Applying the brakes on reopening: What is feared to be a possible second peak of coronavirus has begun spreading around Israel just as the country starts to fully reopen. The number of cases of Israelis coming down with the disease is rising exponentially, with the rate of infection doubling over the last 10 days. A majority of new cases are tied to schools, children and their parents. Consequently, thousands of children and school staff members are in quarantine, with educational institutions across the country shutting down or enforcing stricter social distancing measures. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced Monday that the government is applying the brakes on easing further restrictions and pushing back the timeline for resumption of rail travel and activities in theaters, music performances, and other cultural activities. 298 Israelis have died from the coronavirus to date.
Travel down exponentially: Israel saw a paltry number of foreign travelers in the last month, which is no surprise given the pandemic and its effect on worldwide travel. Also, Israel severely limited the circumstances in which foreigners are permitted to enter the country. In May, the government reported 2,300 foreigners who visited Israel (that included, for example, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo), compared to around 466,000 in May of 2019—a total decrease of over 99.5%.
Coronavirus emergency powers bill: Israeli intelligence service Shin Bet’s authority to continue surveillance of coronavirus-infected citizens could expire this week. A Cabinet meeting took place on Sunday to address legislation which would continue to allow these emergency powers to be in place. Critics are worried that citizens’ private information will be abused by government agencies. Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn issued a statement emphasizing the bill’s aspects which will limit the Shin Bet’s powers and protect privacy. The emergency powers have been in place since March and many dissenters claim that less invasive techniques used by other countries should be sufficient.
Bar Refaeli plea bargain: Supermodel Bar Refaeli and her mother have reportedly signed a plea bargain with respect to charges of tax evasion. Under the deal, the two will have to pay a fine of several million shekels and Bar will avoid time behind bars but her mother will serve a maximum of 16 months in prison.
Another indication that Netanyahu is serious about moving forward: A meeting between Netanyahu and settler leaders took place Sunday night, during which Netanyahu reportedly said he was determined to apply sovereignty over approximately 30% of the West Bank in July with the support of the U.S. Additionally, U.S. Ambassador David Friedman took part in a meeting with alternative Prime Minister Benny Gantz, Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, and Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin on Sunday.
As a reminder: The coalition agreement between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz allows the issue of annexation to be brought to a Cabinet or Knesset vote as early as July 1, but with the condition of U.S. support.
How does Benny Gantz play into annexation? The U.S. wants Benny Gantz to agree to annexation before it gives Netanyahu the green light to move forward with it. Gantz and Ashkenazi, the Foreign Minister, have yet to make their position on annexation clear. Gantz has said he supports the peace plan as a whole but has expressed deep reservations about annexation in the past. The goal is for annexation to pass with only a Cabinet vote, rather than have it go to the Knesset, Israel’s parliament. In order for that to happen, broad support for sovereignty from the unity government is necessary.
The opposition to annexation is getting louder: A joint demonstration of Jews and Arabs protesting annexation took place on Saturday night in Tel Aviv. The rally was organized by left-wing Israeli political parties Hadash and Meretz. Participants called annexation a war crime and made clear their belief that annexation will harm both Israelis and the Palestinians.
One well-known American figure visited the large-scale anti-Netanyahu anti-annexation protests in Tel Aviv by way of video call: Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. In his address to the crowd, Sanders maintained that Israeli annexation “must be stopped” and alluded to Netanyahu and Palestinian leadership as “authoritarian.” The unusual call-in by a U.S. senator was put together by staff from the office of the head of the Joint List, Ayman Odeh, who views himself as an ally with the progressive senator.
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, spoke with great opposition to Israeli annexation plans. Pelosi framed her disapproval in terms of U.S. interests, claiming that Israeli annexation would harm American national security. Bipartisan support for the U.S.-Israel alliance would also be hurt by annexation, the Speaker said, a fear that is shared among many pro-Israel Democrats. The Speaker’s statements were not all negative about the U.S. relationship with Israel, though. Pelosi praised the Obama administration’s approval of billions of dollars of U.S. security assistance to the nation. Furthermore, Pelosi sharply criticized Palestinian leadership, saying that she’s “not a big fan.”
Some of the U.K.’s most influential Jewish leaders are calling for Israel to back down. In a letter to the Israeli ambassador to their country, they argued that not only does annexation hurt the Palestinian people, but it would also undermine Israel’s world standing and the character of its democracy. The group of British Jews included Luciana Berger, a former Labour Member of Parliament who resigned from the party in protest over its leadership’s inaction on allegations of antisemitism.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas is visiting Israel this week and expected to express Germany’s concerns with annexation. Germany is unlikely to support E.U. sanctions on Israel but may downgrade ties in other ways, according to a Foreign Ministry source.
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin urged the public and policymakers to take a less divisive tone with respect to the issue, stating: “We do not recoil from the critics or the questioners, but we must beware of those who silence the conversation. We must not silence questions, doubts or criticism from any political side. Disagree — yes. Argue — absolutely. But the verbal violence, the name-calling, the ridiculing and the contempt must stop.”
Russia is attempting to enter the peacemaking arena: Russia is reportedly trying to organize a “mini-summit” between Palestinian, Israeli, and U.S. officials. Palestinian Foreign Affairs Minister Riyad Al-Maliki said Palestinian leaders would be open to the resumption of talks if they were brokered by Russia. Officials from the U.S., Russia, the E.U., and the U.N. held a videoconference to discuss the proposed meeting. The U.S. has always taken the lead in peace initiatives, but Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas imposed a blanket boycott on PA dealings with the U.S. since December 2017, when President Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moved the embassy there.
ISRAEL’S NEIGHBORS; NEAR AND NOT SO FAR
Iran proxy war with Israel: There have been two airstrikes in Syria in the past week targeting Iranian proxy forces. The first, a strike on artillery warehouses, killed nine people, some of whose affiliations were not determined, but four of the dead were confirmed Syrian. The second airstrike killed 12 members of an Iran backed militia. Israel has neither confirmed nor denied committing the two attacks.
Ongoing battle: These airstrikes are the latest in a series of attacks thought to be attributed to Israel in furtherance of their policy to kick Iran out of the region and curb Iran’s support of militant terror group Hezbollah. For some time, Iran has been operating within Syria, through both its direct and indirect forces, as Syria deals with its ongoing civil war. Iran has an estimated 1,000 Revolutionary Guard personnel operating in Syria. Additionally, Iran funnels hundreds of millions of dollars a year to Hezbollah, which operates in Syria and Lebanon.
According to a report by journalist Elijah Magnier, Iran is preparing to confront Israel in Syria via Hezbollah. The report suggests that Iran “no longer wants to accept Israeli strikes on its warehouses” and will counter Israeli offensives inside Syria by mobilizing its forces in Hezbollah. Although there was seemingly a possibility in May that Iran might reduce its forces or completely withdraw from Syria, these newer reports contradict that assessment. According to Magnier’s private sources, Iran is evacuating the sites they have been using to find bases within the Syrian Army barracks.
Russia has been supporting the Syrian Army and apparently Israel and Russia agreed that Russia would be informed of any airstrikes. Russia has played the middleman between Israel and Iran, in order to protect its interests with the Syrian regime.
Iran in violation of nuclear agreement: The International Atomic Energy Agency, the watchdog group responsible for monitoring Iran’s compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal, announced that the Islamic Republic is in violation of the agreement’s charter. Not only are the signs that the IAEA can see worrying, but the agency announced that Iran is blocking its access to two nuclear sites, in further defiance of the international agreement. Under President Trump, the United States withdrew from its portion of the nuclear deal, but the pact remains intact between all the other world powers and Iran.
Israel entered Sudan airspace: In a first, Israel entered Sudan airspace with a commercial El Al flight between Argentina and Israel, which is another sign of warming ties between the two countries. If the development turns permanent it can shorten certain commercial flight journeys by several hours. Sudanese authorities sought to minimize the attention of the development, so the clearance was only in effect after the evening news. El Al declined to comment.
Norway withholds funding to PA: Norway has taken unprecedented action to withhold funding of Palestinian educational programs over Palestinian Authority textbooks that “promote hate and violence.” When taking a look at the Palestinian textbooks, a European Union commission was highly critical. This is not the first time the Palestinians have come under fire for textbook propaganda, but Norwegian Foreign Affairs Minister said that the incitement to violence against Jews and martyrdom is unacceptable.
Iraqi & Syrian Jewish sites destroyed: Since the time of the Babylonians over 2,500 years ago, the Jewish community in what is now Iraq has flourished. All that changed in the first half of the 1900s where Iraq systematically persecuted and murdered its Jewish population. What was perhaps hundreds of thousands of Jewish residents of Iraq a hundred years ago is now fewer than ten. Most Iraqi Jews fled to Israel and many were saved through various Israeli secret operations. Now not only is the Iraqi Jewish community eviscerated, but the Jewish heritage sites are also in utter disrepair or ruin.
The Jewish Cultural Heritage Initiative conducted an 18-month survey of Jewish heritage locations in Iraq and found that 89 % are already beyond repair and 1% are nearly beyond repair. The JCHI called the 89% “no return” sites, meaning there is absolutely nothing to be found at the location. Furthermore, the group thinks that more heritage sites fall into this category but are currently classified as “no information.” In total, ten actual sites were categorized as in “fair” or “good” condition. The JCHI also looked at sites in Syria and found that a better—but still abysmal—53% of locations were “no return.” The researchers also say that the investigation was undertaken in an obviously perilous and uncertain circumstance, so the results are not “fully comprehensive.”
Dwindling Jewish population in Morocco: There remain just 206 Jews in Morocco. The Jewish community in the country, which dates to Carthage, numbered over 270,000 in the first half of the 20th Century. Nearly all fled for Israel or the U.S. after 1948. Yet, 206 has just become even smaller. 12 of the Jews have died since the outbreak of coronavirus, leaving the community reeling. The population is mostly elderly, so the virus has taken a drastic toll.
INSIDE THE U.S.
Jews and Black Lives Matter: There has been a divide in Jews across the U.S. over support in the Black Lives Matter movement. There are many individual Jews, Jewish organizations, and Jewish policymakers who have publicly pledged unwavering support to the cause in many ways between showing up, speaking up and committing to financial support. On the other hand, there has been some voices of dissent and dismay in pledging solidarity with a group who has historically singled out Israel and has oftentimes spouted antisemitic accusations at Jews and the Jewish state. Many op-eds have been published by Jews in the past week which urge dissenters to put their differences aside and show up for racial justice regardless of certain problematic official stances.
BDS petition blaming Jews for racism: A petition making its way around the University of California system calls for the boycott, divestment, and sanctioning of Israel (BDS) in part because, the letter claims, Israel is responsible for “anti-Black racism in the US.” Not only is Israel blamed for U.S. racism, but also the misbehavior or violence of American police departments and what the petition calls “Israeli Defense Force tactics.” Professor Miriam Elman of Syracuse University said the statement “smacks of antisemitic tropes and canards related to Jewish power, money, and influence that have sustained anti-Jewish hatred across the millennia.”
Antisemitism at Penn State: In the latest example of antisemitism on college campuses, a Penn State student posting photos of herself inked in swastikas. In addition to her, two other female friends in the photo also showed off their Nazi-style body art. The community responded with outrage; over 135,000 people have signed an online petition calling for the student to be expelled from the university. So far, the university has yet to take that action. Instead, Penn called the photo “deeply disturbing and sickening.”
CELEBRATE & REMEMBER
Today we celebrate more scientific advancements coming out of Israel. Israel is setting up a new task force to bring a new level of accuracy to genome editing to pave the way for cures to various medical conditions. Genome editing is promising but imprecise—it is already used in agriculture and research and it is hoped that successes with animals will provide scientists the knowledge to advance human health.
Today in 1951, the last group of Nazis convicted of war crimes during World War II was hanged in Nuremberg.