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Bibi or not Bibi – is there even a question?

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Israel

“Citizens of Israel – thank you!” wrote Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Hebrew on Twitter shortly after Israeli polls closed on Tuesday night, 23 March.

A few hours later, a delighted crowd welcomed him at his Likud party headquarters in Jerusalem. “Bibi, Bibi!” they shouted, filling a large hall with balloons, banners, and Likud COVID-19 masks.

But the excitement might be misplaced and premature at best.

As the hours ticked into Wednesday morning, the exit polls started changing their initial predictions. Only on Friday afternoon will the final tally be known.

What won’t alter is the fact that the prime minister’s Likud party won the most parliament seats by a large margin. President Reuven Rivlin will therefore task him first with forming a government. But then it gets tricky.

At the time of writing (at midday on Wednesday) exit polls predicted Netanyahu’s right-wing bloc fell short of the 61 seats it needed to secure a majority coalition. The kingmaker could well be the prime minister’s former ally and defence minister, Naftali Bennett. His Yamina (Rightwards) party won at least seven seats, and although Bennett avoided explicitly declaring who he would support, it’s widely expected he’ll join Netanyahu. In return, he’ll exact a high price in terms of ministerial positions and other powerful appointments.

This would bring Netanyahu closer than ever to a narrow government that would include the most extreme elements of Israeli society. Exit polls showed the Religious Zionist Party, that includes far-right and homophobic elements with roots in the overtly racist Kahanist party, receiving enough votes to enter parliament.

Yohanan Plesner, the president of the Israel Democracy Institute, warned that such a coalition could back Netanyahu’s attempts to find a political solution to his legal troubles. “In this case, it will be imperative that elected leaders from across the political spectrum, civil society organisations, and all those who advocate on behalf of a vibrant Israeli democracy, make it emphatically clear that the results of this election don’t constitute a license to promote radical proposals aimed at eroding the legal system and curtailing the rule of law. The health and vitality of Israel’s democratic system could hang in the balance,” he said.

Meanwhile opposition leader Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid (There Is a Future), said he, too, would try to build a coalition to “create a sane government for Israel”.

Speaking early on Wednesday morning, he declared, “At the moment, Netanyahu doesn’t have 61 seats but the change bloc does. We’ll wait for the final results but as it stands, there won’t be a government based on the votes of the racists and homophobes.”

The anti-Netanyahu bloc is far from a homogenous group, consisting of left, right, and centrist factions. They have fewer options in forming a coalition than Netanyahu. Should neither side succeed, it will be back to the polls for Israelis – the fifth election in two years.

Which in part explains why Tuesday’s turnout was the lowest since 2013. Voter fatigue and apathy are starting to sour even the most ardent supporters of Israeli democracy.

The lack of enthusiasm was most noticeable in the Arab community. Many residents confessed they had lost confidence in their representatives and the two main Arab blocs – the Joint List and the breakaway United Arab List (Ra’am), headed by Mansour Abbas – warned of a “disaster” due to the low turnout.

In the 2015 election, the Joint List became the third-largest party in parliament after it won 13 seats. In the 2020 election, it increased to 15, remaining the third-largest party until Yesh Atid split off from Blue and White to lead the opposition.

Earlier this year, Abbas quit the Joint List, indicating his willingness to join a coalition headed by Netanyahu. And the prime minister welcomed him. Whereas in the past Netanyahu “incited” against the Arabs, this time around, he changed his strategy and appealed to Arab-Israelis to vote for him.

He paid rare visits earlier this year to Arab cities in the north of the country purportedly to encourage citizens to get coronavirus vaccinations, but many were suspicious that he was taking advantage of the rift within the alliance of Arab parties.

Netanyahu appeals to some Arab voters because they believe he can make things happen. He’s also promised to focus on the growing violence and crime in the Arab community, economic issues, and the recent normalisation of Israel’s relations with several Arab countries.

As in the previous three rounds, this election was largely seen as a referendum on the tenure of Netanyahu. Personality politics has so overtaken the race that there has been almost no mention of the Palestinians after years of frozen peace talks.

The day before the vote, Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh described the election as an “internal” matter for Israelis, but decried the effect on Palestinians living under Israeli occupation.

Netanyahu used these elections to once again portray himself as a global statesman uniquely qualified to lead Israel through its many security and diplomatic challenges.

But unlike the previous election held last March, he didn’t have the support of former American President Donald Trump smiling alongside him in campaign posters. Instead, Netanyahu made Israel’s coronavirus-vaccination campaign the centrepiece of his re-election bid, repeatedly stressing that he was personally responsible for Israel’s impressively fast rollout.

Only a few short months ago, it seemed that COVID-19 would kill his chances of winning another election, and his critics still accuse him of bungling the management of the pandemic for most of the past year. But most Israelis appreciate his efforts.

This was the first election held in the throes of the pandemic, and five thousand additional polling stations were set up to deal with the situation. Workers in hazmat suits collected ballots in hospital wards while buses were parked outside some polling stations to serve as remote ballot drops for coronavirus-positive or quarantined voters.

As things stand now, it’s unclear if four rounds of elections have resolved the longest political crisis in Israel’s history. The country remains as divided as it has been over the past two years.

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Israel’s vaccination rules may hinder South Africans, olim advocate says

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Travelling to Israel may get easier soon, but with some rules that could hold South Africans back. According to former member of the Knesset (MK) Dov Lipman, from 1 November 2021, travellers to Israel may have to have a third booster shot, or have been vaccinated or recovered from COVID-19 within six months of their visit. “Those who were vaccinated more than six months ago may have a challenge in entering Israel. We are trying to influence the decision for the better,” he says.

As some time has passed since most South African Jews received their vaccines, and with no possibility of a third booster shot being offered anytime soon, this may make travelling to Israel difficult. Lipman is concerned that tourists who have access to third booster shots may be able to travel to Israel, but relatives of olim may be left out in the cold. Ironically, those who got vaccinated earliest may have the most difficulty, which he said is a “sad” reality.

Not all superheroes wear capes – some of them wear kippot – and Lipman is doing everything he can to stop this from happening. His organisation, Yad L’Olim, works to help olim thrive in Israel and lobbies the Knesset to drive government policies that provide new immigrants with the tools that they need to succeed in Israel.

Lipman did just that in a speech to the Knesset on 12 October. Addressing ministers and MKs, he said, “Right now, they are talking about a new plan. They are talking about tourists who will come from all over the world. There are countries with Zionistic Jews whose family members made aliyah. And they have no ability to get the third vaccine dose. They have no ability to get it. So what’s going to happen? We’re going to have a state filled with tourists from all around the world who don’t have any special connection to Israel, and I am happy that they will come.

“But families who supported their family member’s decision to move to Israel won’t have the ability to come here. There must be an outcry from Knesset, from MKs and ministers, not to allow this to happen,” he said. “Yes, open the country to tourists, that’s fine, I have no problem with that. But let there be a plan. Actually, continue with the current policy enabling relatives who cannot get a third shot to come, and especially for there to be a true exceptions committee.

“There should be an easy to use link for those who have family weddings, Bar/Batmitzvahs or births. You cannot close the door on olim and their families when you are opening the door to tourists. I call on all of you to be our voices and take care of this.”

Lipman says that though Prime Minister Naftali Bennett wasn’t there when he spoke, “two MKs from his party were, and we’re now following up on what I said”. He says olim are already coming to him with concerns that their families may not be able to visit.

“We’re trying to make sure that they have the right balance of not shutting the door on everyone while changing the rules. Things are still in flux regarding final decisions. I’m recommending to anyone who can get a shot [vaccine], whether it’s a booster, or their first one, or someone who has recovered [from COVID-19] last year, if you can get one, I’m recommending that. Because it will ease your ability to get into Israel after 1 November, and that would apply even if you didn’t have a first-degree relative in Israel.”

He says he spoke out because “I’m concerned that there’s no mechanism in place for first-degree relatives to visit if they haven’t been vaccinated according to Israel’s requirements. And I believe that if people are going to undergo a full quarantine, testing, and the like, then there should be an option.

“Israel needs to be a place where olim know that their families can come. And yes, we have to take health concerns into account, and I’m not suggesting therefore just to open things up. But we shouldn’t rule out the possibility of families of olim coming. I also know that there are exceptions for weddings and births, and things like that, but the process has been complicated and not easy to use. I’d rather make it as user-friendly as possible for the benefit of olim and their families.”

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Israel’s status on agenda of AU executive

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On the eve of the meeting of the Executive Council of the African Union (AU) this week, there has been much speculation about whether Israel’s recent granting of observer status will be debated, and if calls for the decision to be rescinded will be heard.

The announcement in July that Israel had been granted observer status at the AU drew sharp reaction from several countries on the continent, including South Africa.

Last week, International Relations and Cooperation (Dirco) Minister Naledi Pandor met her Palestinian counterpart, Riad Malki, and again expressed dissatisfaction with Israel’s status. (See story on page 1.)

During the official bilateral talks held at Dirco, Pandor said South Africa wasn’t party to the AU’s “shocking” decision to grant Israel observer status.

In July, Pretoria moved swiftly to lobby other Southern African Development Community states against the decision.

Many said the decision had been taken unilaterally by AU Commission Chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat, and expressed solidarity with Palestine.

Out of 55 member states, 46 enjoy diplomatic relations with Israel. There are about 17 member countries opposing observer status.

It’s understood that the matter was placed on the agenda of the AU executive council following complaints by some member states.

Professor Hussein Solomon of the University of the Free State wrote recently that South Africa was “out of sync” with the views of most African heads of state. “Isolating Israel won’t work in promoting the well-being of Palestinians. This was tried for decades by Arab countries and has failed.”

Jean-Pierre Alumba Lukamba, the international director of the African Diaspora for Development, (ADD), told the SA Jewish Report this week that according to the guiding principles of the AU, Israel should be at the opening of the AU’s executive council meeting this week as an observer member for the first time in nearly 20 years.

The ADD has reiterated its call to African heads of state to maintain unanimously the admission of the state of Israel as an observer member.

In a statement, the ADD said, “The African people will derive great benefit from the state of Israel, which has notably established agricultural co-operatives, youth training centres, and medical facilities in countries such as Ghana, Sierra Leone, Rwanda, and Côte d’Ivoire.

“Israel supported the use of technology for the sustainable development of Africa in accordance with a resolution adopted by the United Nations,” it said, and it was “convinced” that admission to the AU of Israel would help to advance the African continent towards a better future for the well-being of African people.

The ADD joined its voice to those of other civil society organisations, and asked the African heads of state to include it on its agenda this week.

Earlier this week, the ADD held a peaceful rally in Abuja in support of Israel’s observer status.

Olubunmi Fagbuyiro, the Economic Community of West African States representative of the ADD, said that there was still concern about countries who opposed this observer status. “The AU should embrace Israel, as the country has already demonstrated its willingness for fruitful partnership with Africa,” Fagbuyiro said.

He said Israel had been pivotal in the provision of green energy, health infrastructure, and infrastructure for sustainable water supply in many countries on the continent. He noted Israel’s contribution to the fight against Ebola in Africa.

“It’s our view that the AU can play an important role in bringing about peace between Israel and Palestine, drawing on lessons from the African nationalist movements and the experiences of decolonisation and reconciliation following various conflicts can be used to inspire negotiation and peace between the Israelis and Palestinians.”

Meanwhile, the South African Zionist Federation (SAZF) has joined various African civil society organisations from across the continent in their call for African heads of state to reaffirm unanimously Israel’s admission as an observer member of the AU.

“Israel has had a mutually beneficial relationship with African states for more than 70 years. It has been at the forefront of efforts to help solve some of the most important developmental challenges on the continent. These include the areas of health, agriculture, youth development, water, education, and energy.

“The admission of Israel as an observer to the African Union, alongside more than 70 other countries, is a historic and welcome development. It should be celebrated and not undermined by those who aren’t interested in peace and prosperity on the continent,” it said.

The SAZF called on other organisations connected to Africa and its diaspora to sign a letter of support to the AU.

The letter is signed by prominent progressive international African organisations, companies, leaders, activists, youth movements, and trade unions. It says Israel’s admission seeks to “enhance the work of Israeli African co-operation on development programmes at bilateral and multilateral levels. Admittance is in the interests of peace and dialogue.”

Faki Mahamat accepted the credentials of Aleligne Admasu, Israel’s ambassador to Ethiopia, on 22 July.

He said at the time that he hoped the move would contribute to the “intensification of the advocacy of the AU for the fulfilment of the principle of two states and the restoration of peace between Israel and Palestine” and reiterated the “unflinching commitment” of the AU to the fundamental rights of the Palestinians.

This included their “right to establish an independent national state, with East Jerusalem as its capital, within the framework of a global, fair, and definitive peace between Israel and Palestine.”

Faki Mahamat said the reservations expressed by “a few members” about this decision justified his intention to include it on the agenda of this week’s session of the executive council.

Israel obtained AU observer status after 20 years of diplomatic efforts. It had previously held the role at the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), but was long thwarted in its attempts to regain it after the OAU was disbanded in 2002 and replaced by the AU.

Apart from South Africa, other countries opposing Israel’s member status include Algeria, Comoros, Djibouti, Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia.

Most other countries on the continent have sought closer ties with Israel, such as Kenya, Ethiopia, Rwanda, and Uganda, and have secured Israeli help, expertise, and investment in many areas from water and agriculture to tech start-ups.

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Arab-Israeli gangsterism a massive security threat

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The current violence in Arab-Israeli cities is a greater threat to the state of Israel than Hamas and Hezbollah. The comparison might sound dramatic, but since stating it earlier this week, Israeli Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar has only reinforced his concerns.

As many as half-a-million illegal weapons are estimated to be in the hands of the Israeli-Arab sector. Their prevalence is widely attributed to the killing of more than 90 Arab citizens since the start of this year in shootings and stabbings. Though some of these deaths have been the result of warfare before mafia families, others involved unlucky bystanders struck by a stray bullet or female victims of domestic violence. Of these cases, less than a quarter have been solved so far, compared with more than 70% in the Jewish community.

Many Arab Israelis say the identities of killers and crime families are well-known to residents and authorities. They complain that the lack of arrests reflects a double standard when it comes to Israeli police dealing with Arab communities.

The problem is further compounded by the lack of faith many Arabs have in the Israeli police’s will and ability to address the problem. A recent survey found that only 17.4% of Israeli Arabs said they trusted the police. The result is a Catch-22, as this lack of faith leads to fewer people being willing to risk co-operating with the police, who in turn have a more difficult time enforcing law and order.

For months now, the Israeli government has been trying to get a grip on the deteriorating security situation. Even the head of the United Arab List, parliamentarian Mansour Abbas, this week again stressed his concern about crime and violence in Arab communities.

But how to deal with it has created problems, with Arabs divided over Jerusalem’s recent announcement that it plans to involve the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) in assisting the Israeli police. While some Arabs firmly oppose the idea, others are desperate for any solution that could help quell the escalating violence.

It’s difficult trying to gauge opinion on the Arab street. Most people I approach are afraid to comment. Should they be seen to support the Shin Bet, they could face reprisals in their communities; and should they be seen to publicly oppose its involvement, they could – they tell me – be targeted by Israeli security authorities. The best answer, encapsulating what most people feel, is what one elderly man told me, “I’m doomed if I support the move, and I’m doomed if I don’t!”

As for the Shin Bet itself, its officials say they prefer not to be involved in anything beyond their more regular counter-terrorism missions. These are usually across the Green Line, in Palestinian territories, where suspects can be held for years without charge and prevented from meeting with lawyers.

Jerusalem has consistently argued that such measures are necessary to prevent Palestinian terror attacks, but implementing them against Israeli citizens, albeit against those who are engaged in criminal activity, is a completely different ball game. The major concern, for Jews and Arabs alike, is that it could turn Israel into a police state. Many also question how a technologically advanced country like Israel, that was recently able to catch six escaped Palestinian prisoners within a week, has been unable to break up a few local criminal gangs. Some Arab citizens even suspect the government of deliberately letting the violence run amok in order to weaken the Arab minority in the country.

Several Israeli officials have expressed a popular view among the Israeli political right that “as long as they are killing each other, that’s their problem”. But this violence often spills over into Jewish neighbourhoods, often into nationalistic crimes, as was witnessed in May this year.

At the time, I visited mixed Arab-Israeli cities in the heart of the country that resembled battlegrounds. Car tyres were burning on the streets, shops and homes were barricaded, and many Arab citizens walked around armed. The concern was that those weapons, often stolen from the Israeli military, or smuggled across the border from Jordan, or manufactured in the West Bank, could be turned against the Israeli public. The police were quick to quell the unrest as quickly as it unfolded, leaving many to point out that when the security forces really wanted to deal with the violence, they could.

The new government insists it’s prioritising dealing with the situation. It says it has a detailed plan to improve access and trust in Arab communities that it is ready to put into action after the state budget is passed in November. It calls for recruiting an additional 1 100 police officers, legislative changes to deal more efficiently with economic crime, more use of technology, and an improved witness-protection programme.

The situation has become so bad that in some cases, police are afraid to enter neighbourhoods. The hashtag #ArabLivesMatter has caught on, inspired by the #BlackLivesMatter movement and among those embracing the hashtag is the country’s public security minister who faced stormy protests outside his home after seven shooting incidents rattled the Arab community in a single week. But although there’s growing public awareness of the problem, it won’t easily disappear. It’s been around for a long time, and will take some time to dissipate.

  • Paula Slier is the Middle East bureau chief of RT, the founder and chief executive of Newshound Media International, and the inaugural winner of the Europcar Women in Leadership Award of the Absa Jewish Achiever Awards.

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