News Digest — 5/7/20

Government Formation Bill Passed Into Law

Later Thursday (7th), signatures of more than 61 Knesset members will be submitted to President Reuven Rivlin, who will ask current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to form a government.

The Knesset plenum finally approved a bill to amend the Basic Law to form a government that regulates the establishment of a transition government and sets the guidelines for its operation. 

The bill was approved by a large majority of 72 supporters against 36 opponents.  The Knesset is now voting on a supplemental bill that regulates a number of other issues, including the issue of party funding.

Following the approval of the Knesset’s bills, Blue and White Knesset members are also expected to sign on Thursday (7th) to the request of President Rivlin to impose forming the government on Benjamin Netanyahu.

By law, Rivlin has two days to impose government formation on the Knesset member who submitted the 61 signatures, and then that Knesset member has 14 days to complete assembling the government.

However, Netanyahu is not expected to use all of his 14 days, and the new government is expected to be sworn in this Wednesday (13th).

In the new government both Blue and White Party’s Benny Gantz and Likud Party’s Netanyahu will share the premiership on a rotating basis.



How Did Israel Keep Its Death Toll So Low? – Simona Weinglass

Professor Yehuda Carmell, head of the Department of Epidemiology at Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center and one of the medical professionals leading the Health Ministry’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, was asked how Israel kept its death toll so relatively low.

After more than a month in lockdown, the government has begun dramatically easing coronavirus restrictions, buoyed by a stream of encouraging statistics.  Daily new cases were in the low dozens.  And there were almost 240 fatalities, figures much less severe than countries of comparable size, including countries that imposed stay-at-home orders relatively early in their outbreaks.

“This virus will probably stay with us for a very long time.  Even if we are able to control it fantastically within Israel, at some point we will once again have more ties to the rest of the world.  We will have to adapt to a different way of life,” Carmell said.

“The reason for the low mortality rate is that although there was a lot of criticism about how many tests were done, Israel is among the leading countries in the world in testing people.  We do a lot of tests so we detect a lot.  Also, it’s because most of our affected population are young people, and they have a very low mortality rate.  If you look at the distribution of sick people in Israel, fewer than 6% are over the age of 80.  That’s the age where you start to see very high mortality rates.  And in Israel, the population over 70 and 80 was quite well protected,” Carmell added.



Bennett Approves 7,000 New Housing Units In Judea

Defense Minister Naftali Bennett on Wednesday (6th) announced that he authorized the construction of 7,000 housing units in the city of Efrat, located in the Judean hills south of Jerusalem.

“This morning I approved the construction of thousands of new housing units in Efrat in Gush Etzion,” Bennett tweeted, instructing the defense establishment to continue to strengthen settlements, saying, “Construction momentum should not be stopped for one moment on the land.”  Efrat Mayor Oded Revivi welcomed the news, saying his town council had fought for years to get building permits for the empty land that is inside the town’s municipal boundaries.  He downplayed any roadblocks the Palestinians might put in the way of the new construction.

Reviv said Efrat has always maintained good relations with neighboring Arab villages and that based on previous experience, the new housing will be an economic boon for them, keeping many of their residents employed for several years in the construction.

Although Bennett gave a green light, Revivi said it was not clear how long it would take before actual construction begins.

Bennett’s partner in the Yamina Party, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked  tweeted her support, saying, “This is an important step for Efrat and an important step in curbing Palestinian expansion in Area C,” the territory in Judea and Samaria under full Israeli military control.



Iranian President Promises ‘Crushing Response’ If UN Arms Embargo Extended

Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani vowed a “crushing response” in a speech on Wednesday (6th) if the UN arms embargo on Iran is extended.

“If America wants to return to the deal, it should lift all the sanctions on Tehran and compensate for the reimposition of sanctions,” Rouhani said.  “Iran will give a crushing response if the arms embargo on Tehran is extended.”

The UN arms embargo is set to expire in October 2020 under the terms of the 2015 nuclear deal orchestrated by the Obama administration.  The embargo includes a ban on the export of conventional weapons to Iran and the export of technology that Iran could use in nuclear weapons development.

On April 30, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Fox News that the Iran nuclear deal set October 2020 as the date when any country could sell weapons to Iran.  “We’ve seen their bad behavior.  That was nuts,” he said.

Pompeo said that day at a press conference that the U.S. will use every means available to extend the arms embargo.  He stressed the U.S. would not let the embargo expire in October.

“We’re going to make sure that come October of this year, the Iranians aren’t able to buy conventional weapons,” he said. 

Rouhani appeared to hold out a fig leaf, suggesting that it was possible to return to the deal.  “Iran’s nuclear steps are reversible if other parties to the deal fulfill their obligations and preserve Tehran’s interests under the pact,” Rouhani said.

The U.S. pulled out of the nuclear agreement in 2018.  Iran began to ignore the deal’s provisions, thereafter including enriching uranium.

Tensions between Iran and the U.S. continue to run high.  Iran has harassed U.S. navy ships in the Persian Gulf and shot down a U.S. navy drone it claimed was flying in its air space.  The U.S. in turn assassinated Qassem Soleimani, the leader of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.



Cobblestones Made From Jewish Tombstones Found In Prague’s Historic Wenceslas Square

It has long been suspected that Prague’s Jewish cemeteries were looted by the communists to provide stones needed for restoration projects.

The rumor turned into fact on Tuesday (5th) after the renovation at Prague’s historic Wenceslas Square unearthed cobblestones made up of Jewish gravestones.

Soon after the disturbing discovery, Prague’s city council gave the Jewish community permission to inspect the site.

Upon inspection, the stone-cut-squares were found to have Hebrew lettering and Stars of David on their undersides, a clear indication that they were taken from Jewish cemeteries.

“We feel this is a victory for us because until now this was just a rumor.  There were Jewish stones here and nobody knew,” said Rabbi Ghaim Koci, a senior Prague Jewish leader.

“We are now making something right for the historical record.  These are stones from the graves of people who were dead for maybe 100 years and now they are lying here.  It’s not nice,” he said

The plan is to have the headstones collected and built into a living monument at Prague’s old Jewish cemetery in the city’s Zizkov district, a cemetery that was largely destroyed by the communists who built a public park and a transmission tower on top of it.

Today Prague’s Jewish population numbers roughly 4,000 people.  During the communist era, roughly 8,000 Jewish residents lived in the city, down from 50,000 in 1946 and a far cry from the 350,000 who lived there prior to the Holocaust.