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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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As Israel vaccinates, South Africa negotiates

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While countries like Israel have already vaccinated many of its people, South Africa is still negotiating the procurement of vaccines in the battle against COVID-19.

The vaccine rollout is already in its second phase in Israel after a three week-long inoculation drive. More than 20% of the population has had its first shot of the vaccine (the highest percentage globally) and all Israelis could be immunised by Pesach, according to the Times of Israel.

South Africa is way behind, although the government plans to vaccinate two-thirds of the population by the end of 2021. The delay has drawn criticism from many corners, accusing the government and the Ministerial Advisory Committee (MAC) on COVID-19 vaccines of being too slow to act.

“The initial negotiations utilised the pool procurement mechanisms of COVAX,” Barry Schoub, professor emeritus of virology at the University of the Witwatersrand and MAC chairperson, told the SA Jewish Report last week.

“We signed up for the vaccine for about 10% of the population. COVAX does the purchasing of the vaccine and tells us when to expect it, which is either at the end of the first quarter or into the second quarter of this year,” Schoub said.

In addition, South Africa also entered into bilateral agreements with vaccine manufacturers directly.

“The first tranche of a million AstraZeneca Oxford vaccinations are expected this month. They are being provided by the Serum Institute of India, the largest vaccine manufacturer in the world, and a further half million are expected in February,” said Schoub.

“This first tranche is a limited, emergency supply, essentially for use by our healthcare workers only.” Those who fall into this category will be further divided into subcategories, depending on how exposed they are to COVID-19 patients and other risk factors.”

The next phase targets a greater portion of the population, but is still limited to key personnel like security workers, retail workers, teachers, and other essential workers, according to Schoub. Additionally, people who live in congregate environments (such as prisons and institutions) fall into this phase, as do people who are 60 or older, or older than 18 with co-morbidities.

“The last tranche targets the rest of the population at a time when we’re trying to achieve universal immunisation for as many people as possible,” said Schoub. “That will come later on.

“There are ongoing negotiations involving the medical aid industry as well as the business sector to secure the funding needed for the additional vaccines for the entire population. Health Minister Dr Zweli Mkhize has committed to getting two-thirds of the population (more than 40 million people in total) immunised by the end of the year,” Schoub said.

“It’s a massive challenge, but the minister seems confident. It means administering almost 300 000 vaccines a day, so we’ll need to mount a huge campaign if we’re to do it.”

Schoub was at pains to rectify his misquoted statement regarding the efficacy of vaccines against the virus after it was said that he didn’t believe a vaccine would work.

“I wrote in Daily Maverick that the vaccine isn’t a magic wand that will make the virus disappear immediately,” he said. “It will take time, but it will work. In the meantime, it’s imperative that we carry out the standard health precautions meticulously. They are the only tools we have to control the infection.

“Even when South Africa has the vaccine, a lot will depend on our behaviour.”

Schoub responded to the recent letter published by medical professionals in South Africa accusing government of bungling vaccine procurement. “Our colleagues ignore the fact that negotiations are underway and may have an agenda in going on the rampage to criticise. If you look at the epidemic, it has three consequences: conspiracy theories, miracle drugs, and the blame game.

“Unfortunately, the blame game is taken up by scientists, and is undermining public trust.”

On BBC’s HardTalk, Schoub said he blamed the system for any issues that have arisen in securing vaccines. “Vaccines shouldn’t be treated as a commodity. When profit drives the purchase of a vaccine, it’s a problem. Thirteen percent of the global population has bought up 51% of the production of vaccines.

“We aren’t a wealthy country, but a middle-income country with severe economic woes. We had a choice to put down R2.4 billion during trials on vaccines we didn’t know would work or not. High-income countries could afford to do that. Our advisory did recommend negotiating, but for whatever reason, the government couldn’t afford the deposit and the risk.”

Discovery founder and chief executive Adrian Gore told the SA Jewish Report that he felt positive about the government’s vaccine-procurement programme. Gore has been involved in the programme at government level, chairing a team tasked with securing funding and arranging the logistics of vaccine distribution.

“There has been a considerable amount of work done by government and business over the past two months to ensure funding is secure, that vaccines are accessed and procured, and a lot of work is going into distribution,” he said.

“The last speech by the president outlined a schedule, and if we can meet it, we should make good progress. Healthcare workers will receive the vaccine in the next couple of weeks and a lot more doses are in the pipeline.”

He said Discovery was doing whatever it could to help the government progress effectively, and felt confident in the progress made so far.

As far as matters in Israel are concerned, spirits are high as the vaccine rollout forges ahead.

“It feels almost festive in Israel right now,” said Ilan Ossendryver, a South African photographer currently in Israel. “In spite of being in another lockdown, there are banners flying everywhere and people are excited to be getting vaccinated, taking selfies with signs that say, ‘I got vaccinated’. It’s amazing.”

The holder of an Israeli passport, Ossendryver received a vaccination last Sunday after contacting Tel Hashomer Hospital in Tel Aviv to find out if he was eligible for the shot.

“I had a booking within 20 minutes,” he said. “I don’t have Israeli medical aid, but they gave me a time and I joined hundreds of other people on Sunday afternoon and had the shot within 10 minutes. They had me wait 15 minutes to check for side-effects before letting me go, and I’ll get the second dose later this month.

“It feels incredible to think that you’re carrying something that could help save you from getting sick. Nothing is certain, but you know you’re a step ahead.”

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Israelis make their anger known

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For weeks, Israelis have been taking to the streets in increasing numbers demanding Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s resignation. They’re angry with the government’s handling of COVID-19 infections and the economic impact of the pandemic. But what’s really at the heart of these protests is political dissatisfaction

Netanyahu, Israel’s longest serving prime minister, is currently on trial for fraud, bribery, and breach of trust – charges he denies. His opponents, both within his coalition government and in the opposition, believe that every decision he makes is marred by personal interest.

Without fail, come any Saturday evening, his critics are waving flags and posters at many of the country’s intersections, smiling down from bridges, and shouting outside the prime minister’s residence in Balfour Street, Jerusalem. Most estimates suggest that not more than 100 000 people are participating in these displays of anger – a number too small to make a real difference other than garner media attention.

Still, Netanyahu is doing all he can to stop them. With his backing, at the end of last month, the Knesset (parliament) banned the number of people allowed to protest in one location. It also barred demonstrators from travelling more than a kilometre from their homes to attend a protest.

Netanyahu and his Likud party argued that this was necessary as part of emergency regulations to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Protestors, however, believe Netanyahu supported the law more for his own benefit than for the fight against the pandemic.

The government’s current handling of the COVID-19 virus has left as many as 800 000 people unemployed and among them are many right-wingers. But the protests have failed to attract them. It’s not that they’re not critical of the way Netanyahu has handled the pandemic, but with topless women demonstrating (one sat atop a menorah monument outside the parliament building in Jerusalem) and the prime minister’s wife, Sara Netanyahu’s, name emblazoned on a giant penis-shaped balloon, they prefer to stay away.

The problem is that the protests have come to mean different things to different people. While some placards have decried unemployment as a virus, others have called for an end to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. Ironically, it’s this “free for all” nature that has driven the success of the demonstrations so far, but it could also become their downfall.

For many Israelis – especially those on the political right – waving Palestinian flags and calling for justice and democracy from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea is going too far. They say that instead of being about the prime minister’s mishandling of the coronavirus and the corruption charges he faces, the protests are an attempt by left-wing elites to overthrow Netanyahu’s Likud party. If, for example, the protests focused on economic issues, that would more readily appeal to a broad mass of frustrated right-wing voters and unify a disgruntled public.

As for ultra-Orthodox Israelis, they want Netanyahu to keep their yeshivot open, in spite of the high coronavirus numbers, (at the time of writing more than 2 200 Israelis have died from the virus). As it is, they usually participate only in protests that have to do with religious issues.

Another problem is that while the rallying call is for Netanyahu to step down, there’s no consensus amongst his dissidents who is better positioned to lead the country. A few months ago, many Israelis might have suggested Benny Gantz, the leader of the Blue and White Party and a former army chief. But after a power-sharing agreement between him and Netanyahu was signed in April this year, Gantz’s popularity suffered a major blow. Once considered a potential threat to Netanyahu, his move to enter a coalition with him disgruntled many of his supporters.

Netanyahu is supposed to hand over power to Gantz in a year’s time, but most don’t expect that he will hold up his side of the bargain. Behind the scenes, members of Gantz’s party believe Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi is planning to resign from the government (and the Blue and White party) and take a third of Gantz’s supporters with him to become the new face of the opposition.

The 2020 budget is also a sticking point. The government has until the end of this year to approve it. If it doesn’t, the Knesset will automatically dissolve, leading to elections on 23 March next year. President Reuven Rivlin has warned against this, criticising Israeli politicians for dragging the country behind them like a “rag doll”.

Israelis have already gone to the polls three times within one year, and most seem resigned that the only way to extricate the country from all its problems is to hold another election.

The anti-Netanyahu protests are nothing new. They began about three years ago, but didn’t take off. They were limited to several small groups that mainly focused on the prime minister’s alleged corruption and failed to attract broad support. The coronavirus outbreak and its economic destruction changed all that.

And while largely peaceful, in some cases, the protests have resulted in clashes between civilians and the police. A headline in the Jerusalem Post newspaper earlier this month asked, “Why have protests begun to feel like war zones?” Demonstrators have been punched in the face by police. Several videos have gone viral showing officers shoving, tackling, and violently arresting protestors who in turn have hurled rocks and stones at them. Certainly, the country is very far from a civil war, but the scenes are disturbing. And although the protests are likely to continue for some time to come, it’s doubtful they’ll bring any real change.

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Durban paediatrician saved by Israeli medical team

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When Durban paediatrician Dr Thesi Reddy was diagnosed with a brain tumour earlier this year, he was given nine months to live. Unable to travel overseas for the necessary surgery because of COVID-19, his chances of survival were extremely remote.

Against all odds, the South African Friends of Sheba Medical Center achieved the impossible by getting him to Israel for the lifesaving procedure at Sheba Medical Center in Tel Hashomer in August.

Reddy is now recovering and making it his mission to strengthen the relationship between South Africa and the Jewish state.

“What Sheba did for me is beyond words,” Reddy told the SA Jewish Report this week. “I had no idea that Israel was operating on such an advanced medical level. I did not go to Israel anticipating surgery at all, and yet they pulled it off. I’m still in awe.”

Reddy, a respected paediatrician at Kingsway Hospital in Durban with over 30 years of medical experience, was diagnosed three years ago with a malignant tumour in his stomach. Although he underwent surgery successfully in India, a glioblastoma was discovered in his brain this year. This required a delicate operation which could not be performed in South Africa.

“They did what they could for me here in Durban, but I soon realised that they wouldn’t be able to buy me much more time,” Reddy says. “I reached out to the doctors who had helped me in India, but because of COVID-19 travel restrictions, they weren’t able to help me this time.”

“However, they suggested that I try my luck in Israel, saying that the Israelis were very good with what I’d need.”

After conducting some research, Reddy learned of a unique medical helmet designed and manufactured in Israel which could potentially help him. Determined to source the technology, Reddy turned to Dr Maurice Goodman, a close friend and board member of the South African Friends of Sheba, who suggested he speak to the organisation’s executive director, Naomi Hadar.

“When Maurice told me about Reddy, I knew we had to make something happen,” Hadar told the SA Jewish Report this week. “I contacted Sheba Medical Center and spoke with Dr Zion Zivly, one of the medical centre’s most prominent neurosurgeons, to see what we could do for him despite all the COVID-19 limitations.”

Hadar took this on as a challenge. “I love missions which others say are impossible – they drive me to achieve them and make them possible,” she says. “This was an opportunity to perform tikkun olam, help the world, and promote Israel. I had to make it happen.”

Working closely with Sheba and high-ranking South African government officials, Hadar set out to arrange a flight which would take her and Reddy to Israel via Turkey. After much negotiation, she, Reddy and his son, Naim, departed from an eerily empty OR Tambo International Airport on 15 July 2020.

After a 30-hour layover in Turkey, the three landed in Israel shortly after midnight the next day, and arrived at the hospital at 01:00. Reddy went into isolation for two weeks, during which he underwent numerous medical tests which made it grimly clear that the tumour had grown.

“I set up a meeting to get the helmet, thinking I’d return to South Africa and then arrange surgery in another two months or so,” says Reddy. “I met Dr Zivly three times during the isolation, and he urged me to consider having the surgery immediately.

“I hadn’t even thought of it really at that point. What if I ended up in a poor condition and couldn’t get back to South Africa? However, Zivly and I sat together and spoke, one specialist to another,” Reddy says. “He gave me the impression that he could perform the surgery and do so safely, so I said we should go ahead.”

Before undergoing the procedure, Reddy spent time touring Israel, visiting Jerusalem and the Dead Sea for the first time. On 7 August, he was readied for surgery, and went into theatre for the complicated tumour removal.

Hadar explains: “It was a five-hour procedure. I sat with his son and we waited together. Zivly had said that he estimated he could remove approximately 85% of the tumour, so we were hopeful but still nervous.”

When Reddy was wheeled out of surgery, it became clear that the procedure had not only been a smooth one, but had successfully resulted in the removal of the entire tumour, a fact confirmed by a subsequent MRI scan. Reddy recovered rapidly, and after a short stay in the hospital, was soon back on his feet and touring more of Israel.

“I was very surprised,” admits Reddy. “I’d never known such rapid discharge from hospital. The level of expertise, medical technology, and standard of care was incredible. This was a hospital of the highest order whose standards I cannot fault. Glioblastoma doesn’t have a high survival rate, and, because of Sheba, I have probably got further than most people with the condition. Those Israelis know what they’re doing.”

Beyond touring, Reddy underwent some post-surgery treatment and also collected the medical helmet before returning home a changed man.

Says Hadar: “I flew to Israel with a sick man and returned with a different person altogether. He couldn’t stop praising the medical team. His wife phoned and couldn’t express enough thanks, and we’ve had plenty of messages from people who know him thanking Sheba for helping him.

“For us Jews, it’s about applying heart and soul, not just ability and resources,” says Hadar. “Dr Reddy is not Jewish, nor is he connected to Israel at all. We helped because it’s in our DNA. He who saves a person, saves the world, whether that person is Jewish or not. I hope that he continues to recover, and pray he has a longer and better life.”

Reddy is looking for ways to connect South Africa with Israeli medical innovation, determined to help other South Africans benefit the way he has.

“We need to bring cutting-edge Israeli tech to South Africa,” he says. “I marvelled at the way they are handling COVID-19, and they have strategies we could benefit from here at home.

“We’ve lost our medical innovative edge in South Africa, and I feel that Israel can help us. The team at Sheba prove that medicine can be practised differently and [they] are doing things few others can do. Why should we not engage with them?”

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