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Netanyahu loses election he has already won

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lost an election he had already won. For the first time in the country’s history, a party (in this case Netanyahu’s Likud) was unable to form a majority coalition after parliamentary elections.

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Israel

PAULA SLIER

Following the 9 April poll, Netanyahu was given 42 days (that included an extension) to put together a new government. Not for one moment did anyone think he wouldn’t succeed. But suddenly, former ally and Defense and Foreign Affairs Minister Avigdor Lieberman became a wild card. Without Lieberman’s Yisrael Beytenu (“Israel is our home”) party’s five seats, Netanyahu had only 60 out of 120 Knesset (parliament) mandates. He needed 61 to hold a majority.

An immigrant from Moldova in the former Soviet Union, Lieberman has been pushing for years for ultra-Orthodox Jews to serve in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). This put him at odds with the religious parties Netanyahu also needed as part of his coalition. As things currently stand – and how religious parties would like them to continue – ultra-Orthodox Jews are exempt from national service, unlike the rest of the Jewish population in Israel.

But this was a smokescreen. The real reason for the stalemate was a political power fight between Lieberman and Netanyahu for Israel’s top job. Lieberman wanted the position of deputy prime minister, which would have meant that should Netanyahu travel abroad or for another reason be unable to perform the duties of premier, it would be Lieberman who would have had to step in. No doubt he was hedging his bets that if Netanyahu went on trial over the pending corruption charges that have been brought against him, he would automatically become the next prime minister.

Lieberman has also been much firmer on Gaza than Netanyahu, repeatedly calling for a full-scale invasion to topple its ruler, Hamas. Netanyahu was against this because of the massive use of force and inevitable casualties it would entail.

Many observers believe that Lieberman was counting on Netanyahu’s time in power coming to an end. He presumably identified this moment as his best chance at the premiership. His supporters backed him on the ultra-Orthodox conscription issue, and so he could mask his play for power in more palatable terms, even though he essentially prevented a right-wing government from coming to power.

This does not mean that Netanyahu and the right-wing bloc won’t win again come September, the month new elections are slated to be held. In fact, the latest polls this week showed the right would get even more votes than it did in April, but there are risks. Arab-Israelis, who voted in historically low numbers in the past election, could turn out en masse, boosting the left. Alternatively, right-wing supporters might stay at home and view the second elections to be held in six months with a growing sense of apathy.

What’s more, the country now needs to spend a lot of money that could have been used for other projects to arrive essentially at the same position.

The treasury estimates that new elections will cost 475 million shekels (R1.9 billion). This excludes the loss to the economy of an election-day holiday, estimated at more than $1 billion (R14.6 billion). There’s reportedly no money in the budget for this, so the cash will need to come from spending less on other activities.

Likud supporter and former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, Danny Ayalon, said that in spite of his years of zigzagging, Lieberman had worked over the years to foster an image of himself as a “bulldozer”, but in practice had no real record to speak of.

“According to my assessment,” said Ayalon, “Lieberman has reached the understanding that, as a member of Yisrael Beytenu, he has no chance of making it to a position from where he can replace Netanyahu as prime minister.”

The timing was far from ideal. On Thursday morning, Jared Kushner, senior advisor to American president, Donald Trump, arrived in Jerusalem to see Netanyahu. Kushner is in the Middle East seeking support for an “economic workshop” that Washington plans to host at the end of next month in Bahrain as part of Trump’s Middle East peace plan. The administration has offered Palestinian businessmen billions of dollars in investment if they come on board, but the Palestinians and several other countries, most notably Arab states and Russia, have said they will shun the event. Israel has indicated it will attend.

Kushner planned his trip to the region in advance on the assumption Netanyahu would by now have formed his new government. His arrival in Jerusalem unintentionally sent the message that it was “business as usual” no matter what happened in the Knesset.

This isn’t actually Trump’s position. Taking to Twitter on Monday, the American president expressed support for Netanyahu.

“Hoping things will work out with Israel’s coalition formation,” he tweeted, and “Bibi [Netanyahu] and I can continue to make the alliance between America and Israel stronger than ever. A lot more to do!”

What remains to be seen is whether Trump will be willing to put his highly touted “deal of the century” on hold should new elections need to be held. (He clearly did so without admitting it earlier in the year, waiting until Netanyahu had won the April vote before advancing – at least publicly – with it.)

The irony is that while the White House allowed Netanyahu to set its schedule vis-à-vis the United States’ plan, it’s now found out that it was Lieberman who was setting Netanyahu’s.

As for the left-wing Blue and White party headed by former IDF chief, Benny Gantz, and journalist-turned-politician Yair Lapid, which came second to Likud in April, the maximum number of seats, including the support of the Arab parties, it could garner was 55 out of 120.

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Israel

Commonwealth Jewish Council calls for release of ‘Nigeria three’

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All Rudy Rochman wanted to do was to shine a light on unknown, disconnected, and re-emerging Jewish communities around the world, but something went horribly wrong.

The charismatic 27-year-old Israeli activist, who has more than 97 000 followers on Instagram, was working on a new documentary series titled, We Were Never Lost, which focused on these “lost tribes”. At the beginning of July, he and his team travelled to Nigeria to film their first episode.

However, Rochman, filmmaker Andrew Noam Leibman, and French-Israeli journalist Edouard David Benaym were arrested by Nigerian security services when the three presented a Torah scroll to a local community. They remain in custody, haven’t been charged, and haven’t been given legal representation. Organisations and individuals around the world are working desperately to get them released.

“Our first season is set in Africa, and we are filming our first episode on the Jews of Nigeria,” Rochman’s team wrote on Facebook on 8 July. “There are many Jews in Nigeria, Igbos included, and we are here only to help local practising and observing Jewish communities, to provide them with resources, and to document their lives, experiences, and aspirations. We don’t take any position on political movements as we aren’t here as politicians nor as a part of any government delegation.”

But the next day, they were arrested, supposedly for supporting “separatist activists”. Commonwealth Jewish Council (CJC) Chief Executive Clive Lawton is one of the many people working behind the scenes. Speaking to the SA Jewish Report from his home in the United Kingdom, he says he is alarmed that the men have been held in detention for more than a week without being charged. “That would indicate it’s only an investigation, but they still have no legal representation, and how can such an investigation take more than a week?”

He says the CJC has written to the Nigerian high commissioner to the Commonwealth, His Excellency Sarafa Tunji Isola, urging him to pressure his government to release them soon. “They are being detained on the flimsiest of pretexts. I’m sure the Nigerian government wouldn’t want to cultivate an image that foreign visitors can be snatched up on spurious accusations,” says Lawton.

He has also written to the secretary general of the Commonwealth of Nations, Baroness Patricia Scotland. “In this family of nations, the quality of relationships and expectations of decency carry a lot of weight. It’s shocking that Nigeria might continue to hobnob with other heads of governments while treating foreigners like this. It should be seen as shameful. Yes, they might need to investigate something, but that doesn’t take 10 days. This isn’t just an investigation. It’s intimidation. Acting without due process is against Commonwealth principles,” he says.

He hopes that the less formal relationships between Commonwealth countries will make an impact. “At the very least, they should be released to go home. But more desirable would be that they be allowed to return to their cultural activity of making a documentary.”

Lawton says his organisation seeks to build relationships between Jews from around the world. More than 40 countries, including South Africa, are members.

Although the media reported that “three Israelis” were arrested, it’s unclear if all three have Israeli citizenship.

Lawton says Rochman and Leibman entered Nigeria on their American passports, and Benaym on his French passport. “We knew that they planned to make this documentary and were in the first stages of filming. They went to south-east Nigeria to visit a community. Like anyone making such a visit, they wanted to bring artefacts or objects to present to them. In this instance, they very generously brought a Sefer Torah.”

Two weeks ago, Rochman wrote on Instagram about how his team had “just acquired a beautiful Torah that survived the Holocaust and is believed to have come from an old community in Ukraine about 200 years ago”.

“The scribal experts our team spoke to stated that the ktav [writing] had since gone extinct, and they couldn’t believe their eyes when we sent them pictures of the scroll.

“We will be bringing the Torah and gifting it to the youth movement of Igbo Jewish communities of Nigeria for them to have access to our nation’s holy text.”

“It would seem that some separatist activists wrote Facebook messages along the lines of ‘welcoming this act of solidarity’”, Lawton says. “But in fact the filmmakers categorically stated that they had no interest in political issues and were there for a cultural reason – to make a film.

“They arrived on a Thursday, and visited a synagogue,” he says. “That was when Nigerian security services entered the synagogue and arrested them, taking them to the capital, Abuja. On the Friday, the men’s embassies were alerted, and sought to get involved. Chabad in Abuja has managed to organise provision of kosher food for them, which the security services agreed to allow. They also agreed for Benaym to be transported to the French embassy for medical attention, as long as he was returned to detention, and that is what was done. Israel has no ‘formal locus’ to help as they didn’t enter on Israeli passports, but it has sought to engage government and services.”

He believes that they are being held in some kind of “detention circumstances”, but cannot say what these conditions are like, if they are separated, or if they are being held with others. But he says that the fact that the French embassy was willing to return Benaym suggests it was “probably not extreme”.

A member of the Igbo community, speaking to the SA Jewish Report on condition of anonymity, says, “Our information is that Rudy and co. came here to do a documentary on the connection of the Igbo people to Biblical Israelites. Many Igbos are reviving the practices of their ancestors and returning to Judaism. This is what Rudy and his team wanted to do – to hear our story as told by our people. But sadly, some local people hijacked the original intention of Rudy and began to make political capital out of it. The team was bringing a Sefer Torah to be donated to our community. We were very happy that many Israelis would get to know about our Israelite heritage and know that we are brethren.

“Our people are very saddened by the arrest, but we don’t want to heighten tension by making utterances as the matter is being handled. We keep praying for their safety. We believe they will be released because their visit was for religious reasons. We don’t believe they came here to undermine the security of Nigeria. In our synagogues, we don’t entertain separatist activities. We are very sad about their plight. We see it as someone getting into unforeseen trouble while in search of a long lost brother.”

The most recent update on the We Were Never Lost Instagram page is that, “Rudy, Noam, and David are still in custody, but are ok. Their spirits remain high. Three embassies are working diligently towards a resolution. No other action is necessary from the community at this stage, but thank you all for the care and support.”

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Israel

Diaspora minister expresses concern and support after riots

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The newly elected Israeli minister of diaspora affairs this week sent a heartfelt message of support to the South African Jewish community following last week’s devastating protests and riots.

Dr Nachman Shai this week expressed his “warmest regards and personal blessing” in a letter to the community.

“All of us in Israel have watched the recent events in the KwaZulu-Natal region and around South Africa with deep concern. We stand with you in solidarity, and are particularly thinking about the Durban and Johannesburg Jewish communities during this challenging time.”

He said it was also a difficult moment for Jewish communities around the world. “In South Africa, we witnessed the rise of antisemitism following Operation Guardian of the Walls, which challenged your safety and sense of security.”

His ministry is a partner in ensuring the resilience of the community, and engaging actors within Israel to understand how its military actions had a direct impact on the Jewish world, Shai said.

“Our ability as a Jewish people to take on our shared challenges depends on our ability to engage effectively with one another.”

Shai said he was sure that his upcoming meeting with the South African Zionist Federation (SAZF) and leadership would be the first of many “as we develop an ongoing conversation between us”.

“The secret of Jewish resilience rests in our sense of shared responsibility towards each other. With this frame, I look forward to working hand in hand with all of you to live up to our potential as both a diverse and unified Jewish people.”

He said the South African Jewish community had long been “a thriving epicentre of Jewish life and a true friend of Israel”, and as Israel’s new diaspora affairs minister, he looked forward to finding opportunities to further strengthen the relationship between South African Jewry and the state and people of Israel in the coming months.

Rowan Polovin, the national chairperson of the SAZF, said he appreciated Shai’s heartfelt message.

“The past few months have been an extremely challenging and difficult time for South African Jewry. Our connection as Jews living in the diaspora remains vitally important as a continued source of comfort and strength at all times, but particularly in times of hardship.”

He said the SAZF looked forward to further engagement with the minister on “developing and building upon the crucial relationship and bond between the state of Israel and the South African Jewish community”.

Shai was in South Africa in August 2017, when he led a delegation of five members of the Israeli Knesset to “promote dialogue, understanding, and co-operation”.

The delegation met leaders across the South African political spectrum, including Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, former President Kgalema Motlanthe, former Johannesburg Executive Mayor Herman Mashaba, and former Democratic Alliance (DA) leader Mmusi Maimane. It held meetings in parliament, and met members of the DA, Congress of the People, African Christian Democratic Party, Inkatha Freedom Party, and Freedom Front Plus. The delegation, a product of co-operation between the Israeli Knesset, the Israeli foreign affairs ministry, and the Jewish Agency, also met leaders of the Jewish community and engaged with the key figures in the Christian and business communities, where it reiterated Israel’s commitment to sharing expertise and experience in agriculture, water, and hi-tech.

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Israel

Transforming a rubbish dump into an oasis

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After greening the desert with fruit and vegetables, Israelis looked elsewhere to make improvements. The country’s latest environmental achievement is to turn the Hiriya rubbish dump between Tel Aviv and Ben Gurion Airport into a park.

This former dump has been transformed into the largest green area in the Middle East, with more than 8 000 dunams (8km2) of parkland.

The Hiriya dump (Hiriya in Arabic means good in the sense of goodness and blessing in the past) was an eyesore and a rather smelly one at that, accumulating the majority of garbage from the greater Tel Aviv area.

The vision to convert this dumping ground into a green space came from the late Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. He was also the general who, during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, led his soldiers and tanks behind the Egyptian Third Army and surrounded them, cutting them off from mainland Egypt in the heat of the Sinai.

Today, the luscious green park has little lakes, dams, and revitalised rivers, with a huge variety of plants, bushes, and trees. Aptly, it has been named the Ariel Sharon Park. Venture to the edge of it, and you see a spectacular view of Tel Aviv.

The gas released by the landfill is being collected and rerouted underground, past the Shapirim Stream and Route #1 (the main Tel Aviv – Jerusalem highway) to a textile plant in Azur, where the gas is converted into green energy.

According to Shlomit Doten Gissin from the department of environment and sustainability at the park, the number of bird species has risen from only 80 to more than 200 species, with bird hides everywhere for visitors to watch birds in silence.

Gissin says the vegetation in the park was specifically planted to encourage low-flying birds so as not to interfere with the flight path to Ben Gurion Airport. Hundreds of indigenous plants, trees, and shrubs have been planted among fresh water ponds.

Some plants have been planted diagonally on the slopes to allow easy movements of butterflies so they don’t hit a “wall” of plants. There are also tiny animals to be found, even jackals and smaller cats.

This park is one of the wonders of unusable space being converted into flourishing public spaces in Israel. Completion should take about another year, but it’s already being enjoyed by many.

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