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Israel hasn’t seen the back of Bibi yet

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Israel

Just a few months ago, it was unfathomable that Israel would ever have a prime minister that wasn’t Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu, the wily politician who always landed back in the hot seat over the past 12 years.

But then, an unlikely coalition was cobbled together, and Naftali Bennett became Israel’s new head of state. Does that mean that Israel is in a post-Netanyahu era?

This is the question that Israeli political journalist Anshel Pfeffer attempted to answer in a talk at Limmud@Home, hosted by Limmud South Africa on Sunday 22 August.

Speaking to a large online audience, he revealed that this was the first time he was addressing this subject. “It’s been two and a half months since Netanyahu left power. The fact that the new government is still here is an achievement. Many people didn’t think it would last this long. Yet are we in a new era? When we talk about someone who was prime minister for so long, to what degree does he leave his stamp, personality, and agenda on the nation?”

He proposed that “in Netanyahu’s case, there is no doubt that we are still feeling the effects because of the length of time he served [as Israel’s longest-serving prime minister] and his style of governance. He tried to make it a ‘presidential style’ of governance, meaning that he ruled almost on his own.”

Pfeffer argued that in considering the new government, one must look at who is heading it up. “Bennett joined politics as a close aide to Netanyahu. He hero worshipped Bibi, even though Netanyahu pushed him away so many times. Even now, although the break between Bennett and Bibi is irrevocable, Bennett is in many ways still influenced by him. In that sense, I don’t think we are in a post-Netanyahu era.”

On the other hand, “Bennett’s nature is much more collegial. He includes all of cabinet in governing, he listens to them, and he has good relationships with them. So, it’s an actual cabinet government, not a ‘presidential-style’ one.” In addition, Bennett is the leader of a small party and became prime minister as part of an agreement to break the deadlock of Israeli politics. This is very different to Bibi’s leadership as head of a large party.

Pfeffer noted that a “coalition builder” is someone who brings people together and smooths over differences. However, “Netanyahu was a coalition builder of a different kind. He built his coalitions on groups of angry, resentful, and fearful people. This government is different. It has eight political parties from across the spectrum. They came together with one purpose: to replace Netanyahu. They still need to find a shared purpose, but they are doing better than expected.”

All this could have an effect on Israeli society and change the discourse from one of division. “When I talk to people, they seem less motivated or angered by daily politics. They are thinking about where we are going next.”

Pfeffer said the biggest impact of the Netanyahu era was how he “gradually downgraded the Palestinian issue on the national and global agenda. Netanyahu managed to exhaust all international interlocutors so that they felt they couldn’t do anything [to resolve the conflict]. It became an afterthought.”

Though this new government will engage on the issue to some extent, essentially there isn’t much it can do due to the radically different views of the coalition parties. “These range from annexation of the West Bank to a two-state solution. So there is no way they can reach an agreement. Therefore, the issue will remain on the backburner. They will manage, but not try to solve, the conflict. In that way, it’s a continuation of the Netanyahu era,” Pfeffer said.

He believes it’s the same with the pandemic – Bennett will follow Bibi’s path of “putting all efforts and hopes in vaccines”. When it comes to the economy, “there also won’t be any major difference”. And regarding Iran, Bennett will continue Netanyahu’s opposition to the Iran deal. “There will be the same kind of shadow warfare against Iran. The difference will be that he won’t try to bring these differences with the Biden government out into the open. He’ll keep it quiet. Bibi was much more confrontational.”

Pfeffer has noticed one major shift, namely in foreign policy, especially towards Europe. “Future Prime Minister Yair Lapid [if the rotation deal goes ahead] is already making his mark as foreign minister. For example, he has confronted Poland on its possible restitution law making it impossible for Holocaust survivors to reclaim property.” Pfeffer thinks Lapid is doing this because it’s close to his heart, but also to show that Israel is now trying to align itself with more liberal European countries as opposed to its former close relationship with the right-wing governments of Poland and Hungary.

“Hungary and Poland aren’t major players, but they’re seen as standard bearers of illiberal nationalist populist politics. Lapid is saying that Israel isn’t doing that anymore.”

Pfeffer said it was unlikely that Bennett would be prime minister beyond the next two years. “I’d say Bennett is a transition figure, but Lapid has more of a chance of being prime minister in future. With a large party, and a reservoir of centrist and left support, he has the potential to grow. He is already seen by many Israelis as a saviour for cobbling together this new government.”

He said many Israeli journalist and pundits – himself included – have always underestimated Lapid. But he now believes Lapid could “usher in a new era of Israeli politics and emerge as the unlikely potential leader of the next era”.

Finally, he considered if Netanyahu could one day return as prime minister. “He would definitely want to be prime minister again. He’s nearly 72, but is fit and healthy, and his ambition, drive, and stamina are still there. But it doesn’t look like he has a path back to power for the next two or three years. In addition, his court cases could affect his political fortune.”

At the same time, “In Israeli politics, anything can happen. Even this new government seemed outlandish three months ago. In spite of his loss of power, Netanyahu has firm control of Likud. It remains the largest party in the Knesset. He also has a strong alliance with the ultra-Orthodox parties. So even though at this moment, I can’t see him returning to the premiership, he does have springboard,” Pfeffer said.

“Are we in a post-Bibi era? Not yet in the sense that he’s still here, challenging the government. He may not be prime minister, but he sees no reason to retire and go write his memoirs.”

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SA Jewish leadership confront Israeli PM over travellers’ ordeal

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Orthodox spiritual leaders in South Africa have expressed their shock and dismay over the treatment of South African travellers turned away from Ben Gurion Airport last Friday night.

Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein, South African Rabbinical Association Chairperson Rabbi Yossi Chaikin, and the dayanim of the Beth Din of South Africa wrote to Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett on 30 November expressing their unhappiness.

The group of five travellers from South Africa included two who were going to Israel to comfort the Kay family after the murder of their son and brother, Eli Kay, in a terrorist attack on 21 November.

They were in the air when Israeli authorities decided to ban South African travellers in light of a new COVID-19 variant discovered by South African scientists. On landing in Israel, they were forced onto a flight back to South Africa via Dubai on Shabbat.

“We were shocked and dismayed to hear that a group of Jewish travellers from South Africa, who arrived at Ben Gurion Airport this past Friday, were denied entry into Israel and forcibly returned to their country of origin, and as a result were compelled to desecrate Shabbat,” wrote our religious leaders.

“That this took place in the Jewish state is simply unconscionable,” they wrote. “To further compound the trauma, two of the passengers were making their way to Israel to spend Shabbat with the Kay family, who are mourning the loss of their beloved Eli in last week’s terror attack in Jerusalem. From the reports we received, no attempt was made to accommodate the passengers by allowing them to remain in quarantine over Shabbat.

“To force fellow Jews to desecrate Shabbat is a violation of the Jewish identity and Jewish values of the state,” they wrote. “The manner in which the religious rights of these individuals have been infringed isn’t something one would expect of any country, and certainly not the Jewish state. On behalf of South Africa’s rabbis and the communities we represent, we wish to record our strongest objection to the forced desecration of Shabbat.”

One of these travellers, Ilana Smith, says the incident led to more stress and trauma for the Kay family, who tried to help the travellers in spite of being in mourning. “I was going to Israel only to be there for the Kay family. I was staying nearby, and was going nowhere else. And now the Kay family had this extra stress on their hands – the last thing they needed! Kasriel Kay was phoning the rabbi in Dubai, trying to help us. My family back home went into Shabbos not knowing if I would be stuck in Dubai. There are post-traumatic repercussions from this ordeal.”

Melissa Genende was travelling to Israel from South Africa to see her grandchildren on the same flight as Smith. “We had no knowledge of the flight ban, and weren’t stopped until we arrived in Israel on Friday afternoon. Our passports were taken from us. We were marched underground and came up at the departure gate for the flight going back to Dubai.

“We were threatened that if we didn’t board the plane, the police would be called,” she said. “This in fact did happen while we explained that we didn’t want to fly on Shabbat. At this point, we had no choice but to get on the plane. I’m not fully shomer Shabbos, but I would never travel on a plane on Shabbat. I have travelled many times in my life, and always make a plan that I don’t travel on Shabbat, often with a lot of extra cost.”

She’s angry that all the other people on the plane entered Israel with no problem. “We came from South Africa on the same plane, so why were we not giving any other option? We could have gone into bidud [quarantine] for a few days. We had all been tested, and I had already prepaid for PCR tests at the airport. I understand the panic. What I don’t understand is how they make a decision for five people and let everyone else in the country.”

The group had no opportunity to get food or water while waiting in the airport. “Kosher food was also unavailable to us for the entire two flights. When we landed in Dubai, it was already Shabbos. We had nowhere to wait all night until our flight at 05:00. We managed to find a lounge that would allow us to pay $32 [R513] for four hours. There was no kosher food there. We arrived back in South Africa at 12:00 on Saturday. Our luggage didn’t arrive, and we still have no idea where it is or when will get it back.”

Genende has since been ill from dehydration and travel sickness. “I’m taking this as far as can. I’m hoping that the Israeli government will do something about the staff at the airport. At the very least, I want a new ticket to Israel. I will fight until I get answers and compensation.” Emirates, she says, won’t reimburse her as she has “used” the return flight.

Even though she was able to get home, she says she would have preferred to be stuck in Israel than to have experienced this. She says she and the other South Africans have since been asked to go to the Israeli Embassy in Pretoria to meet the ambassador. She’s waiting “with bated breath” to hear what’s said. She’s had no other communication from anyone in Israel.

Former MK and olim advocate, Dov Lipman, has worked tirelessly with his organisation, Yad L’Olim, to assist olim and their families to deal with travel restrictions throughout the pandemic. In the past few days, he has barely slept as Israel went from one extreme to the other in a matter of hours.

“It’s been a really difficult time for South African Jewry,” he says. “I hear their pain, I hear their cries. The incident last Friday was nothing short of tragic, and I use that word deliberately. It’s a tragedy when someone arrives in Israel legally and is turned away.”

He says the incident has been covered extensively by the Israeli media, “with strong criticism of the government for the way it was handled from all segments of Israel’s population. At the very least, this kind of thing won’t happen again because of the degree of criticism.”

He was involved in trying to assist the South Africans. “I had a hard time enjoying my Shabbat knowing that people were in transit to who knows where. It was very painful. I’m now even more motivated to help olim and their families around the world. I believe all of our efforts will lead to a better situation.”

In response to queries from the SA Jewish Report, the Israeli Embassy in Pretoria released an official statement. “We deeply regret the unfortunate incident that occurred at Ben Gurion Airport on 26 November when a group of South African citizens were deported and had to violate their religious beliefs. The incident took place immediately after the imposition of new strict COVID-19 regulations. The incident is being investigated, and necessary conclusions will be drawn. Needless to say, if the embassy had been informed of these events in time of the occurrence, this unfortunate chain of events could have been prevented.”

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Citizens take government to court over Miss SA bullying

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Citizens for Integrity (CFI) has accused the government and the minister of sports, arts, and culture of acting unconstitutionally and irrationally in its “bullying” of Miss SA.

The non-governmental organisation has filed papers in the North Gauteng High Court taking the government and Minister Nathi Mthethwa to task for withdrawing its support for the local beauty queen in November, and for calling for her to withdraw from the 70th Miss Universe pageant to be held in Israel in less than two weeks.

In a press statement issued this week, CFI said that as an organisation “aimed at protecting the rights of citizens and the public against abuse, unconstitutional action, and irrational government decisions which affect citizens’ rights”, it took issue with the government and the minister.

It has demanded an apology and an immediate retraction of the statement withdrawing its support for the Miss SA organisation and Miss SA, Lalela Mswane.

Mswane, a University of Pretoria LLB graduate who was born in KwaSokhulu in Richards Bay, KwaZulu-Natal, has consistently stood her ground through a steady stream of harassment and vilification by Israel-haters and politicians hell bent on scuppering her once-in-a-life time opportunity to participate on the international stage.

In spite of this, she left for Israel at the weekend in preparation for the pageant, with the full backing and support of the Miss SA organisation and countless fans who have steadfastly continued to support her in her decision to participate.

Following weeks of intimidation by anti-Israel lobbyists, Mswane, dressed in a bright yellow, summery jumpsuit left the country telling her fans, “We will Rise”, and expressing how grateful she was for the opportunity to represent her country.

The Miss SA organisation posted, “We stand united with you @lalela_mswane. You have already made us so proud, and we know you will continue to do so. We love and adore you.”

Willie Hofmeyr, the retired head of the asset forfeiture unit at the National Prosecuting Authority, and also one of the founders and directors of CFI, said this week that it was an “important issue to address”.

“We need to ensure that all citizens in the country are treated equally well and fairly. It appears as if Miss SA has not been treated fairly,” he said.

Sibongile Cele, the deputy chairperson of the African National Congress (ANC) Women’s League Johannesburg, also insisted that Miss SA’s rights had been infringed upon. “As a committed Christian, I felt it was important to look at her rights as a woman and her rights as Miss SA,” said Cele, who is also a spokesperson for the CFI.

“Her rights shouldn’t be infringed because of politics. The Miss Universe pageant shouldn’t be politicised, and as a citizen of this country, she has the right to compete in the pageant. She shouldn’t be held back, she won the title of Miss SA, and she is our ambassador,” Cele said. She isn’t afraid of a backlash from the ANC saying, “ I am a Christian before I am a member of the ANC, we report to G-d first.”

The CFI said in papers before the court that the government’s decision also “didn’t constitute a legitimate purpose of government” as it didn’t “fall within the legitimate powers and objectives conferred upon the government by the Constitution”.

“The government has not only failed, but has deliberately transgressed its obligation to respect and protect the human rights guaranteed to all in the Bill of Rights,” it said.

Although Mswane is already in Israel, the CFI launched an urgent application in the Gauteng North High Court to be heard on Tuesday, 7 December to have the government’s statement declared unconstitutional, said Cele.

She said the organisation’s attorneys had written to President Cyril Ramaphosa demanding an apology to South Africans “for exceeding the bounds of the government’s authority, and interfering in the rights of citizens”.

“The South African government’s decision to support a boycott of a country with which it has diplomatic relations and withdraw its support for a citizen – who will participate in a non-political cultural event in that country – is also irrational, especially in light of the fact that countries that don’t have diplomatic relations with Israel are allowing their citizens to participate and are furnishing them with due support,” said the CFI.

“That agents of the South African government approached Miss South Africa and attempted to coerce her to withdraw from her legitimate participation in the Miss Universe pageant is unconscionable and disgraceful by all normal standards of governance,” it said.

The decision constituted “a standard of bullying by government” and also induced “a sense of unease” that the government may arbitrarily and unconstitutionally pick on any citizen “regarded with disfavour”.

Meanwhile a smiling and ecstatic Mswane has posted pictures of herself on Instagram in Israel dressed in locally designed outfits.

After a long silence, the 24-year-old took to social media before she left, saying attending Miss Universe was “not only an honour but also a huge responsibility”.

“I am determined to serve our country proudly in the best way I can. I stand today as an empowered woman because of so many before me who fought for our voices to be heard. I feel my duty is to do the same for the women of the past, the women of today, and the women to come.

“There is no greater time to shed light on issues affecting women, to choose courage over comfort, and to be steadfast in my beliefs regarding the advancement of women and our rights.”

Mswane said she viewed her participation in the pageant as a “unique opportunity” hopefully to contribute to the process of dialogue and peace.

“I am deeply thankful to all the amazing people who have supported and uplifted me, and brought me joy and comfort during the lead-up to this moment. I wish to compete with the support of South Africans and do my country proud,” she said.

In spite of the anti-Israel lobby’s attempts to harass contestants into pulling out of the pageant, not one country is boycotting. Several have pulled out due to COVID-19, but none have withdrawn for political reasons. The Israel-haters spread fake news that countries such as Greece and Barbados had withdrawn because they were boycotting Israel, however this was proven false.

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The terrorist attack that struck very close to home

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It’s noteworthy that two days after British Interior Minister Priti Patel announced that she was banning the Palestinian militant group, Hamas, Eliyahu David Kay was shot dead by one of its activists.

The United States and European Union had already listed Hamas as a foreign terrorist movement whereas South Africa, Russia, China, Iran, and others don’t regard it as one.

Official Hamas delegations have visited these countries especially in the years following 2007 when its leaders took control of the Gaza Strip and removed rival Palestinian Fatah officials from office. Tensions between the two groups are rife.

Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Fatah-controlled areas of the Palestinian territories, fears a similar takeover in the West Bank. Years ago, it was difficult to get Hamas supporters in cities like Ramallah, Jenin, Hebron, and surrounding villages to talk freely on television without their faces being blurred and location hidden. I remember being sworn to secrecy for the select few who agreed to meet with foreign journalists.

There’s no such problem today. The movement’s green flags mark the entrance to many buildings across the West Bank and graffiti to match emblazons walls with a single word: Hamas. Abbas has indefinitely postponed planned parliamentary elections for fear its outcome could result in gains for his rival.

The latest surge in Hamas’ popularity is a direct result of the May war in which Gaza militants fired about 4 000 rockets into Israel, terrorising residents in Tel Aviv and other cities. That performance earned Hamas newfound admiration among Palestinians not only in Gaza, but also crucially in the West Bank.

At the same time, Abbas was widely criticised – even among fellow Fatah members – for his limp response to Israeli attacks. Long before the most recent round of fighting, Abbas, the 85-year-old heir to Arafat, was flailing. He’s intensely disliked, and it’s not difficult to get Palestinians, especially youngsters, to openly admit it.

Many describe his government as an autocracy in which there are few checks on Abbas’s internal power. He’s criticised for being corrupt, ineffective, inept and tellingly, blamed for remaining beholden to Israel for his ultimate authority.

Hamas has no such problems. Its charter defines historic Palestine – including present-day Israel – as Islamic land, and rules out any permanent peace with the Jewish state. While Abbas is bound by international agreements, Hamas isn’t.

Kay’s murder has heightened Israeli security forces’ attention once again on Hamas and the role it could play in stirring unrest in the West Bank. The group praised Sunday’s attack as a “heroic operation” carried out by a high-ranking member of its organisation.

The group is likely to continue to encourage terrorism in Jerusalem and the West Bank in the hope that it will destabilise the rule of Abbas’ Palestinian Authority (PA) and its ties with Israel.

What’s important to note is that Kay’s attacker, a 42-year-old high school teacher, Fadi Abu Shkhaidem, hailed from the East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Shuafat. Hours after he was shot dead by security forces, clashes broke out at the entrance to the neighbourhood between police and rioters, some of whom threw rocks at the forces. Israeli authorities said the attack appeared to have been planned because Abu Shkhaidem’s wife had left the country days earlier. They’ve arrested several members of his family.

The concern here is that this isn’t the West Bank or Gaza. This is inside Israel. The neighbourhood lies within the boundaries of the Jerusalem municipality, where support for Hamas has been on the increase.

It’s perceived as having initiated the most recent Israel-Gaza war to stop evictions in the East Jerusalem Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood. It’s also believed to be behind forcing Israel to rescind its strict security measures in Jerusalem’s Old City and the al-Aqsa mosque compound. Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh was in direct contact with the Sheikh Jarrah families threatened with eviction.

Like many Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the predominantly Muslim residents of East Jerusalem are part of a conservative and religious society that supports any group that’s associated with Islam.

The PA, by contrast, is loathed by many Palestinians because it’s regarded as a corrupt secular regime that operates in violation of Islamic teachings.

In the wake of Kay’s murder, Israeli police have beefed up their forces in the Old City and the army is refining the preparedness of its units in the West Bank. Israel’s defence establishment is worried about another showdown between Israel and Gaza, and is closely watching to see if Kay’s murder will have an impact on the situation inside Gaza.

Another concern is copycat attacks. Particularly in light of the fact that Sunday’s attack was in the vicinity of the Temple Mount, it engenders religious sensitivities and the possibility that other Palestinians might seek to follow in the path of the dead terrorists.

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid on Monday demanded that Istanbul shut down Hamas offices operating in Turkey after Israel announced the arrests of a sophisticated 50-member West Bank Hamas cell being directed from Istanbul.

According to the Israel Security Agency, Shin Bet, the Hamas cell was led from Turkey by Saleh al-Arouri, the deputy head of the group’s politburo, and Zacharia Najib, a member of the organisation who was released from Israeli prison in the 2011 Gilad Shalit exchange. They are believed to continue to operate there on behalf of Hamas. Both al-Arouri and Najib live in Turkey, which has long had a close relationship with Hamas, which is politically linked to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

During the Shin Bet operation, security forces captured weapons and materials for preparing four suicide-bomb belts. A senior Shin Bet source said the disruption of a “broad, significant, dangerous terror cell” prevented a series of severe attacks. Its objective was to “undermine regional stability while creating a heavy price tag for local [Palestinian] residents”.

Kay’s murder naturally made headlines in Israel. The government, army, and police are doing their best to try to prevent future incidents, but the sad Israeli reality is that it’s only a matter of time before another family and community is ripped apart. What South African Jewry felt this week is unfortunately what Israelis feel on an ongoing basis.

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