The real reason Israel isn’t reopening the skies

Israel was one of the first countries to impose a global 14-day entry quarantine in March. At the time, the quarantine seemed too broad because the virus was only widespread in a few countries, but it emerged that US Vice President Mike Pence, who was then heading up the Federal Coronavirus Taskforce, had urged Benjamin Netanyahu to make the quarantine global to avoid embarrassing Donald Trump.

The quarantine was augmented by a ban on entry to all non-citizens a few days later.

The entry ban made a kind of sense back in April and May when Israel came close to eliminating the coronavirus altogether. It’s been pointless since June and it’s ludicrous now Israel has lost control over the virus and almost every country in the world has a lower population incidence.

  • Germany (population 83M), for example has about 1000 cases a day at the moment, which works out at something like 1/15th of the incidence of cases in Israel.
  • France (pop 67M) is currently in a virus surge of 3000 cases a day. The surge is bad enough that travellers from France to the UK now have a 14-day quarantine. But it’s still about a tenth of Israel’s incidence.
  • The UK (pop 67M) has 1000 cases a day…. Well, you get the idea.

Almost every country on earth has lower Covid-19 cases than Israel right now. Why keep the skies closed and ban travellers who want to see their families or even just tourists who could pump some money into Israel’s tourism-heavy economy?

At the Knesset Coronavirus Committee, a National Security Council member finally said out loud what many of us had been suspecting.

Eitan Ben-David, an NSC representative, told the committee that it wasn’t just about health.

On the question of [reallowing the entry of] foreigners, you have to understand that there are also foreign policy considerations. There are also Foreign Ministry representatives who would doubtless also have something to say about this story. You have to understand that there are also policy considerations. As soon as you open specific countries for tourism, whether with testing or without testing or with a quarantine, you’d have to clarify why you haven’t opened for other countries. For example, the USA is a red country by many orders of magnitude, but it’s our ally… we obviously have to think about this well.

So, yup, the reason why Israel’s entire tourist industry is shut, and why Olim haven’t seen their parents or children in months, is… Donald Trump again.

Ultimately there are discussions underway to lift the ban in a limited fashion and allow some travellers to visit, but the Trump Factor is looming over that decision.

Three things that aren’t going to happen

I’m seeing a lot of speculation about what happens now, following the General Election results. Well, I don’t really know. But here are three things I keep seeing discussed and suggested online that I’m pretty sure won’t happen:

Labour won’t form an alternative Government

There is no path to a Labour minority Government or coalition in this Parliament

In Israeli politics we talk a lot about a “blocking bloc”, a group of parties with enough seats that they can prevent alternative governments from being formed, even if the bloc itself doesn’t have a majority of seats.

The Conservatives have won 318 seats (discounting the Speaker). 318 seats represents a blocking bloc, assuming Sinn Fein MPs don’t take their seats.

For Labour to form an alternative Government, then, they need a minimum of 319 seats on a possible Queen’s Speech

Among the other parties:

  • Labour have 262 seats
  • the SNP has 35
  • The LibDems have 12
  • Plaid Cymru has 4
  • Caroline Lucas represents 1 Green seat

That adds to only 314, not enough to pass a Queen’s Speech over Conservative opposition.

Now, the DUP has won 10 seats. But the DUP has made it clear that they will not vote to make Jeremy Corbyn prime minister. Young voters might not believe Corbyn supported the IRA, but the DUP were there and remember it well. Yes, the DUP share power with Sinn Fein out of necessity in the NI Assembly, but I find it impossible to imagine Corbyn passing a Queen’s Speech on DUP votes. At most he could try to convince them to abstain. But that wouldn’t be enough.

A DUP source has already made this explicit:

And so Corbyn will not become Prime Minister without another General Election, unless something very dramatic happens like a lot of Conservative defections. And Labour won’t get into Downing Street in this Parliament unless Corbyn does, eventually, go.

The DUP won’t force the Tories into a softer Brexit

The DUP has said it opposes a ‘hard Brexit’. It’s particularly concerned about the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. That border is completely open and isn’t even marked in many places. If the UK leaves the Customs Union and EEA (ie, a ‘hard Brexit’), it is very difficult to see how this situation can persist. It will become the only land border between the UK and the EU, subject to customs inspections, limitations on free movement etc. The DUP also knows that border restrictions might lead to greater support for Irish Nationalism; apolitical Northern Irish residents may feel it’d be easier to be a part of a united Ireland.

Theresa May will need some degree of support — or at least no active opposition — from the DUP in Parliament to be able to govern. So surely the DUP will soften the current Brexit plans?

Well… probably not. The DUP are pragmatic. They’ll do a deal to bring money to NI, and to get exemptions from equality laws, but they won’t try to do a deal that’s impossible.

And it is impossible, because another party won’t let it happen: The Conservative party.

There is a big section of the Conservative party that is obsessed with the EU. It’s all they care about. They relentlessly plotted against John Major, leading him to famously dub them “bastards”. They forced David Cameron into committing to an EU referendum in the 2015 manifesto. They accepted May as long as she pledged total fealty to the Brexit cause. If they get a whiff that May is backing down, they will move against her.

Some of these Tories are already briefing the Telegraph that she won’t be allowed to go for any of these softer options:

Theresa May has been warned by eurosceptic ministers that she will face a leadership challenge if she attempts to water down Brexit

Of course, the DUP know this too. They don’t want to leave the Single Market and they might vote against it, but they aren’t going to make it a condition of giving Theresa May supply and confidence.

The Tories won’t quickly replace May

When the election results started to come in, it became clear that Theresa May would not get a majority, let alone the stonking great majority she wanted. Immediately, speculation began as to whether she would resign. She’d taken a big decision that backfired. She was diminished by the election campaign and weakened by the result. Perhaps it would be honourable for her to go quickly?

But actually, May going immediately would be sort of a nightmare.

As described above, there’s no rainbow coalition waiting to take over. If May resigned, the next Prime Minister would be another Conservative, and another Conservative without a personal mandate. The voters would have reluctantly, barely chosen Theresa May and be lumbered with someone else.

On top of this, May herself was never elected by the Conservative Party membership. She became Prime Minister after her opponents plotted, voted and withdrew unexpectedly and quickly. But the short campaign never left Westminster.

If Andrea Leadsom had stayed in the race, would May have won over the membership to become Prime Minister? I don’t know, but I always felt that the members would favour the socially-conservative, Brexit-backing Leadsom over the MPs’ first choice.

Tory MPs must know that a contest won’t be a coronation this time. The party membership would have to choose the Prime Minister from the two final nominees, and one of those nominees would likely be a hardline Brexiteer who the members might love but the public could despise.

This leadership campaign would take a couple of months at least, and it would happen while the March 2019 deadline for leaving the European Union drew ever closer.

Does this mean May will last? I don’t know. It’s hard to see how she manages to keep Anna Soubry and Michael Gove, Liam Fox and Andrea Leadsom, Philip Hollobone and Sarah Wollaston all voting the same way on every issue. Empathy, humility and self-awareness are critical here, but her Downing Street speech this morning displayed none of these qualities at all.

But with the Fixed-Term Parliament Act preventing a quick dissolution unless the Conservatives vote for it, the mess of the process and the Brexit clock ticking, many Tories will just feel like they don’t have any choice. Replacing May is just much harder and riskier than keeping her.

Time For Another Labour Coup

Nine months ago today I confidently predicted that Jeremy Corbyn would resign.

I made this prediction because it seemed like the only realistic option. I noted that he would be leading without the confidence of his Parliamentary colleagues, that he wouldn’t be able to fully staff a front-bench, and that his leadership would become bogged down in local internal Labour politics at the branch level.

I said the Government would be able to dismiss anything he said in the House of Commons and that he would become a national joke.

I wrote:

In Corbyn, people will see a small, stubborn man unwilling to accept the reality of his situation; a ‘leader’ without followers, organising rallies about how great he is while his party withers. People might like Corbyn. They might even blame the PLP for a week or two. But after a while, all the public will remember is that the Labour Leader is the person who failed but didn’t take responsibility and didn’t resign.

PMQs will become a weekly torture. Mock the Week will make the Corbyn zombie leadership a constant joke. He’ll enter British cultural slang. ‘Corbyn’ will forever mean a leader without followers, a delusional refusal to accept reality, destroying one of the UK’s great political parties in a tragic murder-suicide. It will enter the political lexicon alongside Lansbury, Eden and Duncan Smith as examples of failed leadership.

And all of the above will carry on for FOUR YEARS. Four years of a Shadow Cabinet of 40. Four years of deselections, reselections, protests and rallies and threats. Four years of the Tories being able to laugh in the faces of the Official Opposition in Parliament and of the country laughing and despairing of Jeremy Corbyn in newspaper columns, TV comedy and even down the pub. Four years in which to kill off the Labour Party.

If Jeremy Corbyn stays on — whether he wins another leadership election or whether he avoids a challenge — this is the picture.

Reading back, I was correct in every respect except one. Jeremy Corbyn did not resign. He stayed. He is staying. And Labour is dying with him.

The conventional wisdom for a long time was that Labour had a hard vote-share floor of about 26% — people who’d vote Labour if it was led by Idi Amin or a tub of lard. Barring a party split, Labour would be wounded but limp on.

That wisdom is shifting. Labour is regularly polling 25% or lower in some polls now, while the Conservative Party picks up UKIP voters giving them a comfortable 15%+ lead.

And there’s every reason to think these polls are flattering Labour. Historically, polls have tended to overstate Labour’s vote-share. A YouGov poll today shows that more people voted for Labour in 2015 think Theresa May is a more suitable PM than Jeremy Corbyn than vice versa. More than half of current Labour supporters won’t say they prefer Corbyn to May, with many unsure.

When it comes to polling day, some of these people won’t be able to bring themselves to vote for Corbyn’s Labour party. 20% is no longer a ridiculous vote-share for Labour. Meanwhile, the Tories are closing on 45%.

The Invisible Opposition

Labour has disappeared from the public discourse altogether. After Corbyn’s expected second leadership victory, Labour MPs decided to stop publicly opposing him, but his naturally-terrible political instincts, his abysmal office staff (led by Seumas Milne and Karie Murphy) and his poor delivery have left the party leaderless and invisible.

Today was a prime example. Theresa May sent the formal letter starting the process of the UK leaving the European Union. Clearly, no other political news today will get any coverage. It’s wall-to-wall Brexit. But Corbyn chose to use all six of his questions at PMQs to ask about funding cuts, guaranteeing that nobody would notice them at all. His later response to May’s Brexit statement was shouty and ranty about stopping Britain being a tax haven or something, but there was no forensic questioning, no intellectual depth, no clever gotchas, just a lot of angry waffle.

This is especially frustrating because the Government is like a diamond: hard, shiny and impressive-looking, but deeply fragile and with an artificially-inflated value. It has a small working majority with rebels from both the moderate Cameroonie tendency and the Eurosceptic ultras. It is internally split between the True Believers (Davis, Fox) and the pragmatists (Hammond). Its agenda, ‘Mayism’ I suppose, is basically Brownism/Milibandism repackaged in a nativist blue box.

Already, the Government has been forced into retreats on big issues like National Insurance increases for the self-employed because it can’t guarantee a majority in the Commons for them.

A hard-hitting opposition could shatter this Government into pieces. But there is no such opposition. There’s no opposition at all.

Corbynism is eating itself

In the meantime, Corbynism is eating itself. Hard Left MPs like Clive Lewis are considered traitors for not sharing Corbyn’s position on Brexit. Owen Jones is branded a crypto-Blairite for pointing out Labour’s awful polling position and suggesting alternatives. Momentum has split into two warring camps each claiming to be the authentic organisation. Staff keep resigning from the The Leader’s office amid reports of bullying. And everyone is talking about the McDonnell Amendment.

The McDonnell Amendment is a rule-change proposal that would let an MP run for Labour Leader with the support of only 5% of Labour MPs’ nominations. The Hard Left needs this rule if they want another Hard Left candidate to replace Corbyn when he does, eventually, step down. Even many of Corbyn’s public backers say he’s only hanging about until he can ensure his successor is from the Hard Left. He’ll go once the McDonnell amendment passes and Rebecca Long-Bailey or whoever can be crowned.

The McDonnell Amendment needs to get though Labour Conference. This is overall unlikely to happen. Between reps from the moderate Unions and Momentum’s relative weakness at the CLP level, the Hard Left don’t have the numbers.

So forget the McDonnell Amendment. And no McDonnell amendment seems likely to mean Corbyn stays — trapped by Milne and McDonnell and the handful of nutcases who cannot and will not give up control of the Labour Party after 100 years of Labour leaders that they consider dangerously right-wing.

And so Labour sinks, slowly and quietly. It lost a by-election to the incumbent Government, something that just shouldn’t happen to the main opposition. People laugh at the prospect of Jeremy Corbyn ever being Prime Minister. Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition is a joke.

Opposition Matters Now

Opposition should matter now because, unusually in politics, irrevocable decisions are being made. The Government is going into Brexit negotiations seeking to leave not just the EU but also the European Economic Area and the European Customs Union. Many supporters of leaving the EU argued at the time against leaving the EEA, and almost nobody even mentioned the Customs Union.

New treaties will need to be negotiated, with the EU and other countries. Huge amounts of EU law will need to be either replicated in statute or changed wholesale.

The only serious pressure on Theresa May comes from the Tory Right and the Brexit-mad papers. If the UK had had a functioning opposition for the last year, it’s possible that she would have felt pressured (or able) to take a more moderate path.

What’s to be done?

Nine months ago, Labour MPs voted en masse that they had no confidence in Corbyn’s leadership of the Parliamentary Labour Party. Most of the Shadow Cabinet resigned. Jeremy Corbyn did not resign.

The MPs forced a new leadership election and united behind a single candidate from the Soft Left. I argued that this challenge was a mistake, but I understand why the PLP felt they had to offer an alternative. However, all the challenge did was renew Corbyn’s mandate, scare off more moderate members from the party, energise the Corbynite wing and bolster the ‘traitor’ narrative.

The MPs decided to keep quiet, stop criticising Corbyn and even serve in his Shadow Cabinet again. But this didn’t stop the ever-shriller cries of betrayal from Corbynites who insist that Labour is being sabotaged by #chickencoup #blairite #redtory #traitors.

Then, a few weeks ago, following Jeremy Corbyn’s tacit support of a second Scottish independence referendum, some MPs broke ranks and began criticising the leader again. But not very many and not very loudly.

Thinking too small

Labour MPs are thinking too small. They had a moment of bravery nine months ago, a moment where they understood the existential threat to the party. But then they got distracted by an unwinnable leadership challenge and decided that silence and acquiescence were a strategy. They aren’t.

So something must be done. Waiting until Jeremy Corbyn resigns after a 2020 election defeat is not good enough.

First, there’s no guarantee he will resign. Without the McDonnell Amendment, he may feel that he should stay on even then to keep Labour in the hands of the Hard Left.

Secondly, the party will be drubbed in that 2020 election and lots of the current MPs will lose their seats.

Finally and most urgently, the UK needs Opposition and it needs it now, not after the next election. There is no time to wait and no time to lose.

If Labour MPs are brave, unified and creative there are things they can do. They can elect their own leader of the PLP and seek to have him or her designated the Leader of the Opposition. Oh, and elect a Shadow Cabinet for good measure. Will the Labour party NEC really expel, say, 150 of its own MPs if they did this?

Or they could go on strike, picket Corbyn’s office, withdraw all cooperation. Force him to cross a picket line to get into his suite in Norman Shaw.

Or follow the example of Cato and finish every speech in the house with ‘and may I just add that Jeremy Corbyn should resign for the good of the Party and the county”.

And there’s always the nuclear option: resign the whip, form a new Parliamentary faction or full-blown political party and just start opposing.

The damage may be done

Yes, many of these options will result in MPs being de-selected by angry Momentum-controlled CLPs. Some of them will damage the Labour Party.

Tough. The party may already be lost. If Corbyn was taken ill tomorrow and a moderate became leader because no Hard Left candidate got on the ballot, the Revolutionary Guard of Momentum would wreak a long and painful revenge: de-selections, constant smears and a betrayal narrative that could poison the party forever.

The old Labour Party is dead. Whatever happens next, even the best-case scenario will be nasty and messy. Accept that, and maybe the risks become worth taking.

New coalition, new negotiations

So Avigdor Liberman is Israel’s new Defence Minister, right..? Well, not yet. Negotiations are ongoing for the now-5-seat Israel Beiteinu to join the coalition, with Liberman getting Defence and some sort of vote on the use of death penalty in military courts which might or might not actually happen.

But one big ‘red line’ remains. Liberman wants substantial increases in pensions for Russian olim, costing something like a billion shekels. This is in many ways a good policy to lift people out of poverty, but it faces two problems. One is that it’s hard to justify applying it only to Russian olim and not, say, Ethiopian or Argentinian or French olim — which means it might end up being expanded by the Supreme Court and costing even more.

The other problem is that the budget is controlled, in the first instance, by Moshe Kahlon of the Kulanu party, who said he supports widening the coalition but not at any price. He opposes the plan, and claims it is discriminatory. According to one report, Kahlon said Netanyahu would have to fire him to get his billion shekels.

Then there’s Bayit Yehudi. The party voted unanimously at today’s faction meeting that it would only vote for the wider coalition if the recommendations of the report into the 2014 Defensive Edge war were accepted in full. The report, due out tomorrow, has been substantially leaked and is expected to be highly critical of Netanyahu, Yaalon and the way decisions were taken. Bennett in particular is demanding that the Security Cabinet is given fuller intelligence briefings. Likud MKs have reacted angrily to Bennett’s conditions.

The report is due out tomorrow and I’ve already seen speculation that the reason Netanyahu was so willing to oust Yaalon is because it will insulate him from some of the criticism. Other cynics have suggested that the new coalition deal will be signed minutes before/after the report is released.

And then, hovering in the background of all of this, is the French peace initiative, which will formally start with a multilateral conference in early June with various Foreign Ministers. John Kerry is now expected to attend, but Israelis and Palestinians are not invited.

And despite everything, Netanyahu is still saying that he wants Labour/the Zionist Union to join the coalition, and that he’s not appointing a Foreign Minister for this reason. This seems doubly unlikely, now that ZU Leader Isaac Herzog has refused to conduct any more negotiations, and because Herzog might find himself forced out of the party leadership for holding coalition talks in the first place.

More likely, he’s holding the role (and several others like the Economy Ministry) because appointing anyone would necessitate a whole Government reshuffle, and he’s not willing to go through all that again. The question for the next couple of days is how long Netanyahu will keep his newest job – as acting Defence Minister.

Meanwhile, two Knesset members resigned in the last week: Moshe Yaalon and UTJ’s Meir Porush, who remains a deputy-Minister but left the Knesset to allow a Degel HaTorah member to take his place as part of some sort of deal inside the smaller parties that make up UTJ. Two more are considering leaving – Miki Zohar and Ayoub Kara, both current Likud members. The current Knesset has been seated for a little over a year, but it’s had a remarkably high number of resignations.

Israel: What if there’s no coalition by tomorrow’s deadline?

The state of play

Yesterday, Yisrael Beiteinu rejected the offer of joining the next Israeli Government. Likud immediately signed a coalition agreement with Shas, leaving them with 53 coalition members and only one open negotiation – with Naftali Bennett and Jewish Home.

A couple of weeks ago, Bennett announced that handing over the Religious Affairs Ministry to Shas would mean the end of negotiations with Jewish Home. Well, that’s happened. Shas has the Ministry, and even got a control of the appointment of judges to the Rabbinic courts via the Justice Ministry.

Jewish Home was offered the Education Ministry and Diaspora Ministry for Bennett, the Culture and Sport Ministry for Ayelet Shaked, Agriculture and the settlement affairs division for Uri Ariel and (I think) a deputy defence minister. Then Liberman’s resignation shook things up. Suddenly there’s an extra senior role – Foreign Minister – up for grabs. Jewish Home was already unhappy with the coalition offer, but is now also insulted that the Foreign Minister role, originally denied to Naftali Bennett partly because Benjamin Netanyahu needed to keep Liberman on-board, is not being offered to Jewish Home.

Last night Likud gave Jewish Home’s negotiators an ultimatum – take our offer or leave it. After midnight, the Jewish Home faction meeting instructed Naftali Bennett to take over negotiating personally, also implying that they were calling Likud’s bluff. Jewish Home is now demanding that Bennett becomes either Foreign or Defence Minister or that Shaked is made Justice Minister.

Since then, apparently, Naftali Bennett is unreachable and has turned off his phone. Now, with 28 hours left until the expiry of the deadline to form a government, a major disagreement has still not been resolved and time is running out.


Most likely, someone will compromise and a deal will be done. I suspect that Likud is in a stronger position than Jewish Home, but we’ll see. But what if there isn’t a deal by Midnight on Thursday?

The law is simple, clear – and widely misunderstood.

By midnight on Thursday (ie Wednesday night), Netanyahu will have to do one of three things:

  1. Call President Reuven Rivlin and tell him that he has failed to form a Government that can win the confidence of the Knesset. If this happens, the President would ask someone else — almost certainly Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog — to try and form a coalition. This would almost certainly fail because the numbers aren’t there. There are provisions for a third MK to have a try, but if that doesn’t work then there are automatic new elections 90 days or so after the end of the road. New elections would mean new primaries, especially for Likud and Labour/Zionist Union. Both parties might face leadership challenges. Things could get very interesting and very messy, or nothing much could change.
  2. Do nothing. If Netanyahu doesn’t call Rivlin at all it’s considered that he failed to form a government and things proceed exactly as at point 1.
  3. Tell the President that he has formed government.

If Mr Netanyahu tells Rubi Rivlin that he has formed a government, then a new timer starts – 7 days. The Speaker of the Knesset (Likud MK Yuli Edelstein) must schedule a vote on the new government within 7 days of the announcement. However, Netanyahu doesn’t have to announce the full make-up of the Government to Rivlin, and Rivlin doesn’t have to check that it’s true, meaning that negotiations could continue for another week.

Those negotiations could be aimed at bringing either Jewish Home into a 61-seat coalition or the Zionist Union into a National Unity Government. But they could also theoretically be aimed at seeking support for the 53-member coalition as it stands today.

It works like this: The new government is presented to the Knesset. This is the actual government, the list of ministers and deputy-ministers, not the coalition: a government of twenty-something MKs. That list must be passed by a simple majority of the Knesset. It doesn’t need 61 votes. It just needs more MKs to vote for it than vote against it.

Could Netanyahu win support for a minority government? It’s possible. Jewish Home might be able to stay out of the coalition but I’m not sure they can directly vote to bring down Bibi and give Herzog a chance without damaging themselves in a second election. The same logic applies to Yisrael Beiteinu.

That would leave things exactly balanced: 14 MKs abstaining, 53 MKs voting for the government and 53 (from the ZU, Meretz, Yesh Atid and the Joint List) who would probably vote against.

If Netanyahu can convince one extra MK to abstain then he has a Government. It’d be a dysfunctional, weak government that wouldn’t last very long until it needed more parties to join and support it. But so’s the 61-seat coalition deal with Jewish Home.

In those circumstances, the Zionist Union or (more likely) Yesh Atid might decide to allow Netanyahu to form a weak minority government in the hope of bringing him down later. Or they might just vote the government down, sending us back to Step 1 above.

Most likely, of course, is the 61-seat deal with Bennett sooner or later. It should all become clear by tomorrow night. Or in a week. Or so.