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What We're Watching: Israel's collapsing government, Nicaragua's opposition ban, new COVID strain goes global

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a statement to Likud party MKs at the Knesset (Israel's parliament) in Jerusalem, December 2020.

Israel barrels towards another election: After failing to resolve a stalemate over the national budget, Israel's unwieldy Knesset (parliament) was on the verge of collapse Tuesday, making it all but certain that Israelis will head to an election on March 23, the fourth time in two years. But what's changed since Israelis voted less than a year ago? The once-competitive center-left Blue and White Party which gave Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party a run for its money, has hemorrhaged support since its leader Benny Gantz agreed to sit in a coalition government with the extremely divisive Netanyahu. Meanwhile, the defection of a long time Netanyahu ally, Gideon Saar — who recently left Likud to form his own right-wing party — spells big trouble for Netanyahu, whose popularity has nosedived amid accusations that he's fudged the pandemic response. The incumbent PM now faces a tough battle against a group of right-wing parties who are doing well in the polls and could band together to form a coalition that doesn't include Netanyahu for the first time in 11 years. The stakes couldn't be higher for the Israeli leader, who faces a host of legal troubles and is desperate to retain the top job so he can pass legislation that ensures his immunity from prosecution. Netanyahu is in for a tough battle come March.


Nicaragua's opposition-free election: In a move straight out of the dictator's playbook, Nicaragua's parliament passed a law that allows the government to label citizens "terrorists" or "traitors to the homeland," essentially giving strongman President Daniel Ortega the power to ban candidates from running in next year's presidential election. The new law sets out jail terms of up to 15 years for those found guilty. The law's purpose is clear considering that Ortega routinely calls members of the opposition and critics who protested against him in 2018 "traitors." And it's fair to say most of them won't want to risk a lengthy prison term by challenging Ortega in November 2021. The law sparked an outcry from Ortega's rivals and was denounced by the US, which responded by slapping sanctions against Ortega's close circle including his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo. But neither a weak and fragmented opposition nor Washington's moves are seen as real threats by the political survivor Ortega — who's been in power since 2007 and has served as president for a total of 24 years (including during Nicaragua's bloody civil war). After packing the legislature and courts with his allies, can anyone stop Ortega from turning the country into a one-party state?

New COVID strain goes global: The new strain of coronavirus that likely originated in Great Britain, and accounts for 60 percent of recent infections in London, has countries around the world panicking. It's already been detected as far away as South Africa and Australia — and may already be circulating in the US undetected. Medical experts say that the new strain is more infectious, which means it'll allow COVID-19 to spread even faster wherever it goes, but that it doesn't seem to be any deadlier or resistant to COVID vaccines currently being rolled out. Either way, the emergence of "COVID-20" has poured cold water over many countries' hopes of returning to some sort of pre-pandemic normalcy anytime soon. But the more immediate danger is that the new, more contagious strain could overwhelm hospitals that are already dealing with massive COVID caseloads, leading to the disaster seen in many parts of Europe this past spring, where doctors had to pick who lived and who died because they could not treat everyone requiring urgent assistance. One thing is clear: there's little any government can do at this stage to avoid the new strain.

Khant Thaw Htoo is a young engineer who works in Eni's Sakura Tower office in the heart of Yangon. As an HSE engineer, he monitors the safety and environmental impact of onshore and offshore operations. He also looks out for his parents' well-being, in keeping with Myanmar's traditions.

Learn more about Khant in the final episode of the Faces of Eni series, which focuses on Eni's employees around the world.

On his first day as president, Joe Biden signed a remarkable series of executive orders. Boom! The US rejoins the Paris Climate Accord. Bang! The United States rejoins the World Health Organization. Pow! No more ban on immigration from many Muslim-majority countries. Biden's press secretary reminded reporters later in the day that all these orders merely begin complex processes that take time, but the impact is still dramatic.

If you lead a country allied with the US, or you're simply hoping for some specific commitment or clear and credible statement of purpose from the US government, you might feel a little dizzy today. The sight of an American president (Barack Obama) signing his name, of the next president (Donald Trump) erasing that name from the same legislation/bill, and then the following president (Biden) signing it back into law again will raise deep concerns over the long-term reliability of the world's still-most-powerful nation.

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Renowned tech journalist Kara Swisher has no qualms about saying that many of the country's social media companies need to be held accountable for their negative role in our current national discourse. Swisher calls for "a less friendly relationship with tech" by the Biden administration, an "internet bill of rights" around privacy, and an investigation into antitrust issues.

Swisher, who hosts the New York Times podcast Sway, joins Ian Bremmer for the latest episode of GZERO World, airing on public television nationwide beginning this Friday, January 22th. Check local listings.

Brexit pettiness lingers: Here we were naively thinking the Brexit shenanigans were over after the EU and UK agreed to an eleventh-hour post-Brexit trade deal last month. We were wrong — the saga continues. Now, a new row has erupted after the Johnson government said it will not give the EU ambassador in London the same diplomatic status awarded to other representatives of nation states. Unsurprisingly, this announcement peeved Brussels, whose delegates enjoy full diplomatic status in at least 142 other countries. The UK says it will give the EU envoy the same privileges as those given to international organizations, which are subject to change and do not include immunity from detention and taxation given to diplomats under the Vienna Convention on diplomatic relations. EU members are furious, with officials accusing London of simply trying to flex its muscles and engaging in "petty" behavior. The two sides will discuss the matter further when UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson meets EU representatives next week, their first face-to-face since the two sides settled the Brexit quagmire on December 31. Alas, the Brexit nightmare continues.

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Now that Joe Biden is officially US president, leaders from around the world would like a word with him — but where will he make his first international trip?

After a tumultuous four years, many countries are now clamoring for a face-to-face with President Biden. That includes allies who felt abandoned by Trump's "America First" presidency, as well as adversaries with thorny issues on the agenda. We check in on who's pitching him hardest on a near-term state visit.

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The GZERO World Podcast with Ian Bremmer. Listen now.

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