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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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Saluting Zan Swartzberg – one of the 800 who fought for Israel

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Zan Swartzberg from Bethlehem in the Free State was one of 800 South African Machal volunteers who heeded Israel’s call for help after it was surrounded by seven armies determined to obliterate it in 1948. He was just 21.

As he celebrated his 94th birthday and the launch of his fourth book this past weekend, he recalled those heady and harrowing days. “My first book is called The Hammers: A Personal Story of the 1948-1949 Israeli War of Independence. It’s called The Hammers because we flew huge American B17 flying fortresses. Three of them, day and night, for weeks on end. In other words, we hammered them, so our official name was The Hammers,” Swartzberg says.

As Israel mourns those lost in defence of the country and to terrorism on Yom Hazikaron, and celebrates its 73rd year of independence on Yom Ha’atzmaut, the man who was there at the start says the country shouldn’t be taken for granted.

His memories are still vivid of joining thousands of other Machal volunteers in fighting for Israel’s independence, and the enormous stress and challenges they faced.

“Many were World War II veterans, and knew the odds were against us,” says Swartzberg. “An air shuttle service was started to transport volunteers, and I needed to get 100 hours of experience, so I got it on the shuttle flights. Each flight could take only 19 volunteers at a time. The South African government was aware of the volunteers heading off to fight, but turned a blind eye. We should always be grateful for that.”

His latest book, launched on Sunday, is titled I Salute you Sir!. “This is because a few years ago, I got a call late one evening from an Israeli official, inviting me and my wife, Noreen, to celebrate Israel’s independence. He said, ‘Are you Zan Swartzberg? Are you still alive?’ A special meeting was arranged with President Benjamin Netanyahu. And when he saw the ribbons on my windbreaker, he knew exactly who I was. He came and put his hand out and said, ‘I salute you sir’.”

The book tells other fascinating stories. “First, how my father escaped Lithuania, and about the Jew hatred that we as schoolchildren went through in Bethlehem.” It also tells how the Swartzbergs were reunited with their long-lost daughter, and how his brother Joe cheated death – twice.

Speaking at the book launch, Rabbi Moshe Silberhaft of the Small Jewish Communities Association described how “Zan [or Zundel which is his full Jewish name], for most of his life has lived in Bethlehem. He remains to this day on his farm proudly named Masada Farm/Loch Katrine Farm in the Bethlehem district.” Swartzberg’s wife, Noreen, describes her husband as a “proud Jew”, which motivated him to name the farm Masada.

Describing Swartzberg as “an ardent Zionist” Silberhaft said, “It’s a remarkable fact that of the approximately 3 000 Jews from around the world who volunteered to fight for the Jewish state in its time of supreme need, more than a quarter came from South Africa, whose Jewish community at the time numbered barely 100 000 souls. Only the United States, whose Jewish population was fifty times larger, produced more volunteers for the cause. Since then, it has always been a matter of great pride to him to be able to claim to have been one of ‘South Africa’s 800’.

“Having obtained an international radio operator’s licence prior to this, Zan joined the Israeli army and became a radio operator and air gunner in the fledgling Israeli Air Force. He was in the air force division from 1948 to 1949, serving in the famed 69th squadron, and was also an instructor in radio telegraphy.

“A number of the 800 South African volunteers went on to achieve considerable fame and success. They included Judge Cecil Margo, who played a key role in the establishment of the Israeli Air Force, anti-apartheid hero Arthur Goldreich, former Woolworths Chief Executive David Susman, and former Johannesburg mayor Eddie Magid.

“After the war, Zan devoted himself to various pursuits. He was a yachtsman, served in the merchant navy, and later in army commandos. In due course, he became a business man and then a farmer. In collaboration with Lorraine Houston, he has become an increasingly prolific author.”

His second book, published in July 2019, was titled Ovamboland Border War: An exercise in Futility, focusing on South Africa’s border war in then South West Africa. The following April, his third book was published about the realisation of his life-long dream of sailing the open sea. Titled Survival, The Voyage of Yacht Black Jed, it told of his yacht trip from East London, South Africa, to Villamoura, Portugal.

To mark the celebration of his 94th birthday, Silberhaft surprised Swartzberg by presenting him with the mittens he wore as a Machalnik. “Fifteen or 20 years ago, I donated my bomber jacket and mittens to the Machal Museum in Israel. I don’t know how he did it, but when he handed me those mittens on my birthday, I was so emotional. The tears poured … I was gobsmacked. And then I asked him to please re-donate them to the museum.”

With less than 10 known Machalniks still alive, Swartzberg feels grateful to have been there and to be able to tell the story of Israel’s miraculous fight to survive. He recalls how while walking in the streets of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Haifa, Israelis would stop him and thank him for his service to the founding of their country. “They don’t forget what the Machalniks did. I feel so privileged that I played a small part in the birth of a Jewish state.”

  • Zan Swartzberg’s books can be bought on Amazon.

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Israel

SA’s unique connection to Israel makes Israelis feel at home

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Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut are generally tough days for Israelis in the diaspora as it isn’t easy to experience them properly thousands of kilometres away from Israel.

But in South Africa, many Israelis say it’s easier.

“The first few years in South Africa, I was amazed at how similar Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut felt to how it is in Israel,” says Israeli ambassador Lior Keinan. “I made a point of visiting different communities and schools on Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut. It felt so familiar. They played the same songs and danced the same dances. It was a relief.”

Liat Amar Arran, the local Jewish Agency representative and the director of the Israel Centre, agrees. When she moved here, she thought these particular days would be when she would be most needed with her “personal stories and sense of connection” with Israel. “Instead, I met a community that was already strongly connected and was very involved in commemorating and celebrating Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut. It was amazing.”

For South African Jewry, Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut showcase their connection with Israel.

“Yom Hazikaron is an incredibly important day when we commemorate those who fell protecting Israel. Without those who have given their lives to keep am Yisrael [the people of Israel] alive, we wouldn’t feel protected here in South Africa,” says South African Zionist Federation National Chairperson Rowan Polovin. “It’s really important to realise exactly what the people of Israel have gone through to keep Israel alive.”

For Israelis living here, it’s a lot more personal.

“Being here on Yom Hazikaron has extra special meaning for me,” says Keinan. “I’m fortunate that none of my family has been killed in action. However, one of my best friends who I studied with in high school was killed in the second Lebanon War. Ashi Novik was a South African who moved to Israel. So now, for me to be an ambassador in South Africa, I can look at the memorial of all the South Africans who paid the ultimate price for Israel, and I see the name of my high school friend. When I light a candle for him personally and all those whose names are on the memorial, I feel like I’m closing the circle. I knew him in the past, and now I’m here honouring his memory.”

Habonim Dror Southern Africa shaliach Lior Agiv says learning to appreciate Yom Hazikaron has been a process.

“As a young child, these days of Zikaron and Atzmaut always seemed to be something amorphic. Hearing my father’s stories of all the wars he had taken part in, watching these series and movies on TV, it all remained a bit abstract. As I grew up and my army chapter was getting closer, I started to wonder more about the meaning of these days.

“All these feelings grew much stronger after my army days near Ramallah. Since then, every year, no matter where I’m located, I honour these days by lightning a neshama candle for my fallen friends and try to deepen my knowledge of our wars and fallen ones.”

Batya Shmueli, also a shaliach in South Africa, says, “I was born on the African continent in Ethiopia, and at the age of 11, my family fulfilled our dream of returning to Jerusalem. Returning to Africa as an Israeli to do a mission with my family is closing a huge circle. We will connect with our brothers and sisters and remember the loved ones who fell and sacrificed their lives in various wars for the sake of the people of Israel and future generations,” she says.

“Independence Day is a day in which we stop for a moment and look at the fact that we have a state and a home for the Jewish people,” she says.

Arran says that everyone in Israel knows someone who has been killed, which is why Yom Hazikaron is felt so keenly. “My good childhood friend, Ariel, was killed in the army,” she says. “My brother-in-law lost his entire unit in a helicopter crash. Everyone knows someone that has been killed.”

Lee Salama, a Habonim shaliach in Cape Town, says, “In officer boot camp in the IDF [Israel Defense Forces], we have a saying, ‘We have to realise that in order for us to be able to celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut, there were people who had to die.’ And then we have this beautiful transition to Yom Ha’atzmaut and celebrating life.”

Says Polovin, “Yom Ha’atzmaut is an incredible celebration of everything Israel has accomplished in its very short 73 years. No matter where you look, Israel is a ‘light to the nations’ showing the way. Whether it’s technology, medical advancements, or even showing the world how to recover and rebuild from the coronavirus pandemic, Israel is at the head of the pack.”

Says Keinan, “The beauty of going straight from the sombre day of Yom Hazikaron to the happy day of Yom Ha’atzmaut shows us that from great pain and sorrow can come the greatest joy. The suffering and pain, and the joy and celebration, are really just two sides of the coin.”

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Helen Mirren to play Golda Meir in upcoming film

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(JTA) Academy Award winner Helen Mirren will portray Golda Meir, Israel’s only female prime minister, in an upcoming biopic set during the Yom Kippur War.

Production Golda will begin later this year, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

The news follows the announcement last month of another star-powered production on Meir, a series titled Lioness led by Israeli actress Shira Haas of Unorthodox fame.

While Lioness will follow Meir from “her birth in Kiev to her American upbringing in Milwaukee, her role in the formation of Israel, and her rise to become the new nation’s first and only female prime minister”, according to a report in Deadline, Golda will focus on the turbulent Yom Kippur War period.

Along with the rest of Israel, Meir and her all-male cabinet were taken by surprise by the attack on the eve of the holiday in 1973 by Egyptian, Syrian, and Jordanian forces. The ensuing bloody conflict – chronicled in the recent acclaimed Israeli production Valley of Tears on HBO Max – shattered the nation’s growing sense of confidence at the time in an embattled region.

Golda will be directed by Israeli filmmaker Guy Nattiv, who won the 2018 Academy Award for best short for Skin, a film involving neo-Nazis that he later made into a feature.

“As someone who was born during the Yom Kippur War, I’m honoured to tell this fascinating story about the first and only woman to ever lead Israel,” Nattiv said. “Nicholas Martin’s brilliant script dives into Golda’s final chapter as the country faces a deadly surprise attack during the holiest day of the year, a core of delusional generals undermining Golda’s judgement.

“I couldn’t be more excited to work with the legendary Miss Mirren to bring this epic, emotional, and complex story to life.”

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