Coronavirus lockdown 2.0 deepens divisions in Israel

A poster reads ‘closed because of me’” with an image of Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on a closed shop in Tel Aviv on Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2020. (AP)
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Updated 14 October 2020

Coronavirus lockdown 2.0 deepens divisions in Israel

  • Israel has one of the largest income gaps and poverty rates among developed economies

JERUSALEM: When Israel went into lockdown last spring, Jerusalem pub owner Leon Shvartz moved quickly to save his business – shifting to a delivery and takeaway model that kept him afloat throughout the summer. Then came the second lockdown.
With restaurants and shops shuttered again, Shvartz’s business is struggling to survive. He has laid off 16 of his 17 employees.
By contrast, Israeli software maker Bizzabo, which operates in the hard-hit conference-management sector, quickly reinvented itself last spring by offering “virtual events.” It has more than doubled its sales and is expanding its workforce.
Such tales of boom and bust reflect Israel’s growing “digital divide.”
Even before the pandemic, Israel had one of the largest income gaps and poverty rates among developed economies, with a few high earners, mostly in the lucrative high-tech sector, while many Israelis barely get by as civil servants, in service industries or as small business owners.
Those gaps have widened as the second nationwide lockdown, imposed last month, dealt a new blow to an economy already hit hard by the first round of restrictions.
The fallout from the pandemic has also deepened long-simmering divisions among Israeli Jews, pitting a largely secular majority against a powerful ultra-Orthodox minority.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a target of months of mass protests over his perceived mishandling of the pandemic, has been seen as favoring his ultra-Orthodox partners at the expense of the greater good. In trying to contain the latest outbreaks, Netanyahu opted for an economically devastating blanket lockdown instead of targeted restrictions in infection hot spots, including many ultra-Orthodox communities, presumably to avoid upsetting his allies.
The deep tear in Israel’s social fabric prompted a warning from Israel’s figurehead president, Reuven Rivlin.
“I feel the air is full of gunpowder. I feel the fury on the streets,” Rivlin told parliament this week. “Israel’s tribalism is breaking out through the cracks, and accusatory fingers are pointed from one part of society to the other, one tribe to the other.”
Netanyahu initially won plaudits for his handling of the virus crisis, after he quickly sealed the border and imposed a lockdown, which appeared to bring the outbreak under control.
But the lockdown came at a great cost, pushing unemployment near 35 percent in April as hundreds of thousands were either laid off or furloughed, mainly in low-paying jobs such as retail, travel and hospitality.
Although most jobs gradually returned as the economy reopened, the caseload dramatically spiked in the fall, forcing the government to declare a second, open-ended lockdown last month. According to official figures, over 967,000 people, or almost a quarter of the work force, are again out of work.
Shvartz, who owns two bars and a craft beer company, Biratenu, managed to scrape by with his mail-order business until restaurants reopened over the summer. But safety regulations limited the number of customers he could serve, cutting sales.
Shvartz let a third of his staff go and cut his own salary. Then, the government announced its second lockdown. Now, he and his lone employee are again focused on the delivery business.
“It looks like a garage,” he said. He estimates business is down at least 60 percent from pre-pandemic levels.
Alon Alroy, a Bizzabo co-founder, faced a similar existential crisis in early March, when he realized the business of managing conferences was about to dry up. In what he described as “the toughest month we’ve ever had,” he let go a quarter of his workforce as his team scrambled to come up with a new strategy.
By the end of the month, they decided to focus on “virtual events.” The key, he said, was to go beyond standard Zoom calls and create an environment for engagement.
The software allows participants at large online gatherings to network or break away for private meetings, just as they would at an old-fashioned business conference.
“Everyone knew the events industry could disappear unless we invented, in a way, the event technology space,” he said, speaking from New York.
After its two strongest quarters on record, Bizzabo has rehired its laid-off workers and brought an additional 40 people on board. It now employs about 150 people at offices in Israel and New York.
While some Israeli high-tech firms have been affected by the economic downturn, the industry as a whole is experiencing perhaps its strongest year ever.
According to the nonprofit Start-Up Nation Central, Israeli firms are having little difficulty attracting investors. “Israeli tech companies raised $7.24 billion this year, which is a 30% increase over the same period last year,” said Uri Gabai, the group’s co-general manager.
Jon Medved, founder and chief executive of Israeli venture capital firm OurCrowd, said the strong Israeli tech scene, in contrast to the rest of the economy, is reflective of a global trend.
“It’s just more accentuated,” he said. “What we’ve noticed going on worldwide is that there really is a very strong two-tier-economy impact of the virus.”


US accuses Syria of delaying constitution ahead of election

Updated 10 min 30 sec ago

US accuses Syria of delaying constitution ahead of election

  • It calls for a Syrian-led political process starting with the establishment of a transitional governing body

NEW YORK: The US and several Western allies on Tuesday accused the Syrian regime of deliberately delaying the drafting of a new constitution to waste time until presidential elections in 2021, and avoid UN-supervised voting as called for by the UN Security Council.

US Deputy Ambassador Richard Mills urged the Security Council to “do everything in its power” to prevent Bashar Assad regime from blocking agreement on a new constitution in 2020. The Trump administration believes Assad’s hope is to “invalidate the work” of UN special envoy Geir Pedersen who has been trying to spearhead action on a constitution, and the council’s call for a political transition.

The Security Council resolution adopted in December 2015 unanimously endorsed a road map to peace in Syria that was approved in Geneva on June 30, 2012 by representatives of the UN, Arab League, EU, Turkey and all five permanent Security Council members — the US, Russia, China, France and Britain.

It calls for a Syrian-led political process starting with the establishment of a transitional governing body, followed by the drafting of a new constitution and ending with UN-supervised elections. The resolution says the free and fair elections should meet “the highest international standards” of transparency and accountability, with all Syrians — including members of the diaspora — eligible to participate.

At a Russian-hosted Syrian peace conference in January 2018, an agreement was reached to form a 150-member committee to draft a new constitution. That took until September 2019, and since then only three meetings have been held with little progress.

Pedersen, the UN envoy, told the Security Council on Tuesday he was unable to convene a fourth meeting in October because the government wouldn’t accept a compromise agenda which the opposition agreed to. During his just concluded visit to Damascus, he said there was “some valuable narrowing of the differences” that could enable consensus on agendas for the next two meetings.

“If we are able to find agreement in the next two days, it should be possible to meet in Geneva sometime in the month of November,” Pedersen said, dropping the Nov. 23 date in his prepared speech.

Mills, the US envoy, urged Pedersen “to take any measures he thinks are appropriate to facilitate the parties’ efforts ... and also to identify to the council who is blocking progress.”

“Syria is wholly unprepared to carry out elections in a free, fair and transparent manner that would include the participation of the Syrian diaspora,” Mills said. “This is why we need the constitutional committee to work, and why we need the UN to accelerate its planning to ensure Syria’s upcoming elections are credible.”

German Ambassador Christoph Heusgen called Assad’s “delaying and obstruction tactics” on the constitutional committee’s work “just detestable.”

He said Russia, Syria’s most important ally, “should finally use its influence by, for instance, just cutting military aid and stopping its support, so that the Syrian regime finally plays ball.”

Syria’s tactics are clear, Heusgen said. “They want to waste time until the presidential elections in 2021. The regime should not have any illusions. The elections will not be recognized if they are held under the present circumstances.”

French Ambassador Nicolas De Riviere also criticized Assad’s “refusal to engage in good faith” and called for preparations to begin for UN-supervised elections that include the diaspora. France won’t recognize results that don’t comply with these provisions, he said, stressing: “We will not be fooled by the regime’s attempts to legitimize itself.”

Russia’s ambassador, Vassily Nebenzia, made no mention of the April presidential election and countered that Syrians must have “the opportunity to negotiate without interference from the outside.”

“The work of the constitutional committee should not be subject to any deadlines,” he said, expressing hope that Pedersen’s mediation will enable the committee’s work to continue “in line with the agenda agreed by the Syrians.”

Russia also sparred with Western ambassadors over its veto threats that led to the closure of two border crossings to deliver aid to Syria — one in the northeast and one in the northwest — leaving only one crossing to Idlib in the northwest.

The US, Germany, France, Britain, Belgium and others criticized the border crossing closures.

UN humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock told the council that Syrian government deliveries across conflict lines to the northeast are “not delivering at the scale or frequency required to meet the current health needs.” He said one hospital received only 450 gowns in April, and another received nothing for its maternity wing.

Lowcock also said “the situation of families across Syria is truly desperate,” citing food prices more than 90 percent higher than six months ago.

Russia’s Nebenzia responded, noting “with satisfaction the progress in UN humanitarian deliveries from inside Syria including through cross-line routes,” saying this “proves” the government is providing aid to people including in areas not under its control.