The Foreign Policy of Joseph Biden Jr.

For many, the attraction of Joseph Biden Jr. as a presidential candidate has less to do with what he is, but more to do with what he isn’t. He is not a fire breathing, fire wielding, populist, he is not fond of lambasting enemies on Twitter, nor is he going to be the one to upset the establishment applecart of Washington D.C.

He is a restorationist, someone who wants to ensure that Donald Trump’s tale is told as an aberration in the grander story of the United States. His presidency would likely not be characterized by great leaps forward, but rather by careful steps back and by attempts to reverse his predecessor’s path.

This is perhaps most true upon the international stage, a place that captured little of President Trump’s interest. There, Mr. Biden promises to “once more have America lead the world,” a phrase happily received by many, both in his country and beyond.

Though certainly evocative of a happier pre-Trumpian time, Biden’s pronouncement requires a more detailed look. What would a world molded in the image of the former Vice President look like?

A consultation of his campaign website provides some more clarity. It explains that Biden wishes to “lead by example” and “rally the world to meet [its] common challenges.” In practice, that would see Biden rebuild the American State Department, restoring and increasing American spending on diplomacy and development. Also, he’d like to host a “global Summit for Democracy” within his first year in office, bringing together the world’s democracies and civil society organizations to create a collective focus around “fighting corruption; defending against authoritarianism; and advancing human rights.”

A far cry from ‘America First’, Biden is less likely to go it alone and more likely to use America’s network of friends and allies to address the issues of the day. For example — as Biden is equally unhappy with China’s “abusive trade practices” as its “suppression of Uyghurs” — he would rather the US put pressure and apply sanctions on Beijing alongside a broad coalition, similar to the way American Presidents past tried to target the Soviet Union.

A President Biden would also seek to “restore [American] moral leadership”, a phrase that by turns elicits consent or contempt, depending on where in the world it is received. In any case, ‘moral leadership’ would see Biden end American support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen and, more broadly, a reassessment of the partnership with Riyadh. This courtesy would likely be extended to more of America’s less liberal allies, including Egypt, Hungary, and Turkey, as Biden and a number of his key foreign policy advisors appear less willing to hold hands with autocrats.

Though altering alliances with Turkey and Saudi Arabia would certainly set Biden apart from his predecessors, the longstanding American support for Israel would not end during his tenure. He is, after all, a self-proclaimed “Zionist” and though he backs a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict, he would not move the American Embassy back to Tel Aviv or ever withhold military aid in order to force the Israelis to play ball.

Mr. Biden would also maintain, rather than reinvent, the American wheel when facing Iran or Russia. With the latter, he would be no great friend but still would maintain cordiality — renewing, for example, the New START arms treaty set to expire in early February 2021. Regarding the former, especially several key advisers, including Tony Blinken and Jack Sullivan, were instrumental in crafting the Iran nuclear deal, he would re-enter it, so long as Tehran returns to compliance.

All in all, Joseph Biden sees the United States as becoming less damned if they do than if they don’t. Donald Trump’s foreign policy was characterized less by global leadership as it was by frenetic attempts at having a ‘win’ to show for, but a President Biden would be happier as Leader of the Free World. He would work with fellow democracies to try to shape or rebuild the international order, from climate change to trade, from cyber-security to nuclear non-proliferation. Tasked with restoring ‘normalcy,’ Biden sees there to be little to lose, but a whole world to win.

Did China manufacture Covid-19?

The 73rd World Health Assembly began on May 18th – and it soon became yet another battleground between the US and China. Back in March, the Trump administration started repeatedly addressing the coronavirus as the “Chinese virus” or the “Wuhan virus”, causing huge offence in Beijing. Since then, the two countries have been engaging in a mediatic war over who is responsible for the pandemic. The underlying assumption of this blame-shifting is that the virus has been bioengineered to serve as a weapon.

This conversation has proved dangerous on both sides: it not only provoked several attacks in regard to China and Chinese communities abroad, but it also injected a renewed sense of nationalistic pride in the Chinese and eventually reinforced an “East versus West” paradigm and the idea of an inevitable conflict between the two.

Narratives of this kind are as ominous as they are misleading. In the US, it is mainly conservative politicians who speculate that China created their virus out of their biosafety level-four laboratory located in Wuhan, where they suggest the outbreak originated. The first raising questions as to the possibility of a manufactured Covid-19 was American social scientist Steve Mosher, who published an opinion piece on February 22 entitled ‘Don’t buy China’s story: The coronavirus may have leaked from a lab’. Mosher, the president of the Population Research Institute, has also written a book entitled Bully of Asia: Why China’s ‘Dream’ Is the New Threat to World Order, which sheds a bit of light on his stance on the country.

Chinese criticism has been equally sharp but quite different in nature: allegations of a US-manufactured virus were framed more as a (not very) diplomatic response than as an actual inquiry into the American medical research. Xinhua, China State News Agency, has instead released a video advertisement that mocks the U.S. government and blames it for having underestimated the virus and having poorly handled the crisis causing many people to die. A type of criticism that may somehow be more constructive than blaming a government to have deliberately released a new-type disease as a weapon.

What is more important, however, is that none of this is backed by science. Experts worldwide have been debunking theories that Covid-19 originated in a lab. According to a study recently published on the biomedical journal Nature Medicine the molecular features of SARS-CoV-2 that are essential to initiate infection are so perfect that they can only be the result of natural selection and not the product of a genetic engineering process, even if performed by very clever scientists.

In interviews published on Business Insider and Scientific American, Jonna Mazet, an epidemiologist at the University of California, Davis, who has worked with and trained Wuhan Institute of Virology researchers in the past and Wuhan-based virologist Shi Zhengli warn that there are at least four reasons why a leak would be unlikely. Besides the rigorous safety protocols implemented by the lab, it appears that the lab’s samples simply don’t match the new-type corona-virus.

The most likely explanation for the appearance of Sars-Cov-2 may be instead that it was transmitted to humans after a process of natural selection in an animal host – probably bats – that were sold in Wuhan wet-market. This theory has been leading many to mistrust or mock the Chinese for their backwardness and unusual alimentary habits. While part of this criticism is justified – as China grows it should start taking responsibility both over its society and its engagement with the world – it is not reasonable for other countries to assume that China should just abandon its culinary traditions however strange they might sound. At the origin of the pandemic is the problem of unregulated animal markets anyway, not the ingredients of a Chinese soup.

One last consideration: it may be worthwhile to engage in a mental exercise for a second and imagine what would have happened if the virus originated, let’s say, in Italy. Would have the conversation been any different? It suddenly becomes harder to picture anybody accusing the Italian government of having evil plans to conquer the world. A sign that most of the current discourse on Covid-19 might have more to do with politics than with health.

 

Post-coronavirus recession will test Starmer’s allegiances

The adults are back in the room was the phrase being used by the Westminster commentariat following the return of Prime Minister’s questions in the last week of April. Britain’s new opposition leader, Keir Starmer, has since been lauded by those on the Right and Centre-Left alike for his amiable demeanour and oratorical flair. Most frequently, however, he is branded with a label that reads electable. Regardless of the condescension that aims to paint his predecessor (as well as the popular movement that came with him) as unworthy of the hallowed halls of Westminster, there appears an obvious blind-spot on the part of the media as to what Starmer represents.

It is hardly a secret that for large swathes of the population, the elite have come to be perceived as purveyors of inequality. The suggestion being that after the events of the 2008 banking crisis, the establishment were at least complicit in allowing certain communities to wallow in destitution while financial hubs such as London thrived. In the decade following that recession, Britain’s billionaires saw their net worth double, while the income of many of the rest stagnated or even decreased. Thus, the notion that austerity is ultimately a political decision with consequences from which some are exempt begins to hold traction.

But not all establishment figures are billionaires, so why have our technocrats been moulded into political scarecrows? In his book Nervous StatesWilliam Davies speaks of the way knowledge and wealth have become more intertwined. He says: ‘Under industrial capitalism, there were those who got rich and there were those claimed to know best. Today, the privilege of knowledge and wealth reinforce each other: highly educated consultants, lawyers and investment analysts are also the main beneficiaries of capitalism.’ For much of the nation, Keir Starmer is seen as a continuation of such ideas, and lacks the impetus for real change.

The Brexit vote can in part be considered a revolt against technocratic rule. The mantra advocated by the remain campaign can largely be reduced to – ‘things can get worse’. For those who had seen their wages fall in real terms, while their communities were stripped bare by austerity, the Brexit vote was a way of re-entering the conversation. Similar discordance can be seen in the tendency to explain economic well-being through the use of aggregate statistics. For many years GDP (gross domestic product) statistics have implied that the UK is a prosperous nation, without ascribing nuance to the regions that have fallen behind.

The use of statistics as a way of assessing the health of a nation doesn’t hold water when the nation itself is split along economic lines. Average wealth statistics have long been used by those who seek to signpost the supposed success of unabashed free-marketeering. When a BBC newsreader tells a resident of Tilbury in Essex (among the top 1% of Brexit voting regions) that they are getting richer, they are forced to take stock of their reality and conclude they are being lied to. Thus, a narrative that people have been able to weave for themselves, that explains their situation more accurately, is one of nationalism. In the moments following his 2019 election win, with some justification Boris Johnson thanked his new supporters for ‘lending’ him their vote.

On the horizon sits another recession, forecast to be of even greater stature than the 2008 banking crisis – and it is how Labour seeks to pull the UK out of it that will illuminate their desire, if any, to win back their traditional voters. Replicating the approach to economic recuperation seen post-2008 will only pry open the cultural chasm further, leaving a space to be filled by charlatans and demagogues who seek to abet people’s resentment. In the aftermath of the virus, there will likely be those who try to convince us that the antidote for economic ill health is to free the economy of red tape and to bail out the multinationals. In this case, Starmer’s response should be uncompromising. Whether it is or it isn’t, his true character will at last become apparent.

 

The Uncertain Future of Vladimir V. Putin

If Otto von Bismarck was right when he said, “politics is not a science, but an art,” then Vladimir Putin is a virtuoso whose great works deserve to hang in the halls of the Hermitage. 

Since acceding to the presidency in 1999, initially as a temporary replacement for a declining Boris Yeltsin, Mr. Putin has spent the opening 20 years of the 21st century at the head of the Russian Federation, a considerable, if crumbling global power. 

Over the years, the President, then Prime Minister, then President (again and again), has remained at the top. He defeated the Communist Party in a 2000 election, won essentially uncontested in 2004, then — due to a clause in the Russian Constitution not allowing Presidents more than two consecutive terms — spent four years as Prime Minister, theoretically subordinate to Dmitry Medvedev. Never losing his influence or sway over his country’s politics however, Putin completed his ‘castling’ move with Medvedev and again became President in 2012, this time for six years as his predecessor had helpfully extended the office’s term limits during the period of Putin’s interregnum. And so, the game continued, with Putin at the helm until March 2018, at which point another illiberal election renewed his lease on the Kremlin until 2024. 

2020 began with what was perceived at the time to be either an overture to the finale, or merely a prelude to an era of renewed Putinism. In January, the State Duma and Federation Council (the Russian houses of parliament) passed bills that strengthened the legislature and prime minister at the presidency’s expense, while imbuing a previously inconsequential body called the State Council with new powers. The shakeup, so the theories went, would allow Putin in 2024 to either become Prime Minister again, this time with expanded influence, or discreetly exercise control through the new levers available to him as chairman of the State Council. 

In March, however, amidst the background of COVID-19’s beginnings in Russia, Putin changed track. On March 11th, he pushed more amendments through the Duma and Federation Council that would reset his number of presidential limits to zero, thereby allowing him to run for the presidency anew in 2024, as well as ostensibly in 2030, should the then-septuagenarian wish to do so. But before these changes could be finalized as the law of the land, they had to be given popular assent via a national referendum, the date of which Putin set for April 22nd. 

Even without factoring in the effects of COVID-19, Putin’s planned political arithmetic was this time not going to be simply executed. The social contract in place, one requiring sufficient enough economic prosperity to make up for an absence of political rights, was already increasingly tenuous. Putin’s approval took a hit in 2019 after he raised the retirement age, and tough Western sanctions imposed after the seizure of Crimea in 2014 have helped keep Russian disposable incomes below their 2013 levels. 

With the advent of the coronavirus, though, Putin’s position has become more fragile than ever. The first cases arrived on January 31st, when two Chinese tourists were diagnosed with the virus, but initially, it seemed that Russia may have been able to escape the worst. According to government figures, no Russian nationals were infected until February 17th and throughout March, Putin’s air was collected and confident. At the beginning of the month, on the 1st, he declared the situation “entirely under control” and towards the end, on the 25th, he still maintained that Russia had the ability “to restrain both the wide and rapid spread of the disease.” He closed national borders to protect his citizens and their “sovereignty”— one of Putin’s common rallying cries— and declared on March 27th a week-long nationwide ‘holiday’, accompanied by tax deferments for medium and small-sized businesses. 

Putin Graph

If at the beginning of April, the worse had yet to come, over the course of the month the situation in Russia rapidly deteriorated. Cases skyrocketed, and even government officials, including the Prime Minister, were diagnosed with COVID-19. At the same time, Putin’s two-pronged political strategy — that of distancing and deception — became apparent. He began avoiding publicly commenting on the virus and declared that regional governors would have to make difficult decisions themselves. 

This allowed Putin to criticize local leaders from afar for ‘sloppiness’ when the coronavirus became particularly problematic in a certain region, as happened in Komi, Central Russia. Additionally, as legal activist Ernest Mezak pointed out, the fact that local officials lie, because “this is what they have always have done… as a habit” in order to please Putin, helped keep the number of confirmed cases and COVID-19 fatalities at a minimum. 

Still, however, Putin’s efforts to avoid being blamed have not been successful. His public approval was recently measured at 59% by Levada, a pollster thought to be independent of the state. Even putting to one side the well-documented fact that citizens of an authoritarian, or at least highly illiberal, government like that in Russia are likely to overstate their support so as to project loyalty, the May rating was the lowest recorded since Putin took office in 1999. 

Because of the virus and / or his unpopularity, Putin’s all-important national referendum on the constitutional amendments has been delayed. While on March 11th, 64% of voters were recorded to support the changes, by April 17th only 50% of Russians said they would vote their approval. With real incomes expected to fall by at least 5% according to Alfa bank (one of the largest private banks in Russia), and with unemployment forecast to skyrocket, it would seem support for the amendments will likely fall further. 

In a democracy as opaque as Russia, an absence of popular support may not seem overly consequential for Vladimir Putin. But for all his maneuvering, he has largely been popularly supported throughout his 21st-century reign. Still, if the situation in Russia remains dire with oil prices low, regular employment absent, and government aid paltry, then Mr. Putin may face his greatest challenge yet: a truly democratic one. 

 

Quarantined Music – by Quarantined Musicians

This comes in from the Syrian poet and broadcaster, Malak Mustafa. She liked it and we like it. It comes from Barcelona, one of the places worst affected by this plague:

And this from Stafford Clarry, our senior NCF member in Iraq: There are some things even a pandemic can’t stop. Perhaps something beautiful is rising up out of this pandemic. It is very much needed.
All the music on the list below was produced by quarantined musicians. The collection is a meadow of music to wander through and roam in.
Take care of each other.

El “Nessun Dorma” de l’òpera ‘Turandot’ de Puccini
1 May 2020
We Are the World – COVID-19 Tribute (Cover)
17 April 2020
ORFEOI TXIKIA koarentenan: ‘Lore dantza
14 April 2020
College Church Hallelujah chorus
12 April 2020
L’ONLyon vous réveille en musique pendant le confinement
11 April 2020
Havana – par les musiciens confinés de l’Orchestre d’Harmonie Saint Jean le Vieux / Ambronay (OHSJA)
11 April 2020
We are the World (2020) | Together At Home Edition by Channel Aid, KHS & YouTube Artists
10 April 2020
NHS Staff Choir sing ‘Lean on Me’ by Bill Withers
10 April 2020
ROYAL CHORAL SOCIETY: Hallelujah Chorus in Isolation
10 April 2020
Here Comes The Sun – Camden Voices (self-isolation/virtual choir cover)
10 April 2020
A Hope or the Future
9 April 2020
2020: An Isolation Odyssey | 40 musicians play epic intro from Kubrick classic during UK lockdown
9 April 2020
Les musiciens de l’Orchestre philharmonique de Strasbourg en télétravail
9 April 2020
YOU’VE GOT A FRIEND performed by the worldwide cast of BEAUTIFUL (in quarantine) for The Actors Fund
7 April 2020
From Our Homes to Yours: Milwaukee Symphony (Virtual) Orchestra performs Elgar’s “Nimrod”
7 April 2020
Les musiciens de l’ONCT se réinventent !
7 April 2020
Go Big & Stay Home – Socially Distant Orchestra Plays Wagner
6 April 2020
Thank You for the Music – Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain
5 April 2020
Europa InCanto – 700 bambini cantano Nessun Dorma – Turandot
5 April 2020
Carmen
5 April 2020
Bella Ciao/La Casa de papel – Musicians in Covid19 Quarantine – Delirium Musicum
4 April 2020
ORFEÓN DONOSTIARRA – DONOSTIAKO ORFEOIA: Hallelujah
4 April 2020
The Lahti Symphony Orchestra: Sibelius: Finlandia op 26
3 April 2020
A Boléro from New York: NY Philharmonic Musicians Send Musical Tribute to Healthcare Workers
3 April 2020
Un obsequio para el mundo | Edward Elgar, Enigma Variations, IX Nimrod – OSNC
31 March 2020
Philip Glass by Cello Octet Amsterdam feat. Maki Namekawa
1 April 2020
Lockdown Sessions – Set You Free (N-Trance)
31 March 2020
Remerciements – Le Boléro De Ravel interprété en confinement par l’Orchestre Philharmonique de Nice
30 March 2020
Aussie Pops Orchestra Phones It In – What a Wonderful World
30 March 2020
Rise UP | Boston’s Children’s Chorus and other children’s choirs
30 March 2020
 “Stayin’ Inside” – Corona Virus Bee Gees Parody
27 March 2020
Roedean School (South Africa) – Hallelujah (Virtual Choir)
27 March 2020
 “Stayin’ Home” – Socially Distant Orchestra Plays Dvořák’s “New World”
27 March 2020
A Virtual Choir in quarantine sing Florence + The Machine
26 March 2020
Kaleidoscope Orchestra Lockdown Sessions – Don’t You Worry Child (Swedish House Mafia)
24 March 2020
 GRIEG – Holberg Suite – Preludium “á la Quarantine”
24 March 2020
Tonkünstler-Orchester / Tonkunstler Orchestra – Boléro
 Helplessly Hoping – il coro che non c’è
23 March 2020
 What the World Needs Now – for Virtual Orchestra
22 March 2020
StrongerTogether – SocialSymphony (Ode to Joy, Bamberger Orchestra)
22 March 2020
Socially Distant Orchestra Plays Ode to Joy
22 March 2020
True Colors – Camden Voices (self-isolation/virtual choir cover)
22 March 2020
Hallelujah – from a balcony in Italia
21 March 2020
CORO VIRTUALE – VIRTUAL CHOIR – Hallelujah (Leonard Cohen)
20 March 2020
Good Times, Ghali – Gaga Symphony Orchestra
18 March 2020
 Chino Valley USD Students Spread Hope During School Closures Due to COVID-19
17 March 2020
Daddy Daughter Duet – The Prayer

Rethinking Syria

Syria – Hell on Earth?

5.6m refugees have fled Syria; 3.8m of these are in Turkey. Some of the Syrian refugees are moving on to Europe and according to the charity Syria Relief, the Turkish-Greek border is ‘Hell on Earth’. The collapse in the oil price and inflation in Syria ensure living standards will continue to plummet which will drive more toward militancy.

But what is going on behind the scenes? To hear the latest podcast on the subject from Next Century Foundation Secretary General William Morris click here.

Italy’s phase two: what (not) to do

After Europe’s longest lockdown, Italy has entered its much-anticipated phase two on May 4th but it seems only few will have reason to celebrate.

All non-essential activities were banned and severe restrictions on people’s movement were imposed in Italy as early as March 10th, to contain the virus and avoid the risk of overwhelming the National Health System. On April 26th, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, in a video message to the nation, outlined his plan to slowly ease quarantine causing millions to express their anger and disappointment at what became labelled a “false reopening”.

Phase two has been presented as ‘coexistence with the virus’, meaning that people will be able to move within their region of residence to visit family or go to work, and many activities allowed to restart. Conte’s plan was predictable: the lifting of the lockdown, however gradual, must simultaneously involve the areas of production and of social life. After all, market rules teach us there is no significant movement of goods without the movement of people.

What Italians contested was the set of criteria used by the government to formulate cans and can’ts in the new phase. Only export-oriented manufacturing and public sector construction activities reopened on 4th May, leaving many small and medium-sized private sector businesses still at high risk of shutdown. Freedom of movement is still limited to essential activities, such as shopping for groceries or medical supplies, with the sole addition of visiting family members within the same region.

The decision to limit individual contacts to blood relatives alone has been sharply criticised by the public. Many emphasized how the choice of the state to prioritize blood ties is the expression of a backward and familial conception of social life, typical of Italian institutions. As a result of this criticism, the government decided to extend visit permission to all people that constitute “stable relationships”. A vague concept that makes law enforcement much harder.  The Prime Minister has explicitly said that “the success of the second phase rests upon Italians’ common sense”.  

Other changes involve the reopening of public parks – daily exercise is now allowed, provided that it is done alone and in full respect of social distancing – and the food sector, within bars and restaurants set to reopen to serve takeaway and delivery food.

Thus, Italy’s second phase is intended to look like the UK’s current ‘first’ phase of containment. The country is still far from the ‘phase two’ model set by China, where schools and most work activities have been reopened for weeks, although with strict rules of hygiene and social distancing. And this is what ultimately annoyed Italians, worn out by eight weeks of seclusion.

Other measures, however, are certainly understandable. For instance, the price of face masks has been capped at 50 cents, to make it easier for companies and shops to ensure respect for the rules that will grant their reopening.

Overall, the Italian government has been willing to negotiate. Regardless of its success, Italy’s second phase will set the precedent on the basis of which other countries could – and should – start to outline their strategies. 

 

Six in the Afternoon

Some of you may remember Joelle Manih and Ethan Jahan as the Producer and Director respectively of The English Hour broadcasts formerly hosted by NCF Secretary General, William Morris. They are both in lockdown as are most of us these days. This is an interesting short film, made by Ethan and starring Joelle, as their response to Covid-19.

Iran Changes Tack

The Next Century Foundation’s Secretary General, William Morris, expresses concern that international sanctions are preventing Iranian access to medical supplies in a post coronavirus world. And points out a major strategic change in Iran’s defense policy. To listen to the podcast click on this link.

 

Ireland and COVID-19

According to the novelist John Green, there is ‘no honour in illness’, likewise there is no honour in a poor response to one. The vastly different approaches to COVID-19 taken in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland put the entire island in danger. It is a stain on Irish politics that a failure to co-ordinate health policy on this issue threatens the efficacy of both approaches.

The Republic has followed a containment approach since the outbreak came into prominence in March. Northern Ireland followed the UK’s ‘ignore’ approach thus rendering the restrictions taken on the rest of the island redundant. Indeed, the Republic’s proactive strategy caused undue panic in the more laissez-faire Northern part of Ireland.

The Republic’s current approach is almost  a carbon copy of the measures taken regarding TB in the 1940’s. At that time provisions were made in legislation to isolate, and even forcefully isolate, TB patients. Indeed, the elimination of TB in Ireland largely came through the creation of the sanatorium.

TB and COVID are, as well publicised, vastly different diseases such that using sanatoriums for the airborne COVID-19 would be ineffective. Regardless, there is a demonstrated history of proactive health policy in the Republic. Thus the Republic will continue to tighten measures as long as the virus persists.

Thankfully, the curve has appeared to flatten in the Republic. New cases have declined from a high of 400 in late April to 20 yesterday. Government policy has worked south of the border but what about on the other side?

According to Dr. Bamford of Queen’s University Belfast, the COVID vaccine is about a year away, plenty of time for the situation to suddenly take a turn and get much worse. There are currently no available death rate figures for the North so it is impossible to gauge how many more, and it is more, people the lackadaisical UK response has killed in Northern Ireland compared to the south.

UK deaths are continuing to rise whilst the Republic’s death rate is falling so it is natural to assume Northern death rates are increasing. The people of Northern Ireland deserve better.

However, some immunologists expect another surge in new cases as the summer warms. Cases in the Republic could therefore shoot up as the North possibly has the herd immunity sought by the UK approach.

This is the best case scenario as the disease would simply ravage one part of the island though this assumes immunity to the current strand of COVID implies immunity, or at least some protection, against subsequent strains which may be wishful thinking.

It therefore seems best to assume, as some doctors already do, that it may be impossible to become immune to COVID. The landscape in a few months time could be one of skyrocketing disease contractions in the south which would increase contractions in an already strained north. Both healthcare regimes are struggling, a little more pressure could cause a collapse. It is no use allowing two states on an island the size of Ireland to follow divergent approaches to a pandemic. The people of Ireland deserve better.

 

Analysis: Netanyahu and Gantz form unity government

The extraordinary developments in Israel continue. Some of us at the NCF have been astonished from the outset almost four weeks ago when the latest developments had their genesis. For those of you who are not up to speed the following has just come in from the Conservative Friends of Israel:

In an unexpected development on Monday, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Blue and White leader Gantz signed an agreement to form an emergency unity government, bringing to an apparent end a nearly year-and-a-half-long political stalemate.

A joint statement from Blue and White and Netanyahu’s Likud party said the agreement was to form a “national emergency government” to deal with the coronavirus pandemic.

The coalition agreement will include a rotation between Netanyahu and Gantz as Prime Minister in 18 month periods, with the other as a deputy. Under the terms of the deal, Netanyahu will assume the position of Prime Minister first and later be replaced by Gantz in October 2021. Benny Gantz will initially serve as Defense Minister and Deputy Prime Minister. It is the first time in 36 years that Israel will have a rotating Prime Minister.

The deal is expected to be signed formally after Israel’s Independence Day Yom Ha’atzmaut next week, after which the other right-wing parties in Netanyahu’s right-wing and religious bloc would sign on to it.

Gantz posted on Twitter shortly after the announcement: “We prevented fourth elections. We’ll safeguard democracy… We’ll fight the coronavirus and look out for all Israeli citizens. We have a national emergency government”.

Snap opinion polls suggest most of the Israeli public is pleased by the prospect of finally having a fully functioning government, but does not widely believe Netanyahu will actually go through with handing over the Prime Minister’s post to Gantz after 18 months of the coalition’s scheduled three-year lifespan.

The government will initially have 32 ministers, divided equally between the Netanyahu-led and Gantz-led blocs, and then increase to 36 ministers as soon as the coronavirus crisis is deemed to have ended, in what will be the largest cabinet by far in Israel’s history.

The Likud and its right-wing partners will receive the Finance, Health, Internal Security, Construction, Transportation and Education portfolios. Blue and White will receive the Defence, Foreign Affairs, Justice, Economy, Communications and Culture portfolios.

A major bone of contention has been the makeup and mechanics of the Judicial Appointments Committee, which installs judges. Netanyahu, who has been indicted on multiple counts of corruption, including bribery, demanded veto power over nominations. Under the agreement reached on Monday night, Likud ensured de facto right-wing veto power on the panel, with the appointment of Blue and White’s MK Zvi Hauser, a former cabinet secretary under Netanyahu. This was immediately condemned by Yesh Atid leader and former Gantz ally Yair Lapid.

Blue and White MK Avi Nissenkorn is expected to be the next Justice Minister, a decision welcomed by top officials in the justice system.

The Knesset speaker will be a member of the Likud for the whole duration of the government. Blue and White member Gabi Ashkenazi will serve as Foreign Minister for the first 18 months before being replaced by someone from Likud.

The final agreement conforms with most of Netanyahu’s demands, including on the annexation of parts of the West Bank, a process that it says can begin in July 2020. According to the agreement, the adoption of the Trump plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace will be carried out in coordination with the US.

Ultra-Orthodox parties Shas (9 seats) and United Torah Judaism (7 seats) have provisionally been given the ministries they requested, however they have not yet formally endorsed the new government and could yet prove to be an obstacle. Gantz has previously vowed to not concede to the Ultra-Orthodox and his previous association with Yair Lapid (an avowed secularist) is a cause for concern for the parties.

Yair Lapid, the leader of Yesh Atid and former ally of Benny Gantz, on Tuesday accused the Blue and White leader of perpetrating “the worst act of fraud in the history of this country” by joining forces with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Lapid claimed that by abandoning his three-time election pledge to not sit in government with Netanayahu so long as he is under indictment, Gantz’s alliance would enable Netanyahu to evade investigation in several other potential scandals.

On Sunday, some 5,000 Israelis took part in a socially distanced protest in Tel Aviv over their condemnation of Netanyahu’s continuing rule.