Harold Halpern on Israeli Law and Politics

Sarasota attorney off to Israel to hold diverse dialogues (June 20, 2019)


Questions about democracy in Israel, the basis and status (June 27, 2019)

On July 19, 2018, the Knesset adopted a Basic Law entitled “Israel — The Nation State of the Jewish People,” which declares that Israel is the state of the Jewish people and sets forth the state’s symbols and capital as the undivided Jerusalem, Hebrew as its official language with Arabic having special status, and affirms its connection with the Jewish people and encourages settlement as a national value.

The new law incorporates that portion of the Declaration of Independence that iterates Israel is a Jewish nation, but raises the question whether it impinges on the portion of the Declaration that declares in powerful words that Israel shall be a democratic state and shall extend equal rights to all citizens including Arabs and minorities (click link below to continue reading)


Sarasota attorney on visit’s discussion of BDS and religious pluralism (July 1, 2019)

I turn now to BDS, a serious effort in the U.S., Europe and the world to damage the status and economy of Israel and in the U.S. to turn students, universities and others away from support and business dealings with Israel. On college campuses, BDS presses to boycott and divest and sometimes intimidates Jewish students. On the economic front, no significant damage has been done, but the stress on Jewish students can be severe.

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Sarasota attorney: Tackling issues of the West Bank, Golan Heights (July 5, 2019)

I begin writing this column from the lounge at Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport awaiting our flight to return home. We have had a rich experience engaging with leaders of diverse backgrounds and opinions on vital topics. Now I am finishing this column on my flight home. There is recent speculation that Israel may annex a portion or all of West Bank and the Golan Heights. Each presents a different legal analysis. We explored the legal issues in our dialogues. There is a divide between right and left.

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Sarasota attorney: Are American and Israeli Jews Drifting Apart? (July 10, 2019)

In this column, I am writing about the relations of American Jews and Israeli Jews. Before doing so, I have a minor correction to my last article. Area B of the West Bank is controlled by the Palestinians except for Israeli control over security. Area C is controlled completely by Israel.

American Jews and Israeli Jews today come from two different backgrounds. Jews in America grew up in a society giving the greatest opportunity they ever enjoyed — despite shortcomings on the way. Jewish prosperity stems in part from the liberal democratic order that permitted this freedom. Jews as a minority are protected by this liberal order. So many Jews want to protect this order.

Israeli Jews in contrast are a majority. Many are preoccupied with majority rights and view liberal democracy protection of minorities impinging on majority rights.

And of course Israel’s very existence for its 72-year current history still is threatened by its surrounding neighbors, which tests the tenets of democracy as those in the United States have been tested in times of stress during our wars.

These differences lead to some stress in the relationships, particularly from younger generations. Many American Jews of the liberal order are skeptical of Israeli commitment to peace with Palestinians. However, many Israelis have negative feelings about criticism from U.S. Jews who are not living in threatened conditions. They also are upset that most American Jews supported the Iran agreement, which they felt endangered their survival (click link below to continue reading).


Sarasota attorney: Israeli court protects democracy (July 18, 2019)

The Israel Supreme Court consists of 15 judges who serve until age 70 and are selected by a professional, nonpolitical-controlled committee. Early on, after the establishment of the state of Israel, the Supreme Court decided, following the precedent of the U.S. Supreme Court, that it had the power, authority and duty to determine whether actions of government and or laws of Knesset (the Israeli Parliament) were constitutional. This power, this authority, is the basic fundamental check to ensure democracy is not threatened (click link below to continue reading).


Sarasota attorney: Is a two-state solution in Israel possible (August 1, 2019)

Many have suggested that the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians could be resolved only by the “two-state solution.” However, all efforts to reach this solution have failed during the last 70 years. Nahum Barnea, an Israeli prize-winning journalist, told a group of us during a recent visit to the Middle East that “there is now no solution to the West Bank.”

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Sarasota attorney: Is Netanyahu’s time coming to a close? (August 15, 2019)

Israel’s next Knesset, its parliament, will be elected on Sept. 17, 2019.

A word about the process. There are 120 members in the Knesset. Each political party, or parties if they decide to run jointly, selects a slate of candidates. The voters vote for their preferred slate and not for any individual candidate.

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Sarasota attorney: Impact of Israel election on policies (August 26, 2019)

Over the past several weeks, I wrote about issues of concern not only to Israelis but to Americans. Now I write about the potential impact of the Sept. 17 election on many of those issues dependent on which group forms the government, the right led by Likud or the center-left led by the Blue and White.

Democracy: The election between the right and center-left is expected to be close. If the right wins, the government will include Ayele Shaked, the head of the United Right, who was the Minister of Justice in the last government. She severely criticized the Supreme Court of Israel as too liberal and too willing to invalidate the will of the people by declaring government actions unconstitutional. She proposed to politicize judicial appointments, to limit the areas in which the court could act and to permit the Knesset to override the court’s decisions. If the proposals were to become law, they would weaken the court’s independence and ability serve as a check on actions of the government ⁠— a weakened democracy.

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Sarasota attorney: Strategies shaping Israeli election (September 4, 2019)

In my last column I wrote about the impact of the new government on Israeli policies.

The latest is that 56 Knesset seats for the Right coalition headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party and 55 seats for the Blue White coalition headed by Benny Gantz and nine Knesset seats to Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party. Sixty-one votes are required to select a prime minister to form the government.

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At issue in Israel’s election battle (September 10, 2019)

As the Sept. 17 elections to fill seats in Israel’s Knesset, or parliament, approach, multiple parties are seeking to maximize their vote to secure their share of in the proportional allocation.

The major contestants are Likud led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in coalition with other right parties and the Blue White party, led by Benny Gantz in coalition with other center left parties. Despite coalitions, each party wants to maximize votes to enhance its bargaining position in negotiations to form a government that requires at least 61 votes of the 120-member Knesset.

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Sarasota attorney: Three possible scenarios in Israeli election (September 16, 2019)

This is my last column before the election of the 120 members of the Israeli Knesset. It’s the second try to elect a new government. The first effort failed. No one could gather a coalition of the needed 61 votes.

The two leading parties are Likud led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Blue-White headed by the retired general Benny Gandt. Each has supporters in smaller parties with two critically important independent parties, Yisrael Beiteinu led by Avigdor Lieberman, and the United Arab slate led by Ayman Odeh. The votes of either of both of these independent parties may block Likud.

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Sarasota attorney: Netanyahu’s gambit to remain Israeli PM (September 23, 2019)

My recent columns indicated that the Israeli elections were too close to call.

Now the official Israeli Knesset election reports are just about complete. The contest is between Likud lead by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with a coalition of parties of the right and the Blue White party lead by Benny Gandt and coalition of center- left parties.

Likud won 31 seats and its coalition 55-56 seats. Blue-White won 33 seats and its coalition 43 seats. The uncommitted Israel Beiteinu party, led by Avigdor Lieberman 8-9 seats and the Joint Arab List party, led by Ayman Odeh 12-13 seats.

Sixty-one seats are required to form a government and select the prime minister. Netanyahu is short five to six seats and Gantz is short 18.

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Sarasota attorney: Ray of light hard to see, but it’s there in Israel election (October 8, 2019)

The newly elected Knesset met in its first session on Sept. 3. On the face of it, no solution to the deadlock in forming a government was on the horizon. Neither the meetings, held before the opening of the Knesset, between Benjamin Netanyahu, the leader of Likud, and Benny Gantz, leader of the Blue-White, nor the meeting of Netanyahu with Avigdor Liberman, leader of Yisrael Beiteinu, produced any results.

President Reuben Rivlin, as is the custom, opened the first session with presidential greetings. He pleaded with the parties to compromise and to form a broad national unity coalition.

“This is a time of emergency for Israel security, Israel society and Israel democracy. Only a unity government would allow us to breathe a little bit and heal” our divisions, Rivlin said.

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Sarasota attorney: Whither now for Israel? (October 30, 2019)

This past week I and two colleagues spoke to an attorneys group in New York City and to a Jewish Federation of West Massachusetts-sponsored event in Springfield, Massachusetts, about Israel. Both were interactive sessions. Here are their questions and our answers.

Q. Are there divisions in Israeli about the role of religion?

A. Yes, over the control the orthodox Jewish rabbinate has in compelling enforcement of Sabbath rules against public transportation and closure of business and entertainment.

There is a divide over the Orthodox rabbinic control over conversion, marriage, divorce, burial solely in accord with its rules to the exclusion of other streams of Judaism and prohibition of civil marriage.

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Sarasota attorney: Israel on a precipice (November 22, 2019)

Retired Sarasota attorney Harold Halpern lays out the current perils in Israel and the possible solutions, many which would require an act of courage.

To paraphrase Winston Churchill: Democracy is messy, but there is nothing better.

Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s holdover prime minister, has been charged with committing three crimes: accepting bribes, fraud and breach of trust. He is the first sitting prime minister to be charged with criminal conduct.

Just hours before the charges were made against Netanyahu, Benny Gantz announced that he was unable to secure 61 Knesset member votes necessary to succeed Netanyahu as PM.

Now Israel is in a 21-day period in which any member of Knesset may secure 61 signed votes to form a government. Under Israeli law, Netanyahu continues until a successor is chosen, he resigns or replaced. If no one secures the 61 votes an election — the third in a year — must be held.

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Sarasota attorney: A letter of concern about the future of Israel in deadlock (December 9, 2019)

Retired Sarasota attorney Harold Hallpern sent this letter to a friend in Israel, writing about the potential outcome of the government deadlock in that nation.

Editor’s note: This is a letter that retired Sarasota attorney Harold Halpern, a board member of the American Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists, wrote to a friend in Israel.

Letter to Stu:

I haven’t written for a while as I was waiting to see how things played out during what may be the final efforts to form a government. As the end time is fast approaching, I write to let you know how things appear from here.

The members of the Knesset have until this coming Wednesday to gather 61 member signatures proposing any of its members to give a try to form a government. If the signatures are not obtained, a third election is mandatory. If obtained, there will be two more weeks of negotiations to avoid the election.

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Sarasota attorney: A third deadlocked Israeli election leads to deal-making (January 7, 2020)

Retired Sarasota attorney Harold Halpern writes about the possible outcomes of the upcoming March election, the third effort to form a government.

Editor’s note: This is a letter that retired Sarasota attorney Harold Halpern, a board member of the American Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists, wrote to a friend in Israel.

Yes, I am well. I have been sorting out the significance of the Israel failure in two elections to form a government. Part of the explanation is the Israeli Parliamentary system.

You vote for a party slate and not an individual. A party needs to obtain only 3.25% of the total vote to get proportional representation in the Knesset. This makes it easy to form a political party. The result is multiple parties. In the history of Israel, no party has won a majority. Every government has been formed only by putting a coalition together.

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Sarasota attorney: Will maneuvers in Israel change the election results? (January 20, 2020)

In my last column I wrote that the third election effort to form a government in Israel on March 2 looks as if it will again be indecisive with neither Benjamin Netanyahu or Benny Gantz able to garner a coalition of the necessary 61 Knesset seats.

Both Netanyahu and Gantz continue to maneuver to improve their chances.

Before discussing what they have been up to, I am making a detour to share my feelings about a sold-out concert on Jan. 12 at the Opera House. Azi Schwartz, world class cantor, treated us to an emotionally uplifting night with Hebrew songs of prayer and classical and Broadway music. This was a perfect antidote to the anxiety of recent hate crimes and anti-Semitic acts decried by the editorial board of the Herald-Tribune.

Now, back to what Netanyahu and Gantz and their coalition partners have been up to since the failed election of last September.

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Sarasota attorney: What is the impact of the peace plan on the Israeli election (February 4, 2020)

The U.S. and Israel elections are connected.

On Jan. 28, the Israeli Knesset was to consider Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s request for immunity from prosecution on criminal charges. Most Israelis opposed immunity. Netanyahu withdrew his request because he didn’t have the votes.

Immediately, the criminal charges for bribery and breach of trust were filed, starting the criminal proceedings.

Netanyahu continues his campaign for election, denying all charges.

The prime minister seeks to distract from this issue. He has renewed his promise to annex the Jordan Valley. Given the violence in the Middle East, Israelis agree that the Jordan Valley is essential to Israel’s security along its eastern border. In a political ploy, Netanyahu asked his principal opponent, Benny Gantz, to join him in supporting annexation. Gantz did, but to distinguish his position, he said his agreement was subject to international consent.

Netanyahu attacked Gantz on his equivocation.

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Sarasota attorney: Is Trump plan last chance for Palestinian state?

I haven’t written in a while. I was waiting to see if there was any change in the deadlock within the Israeli political parties. It appears unlikely.

As recently reported by the Herald-Tribune, the polls are projecting that neither the Right, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyau, or Center-Left, lead by Benny Gantz, are getting a majority of seats.

This means no new government unless: 1. There is a greater voter turnout for the Right giving it enough seats. 2. Yisrael Beiteinyu, led by Avigdor Liberman, casts its votes for Netanyahu (unlikely). 3. Yisrael Beiteinyu casts its votes for Gantz and participates in a minority government dependent on Israeli Arab coalition outside of government voting to block its dissolution (uncertain). 4. The coalition of Left-Center and Right with Gantz as PM rotating with Netanyahu, if he is acquitted. Or 5. Netanyahu making a deal on criminal charges in return for resigning from the Knesset.

In the meantime, Netanyahu, with support of the United States, keeps the peace plan up front. There was full public publicity as the map makers from U.S. arrived in Israel. The maps are a precondition of U.S. approval of annexation of settlements and Jordan Valley. Netanyahu promises to please his base that annexation will take place as soon as the maps are completed.

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Sarasota attorney: Coronavirus might aid formation of Israeli government (March 17, 2020)

The coronavirus has put the world in uncharted territory. We don’t know its duration or full impact. Ironically, it may be the impetus to resolve the inability of the political parties in Israel to form a government after three deadlocked elections in the past year.

The March 2 election saw a few changes, but not enough for the Right coalition led by Benjamin Netanyahu or the Center-Left coalition led by Benny Gantz. The Right parties won 58 seats and the Center-Left 40 seats. Sixty-one are necessary to form a government and select a prime minister.

Two unaligned parties won seats. Yisrael Beiteinu won seven seats and the Joint List of Israeli Arabs won 15.

Initially, Netanyahu celebrated victory — he assumed he could peel three disenchanted members away from the Center-Left. The celebration turned to distress when the three unhesitatingly rejected all overtures.

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Sarasota attorney: Israel finally has a government (March 26, 2020)

In my last column, I wrote that the coronavirus might be the ingredient to propel a unity government in Israel.

It happened not immediately but after both the Right and Left-Center failed in their separate efforts to going it alone.

The Israeli public was dead set against a fourth election. A functioning government put together in a constitutional manner saved Israel’s threatened democracy.

Benny Gantz, the leader of Blue-White, made a decision on Thursday that was an act of courage. For the good of the country, beleaguered by the ravages of the virus, the always-present threats to Israel’s existence and the urgent need for a functioning government, Gantz agreed to serve with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

This decision was despite his deep-felt belief that Netanyahu should not continue while under indictment. Gantz knew that two party leaders would leave his coalition and enter the opposition, blowing up his Blue-White party. And yet he acted for what he felt was for the better good. About 20 members of his party will join him as part of the new government that will have a solid majority numbering in the mid-70s.

The government will be Likud, Gantz faction, the two religious parties and Yamina.

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Sarasota attorney: Thread of hope that fourth Israeli election can be avoided (April 17, 2020)

I had hoped this column would discuss issues facing a new unity government in Israel, but negotiations have broken down. Instead, I will discuss the purported reasons for the failure as well as the next steps in the process of forming a government.

President Reuvan Rivlin designated Benny Gantz, leader of the Blue White Party, the opportunity to obtain a commitment for 61 votes from the newly elected Knesset to become prime minister.

Gantz abandoned his refusal to sit with Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of Likud and its coalition, while Netanyahu is under indictment for criminal charges as prime minister. Gantz said he was forgoing his promise because the country needed a government to deal with the coronavirus and could not wait on a fourth election.

About 20 members of Blue and White agreed. The rest — about 13 or so — refused and left the party willing to sit as a part of the opposition.

Gantz had 28 days to reach a negotiated deal with Likud to resolve the issues facing the country, appointments to the cabinet and rotation of the prime minister between Netanyahu and Gandz. The issues are complex with significant differences requiring compromise.

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Israeli coalition agreement: compromise or sell-out? (April 22, 2020)

Last week, I wrote that an agreement for a coalition government was hanging by a thread.

Benny Gantz’s mandate to form an agreement expired. By law any member of the Knesset could form a government if 61 members signed off in agreement. Benjamin Netanyahu, on behalf of Likud and its coalition, and Benny Gantz, on behalf of Blue White and its coalition, continued negotiations.

If a deal was to be made it had to be almost immediately. The Knesset was about to be called into session to consider legislation to bar Netanyahu from serving as prime minister while under indictment.

Regardless of the outcome of the proposed law, there was little or no chance of any member coming up with 61 signatures to form a government. The law then required a fourth election within a few months. The public didn’t want to again go to the polls in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

Likely Netanyahu and Gantz didn’t want to chance the uncertain outcome of another expensive election. On Monday, an agreement to form a unity government was signed by the two men and a fourth election was avoided.

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Sarasota attorney: Will coalition government last in Israel? (May 14, 2020)

I have been writing this column on Israel for almost a year. During all this time, Israel was unable to form a government. Two elections failed to produce the required majority. Benjamin Netanyahu continued to act as a carryover prime minister with limited power.

The third election on March 2 produced a similar deadlock. The Likud coalition of parties led by Netanyahu could not get the 61 Knesset member votes to form a government nor could the Blue and White coalition led by Benny Gantz.

It appeared Israel was headed to a fourth election in the midst of the coronavirus.

Gantz averted an election by breaking his promise not to serve with Netanyahu while the prime minister was under indictment on serious criminal charges. This was required, he claimed, by the urgent need for a government to deal with the virus and other critical issues. His party’s 15 votes were needed for the 61.

Gantz’ action drew praise as an act of courage for the good of the country and was condemned by others as a breach of a promise to rid the country of Netanyahu.

Gantz lost 21 members of his coalition, 16 of whom were members of his Blue and White party. The coalition has 72 members of the Knesset and the Opposition 48.

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Halpern: The conflicting narratives of Israel and Palestinians (June 16, 2020)

Early this year, President Trump released his peace plan to settle issues between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, or PA.

The plan requires a give and take on both sides. Israel could incorporate all settlements with a total of 450,000 settlers in the West Bank, as well as the Jordan Valley. In return, Israel is required to accept a Palestinian State for the 2 million Palestinians on the remaining 70% of the West Bank, with Israel in charge of all aspects of security.

The parties have four years to negotiate all details, during which time Israel cannot enlarge or develop new settlements.

The PA announced the deal was an illegal taking of the Palestinian’s property and dead on arrival. It refused to negotiate with the United States or Israel. It canceled all agreements with the U.S. and mutual security protection understandings with Israel.

Jordan condemned any unilateral Israel action and expressed concern that violence might break out if Israel proceeds.

The Arab League joined in the opposition.

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The conflicting narratives of Israelis and Palestinians (June 22, 2020)

On Yom Kippur Oct. 6,1973, Egypt and Syria attacked Israel without warning. The surprise initially left Israel reeling. The Arab world celebrated the demise of Israel.

However, Israel regrouped, and with material aid from the United States went on the offensive and succeeded in turning back the attack.

Egypt’s initial success enabled it to proclaim a victory, which is celebrated as a holiday.

Egypt’s perceived victory enabled President Anwar Sadat to sign a peace treaty with Israel on March 26, 1979, and obtain the return of the Sinai. This was followed by a peace treaty with Jordan on Oct. 26, 1994.

Subsequently, Israel annexed the Golan Heights, unified Jerusalem into one city and withdrew from Gaza.

Today, Israel’s existence is threatened by Hezbollah on the north and on the south by Hamas in Gaza, both supported by Iran, seeking the destruction of Israel.

Israel continues to occupy the West Bank. Efforts have been made to reach a two-state solution for 20 or more years.

The Oslo Accords, 1993 and 1995, between the Palestinian Authority and Israel divided the West Bank into Areas A, B and C. Areas A and B are controlled by the PA (security by Israel in Area B) and Area C completely by Israel. These accords expressed the hope that a final agreement could be reached.

In a summit meeting with President Clinton in July 2000, Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered Chairman Arafat of the PA 90% of the West Bank, subject to Israeli control over security. It was not accepted. Arafat, in addition to land, wanted to secure the right of return of millions of descendants to Israel of former Palestinians.

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Halpern: Letter to a Friend in Jerusalem (June 29, 2020)

Dear Stu:

Time to catch up. I appreciate your sending me current articles to make sure I am up to date.

I recently wrote in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune about the mutually exclusive Israeli and Palestinian narrative claims to all of Israel and the West Bank.

Simply stated, the Palestinians view the Israelis as invaders without entitlement, and the Israelis view that they have returned home to their land to which the Palestinians have no claim.

This conflict has led to three wars by Arab nations to remove Israel from the map: 1948 upon Israel’s Declaration of Independence ; 1967, in which Israel beat back the Arab armies and in process acquired the West Bank, East Jerusalem, Golan Heights and the Sinai; the Yom Kippur war of 1973 in which Israel successfully defended itself.

After the ’73 war, Egypt and Jordan made peace recognizing Israel’s right to exist, and Israel returned the Sinai to Egypt.

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Inaction by Israel and United States on West Bank (August 3, 2020)

In my last column on June 30, I wrote that despite Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s repeated call to begin the process to incorporate the Jordan Valley and West Bank settlements into Israel proper, we could not count on that happening.

There was much international opposition as well as opposition from the Israeli left and right for, of course, different reasons. The left and some of the center feared serious repercussions, and some of the further right feared this suggestion from the Trump Peace Plan would mean acceptance of a Palestinian state, which they reject.

Now it is early August. Talk of action has almost disappeared. Some say that President Donald Trump is too engaged to give Netanyahu a green light with coronavirus infections rising and his campaign for reelection underway.

On the Israeli side, Netanyahu is also burdened with a second and more serious wave of the virus and large daily protests for his and his government’s handling and failure to provide financial relief to its citizens and businesses. At the same time, he is engaged in defending himself against criminal charges with a trial to resume in January.

Others claim that rather then being overwhelmed by the coronavirus and the public reaction to it, Netanyahu and Trump primarily used the promise of incorporating portions of the West Bank into Israel to buttress their standings with their base with no intent to proceed, particularly in light of international protest, fear of uprisings and domestic disagreement.

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Normalized relations between Israel and United Arab Emirates a game-changer (August 25, 2020)

In my column of Aug. 3, I wrote that Israeli and U.S. inaction stalled annexation in the West Bank. Now we know why.

On Aug. 13, President Donald Trump made the surprise announcement that the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Israel had agreed to “full normalization of relations.”

This is a major milestone. It is the first time an Arab nation has entered into full relationship with Israel that is based upon “peace” for “peace.” Agreements with both Egypt and Jordan were based upon giving up land for peace.

Until the agreement with the UAE, all other Arab nations refused to normalize relations until Israel resolved the Palestinian question in the West Bank.

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