|Yair Lapid, Leader of Yesh Atid|
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.
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.