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

Thursday, January 14, 2021

2021 - The Start of Some Changes in Israel?

Welcome to 2021.  In some places it is far from clear that we have turned a "new leaf" or left 2020 behind.  Given the recent political events in the U.S., the various Covid-19 mutations, the overburdened hospitals in so many places around the world, many people are wondering how to use the restart  button for this year.   Ctrl-alt-del doesn't seem to be working.

Here in Israel, we have begun the new Gregorian year with a mixture of political and health challenges, but also with a substantial measure of optimism.

On the one hand, the spread of Covid-19 has hit record highs, reaching up to 10,000 new cases a day last week and early this week.  Since the case load has been quite high for a while now, this is meant an increasingly high number of  Covid deaths, which tend to spike about 2 to 3 weeks after people are infected.  Numbers have reached 40-50 deaths a day, which is quite high for a country of only 9 million people.  

As a result of the growing numbers, Israel has instituted a third "shut down."  Once again, most workplaces are closed, other than those deemed essential.  Synagogues and other houses of worship are limited to 5 people inside with up to 10 outside.  Restaurants are offering delivery but are not supposed to be allowing "take-out" service.  Some places, like falafel shops, are allowing you to call from inside the drug store next door and ask to have your food delivered there.  This is apparently within the guidelines... Malls are closed, although the grocery stores, liquor stores, drug stores and  stores in a few other categories are still open.  

Government experts estimate that it may take 2-3 weeks to see the results of this lockdown.  This is the first lockdown in which Israel has now begun to insist that passengers leaving the country or arriving must be tested.  Up until now, surprisingly, this was not the case.

So we have roadblocks set up across the  country where police are stopping drivers and asking people where they are off to.  If your reason for travelling is not on the acceptable list, you can be fined 500 shekels (about $200 Cdn).  Permissible reasons for being out include grocery shopping (within a kilometre of your  home), drug store, getting vaccinated, getting tested for Covid-19, helping an elderly parent or grandparent and many others.  This has provided a great deal of fodder for Israeli comedy shows with parody skits of these interactions between police officers and people trying to come up with excuses quickly enough to avoid a fine.

Sometimes, as with so many other things, real life examples are sufficient comedic material themselves.  For example, a young Israeli was stopped earlier this week and told the officer that he was visiting his grandmother.  The officer asked for the name and plugged the name into a database.  Unfortunately, the grandmother had been dead for more than 2 years.  Nice try but that is definitely a fine!

Some people have decided to take their chances and disregard the rules entirely.  Police broke up a house party last week with more than 100 guests.  They were all fined 500 Shekels each and the owner was  fined 5,000.  But I understand that this is the case all around the world.  In fact, I would say that, for the most part, people in Israel are wearing masks when out, keeping distances in lines in supermarkets and  generally conscious of trying to follow the rules, or most of them.  Or some of them.

On the optimistic side, Israel has been a world leader in obtaining vaccines and rolling them out.  Israel has purchased significant quantities of vaccines from both Pfizer and Moderna, though far more from Pfizer.  Apparently, Israel offered to pay Pfizer significantly more per vaccine than the retail value, perhaps as much as three times the price.   Together with this agreement, Israel also signed a deal to provide Pfizer with information about the results of the vaccines, supposedly on a no-names basis. The exact terms of the deal have not been publicized.

The bottom line is that Israel began vaccinating its population en masse in late December.  For the most part, it has been quite orderly.  Vaccination stations were set up all around the country with big tents.  Appointments were available by phone, app, or web site.  At first, front line health  workers were vaccinated, followed by all those over 65 or people over 60 who were high risk.   Soon afterwards, the age was lowered to 60 officially (55 unofficially in many places).  

During this time period, Facebook and Whatsapp groups sprung up to help Israelis find vaccination sites.  There are a number of groups like "Vaccinations Between Friends" on  Whatsapp where Israelis who aren't in the current vaccination group can get information about which sites have "extras" on particular days so that they can show up and get in line.  Tens of thousands of Israelis have managed to get vaccinated this way.

The country's medical system quickly ramped up the vaccination rate to 150,000 to 200,000 a day.  According to recent estimates, more than 2 million people in Israel (including yours truly) have received their first dose.  Yesterday marked the start of the rollout of second doses.  At the same time, the qualifying age was lowered to 50, with talk that it will be reduced to 45 by early next week.

Many people who have received the second dose are reporting various symptoms that last for several hours or even  a day or two.  But for the most part, more serious reactions have been quite limited.  It remains to be  seen whether the rollout of the vaccine will dramatically change the pandemic situation here as expected and if so, how quickly.  The Israeli government has indicated that all citizens who wish to be vaccinated will be able to get the vaccine by the end of March (both doses).  Earlier this week, one Cabinet minister clarified that they meant everyone would have the first dose by the end of March and the second dose by late April, 2021.  

Israeli medical experts have reported that the vaccine provides significant protection starting at 14 days after the first dose, reducing the possibility of infection by more than 50%.  Both Pfizer and Moderna have estimated a success rate of more than 95% after the second dose.  I guess we will see shortly if these estimates are accurate.

The Israeli government has indicated that it is rolling out a plan to issue "Green Vaccination Photo ID cards" that look like drivers licences or health care cards - for all Israelis who have received the vaccination. These cards will be provided approximately 7 days after the second dose.  Israelis with these Green cards will be able to fly outside the country, return to Israel from a trip without isolation, go to concerts, sports events, restaurants etc.,.  I'm waiting to see whether other countries will recognize or  honour these cards - assuming that they are actually provided as planned.

So the optimistic news in Israel is that with such an aggressive rollout of the vaccine, Israel may be able to rid itself of the pandemic by May or June, assuming that the vaccine actually works.   If this all goes as  anticipated, it will be very good news for other countries as well and the world may really be able to turn the corner by mid to late 2021.  As long as Pfizer and Moderna can keep up with the demand for vaccines.  

Israeli Politics

I will save most of the Israeli election news for a later blog.  As you may know, we have an election scheduled for March 23, 2021, just days before Pesach (Passover).  Prime Minister Netanyahu is facing new challenges to his right and to his left although there still may be a consolidation of some of these parties between now and election day.   Candidates and political parties  actually have until early February to finalize their slates so it would be worthwhile to weigh in at that point once we see what the political landscape looks like.

Netanyahu's criminal trial is set to continue in early February 2021.  He is still hoping that he can get a 61 seat Knesset majority and pass a retroactive immunity bill to avoid facing these charges.  

Interestingly, or perhaps there are other adverbs, Netanyahu has embarked on a program of visiting Arab Israeli cities and asking Arab Israelis to vote for his Likud party.  Apparently, he is willing to offer some goodies in exchange for support of his immunity bill.  Now this is somewhat surprising since Netanyahu has spent the past several years attacking Arab Israeli politicians and making every effort to exclude them from any coalition.  In fact, he has argued that any government that relies on Arab Israeli support for its majority would be illegitimate.  How ironic would it be if he were to rely on exactly this support to try and get a retroactive immunity bill passed?  In any event - more politics in future blogs.

Lighter Notes

On the entertainment site, as you might have heard, "Shtisel" has returned for a third season.  Israeli TV station Yes Drama (Channel 5) has been showing the episodes on Sunday nights at 9 p.m. Israel time and  they are also showing up on youtube  the next day, though without translations.  You might need a VPN to watch them.  We have been enjoying the show.  I think it has been 3  episodes so far - not sure how many there are in the series.  In case you haven't seen it, I believe that the first two seasons are still on Netflix. 

Israel also has a variety of comedy shows that focus on political satire, especially impersonations of current politicians.  "Eretz Nehederet" ("A Wonderful Country") is one of these shows.  Many of its episodes are available on Youtube, some with subtitles.  It can be very funny, though it is hit or miss, much like Saturday Night Live.

Another show that has been increasing in popularity is called Zehu Zeh ("This is it").  The show is made up of a comedy troupe of five septuagenarians - who had a very popular comedy show back in the  70s.  They decided to get back  together and make a comeback which has included short satirical skits, impersonations and musical pieces.  I thought I would include a new release. Just last week they decided to put out an original song written by one of their colleagues and produced by a 30 something music  manager that they hired. 

It is called "The Pizza in Your Heart" - written about the search for the perfect slice of pizza and what happens when you finally find it - or how disappointing it can be to realize that maybe the slice that you dreamt of is not what you were really looking for after all.  It's all very tongue in cheek.  Although the idea might sound a bit cheesy, I think it's quite  fun. (Sorry about that).

Meanwhile, we are getting  some nice rainy  weather over the next few days, so I will have to postpone barbecuing.  I can't complain because it is still close to 20c outside.  I was happy to watch the Toronto Maple Leafs'  season opener last night (even though it was on at about 2 a.m. local time).  It was an overtime win for the boys in blue.  And I'm looking forward to NFL playoff weekend, especially the chance to see the Buffalo Bills try to get their second playoff win in 25 years.  As a Toronto hockey fan, that sounds all too familiar.  

Wishing everyone the best of health, Shabbat Shalom and a much improved 2021.














Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Final Blog of 2021 - Covid, Elections, Sports and a Few Other Items

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

Covid-19

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Politics

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

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

But here are a  few of the highlights.

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

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

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

Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai

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

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

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

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

Sports

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Holidays

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

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

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

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

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

Food Developments

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

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

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

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


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

Best wishes for a happy and healthy 2021.





Monday, December 21, 2020

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  

 

  



 


  

Tuesday, December 8, 2020

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Travel

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

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

TV

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

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

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

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

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

Cooking

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Best of health to everyone.



Wednesday, November 11, 2020

U.S. Elections, Israeli Politics and Remembrance Day 2020

It is Remembrance Day, 2020, eight days after the U.S. election.  Amidst the ongoing turmoil in the U.S. and the almost equally tenuous situation in Israel, a blog post is overdue.  On Remembrance Day, we reflect on the high price that we have paid to fight for freedom and democracy - the millions of civilians and soldiers who lost their lives to ensure a better  future for everyone else.  And of course, we often think of what might have been if the Allies had not emerged victorious by the end of the Second World War.

I haven't provided this introduction to be overly dramatic.  But there are very real concerns facing democracy in the United States and in Israel and I think some context and discussion is relevant.

As  of the writing of this blog, the U.S. is really at a crossroads.  We await the "official" results even as most major U.S. networks, including pro-Trump networks like Fox News, have called the election in favour of Joe Biden.  

On the one hand, I accept that either candidate is entitled to ensure that full and final results are tabulated and certified.  Arizona, Georgia and North Carolina have still not been called.  The margins are very slim and there are still many votes left to be counted.  North Carolina seems highly likely to go to Trump.  It is within the realm of possibility that Arizona or  Georgia or  both could be flipped as a result of lawful counting.  But even if Trump managed to take both Arizona and Georgia, which seems unlikely but possible, that would still leave him behind 279-259.  

What next?  Again, on the legal side, it is possible that a legitimate recount of Wisconsin could flip the state.  The margin is very small.  However, this seems unlikely.  Trump won Wisconsin by a very small margin in 2016 but the result was upheld.  There is no reason to believe that the Wisconsin ballot counters are off by so many votes.  They seem to know how to oversee closely contested elections.  

Winning and flipping Arizona, Georgia and Wisconsin would be highly improbable  but if the votes bring those results legitimately, it would not be undemocratic or improper.  On the contrary, it would be entirely democratic and appropriate if that  was what the actual votes showed.  

But assuming that Trump loses at least one of those three states, there is no real path to re-election for Trump other than the use of the judicial system to mount a large-scale attack on the U.S. voting process - in states that Trump has lost.   This is where things become frightening. 

The margin in Pennsylvania is more than 40,000 votes and is likely to wind up being more than 70,000-80,000 votes.  As of the writing of this blog, no evidence has been presented that would come close to invalidating that many legal votes.  But Trump seems to be convinced that if he can bring any argument at all to the Supreme Court of the United States (even if he is defeated at lower court levels), his battalion of three newly appointed justices will combine with two or three of the existing right-wing judges on the Supreme Court and uphold any argument that he puts forward, even one which disenfranchises more than 40,000 voters.

I am hopeful that we will not get close to  this scenario, but it is a terrifying one.  This type of ruling, if it were to occur, could only be characterized as a court-sanctioned coup.  We have already seen the U.S. Supreme Court tilt an election to the Republicans in a ridiculously partisan 5-4 decision in Bush v. Gore.  We can only take solace in the notion that Florida in 2000 was unclear in any event and a decision  in Gore's favour at that  time may not have resulted in a Democratic victory.  If the Supreme Court were to side with Trump in the present circumstances, it would be a very different situation, by orders of magnitude. 

You might be wondering how this all relates to my blog.  I think there are a few different responses.

First of all, Israel and its leadership are watching the U.S. results as closely as any other country in the world, if not more so.  Prime Minister Netanyahu has invested a great deal in his personal relationship with Trump.  In the last Israeli election, Netanyahu posted billboards all over the country with giant pictures of him and Trump posing together with the message that only Netanyahu could continue the special relationship with President Trump and the United States.  Netanyahu has placed most, if not all, of his eggs in the Republican basket.  He has cooperated with Trump to try and shift support for Israel to a partisan idea in the U.S. in the hopes of moving voters to the Republican party.  

Although President Obama took some actions that were viewed as hostile to Israel's interests, the Obama administration was very supportive of Israel in many other ways.  The U.S fully supported Israel during the  Gaza war, improved military and technological cooperation and handed off a very strong U.S. - Israel relationship to Trump.  There are some real questions about the Iran nuclear deal that was signed under Obama.  Additionally, it is unfortunate the Obama snubbed Israel at the beginning of his administration and refused to visit while he was "in the neighbourhood."  His support for an anti-Israel U.N. resolution on the way out the door at the end of his second term was odious.  But it is very misleading to conclude that the Democratic party has gone along with Trump's efforts to make Israel a partisan issue.  There are many leading Democrats who are very supportive of Israel and if Biden wins the election and takes office, it will be very important for Netanyahu and Israel to work with Biden constructively.  

At the same time, Trump deserves credit for moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, for cutting off funding to Palestinians until they agree to end the "pay for slay" program and for advancing peace agreements between Israel and other countries in the region.   A Biden administration may reverse some of these policies and that may not bring the region any closer to peace.  Hopefully Biden will be more supportive of Israel than Obama was in some areas.  Indications are that this is likely.

All of this has put Netanyahu in a quandary.  He has invested so much energy and political capital in mobilizing support for the Republicans that he found himself in an awkward situation staring at a likely Biden victory.  Even as news networks across the U.S. were calling the election in Biden's favour, Netanyahu resisted recognizing his  buddy's  election loss.  While leaders of several other countries congratulated Biden, Netanyahu held out for more than 12 hours after which he finally felt forced to offer his best wishes.  Unlike the leaders of Russia, China, Turkey, Brazil and a few others, Netanyahu recognized that he would have to say something.  Notably, he has avoided calling Biden "President-elect" but he has sent at least one lukewarm message.  

This is not  Netanyahu's first awkward moment resulting from his pro-Republican partisanship. Weeks before the election, in a conference call with world leaders, Trump asked Netanyahu to confirm that "sleepy Joe" wouldn't have been able to bring about these peace deals with UAE, Bahrain and  Sudan.  After a long pause, Netanyahu demurred and  mumbled that Israel is happy to get the support of any  U.S. leaders who can provide assistance.  Trump's face told the whole story.  He  was  quite displeased with Netanyahu's response.  

Following the election,  Netanyahu was again faced with the question of how to keep Trump happy while not damaging Israel's political interests with a new U.S.  administration.

Netanyahu himself is in a very questionable situation.  He remained in power after the March 2020 elections by cobbling together a coalition with the biggest opposition party - Blue and White - which then promptly fractured into two parts, only one of which joined Netanyahu's coalition.  Key terms of that coalition deal included a two year budget (until the end of 2021) and a rotation agreement under which coalition partner Benny Gantz would become the Prime Minister in September 2021.  

Eight months have passed and no budget has been presented.  Netanyahu has taken the position that times have changed and the government should now only pass a budget that  covers 2020.  That would leave him something to argue about and a reason to break apart the coalition and  call a new election in early 2021.  Needless to say, the Blue and White party have demanded that Netanyahu honour the coalition deal and agree to a two-year budget.  The matter is headed for a showdown by the end  of November at which time the government will fall if a budget agreement is not reached.

Netanyahu is still holding out hope that he can win an election and put together a  right wing coalition.  His criminal trial is scheduled to resume in January 2021.  He is facing three different sets of charges for bribery, breach of trust and corruption.  Over the past three elections, he has been hoping that he can put together a coalition that would agree to legislation that would retroactively eliminate his criminal problems.  This would be a shockingly anti-democratic move but he  seems to have quite a large number  of Israel Knesset members who would be prepared to support this type of bill, though not he has not yet been able to get more than half the Knesset to sign on.

Unlike the U.S. President, the Prime Minister of Israel does  not have the power to pardon people (or himself).  He can seek a pardon from the President of Israel, who holds an otherwise largely ceremonial figurehead role, much like the Queen in England or the Governor General in Canada.  So Netanyahu will require a Knesset majority of some sort if he hopes to get his legal troubles to vanish.  On the other hand, I am quite convinced that if Trump eventually relinquishes his office (or is forced to do so), he will pardon himself and many many others, including family members and friends just before leaving office.  It remains to be  seen whether the U.S. Supreme Court will uphold this use of a self-pardon.  Certainly there appear  to be 3 or 4 judges would almost certainly side with Trump.  I suppose that Gorsuch, Coney Barrett and Roberts will be the real decision makers,  though I am beginning to feel more confident that Roberts would not go along.

In short, looking at all of this, we are facing some very real tests of democracy in both the U.S. and Israel.  The fight in the U.S. may extend into January as various court challenges, recounts and other steps are all addressed.  I offer my hope that honesty, fairness and integrity will prevail in both the recounts and any judicial decisions.  In Israel, things may not be decided any time soon.  There may be an election in the coming months but it may be followed by still more elections if Netanyahu is unable to win and rid himself of his criminal charges.  

In both cases, democracy  and freedom will only prevail if the eventual election results reflect the actual votes of the people and if the voices of the people are heard, upheld and implemented.  In assessing recent actions taken by Trump, including the spread of demonstrably false claims, and the efforts to disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of  voters, we should remember the history lessons that we think of, especially today.  And remember how easily a vibrant democracy can quickly slide into totalitarianism.  




Sunday, October 18, 2020

Mid October 2020: Partial Opening After 2nd Wave in Israel


Israel began to reopen today after a month of extensive Covid-19 closures.  Not everything re-opened but the national parks and the beaches opened their doors.  It is probably fair to say that the  beaches were never really closed.  People were attending regularly and, for the most part, police were staying away.  There was an exception that permitted people to go to the beach (but not enter the water) for purposes of "exercising."  So where the police did happen to show up at the beach - groups of backgammon playing bong-smokers suddenly became super active - doing jumping jacks, push-ups and other exercises in the sand.  While the police officers watched and waited...

Another restriction that ended today prevented people from travelling more than  one  kilometer from their  homes.  Except for grocery shopping, drug store purchases, household  necessities, buying a lulav and  etrog, moving, helping a senior family member and a host of other reasons.  So the question here was not whether people were following the restriction but which of the many exceptions they could quickly come up with if stopped by the police at a roadblock.  Failure to come up with a legitimate reason quickly enough could result in a significant  fine.

Schools also opened up from JK to grade 6 across the country, even in "red" areas.  It seems unlikely that this will last for more than a week or two but I guess we will see.  The government opted to open everywhere rather than selectively for fear of acting in discriminatory fashion.  Many of the "red zones" are ultra-Orthodox ("Haredi") areas and the government did  not want to upset the Haredi members of its coalition.  So schools opened up everywhere.  This is likely to lead to a widespread increase in the infection rate which is now running at about 2,000 new infections per day.

Despite these rules limiting openings to elementary schools, the Haredim announced that they would open everything up, through grade 12 as well as Yeshivas for post-grade 12 age students.  They simply announced that they would not follow the rules and so far, the government has not taken any  official action to close these institutions.  We essentially have a "state within a state" in many parts of the country.

Mass demonstrations against the Prime Minister also resumed this week.  There were large scale  demonstrations near the official Prime Minister's residence on Saturday night as well as in Tel-Aviv. While many  of the protesters have been wearing masks, they certainly do not appear to be following social  distancing rules.  Last night, there were several accounts of violent attacks from pro-Netanyahu anti-protesters who showed up at the demonstrations to disrupt and beat anti-Netanyahu protesters.  As  of the writing of this blog, I have no concrete information about who is organizing the counterdemonstrations.  Hmmm....

I should mention, coincidentally of course, that one of Netanyahu's most senior cabinet ministers, Miki Zohar, the Deputy Prime Minister was the subject of a frightening radio interview this week.  Earlier in the week, some audio recordings had been mysteriously released.  The recordings contained discussions with the sitting Attorney General of Israel, Avihai Mandelblit, from many years earlier   The recordings had nothing to do with the current criminal charges against Netanyahu.  In the interview broadcast this week - Zohar threatened that several additional recordings would be  released and there would be an "earthquake of information" released about the current Attorney General if he did not drop all charges against Netanyahu.  When asked if he was making a threat he said "no I'm  making  a promise."   Now I may not be a criminal lawyer, but that certainly sounded like about as open and shut a  case of blackmail/extortion as one could possibly dream up.

In other news, how about some political polls?

On the home front, some new Israeli polls have shown a sudden and  dramatic drop in support  for  Netanyahu.  Current polls put him at about 27 seats (he currently as 36) and put Naftali Bennett at 24.  Overall, the right in Israel is still in position to win an election and form a government.  But there are suddenly options that this would be a different kind of government with substantially reduced power for Netanyahu.  In fact, there are options for a government to be formed that would exclude Netanyahu and the Likud party.  This is the first poll in several years that has shown that  as a real possibility.  At the same time, there is no election currently scheduled and we do not know when one will be called.  So it is all very hypothetical.  I remain skeptical but there are at least some signs that the landscape here may be changing.

In another poll, Israelis were asked about the upcoming U.S. election.  Apparently, 73% of Israelis indicated that they would  prefer Trump.   Among Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox Israelis, the percentage  swelled to over 90%.  But when Israelis who self-identified as "centrists" or "leftists" were asked, they favoured Biden 55-45%.  So if the President loses on November 3, 2020 as some now expect, he might consider coming to Israel.   After all, Trump just said at a rally last week that he might "leave the country" if he  loses the election.  Maybe if he  loses, he will pardon himself and  come build a new golf course and hotel  complex  near Netanyahu's home in Caesarea.  The challenge for  Netanyahu is that unlike Trump he can't grant himself a pardon.   If Netanyahu loses the next Israeli election, he may have to spend a great deal of time somewhere other than on one of Trump's  golf  courses.   Say, a more confined location.

The weather  is still quite nice here.  So now that  national parks have opened up, a trip to one of them one day this week sounds like a really attractive idea.   We are anxiously awaiting the start of strawberry season over the next few weeks.  As you may know, fruit and vegetables are very seasonal and very local here.  The strawberries are fantastic but it is a fleeting season, lasting from  November through April, or maybe May.  But there are several different types of strawberries - juicy, very sweet and  quite unlike others that I have had, even  at the peak of the farmer's market in mid-summer in Toronto.  Jerusalem Artichokes (See photo above) are now in season so I tried making some soup this week with  a  bunch  of them and it was fantastic.  Recipes available on request.  And there are also some enormous and delicious mangos in season.  Or, of course, you can pick up a $25 pineapple...(ouch!).  

To round  out things, shopping malls, most other "non-essential" stores and restaurants, including outdoor patios, all remain closed even though the airport has reopened.  Travellers to Israel are required to quarantine for 2 weeks unless they are coming from "green countries."  But only travellers holding citizenship or having certain categories of family in Israel can enter the country in any event - and then only with advance permission.  That being said, some countries are  apparently willing to accept Israeli tourists - so there are flights leaving Israel for leisure purposes to Greece, Bulgaria and some other destinations.  No plans to join any of these flights any time soon.

Wishing everyone a wonderful week and the best of health.



Wednesday, September 16, 2020

The "Abraham Accords" - Are We Any Closer to Middle East Peace?"


We watched the signing of the "Abraham Accords" yesterday with interest.  It was a big deal for Israel.  After all, any time that Israel can sign peace treaties (okay, normalization treaties) with other Arab countries, that is bound to be a big deal.  The deal and the process have elicited some very polarized reactions so I thought it would be worthwhile to provide a  few comments about this  process.

First of all, I think it is fair to acknowledge that, however we got here, this type  of deal is a favourable and beneficial deal for most players in the region.  Although it may be characterized primarily  as an "arms deal" between the U.S. and the UAE wherein the U.S. will now sell F-35s and other weaponry to the UAE, there is more to it than that.  The UAE and Israel have begun to negotiate deals and arrangements in a wide range of areas including technology, medicine, energy, tourism and, yes, defence.  This type of relationship, if it proceeds, will lead to a much warmer peace than Israel has with Egypt or  Jordan.  If it takes root and develops, it may well lead to a very different Middle East.  Other countries may come along and the peace between Israel and Egypt may develop further.   Israelis may soon find  themselves  visiting more Arab  countries regularly and vice-versa and that is exciting.

At the signing ceremony yesterday, including the accompanying press conferences, President Trump stated that he expected "5 or 6 other countries" to come along very soon.  Apparently, after the press conference he upped this to "7 to 9."   Now, I don't really think, given the track record, that anyone has any great reason to believe very much of what this president promises.  Who knows what these other countries are demanding in the negotiations?   Or how far apart they really are?  Or whether any of these deals can really be closed?  But I will say this - if Israel were to be able to enter deals with 5 or 6 other countries - including some large and significant ones - that would have to be considered a huge step towards Middle East  peace and a brighter future for the whole region.  So far, the names I have heard mentioned include Oman, Sudan, Morocco, Lebanon, and, ultimately, Saudi Arabia.  It would certainly be a huge credit to Trump and Kushner if they were able to close most or all of these deals.

If the other countries do not fall into line as expected, yesterday's  deal may not amount to very much and  may not change much in the region.  Some indications from yesterday's proceedings support a pessimistic view about the  whole ordeal.   Neither Bahrain nor the UAE brought their heads of state.  Instead, each side brought their foreign ministers (secretaries of state, if you will).  For Israel, the Foreign Minister, Gabi Ashkenazi (part of the Blue and White wing of the governing coalition) was left at home and did not attend with Prime Minister Netanyahu.  In fact, press reports here indicate that he wasn't even aware of the contents of the deal.  Neither the Israeli cabinet nor the Israeli Knesset have yet voted to approve the deal and it is unclear that anyone, other than Netanyahu, is aware of its full contents.

Prime Minister Netanyahu and the representatives from the UAE and Bahrain all spoke glowingly about President Trump.  That seems to have been one of the  key terms of the deal.  In fact, Netanyahu did not even acknowledge the foreign representatives from the UAE and Bahrain until later in his speech.  He did  not speak about plans for Israel and the UAE.  One might have thought he could  have publicly invited the UAE and Bahrain leaders to visit Israel during this speech or he could have reviewed some of the hopes and aspirations that citizens of each country might have.  But instead, the focus was on Netanyahu himself as well as Trump.  It is a shame that Netanyahu seems so willing to go  along with turning Israel into a partisan issue in United States politics.  I am not convinced that this is a policy that is in Israel's interests  long term, especially if Trump should lose the  November election.

For their part, the representatives of the UAE and Bahrain also went along with the cue to lavish praise upon President Trump,  repeatedly.  All that was missing was  an official ring-kissing procession.   They both said little about Israel but called for peace across the Middle East.  The Bahraini representative called for a "just  resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian" conflict but really did not discuss what was so great about this particular deal for Bahrain and Israel respectively.  The ceremony, overall, had the feel of a campaign rally for Trump and Netanyahu rather than a key diplomatic event.

Critics of the deal and of the Trump-Kushner approach to the Middle East  have argued that Trump has titled U.S. policy towards Israel and has effectively taken positions that Bibi himself would have put forward.  In some cases, this  is fair comment.  the Trump administration has cut aid to the Palestinians, has recognized Jerusalem as Israel's capital and has recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights.  The Trump administration has also put together a "Deal of the Century" proposal for peace between Israel and the Palestinians without Palestinian involvement.  And  yes, it is a fairly one-sided document.

That being said, the Trump-Kushner proposal, does call for an independent Palestinian State, something rejected  by Netanyahu,  his Likud party and the various parties to the right of Likud in the  Knesset.  It does not include all of the territory that the Palestinians would like and  it does  not include a right of return to Israel for the many Palestinian refugees.  But it does include territorial compromise by Israel and  it is a negotiable plan rather than the a bottom line.  It is unclear whether there would be any negotiations regarding Jerusalem.

It is true that  this approach tilts towards Israel.  But it has also true that previous plans including  the Arab League Plan and the Clinton plan tilted, almost  completely, to the  Palestinian side, especially the Arab League Plan which called for a Palestinian state on pre-1967 borders including  the Old City.  Even where Israeli leaders were willing to go along with a plan that included most of these terms (i.e. the Clinton plan in 2000) that was not acceptable to the Palestinians.  I  do think that a Clinton-type plan left the station shortly after Arafat rejected it.  Especially after political changes in Israel that were probably linked, to some extent, to the rejectionist approach of the Palestinians at the time.

For years the surrounding Arab countries have  been willing to support Palestinian intransigence by characterizing Israel as the main enemy and  threat in the  region and refusing to enter into peace and  normalization deals with Israel - for fear of having been viewed as  betraying the Palestinian cause.  But over the course of the past 53 years since the 1967 war and 72 years since the establishment of the State of Israel, this has been a failing policy.  It has led to  a great deal of war and violence, terrorism, perennial refugee camps and has helped bolster dictatorial regimes in the region who have  used the Palestinian cause to suppress their own populations and  downplay  other criticism about how their countries are run.  And it really hasn't brought the Palestinians any closer to their own state.

The current approach led by Trump and  Kushner marks a  significant departure from this failed policy.  On the  one hand, the U.S. has tilted towards Israel in some areas, much to the chagrin of the EU, the "progressive wing" of the Democratic Party, Turkey, Iran and some other countries.  On the other hand, the goal of the policy seems to be to  bring in other Arab nations, to become friends and allies of Israel - but also to help work towards a resolution of the Israel-Palestinian conflict in a way that is more realistic. 

It is noteworthy that Netanyahu has called the deals with the UAE and Bahrain "deals from strength" that trade "peace for peace" rather than "land for peace."  But Netanyahu is being disingenuous.  As  part of these deals, Israel has agreed to refrain from unilaterally annexing any of the disputed territories and has also agreed not to oppose a U.S. decision to sell the UAE F-35s.   

The Crown Prince of the UAE states that he believed that the UAE could be in a much better position to assist with the Israeli -Palestinian conflict if it were viewed with some measure of trust and  friendship by Israel.  The UAE and Israel have taken steps  to build that relationship since as early as 2010.  But this does mark  a new  phase - and concurrently, a potentially new level of influence for the UAE in its dealings with Israel.  By including a requirement that  Israel abandon any proposal  to unilaterally annex land, some of which is earmarked for a future Palestinian state, the UAE has signified that it will take an active role in trying to bring about a resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

That brings us to the current situation.  There are really a few very different routes that  this process may now take.

If Trump and Kushner are correct that this process has the potential to bring about a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians - I believe that Saudi Arabia would be the key turning point.  Saudi Arabia may well have the clout to insist that it will only sign a full peace deal with Israel if the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is resolved.  

In this scenario, a proposal or  plan may be developed that is somewhere between the Trump-Kushner plan and the Clinton Plan.  It would result in the formation of a Palestinian State and a full resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian  conflict.  The problem is that it may not be acceptable, initially, to the Palestinians or even the Israelis.  But here the hope would be that the combination of the support  of a large number of other Arab countries, financial, economic and other  assistance for the Palestinians would leave the Palestinians with no other real alternatives.

On the other side of the equation, Netanyahu has actively campaigned against the creation of a Palestinian state and has suggested that he opposes this part of the Trump-Kushner plan.  He stated this repeatedly during the last Israeli election campaign.  But at some  point, if pushed by Trump and  Kushner - and with the possibility of having  diplomatic relations, even  warm ones, with a large number of countries in the Middle East, Israel may also have no other real alternative but to accept the deal.

On the other hand, no matter what Trump, Kushner or Netanyahu do, there will continue to be rejectionists in the Middle East.   Iran, Turkey, Qatar, Hezbollah and Hamas have all registered their strong opposition to this approach and the Palestinian Authority has called the UAE and Bahrain "back stabbers."  If the other Middle Eastern countries will not go along with the  Trump-Kushner approach and if the PA decides to  turn to violence as its response (as it has many times in the past), an Israeli-Palestinian deal may be as far off as it has ever been.

If, in November, Trump is re-elected, he may decide to pressure Israel to accept a plan that he can sell to the other Arab countries - and ultimately try to use those countries to get the Palestinians to agree  as well.  There are a lot of "ifs"  here and Trump is very unpredictable.  And, of course, there is a still a good chance that he will not be re-elected.

If Biden is elected, he will have a difficult decision to make.  If he takes the Obama approach to the Middle East, that would mean trying to open up negotiations with Iran immediately, restoring funding to the Palestinians unconditionally and cooling the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia, the UAE and  others.  This may effectively end the current track of pushing for peace deals between Israel and neighbouring countries as a first step  towards peace.

But if  Biden is elected and  he can be convinced that some genuine progress has been made  - and the U.S. is close to brokering a peace deal between Saudi Arabia and  Israel (that also involves an Israel-Palestinian deal), Biden might even continue a version of this path.  He  will almost certainly restore funding to the Palestinians either way and try to re-open dialogue with the PA.  But he might not tilt U.S. policy back to where it was under Obama.

Overall, I think this is all a great opportunity for Israel.  The Palestinians rejected the Clinton plan in 2000 and lost what was probably the best proposal they might ever get from Israel.  They probably regret having done so even if they will not publicly admit it.  At this juncture, if Israel could reach a deal with the Palestinians, along the  lines of what has been proposed by Trump and  Kushner, it would probably be about the best deal Israel could hope to get even if the final deal involves additional Israeli concessions.  If it is a deal that would also involve full peace deals with most of the  surrounding Arab countries, it would be an opportunity that Israel would probably not want to pass up.  

While President Obama and Netanyahu had a great deal of public  quarrels, the U.S.-Israel relationship remained very strong throughout  Obama's presidency.  This was the case despite some of the steps taken by Obama over the course of his presidency, especially his support for anti-Israel UN resolutions at the very end of his second term and the dispute with Israel over the wisdom of the Iranian nuclear deal.  But at the same time, throughout the  Obama presidency, the U.S. continued to cooperate with Israel fully in  a wide range of technological, military, economic and  other areas despite the often successful efforts of Netanyahu to portray the situation otherwise.  President Obama did not take any significant steps to try and impose a deal on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

If Biden is elected, he may well look at all aspects of the Obama-Netanyahu relationship and find a way to do things a bit differently.  He  may want to restore the public perception of the U.S.-Israel relationship as one that is non-partisan even while repairing the U.S. relationship with the Palestinians.  He will have a challenging  time with Netanyahu in this regard but if the ultimate result is comprehensive peace between Israel and the Palestinians with most other Arab countries in agreement - it may make sense to continue a version of the Trump-Kushner approach even if a Biden vision is viewed as being a bit more balanced.