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FRIDAY FEATURE – Third Time Not the Charm

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud party were euphoric at their unexpectedly strong showing in Israel’s third round of elections on Monday, but by week’s end the reality has set in that the nation is still locked in the same political quagmire that has dogged the public here for the past year. But unlike the inconclusive ballot results in April and September of last year, this time Netanyahu is now under criminal indictment and a majority of Knesset members may have the leverage to use that fact to deny him another term in office.
 
The official results will only be released this Monday, but the outcome is already clear. Thanks to a late surge, Netanyahu bested the rival Blue & White party by a surprising margin of 36 to 33 Knesset seats. But his allies on the Right can only muster 58 votes, three short of the 61-seat majority needed to form a ruling coalition and provide him immunity from prosecution. That also means the Center/Left parties, while probably unable to forge a coalition among themselves, still have enough mandates to block Netanyahu’s path to power.
 
Given a closer gap of only one or two Knesset seats, Netanyahu had his sights on several members on the opposing side that might be persuaded to join his camp with promises of cabinet positions or committee chairmanships. But all the likely targets rebuffed those efforts this week, Likud dropped a seat as the votes were tallied, and the entire strategy collapsed on Thursday when Avigdor Liberman announced that his Yisrael Beitenu faction would support a bill to bar an indicted MK from serving as prime minister.
 
Whether such a proposed law can be passed by a transition parliament and survive judicial scrutiny remains an open question that could take months to resolve. Israeli President Reuven Rivlin may also refuse on his own to hand Netanyahu a mandate to form a government due to the indictments, taking the political crisis to yet another level. But what was once considered only hypothetical is now an urgent legal quandary that will only deepen and prolong the year-long standoff.
 
Liberman is trying to pressure Likud to dump Netanyahu, pick a new leader and enter a secular, Zionist government of national unity with his party and the Blue & White list, led by former general Benny Gantz.
 
In response, Netanyahu can be expected to stand firm once more and force Liberman to decide between joining either him or a Left-leaning government supported by the (Arab) Joint List, which Liberman has always rejected. This is otherwise known as the “Bibi or Tibi” option.
 
This, of course, is the same dilemma that has been confronting the Israeli electorate for 17 months now. The drama is far from over, but here are some observations and conclusions to be drawn so far as this third attempt to resolve the political impasse has not yet been the charm many hoped for.
 
Netanyahu is a Political Maestro
Despite being under criminal indictment on counts of bribery, fraud and breach of trust, Netanyahu still managed a last-minute surge which propelled Likud to its highest-ever number of Knesset seats. A full third of the nation believes “only Bibi” can deliver the goods. He demonstrated as much just days before the election, when he dashed off to Uganda for a secret breakthrough meeting with the new leader of Sudan, until now one of Israel’s staunchest enemies. This came on the heels of President Donald Trump’s gift of a very pro-Israel peace plan, and Vladimir Putin’s release of an Israeli backpacker from the Russian gulag. Will he get another chance to work his magic?
 
Israeli Voters are not Budging
I have visited or lived in Israel for nearly forty years, and in that span I have witnessed the political pendulum swing back-and-forth, left-to-right, many times. And it always seemed Israelis were very malleable in their views and also could be very forgiving, as they ran off leaders like Yitzhak Rabin and Ariel Sharon only to embrace them again years later. But for now, the pendulum appears to be stuck. Very few have changed their minds and switched parties in three straight elections now. Will they get a fourth chance to do so?
 
The ‘Lot’ Falls on Liberman
If you want to identify exactly who is at fault for Israel’s current political meltdown, start with ‘kingmaker’ Avigdor Liberman. After spending ten years at Bibi’s side in Right-wing governments, he suddenly decided after the April 2019 elections to challenge the religious status quo, triggering a second and eventually a third election. For most Israelis, Liberman raised a valid point, that the ultra-Orthodox parties have been granted too much power and privilege for far too long, but he may not be the best one to champion this cause. And while most Israelis are standing put, he is shifting at will. Consider that after the first elections last year, he completely ignored the criminal probes against Netanyahu and demanded that UTJ and Shas finally compromise on the haredi draft bill. After the second elections, Liberman wished Netanyahu well in beating the pending charges and simply refused to sit with the ultra-Orthodox. This time, however, Liberman has decided to ditch Netanyahu as if he just learned of the corruption cases. Hardly a principled stand. Even so, Liberman could end Israel’s political misery in an instant, but will he?
 
Pride and Patriotism
At the heart of Israel’s political problems right now is a basic human trait we all struggle with – pride. The leaders of the political parties all think their path is moral and just and the right one for the nation. They each have set ‘red lines’ and will not move. Gantz will not sit with Netanyahu in a government, Liberman will not sit with the ultra-religious or the Arabs, and Netanyahu is resisting all pressure to step down. Everyone is waiting for someone to take the lead by humbling themselves and seeking a compromise for the good of the whole nation. We will see in coming days who that might be, as a fourth election would be unthinkable.
 
Results of Third Israel Elections on 2 March 2020 (Unofficial)
Likud – 36
Blue & White – 33
Joint List (Arab) – 15
Shas – 9
United Torah Judaism – 7
Labor-Gesher-Meretz – 7
Yisrael Beitenu – 7
Yamina – 6
 
David R. Parsons is an author, attorney, journalist and ordained minister who serves as Vice President & Senior Spokesman of the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem.

FRIDAY FEATURE – The Best and Worst of Times

As Israelis prepare to celebrate Shabbat this Friday afternoon, they have a great deal to be grateful for and a few things to be very anxious about. On one hand, the countdown has begun to Purim and Passover, two of the most beloved holidays on the national calendar. On the other hand, earlier in the week, there was a reminder that the terrorist groups which rule the Gaza Strip can, whenever they wish and/or whenever their Iranian masters order them to, send a barrage of rockets and other implements of terror against the Israeli communities of southern Israel. The near-weekly reports of “unidentified” aircraft which strike Iranian targets in Syria also remind them that the threat from the north is ever-present. The announcement this week that the COVID-19 coronavirus has spread to the Jewish State has given rise to widespread distress (before the potential for massive economic pain has even begun to manifest itself) and last but certainly not least, there are Knesset elections, the third in less than a year, for Israelis to look forward to on Monday.

The home stretch if the election campaign in recent weeks reminded many of the “Rocky” movies, with the leaders of the two major Left and Right factions exhausted and barely able to remain standing, but neither willing to admit defeat. However, some major, late-breaking news came on Friday morning when reports surfaced that Blue and White leader Benny Gantz had fired the leading strategist for his campaign, Israel Bachar, after a recording of a private conversation he had had with a friend, in which he had harshly criticized his client as, among other things being a danger to the country because he lacked the courage to attack Iran if necessary, was broadcast by Channel 12’s evening news program the day before.

Another conversation in which Blue and White MK Omer Yankelevich also surfaced in which she allegedly called Gantz "weak and stupid." However, she issued a strong denial of having ever said those words and Gantz announced that he accepted her denial and would keep her on the Blue and White list for Monday’s election.

Furthermore, Gantz issued a statement announcing that he was firing Bachar, adding however that he had been set up by “cheap” and “unacceptable” political trickery and that the culprits in the plot would soon be revealed. However, most analysts agreed that the recordings would probably do considerable damage to Blue and White in terms of voter support in Monday’s election.

“We’ve just seen that Gantz’s own people don’t have much confidence in him,” said one Jerusalem-based political analyst. “Many voters who were on the fence will see that and it will cause them, quite reasonably, to ask themselves if they should have confidence in him themselves. The rocket barrage from Gaza earlier this week and other regional issues, not to mention this coronavirus threat which has suddenly appeared in our midst, makes it a very serious question that can’t be easily brushed aside. Even many people who voted for Blue and White in the last two elections because they thought it’s time for a change might not be ready to take Netanyahu’s proven hand off the wheel at a time like this.”

Incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party issued a statement that "Gantz fired his closest advisor for telling the truth. Gantz will be a dangerous prime minister to Israel, we must not gamble our security and let Gantz form a dangerous government with Ahmed Tibi, someone he tried to form a government within the last elections."

Meanwhile, the growing coronavirus epidemic has already caused ripples in Israel’s economy, despite only a small handful of confirmed cases in the Jewish State. Israel’s national flag air carrier, El Al, has suspended flights to several countries in Europe and the Far East where large outbreaks have been reported and has issued a report to stockholders in the company saying it estimates that it will lose between $50 and $70 million in the first quarter of 2020. Hotel’s, restaurants and other parts of the tourism industry are also expecting to absorb losses. Government ministers and industry leaders warn that many jobs could be lost in the coming months as the economic effects of the coronavirus epidemic continue to ripple through the global economy.

All of these issues and more will be filling the hearts and minds of Israelis as they prepare for Shabbat this Friday evening, with an eye towards the upcoming holidays. It truly is the best and worst of times for Israelis and their friends around the world, amidst an ever-growing list of issues to pray about. 

Here is a podcast giving some analysis of the COVID-19 problem and a video showing how Israel is helping to confront it




 

Israeli Returning from Italy Tests Positive for COVID-19

Israel’s Health Ministry took an unprecedented step on Wednesday, urging Israeli citizens to drop nearly all non-essential travel abroad until further notice in light of the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak. “Travel to conferences and other international gatherings should be avoided, including trips for religious events. International conferences in Israel should also be avoided," the Ministry said in a statement. Meanwhile, the Health Ministry announced on Thursday morning that an Israeli citizen returning from Italy had tested positive for the virus.

Here is a podcast giving some analysis of the COVID-19 problem and a video showing how Israel is helping to confront it





Iran Announces Sharp Increase in COVID-19 Infections
The COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak in Iran took a dramatic turn on Wednesday evening when the Health Ministry announced that the death toll from the outbreak was being officially increased from four to nineteen, while the number of confirmed cases jumped from 44-139. Both numbers are estimated by many analysts to be vastly underestimated. Meanwhile, the NGO Reporters Without Borders issued a statement on Wednesday accusing the clerical regime that rules Iran of interfering in the attempts by journalists to report the truth about the outbreak there.

Israel Blesses the World
Research by a team of scientists at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, led by Prof. Itzhak Mizrahi in collaboration with experts from the Agricultural Research Organization and The Hebrew University announced this week that they have developed new methods for growing fish in ponds, allowing for the development of a highly nutritious source of protein for at-risk populations around the world. The research was published this week in the journal Nature Microbiology and has aroused great interest.

Gaza Border Crossings Re-Opened
Following the cessation of rocket fire into Israel from the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, the Erez and Kerem Shalom border crossings were scheduled to be re-opened Thursday morning. Israeli officials made the announcement following consultations with representatives from Egypt and Qatar, which have diplomatic relations with the Islamist terror militia Hamas which rules the Strip.

Israeli Politicians Making Last-Minute Appeals for Votes

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reacted cautiously to US Senator Bernie Sanders accusation, aired during a debate between Democrats vying for their party’s nomination in the upcoming US Presidential election, that he is a racist. "I am not intervening in the US election," Netanyahu replied when asked on Army Radio about Sander’s statement.  "What I think about this matter is that he is definitely wrong. No question about it."

Elsewhere, Blue and White Party leader MK Benny Gantz gave a fiery speech in  Kfar Maccabiah Wednesday evening during which he said, among other things, that Netanyahu is conducting a “hate crime against democracy” by slandering his political opponents in various ways. He also demanded during his speech that the Central Elections Committee closely monitor Likud for signs of foul play as Israelis head to the polls on Monday. In reference to the criminal investigations pending against Netanyahu, he also accused the incumbent Prime Minister of creating “a culture of crime, of state witnesses. A culture of bribery, fraud and breach of trust.”

Netanyahu responded to Gantz’s speech later in the evening at a Likud event in Jerusalem, saying: “I heard Gantz say we are dividing Israeli society, but in his party, Blue and White, they incite all day and night and then complain about incitement.”

Elsewhere, Amir Peretz, the titular leader of the Labor-Gesher-Meretz faction in Monday’s election, said on Thursday morning that his price for entering a governing coalition would be the appointment of an Arab MK to be a Minister. He also complained about the statements made against Ultra-Orthodox (haredi) Israelis and Arab-Israelis by some Blue and White officials, further complicating the picture for Blue and White which is counting on support from Labor-Gesher-Meretz to form a coalition following Monday’s elections.

Iranian Regime Shaking Under Heavy Pressure

Representatives from Iran, the EU,  the UK, France, Germany, Russia and China were scheduled to meet in Vienna on Wednesday in an effort to find some way to salvage the 2015 JCPOA nuclear deal which has progressively unravelled in recent months as Iran has taken incremental steps to violate it.“This is a chance -- though not of 100 percent -- to stop escalation before it’s too late,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said. 

Here is a video which gives and in-depth look at geostrategic issues regarding Iran



In related news, public anger against the clerical regime which rules Iran has been growing over its poor response to the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak in that country.

Following announcements by several of Iran’s neighbours that they have diagnosed cases of the COVID-19 coronavirus among people who had recently returned from Iran, virtually all road, air and sea links to the Islamic Republic were blocked. In a poignant sign of the seriousness of Iran’s predicament, the country’s  deputy health minister, Iraj Harirchi, announced that he himself has contracted the disease and is self-quarantined in his home. The regime has admitted that 15 people have died of the illness while several hundred more are infected, but many Iranians have taken to social media to register their belief that the numbers are far higher.

Here is a video about the coronavirus outbreak in Iran

Israeli Coronavirus Survivor Returns Home

Rachel Biton, an Israeli citizen who recovered from the COVID-19 coronavirus after falling ill in Japan, returned to Israel on Wednesday morning. As she arrived at Ben Gurion airport, she underwent a series of medical tests to ensure that she was entirely free of the virus before being allowed to go home with her family. “I met my family members at the airport and we cried tears of joy,” Biton said, adding her thanks to the Israeli officials who had assisted her in her time of need. Meanwhile, the government issued a statement on Tuesday evening that they have a plan for mitigating the economic fallout from the disease. Meir Ben-Shabbat, the national security adviser and National Security Council director, said: “We have established an orderly process between all government ministries to enable maximum synchronization between all parties. We are careful, but we are not hysterical. Everything is under control, and we are constantly assessing risk.”

“We are working with the Finance Ministry to secure an economic safety net for the private sector to ensure continued economic activity,” added Ron Tomer, president of the Manufacturers Association of Israel.

Gaza Border Region Residents Demand Stronger Action
Residents of southern Israel gathered in town squares on Tuesday to voice their disappointment with the government’s decision to a accept a cease-fire from the Gaza-based terror militias who have launched so many rockets at them in recent days. “We support the security forces and the state and call on them to never cease action, until the last rocket in the Gaza Strip is destroyed and the last terrorist’s life is over,” the protest organizers said. “We are sick of promises, it’s time for actions. After years of terror and fear - it’s time for a clear conclusion. Enemies are something you defeat, not contain.”

Turkish Troops Killed While Fighting in Libya
Turkish President Reccep Tayyip Erdogan admitted on Tuesday that Turkish soldiers he sent to Libya to assist that country’s UN-recognized government in its clash with a coalition of armed factions called the Libyan National Army (LNA) led by former Ghadaffi regime General  Khalifa Haftar, had suffered casualties. Previously, Erdogan’s regime had claimed that Turkish troops sent to Libya were merely advising and coordinating the forces of the Government of National Accord (NA) based in Triploli but not actively engaging in hostilities. Haftar’s forces are supported by the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Russia.

Here is a video which takes a closer look at Turkey’s regional activities



Rivlin Meets Senior Officials in Australia
The movement to Boycott, Divest and Sanction (BDS) Israel suffered another defeat this week when President Reuven Rivlin arrived in Australia for high-level meetings with senior officials including Governor-General David Hurley and Prime Minister Scott Morrison in Canberra. “I am delighted to welcome you here,” said Morrison. “Australia is happy to stand with Israel in the international arena and the diplomatic relations between the countries are no less important than the relations between the peoples, which are excellent and will remain so.”

Today's video provides an in-depth look at strategic issues regarding Iran

Fragile Calm Returns to Southern Israel

A fragile cease-fire on the Gaza-Israel border appeared to be holding Tuesday afternoon following a barrage of over 50 rockets fired into Israel from the Hamas-ruled enclave on Sunday and Monday and retaliatory strikes by Israeli aircraft on terror infrastructure inside the Strip. The Iranian-backed Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) terror militia launched most of the rockets that were fired into Israel but announced a unilateral cease-fire at 11 PM Monday evening. Israeli officials said they are prepared to launch a broad offensive into the Strip if there are any more flare-ups.

Here is a video posted by the IDF about the recent barrage of rockets



Coronavirus Fears Impacting Global Economy
Following Monday’s massive drop in stock markets around the world over fears of economic losses due to the rapidly spreading COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak, the Bank of Israel announced late in the day that it was keeping its benchmark interest rate at 0.25%. “Inflation is expected to remain low in the coming months and may even become negative, but it is expected to move back toward the lower bound of the target range in the second half of the year,” the bank’s monetary committee said in a statement. Other fallout from the crisis became apparent throughout the day and into Tuesday.

“According to the Bank of Israel’s assessment, beyond the impact on specific companies, this scenario is not expected to have a significant macroeconomic effect in Israel, even though China is a significant trading partner in a range of industries,” the bank said. “If the crisis persists and flows over into other countries, and particularly if strict preventive measures will be required in Israel, it is expected to have a more significant impact, the scope of which is difficult to assess at this stage.”

However, as if to underscore the uncertainty surrounding potential risks, Israel’s Health Ministry issued a travel warning for Italy on Monday following reports of a large number of people in that country testing positive for the virus.

Israel’s National Basketball Team On Winning Streak
Israel’s national basketball team defeated Romania 87-63 on Monday night at the Drive-In Arena in Tel Aviv in its second victory of the EuroBasket 2021 qualifying round. “This was an important win for us and it’s always great to represent the Israel national team,” said Deni Avdija of Maccabi Tel Aviv. “It’s the biggest honor for any player to do so for their country.”

Iranians Suspect Their Government Is Lying About Epidemic
Iran's Health Ministry angrily dismissed accusations made by various activist groups this week that it has attempted to conceal the true scope of the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak in the country, despite some of the accusations coming from regime officials in the city of Qom, which is the epicentre of the outbreak in Iran. Eyewitness reports from Qom have also appeared in various media outlets speaking about a lack of protective clothing for health workers and other worrisome indications that the situation is being badly mishandled by the clerical regime which rules Teheran.

Mubarak of Egypt Dies at 91
Former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who ruled in Cairo for 30 years before being toppled in the wave of protests which became known to history as “the Arab Spring” in 2011, died on Tuesday at the age of 91. His passing was announced on official state TV in Egypt.

IDF Retaliates for Gaza Rocket Fire

Tensions remained high in southern Israel Monday afternoon following rocket barrages from the Iranian-backed Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) terror militia based in the Strip and retaliatory strikes by IDF aircraft on Sunday, which continued into Monday morning. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned the Hamas terror militia which rules the Strip to put a stop to the PIJ attacks or he would have no choice but to order a wide-scale offensive into the Strip which would likely result in Hamas’ destruction.

Roads near the border with the Strip were subject to closure by the IDF and most schools and businesses in southern Israel were closed. The PIJ said the rocket barrage which began the flare up was in revenge for the IDF killing one of their operatives as he attempted to plant an explosive charge near the border fence. IDF aircraft also carried out strikes on a PIJ camp in Syria, killing several terrorists according to reports in the Arab media.

Historically Low Voter Turnout in Iranian Elections
Iran’s Interior Ministry admitted on  a record low of 42.57 percent of registered voters took part in Iran's February 21 parliamentary elections, the lowest voter turnout in Iran since the violent takeover of the country by the clerical regime in 1979. In the capital of Teheran, the turnout might have been as low as 20%, according to unofficial estimates. "The low turnout is a reflection of a general public mood toward a ruling system largely seen as increasingly illegitimate, incompetent, and corrupt -- and anathema to people's interests," Ali Fathollah-Nejad, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center think tank, told RFE/RL.

Here is a video about the elections in Iran



Additionally, the rapid spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus in Iran caused many to stay home rather than go out to vote on Friday. At press time, there were nearly 1,000 cases reported in several cities across Iran, with 8 deaths. It is the worst outbreak of the disease outside of the epicentre in Wuhan China. Cases of COVID-19 have been reported among people who recently visited Iran in Lebanon and Canada.

BDS Movement Suffers Another Defeat
In yet another sign of Israel’s warming relations with its Arab neighbours, the 2020 UAE Tour bicycle race has included the Israeli Start-Up Nation team, with rider Rudy Barbier taking third place in Sunday’s opening leg. The race is the only segment of the cycling World Tour which takes place in the Middle East and team owner Sylvan Adams told the Jerusalem Post that “For us being in an Arab country, competing as an Israeli team with our Israel Start-Up Nation and with the word ‘Israel’ emblazoned on the front and back of the jersey in big letters, with Israel as our identity – for us this is a really important race on the calendar...we are creating normalization of Israel and there is a diplomatic element to our participation. We are building these bridges on a people-to-people basis, from the ground up.”

Israel’s Political Polls Show a Familiar Picture
Going into the final stretch of the election campaign for Israel’s 23rd Knesset, polls released on Sunday indicate that the Likud Party led by incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Blue and White party led by former IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz are garnering roughly similar levels of support, with neither large party receiving enough support from satellite factions to have an easy path to forming a governing coalition. The situation, analysts grimly noted, is almost identical to what it was following both previous elections last year.

Here is a video giving some analysis of Israel's upcoming election



Israel’s Neighbours Suffering from Severe Natural Disasters
Two large earthquakes measuring 5.7 and 6.0 on the Richter scale struck northern Iran and eastern Turkey over the weekend, killing at least nine people and injuring dozens more in both countries. The tremors were the latest to hit the region, which has already seen several deaths and a large amount of damage this winter from previous earthquakes and accompanying avalanches. Meanwhile, the massive clouds of locusts which have already devastated agricultural lands in eastern Africa over recent months arrived in Saudi Arabia over the weekend after smaller swarms were successfully repelled earlier in the year.

Here is a video about how Israel respomnds to natural disasters when other countries ask them to

Israel Hit by Coronavirus Fears

Officials were warning against panic on Monday following a weekend which saw the COVID-19 Coronavirus show up in Israel and several neighbouring countries as well. At press time there were two confirmed cases in Israel, both of whom had recently returned from the Diamond Princess cruise ship anchored off Japan and both of whom are in medical quarantine at to Sheba Medical Center near Tel Aviv. In related news, a group of South Korean tourists who had been in Israel earlier this month returned home to discover that some of their group tested positive for the virus, leading to fears that they had caught it during their trip to Israel .

Several hundred South Korean tourists in the country have been quarantined and will soon be returning home. Several hundred Israelis who were in contact with the group which included infected persons have also been quarantined and the government has announced that it is barring entry to Israel from citizens of South Korea and Japan.

Magen David Adom set up a hotline for Israelis who were worried that they might have been infected, with several hundred calls already having been received. Anecdotal evidence suggests that many Israelis are also self-quarantining for fear of spreading the illness to their co-workers and friends. The government requires that Israeli citizens returning from China, Hong Kong, Macau, Singapore, South Korea, Japan, Australia, Italy and Thailand self-quarantine for 14 days following the day they left those countries. People arriving from a number of other countries are advised to keep a close watch on their medical condition for at least 14 days after returning.

“We are prepared to prevent the spread of the coronavirus in Israel,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said during an emergency meeting at the Health Ministry in Tel Aviv Sunday. “We are conducting assessments every day and I will appoint a team of ministers to meet on a daily basis to address this major challenge…I said that over-preparation is better than lack of preparation. To date, Israel has been more stringent than any other country, and we will continue to do what is necessary to prevent the spread of the virus in Israel.”

In addition, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan issued a statement on Sunday that "I have instructed the police to prepare for a situation in which the coronavirus could disrupt the coming elections, even in the form of fake news being spread that could cause panic in some areas, causing some to stay home on election day."

The Israel Airport Authority also announced a hiring freeze and other austerity measures over the weekend while the Education Ministry cancelled 29 upcoming school trips to the Holocaust-related sites in Poland. Other disruptions to Israel’s near-term public schedule as a result of the crisis are considered highly likely.

Here is a video which gives some professional analysis of the coronavirus crisis

FRIDAY FEATURE – The Coronavirus Gets a Vote in Iran

Iran is holding elections on Friday for its 290-seat Majles parliament, but many analysts are expecting a record low turnout despite intense cajoling by the clerical regime for the masses to signal their support for the current system by casting ballots. Amidst widespread dissatisfaction with the regime and a rapidly deteriorating quality of life for many in the Islamic Republic, voters seem to have little interest in legitimizing the regime by participating in a meaningless election. These sentiments have been stoked by the disqualification of over half the people running for a parliament which, in any case, has very little real power in a country ruled by the aptly titled “Supreme Leader” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his enforcers in the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. Meanwhile Iran announced that it had identified the Middle East’s first cases of the COVID-19 coronavirus this week, giving Iranians one more reason not to go to the polls.

"Our forecast is that we will have a good turnout in the upcoming election," Guardians Council spokesman Abbas Ali Kadkhodaei said on Wednesday. "The average turnout has usually not been under 50 percent, and we will witness a turnout of 50 percent in this election too."

"Voting is a religious duty...which will also guarantee the national interests of Iran...I am urging Iranians to vote early," Khamenei said as he cast his ballot Friday morning.

The cheerful optimism displayed in public by the regime, mixed as it has been by the constant begging by Khamenei and others for the public to vote, has led some analysts to speculate that even if the turnout is very low the regime will simply make up its own figures for public release. Official corruption and deceit have been routine complaints by anti-regime demonstrators over the years, intensified in recent months by the regime’s clumsy attempt to cover up the downing of a Ukrainian passenger jet by Iranian air defenses amidst a ballistic missile strike on Iraqi bases housing US troops in early January. The disqualification of so many Reformist and moderate candidates for Friday’s polls have added more fuel to this anger.

"Critics of the establishment have no chance of entering the elections," Paris-based political activist Ali Keshtgar told Radio Farda, in comments echoed by many other activists both inside and outside Iran.

But widespread dissatisfaction with the regime had already been manifesting itself for several months in the form of weekly and sometimes daily street demonstrations which often degenerated into violent clashes with security forces. Issues raised by the demonstrators included the difficult economic situation which the regime is seen as having largely ignored in its headlong pursuit of regional hegemony and its renegade nuclear program. Sanctions re-imposed by the Trump Administration in late 2018 following the US withdrawal from the JCPOA nuclear deal have contributed to these problems, but many Iranians blame their own government more than the US for this, despite frequent statements by the regime that it is the victim of a US-led conspiracy against it and appeals to the people of Iran for support against external enemies.

Other issues fueling popular discontent include environmental degradation. Pollution from the poorly supervised hydrocarbon industry is blamed for a large number of deaths every year in Iran, while Teheran has some of the worst air-quality of any major city in the world, with several other Iranian cities also high on the list. Additionally, the Islamic Republic has suffered from a series of natural disasters in recent years, with the regime’s lackluster response indicating little interest in the welfare of Iranian citizens.

Finally, the COVID-19 virus which has the entire world on edge this month showed up in Iran this week, with 5 patients being diagnosed with the disease on Wednesday, including two who died in the Shi’ite holy city of Qom, home to 1.2 million residents and located about 140 kilometers south of Tehran. Iranian Deputy Health Minister Mohammad Mahdi said that the Iranians infected with the illness didn’t appear to have had any contact with Chinese nationals, leading to speculations that they had contracted it from religious pilgrims who visited Iran from other countries. In any event, health officials have urged that all large gatherings, including religious services, be cancelled in Qom pending a full investigation to establish the source of the outbreak. It goes without saying that this would also apply to polling stations.

Meanwhile, Iran’s neighbors Iraq and Kuwait immediately announced that they were closing their borders to visitors from Iran and cancelling all incoming flights from the Islamic Republic, adding more downward pressure on Iran’s already depressed economy.

It is unlikely that the difficult domestic situation faced by the clerical regime which rules Iran will be made any easier by Friday’s vote, no matter what the outcome. Amidst widespread popular discontent against the regime, the sudden arrival this week of the COVID-19 issue on the front pages of Iranian newspapers means the coronavirus also gets a vote in the Iranian elections, potentially lowering what was already predicted to be a record-low turnout and further damaging the regime’s attempt to garner legitimization from receiving a popular mandate to continue governing the country.

But that could be only the beginning of a long list of new problems for the regime stemming from the deadly virus’s arrival. Analysts and officials in Israel and many other countries around the world will be watching closely to determine their next steps as the unfolding drama with the Islamic Republic continues.

Here is a video giving a brief recap of issues surrounding the current election

 

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