Israeli’s celebrated their 72nd Independence Day, Yom Ha’atzmaut, amid the virus lockdown, with a pre-recorded scaled-back celebration at Jerusalem’s Mt. Herzl and no audience. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Knesset Speaker, Benny Gantz (who recently forged a coalition agreement with Netanyahu after three inconclusive Knesset elections in one year), spoke of the importance of unity. Many other virtual events replaced state and family gatherings, including a day of celebration, with many great musical guests, sponsored by the Jewish Agency and Jewish Federations of North America. Marking its 72nd year, Israel is 9.2 million strong, with 74% of the population Jewish, 21% Arab and 5% defined as others.
In Israel: The Israeli government has approved a series of steps to ease the lockdown restrictions and open back up the economy. The country has approved opening most stores that are not in shopping malls, including hair salons and beauty parlors, to reopen as long as they follow cleanliness, protective gear and social distancing guidelines. No decision has been yet made with respect to opening up schools. Education Minister Rabbi Rafi Peretz tweeted on Tuesday that religious schools (yeshivot) will reopen and slowly return to full capacity. Some ultra-Orthodox groups, for whom studying Torah is a daily meaningful activity, have strongly resisted the closing of religious schools. Amazingly, there has been a 40% increase in online traffic among ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods since March 15. “An existential need is leading to one of the fastest processes of internet adoption we have seen,” said Israel’s largest telecom group’s vice president for marketing and innovation.
In the US: Coronavirus is affecting the Hasidic Jewish community in Brooklyn, perhaps at a rate that exceeds any other ethnic or religious group in the country. Thousands of Orthodox Jews in that borough have donated blood plasma to help curb the virus and save lives. In a new twist, there have been reports of severe strokes due to blood clots in coronavirus patients in their 30s and 40s in New York and other hard hit areas. Experts are warning of signs that coronavirus is causing blood thickening, which in turn causes clots.
In Iran: Iran has been the epicenter of the pandemic in the Middle East and, like China, has faced accusations of covering up the extent of the disease’s spread. Despite the health crisis, the consensus by Israel’s Foreign Ministry Director of Policy, Planning and Assessment, Uri Resnick, is that there is no sign Iran is changing its behavior of sponsoring terrorism.
Pandemic Protestors: There have been several anti-lockdown rallies throughout the U.S., some of which documented flagrant antisemitic signs, such as a protester in Ohio carrying a sign depicting a Jew as a rat with the words “the real plague.” Though officially protesting their grievances with the lockdown’s economic effects, protestors also expressed many other rightwing objections, such as opposition to abortion, immigration and support for the Second Amendment and President Donald Trump.
Forming the Israeli government
Coalition agreement signed: On April 20th, after three elections of campaigns replete with unprecedented vilification, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Knesset Speaker Benny Gantz signed a coalition agreement to form a unity government, which was met with a spectrum of emotions ranging from praise to condemnation.
What’s in the agreement: The dense agreement addresses the mutual concern that one party will betray the other. It also alters Israel’s constitutional system in unprecedented ways, most at the expense of parliament. For example, the unity government will serve for 36 months, with the first 18 months led by Netanyahu and then an automatic transfer of power, without requiring Knesset approval, to Gantz.
Attempt at safeguarding the turnover of power: There is a provision that the deal can only be repealed with a majority of 75 votes in the 120 member Knesset. Nearly all legislation only has the requirement of 61 votes. Additionally, the agreement grants the alternate Prime Ministers a legally binding veto on Knesset legislation and each Prime Minister, as the head of his legally binding political ‘bloc,’ can alone fire ministers from the ‘bloc.’ Legislators passed the first bill required to form a government and are now moving on to two more parliament-wide votes. May 7 is the deadline to call for new elections and many fear that the legislative process will run out the clock.
High Court weighs in: The High Court of Justice is scheduled to hear petitions next week against Netanyahu returning to be the Prime Minister while he remains under indictment in his corruption trial. The Court will also begin to consider arguments that the coalition deal violates Israel’s constitutional system.
Netanyahu & Gantz respond: Netanyahu’s Likud Party responded to the petitions with the charge that any disqualification of Netanyahu will be an intervention of constitutional authority granted by law to the President and the Knesset, not the judiciary. Gantz’s Blue and White Party agreed that the Court should approve Netanyahu’s candidacy: “In light of the very special set of circumstances facing the State of Israel, three electoral campaigns in a year and a half… a health crisis stemming from the spread of the coronavirus, an economic crisis stemming in part from a health crisis, and legal uncertainty, we believe that the public interest requires at this time the establishment of an emergency government and national unity.”
Will the coalition deal prove toothless? Further complicating matters, there is a concern that the deal will be toothless if the provision requiring 75 Knesset members to repeal the deal is not upheld. There are almost no bills that require more than 61 votes to amend or repeal them. Netanyahu’s bloc already comprises 59 members of the Knesset, meaning he would only have to find two additional votes to cancel the agreement. Yair Lapid (previously of Blue and White and current chairman of Yesh Atid-Telem faction), announced he would back Netanyahu if he wanted to cancel his deal with Gantz at any point, a surprising turn of events for the former Gantz ally.
ISRAEL’S NEIGHBORS, NEAR AND NOT SO FAR
Saudi show with Jewish characters: The Hebrew opening monologue of a Saudi TV show which covers the relationship between Jews and Muslims in 1940s Kuwait sparked outrage among the Arab World this week. Arab critics, including members of Hamas, accused Saudi Arabia of normalizing relations with Israel because of the subject matter. This comes at a time when several Gulf states, most of which have a shared interest in blocking Iran’s aggression in the region, are normalizing ties with Israel.
Terror attack in Central Israel: A 62-year-old woman was stabbed this week by a Palestinian teenager in Central Israel in a terror attack. The woman left the scene in moderate-to-serious condition. The assailant was shot by a security guard and was said to be in moderate condition after medical treatment.
Terror attack in Syria: Additionally, a truck bomb killed at least 40 people in the north-west Syrian city of Afrin at an open air market this week. While it is not clear who was responsible for the bombing, the Turkish Defense Ministry blamed the attack on the Kurdish YPG militia. The militia has previously claimed it does not target civilians. The U.S. strongly condemned the attack.
Iran and proxies: The head of the drone unit of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) gave a detailed interview about Iran’s success with drone technology. He said the drones have already been tested against Kurdish resistance groups and indicated that they have a far enough range to hit any location across the Middle East. Iran also successfully launched its first satellite in orbit. For its part, Israel relayed its concern due to the successful of the launch portrays and the military nature of Iran’s space program.
Israeli airstrike on Iranian target in Syria: Israel’s Defense Minister Naftali Bennett appeared to confirm an Iranian airstrike on a military airfield outside of Damascus, Syria. Bennett stated that: “We’ve gone from a policy of blocking [Iran] to pushing it out.”
CELEBRATE & REMEMBER
Today we celebrate Israel’s main source of freshwater, the Sea of Galilee, otherwise known as the Kinneret, being completely full for the first time in almost 30 years!
Today in 1960, Supreme Court powerhouse and favorite Jewish aunt, Elena Kagan was born. Happy Birthday, Elena!