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

Monday, May 6, 2024

Yom Hashoah v'Hagvurah 2024 - Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day and other comments

On this day of Yom Hashoah v'Hagvurah (Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day), there are many things to write about.  I was planning to limit this blog to a focus on the Holocaust.  But in light of all of the events taking place in Israel, I had to add some additional comments and discussion. 

Possible Ceasefire Deal?

A few minutes ago, the Israeli press began reporting that Hamas has advised negotiators that it has "accepted" the latest Qatari-Egyptian-U.S. proposal for a three-staged cease fire.  It is unclear whether this will actually go ahead.  But here are, among other things, a few events that took place today.  First of all, Hamas announced earlier that it was leaving negotiations and that it could not trust the Egyptians to broker a deal.  Israel announced that it was asking 100,000-200,000 civilians in Rafiah, Gaza to leave the area so that it could conduct operations in that area (the last remaining stronghold for Hamas military divisions).  

It is noteworthy that Israel did not announce a major call up of its reserves in preparation for this telegraphed incursion.  Nevertheless, hours later, Hamas announced "officially" that it was accepting the cease fire terms.

I do not have the detailed document here - but among other things - this is what is apparently included:

1. 33 kidnapped live Israelis would be returned over a period of 40 days - mainly including women, the elderly and some injured captives. In exchange, Israel would release approximately 100 convicted Hamas murderers and 600 other Hamas prisoners.

2. After the 40 days, Hamas would release additional hostages including soldiers and other civilians in exchange for further releases of Hamas prisoners from Israeli jails.  

3.  There is a third stage of agreeing to the rehabilitation of Gaza, the full exchange of other prisoners and remains of dead civilians and soldiers and an extended five year period of non-hostilities.

Reports are that Israel has not agreed to the third stage and that it has only agreed to the second stage conditionally.  Israel has maintained that it has the right to resume operations until its war aims are met.  However, Hamas has announced that it is accepting the deal on the basis of U.S. guarantees that steps 2 and 3 will take place - even without formal Israeli acquiescence.   

This "deal" will create quite a bit of division in Israel.  The deal will leave Hamas in power and in place to rebuild and try to carry out another similar attack.  It will allow Hamas and its leader Yehia Sinwar to claim a form of victory (or stalemate at least).  And it will not bolster any hopes for having a non-Hamas - peace oriented Palestinian leadership in control of Gaza.  In other words, the people of Gaza will continue to be stuck under  the thumb of a brutal Hamas military dictatorship - even if many of them actually chose or supported that type of rule in Gaza.

On the other hand, if Israel does not find a way to release as many hostages as possible immediately, it will be risking the lives of all of these people - and failing in its most basic obligation to its citizenry to protect Israelis and to redeem them when they are taken hostage or held captive somewhere.

I have listened to many different sides of this debate from an Israeli perspective. I am torn.  I am very concerned that we will continue to face the same ongoing cycle of violence from Hamas - and this deal will risk the lives of many Israelis in the future - who will face attacks from a large number of released murderers.

But, on balance, I believe that we must release anyone who is still alive at this point.  If Israel refuses and proceeds with an invasion of Rafiah - that will involve the potential loss of hundreds of our soldiers.  We may not get any of the hostages back.  We are unlikely to be able to fully destroy Hamas.  We will wind up with thousands of Palestinian casualties, many  of whom will be innocent civilians.  And perhaps, most significantly, we will face massive world pressure, especially from the U.S., the EU  and other places - which may have a devastating cost for Israel in terms of world support, economic pressure and general isolation.

It is quite clear to me that Prime Minister Netanyahu does not want a deal now - and certainly not this one.  If the deal goes ahead, his government may well face a day of reckoning.  Israel may wind up with an election sooner than anticipated.  However, even though Netanyahu himself may not survive an election, the Israeli public could shift even further to the right as a result of all of the events since October 7th, 2023.  

It is also worth noting that there is no deal with Hezbollah in the north yet - and tens of thousands of Israelis who have been evacuated from their homes are still waiting to return.  Many Israeli commentators have indicated that this will only take place after a major war with Hezbollah and Lebanon on Israel's northern border.  I am hopeful that if there is a deal with Hamas, Hezbollah will also agree to some sort of deal - but so far, that is unclear.

As a postscript - while I write this blog - some Israeli officials are saying that Hamas has accepted a "new deal" put together by Qatar and Egypt that Israel has not yet even seen.  Other announcements are that it was the same deal that Israel approved but the U.S. added additional assurances to Hamas that the war would not continue after the 40 days.  I can't really tell you at this point what will happen - and there seems to be quite a mix of opinion from Israeli newscasters and commentators - some of whom think there will be a deal - and many who do not.  At least not at this time.

Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day

Yom  Hashoah v'Hagvurah is one of the most poignant and difficult days on the Israeli calendar.  Israelis attend at remembrance ceremonies across the country on the evening before.  All restaurants and stores are closed from about 6 p.m.  All Israeli television stations and radio stations are dedicated to Holocaust programming.  There are documentaries, interviews, movies and other programs on all night.  

We attended the ceremony in Ra'anana, which focused on the Jews of Kovel, Ukraine this year. Kovel was a town that had 20,000 Jews before World War II, the vast majority of whom were murdered by the Nazis between August and October 1941.  Many were held in the city's large synagogue while knowing that they were about to be murdered.  Some of them wrote their personal stories and prayers on the walls of the synagogue in their own blood, hours before being murdered.  This was obviously a gut wrenching and difficult ceremony to attend.

Afterwards, we watched different Holocaust programming on TV including the National  Remembrance Ceremony from Jerusalem and some other programs featuring the testimony of survivors along with interviews with their children and grandchildren.

One of the most  moving pieces that I watched was an interview with former Israeli Chief Justice Aharon Barak.  Barak is now 87. When he was 5 years old, he miraculously escaped the Ghetto by being hidden in a basket of soldiers' uniforms, along with his mother.  He was hidden by a nearby Lithuanian farmer and his family for a short period of time - and then had to leave.  Another farmer family, Jonas Mozuraitis and his wife Ona, took him and his mother (as well as a few others) and kept them all hidden for almost three years.  The farmer built a double wall with a four foot space in between.  Barak, his mother and the others, were hidden between the walls for entire days and allowed to come out only at night - where they would then spend time with the farmer's family including his children.  Barak eventually came to Israel, studied law, became the Dean at the Hebrew University Law School and eventually the Chief Justice of the Israeli Supreme Court.  The story is nothing short of incredible.

Years later, Barak was asked to meet with Lithuanian officials to provide advice on putting together a constitution - he accepted the invitation on condition that he could meet with the family that had hid him.  Only the farmer's children were still alive.  Barak had a question for them.  "Why did you save us and risk your  lives? he asked.  "If the Nazis had discovered us they would have killed you."  One of the children responded to Barak.  "I don't understand your question.  For us it wasn't a question.  We were religious Catholics.  We believe in our obligation to our fellow human beings, especially those in need.  We saw people who needed help and we knew we had to help  We believe you would do the same."  Barak said the answer has kept him awake every night.  "Would I have the courage and the moral clarity to do the same thing?" He has asked himself repeatedly.  One of  Barak's family members said - the answer is "absolutely."  But Barak was crying while giving this explanation.

Barak, as you might recall, is the Israeli representative on the International Criminal Court which has been hearing the case brought by South Africa alleging that Israel has been carrying out a genocide.  The case is simply outrageous and Barak spoke a bit about it (to the extent that he was able to do so).  Israeli soldiers have been fighting back against  Hamas in a war that Hamas declared on October 7th.  While there have been a large number of civilian Palestinian casualties, the Israeli army has taken extraordinary steps to minimize those casualties.  Israel is fighting an enemy that has set up bases in hospitals, mosques and dense residential areas.  Hamas has transported its fighters in UNRWA vehicles and red cross ambulances.  Sometimes they wear press badges.  Hamas has fired missiles and then hidden underground in tunnels while exposing the civilian population to Israeli responses to the missile fire in those very same areas.

On the other hand, the October 7, 2023 attacks by Hamas were deliberate attacks involving  massacres of civilians - including torture, burning victims alive, rape and all kinds of other atrocities.  The notion that Israel would be charged with genocide for attacking Hamas in response to these crimes against humanity is ludicrous.

All of this context was explored this year during Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day by a wide range of speakers - who also sounded warning bells about the massive worldwide increase in antisemitisms and anti-Semitic attacks.  A special focus has been on U.S. university campuses and some of the completely unacceptable responses by these universities to the targeting of Jewish students on campuses.  Columbia University has, of course, been singled out as one of the worst offenders though the situation across the U.S. is quite grim, especially as viewed through the eyes of Jewish Israelis.  

Of course Canada is not much better.  The University of Toronto is continuing to allow a pro-Hamas encampment on its property - which is actively trying to prevent Jews from entering the area.  Is this 2024?  

Anti-Jewish attacks, rallies and other public antisemitic acts and comments, can all remind us, anytime, but especially on Holocaust Remembrance Day, how things that start like this can quickly descend into much much worse scenarios.

Lighter Note

On a lighter note (compared to everything that is going on here), I stayed up on Saturday night to watch the Maple Leafs blow yet another 7 game series and bow out of the playoffs in the  first round - even with a team loaded with highly paid superstars.  Once again, a tremendous, yet perhaps predictable  disappointment for a Toronto Maple Leafs hockey fan.  At least I saved some money on playoff tickets - though I was looking forward to being back in Toronto for Round 3 or Round 4 - even at an insane cost of $750 per ticket for my lowly purple seats if the Leafs had made it to the finals.  

Here in Israel, the Yes Cable system was showing Leafs' playoff games on Sports 5+ - channel 59 - at 3 a.m.  But wouldn't you know it - they showed games 1 to 6 but not game 7. So I had to stream the CBC using a VPN.  That wound up working out fine.  Unfortunately, no one wanted to stay up and watch with me - so I had to keep from falling asleep on my own.  With overtime, I think the game ended around 6 a.m. on Sunday morning.

My other light note - is that Israel is getting a few days of  unseasonal rain.  The weather forecaster called it the "return of winter" - even though the temperature has not dipped much below 20C.  Some winter...(says the Canadian...)

I will try to write more in the coming days as we have Yom Hazikaron (Israel Remembrance Day for  Soldiers and Victims of Terror), Yom Haatzmaut (Israel Independence Day), the Eurovision Festival, and the pending invasion of Rafiah, Gaza or a possible cease fire deal.  Lots to discuss.

I wish everyone the best of health - and  peace.






 





Thursday, March 28, 2024

Blog from Israel - March 2024

I have had a look and it has been about three months since  I have written a blog.  So I thought it was time for an update.  I plan to cover a range of topics - not necessarily with significant depth - but there are so many things going on here that I thought it would be worthwhile covering a few of them.  Things are quite busy at work (my day job) so it is hard to devote a great deal of time to an unpaid hobby - as important as my updates might be.  I will try to include some headings so you can skip to whatever you might find interesting....

1. Getting to and from Israel

I thought I would start with this one - since some of you might be planning or thinking about planning trips to Israel in the coming months.  Since October, 2023, "commuting" has become extremely challenging.  As you might know, Air Canada suspended its service to Israel on October 7, 2023 as did many other airlines.  Only El Al continued its service to Israel uninterrupted as did a handful of other airlines - including Emirates Airlines.  (Though has you know, El Al had cancelled its direct Toronto service more than a year ago in any case).

Air Canada has announced that it will be resuming service effective April 8, 2024, but there is still no end to the war in sight - so I guess what I would say is "I'll believe it when I see it."  

Over the years, as you may know, I have been doing my best to fly Air Canada as often as I can.  The Aeroplan program is better than the available alternatives and Air Canada has been the only airline with direct service since El Al cancelled its direct service to Toronto.

So since October, I have tried to find ways to get to Israel from Toronto by combining Air Canada and El Al.  I have flown through Rome, Amsterdam and London with these combinations.  These were challenging connections to say the least, especially if you have luggage.  Since there is no sharing agreement between airlines, you have to land, exit the airport, collect your baggage and then check in again.  I would say that the Rome airport was reasonably efficient - especially for Canadian passport holders - as they have a quick line for holders of passports from certain countries, including the EU, U.S. and Canada.  Amsterdam was a disaster.  The immigration line alone there took more than an hour.  

In London, the exit was almost as quick as Rome - but then I had to take a train - (way, way, way down) to switch terminals.  The whole process  took forever.

Considering everything, I was prepared to make the best of it and arrange a few more flights via Rome.  The problem is that the connection is great leaving Israel going back to Toronto.  But from Toronto - you have to plan on spending a day in Rome.  

Okay - things could be worse.  For one of my flights, I locked up my baggage and spent a day in Rome.  I went for lunch at a Kosher Tunisian restaurant -  (which was interesting - but I probably should have gone with the Kosher Italian food instead....) and walked around the city for several hours.  I managed to visit the Trevi Fountain, several other sites and, ultimately, a great gelato place.

But more recently, all of the airlines have upped their fares considerably.  To fly via Rome this time, the fares were over $3,000 Canadian for economy class, with a lengthy delay.   I couldn't find any other reasonable alternatives.

So I wound up trying Air France via Paris - with a 1.5 hour connection in Paris.  It sounded questionably optimistic but it was less than 1/2 the price of other alternatives.  The flight itself from Toronto to Paris on Air France was fine.  Reasonably comfortable seats, decent entertainment system and fairly good service.  We arrived in Paris a bit early - but... sat on the tarmac for almost an hour and  missed the connection.  So me and seven other Israelis - my "lonsmen" (actually there were no women in the group so it was really only lonsmen) were put on an alternate flight - the next day.  We were given vouchers for a hotel near the airport, vouchers for food at the hotel and at the airport - and instructions for a free shuttle to and from the hotel.  

I suppose things could be worse than an overnight in Paris. After resting for a while in the hotel (a medium end airport Moxy Hotel), I shared an Uber ride with some of my fellow Israelis and headed off to the Eiffel Tower. From there, we walked over to the Left Bank area, taking in the sights and sounds of Paris along the way.  It was quite an inconvenient stopover but we made the best of it.  I have applied for the EU compensation (which is supposed to be 600 Euros for the missed connection, at the fault of the airline) but let's see if that arrives.

On the way back to Toronto - I am travelling through Amsterdam with one of my family members and we have an overnight there.  The alternative is paying 3-4 times as much.  So we will see how that goes.  

For now, all of this has meant fewer  Aeroplan points, travelling without any benefits - and very inconvenient connections.  There are El Al flights through New York and other cities in the U.S., though the prices have also increased dramatically.  I am also not a big fan of transiting through the U.S. if I an avoid it - due to the incredibly long and inefficient security (especially compared  to most of the big European airports).  As well, the El Al loyalty program is terrible comparatively.  

All in all, these are small problems compared to challenges that Israel is facing with an ongoing war. Our soldiers are in constant danger including our standing army and our reserve soldiers.  The civilian population is also under threat of terrorist attacks, missile attacks, and other threats.  The Northern border is in a state of all out war - or close to it.  And of course all of the  areas surrounding Gaza have been devastated.  So my concerns about getting to and from Israel - are minor in comparison to everything else.  But for people considering coming here, I thought it might be worth writing about the options.

I have also seen available flights on Ethiopian Airways, Emirates/Air Dubai and Lot Polish.  Some of these flights can include total flying time of 30-40 hours with lengthy stopovers in different places - sometimes with two or three connections.

So I have joined the Air France loyalty program and used the opportunity to practice my French a bit.  "Un vin rouge s'il vous plait"....and "Un  autre vin rouge s'il vous plait...".  Merci.  Actually there was more - "un cognac s'il vous plait" - Air France is well stocked with beverage options.

2. The Government

The current Israeli government is facing a wide range of challenges and grappling with many different fault lines.   As you may know, it still has a 64-56 coalition majority. None of the coalition partners have anywhere else to go, ideologically, so I would be surprised if the government were to collapse any time soon notwithstanding the apparently vast unpopularity of the current leadership.

One of the most interesting issues - is the enlistment of the Ultra-Orthodox (the "Haredim").  A whole megillah could be written about this issue.  The short version is that the first Prime Minister of Israel, David Ben Gurion, agreed to a "compromise" with the ultra-religious community back in 1948 whereby a relatively small number of yeshiva students would be exempt from military service to be able to continue their religious studies full-time.

Over the years since 1948, through various coalition deals, the number of exempt ultra-orthodox has ballooned greatly -  to the point where the entire community of ultra-orthodox Jews have been granted exemptions from the army, provided that they study in yeshivahs.  

Various court challenges were brought by different groups - and the Israeli Supreme Court decided, on several instances, that these arrangements were not fair - since different classes of citizens were being treated differently.  The Court gave the government time to negotiate and enact a law to address the situation.  But the ultra-religious have been having none of it and have been demanding a blanket override law - a "notwithstanding clause" if you will - that exempts all of them permanently - even while their population is growing at a dramatic rate relative to the non-haredi population.

This current government is made up of close to 25% ultra-orthodox members - which demanded support for this exemption as a term of supporting Netanyahu.

Now the Supreme Court had given the government until April 1, 2024 to enact a law to address the situation.  While there have been negotiations - there is no law - and nothing close to a law.  So the Court has stated that effective April 1, 2024, the government will need to cease funding any yeshivas that are not sending their students to the army.

Needless to say the Haredim are promising full civil disobedience.

The ultra-religious parties are threatening to quit the government but they have nowhere to go.  No other party will give them a better deal.  Causing an election now is almost certainly a recipe for disaster for the ultra-religious (and perhaps for the rest of the extreme right wing).  So it seems like they are going to huff and puff quite a  bit - but it is hard to imagine that they will actually blow the house down (i.e. cause the government to fall).

Even so, this promises to be a fascinating issue to watch in the coming weeks.

3. The War

It is hard to know what is really going on with respect to the progress of the war.  There are reports across world wide media - and there are daily reports from the Israeli military spokesperson and various Israeli media outlets.

According to one report I read yesterday, that seemed reasonably reliable, Israeli intelligence had estimated that there were about 30,000 Hamas and Islamic Jihad fighters before the war.  Revised estimates seem to put the numbers closer to 40,000-45,000.

Israeli reports of dead, injured and captured Hamas and Islamic Jihad fighters total between 25,000 and 30,000.  So Israel seems to believe that it has immobilized approximately 3/4 of the fighting forces that it was facing.  It seems that the majority of the remaining forces are in Rafiah -which is likely to be the final area of fighting - even as other fighting continues across Gaza.

Note that the Hamas "Health Ministry" claims that the number of dead Gazans is around 30,000.  That number includes civilians and fighters.  In other words, if Israel's numbers are correct and the number of dead fighters in the range of 20,000-25,000 - the number of dead civilians is actually quite low for a conflict of this scope and nature, which includes urban fighting with Hamas using its people as human shields.

That is not to say that anyone feels good about dead Gazan civilians.  But this is hardly a "genocide" or the intentional killing of civilians.  Gaza has a population of approximately two million.  If Israel was setting out to kill civilians intentionally, the numbers would be in the hundreds of thousands.  But Israel is not Russia - or Syria - or other constituent member countries of the UN that routinely carry out those types of massacres but only vote to sanction Israel.

While Israel is fighting a messy campaign in Gaza against a ruthless terrorist army, it is also fighting a major war with Hezbollah on Israel's northern border with Lebanon.  This war has been escalating constantly since October 7, 2024.  As of today, Hezbollah and Lebanon have not decided to unleash a full scale war with Israel - which would involve sending thousands of rockets all over Israel.  In response, Israel would almost certainly flatten Beirut and many other Lebanese cities.  So far, Hezbollah has been fighting an aggressive war, launching RPGs and killing many Israelis - while shelling a range of northern Israeli cities.  In response, Israel has been shelling Hezbollah locations, launching air raids and attacking Hezbollah locations across Lebanon.  But it has not launched a full out attack on Beirut or turned the fighting into a "full-scale war."  But effectively, there is a very dangerous war going on in the north and thousands of Israelis have been displaced from their homes and cannot return.  

Cities like Kiryat Shemona are ghost towns - with only solders and various armored units in place.

Many Israelis believe that Israel will need to launch a full out war with Hezbollah before this all ends - to push Hezbollah back from the Israeli border to where it should be (in line with UN resolutions).  The only other alternative is a negotiated arrangement with Hezbollah whereby Hezbollah would agree to move back from the border.  This does not seem to be close.

4. The Hostages

As you know, it is believed that Hamas is continuing to hold approximately 130 Israeli hostages.  Some reports have indicated that anywhere from 30 to 50 of these hostages have been reported dead.  But the family members of these hostages - and indeed - all Israelis - continue to hope that all of the hostages will return to Israel alive.

Some of the released hostages have provided detailed reports of the atrocities they faced while in Hamas captivity - including sexual violence  - which is still being denied in some circles of pro-Hamas supporters.  The New York Times, to its credit, has recently published extensive details of many of these atrocities.

Many Israelis are calling on the government to do everything it can to win the release of the hostages - even if that means making an unpalatable deal with Hamas.  But the Hamas demands are not just unreasonable - there are completely unacceptable - not just to Netanyahu but across most of the Israeli spectrum of opinion.  Hamas has stated quite publicly that it would like to take a "pause" and then do this again - on an even bigger scale.

So is is unclear what kind of deal, if any, can be made with Hamas.  In my view, Israel will need to launch a full scale operation in Rafiah and destroy the remaining Hamas and Islamic Jihad fighting forces.  There really aren't many other choices.

5.  World Response

At the outset of the war, President Biden visited Israel, sent aircraft carriers and demonstrated complete support for Israel and its response.  It is hard to imagine that any President (including the orange headed guy) would have demonstrated such significant support for Israel at a time of crisis.

But as the war has progressed, the relationship with the United States has unquestionably deteriorated.  For one thing, Biden has been losing support to Trump.  Some commentators have claimed that this is because  of the Israel-Gaza file.  I'm actually not convinced - since it is hard to imagine that the Republicans would be better for the pro-Gaza crowd.  But the perception seems to be that Biden needs to shore up his left, "progressive" wing - which means putting more distance between his government and the Israeli leadership.

President Biden now seems to be intent on "rewarding" the Palestinians for this massive terror operation by setting up a Palestinian State, perhaps even unilaterally.  While this is  not yet official U.S. policy - there is a definite sense that this is emerging as a U.S. option.

Granted, Prime Minister Netanyahu is part of a very extreme government that has no interest (and probably never has had any interest) in reaching any kind of agreement with any Palestinians.  So that does not make things easy for Biden or anyone else.

But the real narrative here  -  is that Israel is dealing with a very extreme, radical, movement, intent only on Israel's destruction, that launched an all out war on October 7, 2023.  There is no proposal by Hamas or by the Islamic Jihad for peace or anything close to it.  Historically, we know what must be done to fight these types of regimes. They must be defeated completely.  It doesn't seem to me that this war  will end until Yihyah Sinwar and his henchmen are caught, dead or alive and until Hamas effectively surrenders.

I believe that President Biden would get much more traction pushing for that result - even as a negotiating tactic.  If Hamas understands that the U.S. will support Israel in finishing off the Hamas military, whatever the cost - for Israel and for Gazan civilians - Hamas will lessen its demands dramatically and perhaps even surrender.  But failing to veto a UN resolution calling for an "immediate cease fire" is a completely unhelpful move.  Just imagine  supporting a call for a U.S. cease fire while the U.S. was fighting the Nazis.  

As for Canada - the situation is completely embarrassing, ridiculous and at all odds with any reasonable morally supportable position.  Perhaps that is where the Canadian leadership figures it will obtain its votes or perhaps they have simply shown their true colours.  But joining the company of Ireland, Turkey, Iceland and  other anti-Israel protagonists is just not a well thought out position for Canada - which may well face its own security challenges down the road as the numbers of extremist Muslims  in Canada continue to rise.  So far, Canada has seen a massive growth in anti-Semitic activity - which has included blockading bridges in Jewish neighbourhoods, demonstrating outside synagogues, attacking Jewish owned stores and businesses and a whole host of other activities.

Instead of unequivocally condemning these incidents - the Federal government has used some very questionable language and has exacerbated the situation.  For the Jewish community at least, it is quite clear that Canada is in drastic need of a change of leadership.

All of this aside, Israel drastically needs its own  change  of government though that is unlikely to happen any time soon.  Nevertheless, the response from this current Israeli government to the October 7th attacks by Hamas would have been pretty much the same from any Israeli government that might have been in power, in my view.  Israel needs to destroy the threat from Hamas, find a way to return the hostages, or as many of them  as possible - and only then move to considering a long term solution for the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.

6. The Holidays

On a lighter note (in some ways), Israel celebrated the holiday of Purim last week.  Unfortunately, I picked up a case of Covid while visiting the City of Lights - and had to skip my usual Megillah reading.  I usually read chapter 8 - and sometimes 9 and 10 here at our shul in Israel.  

We still received a few nice mishloach manot (Purim gift baskets) including one really interesting one.  Friends of ours gave us a "do-it-yourself" Tabouleh kit - with fresh vegetables from Israeli farms in the vicinity of Gaza.  It was quite a fun and thoughtful idea and we enjoyed putting it together.

I ate my share of hamentaschen, even  while under the weather.  There was definitely a subdued feel to Purim in Israel this year as I am sure there was in the Jewish community throughout the world.

It is  now time to start getting ready for Pesach though we still have a few weeks.  Enough time for a trip back to Toronto before the holiday and maybe a chance to get some  work done. 

I think that is about all I am going to cover for now.  I know there is lots more to say and hopefully I will have the chance to write another blog shortly.  

We are continuing to hope and pray for some good news here in Israel. We have lost so many of our soldiers - 598 as of the time of writing of this blog - and so many more have been injured (more than 3,100).  Since this is a people's army - that means that we all know someone who was injured or killed in the fighting.  We know of friends and neighbours and their children who are now stationed in Gaza or  on Israel's northern or eastern borders. And unfortunately, we know of people from our city, our synagogue, our children's schools and other places that have been killed or injured since October 7, 2023.

At this time, I think the best we can do is hope that the Israeli army can win a decisive victory or otherwise cause Hamas to surrender as soon as possible and we can then look to how to deal with the broader conflict with a long term view.

On a final note - I have to point out that Israeli clocks are officially moving ahead by one hour tonight - yes we are finally "springing ahead" - a few weeks after North America.  So as I finish off this blog - and perhaps watch a bit of the Leafs-Capitals game before going to sleep - it is with the unfortunate knowledge that I will be losing an hour of sleep tonight.

Shabbat Shalom and best regards from Israel.



Wednesday, September 13, 2023

Pre-Rosh Hashanah Blog 2023/5784- From Israeli Supreme Court to the Israeli National Soccer Team



There are so many things going on in Israel that it is difficult to keep up.  It would be nice to leave my law career and  become a full-time blog writer - but things are busier than ever in my real world -  so don't hold your breath waiting for that to happen.  That (and maybe some travelling) explains the limited number  of articles that I have written lately.  But as Rosh Hashanah approaches - I just could not avoid writing about yesterday's Supreme Court hearing - one of Israel's most monumentous days in its 75 year history - from a legal point of view.  I will try to keep my discussion of the hearing reasonably short and touch on a  few other topics as well before wrapping up with some Rosh Hashanah thoughts.

Supreme Court of Israel Hearing on "Reasonableness"

It would probably take a 10 page blog, at least, to cover this properly but here is the relatively short version.

The Israeli Supreme Court consists of 15 judges.  In most cases, only some of the judges sit in panels for hearings.  The Chief Justice, along with other members, selects the number of judges, in odd numbers to hear cases.  Usually, it is not more than 11 judges, for very serious issues.  So for example, earlier this year, 11 judges sat together to decide whether Aryeh Deri, the thrice  convicted fraudster, could serve as a cabinet member in the  current government.  The ruling was 10-1 against Deri.

As I understand it, yesterday was the first time in Israeli history where all 15 judges took part in a hearing.  For those interested in legal issues - this was like a national championship event of Supreme Court advocacy.  Don't  worry I will  tie in the sports analogy a bit later.

As you might recall, maybe even from reading one of my previous blogs, the current Netanyahu government passed a "Basic Law Amendment" which removes the power of the Israeli Supreme Court to quash (void or nullify) government actions and decisions on the basis of extreme unreasonableness.

There is a long history about how the Supreme Court of Israel came to have this power but it has been a part of Israeli jurisprudence since  the 1950s.  As you may know, Israel does  not have a written  constitution but does have a series of "basic laws."  The short version of all of this discussion is that the Israeli Supreme Court, over time, expanded its jurisdiction to conduct "judicial review" of other legislation using the  "basic laws" which it elevated to quasi-constitutional status.  This means that the Israeli Supreme Court decided (led by then  Chief Justice Aharon Barak) that it had the power to cancel laws or decisions put forward by the Knesset if they violated the basic laws.  One of the main tests was whether the law or action proposed was "extremely unreasonable."  This has been part of the Israeli legal landscape for more than  20 years and maybe closer to 30.  The Supreme Court views this power as one of the checks on the power of a Knesset majority government - which could, otherwise, effectively enact any laws or measures, including those which might trample on the rights of minorities.

But unlike the situation in Canada, for example, where there is a written  constitution that gives the Supreme Court these  powers expressly, the Israeli Supreme Court accrued these powers over time, through precedent, or "took them" as opponents might say.

So the current Netanyahu government decided to try and "set the clock back" or, in other words, overturn 30 years of judicial precedent by enacting a law to reduce the powers of the Court.  They called it a "Basic Law Amendment" to try and give it quasi constitutional status.

Opponents of the legislation  brought a petition to the Supreme Court to strike the law.  In another  bizarre historical first, the Israeli AG is supporting the petitioners and the government retained its own private lawyers.

So yesterday, the Supreme Court conducted a marathon 13 hour session to  hear arguments about what they should do. 

As you might know from reading my blogs - this  type of constitutional, academic, political, philosophical hearing - is the type of hearing that I would have loved to watch and hear (if  not participate in) in its entirety.  Alas I was swamped with other deadlines - and could only watch and listen to parts of it.   But it was riveting!  

Some of the  questions being  discussed....

Where does the  Israeli Supreme Court derive its power to overturn government legislation?

How are the rights of minorities protected in Israel?

How can  the Basic Law be amended? 

Where is the proper balance in a modern democracy between the legislative arm and the judicial arm of government?  

If you weaken the judiciary - is it only the voters that can "oversee" the legislature?

My "short" summary is that I have no idea what the Court will do with this.  It is extremely difficult and complicated and there is no easy answer.  One popular prediction is that the Court will send it back to the Knesset with a need for "amendments" but won't strike  it out entirely.  I do think it will be a split decision and we may wind up with as many as five or six different opinions.   It is almost certain that there will be several hundred, if not thousands of pages to read. 

Apparently, we  can expect a decision within two months, so maybe I will  write  a longer blog analyzing that when in comes out.  I could go on and on about the  hearing but  it would take  me a full day and I'm not even sure you would want to read all of it.  Some of you might...

One of my "mentions of the day" which has attracted quite a great deal of press attention in Israel - is the Netanyahu government's lawyer Ilan Bombach, who asserted that Israel's "hastily drawn Constitution" does not give the Supreme Court the rights it has exercised over its history.  That led to a heated and fascinating exchange.  There is a bit of truth to what Bombach asserted but far more rhetoric, exaggeration and spin than truth, in my view.  We will see if his advocacy approach was effective.  In my  experience, one has to be cautiously assertive, even forceful, while trying to avoid insulting the judicial panel hearing the case outright - but then again, I'm not the one appearing at the Supreme Court.

Sports News

On the same day that the Supreme Court had its hands full - the Israeli National Soccer team played a huge game against Belarus - in its ongoing campaign to earn a spot in the 2024 Euro Soccer Tournament.  A few nights before, Israel had eked out a tie against Romania.  Israel still has to play four more  games - two relatively "easy" ones -  two more difficult.  Sometimes the "easy" ones are the hardest to win.  The games will be  played in October and November - and will determine whether  Israel earns a spot  in the  June 2024 tournament.  From my research, it looks like Israel has not actually played in a major world  soccer tournament since 1970.  There is still a long way to go  but Israel's late goal victory over Belarus yesterday was a huge step forward for the Israeli side.  So the Israeli soccer team was playing some of its most meaningful soccer ever while the Supreme Court was hearing one of its most consequential cases.   Did that tie it in enough?

Entertainment

I was hoping to watch the latest "Jewish Double Header" that so many people  are talking  about - "Golda" and  "You are so not invited to my Bat Mitzvah."  I wanted to include discussions  of both movies in my blog - but that will have to wait until next time.  Very different types of content, of course, - but I'll let you know if there  is a way to tie the two together - other than temporal proximity of their respective release dates and the fact that there is  some  type of Jewish theme or content to both movies.  If you have seen one or both, I welcome all comments.

Podcasts

I used my subway and airline travel time rather productively in June and  July and into  August and listened to all 70 episodes of an Israeli podcast called "The Party of Thoughts."  This is a political, philosophical podcast that addresses contemporary (and not so contemporary) issues in Israel including the nature of the country as a  Jewish and democratic country, competing philosophical ideas about modern democracy, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and many other issues. It is led by Micah Goodman, a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute, and Efrat Rosenberg Shapiro, an excellent and very experienced moderator.  In Hebrew, it is called "Mafleget Hamachshavot" and is available on Spotify.  Goodman and Rosenberg try to  explain different sides on many different issues and try to present a wide range  of viewpoints with empathy, understanding and respect.  They are both self-described Orthodox Jews but many ideas are discussed with a very liberal  bent.  Different podcasts examine  ideas of Jewish religious leaders - from Biblical times through Rambam, Hassidic Rabbis, and more contemporary Jewish thinkers  from Rabbi Avraham Isaac Cook to modern day Rabbis.  Others deal with Israel's legal development and history including Israel's current constitutional status.   Many other issues  are addressed.

The podcast is all in Hebrew - so you should only try to tackle this if your Hebrew is up to the challenge.   If you are interested, Micah Goodman has given a number of lectures in English on YouTube and some are very good.  I wouldn't say that I agree with everything on these podcasts - but I found many of them to be thought provoking, reasonably balanced - and filled with all kinds of references and discussions - of historians,  philosophers, theologians, political scientists and others.  This is not confined to Jewish thinkers or ideas - but includes discussions of far Eastern ideas, Plato, Marx, Rousseau, Hobbes, Locke as well as many other philosophers and other thinkers.  I learned quite a bit and really enjoyed it.  Thanks to my daughter for  the suggestion.  It is apparently a very popular podcast in Israel, listened to many different people, including many on different sides of the political spectrum.

Ultimately, Goodman and Rosenberg propose various types of compromises - for dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian issue, the current constitutional crisis in Israel - and other issues.  Again, I'm not saying I agree with their proposals  but they are very interesting.

Holidays

I supposed it is now time to get into High Holyday mode.  I have been a bit slow off the mark because of general busyness with my work -  and  some travel and family occasions (happy events).  I don't  have any particular role for Rosh Hashanah (in the past, I have  often read some or all of the Torah readings or lead services) - other than to make a few dishes - including a honey apple cake - thanks to Tori Avey's delicious recipe.

For the following week, I will be leading Kol Nidrei and Neilah tefillot at our community services in a friend's  backyard - so if you (or anyone you know) happen to be in Ra'anana and  would like to join an egalitarian liberal service - let me know.  

That's about it for now - I wish everyone a happy and  healthy New Year - with hopes for good health, peace, less political  tension, more moderation - and lots of laughter.  Shana Tova.



Sunday, March 26, 2023

Dramatic Escalations across Israel in response to Netanyahu Action

I don't usually write two consecutive blogs in such a short period of time - but things have taken quite a turn in Israel - and it is very unclear where all of this is headed.

As I mentioned in my last blog, the Israeli Minister of Defence, Yoav Gallant, a stalwart Netanyahu supporter and high ranking member of the Likud party announced on Thursday March 23rd - that he was going to hold a press conference at 7:30 p.m.  Supposedly he was going to announce that he was calling on Prime Minister Netanyahu to slow down the current "judicial reform" and meet with opposition members to try and negotiate an agreement.  Netanyahu summoned Gallant to a meeting and apparently cajoled him into cancelling his  press conference.  Shortly afterwards, leaks appeared indicating that Gallant had told Netanyahu  he would wait a few days to see how Netanyahu was dealing with things.

However, later that evening, Netanyahu held a press conference and announced that it would be full speed ahead and he would not consider slowing down at all.

As a result, Saturday night saw the biggest demonstrations to date across the country.  Today, Gallant held  a press conference and announced that he could not support Netanyahu's current legislative program and - that Netanyahu was endangering the country.

This evening, Netanyahu fired Gallant from the Minister of Defence position.  As a result, tens of thousands Israelis took to the streets, blocking highways, roads and protesting in a wide range of places.  Since the demonstrations started earlier this evening, police have estimated that numbers have exceeded 700,000 Israelis currently in the streets demonstrating across the country.

It has become especially clear over recent days, that Netanyahu will not stop at anything until his judicial coup is completed and he has his "get out of jail free card."  Even though he was warned by a close ally that his policies were endangering national security, Netanyahu simply chose to disregard the warnings and double down on his proposals.

There have been some articles in different newspapers (including one in the National Post yesterday) arguing that this legislative agenda being proposed by Netanyahu and his allies is really no great concern to Israel as a democratic state.  But try reconciling that thesis with one of today's announcements - Yariv Levin - the "architect" of the proposed emasculation of the Supreme Court wants to use his new legislation to fire the head of the Israeli Supreme Court - and appoint a hand picked buddy, a "professor" from a second tier Israeli law school - to take over as the President (the "Chief Justice") and advance Levin's extremist policies.  Levin also wants to appoint other judges to the Supreme Court immediately to tilt the balance of the court.

Levin and his allies have also floated the idea of extending the  period of time before the next election  Further, Levin has stated that this is only his "first stage."

Hundreds of thousands of Israelis have been demonstrating to indicate that they will not give up their democratic rights.  But it  is not only demonstrators.  Soldiers are starting to refuse to show up for duty.  Police offers are supporting the demonstrators.  There are major fissures going on  - and Netanyahu is allowing the extremists to continue to drive the bus.

The government is planning to try and ram through the Knesset several pieces of legislation this week - including a law to reinstate convicted criminal Aryeh Deri to a ministerial position and another law to allow the Knesset to override any decision of the Supreme Court.  But it is now becoming unclear that the Likud party will be able to get all of its members to support these extreme legislative initiatives.

If the legislation does pass, the  civil unrest will become increasingly widespread across the country.  The army will become increasingly fractured.  The Supreme Court will face dramatic tests to the limits of its authority - as these pieces of legislation are challenged in that Court.  And there will be strikes and demonstrations  across the country.

If the legislation is put to a  vote and does not pass - this government will almost certainly collapse.

So overall, the coming week - and indeed the coming months are likely to be extremely tense, dramatic and unpredictable.  One can only hope that saner heads will prevail and responsible Knesset members will find a way  to get things under control.  Unfortunately, Netanyahu is showing no signs that he will be one of those "adults  in the room."  In fact, it has become completely clear that his own flagrant conflict of interest has made him entirely unfit to serve as the Prime Minister until his personal criminal issues are resolved.




Saturday, March 25, 2023

Massive Demonstrations in Israel, some sightseeing and Pesach Preparations in Israel, some

 

We are about 11 days  before Passover and Israel is in the midst of one of the most tumultuous periods it has ever seen.  Police have estimated that  more than 200,000 people attended demonstrations in Tel-Aviv tonight and tens of thousands of others protested in other cities across the country. In the photo on the left, you can see police deploying water cannons after protesters blocked off the main Tel-Aviv highway  - the Ayalon - for more  than two hours.  As we are now close to midnight - police are stepping up the amount of force that they are prepared to use to disperse the protesters.  Unlike what might take place at other demonstrations in other places - the police have, generally, been using very moderate levels of force.  They are not (yet) coming at protesters with  shields, helmets and  batons.  Many are on horseback - but many others are not even  wearing helmets or unholstering any weapons. Instead they are trying to push, persuade, cajole - and  sometimes arrest protesters.  Certainly, some officers have  become much more  violent and there have been several instances of injuries to protesters.   But by and large, from the reports and live videos, the police have been relatively patient and non-violent.

As you have probably heard by now, the protests are against legislation that the current Netanyahu government is trying to push through.  I reviewed the essence of the legislation in an earlier  blog, here.  Netanyahu and his allies call the legislation "judicial reform" whereas the opposition calls it a "judicial coup."  The Likud member responsible for trying to pass a whole array of legislation is Yariv Levin, who has stated that is only the "first stage" of his "reforms."

Commentators from across the political spectrum from the far left to the centre right have characterized this whole legislative program as a dramatic change to Israel's legal status quo.  In an nutshell, the laws that have been proposed would weaken the power of the Israeli Supreme Court dramatically, change the appointment process from a relatively non-political process to one that is almost entirely political, allow for the Knesset to override any Supreme Court decision and make other changes that would remove most  backstops from the ability of the Knesset, with a bare 61-59 majority to pass just about any legislation.

With no judicial oversight, and a far-right wing government intent on enacting legislation in all kinds over areas, the prospects are frightening.  But reaction from a wide range of Israeli citizens, institutions, businesses and other sources has been energetic, aggressive and powerful.  Various army personnel have indicated that will refuse to serve the country in any type of voluntary capacity.  Businesses have threatened to leave the country.  Hundreds of thousands of Israelis have been demonstrating regularly.

For all of those protesting, they are not willing to see Israel turn into Turkey, Russia, Hungary or other countries led by military strongmen.  Even within Netanyahu's Likud party, there are a growing number of dissenters, who are being pressured from all directions.  If the number reaches  5 or 6 Likud party members who are willing to stand up and block the legislation - or at least abstain, the government could even face an existential threat (which didn't really seem possible or likely just a few weeks ago). Tonight, the Likud defence Minister, Yoav Gallant, held a press conference and announced that he would not support the legislative process.  Shortly afterwards, several other Likud members expressed their support for Gallant.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Netanyahu was in London for meetings and a weekend getaway.  He has not officially responded to Gallant yet.  On Thursday, Gallant had indicated that he was about to hold a press conference at 7:30 p.m.  However, Netanyahu  summoned Gallant to a meeting and Gallant cancelled his press conference.  According to reports, Gallant gave Netanyahu some more time to try and work things out.   As it turns out, Gallant wasn't willing to give the Prime Minister more than two days.

So now the question becomes whether Gallant has enough support behind him in the Likud party to stop the legislation.  Since the Netanyahu  bloc currently has a 64-56 Knesset majority, Gallant would need the support of 4 other Likud members to ensure that the legislation could be blocked.  This would created a huge political fissure for the Likud party and could well lead to another election.  It may also cause the party to split into two or more factions.  

Very unpredictable.  On the one hand, many moderate Likud members are not in favour of extreme legislation, which is all rather transparently designed to keep Netanyahu out of  legal trouble .  On the other hand, the Likud party members would like to stay in power.  After finally winning an election, even though their "win" is only made possible with the support of extremists, they are not anxious to relinquish power.  I think we are in for a very dramatic week and - in fact - very dramatic months to come in Israel.

Overall, it is comforting to see that hundreds of thousands of Israelis are not prepared to watch Israel turn into a de facto dictatorship beholden to extreme factions.  Netanyahu supporters argue that he won the election  and is now entitled to govern.  While that is true, an election win does not give the winning party the right to change the ground rules and emasculate the judiciary.  Even if there is room for discussion about adjusting the balance of power in Israel between the different branches of government, that type of change is one that must be undertaken carefully, with the input of wide range of stakeholders and not simply instituted by someone facing an array of ongoing criminal proceedings.

A Bit of Travelling

On a completely different note, we recently managed to visit a few places in the south of Israel that were very noteworthy.

Yatir Winery

Driving down to Eilat, we stopped  near Arad at the Yatir winery.  Yatir produces some  of Israel's most acclaimed wines, including its flagship Yatir Forest, a delicious but costly blend that has won prizes at wine competitions around the world.   We were able to join a tasting group and sample four different wines while enjoying a nice platter of cheese and  vegetables.  (No Forest was poured...)  The wines were all quite good, the presenters were engaging and friendly and it was a worthwhile stop.

Yatir is near Arad - about 2 1/2 hours away from Eilat.  Don't worry - we had a designated driver.  We finished up  at the winery and got back into the car to continue our drive south.

Eilat

We don't go to Eilat very often.  As you  may know, it is pretty much the southern most point in Israel.  During the summer, temperatures can reach 40-45C (104F-113F) but it is a "dry heat."  Situated on the Red Sea (Probably the "Reed Sea" originally), Eilat offers some terrific snorkeling, scuba diving, and all kinds of other beach activities.  It is all situated in  a small area with a range of over priced hotels.  Eilat is packed in April during Passover and throughout the summer.  It is also packed over the high holyday season in September and  October.  

Eilat, Israel

While we were there, it was only about 22-25C (72-77F) and the water was a bit chilly.  I still checked it out - (since, after all, I am used to Ontario lake water) but not for very long.  Eilat is a popular destination of Israelis for shopping since it is a "tax-free zone" for many products.  So, for example, you can get a cell phone in Eilat for about 18% less than it would cost in other parts of the country.  Many other items are also considerably cheaper in Eilat.



Timna Park

After spending some time in Eilat, we drove over to Timna Park - which is an Israeli National Park located about 20 minutes from Eilat.  Timna is one of the regions largest copper mines - a site at which copper was mined from the 5th century BCE and possibly by King Solomon in the 10th Century BCE.  The views were breathtaking and  since it was March, the temperature was very moderate.  We even had a bit of a breeze.  

Visitors can drive from site to site within the park - and then do a mixture of hiking and driving.  Alternatively, visitors can hike the whole park on a four to five hour trail.  I would imagine that in July or August the heat would be unbearable but in March it was an amazing experience and one that I would highly recommend.  We climbed up to the top of one of the mountains, saw some amazing ancient mining sites, some beautiful views and a variety of interesting birds.  


  
  

There are a variety of landmark rock formations, all with the reddish colour due to the presence of copper in the rocks and surroundings.  The park is very picturesque.  At the end, there is a Visitors Centre, where visitors can make their own multi layered sand art in small bottles - or buy larger - pre-made bottles.  We probably wound up spending about 3-4 hours at the park overall.


Beit Govrin-Maresha National Park

Our last stop was Beit Govrin -Maresha National park, which is about 1 1/2 hours from Ra'anana.

The area, known as the "land of a thousand caves" features a large network of the "Maresha Caves" which were inhabited by the Phoenicians.  There are ancient olive presses, columbarium caves for raising pigeons, burial sites, Roman baths, an amphitheatre and many other fascinating sites.

There are too many photos to include since we visited several different caves - including a limestone quarry, a water reservoir and some of the columbarium caves.  Some caves were extremely deep and winding.  They were well lit - and cavernously large.  But if you are afraid of depths - this could be a bit frightening.


I thought it would be interesting to include some comments about these places to get away from the strict political news and commentary and cover some other topics.

Now it is back to Pesach preparation.  As anyone who observes Pesach knows, getting everything cleaned up, changing over the whole kitchen, preparing food for large groups of guests and planning the Seder  itself is all quite a bit of work.  So there is no shortage of things to do over the next 10 days or so, while watching Israeli political news and also working regular hours....

I will probably provide one more update just before Pesach - and perhaps by then we will have some better ideas about where things are heading politically.




Sunday, March 5, 2023

Supreme Reforms in Israel and Other Pressing (and not so pressing) Issues

As  we head into Purim 2023 (5783 according to the Jewish calendar), which starts tomorrow night - there is so much going on that it has  been difficult for me to find the time to write some updates.  I am back in Israel for a bit - and planning to read from Megillah Esther tomorrow night at our shul in K'far Saba.  We will also have the chance to read Tuesday morning, followed by a festive meal in the afternoon - a "Purim  Seudah."  

Here in Ra'anana, it was hotter than 30c today (more than 86F outside).  The streets of Ra'anana were  closed for the "Adloyada" parade - with floats of kids in costumes, loud music, and all kinds of festivities.  We took a walk and it was simply bustling and  vibrant - with kids (and sometimes their parents) in costume starting the Purim celebrations.  A nice distraction  I suppose from everything that is going on politically.

I don't intend to  dedicate  this blog  to  a full and detailed analysis of all of the political events taking place  here but I do want to spend some time dealing with a few major issues.

Israel's "Judicial  Reform"

First of all, the headline event in Israel is the proposed  "judicial reform."  You may have read or heard a variety of opinions  on this from different commentators - including  a  podcast by Elliot Abrams - or a Conrad Black article in the National Post.  You can also read any of a number of different articles in Haaretz or other publications  with other viewpoints.

The bottom line is that no matter what spin some of the right wing  commentators might try to put  on this, the current Israeli government's proposals amount to a dramatic weakening  of the power of the Supreme Court - and the transfer of that  power to any bare majority of the Knesset.  

The proposed legislation, which has passed a first reading  and may well pass second and third readings this week - involves four main proposals.  

The first proposal is to remove the power from the judges to conduct a judicial review of legislation on the basis of certain grounds that  have  been defined under  decades of Israeli law - including the ground of "reasonableness."  Although Israel  does not have a formal written  constitution, Israel's "Basic Law" has developed quasi-constitutional status and has provided the framework for judges to overrule legislation if it is deemed to violate the basic law.  The current governing  coalition argues that this tilts the state's power into the hands of the judges  rather than the  elected representatives.  The Netanyahu coalition would like to remove that power from the courts and, essentially,  allow the government  to pass any  type  of legislation it likes, with a bare majority and  with no judicial oversight.  They point to Canada's "notwithstanding  clause" in support of this  concept and the second  proposal.

The second proposal is to allow the Knesset, with a bare majority of any type, to overrule any decision of the Israeli Supreme Court.  As I mentioned, the proponents of this change cite Canada's "notwithstanding clause" as their source of inspiration for this legislative idea.

The  third proposal is to change the way judges are appointed so that the government in power is able to override other stakeholders and install any judges that it wants to install.  Here, the proponents of this idea rely on the  American experience.   Although the U.S. Senate can reject judicial  appointments, it rarely happens.  Trump is clearly the example of  how, in one term, a President can completely reshape the court politically.  The Netanyahu government is salivating at the prospect of installing a  "yes" court of the type that Trump managed to install in the U.S.

The fourth proposal involves turning the Attorney General position  into purely a political appointment and requiring appointed legal advisors to provide the advice and support that the  government is requesting - rather than  objective and legally supportable advice.

There are reasonable arguments about these proposals - especially when examined  individually.  

Defining the limits of "judicial review" in any democracy is an extremely important issue.  Ideally, a country should have a written constitution  to set  these limits and Israel does not.  But even in the absence of a specific written  constitution, the common law system  builds legal jurisprudence over time in the form of precedents.  Judicial review in Israel has been defined and delineated by Supreme Court Judges for more than 30 years and, in some cases, since the 1950s.  The idea of simply taking away power from the courts and overturning a wide range of judicial precedents, legislatively, does seem somewhat questionable.  Especially if it is for a particular political  goal.

The "notwithstanding" clause is less defensible. Sure Canada has one but nobody really points to it as one of highlights of the Canadian Charter.   In fact, it is probably one of the  key flaws, even though it was  part of a political compromise used to reach agreement on the Charter in the first place.  But  over the past few years, its use  has become ever  more frequent.  What use are a bunch of fundamental  guarantees of rights if they can  simply be overridden by a thin  majority?  Once the use of a notwithstanding  clause becomes politically acceptable and common, protected rights  lose their value. They  are no longer "protected."  Some members of the Israeli opposition - even  some on the  right - have proposed, at a minimum, a law that would limit the use of  this "notwithstanding" clause  to  situations where 2/3 or  3/4 of the Knesset would support it.  That  would be  better and might be the basis for a compromise on this issue but it is not currently being  proposed.

There is also a reasonable argument about how judges are appointed.  It is unclear which country has found the ideal approach to appointing judges.  One would hope that they would be appointed because of their  legal and academic qualifications and their experience  and not simply because of their viewpoints on certain political issues.  In Israel, 3 judges currently sit on the panel that appoints judges to the Supreme  Court - and any appointment has to get past these three judges - since  three members of the committee can  veto an appointment.  The Netanyahu government argues that this means the judges "appoint themselves" to the bench.  This is simply not true.  At the same time, there is a reasonable  argument that judges should not have  deciding power in appointing new judges to the Supreme Court.

The current proposals aim  to Americanize  the Israeli system and allow any sitting government to appoint the  judges it would like to see on the bench. This is a marked departure from the way things have  been  done in Israel since the  1950s and would represent a  significant degradation of the level of judicial independence  in Israel.

There are also reasonable legal arguments about the role of the Attorney General.

But the bigger issue, aside from examining each of these  proposals individually, is to look at the whole bundle of changes as  one  group of proposals and  to   assess the effects of these  changes and the context.

You have a current Prime Minister, who is, himself, facing a series of criminal charges  and  an ongoing criminal trial that is still in progress. As the  Prime Minister, he is forging ahead with a plan to weaken the court system, install new judges, limit the power of the court itself and then  provide that a bare majority (which he  now has) can override any decision of the Court.  

Moreover, he is also looking to pass legislation to reinstall Aryeh Deri, a thrice convicted criminal, into a senior cabinet  position in the  Israeli government even after the  Supreme  Court ruled 10-1  that he could not serve as a  cabinet minister because of these convictions.

In short, there is little argument that this whole "judicial reform" plan is a calculated  effort to weaken  the power of the courts, eliminate judicial oversight and allow Netanyahu and his government to  take control over the  courts, presumably as first step towards eliminating his own legal challenges.

Having a strong, independent judiciary is one  of hallmarks of a liberal democracy.   For  this reason, this power grab by Netanyahu and his cronies  has  caused so much backlash in Israel. It is a  recognizable and  transparent attack on Israel's liberal democratic character and the type of step that could  move Israel along the path towards Turkey, Mexico, Russia or other  autocratic countries.

As the  Netanyahu government continues  to advance these legislative initiatives, the  number of protesters continues  to increase. This past Saturday night, there were more than 200,000 demonstrators in Tel-Aviv and hundreds of thousands in other places across the country.

Despite some of the spin - this is not simply "sour grapes." Although Netanyahu and his supporters  won the election and earned the power to form the government, they were not  granted the power to gut the Israeli Supreme Court and pass legislation that would significantly erode the liberal democratic nature  of the state.  I would expect that the size  of these demonstrations  will continue  to increase and that we  will see other types of protests including general strikes and  other disruptions.

Terrorism  and Palestinian Issues

There  has  been a significant increase in the  number of Palestinian attacks on Jewish  Israelis in Israel  and in the  territories.  But that increase, at this point, cannot be  blamed on this relatively new  government.  There had already been a growing number of attacks under the previous government.

However, under previous  governments, the response  to these attacks was controlled by responsible  members of  government, even though there were certainly excesses from time to time.  Israel now has extremists in position of authority, controlling the  police and the army - or trying to, at least.  (The lines of authority are not entirely clear in Netanyahu's cabinet).

Following  an attack last week in which terrorists killed two  Jewish Israelis, Israeli settlers went on a rampage and attacked the town of Huwara (the town where the  terrorists were from), killing at least one resident of the town and injuring  more than 100, some  critically.   The government and the army failed  to stop  or prevent the attack.  Since then, two of the attackers have been arrested.  But one  of Netanyahu's Ministers, Betzalel Smotrich, said that the whole  town  should have been burned  down.  He later retracted his comments.   

The attack was nothing less than a "pogrom" and must be condemned  in the strongest of terms.  Going on a rampage and attacking innocent  civilians cannot possibly be part of the policies of any supportable government.  

There are several other issues but I will leave  some of them for a later blog.

And Now For Something Completely  Different: A few Other Issues:

Sports

As you know from  some of  my earlier blogs,  I do enjoy watching  NFL football and  I am  big fan  of the Buffalo Bills.   A very  promising season came to a disappointing ending, but I digress.  I came across an interesting  article about the  issue of violence in football and how  it meshes with Jewish values.  I found  it to be thought provoking, though I did not agree and  still watched the  game (which was a very exciting  super bowl).  Here is the Article - entitled American Football:  A Case  Study in the  Limits of Halakha.  Ultimately, my take is this.  The learned Rabbi uses  violence and the risk of injury to propose barring  the watching  of spectator sports from a perspective of Jewish law.  But  note that the Rabbi does not cite any alternative  sports as a more gainful pursuit.  He mentions hockey but indicates that  he knows nothing about  it.  Ultimately, his main point is that observant Jews should  simply spend their time studying  Torah  or engaged in other pursuits and presumably shouldn't waste their  time watching any spectator sports.

Many  sports involve the  risk of  injury - whether that includes  Olympic  diving, cycling, gymnastics, skating competitions  or the major competitive sports like football, hockey,  basketball and  soccer.  When competitors push themselves to the limit - in competitions that test the "Swifter, Higher, Stronger" motto, there are bound to be injuries.  Sometimes, recognizing the fact that these athletes are out there on the  edge is what makes  their accomplishments so exciting and so compelling.

I take the point that the  NFL may have more of an obligation to address  long  term injury  including brain injury.  I for one, would also support, for example, a rule that all hockey players have to wear  full face protection.  

But  overall, I'm not sure that I am prepared to agree with the  Rabbi  that all spectator sports are intrinsically a waste of time - though he  is not the first one  to make this argument.

I would  reject that argument, especially, as a Toronto Maple  Leafs' season ticket holder -  who continues to hope that the Leafs' Stanley Cup drought, which has  been in place since 1967, will  end  eventually  and the Maple Leafs will host a Stanley Cup  parade.   Ice Hockey is,  of course, a religion of  its own in Canada.  As  someone  who has played, coached and attended hockey games since the age of 6, I am not prepared to  conclude that involvement in hockey, as a whole,  somehow clashes with  any particular Jewish values.  In fact, when our kids were  growing up in Toronto,  all of the Jewish day schools participated  annually  in a one day ice hockey tournament - with as many as 12-14 teams participating from different Jewish day schools.   

The Toronto Conservative shuls, for  years, also ran a shul softball league.

Finding ways for people to stay in shape, often by getting  involved in different  group sports is probably something that should be encouraged and in accordance with  Jewish values, even though we  might prefer those sports that are less likely to lead to serious injury.  Often people who play the sports are also spectators of the professional versions.  

From the  perspective of a Torontonian, as you might know, the Maple Leafs made a host of trades and roster changes at the NHL trade deadline  to try and improve their playoff chances.  Unfortunately, they did not pick up a new  goalie.  Although I am hopeful that these changes  will improve the team, the  Leafs will have to play Tampa and Boston  in the first two rounds (Boston only if they beat Tampa).   I am not  entirely optimistic that they will be able to beat Tampa, let alone Boston.   But one  can always  hope.

This will involve some  very late night  viewing when  I am  in Israel.  The games tend to start at 2 a.m. or even 3 a.m.  Israel time.  I guess I will have to keep Toronto hours, even while spending time in Israel.

I think that is about all I have the time or energy for at this point, but I will take the time to wish everyone a happy Purim and hope that you all get the chance to eat some really good hamentaschen, hear the Megillah and, yes, have a drink or two, despite the new Health Canada guidelines (which propose eliminating all alcohol consumption).

I will try to address some other issues shortly including Israel's perspective on the Russia-Ukraine War, other proposals of the Netanyahu government and whatever else comes to mind, including perhaps my take on this year's Oscar candidates (I have gotten through 9 of the 10 nominees).  For now, as Torontonians emerge from 25-30 cm of new snow - I plan to enjoy the hot weather here in Ra'anana over coming weeks.








Wednesday, January 18, 2023

Supreme Bombshell: Minister Aryeh Deri Removed from Office by Israeli Supreme Court

On this day, January 18, 2023, the Supreme Court of Israel has issued one of its most consequential decisions in the history of the State.  Released at 4 p.m. Israel time (9:00 a.m. EST), the Court decided by a vote of 10-1 that Rabbi Aryeh Deri, head of the Shas party, should be removed from his position as a Minister in the current government.  While my intro sounds excessively dramatic, I may have even understated the situation.  Israel is on the edge of a constitutional-judicial precipice and it is very difficult to predict what we may see next.

A Bit of Background

Before I get to the actual decision, I just want to cover a few points, as quickly as I can, some of which I may have addressed in my previous blog.  But they are important context.  

1.  As you know, Israel has held several consecutive elections, which have mostly resulted in "stalemates" without a clear victory by the right or the centre-left.

2.  In the most recent election, the Israeli right and far right - managed to win a total of 64 seats, including 11 seats for the ultra-orthodox Sephardi party, led by Rabbi Aryeh Machluf Deri.

3.  Deri was convicted in 1999 of several offences including bribery, corruption, and breach of trust. These are referred to as his "personal offences."  He was also convicted of "public offences" (essentially diverting public funds illegally to a charitable organization that he supported).  Deri was sentenced to 4 years in prison and served a sizeable chunk of that time.

4.  After being statutorily barred from office for 7 years under Israeli law, Deri returned to public life - and was eventually crowned, once again, as the head of the Shas party.  Under a previous Netanyahu government, Deri again became Minister of the Interior almost 14 years after his original conviction (the position he had held in the 1990s when he committed the earlier offences).

5. While Minister of Interior this time around, Deri was again investigated and charged with a whole series of offences including bribery, corruption, breach of trust and other offences.  

6.  In 2021, Deri agreed to a plea bargain where he would plead guilty to tax offences and the other charges would be dropped.  He appeared in Court and told the Court that he would be leaving public life.  In exchange, the Court issued a suspended 12-month sentence and ordered Deri to pay a significant fine.

7. In Israel, convicted offenders are barred from serving from the Knesset if the conviction carries the designation of "moral turpitude."  The Court did not officially designate Deri's latest offence one way or the other.  According to Israeli law, he should have then gone to the National Elections Committee for a determination as to whether this offence involved Moral Turpitude.  If it was categorized in that way, Deri would have been barred from serving as a Minister for 7 more years.

8.  Despite Deri's conviction, he ran in the most recent election as leader of the Shas party and his party won 11 seats (in a Knesset of 120).  He and his party were critical to Netanyahu's ability to form a majority coalition.  As part of the coalition negotiations and eventual agreement Netanyahu agreed to give Deri two Ministerial positions and also make him deputy Prime Minister.

9. Knowing that Deri faced a serious risk of being ruled unfit for office by the courts, Netanyahu's new coalition government introduced legislation, even before they were sworn in as a government, to change Israel's "Basic Law" and state that convicted offenders can be Ministers as long as they do not serve jail time.

10. The appointment of Deri to Ministerial positions was challenged in the Supreme Court of Israel (you can bring this type of question directly to the Supreme Court).  The new legislation was also challenged.  There were a whole range of applicants - including members of the opposition.

11.  The night before the hearing was held, the new Minister of Justice, Yariv Levin, announced a four point plan to reduce the power of the Supreme Court dramatically (which I discussed in my earlier blog).  Commentators viewed this as "pointing a loaded gun at the Supreme Court on the eve of the hearing."

12.  The Supreme Court hearing was broadcast live on TV and went on for about 6 hours.  The decision was reserved.

13. Last week, the President of the Supreme Court, Esther Chayut, took the unprecedented step of giving a prime time, detailed speech opposing the proposed reforms by the current government.  She warned that this was a major attack on the judiciary and would weaken Israeli democracy and judicial independence significantly.  While her speech suggested hinted at what the Supreme Court would ultimately decide in its pending decision, she did not directly address the case that she had just heard.

The Decision Itself

This is not an academic blog, even though I try, at times to edge into academic discussions.  It is also not a legal blog - even though, as you know, I have a Canadian law degree and some familiarity with Israeli law.  As a result, I cannot promise (or deliver) a complete legal analysis of the decision.  But I can make a few relevant comments.  I apologize again for the length of this blog but I realized that it would take longer to cover this than originally expected.

First of all, the decision is about 124 pages long and was released in Hebrew only initially.  I slogged my way through a chunk of it in Hebrew and then gave google translate a try - with a fair degree of success.  Although my Hebrew is quite good, I have to say  that it was much easier to go through the decision in English. 

As I have mentioned, the main take-away is that the Court disqualified Aryeh Deri as being fit to serve as a Minister.

There were 11 judges hearing the case (out of a total of 15 sitting judges).  As an aside, I wonder why they didn't simply have all 15 hear the case - but I'm not going to address that.

The Court heard three challenges to Deri's appointment that it was asked to adjudicate.  I have edited or paraphrased the essence of these three challenges:

1.  The first challenge was the new legal amendment to the Basic Law enacted by the incoming government.  As I have discussed previously, up until December 2022, the law in Israel was that a convicted criminal could not not serve as a Minister in the government if the conviction carried as designation of "moral turpitude." Generally, criminal sentences that involve prison time have been considered to be in that category.  Moreover, there was no distinction between suspended and non-suspended sentences.  

Normally, if a person is convicted of a crime, they can appeal to the National Elections Committee for a designation of whether or not the offence carries this designation.  If so, they could be barred from serving as a Minister in the Knesset for seven years.  As outlined above, Deri received a suspended sentence (one year plus fines) for Tax offences and all of the other charges against him were dropped.  He stated in court that he was leaving public office and it was on this basis that the plea bargain was accepted.  Shortly afterwards, he announced that he was back in business and re-entering public life.  He did not go to the elections committee to determine if his offence would be designated as a "moral turpitude" offence, since he did not want to be barred for seven years (which was a likely outcome). Instead he held a press conference to announce his self-proclaimed victory over a "rigged" justice system.

The law that the new government promulgated (as described above) to allow a convicted criminal to serve as a Minister as long as  the person did not serve jail time was challenged in the Court by a variety of groups.  From my review of the opinions of the 11 judges, it appears that only one or two of the judges were prepared to hold that the new law was void (ultra vires).  However, most of the judges held that they did not need to decide the issue.  

I think they felt that they would be overstepping if they were to overturn this law - and they did not need to do so anyways.

2.  The second challenge was based on an Israeli doctrine of, essentially, "patent (or extreme) unreasonableness."  Here the argument was, that in exercising his jurisdiction to appoint ministers, Prime Minister Netanyahu had to take into account appropriate legal considerations and failed to do so in the extreme.  The Court reviewed Deri's record of multiple convictions - noting that he has been convicted of three different sets of offences, in each case while serving in the government as a Minister.  It also noted that he mispresented himself to the Court to secure his plea bargain deal, that he repeatedly showed (by words and actions) disdain for the legal system and that this was an extreme case in which the failure to consider these issues violated principles of Israeli law.  Of the 11 judges writing opinions (and each judge wrote at least a few paragraphs - if not multiple pages), I counted 7 judges, including Chief Justice Chayut, who were prepared to disqualify Deri on this basis.  Some commentators have suggested that only five judges in total upheld this ground - so perhaps I will have to go back and read some of these opinions again.  Justice Chayut, the president of the Supreme Court, held that since she was making her ruling on this ground, she did not need to decide the other two grounds.  Several of the justices agreed with her.  

3.  The third challenge was a bit more difficult to understand.  Essentially, the argument was that Deri misled the Court when he entered into his plea bargain arrangement.  In a nutshell, the basis for the plea bargain was a mispresentation, wrongful manipulation of the Court and an exhibited disdain for the Israeli legal system, making him unfit for service as a Minister.  At least three of the judges ruled against Deri on this basis and some others were prepared to agree to this ground along with the ground of reasonableness.  This is an interesting ruling because, apparently, this type of decision would not be affected by a governmental decision to change the law of "patent unreasonableness."  In other words, one of the changes proposed by Justice Minister Levin is to strip the Israeli Supreme Court of the power to invoke "patent unreasonableness" as a ground for overturning governmental action.  This finding of "misrepresentation" is not reliant on a need to invoke "patent unreasonableness."  In fact, some of the judges using this ground to overturn Deri's appointment expressly stated that they would not agree to call the decision to appoint Deri patently unreasonable, even though they would overrule his appointment on other legal grounds.

Ultimately, no matter how you slice it, 10 of the 11 judges held that Deri should be ruled unfit for office and removed from his position as Minister.  It is unclear that the Knesset can easily overturn this decision, though it sounds like the current government will certainly try.

One judge, Justice Elron, dissented.  According to Justice Elron, the decision is premature and Deri should be forced to go the National Elections Committee and get a determination as to whether his offences are such that they would attract the "Moral Turpitude" designation.  Despite the spin from commentators on the Israeli right - Justice Elron did not rule that Deri was fit for office or dismiss the appeal outright.  This was primarily a procedural decision - even though Justice Elron did note that Prime Minister Netanyahu should be given much more latitude than the other judges of the Court are prepared to grant.

Commentators have also noted that Justice Elron was the one non-Ashkenazi judge in this group of 11 - and that Deri is of Moroccan origin. The Shas party has attempted to portray this as a racist ruling by 10 non-Sephardi judges - even though five of them are considered "conservative" or "very conservative" judges.  Many are trying to use this lone judge's dissent as a call to attack the court as racist, elite, prejudiced and unrepresentative of Israeli society.  Although it would certainly make sense to have greater Sephardi representation on the Israeli Supreme Court, I really don't buy the argument that these judges were all ruling against a serial criminal because of his ethnic origin.

Now What?

We are hearing about all kinds of possible steps that the current government might now take in response.

Here are a few possibilities.

1. The government may simply press ahead with its dramatic attempt to weaken the Supreme Court.  Levin's multi-part proposal is only the first step in his unrevealed plan. (As he has stated).  He has indicated that the government will start by passing a law allowing it to overturn any decision of the Supreme Court by a mere majority in the Knesset.  The government also plans to take away the  Supreme Court's ability to use "patent unreasonableness" as a grounds for overturning governmental decisions.  The government intends to change the way justices are appointed so that it can appoint more judges favourable to the political party that is in power.  After pressing ahead with these changes, the government may then overrule the Supreme Court's Deri decision and reinstate him.  This could then be appealed to the Supreme Court.  Good luck predicting what will then happen.  It would be a major jurisdictional war between the legislative and judicial branches of the state.

In the meantime, this type of legislative attack on the courts will almost certainly cause a significant increase in the number of Israelis taking to the streets to demonstrate against the government.  Estimates from last Saturday night's rallies were in the range of 80,000.  If the current government proceeds with plans to attack the Supreme Court, we may see demonstrations of hundreds of thousands of Israelis - and we may also soon see road blockages, general strikes and other types of civil disobedience.

2. Netanyahu might find some other creative compromise - such has appointing Deri's son (don't laugh - that is being proposed) to these Ministerial positions while keeping Deri around in a position that he is still legally able to hold.

3. Netanyahu could re-open the coalition talks and give the Shas party a range of new concessions to appease the party and Deri, though it is unclear what would be acceptable to Deri short of being cleared to serve.

I think it is very difficult, if not impossible, to predict, as of right now, which path Netanyahu will choose and what he will come up with.  His coalition partners seem determined to emasculate the Supreme Court.  Historically, Netanyahu has been supportive of a strong independent judiciary.  But since a weakened judiciary could also benefit Netanyahu (as he struggles to get out of his own criminal proceedings), Netanyahu may well agree to use the "nuclear option" and declare all out war on the Supreme Court by enacting all of Levin's proposed changes.

Unless there is a mediated solution of some sort, this "war" between the current government and the Supreme Court could go on for quite some time and may not be readily resolvable.  If the Supreme Court rejects some of the government's proposed amendments, as violating Israel's "Basic Law," we would be at an impasse.  

We are in for some very interesting times indeed. In my view, much of this situation stems from the fact that Netanyahu is currently entangled in his own criminal proceedings and willing to entertain any type of coalition arrangement if it might help him extricate himself from the possibility of conviction.  

Stay tuned - as there will undoubtedly be some wild developments in the coming days and weeks, if not months - or even years.  As I said at the outset, the impact of this decision on the Israeli judicial and legislative system is enormous, even immeasurable.  I hope that all of this will be resolved reasonably at some point, though I am very concerned about whether that is possible.