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.

This time last year, world health experts were speculating about why Africa appeared to have escaped the worst of the global pandemic. Younger populations? Natural immunity created by exposure to past viruses? Something else?

They can stop wondering. Africa is now in the grip of a COVID emergency.

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Listen: Stanford historian Niall Ferguson joins Ian Bremmer on the GZERO World podcast to talk about the geopolitics of disaster. Throughout human history we seem to be unable to adequately prepare for catastrophes (natural or human-caused) before they strike. Why is that? And as we emerge from the greatest calamity of our lifetimes in the COVID-19 pandemic and look to the plethora of crises that climate change has and will cause, what can we do to lessen the blow?

Subscribe to the GZERO World Podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or your preferred podcast platform to receive new episodes as soon as they're published.

Get insights on the latest news in US politics from Jon Lieber, head of Eurasia Group's coverage of political and policy developments in Washington:

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi barred two Republican members from serving on the Jan. 6 commission. What's going on?

Well, the Jan. 6 commission was designed to be a bipartisan commission, taking input from members from Democrats and Republicans. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy had the opportunity to make recommendations but the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, could always veto those recommendations. In this case, she did, saying no to two members, Jim Banks and Jim Jordan, both of whom are strongly aligned with President Trump and who voted against certifying the election results in 2020. The Republicans for the most part see the Jan. 6 commission as an opportunity to score political points against them, and the Democrats say this is going to be a fair, non-biased, and nonpartisan investigation into what happened on Jan. 6, starting with a hearing next week with some of the police officers who were involved in the battle with the protesters inside the Capitol.

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In his New York Times op-ed, David Brooks says the US is facing an identity crisis — protecting liberal and progressive values at home while doing little to stop autocrats elsewhere. But has the US really abandoned its values abroad just because it's withdrawing from Afghanistan? Ian Bremmer and Eurasia Group analyst Charles Dunst take out the Red Pen to argue that the US can advance democracy without being the world's sheriff.

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When the Tokyo Olympics begin on Friday, Japan watchers will be following more than just the performance of Japan's star athletes, including tennis star Naomi Osaka. They will also be tracking the political fortunes of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who is taking a big gamble by staging the event — amid a raging pandemic — in the face of strong and longstanding opposition from the Japanese public. What are the stakes for Suga, particularly with elections on the horizon? Eurasia Group senior analyst Ali Wyne explains.

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YouTube pulls Bolsonaro's rants: Google-owned YouTube pulled down a series of videos on the channel of Brazil's populist President Jair Bolsonaro, accusing him of spreading misinformation about the pandemic. YouTube removed more than a dozen clips for touting quack cures for coronavirus or claiming, in defiance of scientific experts, that masks don't reduce COVID transmissions. Last year, Twitter and Facebook also removed some content from Bolsonaro's feeds for similar reasons. But critics say that YouTube's move is too little too late, because Bolsonaro has been spreading misinformation about COVID since the pandemic began. Many Brazilians hold him personally responsible for the country's abysmal pandemic response, which has led to almost 550,000 deaths, the second worst toll in the world. Will YouTube's move change Bolsonaro's message? His weekly address to the nation, where he converses not only with government ministers but also various conspiracy theorists and loons, is broadcast on YouTube. Surely he doesn't want to risk losing that — or does he?

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Boycotts! Bans! Protests! Drugs! Think you've got gold medal knowledge about politics at the Olympics? Test what you know with this special Tokyo Olympics Quiz. And to stay current on all the latest political stories at the Games and around the world, subscribe here to Signal, our daily newsletter. Now, without further ado, the first question is...

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