Burning down the house: 7 things to know for May 24
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Burning down the house: 7 things to know for May 24

As Israel licks wounds, prepares for more fires after blazes ravage country and force thousands to evacuate, Liberman walks out of coalition talks

Jacob Magid is the settlements correspondent for The Times of Israel.

Effects of a fire in the central town of Mevo Modi'im on May 23, 2019. (Israel Fire Service)
Effects of a fire in the central town of Mevo Modi'im on May 23, 2019. (Israel Fire Service)

1. Up in flames: Just about every Israeli media outlet gives top coverage to the wave of some 800 fires that ravaged the heat-stricken country Thursday, forcing some 3,500 Israelis to evacuate their homes, with dozens of them returning Friday morning to find everything they owned had been incinerated.

  • Some of the worst pictures are coming out of Mevo Modiim, where 40 of the 45 homes in the small, central town were burned to the ground. Several of the community’s families spent the night in a nearby youth village, while others preferred to crash with friends.
  • “I was at work and my wife was at home when the fire reached the community. I drove home quickly, collected some of our belongings — jewelry, a computer and the dog — and we got out of there quickly,” one resident recalls to Yedioth Ahronoth.
  • Another severely impacted town was Kibbutz Harel, where eight of the community’s roughly 50 homes burned to the ground. Residents have been told that it is still not safe for them to return for the weekend. Locals had arrived Friday morning to see if they could gather some of their belongings, but authorities were preventing them from doing so.
  • “Already as of yesterday, it was impossible to enter. I left the children and tried to reach our house to save at least one of our dogs. They would not let me in, but someone else broke into our house and let the pets out. In the afternoon I went into the house and saw that I no longer had anything, just what I was wearing. There was nothing left. The cats were gone, and one dog too. We’re currently trying to fetch another dog that apparently has been roaming around. We told the children that the home is gone along with their toys and clothes,” a Kibbutz Harel resident told Walla.

2. Help is on the way: After Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered the Foreign Ministry to reach out to nearby countries for help, his office announces that Egypt, Italy, Greece, Cyprus and Croatia have dispatched firefighting aircraft that were slated to arrive in Israel on Friday morning.

  • Walla reports that the premier also spoke with senior Israeli fire officials, telling them not to spare any resources in fighting the flames.
  • Israel Hayom reports that while temperatures are expected to rise to above 110°F in some areas between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, the heat wave will peak by the afternoon and the rest of the weekend is slated to see slightly cooler weather that will continue into next week.
  • Already this morning, residents of several evacuated communities including Shilat, Gimzo and Kfar Daniel have been told that they may return to their homes.

3. Blowing smoke?: With the flames engulfing the country as a backdrop, Yisrael Beytenu chairman Avigdor Liberman says he’s prepared to walk out of coalition talks for good, leaving Netanyahu with a maximum coalition of 60 MKs — a scenario that could well sooner or later then require, yup, new elections.

  • Netanyahu’s office is briefing reporters, saying that the former defense minister is doing everything he can to bring about the “rise of a left-wing government,” using the same rhetoric that was commonplace in the recent electoral season.
  • Liberman pens an op-ed in Yedioth in which he explains why he is digging his heels in on the issue of legislation regulating military draft exemptions for Haredi yeshiva students.
  • The Yisrael Beytenu chairman argues that the legislation the parties had agreed to before the election had already been a compromise on his part and he is not willing to “compromise on compromises,” while the ultra-Orthodox parties give up nothing.
  • “When it comes to the interests of the ultra-Orthodox, their parties always know how to transcend disagreements and achieve for their public as much as possible. The time has come for elected representatives of the secular public to insist on the interests of their constituents,” Liberman writes.
  • An analysis in the national religious Makor Rishon weekly explains that Liberman recognizes that his traditional base of immigrants from the former Soviet Union is dwindling and that he feels that now is the time to begin moving toward the secular right in Israel.

4. Not kidding around: Technically, Netanyahu can form a non-majority coalition of 60 seats, but…

  • Liberman says he would oppose such a government and vote against it if a no-confidence proposal were to be brought before the Knesset.
  • Channel 12’s Amit Segal maps out what would happen next if Netanyahu fails to form a government by the May 28 deadline.
  • What happens in this case? The president opens consultations with the parties regarding who else could form the next government. He can tap Blue and White leader Benny Gantz or another senior Likud official to do so, “but that seems pointless,” Segal argues.
  • What’s more likely is that he’ll announce that no MK has a chance to put together a government. At which point there will be 21 days where all 120 MKS themselves can vote for who they think should form the next government. If nobody receives 61 votes: elections on September 24, 2019 for the 22nd Knesset, the political correspondent predicts.
  • At the same time, when the Netanyahu-friendly Israel Hayom leads with “The political system predicts: Netanyahu will dissolve the Knesset,” it’s hard not to conclude that this is all just a ploy by the premier to pressure coalition partners to climb down from their demands.
  • The Marker’s Nati Tucker points out that with Netanyahu needing 61 MKs in order to grant him immunity from the looming corruption charges he faces, it is the premier who may have to pander to his coalition partners, despite the impressive 35 seats he won in last month’s elections.

5. Missing Bennett: All of this could likely have been avoided had Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked’s New Right made it into the Knesset. (Ironically, the PMO was said to have popped open the champagne upon learning that it didn’t cross the electoral threshold.)

  • The New Right’s entry would have taken a seat away from Liberman’s party among others, neutering him of his ability to bring the coalition to its knees.
  • Haaretz’s Yossi Verter reports that Netanyahu is also missing Bennett when it has come to his coalition talks with the ex-education minister’s old party, where new No. 2 Bezalel Smotrich has been asking for everything but the kitchen sink despite only having won five seats.
  • Verter predicts that Smotrich will likely fold eventually on his demand for the justice portfolio, given that his Union of Right-Wing Parties is not going to join Meretz and Hadash-Ta’al in calling for new elections.
  • However, due to URWP head Rafi Peretz’s poor negotiation skills (in the eyes of Verter), Smotrich will receive the top choice in whatever ministries the national religious party snags from Netanyahu, making the hardline lawmaker Israel’s likely next education minister.

6. More of the same: In the meantime, all of the likely opposition parties led by Blue and White are planning a Saturday evening Tel Aviv protest against Netanyahu’s apparent attempts to stifle the High Court and legislate himself immunity. But when we say “all,” we of course mean “except for the Arab Israeli parties.

  • Haaretz reports that while Hadash-Ta’al chairman Ayman Odeh had been invited to participate and even speak at the event, Blue and White officials rescinded their offer after receiving his response.
  • Gantz’s party says that Odeh took too long to respond, but the latter’s party argues that Blue and White was looking for any excuse not to include Hadash-Ta’al.
  • As for the more hardline Arab Israeli party, Ra’am-Balad, its chairman Mansour Abbas says he never received an invitation, despite the fact that he would have agreed to come. As such, the participating parties will remain Blue and White, Labor and Meretz.
  • Protest organizers say that they are trying very hard not to allow the demonstration to turn into a left-wing affair, in an effort to continue to reach out to the “soft-right” constituency in Israel. How those voters will react to Meretz leader Tamar Zandberg on the stage remains to be seen.

7. Skirting past the competition: The Times of Israel’s Michael Bachner shares the story of ultra-Orthodox “Marathon Mother” Beatie Deutsch.

  • After beating the top female finisher at the Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Tiberias marathons, the mother-of-five says she is is just getting started.
  • “Deutsch, who is known for running in modest clothing including a skirt, sleeves below her elbow, and headscarf, is now eyeing her next goal: the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.”
  • The 29-year-old immigrant from New Jersey says she uses her running to raise awareness and funds for a new day center called Beit Daniella — a rehabilitation facility for adolescents with eating disorders and other psychiatric disorders who have been hospitalized or dropped out of school.
  • “First of all, when you focus on your time, your clothing makes a difference. I’m running in twice as much clothing as any other runner. I’m sponsored by Nike but what they send me is stuff I can’t wear, so it’s kind of frustrating. I’m an anomaly; there’s no other professional runner out there who looks like me,” she says.

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