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

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.