Showing posts with label Netanyahu. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Netanyahu. Show all posts

Monday, June 20, 2022

Breaking News - Another Israeli Election

Shavua Tov (Happy New Week), Happy Juneteenth (if that's the right greeting) and welcome to summer (just about).  I have decided to put together this quick blog with some breaking news and a few other bits....As always, I welcome comments and invite discussion.  And there is certainly lots to discuss... 

Israel Politics

After one year of governing in Israel with a diverse, rag-tag coalition, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett held a press conference today with his coalition partner and alternate Prime Minister - Yair Lapid. At the press conference, Bennett announced that he had done everything he could to keep the government together but they had reached an insurmountable roadblock and would have to dissolve the Knesset (the Israeli Parliament) and call an election.  If the dissolution proceeds, as expected, the election is likely to fall at the end of October.

As might be expected, Bennett reviewed what he maintained were the successes of his government.  His list included an improving Israeli economy, the notion of working together with political opponents for the benefit of the country,  and advances in a number of different areas.  He praised his coalition partners and thanked them for serving in the government, particularly those who had served as cabinet ministers.  Bennett also indicated that he would honour the coalition agreement and transfer power to Yair Lapid - who will become the interim Prime Minister of Israel - assuming the transfer can be put through the Knesset.  If this goes through - Lapid will become a caretaker, lame duck Prime Minister of Israel, charged with steering the country through to the next election - and post-election until a new government can be formed.

Bennett himself faces a very uncertain future.  His fellow Yamina party members have largely abandoned him and commentators have speculated that this is the end of his party.  Bennett still intends to remain in politics but it is unclear at this point - which party he will represent.  It is also unclear where his fellow Yamina members will go.  Some might join Likud - perhaps with enticement from Netanyahu.  Others might move further to the right and join the Ben-Gvir/Smotrich party.  If Yamina were to run in its present form, it seems unlikely that it could even make it past the electoral threshold.

Lapid also spoke at the press conference - but his talk was quite abbreviated.  He thanked Bennett and told him that he really believed that Bennett was acting for the good of the country over the course of the coalition agreement - even though he and Bennett have their disagreements.  He thanked Bennett for their friendship and, yes, expressed his love and respect for Bennett.  It was somewhat emotional.  Lapid then stated that there are still many pressing issues to address - and time will not stop and wait for the election or the post election results.  He intends to roll up his leaves and get to work even though he will face significant hurdles in trying to do so.  

We may still see some political wrangling between now and a vote to dissolve the knesset.  There may be a way for the opposition to prevent Lapid from taking power.  We might even see Netanyahu make an effort to put together a 61 seat government.  This does not seem likely but anything is possible.  I would imagine that the dissolution bill will be passed within the next week to ten days though I am not totally clear on what is actually going to happen after that.

It is too early to speculate on what may happen in the next election.  There is a reasonable possibility that the "right" bloc, led by Netanyahu, will amass a sufficient number of votes to build a coalition and take back power.  

But nothing in Israel is a certainty.  There may well be a sizeable number of Israelis who view this coalition government as having offered a refreshing change - and a harbinger of new types of government in Israel.  If Netanyahu and his "bloc" cannot put together 61 seats - we may well see another type of coalition government - even if it is not led by Bennett.  Suitors for the role are likely to include Avigdor Lieberman, Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz.  There may well be others.  

Opposition leader and former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke shortly after the Bennett-Lapid press conference.  He was smug, arrogant, and completely dismissive of the current government.  He called it a failed government and said that from talking to "people in the streets," he is well aware that Israelis can't wait to have him and his government back in power.  I would imagine that there are certainly some segments in Israeli society who would agree with him but many who would not.  My sense from this press conference was that Netanyahu is living in a bit of an alternate universe - but I would not rule out the possibility that he may still be able to win another election.  Of course he was also using the opportunity to try and "spin" things as favourably as possible.  We will have to wait to see what the Israeli public really thinks.

Interestingly, Netanyahu stated more than once that the current government is a government held together and bolstered by "terror supporters"  (he was referring to the Arab Ra'am party led by Monsour Abbas) and he stated, definitively, that he would not form a government supported by Abbas (who has currently been an active member of the current governing coalition).  Netanyahu's numbers may not quite add up - and he may well come to visit Mr. Abbas with his hat in his hand, looking for some support down the road.

In any event, the next few months promise to be interesting political theatre in Israel.  I expect lots of suprises, lots of drama, lots of vitriol and some very loud discourse.  Then again, how is that different from any other electoral campaign in Israel?

Travel Update

Airports in both Canada (at least Toronto) and Tel-Aviv are incredibly crowded these days.  For leaving Israel, airlines are requesting that passengers arrive four hours before their flights.  I left Israel on Sunday June 12th and it took more than two hours to get through the first part of Israeli security.  Of course there are still three other security/exit stations to leave Israel  - so it probably took close to three hours to get through everything.  Don't worry - I still had a bit of time to visit the duty free shop but it was a long, frustrating and time-consuming experience.

Toronto Pearson Airport has been using a "metering" system for arrivals. Essentially, they keep you in the plane, away from a gate, for an extended period of time.  Then they announce that only passengers with "connecting flights" will be able to leave.  Naturally, the plane itself becomes quite chaotic.  People without connecting flights get up and take all of their luggage to the front of the plane, blocking the aisles and pushing forward to try and get off the plane first.  Our arrival in Toronto was quite a zoo.

Once we were out of the plane, the line up was not that terrible - especially for those with a Nexus pass.  And there were no real delays at the baggage carousel.

I have also left Toronto Pearson airport recently.  With Air Canada status, the line ups are not too bad - but for everyone else, it looks fairly chaotic.  Going to the U.S. from the Toronto  Airport is incredibly crowded, with extensive line-ups, fewer than normal staff at security and at customs - and lots of overstressed travellers.  Leaving for Israel from Toronto (or any other international destination) is probably a bit easier since you don't have to pass through customs on your way out as you do for U.S. travel.

TV Update

We recently watched the second season of Tehran.  The final episode was released this past Thursday night.  The first season featured a largely unknown cast but there were some terrific actors.  This second season was filmed in cooperation with Apple TV and brought in Glenn Close as an Israeli spy, operating in Tehran, to supplement the cast from the first season. I thought the second season was somewhat better than the first - and, overall, was quite rivetting.  For now, I think it can only be watched on AppleTV.  If you speak hebrew, you can watch it on sdarot.buzz, an Israeli streaming channel or on Israel's Channel 11.  Not sure if there will be a third season, but if so, I will look forward to it.  I understand that filming is also in progress for Fauda's fourth season.  Lots of recent Israeli programming to watch and much of it is very good.

With hockey playoffs just about over, football season still three months away and few other sporting events that really grab my attention, I may have to find a few other series to watch.  I welcome recommendations.  I don't mean to disrespect the Blue Jays, by the way. They have a very exciting team this year but I can't really see watching 162 games a year.  I will probably watch more baseball as it gets closer to the playoffs.

In any event, it is the summer and I hope to make it to the beach, the lake or some other water activities.  So I probably don't need to watch too much TV anyways.  Would definitely rather go for a swim.  Or visit a winery....

Wrap Up

We are looking forward to having some visitors over the summer, some who have been to Israel several times and some who are coming for their first time.  Although it is usually very hot in July and August (even intolerably hot), there is lots to do.  When we are not out and about, we put our faith in our air conditioning units - and the hope that things cool down somewhat in the evenings.  Sometimes it cools off considerably, sometimes it doesn't. For those who are thinking of visiting Israel, it is better, from a weather perspective, to come in March/April and October/November - maybe even September - if you have a choice.  Many people don't - and find that their available dates are dictated by school and work schedules.  This summer, in particular, Israel is expecting a very large number of tourists.  The planes are full (and tickets are very expensive).  Hotel prices are also very high.  

The Israel Museum has still not announced dates for the annual Jerusalem Wine Festival (which is a wonderful event). It is probably going to take place in August this year.  There are hundreds of scheduled concerts across the country - so many musicians trying to make up for the loss of the past two years of live entertainment. 

So even though it is quite hot in the summer - there is so much to see and do in Israel that pretty much any time of year is a good time.  

Wishing everyone a wonderful summer.  Not sure how many blogs I will put together in the coming months but I am sure that I will write a few as the election draws closer.







Thursday, December 30, 2021

End of 2021 Wrap Up

I haven't written very much the past few months.  I think my last few articles were reviews of different books about Bibi (both of which were actually quite interesting).  I have been back and forth a few times and I am now back in Ra'anana for some period of time.  So I thought I would write about a few things that come to mind as we conclude 2021.  

Since my blog is not the most regular blog out there, I try not to make it a news service generally, other than when there is an election or some other really big event.  Otherwise, it is more likely to be observational commentary or discussion of different topics that  have caught my attention.

Israeli Politics - a few short comments

First of all,  I might as well hit on Israeli  politics.  I don't have that much to say at this point (very surprising I'm sure for those who know me well).  In general, the current government under the leadership of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is continuing to remain in power and looks to be reasonably likely to do so for at least the next several months.  As you may know, it is a government made up of some very divergent voices.  It includes members of the fairly far right and members of the fairly far left as well as some centrists and an Arab nationalist party.  It is actually incredible that this group has been able to hold things together but in my view, there is a general shared commitment to trying to do things that will benefit the country and the people living in it.

The government has presented and  passed several pieces of legislation and is intent on bringing about refreshing reforms in a wide range of areas including some issues that involve religion and the state.  No government is  perfect (or even close) and certainly this government has made several mistakes.  But so far,  it seems to be holding on to the support that it had and probably represents, cumulatively, just  over 50% of the Israeli voting population.  It will be interesting to see whether the government goes ahead with the planned rotation and turns  power over to Yair Lapid, as scheduled, in July 2022.  I am not the only one with doubts that this will occur but it seems likely that we  will  avoid an election at least until some time after that date.

Meanwhile, the trial of former Prime Minister Netanyahu continues (on various charges of bribery, breach of public trust and related issues).  It is hard to say how that is going though it certainly hasn't "collapsed" as Netanyahu predicted it would.  Legal commentators that I have heard have suggested that it is not going particularly well for Netanyahu.  For what it is worth, I maintain that he will cut a  deal at some point in time before a verdict though it is hard to say when that will be.

As you may have read, the leader of the ultra-religious Shas party, Aryeh Deri, a formerly convicted fraudster, has apparently agreed on a plea bargain deal to address his current criminal charges.  Interestingly, he will only be required to pay back some  of the money that he allegedly acquired (improperly).  He will also stay on as leader of the Shas  party for now, though he will do so from outside the Knesset.  Apparently that is a thing.   This way he can earn money from different sources  and not face the constricting reporting rules of the Knesset,  which bar work that might create conflicts of interest.  

The leader of the  other ultra-orthodox party, Litzman, is also rumoured to be  negotiating a plea bargain deal for  his pending criminal charges though nothing has been finalized yet.

Of course once  we have  completed these plea bargain deals, Israel will be totally free of  corrupt politicians....Sarcasm aside, it is a  start.  We, in Israel, take comfort these  days in comparing what is now going on here to what has been going on the U.S. (and many other parts of the world) the past  few years and really don't feel as badly as we used to.  

December Holidays, here  and there

I happened to be in Toronto for a chunk of  November and December, which reinforced my minority status in Toronto and reminded me of one of the great benefits of  being in Israel.  

For  example, I enjoy grabbing a coffee at the Second Cup (Wilson location) before heading to my office.  I guess they decided  to turn their radio to CHFI and start  playing Christmas music right after Halloween.  So for the entire months of November and December, it was Christmas music  all the time.  I guess the equivalent in Israel is seeing donuts appear in the  bakeries about two months  before  Chanukah each year.

I have nothing against Christmas music and I am glad that people  enjoy it. But I wonder whether even people that  enjoy  the music want to hear it  non-stop  for  two full months.  

It seemed to me there were  more articles than usual this year on the North American Jewish tradition of ordering Chinese food on December 24th or 25th, which supposedly started  in New  York.  I guess  Jewish and Chinese places were the only types of places open on Dec 24th and 25th, so the Jewish community developed a  "tradition"  of having  Chinese food on these  days.  

In Israel that is not really a tradition of any kind.   In fact, for most people in Israel, Christmas is a regular work day.  Everything is open, there are few  decorations and  although we  have many "pan-Asian" retaurants (mostly stir free dishes and sushi), there are very few strictly Chinese restaurants, so there is no tradition of ordering Chinese  food on Christmas.

There are areas with significant Christian populations - in Haifa, Nazareth and other places.   And there are certainly Israelis, even Israeli Jews, who go  to take photos  in front of the trees and the beautiful Christmas decorations.  But for the most part, in Ra'anana and so many other cities across Israel, Christmas is one of those times where Jews genuinely feel at home in contrast to the experience  in so many other parts of the world.

Certainly there are a large number of expatriate Russians celebrating "Novigod" and putting up trees, christmas decorations  etc.,  More so in some cities than in others. But to this point, it is still very much a minority practice.

Travelling Back

As you might  know, Canada and the U.S. have  been classified as "red" countries now by Israel which means that  Israelis are officially forbidden  from travelling to those places without special  permission.  Israelis who were out  of the country before  the ban came into place can travel back to the country.

So  for  now, this also means that non-Israelis cannot come to Israel without special  permission. And Israelis cannot  leave  to go to  "red" countries.

I have many friends planning  trips to Israel for festive occasions or other reasons and it looks like all  of those  plans will be up in the air  for  now.  Hopefully we will soon see a big change though it is impossible to predict when that will happen.

In order to come  back to Israel this time, I had to make  sure  to have  lots of ducks in a row.

Air  Canada  cancelled  all of its direct flights so I was routed  through Frankfurt.

First  on the  agenda is making sure to complete the  Israeli entry form - within 48 hours of departure from the  connecting city.   In other words,  it had  to be  within 48 hours of  the connection time in Frankfurt  not the  Toronto  departure. We had a two hour delay in Toronto because some dufus was refusing to comply with the mask wearing requirement.  He was removed from the plane by security but we were two hours late. So I had to redo the form in Frankfurt before Lufthansa would allow me to board the plane.

Next, I had to arrange  a Covid test.  If you have  been  vaccinated three  times (or  received your second dose within  the past six  months), you can get a rapid antigen test within 24 hours of the flight time (the time of the flight leaving Toronto, even if you are transiting).  Now just a  couple  of  months ago, these tests were going for $25-$35 in contrast  to the PCR tests which are about $120 in Toronto.  So I  thought I would  save quite a  bit.  But many of the Toronto labs  have raised the costs to about  $60-$65. Still cheaper but the gap is closing.

I also had to arrange (pre-pay for)  a PCR test on landing in Israel.  That was 80 Shekels (about $32Cdn).  If you don't pre-pay, I believe it is  about 120 Shekels when you land at the airport ($48Cdn).

After all that, on landing in Israel from  a "red" country, you must stay  in isolation for 7 days.  If you test negative  on day 1 and  day 7, you can get released on the 7th day once you receive  back test results.   If you don't do the second test, you have to remain in isolation for  14 days.

The airport was quite empty.  Israeli customs uses a random inspection self-declaration system,  much like many places in Europe.  So as you pass  Israeli customs, they randomly pull over people and put their luggage into an x-ray machine to look for any improperly imported or undeclared items.  Since I often have a decent amount of luggage, I am pulled over with some frequency.   This time since the  aiport was quite quiet, I was probably a pretty enticing target with my overloaded baggage  cart.  But even though I was pulled over, had my bags put through the x-ray machine and underwent an additional manual inspection, the disappointed customs officers still  couldn't  find anything that was problematic.  And I was released and left to repack my violated luggage.  

As I understand it, they are mainly looking for fruits and vegetables, drugs, undeclared electronics and undeclared  commercial goods.  And alcohol  that is  over the limit.  Overall, it was simply a  minor inconvenience and  not a problem  of any kind.  But if you do bring something into Israel that you were supposed to declare but didn't, you can face a fine equal to  double the duty/tax on the item.  So for example, someone caught smuggling a $1,000 cell phone could have to pay about $360 if caught and  possibly as much as $540.  People tend to try and negotiate these fines with varying degrees of success.  Generally, I do my best to avoid these problems.

So here I am in "isolation" in Ra'anana.  The police have been sending me automated "check-in" messages several times a day to verify that the  phone and the person in isolation are  both where they are supposed to be.  I am not overly concerned about  this "invasion of my privacy"  if that is what it takes to try and control the spread of the virus.

Animal News

In animal news, we were in Haifa last month and actually saw familes of wild boars wandering the streets in residential  areas. They were very large.   I am  not sure that  I have the pictures - I will look for them but it was quite a site.  

As you may have read recently, Israeli is facing a huge  bird flu problem  which has killed thousands of European cranes.  Israeli  farmers have also had to cull more than 600,000 chickens. So we may see an egg shortage in the  coming  months.   Hopefully  this won't continue to develop into  something more  complicated.

Sports 

As I have  written on other occasions, I am not really a follower of any Israeli sports except for international competitions.  As a Canadian, hockey is the number one sport, though I also enjoy NFL football.  

With NHL hockey, while in Israel, that usually means watching  between 2 and 5  a.m. or similar hours. NFL games are mostly more  reasonable since they start at 1 p.m.  and  4 p.m. EST on Sundays which means being able to watch at 8 p.m. and 11 p.m. here.

NHL hockey is facing all kinds  of challenges with Covid as you may know and has suspended several games.  The world junior  hockey tournament (which is one of my favourite  sports events in any calendar year) was cancelled after only a few nights of games since there was such a  wide spread of the virus  So I am not sure when I will be back to watching hockey and  I am not as  excited in any event about the regular season. I really enjoy the playoffs.

That  leaves NFL which seems to be determined to finish its season no matter what.  For geographic reasons, primarily, my team is the  Buffalo  Bills and they are poised to make a playoff run.   So the next several weeks should see some really exciting football games.   It will mean staying  up very late on Sunday nights - and some Saturday nights - but NFL  playoff football is worth it for  me.  Not sure that I have many others to watch with so  I might  have to text and  email my friends  and  family members while watching.

In case you are wondering, the  weather forecast is about  15-20C for  most days over the next few weeks.  I like spending time here in January  where I can get a 25-35 degree temperature differential.  I do enjoy some nice winter weather but -20 to  -30C is not that fun.  Between 0 and -10 can be quite nice, especially if it is sunny, though that might be  something that only a true  Canadian would say.

So that is my round up for the end of 2021.  I am grateful to have spent some time this year  with friends and family on both sides  of the  ocean - and  hope that 2022 will be a healthy, joyous and happy year for everyone.  Hopefully we will all soon see some semblence of a return to normalcy.



Sunday, June 13, 2021

New Sheriff In Town - Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is Israel's New Prime Minister

It is a very historic day for Israel.   After 12 years under the leadership of Prime Minister Netanyahu, Israel is swearing in a new government - a "change coalition" made up of 8 different political parties - with members ranging from the far right to the far left.  The different parties all signed off on a coalition deal on Friday afternoon, clearing the way for today's swearing in ceremony.

The first order of business for the Knesset was to hear speeches from a range  of speakers - the leaders of the different parties - of both the outgoing government and the incoming administration.  The designated order was that Naftali Bennett, the incoming Prime Minister would speak first, followed by Prime Minister Netanyahu, the outgoing Prime Minister.

Bennett was invited to go first.  He had prepared a very carefully written speech - professional, conciliatory, stately and dignified.  But Netanyahu's supporters had other plans.  They had apparently decided that they would use every possible method to disrupt the  speech.  They hurled insults, abusive language and consistently disrupted the speech.  The House Speaker, who himself is a handpicked Netanyahu designate, had no choice but to start warning Knesset members that he would throw them out of the Knesset if they continued.  Soon he had to start ordering the removal of various Knesset members from the Religious Zionist Party, the Likud Party and the Ultra-Religious parties.  Frankly, it was embarrassing, childish and highly inappropriate.  At least 5 or 6 Knesset members had to be forcibly removed because they couldn't follow the basic decorum of listening to a speech from a political opponent.  One Israeli commentator said that it was as if those who had stormed the Capital in the U.S.  were actually the congress members and senators inside the Knesset.  It was simply disgraceful.

Bennett's speech was disrupted several times but he still managed to give it.  He thanked Netanyahu for his years of service and for many positive accomplishments.  But he also spoke about the  urgency of doing things differently, of working with people with opposing viewpoints, and of addressing many urgent issues facing the country.  He promised to try and work on behalf of all Israelis, even those who opposed him.  He mentioned that Israel may have disagreements with the United States on some issues - but he promised to work with the United States administration respectfully and work to return to a situation where support for Israel is bi-partisan in the U.S.  rather than partisan.  He laid out some of the government's proposed platforms and he introduced by name all of the incoming cabinet members.  He ended his speech by reciting the "prayer for the State of Israel" which is recited in synagogues around the world.  It was an emotional moment.

Yair Lapid was supposed to speak next.  After watching all of the disruption, he  decided to cut his speech short.  He stood up and said that he had  brought his 87 year old mother to Jerusalem (she rarely comes to Jerusalem) to see how a peaceful transition of power works in Israel, a country that did not exist when she was born.  He said she told him that she was simply embarrassed by the behaviour of the opposition Knesset members but she also said  - that this conduct by Netanyahu's supporters in the Knesset demonstrated why a change of government was so urgently needed.  Lapid said that was all  he was going to say at this time and he sat down.

Next it was Netanyahu's turn.  He was allotted the longest time  period as the outgoing Prime Minister.  Netanyahu began his speech, shockingly, by quoting the  lead prosecutor  in the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann  and claiming that he was standing here on behalf of the "millions" (in Netanyahu's case - the "millions" who had voted for him but would not have him as a leader).  This was an outrageous misuse of historical context - to suggest that the incoming government was a horrible and tragic event on the scale of the Holocaust.  

Netanyahu then proceeded with a review of the many accomplishments of his government, for which he took all of the credit personally.  Some  of this review was partially accurate, some was slanted and some was outright misleading.  For example, he noted that Israel is in a far better security situation today than it was 12 years ago.  That is probably true.  He claimed that his government had dramatically decreased the "gaps" and "inequalities" in Israeli society.  That is patently false.  He claimed that his government did more than any previous Israeli government to support the Arab Israeli community.  That is questionable and probably not accurate, even though at times the Netanyahu government invested significant amounts in certain Arab communities.  His tone was combative, irascible and condescending.  This was only the first part of the speech and just the beginning.   

For the second part, Netanyahu switched to a litany of attacks on the incoming government and, in particular, on Bennett personally.  This part of the speech was simply a page from the Trump playbook.  He insulted, derided and castigated his political opponents and this deal to create the new government in particular.  He used nicknames to make fun of certain Knesset members.  He stated that "unlike what has taken place in some places, he is not challenging the legitimacy of the actual ballots - they were counted properly."  But he is challenging the fraudulent misuse of the ballots by Bennett - who took right wing ballots and turned them improperly into a left wing government. He quoted Arnold Scwarznegger stating "I'll be back" and promised that it would be a lot quicker than anyone  expects.  He did not wish the new government success or provide any kind words for the incoming government or any of its members.  Instead, he simply promised to bring down the government as quickly as possible, with "God's help."  I can't say this speech was unexpected though I think some were a bit surprised at the complete lack of any hint of statesmanship or professionalism.  

There was then a break for a few hours.  During this time, the tv commentators reviewed and assessed both speeches.  Even the right wing commentators were somewhat taken aback at the conduct of the disruptive Knesset members during Bennett's speech.  In the meantime, Bennett announced plans to go to the Kotel for a special blessing after being sworn in.  At the same time, the Religious Zionist party and the Ultra Orthodox parties announced organized demonstrations at the Kotel and special prayers for the "downfall of the government."  We can clearly see that there will be rocky times ahead and it will be fascinating to see if this new government can hold things together.

There are definitely several concerns about the new government.  It is comprised of far right wing parties, far left wing parties, centrist parties along with an Arab Israeli party.  They will have lots of disagreements and they only have a razor thin margin of 61-59 to run the country.  If two Knesset members defect, the government will collapse.

Furthermore, there are genuine and legitimate complaints about the incoming Prime Minister Bennett.  His party only had 6 seats.  He had promised his voters, in writing, that he would not join a government with Lapid, even a rotation government.  He also promised that he would not sit in a government that worked with the Arab parties.  Many of his supporters are understandably upset and I can see that there was no reason that he should have been so unequivocal with his promises if he had no intention of keeping them.  In short, it is true that he  deceived his voters.

At the same time, most politicians tend to make all sorts of promises that they are often unable to keep.  Netanyahu also made a list of promises and broke many of them.  Bennett has insisted that, overall, the deal he has made involves a variety of compromises, all with a view to the best interests of the country at this point in time.  I think many Israelis will be prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt, at least for some period of time.

Changing Of the Speaker of the House

After a significant delay, the Knesset was recalled for the next order of business - the vote for a new speaker of the house.  The vote was held and Mickey Levy of the Yesh Atid party won with 67  votes (61 required for a majority).  For a bit, the outcome was uncertain, but in the end  the candidate of the change coalition was elected the new speaker of the house.  The outgoing speaker, Yariv Levine, in contrast to Netanyahu, was statesmanlike and professional.  He wished Levy the best of luck, shook his hand and said a few words about his own departure.  It was a welcome change of tone.

Voting in the New Government

Shortly afterwards, the full Knesset was invited to vote on the new government.  There was some tension since the government is being implemented with a  61-59 majority.   No wiggle room at all.  As the votes came in, there were 3 initial abstentions.  The vote sat at 60-56.   The speaker, of  course, only votes in the event of a tie.  The speaker asked if there were any missing votes.  Three Arab members changed their votes from "abstain" to against and the vote was now 60-59.  But that was it.  The vote was called and the speaker announced that Naftali Bennett is Israel's new Prime Minister.

Swearing In of the Ministers

The final step was the swearing in of the Prime Minister and the cabinet ministers.  Each person comes up and repeats, according to a set formula - which starts with "I, (full name), the son or daughter of (full name) and then either "may he/she live many more years in good health" or "of blessed memory" followed by the other parent's name.  It is incredibly emotional.  Some of the ministers were lucky to have parents and family members in attendance.  Others thought of their deceased parent or other family members as they took the oath and mentioned their names.  The cabinet features a wide range of members from 8 different parties.  Some of these parties have not been a part of any Israeli government for many years.  It was quite a sight.

Conclusions for Now

In some parts of Israel, people are celebrating, especially in Tel-Aviv.  There are many Israelis hoping that this new government will usher in a wide range of changes in many different areas.  Other Israelis are extremely upset and are planning to hold demonstrations, prayer gatherings and other events calling for the end to this government.

This  new government contains a large number of "right wing" members.  I don't expect things to change very much with respect to relations with the Palestinians in the very near future.  I would say that there is somewhat of a consensus on some of the issues in dispute - and  some of the policies that Netanyahu has promulgated.  For example, no Israeli government is going to be interested in negotiating the status of Jerusalem, discussing the settlement of Palestinian refugees in Israel or even negotiating a Palestinian state in the current climate.  There may, however, be more of an openness to meet and try to restart some negotiations on these and other issues with a view to trying to resolve some or all of the ongoing conflict with Palestinians.

The real change, however, is that this government is  the first one in a number of years without the two ultra-orthodox parties.  That may well prove to be the biggest element of change in the "change" government  Suddenly, the  budget might change and religious educational institutions that do not support mandatory military recruitment may start finding themselves with significantly reduced budgets.  Bennett promised to take away the monopoly over Kashrut from the Ultra-Orthodox and provide a wider range of options for Kashrut observers.  There may well be a range of positive changes in Israeli society that affect gender equality, education, the environment and many other areas, all of which can be tackled without having to appease ultra-religious interests.  

I really can't predict whether this government will be  able to hold up and if so, how long it might last.  The deal has been signed as a four year deal.  But with a such a thin margin, it seems unlikely that this government will make it through the full four year term.  But I suppose that is going to depend on what kind of priorities the government tackles and whether its actions are viewed favourably by the Israeli public, or at least a large part of it.

I do maintain and believe that there is a significant likelihood that we will see a much higher level of public discourse, respect within the government, cooperation, trust and a resolve to act in the public interest - all of which will be very different from the legacy that Netanyahu is leaving behind, particularly over the course of his final few years of this term in office.









Wednesday, June 2, 2021

Are We There Yet? Is Israel About to Have a Change of Government? Perhaps.

When I was younger, we would frequently take long family trips in the car, visiting our grandparents who lived in different cities.  Even as I got older, our lengthy car  trips continued with my sister moving to a city 13 hours away from Toronto (on a good drive).   As anyone who has taken these long car trips knows, the most frequently asked questions  from young  children (and even not-so-young "children") are  - "are we there yet?" and "when will get there?"  You know where this is going....

Israel Political Update

About a month ago, in Israel, Prime Minister  Netanyahu's "mandate" to try and form a  government expired as he was unable to form a 61 member coalition that is required to form a government.  He made various efforts to come up with a coalition but he was short by at least 2 seats in the 120  seat Knesset and could not seem to find the missing pieces anywhere.  So when the mandate expired, the President of Israel, Rueben Rivlin, turned the mandate over to the head of the opposition party Yesh Atid, led by Yair Lapid.  Lapid was given 28 days to try and piece together a government. These 28 days ended at midnight tonight (June  2, 2021), Israel time.

Coalition negotiations were tense, difficult and tiring.  Lapid was trying to put together a coalition made up of a range of very strange bedfellows.  The potential coalition included a far right religious party (Yamina - "the Right"), another fairly far right less religious party (Tikvah Hadashah) ("New Hope"), the centrist Yesh Atid party, the centrist Blue and White party (which had been Netanyahu's reluctant governing partner since March 2020), the Labour Party (left-centre), the left wing secularist Meretz party and an Arab Islamist party - Ra'am, led by Monsour Abbas.  Frankly, it sounds unfathomable.  What would hold such a diverse range of parties together in a coaltion deal?  They could pretty much all agree that Israel needed to oust Netanyahu.  And perhaps most of these parties could also agree that they would rather have a government without  the two ultra-Orthodox parties.  But otherwise, at first glance, it seemed hard to imagine what else they could agree on.

Despite these difficulties, just before the recent fighting with Gaza broke out, Lapid and Bennett were about to announce that they were forming a "change government" and Netanyahu would be ousted.  Shortly after the war broke out, Bennett announced that he was giving up on the idea of this change  government and that he would go back to negotiating with Netanyahu to form a "true right wing government."  The problem was that Netanyahu's mandate had expired and, in any event, even with Bennett, Bibi could not get past 59 seats.

So after the Gaza fighting ended, Lapid set out to restart efforts to put together this change coalition, without Bennett.  He negotiated with all of the different parties and then brought back his offer to agree on a rotation government back to Bennett under which Bennett would go first as Prime Minister or the first two years.  At first Bennett held out and continued to state that  he would not go along.  But after some further delays, Bennett made an announcement that he would now seek to enter into a coalition to form a "change government" since it was clear that Netanyahu could not form one.  It was either going to be a new government or another election.

Since Bennett's decision, the different parties have held marathon talks trying to piece together a  deal.  The deadline was midnight tonight.  As of yesterday, it was really 50-50 whether the parties were going to reach a deal.  Yamina's number 2, Ayalet Shaked, announced last night that she wanted a key seat on the judical appointments committee.  Not just any seat - she wanted to take the one that had been promised to the leader of the Labour party - Merav Michaeli as part of the newly negotiated coalition deal.  Shaked stated last night - that if she didn't get her way - there would be no "change government."  Shaked had been hoping to get the Minister of Justice portfolio but the other coalition members refused.  Her goal is to appoint a benchful of exclusively right wing judges - who can act, more or less, act as another branch of a right wing government, rather than as an independent body.  While serving as  a Minister in a past government under Netanyahu, she was involved in the appointment of a large number of such judges.  She constantly attacks and criticizes the courts when rulings are issued with which she disagrees.   As the deadline approached today - Shaked and her demand remained as one of two outstanding issues.  The other issue involved Monsour Abbas and the Raam party.

Lapid had been hoping to conclude an agreement by 11 a.m. this morning.  If that had happened, the new government could have been sworn in as early as Monday June 8, 2021.  But talks could not be completed.  The deadline came and went and there was no deal.  The next deadline was midnight tonight.  

As  a political  junkie, I had to flip on the three  Israeli channels (I'm using a streaming  device in case you are wondering)  and check in with channels 11, 12, and 13.  It was almost as exciting as a sporting event.  Would there be an agreement  by midnight or would the time expire - leaving Netanyahu to live another day politically?  In other words - are we there yet?  When will we get there?  And the additional question - will we get there?

By 10 p.m., there was still no deal.  One hold out  issue had been resolved - issues involving Monsour Abbas, and for the first time in Israel's history, an Arab party had agreed to be part of a government coalition agreement.  Now that was exciting - a true watershed - but it didn't mean that a deal had been reached.  Shaked and other members of Yamina were still holding out.  Apparently, members of Gideon Saar's New Hope party were also refusing to sign.

Netanyahu and his supporters were involved in all kinds of behind the scenes activities.  Netanyahu himself called Abbas and told him that he would get a better deal with Netanyahu (though Netanyahu had no actual government to offer him).  Netanyahu supporters sent death threats to Shaked, Bennett and other members of the Yamina party - as well as other party leaders of this coalition.  All were assigned additional bodyguards.  One Yamina member was told that if he supported the agreement - his house in Petach Tikvah would be burned down.  

Just after 11 p.m. Israel time, Lapid and Bennett  announced that a deal had been struck and all parties had signed off.  Michaeli agreed to a compromise resolution which mostly favoured Shaked.  Lapid and Bennett informed the President who offered his congratulations.  But it may take 11 days until the official "swearing-in" ceremony will take place.  Between now and then, Netanyahu will still try everything he can to retain power.  His party has been exerting extreme pressure on the members  of the two right wing parties - Yamina and and New Hope - trying to  convince them that it would be a sell-out to leave him and join a "leftist coalition."  Members of these parties have been called "traitors," "liars," "promise breakers" and lots of other names.  The rhetoric is extreme, heated and dangerous.  Given Israel's history and the assassination of Prime Minister Rabin Z"L, there is a serious threat of political violence.   It is concerning.  Are we there yet?  Not yet.  Will we get there?  Unclear.

So it is still a bit premature to offer a political eulogy for Netanyahu. He is known  as the "magician" and over the next 11 days, he and his supporters will try every possible trick to abort this in vitro government before it can come to life.  Even if the government is sworn in, it will face enormous pressure  trying to hold together such a diverse range of political actors. But I will say that both Lapid and, to a lesser extent, Bennett, have exuded a certain sense of calm, a need for compromise, dedication and professionalism that suggests that it may well happen.

Political commentators on the right wing of the spectrum are dumbstruck and remain filled with disbelief - and  some  hope that the  coalition will be stopped.  They were convinced that Netanyahu would not let this happen.  One leading TV commentator, Amit Segal, railed against the formation of this coalition on Israeli national  TV.  Another right wing commentator and outspoken Bibi supporter, Avishai Ben Haim, called it "one of the darkest days in Israel's history."

On the other hand, Lapid and Bennett have gone to incredible lengths to build a compromise coalition government that includes a wide range of voices and is based on decency, respect, service to the country and an interest in doing things differently.  I do believe that if the government is sworn in and is  able to last, it is likely to be one of the best governments that Israel has had in many years, if not  ever.   Will we get there?  I think there is a good chance that we will, though there are many obstacles and it is hard to say how long it will last.

Israeli Presidency

The Israeli Knesset also voted today to elect a new President.  The presidency is largely a figurehead
position - much like a monarch or the Governor General position in Canada.  There were only two candidates  - Yitzhak  "bougie" Hertzog and Miriam Peretz, an educator and public speaker who lost two sons  to the IDF.  

Herzog has quite the pedigree for this role.  His father, Chaim Herzog, was Israel's 6th President.  His paternal grandfather was the Chief Rabbi of Ireland from 1922 to 1935 and then the Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi of Israel from 1936 to 1959.  Herzog completed a law degree and worked in his father's firm for a number of years.  Even though he came from the left wing Labour party, Hertzog was viewed as an acceptable candidate across the political spectrum.  Even the Ultra-Orthodox parties were happy to vote for him, partially, it seems, out of respect for his late grandfather.  Suprisingly, the Likud party did not promote or actively support any particular candidate.

I heard an interview today with one Ultra-Orthodox Rabbi from the Torah Judaism party  who stated that Herzog was a Levi (part of the Jewish Priestly caste) and therefore he must be an acceptable candidate.  Perhaps, he went on to say, that this could be the start of a reimplementation of the Priestly class in leadership roles in politics throughout Israel.  

In any event, Herzog received 87 votes in the 120 seat Knesset and won  handily.  He will be sworn in at the end of President Rivlin's term over the summer.

Hockey Update

Since arriving back in Toronto,  I have been able to watch some hockey at sane hours.  Watching NHL hockey in Israel normally means watching at 2:30 or 3 a.m. This is quite disruptful to sleeping patterns.  

As a long time Toronto Maple Leaf season ticket holder - I have the same questions that I have been applying to my discussion of Israeli politics.  Are we there yet?  When will we get there?  Will we ever get there?

Over the past number of years, the Maple Leafs have opened up the vault and signed a number of very expensive players - our "superstars."  Toronto forward Auston Matthews led the league this year in goals scored.  The Leafs were heavily favoured against the Montreal Canadiens, who had barely made it into the playoffs.  

And yet, like in so many past years, the Toronto Maple  Leafs expired in the first round, beaten by Montreal in a 7 game series with nothing to show for that massive payroll.  It was enormously disappointing.  But then again, being a Leaf fan is always enormously disappointing.  The Leafs last won the Stanley Cup in 1967.  That drought does not look like it is about to end any time soon.  Are were there yet?  Certainly not.  Will we get there?  Who knows.  I would love to see a Toronto Maple Leaf Stanley Cup championship win - but I'm really not sure that I will ever see it.

Toronto and Covid Update

My final comments on my own trip to Toronto.  I wrote about it more extensively in my previous blog.  Since arriving in Toronto on May 27th, I have been using the "ArriveCan" phone app to check in and confirm that I am still healthy.  I have also received a bunch of robocalls.  Sample questions:  "Are you aware that you not allowed to have visitors or entertain people at your home?  Press 1 for yes, 2 for no.  Are you planning to have visitors or entertain people at your home during your quarantine period?  Press 1 for yes, 2 for no."  I'm not making this stuff up.  In any event, I'm getting to day 8, where I will have a zoom call with a nurse who will watch me complete my "day 8 Covid test."  After that, just 6 more  days to go.  Time flies when there is so much going on....

Sorry if I have bored you  with all of the Israeli politics - but, as you probably know from reading  some  of my previous blogs, it is one of my favourite topics - especially when there is so much going on.  It is so volatile, that everything I have written may change by the time you are reading this.   But hopefully my analysis will still be relevant.

I'm officially finished my quarantine on June 9, 2021, so looking forward to seeing whoever I am  able to see while in Toronto.  Best of health to everyone.





Friday, May 14, 2021

Operation "Guardian of the Walls" - Current Israel-Gaza War and Other Developments

This is a tough post to write.  There are simply so many things unfolding that a comprehensive post would be well beyond the scope of my blog.  Even writing 5-7 columns a day, I probably couldn't keep up with all of the breaking news.  But I wanted to highlight a few things on several different fronts.

Gaza-Israel War

First of all, the war with Gaza, operation "Guardian of the Walls," as it has been named by Israel, or whatever you want to call it, is continuing at a relatively high intensity.  Hamas and the Islamic Jihad are firing rockets at Israel, hundreds a day, and Israel is responding with drone and missile strikes as well as air raids.  Israel has been relying heavily on its Iron Dome defence system to intercept the Hamas rockets.  But the system is not infallible and a certain percentage of rockets are able to get through.  Some of these have landed directly on people's homes.  Yesterday a rocket hit a house in Petach Tikvah.  The day before, a bus was hit directly in Holon.  7 Israelis have been killed and quite a number have been injured from these rockets and their debris.

In response, Israel has targeted senior Hamas and  Islamic Jihad militants.  According to several reports yesterday, more than 10 members of the Hamas senior leadership were killed in one air strike.  Israel has continued to carry out a variety of strategies for fighting Hamas though, for obvious reasons, much of this information is not being publicized.  

Looking purely at the Israel-Gaza conflict, it is possible, perhaps even likely, that some form of cease fire will be reached within a week, if not sooner.  But  as with previous cease fire deals, it is unclear how long any such deal will last.  It is likely to be viewed by Hamas as an opportunity to restock its weapons arsenal.  Without any efforts from either side at reaching some sort of longer term political arrangement, this conflict seems destined to go on endlessly.  

And even though the pattern has been that these disputes have generally come to a cease fire within a relatively short time  frame, it is possible that this particular fight will continue to escalate more broadly.  According to some reports, Israel was preparing to send ground troops into Gaza.  Hard to say whether these are tactical reports - intended to bring about better cease fire conditions - or whether Israel has determined that this is a necessary step in this conflict.  I guess  we are going to find out in the coming days.

Domestic Strife

Since  this current Israel-Gaza conflict began, Israel has seen something that it has not witnessed since 2000 - extensive violence between Israeli-Arabs and Israeli-Jews.  

Violence has flared up in several Israeli cities and towns that have significant Arab populations - in Lod, Acre (Akko), Nazareth and Haifa as well as others.  In Lod, mobs of Arab hoodlums have firebombed two synagogues and been involved in lootings, attacks on civilians and several shootings.  In Akko, a number of Jewish owned business were burned down, an Israeli Jew was pulled out of his car and severely beaten and there have been several other incidents of violence by angry Arabs.

Violence has also flared up against Israeli Arabs in several towns - including Bat Yam, Lod, Haifa and other places.  In Bat Yam,  an Israeli Arab driver was dragged out of his car and severely beaten by a mob of Jewish hoodlums.  In Lod and some other cities, mobs of angry Israelis shouted "death to Arabs" and attacked several Arab civilians.

Although the police have become involved in some of these cases, and have made some arrests, they are apparently outmanned, overwhelmed and incapable of  controlling the  situation.  

Extremist groups on both sides are using social media to create mass gatherings which are quickly becoming violent.

Prime Minister Netanyahu is talking about depolying the army in some cities to try and restore peace - but the  army is not generally intended, equipped or trained to perform policing work.  Soldiers have no power to arrest anyone - and they are not trained for these types of disputes.

Events of the past few days have really opened up a long festering wound between Arabs and Jews in Israel - though it is only a minority on each side causing all of these disturbances.  But the fallout could be devastating for Arab-Jewish relations in Israel and for civility in general.

Political Ramifactions

As I have discussed recently, the potential "Change Coalition" that was about to sign a coalition deal - was a government that was going to depend, at least initially, on some Arab Knesset members.  With the outbreak of this latest Gaza War (Entitled Operation "Protect The Walls" by Israel), the Arab Israeli Knesset members announced that they could not support any Israeli government.  As violence began to break out in Israel between Jews and Arabs - the leader of Yamina, Naftali Bennettt announced that he could no longer support the "Change Coalition."  Instead he has begun negotiating with Netanyahu once more.  It may well be that the violent attacks by Israeli Arabs on Jewish sites in Lod, Akko, Haifa and other places - will shift the Israeli voting population to the right.  Netanyahu is pushing for a fifth consecutive election - and perhaps hoping that as a result of this round of violence, he and his right wing partners will gain a few more seats and be able to form the "fully right wing" government that they have been dreaming about.  This would be a government filled with Knesset members who wish to increase the conflict level with the Palestinians and take a variety of provocotive steps including limiting the power of the Israeli Supreme Court to intervene in human rights cases, adding more nationlistic language to the Israeli constitution, sending military troops to Arab populated towns in Israel to "bring calm" and taking a variety of other actions.  

There is no done deal yet but certainly the events of the, past few days seem to be putting Netanyahu  in a much stronger position to retain his leadership position, likely bolstered by a hard-right coalition.  With talk from Netanyahu and his coalition partners and supporters about increasing the military presence in civilian areas, limiting the powers of the Supreme Court, and other steps that they are considering, we are, unfortunately,  inching closer to Turkey in terms of leadership style and system. It will be a signficant blow to Israel's democracy. Hopefully something will prevent or change this trajectory.

Yair Lapid, leader of the Change Coalition, and the Knesset member currently holding the "mandate" has 19 days left to try and form a government.  After Bennett's announcement yesterday that Bennett would be supporting Netanyahu, Lapid took to the airwaves and to social media urging calm, calling on Arabs and Jews to take a  step back from internal conflict, pushing the notion that it is precisely in challenging times that people have to be creative and come up with workable long term, stable, political solutions.  It  was an impassioned address but one that may have fallen on deaf ears.  Given the events of the past few days, Lapid's chances of ousting Netanyahu and forming a Change Coalition government have become ever smaller.  

Escalation  

Last  night, three rockets were fired from Lebanon towards Israel.   Hezbollah was fairly quick to state that this was an "accident" or it wasn't them but it is unclear whether that was a taste of things to come or a small mistep.  Needless to stay, things will become completely crazy if Hezbollah becomes  involved in this war and begins firing rockets at  Israel.  Hezbollah has huge storage facilities with a massive supply of long range rockets.  Hezbollah is supported by Syria, Iran and, indirectly by China, which recently signed extensive long terms deals to  support Iran.  Hopefully, the people of  Lebanon will be able to prevent any kind of Hezbollah escalation or involvement  in this conflict, but it is a serious concern.

As I write this, Israel has been massing tanks at the Gaza border.  It is quite possible that the IDF will enter Gaza with ground troops, tanks, special forces and other units.  As discussed earlier, it is unclear whether this will happen but if it does, it could signify a very large  escalation of this operation.

When you combine all of this, I think it is fair to say that there is a feeling that the situation, overall, has  deteriorated quite  significantly in many different ways over the past two or three days.  I am really not sure where this is all headed but if a cease fire is not arranged shortly, this could well become a large scale, extensive military operation that will result in significant loss of life on both sides.  

Wishing everyone best of health, peace and security and hoping that things improve dramatically soon.

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tragedy At Meron:

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

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

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

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

Weather and Covid-19

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

Shavuot

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

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

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





Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Another Election Update: Complete Craziness Here - and Other News

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Covid Update

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

Heat Wave and Upcoming  Holidays

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

Board  Games

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

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

 









Thursday, April 8, 2021

Yom Hashoah 2021

Today is Yom Hashoah  vHagvurah 2021 - the day of Remembrance of the Holocaust and Heroism.  This day is commemorated in Israel and by Jews and many others around the world to remember the 6 million of our people who were murdered by the Nazis and  their collaborators between 1939 and 1945.

Most years, I travel back to Toronto after Pesach and I am not in Israel for Yom Hashoah vHagvurah, which is only 5 days after Pesach ends.  But this year I have had the zchut (the privilege) to be here for this poignant and extremely important day.

Officially, Yom Hashoah began at sundown yesterday.  Perhaps as a starter with things to consider, someone sent me a video of a debate between Alan Dershowitz and the late Rabbi Meir Kahane.  It is interesting to watch, though Kahane was a purveyor of some extremely racist and repugnant views.  I'm not convinced that the way to defeat these folks is by giving them a big public stage.  Dershowitz did a decent job on some points, but fell quite short on many others.  Overall, I'm also not convinced that he  accomplished  his objective of "exposing and defeating" Kahane.  Instead, he probably gave him more publicity than he deserved.

I raise this because the Israeli Knesset has sworn in 6 member of the Religious Zionist party.  This collection of new Knesset members includes racists, xenophobes, homophobes, misogynists and generally extreme nationalist types.  Some of these  new  Knesset members have already spoken about proposing laws to make it harder  for  women to file complaints of sexual assault and harassment, limiting rights for  same  sex couples in Israel,  and legislation  aimed at  Israeli Arabs.  I'm not drawing parallels here but I am also not convinced that the best way to defeat these views is to given them platforms on an ongoing  basis.

In the evening  yesterday, we want to the Ra'anana commemoration at Yad  L'Banim (the City square, essentially).   This is an annual event.  Generally, the City of Ra'anana (like most cities across the country) honours  6 different  Holocaust survivors by telling their  life stories -  and then calling them up, usually with children or grandchildren, to light one of the 6 torches.   In between each group, there are sombre musical  performances.   There was also an interpretive dance performance this year.  Due to Covid, there was no event  last year.   This year's event was by advance registration only, for those with prove of vaccination only.  You had to show photo ID along with proof of vaccination to get in.  

These are powerful events, with lots  of tears.  Stories of people  who  lost their  entire  families but somehow made it to Israel and survived.  Horrifying  stories of harrowing  conditions, and cases where  these  tough individuals somehow eked out their survival.   Over the course of  the evening, a number of  poems were  read  (some  originally written in Yiddish, some in Hebrew) and we heard from a number  of speakers including  Ra'anana's mayor.  Special Yizkor prayers were recited in memory of those  who were killed including the El Maleh Rachamim prayer sung by Ra'anana's chief  Hazzan.  It was a powerful and difficult ceremony.

From  there, we went to a friend's house who had invited a member of a Holocaust survivor's family to come  and  share the  survivor's life story for a group of about  30  people.  

After that, it was back home to watch the national Holocaust  memorial  ceremony (we had recorded it) and several Holocaust themed  documentaries and programs.  The president of Israel, Reuven Rivlin, delivered a moving and thoughtful  speech.  Prime Minister Netanyahu also spoke and delivered what sounded like a campaign speech.   Most unfortunate for a Holocaust event.

I also attended a Toronto event, by Zoom, held by the  Law Society.  This was primarily about how to  fight hate speech, and Holocaust  denial by using various legal means.   It was an interesing and well attended event.

Today at 10 a.m., Israel blared a two minute siren across the country.   Everything stops.  People  get out  of their  cars and stop on the  side of the road for 2 minutes.  I was still  at home but stood up and observed the siren.

Yom Hashoah in Israel is one of the most important days on the calendar and  one of the most powerful.  Numerous speakers have noted that one of the raison d'etre's  for the State itself is to ensure that this could not happen again.  Many have noted that if Israel had been created in the 1920s or the 1930s (or earlier), it is extremely likely that a high number those who were murdered could have been saved.  

For many survivors, and indeed, many Israelis, the notion of seeing their children and grandchildren in the army, as pilots, combat soldiers, members of the intelligence forces - or in other important state positions gives them an incredible sense of pride but also a sense of comfort and security.   The State of Israel is there to protect them in a way that the Jewish people have  not had for more than 2000 years.

This particularist message is somewhat illustrative of the difference between Yad Vashem  (the Israeli Holocaust Museum)  and the National Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.  If you haven't been to one or the other, I would highly recommend  visiting  both.  The emphasis in Washington  is very universalist, in my view.  This could have happened to anyone and we need to fight all forms of racism and discrimination to ensure that it does not reoccur.  I'm not disputing the validity of  this message, though at times I have felt that the U.S.  museum downplays the Jewishness of the victims and history of anti-Semitism.  (I have visited several times).  

Yad Vashem emphasizes the Jewish experience including the history of anti-Semitism, the Jewish communities and culture that were  destroyed in Europe and the need, especially, for the  Jewish people to look after their own safety and defence rather than relying on anyone else to do so.  Yad Vashem  certainly addresses  others who were  targeted - the Roma community and gays and devotes a whole section to those  who went  out of their way to save Jews.  But the message is geared more towards the Israeli experience  rather than the broader multi-cultural messages that one might find in Canada or the U.S.  

Prime Minister Netanyahu took this a few steps  further in his annual Yom  Hashoah speech.  He sought to tie the fight to obtain vaccines from Pfizer to the commemoration of the Holocaust  and he also brought in the ongoing fight to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear  weapons.   So there are certainly those who will, at times, take the Holocaust as an event and use it for political purposes, even on Holocaust Rememberance  Day while we are remembering those who perished.  Fortunately, he did not also tie  it in  to his ongoing  criminal trial though many were expecting that  he might try to do so.

But  cynicism aside,  the notion that Israel in 1948 included a population of  whom approximately 25% were Holocaust survivors - and that these people were  able to build a country in the aftermath of such horrible experiences and turn it into a  successful, democratic, secure country is actually quite  mind boggling.  

We remember those who perished and hope and pray for the days of  world  peace, tolerance and an end to  anti-semitism, racism and  other forms of group  hatred.