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Could vaccination save Netanyahu’s political life?

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In about two months, Israelis will vote in a national election.

Seem familiar? It is.

Israel will be holding its fourth election in just two years, the latest sign that in a country known for volatile politics, the government is more unstable than ever.

Like the past several votes, this one is mainly a referendum on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has been in power for more than a decade. But unlike in previous elections, most of Netanyahu’s chief rivals this time are on the political right too. The two top performers in polls behind his Likud party are former close allies.

This is the first Israeli election amid a spiking COVID-19 pandemic. The most recent vote, in March, took place as cases had only begun to rise in Israel and worldwide. This one comes after a year of sickness, death, lockdowns, and economic crisis, but also as Israel is racing to vaccinate a large portion of its population.

Why is Israel having another election? Will Netanyahu win again? Who’s running against him? And how might COVID-19 factor in? Here’s what you need to know.

Israel is voting again because the “unity government” wasn’t actually that unified.

Across three separate elections, from April 2019 to the one in March, the conservative Netanyahu and Likud ran neck and neck with a centrist party led by Benny Gantz, a former general whose main campaign promise was to unseat the prime minister. Gantz nearly succeeded.

But the system in Israel requires prime ministers to assemble a majority coalition from the mosaic of parties in its parliament, the Knesset, and neither candidate could get it done. The unclear outcome kept triggering new rounds of voting with similar results – and similar deadlock.

Last year, facing the prospect of a fourth election with no end in sight, and COVID-19 cases rising, Gantz reneged on his promise and agreed to unite with Netanyahu so that the government could confront the pandemic in earnest. According to an agreement signed by both men, Gantz was supposed to take over the prime minister role from Netanyahu late this year.

But none of that happened. The “unity government”, comprised of parties that distrusted each other, bickered as COVID-19 cases spiked to record highs. This year, Netanyahu stymied the passage of a government budget, which triggered another round of elections and brought the dysfunctional attempt at co-operation to a close.

Could Netanyahu lose this time?

Maybe. Netanyahu has now won – or survived – seven elections over the 15 total years he’s served as prime minister. (He was in power from 1996 to 1999, and returned in 2009.)

Netanyahu’s main pitch has been that he’s an able steward of Israel in a tough neighbourhood. Until the pandemic, Israel’s economy was performing well, even as inequality and rising housing prices remained festering issues.

While many international observers criticised Netanyahu’s offensives in Gaza and his treatment of West Bank Palestinians, his right-wing base believes that he’s been able to hold the line against pressures to end Israel’s West Bank occupation and been an articulate advocate for Israel on the world stage. The recent normalisation agreements Israel signed with nearby Arab countries could serve to bolster that image.

But Netanyahu has been on trial for corruption since last year – a first for any serving Israeli prime minister – and has faced street protests outside his home calling on him to resign. Israelis have also chafed at rising COVID-19 numbers and a struggling economy.

In the past, Netanyahu has beaten back criticism by demonising what he calls the Israeli “left”, even when his opponents, like Gantz, aren’t all that left-wing. And this time, his main opponents have actually been to his right on policy.

Two opponents with the strongest polling numbers now are former Netanyahu aides who broke away and started their own parties. Naftali Bennett, a religious Zionist politician and former Netanyahu chief of staff, could receive the second or third-most seats in the next Knesset behind Likud. Gideon Saar, once a top Likud legislator, just formed a new party called New Hope and also could finish second or third.

If Bennett and Saar unite with other right-wing and centrist parties, they could cobble together a majority. And Netanyahu will have a hard time branding them “leftists”.

The Zionist left has all but disappeared

Wondering where Israel’s left-wing parties are? You won’t find much. For its first three decades, Israel was governed by the socialist Labor Party. For most of the following three decades or so, Labor and Likud were the two largest parties.

Since the collapse of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process in 2001, the Israeli left has shrivelled. Amazingly, Labor may not even get enough votes to be represented in the Knesset, an ignominious end for a former powerhouse. Gantz’s centrist Blue and White party also is expected to plummet after his attempt at governance sputtered and party members abandoned him.

Netanyahu’s biggest opponent not on the right is Yesh Atid, a centrist faction that was allied with Gantz until Gantz joined with Netanyahu. Yesh Atid’s leader, Yair Lapid, has become more assertively critical of the prime minister. But the party isn’t commanding enough support in polls to have a realistic shot at leading the next government.

Meretz, a staunchly left-wing party with a small but dedicated base, is projected to win a handful of seats. So is a new party launched by Ron Huldai, the long-time mayor of the liberal city of Tel Aviv.

The largest party on the Israeli left is likely to be the Joint List, a unified Arab-Israeli grouping that has been among the leading vote-getters over the past several years. Outspoken in favour of Palestinian rights and opposed to Netanyahu, the Joint List may emerge as the loudest opposition voice in the next Knesset, whoever wins the election.

COVID-19 could sink Netanyahu’s chances – or save them

Just like in every other country, the pandemic is an urgent issue confronting Israel. The nation’s record – and thus Netanyahu’s – is decidedly mixed. Israel performed well in the early months, keeping COVID-19 numbers low with a strict lockdown, but then let up and saw cases skyrocket.

Now, after a few subsequent lockdowns, Israel is facing competing trends: it’s getting vaccines to its population faster than any other country, but again has one of the world’s highest infection rates.

The question is which of those trends will compel more voters. If Israel can manage to secure more doses and get shots in more of its voters’ arms, those voters may reward Netanyahu as the guy they can trust (again) with their lives.

But if the vaccine rush slows while case numbers continue to soar, Israelis may look at their country, getting sicker as the economy continues to struggle, and conclude that after so many years, it’s time for a changing of the guard.

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Closer ties between Zim and Israel rattles ANC

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Zimbabwe and Israel have had full diplomatic relations since 1993, but further overtures by our northern neighbour to the Jewish state could cause conflict with South Africa, particularly certain factions in the African National Congress (ANC).

According to an article by Carien du Plessis published on News24 on Wednesday, 3 February, “Zimbabwe has been seeking closer ties with Israel in the hope of securing more investment and doing away with sanctions. This move has caused unease within the ANC, which has a pro-Palestinian stance, although it’s unlikely the party will act on it.

“The ruling party [in Zimbabwe], ZANU-PF, has historically positioned itself as pro-Palestinian, but Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s latest move closer to Israel represents a change in policy direction,” Du Plessis writes.

She reports that although the head of the ANC committee on international relations, Lindiwe Zulu, said that, “We cannot interfere with the sovereign decisions of the governing party of any other government”, there have been divisions within ZANU-PF and within the ANC about the Israel matter.

“A pro-Palestine lobby within the ANC wants South Africa’s governing party to take a more hardline approach to its Zimbabwean counterpart, while the pragmatists prefer not to push this issue for diplomatic reasons,” Du Plessis says.

Darren Bergman, the shadow minister for international relations and cooperation and a member of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Parliamentary Forum Human Rights Committee, didn’t mince his words about South Africa’s response.

“The people of Zimbabwe are suffering. The internal affairs of Zimbabwe couldn’t get South Africa to act, the situation in Zimbabwe couldn’t get South Africa to act, but the relationship with Israel gets South Africa to act,” he said.

“This is a sinister situation that must make the SADC and African Union [AU] question what exactly South Africa’s situation is with regard to the Middle East,” Bergman said.

“It’s one thing to have an opinion and a position, but it’s another to keep a hard-pressed, almost spiteful stance at all times that can actually harm and injure the people and the continent. To this I would say that South Africa should show diplomatic constraint, and hold back.”

One of Mnangagwa’s recent moves to improve relations with Israel is the appointment last year of Israeli national Ronny Levi Musan as honorary consul of Zimbabwe to Israel.

The Afro-Middle East Centre reported in October 2020 that, “Musan has set plans into motion for Mnangagwa’s official visit to Israel. His activities in Zimbabwe include collaboration with Pentecostal churches to push for Christian support for Israel. Zimbabwe’s honorary consul is also pushing for Israeli businesses to invest in Zimbabwe’s agricultural sector, and he recently announced the intention to open an Israeli academy of agriculture in Zimbabwe. On the diplomatic front, Israel hopes that Mnangagwa will follow the example of his Malawian counterpart, Lazarus Chakwera, who announced plans to open an embassy in Jerusalem.”

Musan told the SA Jewish Report he had worked in Africa for the past 20 years to strengthen links between churches and the Holy Land. “About five years ago, I was invited to visit Zimbabwe which lasted about two weeks. I tried to do everything possible to connect Zimbabwe to Israel on a practical level. After the first visit, I visited Zimbabwe several more times, and met a number of ministers and church leaders, and just fell in love with the place.

“From there, it continued through my activities with the Israeli foreign ministry and the foreign ministry in Zimbabwe to promote diplomatic relations between the countries.” He was eventually appointed to this role.

“My main responsibility is to do everything possible in every field to bring knowledge and support from Israel to Zimbabwe, and vice versa. The main issue is technology in the field of agriculture, education, and innovation. These are the cornerstones that will return the crown to Zimbabwe as the ‘grain basket of Africa’.”

Local political analyst Daniel Silke says that Zimbabwe’s overtures to Israel “could well be an attempt by Zimbabwe to follow the Sudan example, in which currying favour with the United States via the channel of restoring relations with Israel allows the country to receive assistance and perhaps even escape some of the worst sanctions. But, of course, [former US] President Donald Trump is no longer in the White House. Whether this will have any traction with Joe Biden, who I think will be a lot more critical of the Zimbabwean regime, remains to be seen.”

In terms of the impact it could have on South African-Israel relations, Silke says, “Many other African countries are forging their own path in terms of relations with Israel. For President [Cyril] Ramaphosa, it’s a difficult balancing act given the demands from within his own party. But I don’t think South Africa has any leg to stand on in terms of interference with any country which wishes to forge some sort of close relationship with the Jewish state. As head of the AU, Ramaphosa is again in a tough position because of the changing dynamics across Africa, but I don’t think it’s an issue that will really get much attention.”

Rowan Polovin, the chairperson of the South African Zionist Federation, says, “We see this as a positive development, particularly for Southern Africa, which is part of the momentum that is being created by the Abraham Accords.

“Northern Africa has been very much part of the momentum. In the southern region, Malawi, which is diplomatically and geographically close to South Africa, has signalled its intention to open an embassy in Israel. If all this has an impact on South Africa’s neighbours, then South Africa will see the benefits. It’s very hard to ignore the importance of building ties with Israel, which has so many solutions for African issues, particularly water, electricity, agriculture, and security. Notwithstanding the noise that the ANC might make, ultimately it’s positive.”

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Just how successful is Israel’s vaccine push?

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Israel is reporting promising initial results from its COVID-19 vaccine rollout, the fastest in the world.

The first official findings released by the health ministry show that only 0.04% of people caught the virus a week after their second dose, and a mere 0.002% needed hospital treatment.

Clalit, the country’s largest health service organisation, has also released its preliminary data. It compared 200 000 people aged 60 and over who’ve been vaccinated with 200 000 similar unvaccinated older adults. It found that the rate of those who tested positive dropped 33% among the vaccinated 14 days after they received it. No decline was seen in the unvaccinated.

Maccabi, another healthcare organisation, saw an even larger drop. Infections decreased 60% among 430 000 people 13 to 21 days after they received the vaccine. The data also suggested the vaccine was 92% effective, close to the 95% efficacy claimed by Pfizer.

Israeli researchers are conducting more in-depth analysis, and point out that real-world effectiveness of vaccines is often lower than the efficacy seen in clinical trials due to a number of factors.

But experts warn that this data has yet to be published in a peer-reviewed journal so it should be viewed with some caution.

There are also various factors that could be influencing the results. The current lockdown and behaviour such as travelling and gathering less, wearing masks, and greater physical distancing might be decreasing infections.

The first people to receive the vaccine were mostly from vulnerable populations, so they are more likely to take precautions which could also skew the data.

In spite of the encouraging news, the death toll from COVID-19 continues to climb. Of the 4 816 fatalities at the time of writing, 30% occurred in January when the vaccination rollout was already in full swing. The government blames this on the more transmissible British variant of the virus, especially among children. According to Clalit, when the vaccination campaign started in late December, the new variant caused 30% to 40% of infections, whereas now that figure has doubled.

As for the South African strain, there are currently 80 detected cases in Israel, and there is concern that the vaccine isn’t as effective against this variant. A number of Israelis who previously had COVID-19 have been re-infected with the South African strain, with the most recent case identified two days ago.

Compounding the situation is the flagrant disregard by the ultra-Orthodox community, that comprises just less than 13% of the population, for lockdown rules. Since the start of the pandemic, one in five ultra-Orthodox has tested positive.

Many in the community doubt the safety of the vaccine or believe the country’s citizens are being used as guinea pigs to test its efficacy. Prominent rabbis have also said that communal prayer and study needs to overwrite lockdown concerns.

Last Sunday, 31 January, thousands of ultra-Orthodox mourners, many without masks, crowded together to attend two funerals of famous rabbis who died from coronavirus. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been criticised for not cracking down harshly enough on the community for political reasons – he needs their votes in the upcoming 23 March election.

Residents of Tel Aviv spoke to the SA Jewish Report, complaining that the actions of the ultra-Orthodox were forcing the whole country to go repeatedly into lockdown, and it wasn’t fair. It’s no surprise thus that the latest word from the government is that the current – third – nationwide lockdown may not be Israel’s last.

Many Israelis want cities and towns to once again be divided into red, orange, yellow, and green zones and scales of restrictions to be put in place accordingly. This would mean those who obey the restrictions wouldn’t have to pay the price of those who don’t.

In recent days, there’s also growing concern in some quarters in Israel that because the mass vaccination campaign is running in parallel with an active coronavirus outbreak, it could lead to an “evolutionary pressure” on the virus in which it would ultimately become immune to vaccination. Doctors are suggesting that in future, people will need to take an annual anti-COVID-19 jab, much in the same way the annual flu injection is taken.

But for now, the race to innoculate everyone is on. Among the first to be injected were people aged 60 or older. More than two-thirds of this age group have already received the required two doses. Up to 200 000 people are being injected each day, and the vaccine is now available to anyone over the age of 35. High-school students aged 16 to 18 are also included in the hope that they will be able to sit for exams. It seems Netanyahu is on track to fulfil his promise of innoculating five million of the country’s nine million citizens by the end of March.

To date, just more than one in three Israelis has been inoculated – about 1.7 million of them twice. Because this is a far higher fraction than anywhere else in the world, it makes the country a test case for the international vaccine push.

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The right to demonstrate, even during lockdown

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Israelis are being allowed out of their homes in full lockdown to call for the resignation of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Bibi), who is viewed by many on both sides of the political spectrum as corrupt.

This freedom in a lockdown which ordinarily limits you to being no more than one kilometre from your house is based on the country’s constitutional right to protest. On bridges, at junctions, and outside Bibi’s house in Jerusalem, daily protests occur, resuming after Shabbat goes out on Saturday night.

Lech! Lech!” (Go!) is shouted loudly – which is also the name for the movement against Netanyahu.

There are some staunch Likud followers who scream, “Arafat and Rabin sold out the country,” prompting laughter amongst some demonstrators, who point out that their arguments are old and outdated. Demonstrators including doctors, lawyers, pilots, accountants, and students point out that this isn’t about the Israel-Palestine issue, it’s not about being leftist or rightist, but about ethics and bringing to justice an allegedly corrupt prime minister.

The protestors are passionate, some defying orders not to camp outside Bibi’s residence. At 21:30, police order the drums, trumpets, and whistles to cease. The protestors obey, but continue to demonstrate quietly, so as not to disturb the Jerusalem neighbourhood.

Then, at about 23:00, carrying Israeli flags in blue and white and others in red and white, the protestors pack up and go home to lockdown.

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