THE WEEK AHEAD: Blinken heads to Israel amid terror alert and political tensions, and COVID-19 turns from pandemic to ‘viral disease’
Here are the stories we are watching...
Blinken in the Middle East
End of the pandemic
Negev tree planting
Israel is recovering from a deadly week that saw a terror attack in Jerusalem, rockets fired from Gaza and violent clashes in the West Bank between Palestinians and the Israeli Defense Forces. This week will be a test for the new Israeli government, considered to be the most right-wing in the country’s modern history. Some members of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s security Cabinet are expected to seek retaliation, whereas the Biden administration has voiced concerns and calls for de-escalation on all fronts.
BLINKEN IN THE MIDDLE EAST
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is expected to arrive in Israel on Monday, as the country still mourns the victims of the deadly terror attack in Jerusalem. His visit also comes amid a tense political atmosphere regarding the government’s push for judicial reform that has been met with large-scale protests. Blinken is slated to meet with Netanyahu, Foreign Minister Eli Cohen and other senior leaders to discuss the enduring U.S. support for Israel’s security, particularly against threats from Iran, according to a statement from the U.S. State Department.
Prior to his visit in Israel, Blinken will make a stop in Cairo to meet with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Blinken will also travel to the West Bank, where he will meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to discuss “Israeli-Palestinian relations and the importance of a two-state solution, political reforms and further strengthening of the U.S. relationship with the Palestinian people and leadership.”
The State Department added that Blinken is expected to “underscore the urgent need for the parties to take steps to deescalate tensions in order to put an end to the cycle of violence that has claimed too many innocent lives.”
After weeks of mass protests over the Israeli government’s plan to reform the country’s justice system, the coming days could see winds of compromise beginning to blow. Opposition leader Yair Lapid has offered to establish a presidential committee that will look into making a “balanced and reasonable recommendation to improve the judicial system and find the proper balance between the legislative and judicial branches.” Israeli President Isaac Herzog is expected to consider the suggestion.
Meanwhile, National Unity Party leader Benny Gantz claimed there are “voices from among coalition officials who want to reach agreements.” However, both Gantz and Lapid have come under attack from the hard left that objects to any discussion over the hot topic. Instead, the left intends to take the fight against Netanyahu up a notch. According to reports, Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara is weighing ordering the Israeli premier to temporarily step down because of a “conflict of interest.”
END OF THE PANDEMIC
The coronavirus will be considered a viral disease in Israel beginning Jan. 31. This means that COVID will be downgraded to a level similar to the flu, and stop being treated as a pandemic. According to national broadcaster Kan 11 news, the control center for the pandemic will be closed and COVID patients will no longer have to isolate.
The new COVID guidelines come as a stark contrast to policies that were enacted in the Jewish State at the height of the pandemic. Those included an “exemptions committee” that determined which cases allowed citizens to fly in the country, as well as fines for not wearing masks indoors and outdoors and strict social distancing rules.
Khan Al-Ahmar is a Bedouin village in Area C of the West Bank that was built illegally, without state permits. The Israeli Supreme Court had ordered residents to evacuate the village in May 2018. Ever since that decision was made, Israeli governments have postponed demolition of its makeshift tents and huts due to international pressure from human rights groups and European institutions.
In the past, Netanyahu had pledged to remove the illegal homes, but fell short of executing the plan. Then former Prime Minister Yair Lapid said that the fate of the village should be determined only after the last elections. Netanyahu’s current coalition partners – National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich – have called to immediately evict the residents of the village. This week will see another deadline to submit any plans for the contested village to the court.
NEGEV TREE PLANTING
In the spirit of the upcoming holiday of Tu B’Shvat, known as the "New Year of the Trees", the Jewish National Fund is planning to carry out tree planting near Nahal Yatir in the Negev on Sunday, Jan. 29. While the plantings are expected to take place in areas owned by the state, there is a chance the activities could spark tensions. Last year, a similar initiative triggered violent clashes with the Bedouin community that lives in the area.
Otzma Yehudit MK Almog Cohen ahead of the operation said that "the plantings are a symbol of the sovereignty of the State of Israel in the Negev.” He added that the “sacred work of planting trees” is meant to “preserve the state's lands in the Negev. Land that we do not cultivate, we will lose."
This week we are also keeping an eye on these developing stories:
... What did Joel Rosenberg and Ben Shapiro say about a plan to reform Israel’s justice system?
... What did Israel’s president say to try to calm a raucous discourse over the judicial reform?
... What has been the reaction in the UAE to Holocaust education in state schools?
... What does the future hold for excavations underneath the Western Wall?
The All Israel News Staff is a team of journalists in Israel.