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.
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.
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.
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.
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.