Showing posts with label Knesset. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Knesset. Show all posts

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Another Election Update: Complete Craziness Here - and Other News

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Covid Update

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

Heat Wave and Upcoming  Holidays

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

Board  Games

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

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

 









Sunday, April 4, 2021

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

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

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

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

On the political side - we have two main events.

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

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

Election Update

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other Events and Commemorations

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

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

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

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

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






Tuesday, December 8, 2020

Chanuka Approaching 2020: Virus Not Leaving Yet: Update from Israel

 

Chanuka is quickly approaching - only two days until the first candle - so I thought it was time to write an update about a few things going on here in Israel - and maybe some other comments, connected or not.

The photo shown is a random store on Ahuza street in Ra'anana with a table display of a variety of  Chanukiot (the 8-candle Menorahs that we light on Chanuka).  This is only one of many stores that has this kind  of display.   Retailers all  over Israel are selling Chanukiot, bakeries are selling sufganyot (jelly filled  donuts, usually) and caterers are offering latke specials.  So you could say that Chanuka is in the air, though it is not the only thing circulating.

To mark the holiday, the Israeli government, in its infinite wisdom, has decided on a two step plan to combat the  spread of Covid-19.  On the one hand, there will be an evening curfew for a period of two weeks.  Just about everything will be  closed, apparently, and  people will  be prohibited from travelling between cities, at night.  Remaining details are still to be announced if the "Corona Cabinet" can agree.  To complement this evening curfew plan, the government has decided to fully reopen all  malls,  across the country, during the daytime.   A few shopping malls in "red zones" will be the exception and will remain closed.  Now I may not be an expert but  I am scratching my head trying to figure out how this plan makes any sense at all.   Infection numbers have been rising in Israel  - and we seem to be in the range of 700 to 1000 new cases per  day.  Some government ministers have stated in interviews that they expect that the numbers will rise significantly by January 1 - and we will then have a full closure (the "3rd closure") for several weeks in January.  Really, I'm not making this stuff up.  That is the plan.  (Added new update - sounds like the Israeli courts have indicated that this plan would not fly so the "night curfew" is now unlikely to come into effect).

Speaking of the Israeli government, you may have heard that it is on  the verge of dissolution - maybe.  The Knesset has passed the first reading of a bill that would dissolve the current government and set an election date.  By law, if an agreement is not reached to stop the dissolution and pass a budget, the Knesset will automatically dissolve on December 23, 2020.  This would lead to Israel's 4th election in a span of 2 years. The dissolution bill would normally require two more  readings before it is passed - but  there could be an automatic dissolution as an alternative.  Or there could still be a last minute compromise.

Netanyahu's Likud party entered into a coalition agreement with Benny Gantz's Blue and White party following the March 2020 election.  One of the terms of the agreement was that the coalition would pass budgets for 2020 and 2021 in the Knesset.  But the coalition agreement also included a term that  stated if the government fell for any reason - other than a disagreement over the budget - Gantz would become the "interim Prime Minister" until after the election.  If the government were to fall because of a disagreement over the budget, then Netanyahu would continue to be the Prime Minister until the next government is formed.

Netanyahu was  not happy with this coalition from the  start, since it was not willing to grant him the retroactive immunity bill that he has been seeking to extricate himself from all of his legal troubles.  So he has been biding his time, waiting for his poll numbers to rise, and looking for an opportunity to call another election when conditions are more favourable in the  hope that he can piece together a right-wing coalition that will  give him  the  immunity that he has long sought.  He has refused to pass budgets either for 2020 or for 2021, since passing a budget would leave him vulnerable to losing his position, even on an interim basis.

Covid-19 has continued to hamper Netanyahu's plans.  His criminal  trial  has been delayed by a month and is scheduled to continue in early February 2021.  So he is really hoping  that an election can be  called before then, that he can delay the trial due to the election and that he can win the election and  pass an immunity bill.

Can he do all of this?   Well, Netanyahu now has a plan.  The Israeli government has  been buying  massive quantities  of vaccine, from Pfizer and Moderna as well as any other company that might have vaccinations to sell.  Okay, maybe not the Russian vaccine though there have apparently been some tests of that  one in Israel. Nyet, thanks.  In any event,  according to some reports, Israel will have more than 4 million vaccines available by late December or  early January, from Pfizer and Moderna, enough to vaccinate almost half of the population.

I read yesterday that Canada was getting ready to roll out  350,000 vaccines for a population of more than 30 million.  That number sounded very low.   Contrast that to Israel's plan to vaccinate a  huge percentage of the population by mid to late winter.  Maybe the numbers were way off. 

If the vaccine has been rolled out before the next Israeli election and it seems to be working - and the economy starts to improve - it is quite imaginable that Netanyahu will get the win he wants and get his "get out of jail free" card.  Of course the opposition is trying to schedule the election as quickly as possible, while the numbers show some possibility that Netanyahu may not win.  But it looks like it will be hard to bet against Netanyahu, especially if the vaccine works and the economy begins to pick up again.

Travel

One of the big accomplishments for the current Israel government has been the establishment of peace deals with the UAE, Bahrain and Sudan.  The UAE has indicated that it is very interested in a "warm peace" with wide-ranging cooperation in technological, medical, agricultural, pharmaceutical and military areas as well as  tourism.  Israeli and UAE airlines are now able to overfly Saudi Arabia and get to Dubai in about 3 hours.  To foster this tourism, the UAE has been  designated as a "green" destination, which means that 14 day isolation is not required for returning tourists.   Kosher food is available in Dubai for those who want it and Israelis are being  encouraged to visit and are being welcomed warmly.  I haven't heard of anyone visiting Bahrain or Sudan but thousands of Israelis, even in the  midst of this pandemic, are visiting Dubai.  Some Israeli ultra-religious groups have held weddings in Dubai - bringing the whole entourage there to ensure a restriction-free wedding.  Others are going to the UAE just to be able to go somewhere and get out of Israel for a bit.  

For those of us looking to fly to Canada, that still involves a 14 day quarantine - in both directions - which seems a bit impractical.  Maybe I'll manage to get an early vaccine  and that will help things.  Or maybe we'll go with the herd and visit the UAE.  Not too likely at this point.

TV

Over the past few month, we have watched some excellent TV series.  Most recently, we watched the Israeli-produced series "Valley  of Tears"  ("Sha'at Ne'ilah" in Hebrew) - about the 1973 Yom Kippur war.  The series aired over 8 weeks beginning in mid-October.  It is a 10 part series but double episodes were shown at the beginning and the end.  The final episode was last night.   It was very intense.  Excellent acting and very powerful.   The series follows two particular units, an intelligence unit and a tank unit and delves into the personal stories of many of the combatants, on the Israeli side.  It is a shocking reminder of the horrors of the Yom Kippur war and, really the horrors of any war.  At  times, it is graphic and  difficult to watch and it is quite stressful.  

After each episode, the Israel TV station had a panel discussion with surviving soldiers who had fought in the battle and discussed their experiences, their comments on the series, and the impact on their lives.  These discussions were as moving and emotionally draining as the show itself.  

Although there  were some unrealistic parts, in some of the early episodes in particular, the series has received favourable reviews.  Veterans have commented that the  last two episodes were incredibly realistic and have generally been grateful that the series has raised the consciousness of so many people about the Yom Kippur War.  Valley of Tears is now showing on HBO  Max, though I am not sure how Canadians can watch it.  Sderot.tv is probably an option.

A few months earlier, we watched the Israeli series Tehran about an Israeli agent, sent to disable the Iranian central electrical system to assist Israel with a strike on the Iranian nuclear reactors.   This was also fascinating.  Although much of it seemed much less realistic and believable than other TV series, it did seem reasonably balanced and had many parts that seemed very plausible.   Tehran is showing on Apple TV in North America.

We also watched "The  Queen's Gambit" recently, which is probably less related to this blog - though all three of us thought it was amazing (there were only 3 in the house at the time...).  I think it is on Netflix everywhere.  With its range of themes including gender equality (in the chess world and otherwise), addiction, competition and the power of chess, it is quite an impressive production.

Cooking

My ongoing  quest to make the perfect Humus continues.  I think I have been doing a pretty good job.  Recipe available on request.  For a while we were buying humus from a local humus shop.  While it was quite good and reasonably priced - I felt it had too much cumin in it for my taste.  So I decided to see if I could get my own homemade humus to compete for the hearts and taste buds of our family members.  Last  Friday's humus was probably our best batch yet, made with extra large chick peas, soaked over night - and then peeled individually after boiling.  Sure it was labour intensive  but very creamy and smooth.  

To  go with the humus, I have also been making Zhoug, a  Yemenite-Israeli hot sauce that combines hot peppers with fresh cilantro leaves and a  range of spices in small quantities - ground coriander, cumin, cardamon, cloves, black pepper and  maybe  even  a touch of  cinnamon.   This has also been a big hit - even among the hard to please Yemenite critics who have sampled it.

Next up of course will be latkes for Chanuka though I expect that we will just make the classic traditional type.  It's only once a year - a few latkes can't be that bad, can they?


On  the purely random side, I thought I would  add in this picture that I took in Tel-Aviv last week.  This bird was so close and so interested in posing that I had to oblige.

We were right near Rabin Square.   The nearby park area was filled with people  even in the midst of the pandemic.   Apparently, restaurants are serving "take-out packages" that include a blanket, a basket and everything you need to take the meal and go sit in the park and eat it.  Apparently  you return the blanket  and basket etc., when you are  done.  People are constantly coming up with ways to try and  do "normal" things in these pandemic times.

For my last  note,  I couldn't  resist including  this picture of a coffee cup that I saw in a small store.  As you may be able to see, there is a Hebrew blessing written on the mug.

You might be familiar with a blessing called "she'hechyanu"  - which is recited on festive holydays, joyous life cycle events - and other occasions.  It essentially thanks God for "giving us life, sustaining us  and  enabling us to reach this moment."  This coffee  cup changed the blessing a bit to give thanks for "giving us life, sustaining us and  enabling us to reach coffee time."  It is a very applicable blessing for many of my good friends, family members and completely unrelated readers who  love a good cup of coffee.

Here's hoping that the bright lights of the holiday season  - whether the candles we will soon light on Chanukah - or the Christmas lights for those celebrating later this month - will bring us all some real brightness, warmth and joy - and hopefully usher in a much better 2021!

Best of health to everyone.



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.











 

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Israeli Elections 2020

The results are in from the 3rd consecutive Israeli election within a span of a year and they are just about final.  More than 99% of the ballots have been counted.  The final result?  No clear winner.

I think it is fair to say that Israel is in the midst of a constitutional crisis.  The country is split down the middle between right and left and the two sides have not been able to compromise and form a government.  Nothing from the most recent election (on Monday March 2, 2020) suggests that this is about to change.

Here are the current results (which are likely to be certified in the coming days):

Likud (Bibi's party):                                                     36 seats (+4)
Blue and White (Led by Benny Gantz):                       33 seats (No change)
Joint List (Arab party):                                                 15 seats (+2)
Shas (Ultra-Orthodox Mizrahi Party)                             9 seats (No change)
Yehadut HaTorah (Ultra-Orthodox Ashkenazi party:     7 seats (No change)
Yisrael Beitenu (Lieberman's party) (Right Secular):     7 seats  (-1)
Avoda/Meretz/Gesher (The Left)                                    7 seats (-4)
Yamina (The Right)  (Naftali Bennett)                            6 seats (-1)

I have included in brackets the change for each party over the last election results from September 2019.  Prime Minister Netanyahu ran  with a "right bloc" which included Likud, Shas, Yehadut HaTorah and Yamina.  His bloc wound up with 55 seats in September 2019 and has now increased to 58.  However, a majority in the Israeli Knesset is 61 (out of 120).  Without 61, a government cannot be formed since the "bloc" cannot control the Knesset.

Over the course of the past three elections, including the most recent one, Netanyahu has insisted that his "bloc" will stay together and not be broken up.  In any coalition talks with other parties, he has maintained that any government will include all of these parties.  The difficulty is that all of the remaining parties oppose significant parts of the agenda that these 4 parties are proffering.  Blue and White, Yisrael Beitenu and, AMG are all looking to reduce the power of the ultra-religious, at least to some extent.

The bigger issue has been a key demand made by Netanyahu.  As you may know, he is currently facing three separate, serious criminal indictments.  His trial is due to start in about two weeks, though it may take a year or two until it is completed.  His party has been insisting on two different laws (bills to be passed) as part of any coalition agreement. One law would grant him retroactive immunity from prosecution while holding office.  Some forms of this law would allow him to be prosecuted after leaving office while others would immunize him outright.  The other bill would ensure that the Supreme Court cannot strike down the first law - by allowing the Knesset to override any decision of the Supreme Court.  Both of these bills are acceptable to Netanyahu's bloc partners. But neither bill is acceptable to any other party.

The main reason that a coalition agreement could not be reached after the past two elections was that no  other parties were prepared to accede to Netanyahu's demands for retroactive immunity.  He had to keep going with additional elections until he could get 61 supporters to pass these bills.  It was literally life or death for him politically.  Without immunity, he risks going to prison, if convicted.

On Monday night, after the election, as exit poll results were coming in, Netanyahu claimed that he had won an "enormous victory."  His expectation was that he would be able to reach 61 seats, put together his right wing coalition and legislate away his criminal problems.  For a while, that looked like it might happen.  His supporters were seen dancing, singing songs of victory and celebrating wildly.

But  as the real results dripped in slowly, the picture began to change.  Netanyahu wound up with a bloc of only 58 seats, three short of a majority.

On Tuesday, he sent out all of his key advisors and former ministers to argue on TV and radio appearances that he had won the election, that the Israeli public had made a decision and that he should now be able to form the government.  The problem is that this was premature and inaccurate.  While he had won 3 more seats than the Blue and White party and that gave him a plurality, it was not enough to give him a majority.  58 Knesset members have been elected in support of Netanyahu and his bloc but 62 have been elected to oppose that bloc.  Most people, though not everyone these days, agree that 62 is more than 58.

By Wednesday morning, the opposition parties - sometimes described as centre-left together with the Joint List, were proposing a law that would bar a leader under indictment from serving as Prime Minister.  If they are able to pass this law, Netanyahu would be out of cards to play other than perhaps an appeal to the Israeli Supreme Court to override the law.  (From a legal perspective, there is a reasonable argument that it is an improper law since it would be enacted after Bibi won the election).  It is almost like fighting one retroactive proposal by enacting another one.  Not the strategy I might have chosen, but the opposition seems to believe that this would be the best way to avoid a fourth election.

So Bibi, as he is affectionately called, took to the airwaves for a press conference.  He held a press conference that was nationally televised.  He went through the math as he sees it.  He said that there were 58 votes for the "Israeli, Jewish, Zionist right."  On the other hand, he argued that there were only 47 for the "Israeli, Jewish, Zionist left." (He included Lieberman).  He  noted that the Arab party had won 15 seats but he marked a big X through that number and said that they effectively did not count.  (See photo above).  Even though these seats represented 15 democratically, legally elected members of the Knesset.

He then said that "we won this election and we are not going to allow anyone to steal it from us."

Very strong words indeed.  Especially coming from someone who has lost - 62-58.

With all of that having taken place, we are now left with trying to figure out what comes next.  I have to say that I really have no idea.

Here are some options:

1.  Netanyahu and the Likud could  convince 3 or more Knesset members to "defect" from their parties and join him to allow him to form a 61+ seat majority.  This seems quite unlikely right now.  It would require some members of the Blue and White party or the AMG to join him.  While there may be some Blue and White party members who are ideologically close to Bibi, I just don't see them moving over at this time.

2.  Netanyahu could negotiate some kind of coalition with Blue and White.  I can't imagine that they would give him the immunity he is seeking and this might involve a rotation of Prime Ministers.  Seems unlikely right now but anything is possible.

3.  A fourth election.  Even though it makes no sense and seems  unlikely to resolve  anything, it may well be a possible outcome.

4.  Netanyahu forced to resign as a result of a left-sponsored bill that bars him from being Prime Minister while under indictment.  This would allow Likud and Blue and White to reach a coalition deal fairly quickly.  It seems to me that this might happen after a fourth election but not necessarily now.

In the meantime, Israel has no real government, only a caretaker government with limited powers and a limited budget.  Many government operations are underfunded and being neglected.  The country needs a government but there is no obvious solution as to how that is about to occur.  Especially given the political deadlock.

The next few weeks will be fascinating politics.  We can only hope that sooner or later Israel will have a stable government.  Unfortunately, it is hard to see how that will take place in the near future.






Friday, September 6, 2019

Israeli Election 2019 - Some Possible Outcomes

The second Israeli national election of 2019 is due to take place on September 17, 2019.  Since I haven't been writing as much lately, I thought I was overdue to put together some comments about the upcoming election.  In the past I have reviewed the platforms of the various parties and provided some comments.  In this post, I thought I would try to look at some realistic possible outcomes, based on current polling numbers and consider what Israel might face following the elections.  This is certainly not "Torah mi-Sinai," as I have been very wrong in the past when trying to predict Israeli political outcomes.

I figure that there are about 4 or 5 realistic possible outcomes and I will consider them and the implications of these outcomes.

1.  A Likud (Netanyahu) Victory

At this point, with about 11 days to go until the election, I would have to think that this is the most likely outcome.  The Likud party, led by Prime Minister Netanyahu, needs to assemble a coalition of 61 seats to have a majority in the Israeli Knesset and form the government.  Following the previous election, Netanyahu was able to string together up to 60 but not quite enough to form a government.  Once it became clear  that he was unable to form the government, Israeli customary practice would have normally seen the President ask the next party in line (Blue and White) to try to form the government.  But Netanyahu preempted this step and brought a bill to the Knesset to dissolve the Knesset and set another election date. 

So there are now at least two different ways, perhaps even three that the Likud could form a government.

One possibility would be if the Likud and its coalition partners obtain 61 seats or more. 

Current polling from a whole range of different Israeli polls estimates Likud at between 30 and 32 seats, a drop of 6-8 seats.  The two ultra-religious parties, Shas and UTJ are estimated at 8 each, with no change.  The Yamina party, which is a coalition of a number of right wing nationalist parties, replacing Bennett's previous party, and now led by Ayelet Shaked, is polling at between 8 and 10 seats.  So add all of that up, at the high end and you come up with about 58 seats.  If Likud were to pick up 3 more, by itself or if any of its coalition partners were to add seats, Likud could get to a 61 seat coalition without Lieberman. 

A second possibility is a deal with Lieberman (Yisrael Beitenu).  If the Likud is unable to put together a governing coalition of 61 seats without Lieberman's party, it will almost certainly try to negotiate a deal with Lieberman's party.

Following the last elections, Likud was unable to come up with a coalition deal that would have satisfied the ultra-religious parties and the secular nationalist Yisrael Beitenu party.  Neither Lieberman nor the ultra-religious were willing to make sufficient compromises, particularly on the issue of drafting ultra-religious men to the army. 

While it is true that Lieberman seems to  have gained significant public support by demonstrating a willingness to stand up to the ultra-orthodox, his party otherwise shares many of Likud's political positions.  His party is willing to support a retroactive immunity bill that would get Netanyahu out of his various legal troubles.  This would also help other coalition partners who are under investigation.  Lieberman is also willing to support the "attack on the Supreme Court" bill (my description) that would give the Knesset the power to override any decision of the Supreme Court by a simple majority.  This is an important bill for Netanyahu since he knows that the retroactive immunity bill would probably be struck down otherwise as a violation of the principles of fundamental justice.

Lieberman's support for these bills would be life-saving for Netanyahu since it would end all of his legal problems.  Lieberman is certainly not a pushover but Netanyahu desperately needs these pieces of legislation to avoid the possibility of winding up in jail.  I think that there is strong likelihood that Netanyahu and Lieberman will negotiate some kind of deal if Likud cannot otherwise get to 61.

A third possibility for a Likud win is some other type of coalition without Lieberman.  Suppose that Likud and his coalition partners wound up with 57-60 without Lieberman.  They would need to find 1-4 additional supporters from elsewhere.  One possibility is to convince a few right-leaning Blue and White party members to join a Likud coalition, perhaps in exchange for cabinet posts other other attractive offers.  Or perhaps some Labor members or members of the Democratic Union might be willing to make a deal.  I think that these are relatively unlikely scenarios.  I find it hard to see that some Blue and White Knesset members or members of the other parties would agree to the retroactive immunity bill and the court bill to protect Netanyahu.  And that seems to be the number one priority for Likud and Netanyahu.  That being said, in Israel there are always surprises and there is a great deal of horse trading (to put it nicely).  So I don't think that this possibility can be ruled out entirely.

2.  Another Stalemate

This is probably the second most likely possibility after some type of Likud victory.  If Lieberman holds steady and refuses to make a deal that will allow Netanyahu to continue to govern and if no other Knesset members from other parties are willing to defect and join Likud - Israel could see a third consecutive election.  With the holidays and other timing issues, this would likely mean a January or February election.  This could be a big problem for Netanyahu.  If his criminal trial moves ahead and he has not been able to enact an immunity bill to make everything go away, he could be forced to step down at some point to defend against the charges.  This could change the Israeli political landscape quite a bit.  To me, it underscores the urgency of a deal for Netanyahu - with Lieberman or anyone else - at all costs (from Netanyahu's perspective).


3. A National Unity Government

Many people in Israel have discussed this option but I don't believe it is very likely at this point.

On the one hand, if Likud were to have the plurality of seats, Netanyahu would be looking to retain his role as Prime Minister and pass the two bills that his party has been pushing to protect himself.  I find it hard to see how the Blue and White party could agree to a retroactive immunity bill or even the Supreme Court bill.  Blue and White might be willing to agree  to have Netanyahu continue to govern - without these pieces of legislation.  In this case, he would face the possibility of having to resign at some point as the prosecution progressed.  I don't think Netanyahu would agree to a deal without immunity. 

If Blue and White were to win a plurality of seats, they could ask Likud to join a national unity government, with or without Netanyahu - with no immunity bill. Again, this seems quite unlikely to me since the Likud members have shown a willingness to continue to support Netanyahu irrespective of the challenges that he faces.

The landscape would only change if the Blue and White party came out ahead of Likud by 5-6 seats or more and Likud realized that it simply could not get to 61.  In this scenario, Netanyahu would, at some point, be forced to resign and face charges while the rest of the Likud party made a deal with Blue and White.  This seems highly unlikely to me for several reasons.  For one, I don't think that Blue and and White is about to get such a big win at the polls.  They don't really seem to have the momentum and don't seem likely to finish ahead of Likud by 5-8 seats.  Anything is possible but I am not predicting that outcome.

I also think that it is unlikely that so many Likud members would suddenly turn on Netanyahu after so many years of benefiting from his  leadership.  And I believe that with so much at stake, Netanyahu will pull out all the stops to cut a deal with someone to get the immunity bill and stay in power if there is any possible way of doing so. 


 4.  A Blue and White Win

While this is a theoretical possibility, I don't see how the numbers add up.   With a coalition of Blue and White, Labor, the Democratic Union (formerly Meretz) and even Lieberman, the total would come to 50-55.  I suppose that there is a chance that Blue and White could convince the ultra-religious parties to join a coalition - but that would put Blue and White into the same difficulty that Likud has faced - balancing Ultra-religious demands with those of Lieberman (and now the Democratic Union).  This would really require some creative deal-making on the part of Ganz and the Blue and White party.  It is possible that they could get the chance to try if none of the other possibilities reviewed above lead to a government.  Overall, I see this as unlikely but not impossible.

Conclusion

These different possibilities are all based on a review of current projected polling numbers combined with my own gut sense of where things are headed.  But election polling can be off quite dramatically and the numbers may be very different from those in the polls.  Likud could wind up at 37-40 seats, supported by many Israelis who don't really want to tell pollsters that they are voting Likud.  However, these seats would probably come from Yamina (or maybe Blue and White) so it is not clear that even with 38-40, Netanyahu would be able to get to a coalition of 61 without Lieberman.

Watching election results in Israel is very different from watching in Canada or the United States.  The actual polling station reports don't seem to turn up on a regular ongoing basis in the same way.  Instead, the media reports on "exit polling" numbers and uses those reports to predict the election outcome.  But the real results are usually not determined until the next morning - or perhaps even a few days later.  So whereas in Canada or the U.S., most elections are usually decided by 10 p.m. or 11 p.m., the latest, that is not the case in Israel.  We will probably only have a decent sense of the actual numbers by 10 or 11 a.m. Israel time on September 18th, 2019 (3 a.m. on the east coast for those in North America who plan to stay up and wait for the news...).

Even once the actual numbers are known, that will only really mark the start of coalition talks which are almost guaranteed to take a month or two.  So stay tuned for a wild and crazy ride.  It is almost certain that Israelis and Jews around the world will find themselves fasting on Yom Kippur without knowing what kind of government Israel will have for the coming years.  As for  Netanyahu, he may find himself fasting while hoping that he can continue to blow his own Shofar and that any negative decrees (from above, from the Israeli public or from the Israeli courts) can be averted. 








Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Israeli Election Update - April 9 2019 Elections

Hi everyone.  It has been a while.  I have been quite occupied with a range of other pursuits - including my professional career.  So I have neglected my Israeli-oriented blogging.  But with only one week to go until Israeli elections, I thought an election blog was well overdue.  I was reminded of this recently by a couple of friends and I thought I might have something to add.

In 2013, I put together a detailed preview.  I have referenced that here: 2013 Israeli Election Preview.
So I won't reinvent the wheel.  I would also suggest that you could have a look at this presentation - put together by someone close to me...

But things have changed quite a bit this time around.  There are several new political parties.  Some parties have vanished and others are teetering on the edge of oblivion.  It should be quite an interesting election.

Most polls and surveys seem to be dividing the Israeli electorate into "Right Wing" and "Left Wing" blocs.  The labels are probably somewhat misleading since the parties' positions on particular issues are not always readily discernible.  However, the main reason for the classifications is that Israeli politics is always about coalition building.  In order to form a government, one of the parties will need to string together a coalition of at least 61 seats in the Knesset (the Israeli parliament).  This would give the government a voting majority and allow it to pass legislation.  So if the parties on the "right" are able to cobble together at least 61 seats, they will likely form the government even if the largest party in the coalition is not the party with the most overall votes.  I will explain that as we go along.  I thought I would first look at the main parties, current polling and some of the parties' political positions.

The Likud

The only "major" right wing party now according to most polls and predictions is the Likud, the party led by the current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.  Over the past few months, polls have varied with the Likud winning somewhere between 26 and 32 seats.  Likud currently has 30 seats in the Knesset which suggests that the party is not likely to gain or lose too many supporters.  Since the last Israeli elections, Prime Minister Netanyahu has led a solidly right of centre government in a coalition with ultra-religious parties (13 seats), right wing nationalist parties (13 seats) and a centre-right party (10).  Over the 9 years of his current mandate, in which Netanyahu has won three elections, his party's policies have varied somewhat depending on the coalition partners.  Between 2013 and 2015, the government veered towards the centre as a result of the influence of the Yesh Atid party, led by Yair Lapid.  However, since 2015, the Netanyahu government has undone any centrist leaning policies that were implemented during those years and has moved the government to the right in most areas including social legislation, increased support for religious institutions, supreme court reform and a host of other areas.  By any objective measure, it is clearly the most right wing government in Israel's history.  Some Israelis are obviously quite happy about that while others are frustrated and disappointed.

Prime Minister Netanyahu has also been wrestling with a range of personal scandals, which have resulted in the Attorney General recommending charges in three different cases.  All of these charges are subject to preliminary hearings before proceeding, which have yet to take place.  Other stories continue to emerge about matters for which Netanyahu has not yet been charged.  Although some might have thought that these wide ranging allegations of corruption would have affected Netanyahu in the polls, that does not appear to be the case.  For one thing, none of the charges have actually gone forward and there are many Israelis who say that he should be treated as innocent unless and until he is found guilty of something.  It is unclear what might happen to the charges after the election, especially if Netanyahu wins and forms the government.  He may well escape from any sanctions but that remains to be seen.

Blue and White Party

The big change  for this election is the addition of the Blue and White party, a merger between Yair Lapid's "Yesh Atid" and Benny Ganz's new party "Hosen."  Unlike the characterization in some of the polls and attacks by Netanyahu, this is not a "left wing" party.  Its membership includes former army generals and high ranking offices with impressive military credentials.  The party has indicated that it is willing to renew diplomatic efforts with Palestinians to try and reach some type of peace agreement.  At the same time, it is as willing as the Likud to take strong military action in Gaza or anywhere else to defend Israel against military and terrorist threats.

Economically, the party is probably not that different from Likud in its capitalist outlook although it has proposed some economic policies that may align more with the centre or centre left.  It has also stated a willingness to look at issues of gender equality, religious pluralism, education reform, budget allocation for religious institutions and other domestic issues.  For many Israeli voters, who do not wish to see Netanyahu continue on as Prime Minister, the Blue and White party seems to be the only option and it is currently running neck and neck with the Likud at anywhere from 28 to 32 seats in recent polls.

That being said, even if Blue and White were to capture 30 or 32 seats, it might have a very difficult time piecing together a coalition of 61.  In fact, that might even be impossible, depending on the exact numbers for each of the parties.

One possibility is that Blue and White could win a plurality and offer to run a national coalition government with Likud.  However, it seems unlikely that Likud would agree, especially if Netanyahu continues to lead the party.


Smaller Right Wing Parties

There are four smaller right wing parties running in this election, each with slightly different constituencies and each vying to demonstrate that it is the true right wing alternative to the Likud party.

Yisrael Beitenu, under the leadership of Avigdor Lieberman is currently polling at around 4-5 seats and flirting with falling below the cut off point (3.25%).  Parties that get less than the minimum amount of popular vote do not make it into the Knesset.  Lieberman's party has been in and out of the government's ruling coalition over the years.  He represents a nationalist but not religious constituency, many of whom are of Russian origin.  The party has taken some right wing positions on territorial issues but has, in the past, suggested that it would be willing to engage in land swaps as way of reaching a deal with the Palestinians.  Lieberman has often been at odds with Netanyahu.  There could be a chance that if Yisrael Beitenu were to hold the balance of power and it were to get the right offer, it would join Blue and White as part of a government.  The party would however, in general, be a more natural partner for the Likud party.

New Right

Earlier this year, Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked left "Habayit Hayehudi" ("The Jewish Home") and formed a new party called "The New Right."  In doing so, they seem to have taken about half of their support from the former party.  One might say that they left the Home and took half of the contents....

So the New Right is polling at between 4 and 7 seats.  The remaining members cobbled together another new coalition, now called the United Right which is also polling at 4 to 7 seats.  Neither of these parties seem likely to join any party other than Likud.  Both are committed to opposing any land concessions to the Palestinians and to continuing the status quo or annexing all of the disputed territories.  This looks to be anywhere from 8 to 14 seats that will be "low hanging fruit" for the Likud in any coalition talks.

The other small right wing party is the Zehut (Identity) party of Moshe Feiglin.  This self-described ultra-nationalist, libertarian party has campaigned on a platform of cannabis legalization, privatization of just about everything, annexation of all of the disputed territories and an increased separation between Synagogue and State.  Zehut also favours easing up on Israeli gun control laws and allowing for non-religious civil marriage in Israel, possibly even same sex marriage.  Zehut has apparently picked up quite a bit of support among young voters and is polling at between 4 and 5 seats, with some pundits predicting that the party may get as many as 7-10 seats.  Once again, the party is a more likely partner of the Likud but might be willing to negotiate with the Blue and White party if they could find some common ground.  The right amount of shared weed might make that more of a possibility, especially if both parties can agree on legalizing cannabis.

Some have joked around that Feiglin's supporters might be too stoned to make it to the polls - but the Zehut party seems poised to surprise the electorate and the pundits with a sizable showing.


The Left

According to most polls, the Labour party seems likely to suffer its worst defeat ever.  It is polling at between 8 and 10 seats.  It has played a very small role in public election discourse.  It has suffered from infighting including a disastrous public break up with Tsipi Livni, a former coalition partner.  Old style Labour economic policies do not seem to be appealing to most of the Israeli electorate.  The party recognized this by choosing Avi Gabai, more of a centrist, to lead the party.  However, the Labour campaign, by most accounts, has been a disaster.  Perhaps the numbers will change on election day but that seems unlikely.  A reasonably strong showing by Labour could still be helpful for the Blue and White party since the Blue and White party is the only possible coalition partner for Labour.  If Blue and White could win 32-35 seats and Labour could win 10-12, there might be a chance that Blue and White could form the government, with a prominent role for the Labour party.  If Labour only wins 7 or 8 seats, the party will likely spend the next four years in the political wilderness (i.e. the desert in Israel...)

Further along the spectrum is the Meretz party - a socially activist, proudly left wing party.  Meretz seems to be polling at consistent 4-6 seat numbers.  It could obtain some concessions from Blue and White and form part of the government if the option were available but that would really depend on all of the other numbers.  Like its counterparts on the right, Meretz really only has one available option to be part of the government.  Of course for Meretz that is the Blue and White party rather than the Likud.

The Ultra Religious

The two ultra-religious parties, Shas and UTJ (United Torah Judaism) are polling at a total of 12 to 14 seats.  They have played a key role in the current government and have held various cabinet positions.  The ultra-religious parties extracted significant concessions from Netanyahu and the Likud during the last round of coalition building negotiations.  They obtained massive funding for their Yeshivot (religious educational institutions) and for the ultra-religious infrastructure in Israel. They also succeeded in passing new laws that would keep more retail places closed on Shabbat.  Given what they have achieved with Netanyahu at the helm, it is unlikely that they would join a Blue and White coalition.  At the same time, historically, the ultra-religious parties have shown a willingness to join more centrist parties if they can obtain significant concessions.  If the Blue and White party were to make these far-reaching concessions, that would alienate many of their voters.  I find it hard to see these parties joining Blue and White.

The Arab Parties

There are two Arab parties - Hadash Tal (polling at approximately 6-9 seats) and Ra'am Balad (polling at between 3 and 5 seats).  If Ra'am Balad were to get 3, it would not make it into the Knesset.  So the likely numbers are anywhere from 6 to 14, a wide spread.  The Arab parties are not likely to join either governing group but could bolster a Blue and White coalition by voting with it - or agreeing not to vote against it.

Adding up everything, current polls are putting the right wing parties at anywhere from 62 to 68 seats and the other parties at 52 to 56.

If there is to be a change in government in Israel, the poll numbers would need to change significantly on election day.  That could happen since election polls around the world seem to have become less and less dependable.

As well, some of the "right wing" parties could be enticed into a coalition with Blue and White with the right concessions.

In my view, the Blue and White Party would need at least 35-36 seats to have a chance at forming the government, with the Likud party winning 28 or less.  If the Likud party has 30 seats or more and the Blue and White party has less than 35, the Likud will almost certainly form the government once again and Benjamin Netanyahu will continue as Israel's Prime Minister....for now.

I am looking forward to arriving in Israel just in time to vote and then sitting in front of the TV watching results all night (and maybe for several days afterwards).  That being said, I'll simply add that I am not optimistic that Israel will have a competent, stable or forward-looking government in power over the coming years.  Then again, looking around at what is taking place in so many countries around the world, is this a great surprise?

If you are an Israeli citizen and eligible to vote - make sure to go and exercise your right.  B'hatzlachah to all the candidates and to all of those voters hoping that their party will win.





Monday, March 16, 2015

Last Israel Pre-Election Blog 2015 and Predictions


Isaac Herzog and Tsipi Livni
Netanyahu and Bennett
 We are nearing the finish line.  Or perhaps, one could say, we are nearing the starting line, given the Israeli political system.  In some ways the real drama begins when the coalition building starts after the votes are all counted.  But tomorrow is a big day.  Israelis across the country will cast their ballots and it will then probably take quite a period of time to sort out and spin the results.  Students are thrilled - they have a day off school since in Israel, an election day is almost a national holiday.

Under Israeli law, the last pre-election polls could only be published Friday March 13, 2015.  But over the past few days, there has been a flurry of activity from all sides, jockeying for last minute position.  Here are a few last-minute highlights of some of the really interesting things that are going on (in my view anyways).


1.  Netanyahu is in Desperation Mode

Prime Minister Netanyahu is pulling out all the stops in a bid to retain his position.  He attended a large rally on Saturday night in Tel-Aviv with Bayit Hayehudi leader Naftali Bennett.  He has publicly appealed to his constituency by pledging that Bennett will be a key part of his government.  He has attacked Herzog and Livni as "weak" and claimed that they will divide Jerusalem and create "Hamastan" in Jerusalem.  In short, he has made every effort to appeal to his right wing base, seemingly ceding much of the centrist vote on issues involving the Palestinians.  He has renounced any previous speeches in which he indicated that he would be willing to agree to a Palestinian State and he has wooed the right wing and the Israeli religious voters feverishly.  At the same time, he has urged Moshe Kahlon (leader of the Kulanu party) to support him and he has pledged to provide economic assistance to the middle class despite the perception that he has a failed record in this regard.  While Netanyahu's calculation is that the Likud voters will be frightened into bolstering his party at the last minute, there is some danger that this will backfire.  There is a palpable sense of desperation.  The momentum has been moving in the other direction and it is certainly unclear that these desperate speeches and statements will stem the tide.

2.  The Zionist Camp is Feeling Confident

Indications are that the Zionist Camp will win a plurality of seats.  However, it still may not be enough to enable the party to build a viable coalition and form a government.  Nevertheless, the party is also making several last minute appeals, changes and pleas in an effort to shore up its support.  Leader Isaac Herzog visited the Kotel and pledged his support for Jerusalem.  He has attacked Lapid's Yesh Atid Party and urged centrist voters to support his party.  Earlier today, he and co-leader Tsipi Livni announced that they would not go through with their plans to have a rotating Prime Minister's office and that Herzog would be the sole Prime Minister if the party wins.  This was seemingly intended to enable the party more flexibility in coalition negotiations - perhaps even opening the door to a rotation with Likud (which may or may not involve Netanyahu).

3.  Meretz is also Desperate

As I have written previously, the Meretz party, the party of left wing social justice, is flirting with elimination from the Knesset.  Under new Israeli electoral law, a party must win 4 seats to be able to sit in the Knesset.  That total has been increased to minimize the number of parties and limit the ability of extremist parties to win Knesset seats.  Meretz is polling at 4 or 5 seats.  Meretz has stepped up its campaigning with ads everywhere.  It is appealing to voters by claiming that the Meretz party is needed for there to be any chance for Herzog to form a government.  In fact, it has used a stylized "Merzog" graphic to bolster the connection, mixing its party name with Herzog.  But many Meretz voters are moving to the Zionist Camp, hoping that this will finally be an opportunity for the left/centre to form a government.  It could be a very close call for Meretz.

4.  Shas and Yachad

As I discussed previously, the ultra-religious Shas party splintered over the course of this most recent Knesset sitting.  Eli Yishai left the party and formed the Yachad party which is now polling at 4 or 5 seats.  Shas is calling on its voters to "come home" to the legacy of the late Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, its former spiritual leader.  Yishai is flailing around in an effort to reunite with Shas or find some other way to make it into the Knesset.  It would be a huge boost for the Israeli centre if Yishai were to fall short since his 4 seats would be redistributed among the other parties, proportionately.  

5.  Centrist Struggle:  Lapid or Kahlon?

In the last Knesset, Yair Lapid's party Yesh Atid had 19 seats.  The party is now polling at 12.  A new party, Kulanu, led by former Likud member Moshe Kahlon is polling at 8.  A simplistic look at these numbers would suggest that these parties are fighting over the same group of voters - approximately 15-18% of the Israeli public who view themselves as true centrists.  Lapid has edged slightly to the left, indicating that it is now highly unlikely that he would join a Netanyahu-led government (again).  Kahlon has been wooed by Likud but has refused to commit to supporting Netanyahu. These two parties could be the real power brokers and could also wind up with surprising numbers.  It is likely that the two parties combined will wind up in the range of 18-25 seats, which is certainly a force to be reckoned with.

Predictions

It is extremely difficult to predict Israeli election results. Many Israelis continue to declare themselves to be "undecided" to pollsters - whether or not that is really true.  Others are still deciding between one or two or even three parties.  Some may not decide until they are in the polling booth.  But what is a political column like this worth without making an effort?  So here goes, based on recent polls, trends, discussions with others, gut instincts and perhaps, a complete lack of qualifications as an election predictor - here is what I am going with:

Zionist Camp:  27
Likud:  21
Yesh Atid:  16
United Arab Parties: 13
Bayit Yehudi 13
Shas 8
Kahlon 7
Degel HaTorah 6
Yisrael Beitenu 5
Meretz 4
Yachad OUT

If this were to occur, Herzog would have 30 days to try and form a government.  He would be able to count on the support of Yesh Atid, Meretz and maybe Kahlon.  That could get the party to 54.  They would still need seats from the religious parties and/or Lieberman to be able to form a government.  Alternatively, they would try to form a unity government agreement with Likud.  I am having a hard time, based on these numbers, seeing how the Zionist Camp could actually form a government.  I am almost forced to predict that we will see another election within a two year period.

On the other hand, if Netanyahu continued to fight over the initial 30 day period and Herzog could not form a government, Netanyahu would get a chance to try.  He could count on Bayit Yehudi, Shas and Degel HaTorah.  That would get him to 48 with these numbers.  Add 5 for Lieberman.  That is 53.  He would still need Kahlon and Yesh Atid or at least Yesh Atid.  At this point, it is highly unlikely that Yesh Atid will bolster a right-wing religious government, since that would involve unraveling all of the changes that Lapid has pushed for.

This all looks like quite a recipe for a political logjam.

Netanyahu is not about to go quietly.  However, looking at all of these results and possibilities, the most likely of the unlikely scenarios is starting to look like a joint Zionist Camp-Likud government, supported by Lapid, Kahlon and Meretz.  It would be quite a shock but there are Israeli precedents.

The alternative would be a Herzog-led government which includes two of the three - Shas, Degel HaTorah, and Lieberman - as well as Kahlon and Lapid.  I'm not seeing it....

So that is the best I can do.  Stay tuned.  We should have a good sense by Wednesday morning as to how these numbers stack up with the official results.