into the Christmas culture.   Many Jewish Canadians, however, have not and have remained among the few groups of Canadians who do not celebrate Christmas.  Sure, many Jewish Canadians go out for Chinese food on Christmas Eve or go to a movie - or even a "Matzah Ball" - or other social event.  Others have left the country by Christmas for a vacation in Florida or some other warm destination, maybe even Israel.  And most who have remained enjoy the day off.   But for the most part, many Jewish Canadians are simply reminded at this  one time of year - of what differentiates them from other Canadians.

Here in Israel, there are certainly people  who celebrate  Christmas.  You can see Christmas lights and  trees in Jaffa, Haifa, Bethlehem, Nazareth and other places - and there are Christian Israelis who celebrate the holiday fully.  But since it is a majoritarian Jewish country, everything is open on Christmas, there are no decorations in the malls and there is no Christmas music on the radio or in the schools.

I have nothing against people celebrating the holiday - whether here, in Canada or anywhere else.  Quite the opposite - I wish everyone all the best in celebrating all of the holidays that they might observe, whether that is Christmas, Diwali, Eid Al Fitr or other holidays.  In fact, I have been honoured to attend a few Christmas dinners with some of my best friends in Canada as well as celebrations of other holidays.

But here in Israel, it is a very special time of year  -  where we can celebrate Chanuka - a holiday that is uniquely ours - and enjoy one of those benefits of being in a majority Jewish culture.  

Chanuka, as you might know, is a "minor" holiday on the Jewish calendar.  Businesses are open and there are no real restrictions on day to day activity.  It is not nearly as important a holiday  as our fall holidays of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot nor is it as significant as Pesach (Passover).  At the same time, it is widely observed, which in Israel means lighting the Chanukiah and eating a bunch of donuts - and maybe some latkes.  

In any event, Chanuka has ended and I think it is fair to say that the main thing people in Israel are now thinking about is when they will be able to get vaccinated - and when things will return to normal.  Whether inspired by Chanuka, Christmas or Diwali, all of which have a  significant theme of light, I think are all hoping to see some bright light at the end of this long period of darkness.

Wishing everyone a happy and healthy holiday season and all the best for 2021!

  

 

  



 


  

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.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Two Tracks of Craziness


Israel, like much of the rest of the world is facing an ever-growing and severe spread of the Coronavirus.  The Israeli government has taken several increasingly aggressive steps to slow the spread of the virus, the most recent of which came into effect last night.  At the same time, the country continues to face a political crisis which has not yet been resolved.  No government has been formed and the country is currently running on an interim government and could well wind up with a fourth round of elections.  Either of these issues would normally be enough to occupy media coverage twenty-four hours a day on its own.  With constant reporting about both issues, along with news from many other parts of the world dealing with Coronavirus, things are very stressful here.

As of the writing of this blog, Israel has more than 200 confirmed cases of Coronavirus.  Fortunately, there have not yet been any fatalities, though there are a few patients in serious condition. 

Last week, Israel began instituting restrictions aimed at limiting the spread of the virus.  Within days, things went from a restriction on no more than 1,000 people at a gathering - to a maximum of 10 people.  By the end of last week, the Israeli government had closed schools, universities, and other large institutions.  Effective this morning, restaurants, recreational establishments, malls, gyms and other establishments had been ordered closed.  Supermarkets, drug stores and private businesses (in other industries) have been left open.  Public transport is still running. Anyone arriving in Israel is required, by force of law, to self-quarantine for 14 days.  But many airlines have suspended service to Tel-Aviv.  I have decided to stay here and work remotely, at least until after Pesach.  The restrictions in Canada and the United States will probably soon catch up to those that have been implemented in Israel.

Israel has not yet gotten to where France and Spain are - effectively instituting martial law - preventing anyone from leaving the house - without a proper reason.  But I believe that will be  following soon, perhaps by the end of the week, perhaps by next week.

This afternoon, we went out for a walk.  Surprisingly, we saw many places open that, seemingly, were not supposed to be. Falafel places, Shawarma places and bakery/cafes.  Restaurants that are only restaurants are either closed or are running take out service/ delivery service only.  But other places seem to be operating, oblivious to the directive.  Not sure what will be open in the coming days.

Many business owners are complaining about the lack of support measures behind these steps along with the disparate application.  For example, a drug store that is inside a mall is now closed whereas one on a main street is open.  Some falafel places and bakeries are open but full service restaurants  are closed.  Many of the people who work in these establishments are very vulnerable financially and may have no support.  Many of the owners are vulnerable as well.  They have rent to pay, lines of credit, tax installments etc., none of which are being frozen.  But all income has come to a halt.  It seems to me that this is only an interim step that will last a few days - until we get to a full closure that looks more like what is going on in Rome, Madrid or Paris.  It is all placing the whole country under tremendous pressure, though that is not very different from many other places around the world. 

The decisions are being made by the current interim government, led by Netanyahu.  Although many experts seem to agree with most of the steps taken by the country to fight the community spread aggressively, there are certainly well-founded concerns about the manner in which these dramatic decisions are being made. 

Netanyahu does not have a majority of Knesset members supporting him.  He has, thus far, only been able to muster 58 supporters - with the opposition holding 62.  The Blue and White party has been willing to support the measures  he has taken thus far - but in the circumstances, they should be an integral part of the decision making. 

The difficulty is that Netanyahu is fighting the spread of the Coronovirus - while fighting a concurrent personal battle to deal with the criminal charges he is facing - and while trying to find three Knesset members to switch sides and support him in building a government.  So it is natural that many Israelis have a reasonable level of suspicion and skepticism about decisions he is making.  At the same time, most recognize the urgency of the situation and are hoping that these measures will slow the spread in Israel and keep the country from getting to the situation that some other countries are now facing.

Last night, Netanyahu announced that the government was in an emergency situation - and that all gatherings of more than 10 people would be barred.  He did not mention his upcoming criminal trial (which was scheduled to start on Tuesday March 17, 2020).  Instead, his key advisors notified the press at about 1:30 a.m. (more than 3 1/2 hours after his main announcement) that a side effect of his various measures would be the delay of the trial by at least two months.

Today, Netanyahu called for an immediate "emergency government" with the Blue and White Party.  He provided his conditions - in the form of two options.  Either a temporary government of six months - with Netanyahu at the helm - or a four year government with a two year rotation for each party - and Netanyahu would go first.  In both cases, he made the proposals as someone who had won the election and held all of the cards.  Mathematically, however, this is not the case.  The Blue and White party is still responding to these proposals.

Today was also the day when all of the Knesset party leaders were supposed to meet with the President (following the recent election) and indicate who they were supporting to put together a government.  Apparently 62 Knesset Members recommended Gantz, which may give Gantz the right to first try and put together a government, albeit one that is reliant on 15 Knesset members from the Joint List (An Arab party which includes  2-3 anti-Zionist communists).  Netanyahu has attacked this type of government wildly and has all but threatened violence to prevent  it.

Weighed against all of this, many feel that Netanyahu has handled the Coronavirus crisis well to this point.  Netanyahu is hoping that if the general public feels that way (and presumably, if his measures prove successful) - he may be able to muster a few more seats and get to 61 for him and his coalition in a 4th election.  This could also allow him to pass legislation that would provide him with immunity for his criminal proceedings.  So I would say that there is a definite and growing sense that Netanyahu is hoping that a fourth election in September or October would allow him a shot a forming a government that has eluded him in the first three election attempts.

At the same time, that is only really relevant if the country can succeed in getting the spread of the virus under control and in limiting casualties.  If things get out of control, all of the talk about the formation of the government will be a much more minor concern.  We can only hope that the measures that have been taken so far and the additional measures that are going to be taken are the proper ones to address this world wide epidemic.  We can also hope that, at some point, the different Knesset members will find a reasonable way to resolve this governmental stalemate.