Showing posts with label Likud. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Likud. Show all posts

Thursday, March 11, 2021

Pre-Passover Blog - Election Analysis and Vaccine Update

 

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

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

Election News and Analysis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Positive News - Vaccine  Effectivenesss

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

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

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

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

Wishing everyone the best of health!












Sunday, February 7, 2021

February 2021: Covid Update, Election Preview and...

We didn't have Groundhog Day in Israel but we had "Tu Be'Shvat" about a week ago - where we marked the "New Year of the Trees."  People plant trees, eat a variety of dried fruits and, of course, have a bit of wine, to mark this minor holiday, which has made a major comeback in Jewish life since the founding of the State of  Israel in 1948.  Many synagogues and even some  secular organizations hold variants of a Tu B'Shvat Seder - a meal during which a variety of different fruits are eaten, a variety of wines are consumed and there is lots of discussion about the environment as well as other contemporary Israeli issues.  I actually attended two different Zoom events with participants from all over the  world.  A different way to celebrate than most years.   But a nice holiday concept.

So here we are in February 2021, and I thought I would cover a few different topics, which will be familiar to the readers of this blog.  I'll try and think of a few different things to add at the end.

Covid-19 Developments

This type of update could probably take up a whole blog but I will try to keep it relatively short.   As you may know, Israel has been vaccinating its residents at a blazing pace (compared to many other countries).  At its peak, the inoculation rate was up to about 200,000 shots a day.  For a population of 9.5 million, that is a very promising rate.

In fact, Prime Minister Netanyahu held a press conference about a month ago, where he promised Israelis that they would all be able to get  together with their extended families for Passover Seders in person this year.

In the  meantime, however, he warned that the virus was spreading at an alarming rate and the country needed a full shutdown.  So Israeli instituted a lockdown including a shutdown of the airport until the vaccination program could be closer to completion.

Weeks later, the virus is still spreading in Israel at an extraordinary rate.  54 people died over the weekend.  It is hard to project when things will really improve.  Experts are predicting that Netanyahu's Passover promise will not likely come to fruition and it may be a second consecutive year of Zoom Seders.  We will soon start to cook the virtual brisket.

According to some studies, the vaccinations are dramatically reducing the rate of infections for people over 60, of whom approximately 75% have been vaccinated.  But the virus is spreading rapidly among younger people, especially some of the mutated  versions of it.

On the good  news side, the Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv reported that it had developed a treatment that was successful in treating 29 of 31 seriously ill patients.  The hospital has requested approval to roll  out a wider test group and is confident that this relatively inexpensive treatment may be a very positive development.

At the same time, as the rate of vaccination continues to increase, Israel expects that the infection rate will begin to drop dramatically. It remains to be seen how long it will take to approach herd immunity or anything close to it.  Some commentators have estimated that it may not be until June or July 2021, even with the high rate of vaccination.

Despite all of this, including the high infection rate as of the time of writing, the government is reopening a  significant  part of the economy today - including many stores, hair salons, take out restaurants (up until now it was delivery only), and many schools.  There is an anticipation that there will be an increased infection rate over the coming weeks though the government is hoping that the vaccination rate will offset that.  I guess we may still wind up with a 4th closure.

Political Developments

As you might know, Israel has an election scheduled for March 23, 2021, the 4th election in the past 2 1/2 years.  This past Thursday was the deadline for the official entry of parties and  their respective slates.  A few newly formed  parties dropped out and there was also an amalgamation.  As of now, there are 14 different parties running.

The largest party is still Netanyahu's governing "Likud" party, a right wing nationalist party that is running at estimates of between 28 and 32 seats in the 120 seat Knesset.  There are also two ultra-orthodox parties that will almost certainly support  Netanyahu and they are estimated at having between 13 and 16 seats.  There is a newly merged ultra-right nationalist party running that is polling at between 0 and 5 seats.  It could be zero because the cut-off is 4 seats.  If a party  winds up with less than 3.5% of the popular vote, it does not make it into the Knesset and its votes are dispersed proportionately.  Netanyahu is hoping that this "Otzma-Noam" coalition makes it into the Knesset, since it would almost certainly support him.  So in this "Pro-Netanyahu" camp, early predictions put his potential coalition at between 41 and 53.  There are still more than 6 weeks to go, so a great deal can change.

Of course, Netanyahu would still need between 8 and 20 seats to put together a  coalition based on these numbers.  Where would that come from?  There are two more  right wing parties.

"Yamina" is a right wing party led by Naftali Bennett.  Yamina has been trying to outflank Netanyahu on the right.  It is crowded territory since it is also occupied by two other parties.  From interviews that I have seen, Yamina does not rule out joining a Netanyahu-led coalition, even though Bennett has Prime-Ministerial aspirations himself.  Nevertheless, they are predicted to get between 10 and 13 seats.  If they were to join Netanyahu, that could  get Likud to between 51 and 66.  Depending on actual numbers, that could be enough to form a very right wing government.

The other right wing party running is Gideon Saar's "New Hope" party which is a split-off from the  Likud.  This is the first election in which New Hope will be running.  Its leader has vowed not to enter a coalition with Netanyahu and has signed a live televised pledge to confirm his intentions.  But, of course, Israelis all remember the last election.  The previous  leader of the Labour party, Amir Peretz had vowed that he would  not join Netanyahu.  He had a large bushy  moustache that  was his trademark image.  He shaved  it as part of a "read my lips" promise not to join Netanyahu.  But shortly after the election, he joined in exchange for a cabinet position....He is now no longer the leader of the Labour party - or even a member.  

Saar is a very different candidate and has much more support  than Peretz had.  But ultimately, his agenda is very similar to Netanyahu's - much closer to Netanyahu than Peretz was.  He supports a continued expansion of the  settlements.  He is happy to enter a  coalition with the ultra-Orthodox.  He has, at times, defended  Netanyahu against some of Netanyahu's criminal charges.  In short, the only real difference is that he claims that is "not-corrupt" and is willing to put the country's needs ahead of his own.  Saarry but I have a hard time seeing it.  I believe that if Saar's only hope of being in the government is with a Netanyahu led coalition, he will make that decision even though he may negotiate a better deal than Gantz signed.  Saar's party is running at between 11 and 16 estimated seats, though I sense that their support could decrease between now and the election.

So at this  point, it looks like Netanyahu could have potential coalition members of between 62 and 80 assuming that he can leverage Yamina and Saar against each other, or get them both to join.  One of these options seems likely.

All that being said, the numbers can still change quite a bit.  These are, after all, only polls.

The leader of the opposition group is now Yair Lapid, still heading the Yesh Atid ("there is a Future") party.   Lapid's party seems to have some increasing momentum and is running at between 14 and 17 seats.   The party still has room to grow but there is a great deal of antagonism towards Lapid, especially among the Ultra-Orthodox and even many in the Orthodox sector.  For the last election, Lapid ran with Benny Gantz of the Blue and White Party.  Together, the two parties  received more than 30 seats.  But Gantz's half  of the party cut a deal with Netanyahu, joined the government and left the merged party.  As a result, the remaining part of Blue and White, led by Gantz, is polling at between 0 and 5 seats down from about 15.  They have been eviscerated since Gantz went against his whole raison d'etre and  joined Netanyahu.  Lapid, who refused to join Bibi and will continue to refuse, has kept his party's support.  He has also retained much more support from the public than Gantz.

The right wing secular party Yisrael Beitenu, led by Avigdor Lieberman is polling at 6-8 seats.  This party could  join Lapid or Saar but has said it will not join a Netanyahu  government.  It has held out  now for 3 elections so there is no reason to assume that they will fold.

Two left wing parties, Labour and Meretz are running at between 10 and 14 seats total.   Labour has had a resurgence. It has elected a woman as its  leader, the only Israeli party with a woman at the helm.  Merav Michaeli promptly held democratic elections for  the Labour slate and staked  out more traditional Labour-supported positions.  Under her leadership, the party has been growing and could rise much higher than its current polling numbers of 5 to 9 seats.  Labour will certainly not join Netanyahu but could  join Lapid or Saar if either have viable options to cobble a governing coalition together, provided  that  the Labour party can extract a reasonable  price for its support.

Meretz is a left wing secular party with focus on equality.  It has remained constant at about 5 seats and would also be willing to join Lapid or Saar  under the right conditions.  Meretz will definitely not join a Netanyahu led government.

Adding all of these numbers up, as of now, it appears that a centre-left coalition could cobble together between 35 and 40 seats.  If they were to add in the "New Hope Party" that could get them to between 50 and 55 seats.  Still short of being able to form a government. 

Rounding out the list of parties - we now have a fracture in the Arab parties.  In the last three elections, they ran as a coalition and received as many as 16 seats.  They have now splintered into two camps - one with estimates of 0-4 seats, the other with estimate of between 8 and 12.  The real issue is whether the Arab parties could  join the left-Centre coalition to string  together more than 61 and block Netanyahu.  Hard to say, though it is possible with the current  numbers.  It may all depend on what Saar wants to do with his New Hope.

Netanyahu has been courting the 4 seat Arab bloc and has met with its leader on several occasions.  He may even be hoping that these 4 will support his far right wing coalition bloc and enable him to get to 61 with Arab support.  This would be an incredibly cynical position to take since Netanyahu railed against the possibility of a left-centre coalition after the last election, which would have required the support of the  Arab parties.  Netanyahu called this type of government illegitimate, since it didn't have a "Jewish majority."  

There is one more centrist party called the "Economic Party" which is also running as an anti-Bibi party.  But they are currently not projected to pass the minimum threshold.  Led by three economics professors, they are confident that they will get between 5 and 8 seats and hope to focus on fixing the Israeli economy.  Hard to predict where they will wind up.

In short, after the next election, Saar may face the same choice that Benny Gantz had - either  make a deal with the Arab parties and somehow get to more than 61, make a deal with Netanyahu or call  yet another election.  Given that Saar is somewhat more to the right politically  than Gantz, it seems to me unlikely that he would enter a coalition deal with the Arab parties.  Much more likely that he would enter  an agreement with Netanyahu, despite his written pledge - if Netanyahu can get to 61 or more with his support.   

I have written more  than I planned about this, but it is all still premature.  We will have to watch polling numbers and see if anything changes between  now and March 23, 2021.  If the election were  held today, based on current numbers, I think Netanyahu would be  able to form another  government.  But things  could change drastically so the  next 7 weeks or so will be very interesting, especially if the economic party  and/or the Labour party can pick up seats at expense of Likud support.

Netanyahu's Trial

A short note to mention that Netanyahu's criminal trial is scheduled to resume tomorrow.  He is facing a variety of charges including bribery, corruption and breach of trust.  The trial has been delayed several times at Netanyahu's request for a variety of reasons - including the change of legal counsel, the political situation, Covid-19 and any number of other reasons.  His team has indicated that he will ask for another delay of the  trial  until after the  coming election. Of course, Netanyahu  is hoping that he can delay the matter until after the election and form a right wing coalition that will agree to a retroactive immunity bill.  There is a chance that a government made up of Likud, Yamina, Otzma and the two ultra religious parties would agree to this request but it is not clear at all, as of today, that this group alone could get to 61 seats and form a government.

If the trial does proceed, it will be a  fascinating legal and political event.  It is bound to be heated, dramatic and thoroughly entertaining - quite a spectacle.  From a legal perspective, I am very much looking forward to it. That being said, I doubt that it will ever take place - or at least, that it will not be completed.  In my view, it is likely to end  in one  of three ways - politically - with the retroactive immunity bill; legally with some type of plea-bargain deal; or hybrid politically/legally with a pre-emptive pardon from the President of Israel as part of a political/legal deal.  Based on the content of the various charges and Netanyahu's defences, it seems to me highly unlikely that he would take his chances with the defences he has put forward all the way through a trial.  But I guess we will find out soon enough - or perhaps over the next few years if Netanyahu's defence team can continue to drag things out as long as possible.

Other Notes

It is also Super Bowl Sunday today.  That means watching the game from 1:30 a.m. to about 5 a.m. Israel time.  I am up for it  - since it could be a fantastic game.   Two  very exciting teams.   Not too many people are interested in joining me at that time - and especially in the midst of  a pandemic - even though many of us have been vaccinated.  I'll be lucky if one or two other family members stay awake.  Also doubtful that there would be anywhere  to order a pizza from at that time - or that anyone would want to eat pizza at that time anyways, especially Israeli pizza, which for the most part is not particularly good.  In fairness, there are some decent places nearby that we have discovered during this lockdown year - so I guess pizza is still an option, as long as we order early and reheat it at half time.

We watched the Toronto Maple Leafs play last night.  That also started at about  2 a.m. Israel time.  The Leafs are off to an exciting start and have made some great line-up  changes.  They are  only playing other Canadian teams this year - so the competition level is not that high.    It is quite a challenge  to follow ice hockey here in Israel but every now and then I stay up to watch a game.  More so during the playoffs.

Overall, I haven't really been watching that much in the way of sports this year - other than  football, which will officially end today for a while.   I have no real interest in Israeli soccer or basketball - other than international competitions in which the Israeli national team is participating.  

Ben Gurion Airport is officially closed to most  travel until at least February 28th.  Air Canada has indicated that it is now only scheduling flights starting again on March 6, 2021.  These dates could still change.   But with the combination of new Canadian travel restrictions  and Israeli airport restrictions, it looks like those  of us who spend time in both Canada and Israel will be grounded for the foreseeable future.  

I wish everyone the best of health and will probably put together at least one more blog before the end of the month.









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, March 30, 2020

Israel Update - Government, Covid-19 and General Lockdown

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

Israeli Government

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Covid-19 Update

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

Miscellaneous Other

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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










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.





Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Netanyahu Finalizes His Haredi Coalition

Well, the negotiations are over and we have a new government in Israel.  A razor-thin 61 seat government, led by Prime Minister Netanyahu and his Likud party.  The government includes the UTJ (United Torah Judaism) (an ultra-religious Ashkenazi party), Shas (an ultra-religious Sefardi party, led by a convicted fraudster), Bayit Hayehudi (a religious Zionist party) and Moshe Kahlon's Kulanu party.  This is one big right wing party (or maybe a small right wing party, since it can hardly be described as a broad government).

Zionist Union Party leader Isaac Herzog called it "the weakest, most extortionist, most narrow government in Israeli history."  Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid called the coalition agreement "a liquidation sale."  Hard to argue with these characterizations.

By all accounts, the concessions given up by Prime Minister Netanyahu to the various coalition partners are excessive and wide-ranging.  The coalition agreement rewards the ultra-religious parties with a veritable reversal of a full range of changes that had been instituted at Lapid's behest in the previous mandate.  I have listed them already in previous blogs.  But "highlights" include:

  • Reversing the requirement that the ultra-religious be conscripted to the army, like other Israelis;
  • Reversing the requirement that state funded religious schools teach math and science and other secular subjects;
  • Reversing the cuts to yeshivas and restoring all funding to all ultra-religious programs to pre-2012 levels;
  • Providing the ultra-religious with an effective "veto" over any religion-state issues;
  • Installing UTJ Knesset members in some of the most important Knesset roles including Chair of the Knesset Finance Committee;
  • Turning over all key Education ministry positions to the religious parties, including responsibility for secular education.
The list goes on and on.  For those who favour religious pluralism, for liberal democrats and those who favour shul-state separation, the list of concessions is stomach churning.  In fact, I'm having a hard time thinking of anything positive to say about the composition of this government, other than, perhaps, the notion that Netanyahu may be the leader most capable of overseeing Israel's military and managing it in the face of a war or other major military event (which could occur at any time).

The "bright light" in the new government was supposed to be Moshe Kahlon, who had been elected to focus on economic issues and help make the country more liveable for the Israeli middle class.  But his opening act in this capacity has been the delivery of a stamp of approval to a governmental arrangement that will take billions of sheqels and pour it into parochial religious programs.  I would have to think that if another election were held today, Kahlon would lose at least half of his seats as a result of this display of a complete lack of judgment.

Perhaps surprisingly, Avigdor Lieberman has kept his rightist "Yisrael Beitenu" out of this unholy coalition.  That may well herald an early dissolution of what is bound to be a very unpopular government.

One would have to think that many Kahlon and Likud supporters will be demanding answers to why their parties felt the need to deliver so many concessions to the ultra-religious to form this government.  I have yet to hear any convincing answers, certainly not from Kahlon.

The big winners are bound to be Yair Lapid, Avigdor Lieberman and the Zionist Union party, all of whom will sit in opposition.  Of the three, it is really only Lapid and Lieberman who Israelis could count on to stand up to ultra-religious demands.  The Israeli Labour party, in the past, has made equally unpalatable concessions to the ultra-orthodox and had signaled a willingness to do so once again if that would have put them in power.  Only Lapid truly stood up to these demands in the previous Knesset and Lieberman has taken a stand this time around.

The good news, if there is any at this time, is that this government is not likely to last.  Netanyahu's coalition building decisions may well mean that his days as Israel's Prime Minister are limited.  There is bound to be a backlash as the government begins to implement this Haredi agenda.

Certainly Conservative and Reform rabbis and their congregations, in Israel and abroad, are likely to begin reciting the appropriate prayer for the speedy demise of this governing coalition and its replacement with one that is more representative, more pluralistic, more transparent and more committed to the rule of law (secular law, that is).  And that is not to mention anything about the prospect of peace negotiations, which are not even likely to make it to the back burner with this governmental configuration.

Looking forward to the next election already....








Monday, May 4, 2015

Lieberman: Hero or Opportunist? Latest Rumblings from Israel.

Avigdor Lieberman heads the "Yisrael Beitenu" ("Israel, Our Home") party in Israel.  He is a bit more of a complex politician than one might have thought.  On the one hand, he is viewed by some as a far right wing nationalist.  Certainly he has made some comments in the past about Israel's Arab population that can only be described as "racist."  He is unpredictable and will often say some things that many politicians would probably later regret.

At the same time, he can sometimes be far more practical than his right wing Israeli counterparts.  Lieberman, for example, has indicated that he is prepared to support a true "two-state solution" whereby one state would be a Palestinian state for Palestinians and the other state would be a Jewish state.  While some of his opponents call this a form of "ethnic cleansing," it is actually a far more logical solution than such epithets might suggest.  As part of any solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he argues, the Palestinians should be prepared to resolve any issue of Palestinian refugees by taking in as many Palestinians as would like to come - to their nascent state.  In this context, he also argues that it is logical to draw the borders of the two states in such a way that the large Jewish populations in Gush Etzion and other West Bank areas remain in Israel; whereas areas with overwhelmingly Palestinian populations, even if those areas are currently part of Israel, are to be ceded to the Palestinian state.  These proposals, he holds, would be most likely to ensure that there is a truly workable two state solution to the Palestinian conflict.  For many, this makes much more sense for Israel's long term security than Bennett's plan to annex the West Bank ("Judea and Samaria").  Then what?  Bennett and others on the right have no answer.  For the long run, Lieberman has suggested that Israel's Arabs who choose to continue to live in Israel, rather than the Palestinian state, should be prepared to serve in Israel's military or national service and should be entitled to full equality of opportunity. 

But getting back to Lieberman's current situation, he is a secular nationalist politician rather than a religious nationalist.  His constituency is in favour of easing the restrictions on conversions to Judaism, lessening the power of the religious authorities over the state (especially the ultra-religious) and reducing state funding of the ultra-Orthodox institutions.  Much of this would explain why Lieberman and his party were able to sit in a government with Lapid's Yesh Atid in the previous coalition, even though Lapid is viewed as much more of centrist.

But now, Prime Minister Netanyahu has reversed directions completely from the previous government that he led.  The first party that he signed up to join his coalition was United Torah Judaism.  I wrote about the concessions that Netanyahu made in my lost blog.  Certainly these concessions would be very hard to stomach for anyone with Lieberman's views about religion and state.  The concessions make it virtually impossible that Lapid's Yesh Atid party would even negotiate with this government, let alone join it.  But Lieberman was still negotiating.

Then today, Prime Minister Netanyahu announced another coalition agreement.  He had signed up the other ultra-religious party, led by convicted fraudster Aryeh Deri and was willing to provide that party with a fat range of concessions and ministerial portfolios.  Things get uglier and uglier by the day for those who endorse some level of shul-state separation or religious pluralism in Israel.

After the Shas announcement, Lieberman announced that his party would not join this government. This will leave Netanyahu with a razor-thin 61 seat government (out of 120 in the Knesset), once Netanyahu finalizes an arrangement with Bennett's "Bayit Yehudi" (Jewish Home) party.   

It is too early, in my view, to determine whether Lieberman is using this pressure as a negotiating tactic to wrangle some further concessions out of Netanyahu or whether he is taking a principled approach.  It is fair to say that over the years, Lieberman has not always been characterized as a man of principle.  We will probably have a better idea over the next few days.

If Lieberman stays out of the government, the big winners are bound to be Yair Lapid and Lieberman himself.  Many Israelis who voted for Likud or Moshe Kahlon's Kulanu party will be sorely disappointed to see that the biggest priority of their new government will be to restore a vast range of funding to various ultra-religious programs and to retract on the requirement that ultra-orthodox share the military burden of defending the state.  Many Israelis will find it hard to fathom that the solution for Israel's current financial situation is to take huge sums of money and pour it into ultra-religious programs, at the expense of universal health, education, infrastructure and other priorities.  This could mean a relatively short-lived government and a big boost for Lapid and Lieberman in the next election (at the expense of Likud and Kulanu seats).

On the other hand, if Lieberman simply uses this opportunity to extract further concessions for his party and himself and then joins a government which goes ahead with this ultra-religious program, he will undoubtedly alienate even more of his constituency (he had already fallen from 13 to 6 seats in the most recent election).

It should be interesting to follow.  I am inclined to suggest that many Israelis watching these events unfold will be much more likely to vote for Lapid in the next election.  This could create quite the pendulum swing in the religion-state relationship.  For Netanyahu to go ahead with such far reaching changes, while only holding a one seat majority, will be perilous for him and his party - as well as for Kahlon who will be seen as an accomplice to this shift towards the ultra-religious.   

Then again, all of that is an "optimistic" view of Israeli voters from a democratic, pluralistic view point.  If Israelis really do prefer to have the ultra-religious hold the balance of power....well...it becomes hard to imagine where we are headed.

Prime Minister Netanyahu is supposed to present the final governing coalition by May 7, 2015.  It will be fascinating to see what takes place in the late night, closed door meetings between now and then.