Showing posts with label Yesh Atid. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Yesh Atid. Show all posts

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tragedy At Meron:

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

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

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

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

Weather and Covid-19

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

Shavuot

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

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

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





Sunday, April 4, 2021

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

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

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

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

On the political side - we have two main events.

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

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

Election Update

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other Events and Commemorations

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

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

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

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

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






Wednesday, March 17, 2021

LSAT Style Israel Election Puzzle 2021 and Other News


The Israeli election will be held on March 23, 2021.  To get you ready for the election, I have come up with an LSAT  style problem that you could work on starting next week.  This problem may be so complex, depending on actual results, that I am giving you a head start so that you can begin working on it even before the election results are formally announced.

Just a refresher about the problem style.  To get into law school, you have to write the LSAT.   One of the sections is a series of logic questions.  Something like this:

There are 8 people at a table, A through H.  

A hates B and C and would prefer to sit near F.

D will only sit between B and E and or between A and G.

C must sit directly across from E.

F and G must sit at least two seats apart from each other.

The table is a rectangle with 3 seats on each side and 1 on each end.

Which of the following statements is true?  (I'm not going to list all the statements). (Eg. F can sit next to E, G must eat Sushi, B cannot sit across from H, etc., True or False...)

I did reasonably well on the LSAT but that was a few years  ago.  Okay, many years ago...

Here is the more complicated 2021 Israeli election version....

The Israeli Knesset has 120 seats and you need a combination of at least 61 elected Knesset members to form a government.

A.   The Sephardi Ultra-Religious Shas party (Estimated to get 7 or 8) will only agree to a government formed by Likud (Bibi - estimated at 28-32).  They will absolutely not agree to go with Yesh Atid (Lapid)(Estimated at 18-22) or Yisrael Beitenu (Lieberman) (Estimated at 7-8);

B.  The right wing New Hope party (Saar) (Estimated at between 7 and 9) will absolutely not go with Likud.  However, they will go with just about anyone else other than the Arab parties (or maybe they will).

C.  The right wing secularist party Yisrael Beitenu will not go with either of the two Ultra-Religious parties, Shas or United Torah Judaism (Estimated at 7-8) but will go with just about any other parties, other than the Arab parties (or maybe they will).

D.  The centrist Yesh Atid (Lapid) will go with any other parties other than Likud and the far right Religious Zionist Party (Ben-Gvir) (Estimated at 4-5 if they make it in to the Knesset).  

E. The left wing Labour Party (Michaeli) (Estimated at 5-7) and left wing secularist Meretz (Horowitz) (Estimated at 4-5 if they pass) will not go with Likud or the Religious Zionist party.  They will recommend Lapid and they might agree to go with Yamina (Bennett) (Estimated at 9 to 12) or New Hope.

F. The far right wing Yamina party will not go with Meretz or the two Arab parties (estimated at 9 to 13 and 4-5 respectively if the 4-5 group passes).  Yamina will not agree to join a government led by Yesh Atid.  They don't rule out joining a government  led by New Hope or Likud.  They don't rule out "allowing" Yesh Atid to join a government that they  lead.

G. The extreme right wing Religious Zionist Party will recommend Likud and wants to join a Likud-led government.  Bibi says they can be in the government but not get any cabinet posts.  Lapid, Meretz, Labour, and the Arab Parties have ruled out joining a government with the Religious Zionist Party.  The Religious Zionist Party says that it will not join any government that is supported by the Arab Parties.

H. The Ultra-Religious, Ashkenazi, United Torah Judaism (Estimated at 6-8) will recommend Likud.  They might join New Hope, Yamina or even Yesh Atid with the right offer.  

I. The centrist Blue and White Party (Ganz) (estimated at 4-5 if they pass the threshold) say they will not go with Likud again....and that they will recommend Yesh Atid to form the government.  But for the right price, they might change their minds.  Though they swear they  won't.

J.  The Arab parties are unlikely to join any potential coalition formally.  However, they might support a government explicitly or tacitly from the outside or perhaps this could be one of the first times that they actually join the government.  As listed above, some of the parties including Yamina and Religious  Zionists insist that they will not join a government that is in any way reliant on the support of the Arab parties.

Starting on Tuesday night or early Wednesday next week, you can take all of this and try to figure out how to come up with a governing coalition agreement that has at least 61 members.  You have four weeks though you can apply for an extension of three more weeks.  You can offer any combination of cabinet posts, legislative promises, cash for constituents, future government posts and, pretty much any other enticements that  you think of to get the different parties to change their positions on who they are willing to sit with.  Remember, you don't necessarily have to commit  your promises to writing and, even if you do, you certainly don't have to honour them all later.

Ready...Go!.

In other news, an anonymous group installed a statute of Bibi in central Tel-Aviv, looking like Golem from Lord of the Rings....Some have suggested it is a picture of Bibi in a prison cell. 

No one has claimed credit and the statute was removed, fairly quickly.  It is not the first time that protest artists have unveiled statues of Bibi.   I'm not going to list all of the different interpretations that have been suggested of this particular sculpture.

In other news, restaurants across Israel are opened for business, the infection rate is rapidly declining, the rate of people becoming seriously ill is rapidly declining and the vast majority of new cases, including those who have become seriously ill, are people who were not vaccinated.  Things are looking very promising as the vaccine rollout continues.  This may translate to a very optimistic outlook for North America and other parts of the world that are properly administering the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.  Not sure that these results  will apply to people innoculated with the other available vaccines or in cases where governments administer vaccines without following the proper timelines for doing so.

Pesach is 10 days away.  It is unusual this year with a Saturday night start which makes things that much more difficult for people who observe the holiday.  All of the dishes will need to be changed over one day early on Friday - and bread eating becomes an issue on Friday night and Saturday morning.  Although it is permissible, it gets a bit tricky where the hametz (leavened products) have already been removed from the house and symbolically burned.  I suppose we can eat some bread on the balcony just before the meal....

As you know, Passover is observed differently in Israel - only one Seder instead of two.  As of now, it looks like many people are planning to have large family gatherings, perhaps even "pre-Covid" size  and that plan is likely to be blessed by Bibi himself, along, of course, with his ultra-religious coalition partners, unless infection rates start increasing rapidly between now and next week.

I couldn't resist mentioning that one of the parties running in this election, the Shas party, has been using this lovely slogan "Choose God, Vote for the Shas Party."  They have also been proclaiming that it is a "Mitzvah" (a good deed, according to Jewish law) to vote for Shas.  The accompanying picture for these campaign slogans is one of the  former Rabbis and inspiration for Shas, Rabbi Ovadia Yoseph who died in 2013.  In Israel, we are used to seeing pictures of the deceased Lubavitch Rebbe, Schneerson, with the slogan "Long Live the Messiah," plastered on buses and buildings.  But Shas seems to have outdone the Lubavitch and actually linked Rabbi Ovadia Yoseph to God rather than to a mere messiah.  

I guess we will see soon enough if the outstretched hand of the Lord will ensure that Shas and Bibi are able to form a government together and bless them all with "Get Out of Jail Free" cards so that they don't have to waste valuable time facing ongoing criminal proceedings.  It would indeed be ironic if the Lord were to bless the secular parties instead of the Ultra-Orthodox after such earnest supplications, but I guess His plan will only be revealed in the coming weeks, maybe months.  Either way, it is worth remembering that Pesach is the "Holiday of Freedom,"  which in this case could mean freedom for Bibi or alternatively, freedom for Israel from Bibi.  Israeli voters, observant and non-observant, believers and non-believers, Jewish and non-Jewish, will soon decide.  

I will try to write one or two more  blogs over the next week or so with all of the exciting election news.  Wishing  everyone the best of health and all the best in preparing for Pesach or other upcoming holidays that you may be celebrating.









Sunday, February 7, 2021

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

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

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

Covid-19 Developments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Political Developments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Netanyahu's Trial

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

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

Other Notes

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

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

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

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

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









Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Israeli Election Update - April 9 2019 Elections

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

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

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

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

The Likud

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

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

Blue and White Party

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

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

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

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


Smaller Right Wing Parties

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

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

New Right

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

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

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

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


The Left

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

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

The Ultra Religious

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

The Arab Parties

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Big Win for Netanyahu: Some Post Election Thoughts

"Reports of my demise have been greatly exaggerated."

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu led his Likud party to a massive and surprising victory on Tuesday.  While pre-election polls had put the Likud in second place with a forecast of 20-21 seats, the party emerged with 30 seats, the largest number of any party and some 25% of Knesset seats.  Netanyahu will still need to add 31 more Knesset members to get to the magic number of 61to form a government.  However, that looks like it will be relatively easy for him this time around as compared to what he faced just after the 2013 elections.  He will have the support of Habayit Hayehudi ("Jewish Home" - Naftali Bennett's party) which was reduced to 8 seats from 13.  He will also have the support of Yisrael Beitenu ("Israel Our Home" - Avigdor Lieberman's party) which won 6 seats.  That brings him to 44.  He will then turn to the ultra-religious and add in Shas (8) and Degel HaTorah (6). With 58 Knesset members and needing only 3 more, he will most likely count on the Kulanu party, led by Moshe Kahlon with its 10 seats to put Likud at 68.  There is a possibility that Yesh Atid (11 seats) will also consider joining but that seems less likely, especially if the government includes Shas and Degel HaTorah.  Even without one of these two parties, the government may be too far to the right for the tastes of the 11 Yesh Atid (Lapid's party) members.

The Zionist coalition finished with 24 seats, 6 behind Likud.  The United Arab List finished with 14 to become the 3rd largest party in the Knesset.  Meretz hung on with 4 and Eli Yishai's splinter party Yachad, which had left Shas did not make it into the Knesset.

This is all not very good news for Israelis on the left or even those in the centre.  Effectively, Netanyahu will have accomplished his goal.  He will have exchanged the "left" constituents of his previous government - Tsipi Livni and Yair Lapid - for two ultra-religious parties (Shas and Degel HaTorah) and Moshe Kahlon's party.  Kahlon was a former Likud MK himself.  Not that Livni or Lapid were really "leftists" but in the Netanyahu government, they certainly were.


As the election campaign was drawing to a close, Netanyahu sought to shore up his right wing support by renouncing his past statements of support for a Palestinian state. Based on the anticipated constituent members of the government that will most likely be formed, it is hard to see how any negotiations will take place with the Palestinians anytime soon.

If the ultra-religious parties are back in the government, as expected, we can anticipate a rollback of some of the changes that Lapid sought to bring in.  A restoration of funding for Yeshivot and other ultra-religious interests.  A pullback on the effort to put the ultra-religious in the army.  Increased power over religious affairs in the state handed back to the ultra-orthodox.  

It seems to me that we can also anticipate a further deterioration in current U.S.-Israeli relations and EU-Israeli relations.  I'm reluctant to go on with predictions of other developments that we are likely to anticipate but they are daunting.

In looking at these results, we can size up the Israeli electorate as follows.  57 out of the 120 Knesset seats are right wing or religious parties.  21 more are centrists or right-centrists.  14 seats are in the Arab bloc.  That leaves 28 seats for the left.  The results clearly show that the Israeli electorate leans, at this point in time, heavily to the right.

There had been a sense of optimism in central Israel that the left and the centre would fare better.  Even the exit polls that were released at 10 p.m. in Israel suggested that the Likud would be tied with the Zionist Union at 28 for the lead.  But when the votes were actually counted and the results announced, Israelis had shown a clear preference to continue on with Prime Minister Netanyahu ("Bibi") as the Prime Minister.

Winners and Losers

Prime Minister Netanyahu was the big winner of the evening with 30 seats, rallying from a polling deficit, a barrage of attacks from the press and a big push by the left to try and remove him from office.  He scored a convincing victory.  If he serves out a full term, he will become Israel's longest serving Prime Minister.

Looking down the list, it is also reasonable to put Moshe Kahlon in the winners group, with his 11 seats.  His party will most likely join the government and will have significant power.  Other winners include Shas, which is also likely to join the government.  The Joint Arab List won a convincing 14 seats.  However, they will sit in opposition and have little impact on the government. Avigdor Lieberman held on to 6 seats and will likely hold a cabinet post. So, on balance, he can also be put in the winners category.

Almost all of the other parties can be put into the "losers" camp.  For Yesh Atid under Lapid, this election meant a reduction in seats from 19 to 11.  Lapid's party is likely to be sitting in the opposition this time around after holding a number of important cabinet posts in the most recent government.  It is hard to paint this as any kind of victory for Lapid.

The Zionist Camp won 24 seats.  While that is a respectable number, the party's goal was to form the government.  That will not happen.  This can only be described as a defeat for that party as well, despite the sugar coating by some of its leaders.

Meretz held on to its status with 4 seats but its leader promptly resigned, early this morning, taking the blame for the party's decline in numbers.  Eli Yishai's splinter party Yachad failed to make the cut off and will not sit in the Knesset.  The election can even be viewed as a defeat for Bennett's (Habayit Hayehudi) party which only won 8 seats.  However, Bennett will play a key role in the new government so it is more of a mixed result for his party.

The 2013 election brought a sense of optimism in some Israeli circles as a government was formed that included Tsipi Livni and Yair Lapid and left out the ultra religious parties. That government made some moves on economic and social issues but approached Palestinian issues through the Naftali Bennett lens.  Now, it is anticipated that the party's "left" will be Moshe Kahlon's party and the party will continue to approach Palestinian issues through a Naftali Bennett lens.  As well, the government will approach many other issues through an Ultra-Orthodox lens.

In the losers category, I suppose I will also have to include my personal election predictions.  I accurately predicted that Yishai would be out and that Meretz would make it in (barely).  My predictions for Yisrael Beitenu, the Arab list, Shas and Degel HaTorah, were all within one.  I was wildly off with the Likud predicting 21- which is 9 less than the 30 that they won.  I overestimated the Zionist Camp (27-24), Yesh Atid (16-11) and Bayit Yehudi (13-8).  Conversely, I underestimated Kahlon (7-10).  On the whole, it looks like a chunk of centrist votes went to Kahlon instead of Lapid - and a chunk of right wing votes went to Likud instead of Bayit Yehudi. 

Conclusion 

What can be concluded? The left and the centre are far from close to forming a government in Israel at the present time.  The electorate prefers a right wing government and has voted heavily in favour of putting one in place.

Israel is surrounded by hostile, unstable regimes.  The threat of war with Hezbollah on Israel's northern border looms large as does the possibility that the Syrian civil war will spill into a conflict that engages Israel.  Egypt is a powder keg and Israel is constantly on high alert at its southern border.  All three of these realities would be unlikely to change irrespective of the type of leadership that Israel had in place.

With respect to the Palestinians, many Israelis fear that the danger of a Hamas takeover in the West Bank (Judea and Samaria) would make a two state solution suicidal for Israel at the present time.  Together with all of this, pre-election opinion polls showed that Netanyahu was perceived as the best leader for Israel.  Zionist Camp leader Herzog did not project strength or confidence.  On the other hand, Netanyahu was perceived as a strong, forceful, qualified political and military leader.  For many Israelis, that is the type of leader Israel needs to face the unique range of existential threats that it must constantly address.

One can only up that the day will come when Israelis feel less threatened existentially and confident enough to try a different approach.  These elections clearly demonstrate that this is not yet the case.

I guess for now we will have to go with this line from our daily prayers:

עושה שלום במרומיו, הוא יעשה שלום עלינו ועל כל ישראל, ואמרו אמן





Thursday, March 12, 2015

5 Days Left Until Israeli Elections

There is quite a bit of excitement in Israel as the March 17, 2015 election date approaches.  Israelis have very passionate views about political issues, which of course, can have existential consequences.  Politics are very dynamic.  The proportional representation system means that many different parties are represented in the Knesset, with widely disparate views.  And as the final decision time approaches, many Israelis have still not made up their minds, leading to widely fluctuating poll results.

In my view, here are some key stories to watch:

1.  Zionist Camp or Likud:

Five different polls were released in Israel today.  All five of them had the Zionist Camp (Labour party and Tsipi Livni's party, running together) ahead of Prime Minister Netanyahu's Likud party.  The average was a 24-21 margin.  It is important to remember that these polls still show anywhere from 15 to 25% of Israelis as "undecided."  So a lot can still change between now and Tuesday.  But there is a growing sense of momentum in favour of the Zionist Camp and it is starting to seem more and more likely that Labour leader Isaac "Boujee" Herzog will have the first opportunity to try and form a government.  Boujee will still need to cobble together a total of at least 61 seats and that will be no easy task even if his party wins a plurality of seats.

2.  Decline of Meretz:

The left wing Meretz party is in a state of panic.  New Israeli changes to the electoral system put the cut off at 3.5% of votes in order to set in the Knesset.  This means that Meretz will need to win at least 4 seats to stay on as a party.  It appears that many Meretz voters have shifted over to the Zionist Camp.  This has caused Meretz to run an all out campaign emphasizing its "social justice" credentials.  It looks like it is going to be very close as to whether there will be a Meretz representation in the next Knesset.  On balance, I think they will squeak in.  But it could be a really close call.

3.  Kulanu and Yesh Atid:

Moshe Kahlon's new party ("Kulanu") seems to be polling at about 9 seats consistently.  Lapid's party is at approximately 12.  That is 21 centrist seats for the new Knesset.  My sense is that Lapid has some momentum and could wind up closer to 15 or 16.  I think some of these seats will come at Kahlon's expense.  Kahlon is probably slightly more likely to join a Likud-led coaltion.  Lapid has been very vigorous in his calls for Netanyahu's defeat.  But it is likely that either of these parties would join a Likud-led coalition with the right offers.  At the same time, Lapid would gladly join a Zionist Camp led coalition and it is probable that Kahlon would do the same thing. 

The real issue is how either side will form a government.  Looking at the current numbers, it is hard to see how the Zionist Camp could actually put together a viable government.  One option would be a "national unity government" where the party cuts a deal with Likud as well as some other centrist parties.  If it cannot get together with Likud, the Zionist Camp will have a very difficult time getting past the magic number of 61 - even with Lapid, Kahlon, and some others.

On the other hand, Likud would also have a difficult time with the current numbers. Even with Bennett's party and the religious parties, it is hard to see how they would get to 61 without the Zionist Camp.  If they were to get to 61, it would be a narrow, right wing coalition including all four of the religious parties (Bennett, Shas, Degel Hatorah and Yishai's party). 

If there are some new developments, I will try to put together one more pre-election blog note.  But this might be it until after the results are released on Tuesday evening.






Sunday, March 8, 2015

Post Purim 2015: On to the Israeli Elections 2015

It was a busy week in Israel - for me, for our family and for the country.  Purim was on Wednesday night and Thursday.  That always brings with it lots of festivities in Israel - parties, parades, carnivals, mishloach manot (gift baskets) and shul.  Just preparing for Wednesday night was busy for our family, as we (three of us) read 4 of the 10 chapters of the Megillah at our shul.  Add to that - a wonderful fundraising evening of Jazz on Tuesday night that we were invited to attend (to raise money to build a well in Sudan) and a bar mitzvah celebration on Thursday night of some close friends - and things were quite busy and tiring.

Today marked the start of another week here in Israel.  Since Sunday is a normal work day, that meant back to the army for the oldest, back to school for our younger two.  It also meant that there is just over a week until Israel's next national election.

So after watching "Matzav Ha-Umah" - the "State of the Nation" - Israel's equivalent of Saturday Night Live - which featured Naftali Bennett this episode - I thought I would try to put together a few comments about the upcoming elections in Israel.

Of course it seems that these elections have arrived so soon after the previous national elections which were held in 2013.  If you would like a few refreshers, here is a link to my 2013 Israel Elections Preview.  Here is my link to a summary of the results of the last election.

However, there have also been a few changes since 2013 in the various parties and the coalitions and possible coalitions between the various candidates.  I thought I would highlight a few:

1.  The Zionist Union

The Labour party and "Hatnuah," a party led by Tsipi Livni, joined forces in December 2014 to campaign together as the "Zionist Union."  This centre-left coalition is now the main opposition to Prime Minister Netanyahu's Likud party.  Some polls have put the two parties neck and neck at anywhere between 23 and 26 seats each out of the 120 seats in Israel's Knesset.  As of today, it seems too close to call which party will wind up with a plurality of seats.

According to Israeli political convention, the party that wins the plurality of seats is supposed to be asked by the President of the country to form a coalition government by putting together a bloc of at least 61 Knesset members.  It seems unclear to me at this point how the Zionist Union could cobble together enough support to get past 61, even if the party wins more seats than Likud in the election.  But if they do come out ahead, they would most likely earn the right to try.

2.  Likud/ Yisrael Beitenu

In the 2013 election, Likud campaigned jointly with Avigdor Lieberman's party, Yisrael Beitenu.  The two parties obtained 31 seats, jointly.  This time around, they are running separately.  However, most polls I have seen have put Likud at between 23 and 26 seats.  They have also put Lieberman at anywhere from 5 to 8.  While Lieberman could surprise people and join a government led by the Zionist Union, it is probably more likely that he would put aside any personal differences he might have with Likud and join a Likud coalition once again.  The overall impact is that the combination of Likud and Yisrael Beitenu is still likely to be in the range of 28-32 seats.

3.  Yesh Atid/ Kulanu

The surprise winner of the 2013 election was certainly the Yesh Atid  party which won 19 seats and claimed some key cabinet posts including ministries of finance and education.  At this point, polls have put Lapid's party at anywhere from 11 to 14 seats.  Where are these votes going?  The most logical answer is that they going to another centrist party - the new "Kulanu" party, led by Moshe Kahlon, which has been focusing on economic and cost of living issues.  There is probably still time for both parties to go up or down.  The polling results are likely to fluctuate.  Nevertheless, it seems likely that Lapid will lose a number of seats and that Kahlon will win at least 5 or 6.  Either Lapid or Kahlon - or both them - could wind up in a government led by Likud or a government led by the Zionist Union.  They may well be the power brokers in the next election, which could be a very good thing for the Israeli centre.

4.  Bayit Hayehudi 

This right wing national religious party, led by start up mogul Naftali Bennett is currently polling at approximately 11-12 seats.  The party held 12 after the last elections.  My sense is that there is some momentum for the party and that it could wind up with a few additional seats - perhaps 15 or 16 - which would be seats that would come at the expense of Likud or Yisrael Beitenu votes.  On TV earlier this evening, Bennett reiterated that his party would not give up "one centimetre" of land in exchange for a peace deal and that its proposal to the Palestinians would be "peace for peace" rather than "land for peace."  Bennett could not join a government with the Zionist Union so he would either bolster a Likud coalition or he would sit in opposition.  Sounds to me like a recipe for an early war but maybe he figures that deterrence prevents war.  Doesn't seem to me that Israel's history, to this point, supports that viewpoint completely. 

5.  Arab Parties

In previous Knesset elections, there were three Arab parties.  They are now all running together as a "United Arab List" which could claim 12 or 13 seats.  It may well be that this party, ironically, would bolster a Zionist Union government as part of some type of express, official deal, or as part of some sort of unofficial deal.  There may even be a chance that the joint party would come to terms with the Zionist Union to become part of the government though that seems unlikely at this point.  In any case, this voting bloc is likely to hold a reasonable amount of power and may be able to generate some positive changes for its supporters.

6.  Shas/ Yachad

Shas is the ultra-religious eastern (Mizrachi) religious party.  In 2013, it won 11 seats.  It has historically been part of Israeli governments and has usually been able to wrangle significant concessions for its voting bloc.  It did not join the government for this past session, for which it blames Yesh Atid, the party viewed as public enemy #1 by Shas and its supporters.  While in the political wilderness, Shas fractured.  A splinter party, led by Eli Yishai was formed called, ironically enough, Yachad ("together").  Between Shas and Yachad, the two parties are polling at a total of 11 to 13 seats.  They would be strong candidates to join a Likud led coalition.  They would try to insist that Lapid remain outside of the government.  They could probably live with Kahlon's party, Kulanu.

Summary

In reviewing the Likud math  (the math that Netanyahu would hope for - or that he could live with) - that would mean - (all estimates), 25 likud, 7 Yisrael Beitenu, 12 Bayit Hayehudi, 12 Shas, 4 Yachad, 6 UTJ (Ultra-religious Ashkenazi party).  That all adds up to 66 before Kahlon's votes.  So Netanyahu would still have room to court offers from Yisrael Beitenu, Yachad and/or UTJ to form the government.  Only Lieberman, Shas and Yachad would be real threats to leave and join the Zionist Union.  With this math at a minimum, Netanyahu would be in the driver's seat and would have the upper hand in forming a government.  He could well see higher numbers for his party or for some of the other parties listed above.

On the other hand, with enough of a monetary offer, both Shas and Yachad could also join a Zionist Union government. Let's look at that math (the math that Herzog would hope for - or could live with).  Zionist Union (27), Meretz (6), Shas/Yachad (16), Kahlon (8)....I'm only getting to 57.  Add in UTJ (6) and you have a razor thin government.  If  Lapid won 13 seats and replaced Shas/Yachad - I'm not sure that would get the coalition to 60.  Even if this type of government was formed - which combined the Zionist Union with three different ultra-religious parties, it is likely this would be a very unpalatable government for quite a large number of Israelis.  It could also add in 12-15 Arab seats but that might make it even more unpopular among the Israeli centre.

It seems to me that in order to form a government, the Zionist Union will either need a joint "national unity" government with Likud - or it will require some very surprising results (i.e. a big swing to the left by the Israeli electorate).  Neither seem incredibly likely at this point.  While there is certainly a move in some circles to create a change of leadership and elect a new Prime Minister in Israel, there is also significant support for some right wing parties including Habayit Hayehudi.  There is also some level of lack of confidence in Isaac Herzog ("Boujee") who has been painted in the media as weak and indecisive.

All in all, it is difficult to predict what might occur.  Although there is a possibility of some type of national unity government led by Likud and the Zionist Union, that seems to be the only real possibility of governmental improvement in Israel in my view.  The alternatives of a right wing coalition (i.e. replacing yesh Atid with the ultra-religious parties) or an unholy alliance between the left and the ultra-religious parties (possibly with support from the Arab parties) both look like grim options to me.

But 8 days can be a long time in Israeli political life so we will stay tuned and wait to see what happens.  Hopefully, a high percentage of Israelis will make it to the polls and will participate in this important election.







Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Israel Elections 2015 - Latest Trends

Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu
What to make of the upcoming elections in Israel which are scheduled for March 17, 2015?  According to the most recent polls, Israel's 20th Knesset may well look quite a bit like the current Knesset.  It is likely however that the religious parties will join the government, replacing Yesh Atid, in what would be a more right wing government than the current one.

However, there is a fair bit of time until the election, about 40 days.  Much can change as it often does in the swirling Mideastern winds of an Israeli election campaign.

Over the past week or two, there have been numerous stories in the press about the excesses of the Netanyahu family in the Prime Ministerial home.  One story involved allegations that Prime Minister Netanyahu's wife was pocketing a huge amount of money from refunded deposits on the return of water bottles.  Another story focused on excessive wine consumption in the Netanyahu quarters and a third story questioned a patio furniture purchase that the Netanyahus had recently made.  Listening to the Israeli news broadcasts, one might have thought that the reaction to this accumulation of allegations would be overwhelmingly negative.  But surprisingly, in polls that have come after this media barrage, Netanyahu has emerged, according to the polls with an even higher number of predicted seats than he had before the scandals broke.  The latest polls have put him at anywhere between 24 and 27 seats in the 120 seat Israeli Knesset, which would likely give him enough to have a plurality and have first dibs at forming a government.

Where there was some apparent momentum in the media for Isaac Herzog, leader of the Labour Party and Tsipi Livni (who together have joined forces to campaign as the "Zionist Camp"), the poll numbers do not seem to be reflecting the media enthusiasm.  The latest polls put the Zionist Camp at a similar range - 23 to 26 but the additional questions that pollsters have been asking suggest that the confidence in Herzog as a potential Prime Minister is lacking in the Israel public and that the Zionist Camp numbers may not wind up as high as the numbers that are currently being reported.

At election time, Israel usually winds up with a few new parties.  In this case there is a new centrist party, led by Moshe Kahlon.  The party is a centrist party, focusing on economic issues.  Does this sound familiar?  A look at the pools suggests that they are currently at a predicted eight seats, most of which were probably taken from Yesh Atid, Yair Lapid's party.

Of course many of these numbers could change quite a bit between now and election time.

So far, however, there seem to be few scenarios under which Herzog could become the Prime Minister.  Assuming he obtained 26-28 seats, how could he get to 61?  He could add in 13 seats from Yesh Atid (on a good day), 6 from Meretz and 9 from Kahlon.  So that would get him to 56.  And those are some very flattering and highly optimistic assumptions all around.  He would then need to find 5 or 6 more seats.  One option would be Lieberman's "Yisrael Beitenu" which would bring this coalition somewhat to the right.  Hard to imagine making a successful shiduch out of that arrangement.  Another option would be to add in the religious parties - Shas, United Torah Judaism and "Yachad" - a new Shas splinter group.  That could amount to 10 or even 15 seats but the cost would be the reversal of most of the gains that Israel achieved in the two years of governing without these parties in the Knesset.  It would be very unpalatable for Lapid - unless the Haredi parties greatly toned down their historic demands.  Of course another option is that the "Zionist Camp" could be supported by the three Arab parties - that have now united under one banner.  But how ironic would it be for the "Zionist Camp" to form a government that is held together by 12 Arab Israeli legislators?

On the other hand, if Prime Minister Netanyahu emerges with 25 to 27 seats, his path to a majority seems somewhat less difficult (at least ideologically).  He could add in Yisrael Biteinu with 6, the "Jewish Home" under Bennett with 12. That would put him at 45.  He would now have the possible options of a mixture of Shas/Yachad/UTJ (10-15), Kahlon (8/9), Yesh Atid (9-12), which could get him close to 70.  Even if Lapid chose not to join this unholy coalition, there would likely still be enough for Netanyahu to exceed 62 and form a government.  However, it would be a significantly more right wing government than the one that is currently in place.

A third option would be some sort of Labour-Likud coalition - which Israel has seen in the past.  Hard to imagine as things sit right now.  However, Prime Minister Netanyahu has certainly had his differences with most of his current coalition partners - ranging from Bennett to Lapid.  Perhaps a government with fewer partners would be more manageable?  Not that this would be a "Zionist Camp" fantasy - but it might be preferable, even for Herzog, to the alternative of a few years of a hard right Israeli government or a government that is dependent on the demands of the ultra religious parties.

It is somewhat unclear what Netanyahu's inclinations really would be with these different alternatives.  The easier route for him might be a government with 13-17 ultra-religious seats bolstering his core group.  But the cost would be quite high for Israeli secular society.  I'm really not sure that it is a cost that even Netanyahu is willing to pay, after having been able to see what can be accomplished in a government without the ultra religious parties.  He may have already made some type of deal with Shas (and certainly there have been rumours to that effect).  But until the election results are in and the deal is consummated, nothing is certain.

In my view, a right wing coalition with the various ultra-religious parties and Bennett's "Bayit Yehudi" will create many challenges for Israel, both domestically and internationally.  It would be a coalition that would continue to increase the gap between the rich and the poor in Israel and one that would reverse many of the changes that had been made to secular-religious issues in Israel.  In particular, it is a coalition that would spend much more money funding Yeshivas and new settlements and would halt the very modest trend towards increased religious pluralism in Israel.  And it is a coalition that could lead to the further isolation of Israel in many international circles by taking an even harder line in matters involving the Palestinians.  I find it hard to imagine that a majority of Israelis would view this as the best type of government but I guess that is for Israelis to decide at the polls. 

It should be a very interesting period in Israel as we watch the changing poll results come in and wait to see if any of the parties are able to create some momentum in an unforeseen direction over the course of this campaign.  I'm not betting on it.