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Israel's Netanyahu battles coronavirus and Supreme Court decision – Foreign Policy

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TEL AVIV – Two formidable crises Israel is facing, a pandemic and a political standoff, have intersected in recent days to create one of the most challenging—and bewildering—moments in the country’s history.

The coronavirus has infected nearly 2,000 Israelis and killed three of them, prompting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to impose a near-total lockdown across the country.

At the same time, Netanyahu seems poised to defy a Supreme Court decision that could potentially loosen his grip on power after three inconclusive elections in the past year and three corruption indictments.

The standoff amounts to a constitutional crisis for Israel and a difficult test for Netanyahu. But the national emergency spawned by the pandemic could ultimately save the Israeli leader politically.

The court ruled Monday that Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein must hold a plenary vote by Wednesday on a new speaker. Edelstein is a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party.

Coming out of the latest election in early March, the opposition Blue and White party and its allies hold a slim 61-seat majority in parliament, versus 59 seats for Netanyahu and his religious and right-wing allies. Blue and White is now intent on pressing forward with its advantage, including nominating one of its own to the speaker post and taking control of parliamentary procedure.

Edelstein had indicated he would not abide by the Supreme Court’s ruling, with other senior Netanyahu government ministers calling on him to directly flout the decision. In the past week, Edelstein had raised concerns about conducting the full array of Knesset activities, citing Health Ministry guidelines on social distancing. But critics say casting ballots remotely and using special quarantine rooms for infected parliamentarians would mitigate any concerns.

Supreme Court Chief Justice Esther Hayut was withering in her criticism, saying that Edelstein’s continued refusal to hold the speaker vote “undermined the foundations of the democratic process and damaged the Knesset’s status as an independent authority.”

Israel’s attorney general and president have also weighed in, saying the government should allow the normal functioning of parliament.

But Netanyahu loyalists slammed the court’s decision as undemocratic and accused judges of usurping powers from the legislative branch. “If Chief Justice Hayut wants to put herself above the Knesset, she’s invited to come…with the Supreme Court guard and open the plenary herself,” wrote Tourism Minister Yariv Levin on Facebook.

Several right-wing politicians appeared to take a softer line against the court, which has become a major battleground between nationalists and liberals over contentious pieces of Knesset legislation, West Bank settlements, and illegal migrants.

“We haven’t got another court, we haven’t got another [justice] system. The decision must be respected. But the very intervention is the problem,” one Likud minister told Army Radio Tuesday morning. Politicians and commentators on both the left and right warned of anarchy if a Supreme Court ruling is flouted.

The division over the ruling mirrors the broader discord in the country over Netanyahu himself—the longest-serving prime minister in Israel’s history.

“We already have a two-state solution in Israel,” Likud pollster Rafi Smith recently told Foreign Policy, using a term usually associated with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “It’s called Bibi and no Bibi, the right versus the liberal left. It’s a fight over the identity of the country.”

This chasm only widened after three election campaigns and three indictments against Netanyahu for bribery, fraud, and breach of trust. Neither Netanyahu nor his chief rival, Blue and White head Benny Gantz, have been able to form a government. Netanyahu has continued on as caretaker prime minister of a transition government.

To be sure, the center-left, led by Blue and White, did win a slight majority, and Gantz last week was tasked by the president with forming a government. Yet his path to a governing coalition appears slim at best.

The anti-Netanyahu forces in parliament are divided ideologically between Arab-Israeli political factions and secular ultra-nationalists, pro-peace leftists and right-wing security hawks. Gantz’s only viable option coming out of the last election was the seating of a minority government with the external parliamentary support of the Arab-dominated Joint List. There’s no precedent in Israel for a minority government formed at the outset of a tenure.

Two Blue and White backbenchers, however, have already indicated they would oppose such a decision, deeming Arab-Israeli political support anathema; a Gantz-led minority government is impossible without their votes.

Netanyahu, for his part, maintains that he holds a parliamentary majority since the votes of Israel’s Arab citizens—twenty percent of the country, who voted overwhelmingly for the Joint List—should not be counted. A recent Likud video shared by Netanyahu on social media alleged that Blue and White was “trampling over democracy” and conspiring with “supporters of terror to topple a Zionist government.”

But Ahmed Tibi of the Joint List faction, told Foreign Policy that Netanyahu was trying to delegitimize the Joint List because of its increasing strength. “Bibi isn’t prime minister because of our votes—Arab doctors, teachers, construction workers, football players and more who made the Joint List the third largest party in the Knesset.”

With no clear path to a governing coalition for either Netanyahu or Gantz, and with the spiraling coronavirus crisis, the two leaders have discussed forming a “national emergency government” together.

Netanyahu this past weekend laid out his version of the incipient deal, which would see him remain as prime minister for 18 months, followed by Gantz serving for 18 months. This would be a huge comedown for Blue and White, a political party just over a year old that was created for the express purpose of toppling Netanyahu. Yet, as Gantz put it in a recent interview: “There are principles, but there are also circumstances,” alluding to the growing economic toll of a national shutdown that has driven up unemployment to nearly eighteen percent.

There remains, however, deep opposition even within Blue and White’s leadership to sitting with Netanyahu in government. “I can’t imagine anyone in the country believes Bibi will step down and hand the keys to Gantz in one and a half years,” a senior source in Blue and White told Foreign Policy. “It’s possible that Netanyahu sometimes lies and can’t be trusted to uphold political deals,” the source added sardonically.

Which all ties back to the constitutional crisis over the Knesset speaker.

Blue and White in recent weeks has embarked on a strategy to increase pressure on Netanyahu via parliament and thereby improve its negotiating position (while also, party officials insist, providing essential oversight over an unelected government as it invokes emergency powers to deal with the pandemic).

First came the solidification of Gantz’s parliamentary majority that gave him first option to form a government. This then provided Gantz with the power to form Knesset committees—something Likud also opposed—and move to replace Edelstein as speaker. Control over parliamentary procedure, finally, may provide Blue and White with the option—or threat—of passing laws disqualifying an indicted prime minister from running again in any future election.

“It’s the best threat they have on Netanyahu,” Tal Shalev, senior political correspondent for the Walla News outlet, told Foreign Policy. “Bibi is most afraid of this law.”

The kerfuffle over parliament, then, can best be understood as both Blue and White upholding Israel’s democratic processes and as a leverage play against Netanyahu.

“Gantz wants [a] unity [government with Netanyahu] but he can’t do it via a complete surrender,” Shalev explained. “He has to finish the Knesset moves first” because of pressure from several of his senior political partners.

The real enigma remains Netanyahu. He has threatened to end unity talks if Blue and White actually replaces his Knesset speaker. Over the past two days he directed the entire right-wing bloc of parties to simply boycott parliament. An emergency government with Gantz holds the tantalizing possibility of breaking up Blue and White, as only parts of it may agree to violate the core election pledge of not serving under Netanyahu. But it would also force Netanyahu to give up some power, possibly including control over the Justice Ministry, making it harder for him to mitigate the damage from his own legal trouble.

Netanyahu might also be considering another strategy for retaining power: moving for a fourth election. With the pandemic shutting down much of the country, it could be months or longer before Israelis can go to the polls once again. In the meantime, Netanyahu would remain prime minister. The government last week shuttered all the courts—save the Supreme Court—due to the coronavirus, just days before Netanyahu’s own trial was set to start. A new date was set for late May.

“It’s a confluence of too many things,” Dr. Amir Fuchs, a legal expert at the Israel Democracy Institute, told Foreign Policy. “There are many countries dealing with the corona crisis, but no country is doing it during multiple political crises.”

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March 30, 2020 What's Next for Timor-Leste's Politics? – The Diplomat

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Since January, Timor-Leste’s politics has been shrouded in uncertainty following the collapse of its previous governing coalition after the failure to pass a budget amid coalition infighting. Though a new government looks set to take office soon, it will face a range of formidable challenges that will need addressing.

While Timor-Leste has made progress towards statebuilding in some areas since its full independence back in 2002 after a painful struggle against colonialism, it still faces significant political and economic challenges as one of the world’s poorest economies and a polity that that has seen eight governments come and go in less than two decades.

Those challenges have continued on over into 2020 as well. In January, the prior government that had been led by Prime Minister Taur Matan Ruak collapsed after failing to pass a budget, leaving open the possibility of the formation of a new government. And over the past month or so, indications surfaced that a six-party coalition in Timor-Leste led by independence leader and former prime minister Xanana Gusmao has the necessary support to form a new government.

But even if a new government does take office soon – the country’s ninth in less than two decades – Timor-Leste faces some significant challenges ahead. Politically, managing a six-party coalition with a slim majority at just 34 out of 65 parliamentary seats will not be easy, especially given its fragility (currently, the Gusmao-led National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction (CNRT) holds 21 seats; KHUNTO and Democratic Party have five seats each; and three parties have just one seat each). Economically, beyond getting a budget passed, the new government will have to have to contend with short and long-term challenges which include falling energy prices amid a global coronavirus pandemic as well as advancing the Tasi Mane petroleum project, critical given that almost the entirety of government revenue still comes from hydrocarbons.

Of course, that does not mean that these issues are insurmountable. Indeed, for some, Gusmao’s return and the advent of a new government does offer a new opportunity to reset the country’s politics and make progress on the country’s challenges in a more sustainable manner amid what appears to be a more turbulent global outlook. But the key question for Timor-Leste, as ever, is less about whether it can form another government, but whether the country’s leaders can overcome their differences just enough to hold governing coalitions long enough to manage this mix of opportunities and challenges.

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Trump brings his tear-down-your-opponents politics to the coronavirus fight – The Washington Post

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“One of the issues we’re struggling with is the demand increase,” said Ed Pesicka, CEO of the health-care logistics company Owens & Minor. “You know, used an anecdotal example of one hospital in New York that traditionally uses roughly [10,000] to 20,000 masks a week [and is] now using [200,000] to 300,000 masks a week. So you multiply that times the entire U.S., let alone the same demand outside of the U.S.”

Trump seized on that increase to make a point.

“How do you go from 10 to 20, to 300,000? Ten to 20,000 masks to 300,000?” he said. “Even though this is different, something is going on, and you ought to look into it as reporters. Where are the masks going? Are they going out the back door? How do you go from 10,000 to 300,000? . . . Somebody should probably look into that, because I just don’t see, from a practical standpoint, how that’s possible to go from that to that.”

It’s not terribly complicated. An increase from 10,000 to 300,000 is a thirty-fold increase. Consider the sorts of shifts that might drive that increase: a virus that’s far more contagious than things like the seasonal flu, and a flood of patients pulling in health-care workers from throughout the hospital. The former shift means that protective equipment needs to be worn and changed more often. The latter means that more people need to wear it. That thirty-fold increase is the far end of the scale. Pesicka also talked about an increase from 20,000 to 200,000 — a jump only a third the size.

Later, after criticizing New York state for warehousing ventilators instead of distributing them immediately to hospitals, Trump revisited Pesicka’s comments, claiming that “the biggest man in the business is, like, shocked” at the increase — a sentiment that Pesicka did not express in his public comments.

Trump’s suggestion that the masks were being purloined quickly gained attention, prompting his campaign to go into damage-control mode. It focused on a statement from New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) from March 6.

“There have been thefts of medical equipment and masks from hospitals, believe it or not. Not just people taking a couple or three. I mean actual thefts of those products,” Cuomo said. He added that he has asked the state police to investigate marketplaces that are selling masks and “playing into this, exploiting anxiety.”

One campaign staffer also pointed to an article in which a doctor reported “thefts of respirator masks and other essential protective equipment in lobbies and other high-traffic areas.”

All of this distracts — intentionally — from Pesicka’s main point: the need for protective equipment is surging and straining the ability of manufacturers and distributors to provide it. For all of Trump’s touting of how much is being done, which continued during a lengthy interview on “Fox & Friends” on Monday morning, it’s nonetheless obvious that the resources were not on hand to meet the surging needs of hospitals across the country.

The Trump campaign has repeatedly cited Post reporting indicating that the national stockpile of medical supplies was not replenished after a surge in need in 2009, ignoring that three of the subsequent years were ones when Trump was president. Trump’s comments Sunday were probably driven in part by a Post report that an early-February request for $2 billion in funding to replenish the strategic stockpile was slashed to $500 million at the end of the month, a 75 percent cut.

Let’s say for the sake of argument that New York hospitals are losing 10 percent of their masks to theft. There’s no evidence that the scale of whatever losses are still occurring is that dramatic, but let’s just say it is. Does that change that there is a dire shortage of masks and a need for more? Does that reduce the number of masks that are needed? Should the federal government instead provide only the 10,000 or 20,000 that hospitals used to get?

Trump has repeatedly suggested that there is somehow something suspect about New York’s requests in particular. Perhaps he sincerely thinks there is, given the way in which some enrichment schemes in the city have historically worked. But his insistence to Fox News’s Sean Hannity that New York was requesting more ventilators than it needed last week — as well as his arguments on Fox on Monday that the state did not buy ventilators that were available when they were for sale in 2015 (and when the coronavirus at the center of the pandemic likely did not exist), that the state is not distributing ventilators (because it’s waiting to see where they’re needed) and that New York hospitals are allowing masks to be stolen by the thousands — all have a main focus: shifting blame away from himself and onto Cuomo and others.

This is a political strategy. It’s one that served him well in the 2016 general election campaign, focusing negative attention on Hillary Clinton and helping suppress enthusiasm for her candidacy. His victory that year can be attributed to people who didn’t like either major-party candidate, a group he won by double digits, including in the three states that gave him his electoral vote margin. Here, again, he is offering America another focus of its frustration.

For his base of support, it’s icing; most don’t need his redirection in order to stay loyal. For everyone else, though, it introduces a conversation about where points of failure exist that are not centered in the White House. His campaign officials respond to questions about Trump’s comments about the 300,000 masks as though they are incensed that the president’s claims should be treated with skepticism or were not obviously true. In reality, they and Trump are thrilled to have the conversation be one in which they can equate Cuomo’s narrow, old comments with Trump’s sweeping, new ones — and one in which masks being swiped from a hospital lobby in Boston is a reason that New York doesn’t have the masks it needs now.

Both on Sunday and in his interview Monday morning, Trump spoke about how the virus has affected a hospital in Queens, near where he grew up. It’s hard not to live in the area, as Trump did for most of his life, and not be affected by the obvious strains and fear that New Yorkers are experiencing.

For a president focused on winning reelection in seven months, though, it’s also hard to resist trying to figure out which opponent needs to be scapegoated to make yourself look better by comparison.

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Procedural politics: What just happened with the coronavirus bill? | TheHill – The Hill

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The procedural peregrinations of the $2.2 trillion emergency spending bill were dizzying to say the least; downright mind-boggling to be more accurate.

To begin, the Senate acted first on the stimulus package, notwithstanding the constitutional mandate and House precedents that require revenue and appropriations bills to originate in the House. That requirement was circumvented by the Senate taking up a minor 16-page House-passed tax bill and substituting the bill’s language in its entirely with the 800-plus-page emergency spending measure.

The original House bill (H.R. 748), titled the “Middle Class Health Benefits Tax Repeal Act,” was introduced by Rep. Joe CourtneyJoseph (Joe) D. CourtneyOvernight Defense: 32 dead in ISIS-claimed attack in Kabul | Trump says Taliban could ‘possibly’ overrun Afghan government when US leaves | House poised for Iran war powers vote next week Fixing the disability workforce crisis Overnight Defense: Inside Trump’s 4B Pentagon budget | Highlights include .4B for Space Force, preview of Air Force One paint job | Senate eyes Wednesday debate on Iran war powers | 109 US troops diagnosed with brain injuries from attack MORE (D-Conn.) in January 2019. It would repeal the excise tax on high-cost employer-sponsored healthcare coverage, the so-called “Cadillac tax” in the Affordable Care Act. By May, the bill had picked-up some 367 House co-sponsors, more than enough to qualify for placement on the new House Consensus Calendar (which requires at least 290 co-sponsors).

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In July 2019, Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard NealRichard Edmund NealDemocrats eye additional relief checks for coronavirus Judge puts new hold on Democrats’ lawsuit seeking Trump tax returns MA lawmakers press HHS secretary on status of state’s protective equipment MORE (D-Mass.) called the bill up under a suspension of House rules, a procedure which allows for 40 minutes of debate, no amendments, and requires a two-thirds vote for passage. The measure passed handily, 419 to 6, and was sent to the Senate.

In the Senate H.R. 748 lay dormant until Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellMnuchin emerges as key asset in Trump’s war against coronavirus Louisiana Republican: People upset at ‘spending porn on pet projects’ in latest stimulus bill Coronavirus pushes GOP’s Biden-Burisma probe to back burner MORE (R-Ky.) seized on the bill as the vehicle to be hijacked for the stimulus package. After two Democratic filibusters and hours of bargaining, bickering and dickering, a bipartisan agreement on McConnell’s amendment in the nature of a substitute was reached with House and Senate Democrats and the White House. The bill was then taken up on March 25 and passed unanimously, 96 to 0.

While House Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiMnuchin emerges as key asset in Trump’s war against coronavirus Graham: Pelosi comment on Trump is ‘most shameful, disgusting statement by any politician in modern history’ The coronavirus pandemic versus the climate change emergency MORE (D-Calif.) originally hoped to pass the bill by unanimous consent to spare forcing members back to the Capitol from their districts, it became apparent there was enough grumbling from both parties that a vote would be needed. Members were given a day to return to Washington.

It was still not clear whether a quorum of 216 members would materialize (there are currently five vacancies in the House). Nevertheless, on Friday morning, March 27, at 9 a.m., Majority Leader Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerDC argues it is shortchanged by coronavirus relief bill Lysol, disinfecting wipes and face masks mark coronavirus vote in House The Hill’s 12:30 Report: House to vote on .2T stimulus after mad dash to Washington MORE (D-Md.) called up by unanimous consent a special rule, coincidentally numbered H. Res. 911, that provided for a vote on a motion to concur in the Senate amendment to H.R. 748 after just three hours of debate.

Over the course of that debate dozens of members came to the floor to voice their support for the measure, most being allocated just one minute or less to speak. As is the custom, the two party leaders, Pelosi and Minority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin Owen McCarthyMcCarthy says fourth stimulus bill might not be necessary Sunday shows preview: Lawmakers, state governors talk coronavirus, stimulus package and resources as pandemic rages on Lysol, disinfecting wipes and face masks mark coronavirus vote in House MORE (R-Calif.) gave the wrap-up speeches for as long as they wished to speak.

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Pelosi at one point turned to beckon to the galleries, where many members were encouraged to sit to maintain COVID-19 distancing guidelines. She in effect urged members watching from their offices to come now, saying the sooner they got there, the sooner she would stop talking.

Rep. Thomas MassieThomas Harold MassieSunday shows preview: Lawmakers, state governors talk coronavirus, stimulus package and resources as pandemic rages on Overnight Health Care — Presented by PCMA — US coronavirus cases hit 100,000 | Trump signs T stimulus package | Trump employs defense powers to force GM to make ventilators | New concerns over virus testing Overnight Defense: Trump signs T coronavirus relief package | What’s in it for defense | Trump uses defense powers to force GM to make ventilators | Hospital ship arrives in Los Angeles MORE (R-Ky.) had vowed to force a House vote, stating, “I came here to make sure our republic doesn’t die by unanimous consent.” When the chair put the vote on concurring in the Senate amendment and announced the motion was agreed to by voice vote, Massie asked for a recorded vote.

The chair then requested those members wanting a recorded vote to rise. Under House rules, 44 members’ support (shown by standing) is required to force a roll call vote. The chair announced that an insufficient number of members had risen, therefore a recorded vote was not ordered. Massie objected to the vote on the ground that a quorum was not present. The chair immediately announced that a quorum was indeed present (apparently having done a pre-count), and that the Senate amendment was adopted. President TrumpDonald John TrumpHealth insurers Cigna, Humana waive out-of-pocket costs for coronavirus treatment Puerto Rico needs more federal help to combat COVID-19 Fauci says April 30 extension is ‘a wise and prudent decision’ MORE signed the measure into law later that day.

The episode confirms that when our country is under serious threat from whatever source, Congress can move expeditiously to address the crisis. This is not the Schoolhouse Rock version of “I’m just a Bill.” No formal committee action was taken on the emergency bill – starting with Rep. Courtney’s minor tax bill which ballooned into the ultimate omnibus spending and tax relief bill.

It wasn’t exactly an immaculate conception. Dozens of members and staff from the relevant committees and leadership had worked tirelessly for days to put together a bill that secured widespread support. Treasury Secretary Steven MnuchinSteven Terner MnuchinTrump floats restoring full corporate tax deduction for meals as coronavirus derails restaurants Mnuchin emerges as key asset in Trump’s war against coronavirus Sunday shows – New coronavirus projections, quarantine talk dominate MORE proved a consummate dealmaker to ensure White House backing in the end. It may not be the textbook way to legislate but sometimes it’s the only way. And by the way, Courtney’s original excise tax repeal did not make the cut in the final enacted bill.

Don Wolfensberger is a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson center and Bipartisan Policy Center, former staff director of the House Rules Committee, and author of “Changing Cultures in Congress: From Fair Play to Power Plays.” The views expressed are solely his own.

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