Our first battle is against the coronavirus, which is being fought not just in Israel, but around the world. It preoccupies everyone, so that political news here is not necessarily even front page any more.
I write from my Jerusalem apartment: I am well, thank Heaven, but following the rules which require me to avoid inadvertent contact with someone who may be carrying the virus. Accustomed to being out and about, I resolved to use this compulsory time indoors constructively. (I gave a friend a good laugh when I told her I had sorted my collection of teas.)
Enforcement of the rules of isolation is stringent at this point; the stringency may increase within days to a complete closure unless there is full cooperation. Our borders are now been closed to non-residents.
The most controversial action to be taken, with unanimous Cabinet approval, is a measure allowing the Shin Bet to deploy advanced digital monitoring tools to track carriers of the virus, and to electronically identify persons who had been in contact with the carriers in recent days. These individuals are then to be notified that they must home-quarantine immediately. The program just started, and already 400 such individuals have been identified.
Declared director Nadav Argaman, the Shin Bet has “answered the request of the professional echelon in the Health Ministry, out of national responsibility and an understanding that we have the ability to save the lives of Israeli citizens.”
He offered assurances that no records would be retained once information is turned over to the Health Ministry. There were, nonetheless, concerns expressed regarding invasion of privacy. The Attorney General approved this, but it was not brought to the Knesset. Prime Minister Netanyahu argues that this emergency measure can save lives, and time is of the essence. What he did was consult with legal and security experts to come up with a formula that is minimally invasive while working to protect public health.
I am hopeful that the vigorous approaches being utilized can effect a turn-around in the numbers before too long. Every day more cases are being announced. However, these do not all represent actual new cases, as some are people have been walking around without symptoms. As I write, there have been 529 cases identified; only six of these – all elderly with preexisting conditions – are critical and connected to respirators.
There is talk of increasing testing from 750 people a day to 3,000 or even 5,000; this would not only identify those who are contagious, it would provide a statistical picture of the situation. Israel’s response has been vigorous and diligent. Preparations – acquisition of respirators, etc. –are for a worst case scenario; we must pray that it will not emerge precisely because of that diligence.
Bibi, who is making it his business to see the country through this crisis, has been conducting himself superbly. He works closely with officials in the Health Ministry and the Treasury, and stays in touch with the public via almost daily press conferences. He certainly does not sugar-coat the situation, yet his demeanor inspires calm, as he announces the latest in the situation with updates on regulations.
He has rebuked those who have failed to adhere to regulations regarding remaining in isolation at home. The sign in the picture below says “Stay Home!” It is not difficult to see the fatigue in his face.
The 23rd Knesset was sworn in on Monday without the usual ceremony. Following the swearing in of Binyamin Netanyahu and Benny Gantz (center and left respectively in the picture below, with President Ruby Rivlin and Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein at the podium), three MKs entered the chamber at a time for swearing in.
Observed Edelstein, “The plenum is empty, but with us are the millions of citizens who badly need an emergency government.” (We will come to this.)
Other political/security ramifications of the coronavirus epidemic:
 There is necessary cooperation with the PA with regard to the virus; there is a joint PA-Israel operations room. This is a turn-around from the very recent declaration of Abbas that all contact with Israel would be severed.
 There are no rockets being launched from Gaza, while very recently this was something we were contending with. The interpretation for this is that Hamas is afraid to alienate Israel right now when our assistance might yet be needed in dealing with the virus should it spread in Gaza.
 The “Deal of the Century” is no longer on the radar screen and may never return. Right now, Jason Kushner, who headed that effort, is advising on coronavirus matters. I am not even sure if work is continuing at the moment on refining that map.
However, I am delighted to report that Likud has filed a private member’s bill (not an official government bill) that calls for the immediate application of Israeli law to all communities in Judea & Samaria, as well as the Jordan Valley and Dead Sea. Moving this along depends upon the Knesset resuming normal functioning (which is not the case right now). It was filed by freshman Likud MK May Golan (pictured) with the support of Likud faction head Miki Zohar.
It is anticipated that it would pass with the support of the 58 MKs in the right wing bloc plus the support of the seven members of Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu.
With this, I turn to political matters here in Israel, which, in the main, are beyond atrocious.
I want to begin with a brief description of the Arab party Balad. The most radical faction of the Joint List’s four constituent parties, it secured three of the Joint List’s 15 mandates in the last election.
Balad’s platform advocates the end of Israel as a Jewish state, and formation of Israel as a bi-national state, as do the platforms of other parties in the Joint List. But it is even worse than this. Jamal Zahalka, who was head of the party from 2016 – 2019, last year explained:
Balad “is not part of the Israeli left, but is an inseparable part of the Palestinian national movement.”
At an event held by Balad prior to elections last year, the Palestinian national anthem was played. The gathering then heard greetings from Azmi Bishara, who left Israel in 2007 as he was being investigated for allegedly spying for Hezbollah, and ex-lawmaker Basel Ghattas, who served a two-year prison sentence for smuggling cell phones to Palestinian Arab security prisoners in an Israeli jail.
While Heba Yazbak, who is currently an MK with Balad, has just said:
“[The Joint List] plan opposes and fights the country’s Zionism and prides itself on divesting the country of its Jewish and Zionist existence, and at the same time preserves our national identity, without sacrificing full citizenship.”
Wrap your head around this well: Yazbak and her ilk are in the Knesset by virtue of their identity as Israeli citizens who have been elected by Israeli Arabs. But they are a fifth column that wants to destroy Israel as a Jewish state while utilizing their membership in the Knesset to do so.
Because we are a democracy – or maybe because we are crazy – we allow them to sit in the Knesset and to vote. But the idea that they should have any influence on the formation of our government is anathema, and yet this is what is happening.
On Sunday, President Rivlin met with the heads of all parties to determine their choices for prime minister; votes are tallied according to number of MKs in each party. Then, using this as his guide, it is his responsibility to task the person most likely to be able to form a government with the first opportunity to do so.
Netanyahu secured the 58 votes of the right wing bloc.
Without the Arab Joint List, Gantz would have received only 46 – Blue & White, plus the Labor-Meretz left wing bloc, plus Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu, which in the end swung left. (Orly Levy–Abekasis pulled her Gesher party out of the left bloc and refused to vote for Gantz, or it would have been 47.)
Most of the time, the Arab Joint List does not select anyone. The Arabs hadn’t indicated a choice for prime minister since Yitzhak Rabin in 1992 (and this in response to the emerging Oslo Accords). This time they decided to select Gantz. What is more, Balad, which had indicated a preference for abstaining, decided in the end to take a “political chance” and also cast their three mandates for Gantz.
With the participation of the Joint List, including Balad, Gantz then had 61 votes – in theory enough to form a governing coalition. President Rivlin wasted no time. On Monday he awarded the mandate to form a government to Gantz.
Gantz and his Blue & White associates strutted and gloated, as if they were truly the winners. But in truth they were not, and this is where it gets really complicated.
The Joint List was not about to join a coalition. The plan was for Gantz to form a minority left wing coalition, with the Arabs providing support from the opposition. This may be inherently unstable, but it is legal. But the numbers do not add up.
When the numbers for choice of prime minister were given to Rivlin, it was done by party bloc. Thus all 33 of Blue & White’s mandates registered for Gantz to be prime minister. But in point of fact, there is considerable unease within Blue & White about forming that minority coalition with Arab support. As I have already mentioned, Zvi Hauser and Yoaz Hendel of Ya’alon’s Telem faction were not happy about working with the Arabs; they have now declared intention to vote against such an arrangement.
And so, without those two votes. Gantz will not have sufficient numbers. What is more, other members of the party have similar unease and might vote with Hendel and Hauser. In fact, a report surfaced about a fight that was said to be heard between Ashkenazi and Gantz, who preferred to consider a unity government, and Lapid and Ya’alon who were pushing to work with the Arabs.
Add to this the fact that Blue & White would have to work out a formal deal with the Joint List which would include many demands. Some of what has surfaced has been outrageous, but no terms are actually set yet. In the end, the Arabs might be dissatisfied and decide not to back Gantz from the opposition. Or additional members of Blue & White might be so horrified they would withdraw support.
On Sunday, at the very same time Rivlin was polling parties, Netanyahu reached out to Gantz with two different offers:
The first option: a half-year “emergency” government led by Netanyahu, with Blue & White and Likud parties receiving an equal number of ministerial posts. For six months, Netanyahu would agree to refrain from firing any Blue and White ministers, and in exchange, MKs from the centrist alliance would be barred from supporting the toppling of the government in a no-confidence vote. In September, the situation would return to what it was when Netanyahu made the offer.
Alternatively, a four-year unity government might be formed; Netanyahu would serve as prime minister for the first two years, with Gantz as his deputy, and then they would switch places for two more years.
On Sunday, Rivlin met with both parties, urging the immediate formation of an emergency unity government because circumstances require this stability.
Netanyahu put out a message to Gantz and Lieberman and Peretz (head of the left bloc), saying, “I ask for your cooperation. We are ready to discuss it at the [very moment]. I urge you to put aside all cynicism and skepticism and [unite].”
What has been particularly disturbing has been the hostility towards Netanyahu that the leaders of Blue & White have continued to demonstrate. There is no good will, no desire to come together for the national good. This in spite of how hard Netanyahu is currently working for the country. I believe the fact that he is doing so well in handling the crisis irks them. Ya’alon, for example, compared Netanyahu to Erdogan.
Gantz’s first trick was to demand that the United List be included in a unity government – something Netanyahu immediately and decisively rejected.
There was an attempt by Blue & White to disqualify Netanyahu as prime minister because he heads an interim government. This has failed. But in another move, they sought to remove Yuli Edelstein as Speaker of the Knesset – we have not heard the end of this. Unreasonable demands by Blue & White to control the Knesset House Committee, which was being formed, caused Edelstein to temporarily shut down the Knesset. In this, as in everything else, Blue & White over-reaches, seeking control and not cooperation. The primary goal remains getting rid of Netanyahu.
As I close this lengthy posting, we remain in limbo. It is possible that Gantz is holding coalition negotiations in order to form that minority government, but there have been no announcements in this regard, and he will not succeed.
Talks are ongoing between the Likud and Blue & White negotiation teams. But the news coming out is not good. Blue & White has demanded control of the Defense Ministry, the Justice Ministry, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as well as Public Security and Culture. They also want veto power over all legal decisions.
Apparently Likud has agreed to Gabi Ashkenazi, a former IDF chief of staff, as Defense Minister, but is contending with Blue & White over a great many of their other demands.
One member of the Likud negotiating team indicated that talks were proceeding but were very difficult when hostile acts against Likud persist outside the negotiating room.
Blue & White says it will not negotiate past Monday.
May I have better news on all fronts when next I post.
© Arlene Kushner. This material is produced by independent journalist Arlene Kushner. Permission is granted for it to be reproduced only with proper attribution.