Wednesday, 3 October 2018

What is the Problem with the New Nationality Law?

The new Jewish nation-state law (also known as the nationality law) was passed by the Knesset into law before the summer break, and now forms part of Israel's "Basic Laws".  In the absence of a constitution, the Basic Laws act in the place of a constitution and are the most fundamental laws on Israel's statute book.  The new nationality law has caused a great deal of consternation amongst many Jewish Israelis as well as amongst Jews living outside Israel, and continues to occupy the pages of Israeli and international press in spite of the time that has passed since it was enacted.  There has also been a great deal of opposition coming from the Druze community in Israel which is an immensely loyal, law-abiding minority group living in Israel.  This Druze opposition has been used by Israel-haters to increase their verbal attacks on Israel.  The main charges against the nationality law are that it is undemocratic, and that it discriminates against non-Jewish citizens of Israel.

The crux of the new law is that it reaffirms a number of facts that are already in place and well known.  These include the fact that Israel is a Jewish state, that the united city of Jerusalem is the capital of Israel and confirms the flag and menorah emblem as being the symbols of the state.

Before examining the pros and cons of the nationality law, it is interesting to consider why there was even the need to enact it.  Some people consider the combination of the Declaration of Independence as well as the previous nationality law to have been enough to confirm the fact that Israel is a Jewish state for the Jewish people, that Jerusalem is the capital and to confirm the symbols of state.  In spite of this, there appear to be constant questions surrounding the right by the Jewish people to determine their own destiny in the State of Israel.  The most public of these questions comes in the form of the denial by the Palestinian Authority to acknowledge that Israeli is a Jewish state as part of the peace talks that have been in hiatus for the past few years.  This denial is part of a concerted campaign against Israel, but particularly against Jews.  This is the new form of anti-Semitism that is considered by many to be politically acceptable and correct, because it is directed against Israel rather than Jews.  The fact that the attack is in the form of a denial of the right of Israel to be a Jewish state seems somehow to be lost in the debate.  The status of the city of Jerusalem is also a very public battle in spite of it having served as the capital of Israel since 1948, and in its current form as the undivided city since 1967.

History has supported and recognised the right of Israel to be a Jewish state over many years.  The Balfour Declaration of 1917 spoke about the "establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people".  Of course, the Palestine referred to in the letter by Lord Balfour comprises, in a large part, modern-day Israel.  The Mandate for Palestine passed by the League of Nations in 1922 also spoke about the British government being responsible ".... for establishing in Palestine a national home for the Jewish people".  UN General Assembly resolution 181 (II) passed in November 1947 on the issue of the partition of Palestine spoke about an "Arab State and a Jewish State" being established in then Palestine.  Israel's Declaration of Independence  declared "the establishment of a Jewish State in Eretz Israel, to be known as the State of Israel".  In spite of this, the Palestinians under Mahmoud Abbas still have the audacity to refuse to acknowledge and recognise this.  And members of the international community signal their tacit support for this position by trying to force Israel to return to the negotiating table despite the unwillingness on the part of the Palestinians to give due recognition.  Surely, this is enough reason in itself to warrant Israel restating and emphasising these facts as some that are fundamental to Israel's existence and identity?

This new law changes nothing on the ground in Israel, and discriminates against nobody.  It seems quite normal for countries to have a strong religious basis for the identity and symbols adopted by their countries.  Around 20 countries around the world have crosses, crescents or other religious symbols on their flags and emblems of state.  Those countries are not accused of discrimination because of that.  We have not heard charges of being undemocratic levelled against them because of their flags or symbols of state.  So why should Israel be singled out again?  Because it is the only Jewish state?

The accusation that this law is undemocratic is entirely without basis. The principles of democracy require that each citizen has an equal right to express his free will in a national poll for government.  Once this has been adequately achieved, the majority is entitled to exert its will on the minority.  Israel goes a step further by also granting certain minority protection rights to ensure that the minorities are not entirely trodden on.  Even the new nationality law does not change the democracy of the State of Israel, nor its status as the only democracy in the Middle East.  In fact, aside from making a stronger statement of the obvious and what has been in situ for many years, the new nationality law changes nothing at all.  As Prime Minister Netanyahu pointed out in his recent address to the General Assembly of the United Nations, it is ironic that Israel is being accused when other nations have much more serious discriminatory actions to answer for.

Perhaps the strongest organ of Israel's democracy is its independent judiciary.  It seems almost certain that this body will be called in to adjudicate on the new law, and whether it transgresses Israel's democratic and other ideals.  I watch eagerly for this matter to be brought before Israel's Court of Appeal, and the outcome of this case.  I am not optimistic that the court's decision, whatever it may turn out to be, will necessarily change anything about the way in which Israel is viewed in the international community.

Work is still required to convince the Druze community (and other loyal minorities) that the new law does not affect them in any way.  I feel sure that, in time, they will understand this for themselves and that no further explanations will be necessary.

Thursday, 5 July 2018

Football Fiasco

More than a few Israelis have been taking perverse pleasure in witnessing the struggles of the Argentinean football team in the world cup tournament in Russia.  Considering their all-star line-up, the Argentinians were expected to make easy progress to the last 16 of the tournament.  And yet, it was not quite how things turned out, even if they did finally achieve this objective.  A draw against lowly Iceland, and a resounding loss to Croatia did not help their cause along the way.  And the unceremonious dumping of the Argentinean team out of the tournament by France in the round of 16 has led many in Israel to consider this to be karma.

The reason for the pleasure taken by Israelis in Argentina's poor performances, is because of the cancellation of the friendly warm-up match that was scheduled to take place between the national teams of Israel and Argentina just prior to the start of the world cup tournament.  Even Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman jumped on the bandwagon by tweeting to congratulate Iceland on their efforts to restrict Argentina to a 1-1 draw.  In this game, one of the world's most famous and decorated players, Lionel Messi, missed a penalty attempt for Argentina that could have won the game for his team.  Liberman found it appropriate to link the unsatisfactory result for Argentina with the cancellation of their game against Israel.

While Argentina's failures in this world cup tournament are difficult to conceal, it is a little disingenuous to claim that their poor form can be attributed to the cancellation of the warm-up game against Israel.  And it is even more disingenuous to blame the Argentineans for the cancellation of this game.  I believe that the blame for this can be laid fimly at the feet of the Israeli government, led by Prime Minister Netanyahu and Minister for Culture and Sport Miri Regev.

The tradition of Argentina playing pre-world cup warm-up games against Israel goes back to 1986.  In fact, after a warm-up game against Israel before the world cup tournament in 1986, Argentina went on to win the tournament.  After a warm-up game against Israel in 1990, the Argentinean team faltered only at the final hurdle when losing to Germany in the final match of the tournament.  So there are some who consider this warm-up game to be something of a lucky omen for the Argentineans.  And apparently some who consider the cancellation of the game this year to be a poison chalice for Argentina's fortunes.  In spite of all of the emotions surrounding the cancellation of the game, I consider the Argentineans to be entirely blameless for the fact that the game against Israel ultimately did not take place.

The game was set against the backdrop of great efforts on the part of the Boycott, Divest, Sanctions movement (BDS) to bring discredit and damage to Israel in a public way.  It was clear that the BDS movement was going to jump at this opportunity to put pressure on Argentina to cancel the game in order to use the chance to show that there is public opposition to Israel in every possible way.  And BDS did not disappoint.  What was disappointing, however, was the response to this by the Israeli government.

The game was originally scheduled to be played in Haifa, and was billed as a friendly warm-up game.  In precisely the same way that previous games have been played before.  Sensing an opportunity to make something more of it, Minister of Culture and Sport Miri Regev succeeded in convincing the Argentineans to agree to move the game to the Teddy Stadium in Jerusalem, and to bill it as a game that formed part of Israel's celebration of 70 years of independence.  Not only was this contrary to the original spirit of the game, it was a big mistake on the part of the Israeli government.  It was essentially, the first step towards the ultimate cancellation of the game.  I believe that the Argentinean Football Association would have been able and willing to withstand the pressure put on it by BDS and other anti-Israel protesters to allow this game to go ahead as planned in its original format.  Once the game was given a much higher profile and billing and moved to Jerusalem to be part of Israel's 70th anniversary of independence, the Israeli government was inviting attention and ultimate disaster.  In the process, it created a very difficult and unwelcome situation for the Argentinean Football Association.

The record shows that so much pressure was placed on the Argentinean Football Association and its players, that they decided to call off the game.  Players and their families were threatened with death if they chose to go through with the game.  I condemn in the strongest terms the terrorists who think that it is OK to make death threats against the families of football players who are just doing their job in representing family, club and country.  It is clear that these terrorists will stop at nothing in their attempts to bring about the destruction of Israel, even if it means threatening the lives of innocent people.  Of course, their efforts will not succeed.  My sympathy goes out to the Argentinean Football Association and players who were willing to agree to the friendly game in the first place, knowing full well that they would come under immense public pressure for their decision.  I am sure that I would have taken the same decision to cancel the game as they took if I was in their shoes.  Unfortunately, officials in the Israeli government could not sufficiently recognise the effort that friends of Israel are prepared to make by agreeing to play here, despite the obvious negative reaction that they would have to endure.  Instead of lending a hand to support the Argentinean Football Association and its players to feel justified in proceeding with the game, apparently these same government officials felt that it would be appropriate to place even more pressure on our Argentinean friends by moving the game to Jerusalem, and giving it a profile that was never originally intended.

Israel has every right and even a responsibility to assert its sovereignty, and to assert sovereignty over Jerusalem as its capital.  But Israel also has the responsibility to pick its fights, and to choose the appropriate moments to assert this sovereignty.  Israel also has the responsibility to support friends who are prepared to swim against the tide in supporting Israel when popular opinion may not necessarily do so.   These things should not be taken for granted.  The unfortunate reality is that the rules that apply to other countries do not necessarily apply to Israel.  As much as it an unacceptable situation and one that we should all fight against with every fibre of our being, it is nonetheless the reality and cannot be ignored.  It would be negligent for the Israeli government to behave in a way that simply ignores this reality.

The cancellation of the football match was no victory for Israel, despite Miri Regev feeling that she stood her ground and asserted Israel's sovereignty.  Besides denying Israel football fans the opportunity to watch talented footballers like Messi and his teammates, it handed a public relations victory to BDS.  And it left the Argentinean Football Association wondering whether it is worth considering playing against Israel in the future given the unfortunate way in which the events unfolded.  There was a significant lack of support coming from the Israeli government for them.  Surely, the government has a responsibility to do what is ultimately in Israel's best interests?  Sometimes it is better to be smart rather than to be right.

The next test for the Israeli government is going to be the 2019 Eurovision song competition that is due to be hosted by Israel.  There is already a strong body of international opinion that says that this competition should not be held in Israel next year.  And BDS have moved into high gear to support them.  On the other side, Miri Regev is on record saying that she would prefer the Eurovision not to be held in Israel rather than not hold it in Jerusalem.  She may be granted her wish, in the same way as her wish for the football game was granted.  Again, this will not be chalked up as a success for Regev nor for Israel.

Sunday, 13 May 2018

Reflecting on Israel at 70

As the festivities of the celebration of the 70th anniversary of Independence die away, there is the inevitable return to the reality of everyday living.  Each of us returns to our daily chores of working, studying and taking care of our usual activities.  The threatening protesters are gathered once again on the Gaza border as before.  Iran still continues to threaten to annihilate Israel.  The usual attacks, both verbal and physical are again being perpetrated.  All continues as it was, and little changes.

And yet, this is the beauty of the reality.  Unlike a birthday when the special day lasts only 24 hours until next year at the same time, the celebration of 70 years of independence continues even after the festivities are gone and forgotten.  Because every day in Israel is a celebration of independence.  The reality of the daily grind of life in an independent country is a part of the success.  Not only that, but the 70 years becomes 70 years and a day, and another day, building steadily each moment with greater and greater independence and confidence.

This seems a good moment to reflect, not only on the past and the present, but also upon where things are leading in the future.  To consider that 70 years have not only brought massive growth, development and progress in Israel, but have also allowed for the rebuilding of a nation.  The population has grown from a little more than 800 thousand to almost 9 million in a short 70 years.  The country's infrastructure and economy has grown along with the population to support it, and it has been able to absorb and integrate the large numbers of Jews who have immigrated to Israel over the years.  This is a huge achievement, unrivalled in modern times.  In addition, these 70 years have brought Jewish growth and pride even outside of Israel.  The Jewish people are experiencing one of the greatest periods in Jewish learning in history, something that could not have been dreamt of 70 years ago.  All that Israel stands for and has achieved reaches every corner of the Jewish world, and the non-Jewish world.

The miracle of the survival of Israel against the odds, and against the will of the surrounding Arab countries and their armies has been recounted numerous times and is well documented.  Somehow, it seems that the enormity of this miracle can never be sufficiently emphasized.  There is no logic to explain how it is that the Israelis and Jews still have their state after so many attempts to wipe it off the map.  And this has not been only survival, the 70 years have been enormously productive in terms of the growth, development and ingenuity that have been brought to the state and the wider world.  So many technological advances have come out of Israel that have also made a huge contribution to people around the world.  These have come in so many different fields, including computing, telecommunications, medical, agriculture and many others.  So many Israeli inventions are incorporated into products that are used around the world as a matter of course.  Undoubtedly, one of Israel's greatest inventions has been the Iron Dome anti-missile system.  Not only is this a great military development in its own right, it has afforded Israel the protection that it needs to continue to build and innovate in safety.

The routine in Israel has proved to be part of the joy and success.  Whether it be the routine of another attack to take out weapons that threaten the safety of the state, or whether it be the routine of another Shabbat with the regular smells of chicken soup and the sight of white shirts.  There is also the routine of competing on the world stage in the blue and white in sporting and cultural events, and in showing presence and contribution in the international community in general.

The daily grind that we see in the Jewish state today would have been inconceivable to so many Jews who were sent to their deaths in the years that preceded the founding of the state.  And while the obvious fact that all young Israelis will be called to serve in the military to defend the state is just part of the daily routine, it remains a source of wonder and pride to so many who experienced being a Jew in a world without a Jewish army.  We think about so many who were not spared to see this routine, and who would have rejoiced in it.

Anti-Semitism is again on the rise in the most dramatic fashion.  It is well documented and accepted that Europe is now a hotbed of anti-Semitic activity.  The number of anti-Semitic incidents in Europe continues to rise each year, and Jews living there are feeling more at risk than ever before in the last 70 years.  The same is true of the USA where anti-Semitic sentiment is dramatically on the rise.  Shining through all of this is the fight by the Jewish state in defence of Jews around the world.

We feel comfort and security in the routine that Israel has developed.  Events are great to celebrate, but the greatest celebration is the return to the status quo.  The new status quo that has only become possible for Jews as a result of the founding of the Jewish state.  And despite all the threats against Israel, against Israelis and against Jews, the routine of Israel incorporates the defence of Jews and Jewish values around the world.  This gives much to celebrate.

As we look forward to the next 70 years, it seems that it will be difficult to rival the achievements of the last 70 years.  The development from almost zero seems astonishing due to the low starting point and lack of resources and support.  And yet, the achievements are clear for all to see.  This provides a huge incentive to achieve similar greatness in the years to come, this time starting from a much higher level.  The routine in Israel is encouraging this, and providing the platform to continue these phenomenal achievements.

Am Yisrael Chai.

Thursday, 12 April 2018

The "March of Return" Protests

The world's attention and news media have been trained recently on the Gaza border over the past few weeks, where thousands of people have gathered and tyres were burnt emitting poisonous smoke and fumes.  We are told that this is a peaceful demonstration against Israel to protest the right of return of Palestinian refugees to their homes and land in Israel.  The protest has been named the "March of Return" protest.

A closer inspection of the situation reveals that the truth does not resemble anything like what Hamas and the Palestinian side choose to present to viewers and listeners.  It reveals that the Palestinian rhetoric continues to mislead in order to give the Palestinian side public justification to pursue its sinister objective of destroying Israel, and killing of Jews in full sight of the international community.

In the period prior to 2005 when Israel unilaterally disengaged from Gaza, the accusation against Israel fueled by the Palestinians was that Israel was an "illegal occupier" of Gaza.  To an innocent bystander in the international community, it seemed as though all conflicts surrounding Gaza could be healed by a simple act on Israel's part to withdraw from Gaza and hand it over to Palestinian control.  That actually happened in 2005 when the Israeli government decided to unilaterally withdraw civilians and military forces from Gaza, and hand the strip over to the control of the Palestinian Authority.  Not long after that, control of Gaza was snatched by Hamas in a coup d'├ętat.  Instead of using the opportunity and the huge sums of money given to them to build a nation state in Gaza for the benefit of their people, Hamas has used the land and the resources made available to them for the purpose of creating further conflict.  It has invested in weapons, arms, missiles, tunnel construction and terror training, all with the intention of destroying Israel.  If it was not apparent to all at the time of the Gaza withdrawal, it should be apparent now that Hamas's objective has nothing to do with building a state for its people.  Instead, it has everything to do with destroying Israel and the Jews.  Gaza was a step in this direction, but this was merely a means to an end rather than an end in itself.

The Palestinians have been extremely successful in duping the world to believe two key lies in the story that they tell to the international community.  The first is that Israel is the main transgressor in the conflict.  According to their accusations, Israel is the occupier, Israel violates human rights and Israel does all that it can to discriminate against the Arabs who have the just right to any land that is currently part of the Jewish state.  To focus the attention on Israel as the transgressor, they have succeeded in playing on the world's sensitivity to the preservation of human rights, and to the plight of the underdog.  The Palestinians have been careful to ensure that their militia are dressed as civilians to present the highly misleading picture of the might of Israel's army confronting innocent and unarmed civilians.  The second lie is that all they want is to live in peace in their own homeland, and this is being denied them by Israel.  The international community infers from this that peace would suddenly break out in the Middle East (and maybe even the wider world) if Israel simply allowed the Palestinians the freedom to live peacefully in their own homeland.  These lies afford them the opportunity to take little steps towards their ultimate objective of destroying Israel and the Jews.

In the same way as the statement that all that they want is a land of their own to live in peace is simply a ploy to weaken Israel, so too is the demand of the right of return of the refugees a ploy to try to weaken Israel.  The so-called refugee argument has been constantly raised over the past 70 years as an attempt to displace and weaken the Jewish hold on Israel.  Those Arabs who left Israel as refugees in 1948 were ordered to do so by their own leadership.  In fact, those who did not heed the calls of their leaders and chose to stay, still have their land and properties and are citizens of the State of Israel.  They came under no direct threat and were allowed to remain where they were without any reprisals.  It almost appears as though the status of refugee cannot be applied to those who ran of their own volition, or under orders from their leaders.  And yet, these people and their descendants have been held in inhumane conditions without any nationality for generations in the hope that they can be used as a tool against Israel.  It has drawn the attention of the international community, and played very successfully on their sensitivity to protect the weakest members of our society.  These members of society have, however, been weakened by their own leaders.  And nothing has been done over more than four generations to help them.  Let us compare this to the Jewish refugees who ran from Europe or Middle Eastern countries for fear of being persecuted and murdered.  They have been absorbed into Israel.  There is no United Nations agency devoted to taking care of their daily needs.  There are no demands for them to return to their homes, or to have their land returned.  Once again, the world has been successfully duped by a ploy that is designed to assist the Palestinians in their desire to destroy Israel.

The current events on Gaza's border are just another chapter in this saga.  Thousands of civilians have gathered on the border to threaten Israel, and to provide cover for armed operatives trying to break through the border fence, and trying to harm Israeli soldiers and collect intelligence for future operations.  Of course, their cause is substantially assisted if they can show the world that innocent civilians undertaking legitimate protest were killed by the might of the Israeli military machine.  To this end, Hamas has no qualms in cynically using children by sending them into the war zone in the hope that Israeli soldiers may fire upon them to help their claims against Israel even further.  The act of burning tyres to create a smokescreen that prevents IDF soldiers from having a clear vision of the actions of these militia is surely an obvious ploy?

If this was about a homeland for the Palestinians, the matter would have been amicably resolved many years ago.  What it is really about is a homeland for the Palestinians wherever the Jews happen to have theirs.  This will never be resolved.  Irrespective of the threats, and the lies and the unnecessary murder of people, theirs and ours, Israel will not be frightened into submission.  On the contrary, these threats simply strengthen the resolve of Israelis who are determined to protect and fight for each inch of their homeland.

Wednesday, 7 March 2018

Corruption and Israeli Democracy

Accusations of corruption and behaviour unbefitting of a person acting in a position of trust as a minister or prime minister of the country have been circulating around Prime Minister Netanyahu for some time.  The stories and accusations are not new.  Things did, however, take a different turn over the past couple of weeks.  The recommendation by the police to the attorney-general that the prime minister should be indicted on charges of corruption, bribery and breach of trust in two of the cases has put a different complexity on this sorry case.  This, added to a new story and set of accusations coming out of the woodwork with a former close associate of the prime minister turning state witness, has served to tighten the squeeze on Netanyahu and those around him.  The accusations made by the new state witness, Shlomo Filber, sound almost inconceivable.  If only a small proportion of the accusations are proven to be true, it would make place Netanyahu in an untenable position regarding his ability to continue to serve as prime minister.

For now, however, that is all that they are.  Accusations.  The stories sound like they could come from a far-flung land where there is no consideration for rule of law or fiduciary responsibility towards those who elected the prime minister into office.  Many of them are corroborated by people who are seemingly unrelated to each other, and are reported to have been repeated in different situations involving different people and issues.  In the way that they have been presented, the stories sound almost like they could be true.  Any objective person with a high level ability to assess fact from fiction could easily be convinced that the accusations are all based on truth.  And yet, we still do not know.   We do not know because the stories have yet to be verified by an objective court of law that was set up for the purpose of evaluating the credibility and truth of such accusations.  All we know is that certain people, not an insignificant number of people, have the incentive to publicly tell stories of bribery, corruption and betrayal about the prime minister and his associates, while others have the incentive to defend them.  That is as much as we know.  Nothing more.  So how can it be that a democracy allows public officials to be charged, vilified and castigated in public like this, when no formal charges have been laid, and when there is no attempt to bring them before a duly constituted court of law?

Don't get me wrong.  I have listened to and read about the accusations of bad behaviour on the part of the prime minister, his wife, members of his family and others in his close circle.  It seems inconceivable to me that such stories could be made up by people, purely for the intention of weakening or unseating the prime minister.  It seems unbelievable that seemingly similar patterns of behaviour could be concocted by so many different people from different spheres of life and with different interests.  It seems to me that, where there is smoke, there is fire.  And I am a great believer in elected officials being held accountable for all their actions, good and bad.  I am also a great believer in the basic democratic tenet that everybody is innocent until proven guilty by a duly established court of law to examine the particular issues.  If the accusations are so convincing, and if the police have recommended on the basis of evidence in their possession that there is a case to answer, why is the case not being answered?

I am not sure of the answer to this question, but I remain convinced of a few other important aspects of our democracy.  I believe that the trial by public opinion is wrong, and wholly undemocratic.  It is my view that all the investigations that are being conducted into the prime minister's behaviour, should have taken place behind closed doors.  Until the moment that the attorney-general is ready to formally lay legal charges to be answered in a court of law, I think that the details of all that we have been bombarded with, should have been kept away from the public eye.  Instead, we have experienced a trial by public kangaroo court, and directed by the press.  All of the protagonists in this sordid affair, including those who have been accused, the accusers, those involved around the edges, the press and the general public seem to have some axe to grind on the issue of the prime minister and his family.  It is difficult to work out who we should believe, as more and more unbelievable stories surface daily.  The country seems to be split almost down the middle between those who support the prime minister and wish to see him stay in office, as opposed to those who wish to see him unseated, jailed and consigned to political purgatory.

In addition to holding our public officials up to the light and expecting them to be fully accountable to the voting public for their actions in office, our democracy should also protect them against unreasonable and frivolous claims that could damage them and our democracy.  Prime Minister Netanyahu has effectively been rendered incapable of carrying out his highly important prime ministerial duties, as he is spending most of his time these days bring questioned, defending his character against the accusations, and trying to influence the public about the nature of these accusations.  Who is running our country and keeping it secure while he is worrying about the next story that accuses him of inappropriate behaviour?  If the attorney-general considers the police investigation to have produced a case for the prime minister to answer in court, Netanyahu should resign his position and answer the accusations against him.  If it turns out that the court does not find the accusations against him worthy of a guilty verdict, he should be able to return to the prime minister's office to resume his duties.

Israeli democracy should not tolerate corruption of public officials under any circumstances.  It should also protect them while in office against any attempts to disturb their ability to carry out their jobs.  The democratic process should determine that, at a certain point, elected officials should be relieved of their duties to allow them to answer properly-constituted charges that have sufficient basis to believe that they have a reasonable possibility of being upheld by a court.  Until that moment, they should be allowed to get on with their job.

In my opinion, democracy goes both ways.  At the moment, we are suffering the worst of all situations that a democracy gives us.  The people of Israel deserve more, and it has come time to examine our system to ensure that democracy for us protects both the state and the individuals, rather than the unsavoury and undesirable position that our country current finds itself in.

Saturday, 3 March 2018

Whose Battle is This?

The recent interception of a unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that was launched into Israeli air space from Syria, and the events that followed this interception have brought into the open some serious questions about the threat against Israel along the northern border with Syria and Lebanon.  In particular, it has focused on the number of different players who are involved in the Syrian playing field, and the serious nature of the risk that Israel is forced to defend against from a variety of different sources.

The entry of the UAV into Israeli airspace had been anticipated for some time.  Israeli intelligence had identified the intention to send this from Syria, and it had a welcoming committee by the time it crossed the border into Israel.  Interestingly, it had taken a route from the Tiyas airbase (also known as T-4 airbase) in Syria where it was launched, through Jordanian air space and finally entering Israeli air space not far from Beit Shean in the upper Galilee.  The UAV was shot down after spending a little more than 90 seconds in Israeli air space, and this allowed for closer inspection of the vehicle.  It turns out that the UAV was a fairly substantial and serious piece of equipment.  Some have described the UAV as a drone, although I prefer the term UAV.  Somehow, the word drone implies something small and toy-like.  This is clearly not the case here.  The UAV has been identified as a Saeqeh or Thunderbolt from Iran.  This is a stealth model UAV modelled on the American RQ-170 Sentinel spy UAV, one of which was shot down and captured in Iran in 2011.  The launch of the UAV into Israeli air space was something that was clearly planned for some time before, and the type of vehicle that was used is highly sophisticated and shows serious intent on the part of those operating it.

After intercepting the UAV, Israel immediately carried out its stated policy of retaliating against each violation of her sovereignty and security.  Israeli Air Force F-16 fighters were deployed to launch attacks against 12 Syrian and Iranian targets in Syria.  These included aerial defense batteries, targets at the T-4 air base from which the UAV was launched, and positions of the Iranian military establishment in Syria.  The Israeli fighter jets were fired upon by Syrian forces.  The anti-aircraft fire that was directed against the Israeli aircraft was from a number of Russian air defense systems, including the SA-5, SA-17, SA-6 and SA-3 systems.  It was a Russian missile fired by the Syrian army that latched onto one of the Israeli F-16 jets, and exploded next to it causing irrecoverable damage to the aircraft.  The pilots ejected to safety, but not before sustaining injuries in the blast.  The F-16 crash landed in Israeli territory.

Despite the situation remaining tense but calm since this series of events, it has highlighted the complexity of the security situation that Israel faces, and the number of different players that are involved in the conflict.  The UAV that was initially launched into Israeli air space by the Syrian army was an Iranian-built vehicle employing American technology.  Israel finds itself fighting against American know-how,  Iranian production and financing and Russian weaponry launched by Syrian government forces.  More than this, Iran is now represented in the area near to the border in southern Syria, and Israel is being drawn into a direct conflict with Iranian forces.  This is something that is a relatively new development, as Israel's battles against Iran until now have all been via Iranian proxies in the form of Hezbollah, Hamas and others.

The relationships and conflicts with Syria, Iran and its proxies are clear.  These entities call for the destruction of Israel, and do all that they can to bring this about.  Israel will defend herself against them, and will use every effort to harm the interests and positions that these entities possess, no matter where they are situated in the world.  The threats against Israel from these sources are numerous and constant.  They manifest themselves all around the world - against Israeli embassies, airlines, businessmen, tourists and Jewish centres in any location.  All of this comes in addition to the threat along Israel's borders and even within the borders.  Iran has the intention, not only to destroy the Jewish state, but also to increase its sphere of influence in the Middle East and around the world.  It is promoting its brand of Shia Islam against all other religions, and against Sunni Islam.  Iran certainly has aspirations to be a controlling power in the region and around the world.  As part of this effort, Iran is cooperating with Russia and supporting Syria and other proxies in order to confront, the US, Israel and other regional and western powers.

The relationship with Russia is a little more complex.  Israel has found itself on the receiving end of Russian missiles and weaponry that have, not only shot down an Israeli F-16 fighter, but also threaten Israel's safety and security on a daily basis.  Major Russian weaponry systems are deployed in Iran and Syria, and most of these systems are aimed in a threatening way at Israel.  This is all in spite of the fact that Israel has full diplomatic relations with Russia, and Prime Minister Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin have met numerous times and spoken frequently on the phone in recent times.  Netanyahu's requests of Putin have fallen on deaf ears, and Putin continues to arm and finance organisations and governments that seek the destruction of the State of Israel and the murder of Jews.  Putin's interests are driven by increasing Russia's sphere of influence as much as possible, and by financial considerations.  Russia is making good money from the sale of arms and weapons.  Just as with his relationships with the USA and with Turkey, Putin seems to be playing both sides of the divide with Israel.  While Israel would wish to maintain cordial relations with Russia for a number of reasons, the fact that Russia is openly and unashamedly supporting Israel's enemies is clearly a very concerning situation.

What is clear from this situation is that Israel is fighting a survival battle, not only against enemies, but against "friends" as well.  I use the term friends in a loose way to include even those who are not quite so friendly, but with whom Israel has diplomatic ties.  Such as Russia.  In its fight against the Iranian UAV, Israel found itself battling its closest ally, the USA via the technology that Iran had taken to construct the UAV.  This regional war has a strong global element to it.  The strategic importance of maintaining influence over the Middle East seems not to have diminished over the years.

International diplomacy continues to be governed by interests rather than friendships.  This is very true of Israel's international relations.  The wars that Israel is fighting on her borders are highly complex with so many different parties involved.  It almost makes one wonder whose war this really is.  In reality, Israel is fighting wars with parties which come from much further away than those who reside on her borders.  This is a global war, and one which threatens to become broader and much more complex in the future.

Monday, 15 January 2018

Israel and Shabbat

The Knesset passed into law last week, the controversial so-called "Shabbat law", also labelled by some as the "minimarket law".  This new law requires local municipalities to first get the approval of interior minister before allowing stores in their municipal area to open on Shabbat.  Given the fact that the current interior minister is Shas leader Arye Deri, the immediate expectation is that such approval would generally be withheld, forcing stores across the country to be closed on Shabbat.  And furthermore, the extent to which stores are allowed to be open on Shabbat or not, will seem to depend upon who occupies the seat of the interior minister at any moment in time.

The issue of Shabbat in the Jewish state is a complex one.  The religious community will always wish to see the Shabbat respected to the fullest as set out by Jewish law.  This dictates, amongst other things, that stores will be closed from sundown on Friday until sundown on Saturday each week, and similarly on religious holidays.  Aside from the issue of violating Jewish law by opening stores on the holy Shabbat, the religious community also argues that the opening of stores on Shabbat forces people to work there on Shabbat.  These workers, they believe, would be better off spending Shabbat at home with their families resting, rather than being forced to work.  On the other hand, there is a substantial secular community living in Israel which prefers to have greater choice as to when they shop for their groceries and other items.  Many of them work long hours during the week, and find it impossible, difficult or inconvenient to do their shopping after work during the week.  For them, shopping on Shabbat is preferable.  Why should they not have the right to choose for themselves when the best shopping time is for them?  What about those people whose work during the week does not afford them enough to make a living, and who welcome the additional work hours at double time that the law allows on Shabbat?

Does Israel, as a democratic Jewish state, have the right to impose Jewish law on its citizens?  Does it really want to impose Jewish law?  How important is the observance of the Shabbat to the Jewish nature of Israel?  Israel's Jews are a mixed bunch.  Some are observant, and some are not.  Most of them are fiercely proud to be Jewish and to live in the Jewish state, and each expresses their Jewish identity in a different way.  The statistics show that between 20% and 30% of the Jews in Israel consider themselves to be ultra-Orthodox or Orthodox.  On the other end of the spectrum, around 40% of Jewish Israelis consider themselves to be secular.  So the balance of power rests with those who consider themselves to be traditional.  From this, we can see that there is no obvious single view that emerges concerning the importance of Shabbat observance.  This was reflected in the law that was in force until now, that allowed each municipality to choose for itself what its policy regarding store-opening on Shabbat would be.  This was also borne out in the High Court decision that confirmed this method of deciding.  Each municipality can decide, according to the demographics of its local area, whether stores will be open on Shabbat or not.  Some decide yes, others decide no.  Some have a mixed policy of forcing stores in certain areas to close, while allowing stores in other areas to be open.  One thing that remains certain is that there will also be those who disagree with whatever happens in their local vicinity.  There is no possible way of satisfying all the people in any particular locality.

The authorities have previously intervened in some ways in order to impose some element of Shabbat observance in Israel.  El Al, Israel's national airline does not fly on Shabbat or on Jewish holidays.  Banks, supermarkets and many other facilities are prohibited from opening on Shabbat.  All hotels in Israel that wish to be certified by the Ministry of Tourism, are forced to serve food that is kosher.  This requires a certain level of observance of Shabbat.  Much of Israel's public transport does not operate on Shabbat.  It seems to me, however, that this has extended a little too far with the government passing the recent Shabbat law.

It seems that Interior Minister Arye Deri also feels the same.  Despite his personal views that Shabbat should be observed, he has pledged not to exercise the power that the new law gives him to enforce Shabbat observance.  Instead, he has indicated that he will allow each municipality to decide for themselves as they have done before.  This view does not, however, remove the possibility that a future interior minister may exercise his power under the law in one direction or the other.  For this reason, the law seems to me to be a step too far.

Unfortunately and unsurprisingly, the law has become mixed up in Israeli party politics.  Essentially, the enactment of this law has served to give Health Minister Yossi Litzman a path back to his ministerial position, after resigning from the government over his opposition to work being undertaken on Israeli railway infrastructure on Shabbat.  Now that the new Shabbat law is on the statute books, he can prove to his party and electorate that he has forced a change to the government policy on Shabbat, and is justified in returning to the government.  The illusion seems to hide the reality in this case.

The often remembered Ahad Ha'am quote says, "More than the Jews have kept the Shabbat, the Shabbat has kept the Jews".  There is no doubt that Shabbat observance has been a central tenet around which Jews have focused during the thousands of years of exile, and which has helped to maintain some element of identity and unity.  It is interesting that, during the years of exile, Shabbat was observed out of free will, and not out of being forced on anybody.  It seems to me that it is desirable to continue the observance out of free will, now that we have a Jewish state that enables this more than at any time during Jewish history.  Forcing it on anybody seems counterproductive. 

The real question is whether Shabbat observance and the traditional Shabbat atmosphere in Israel can survive the law, or whether the law will potentially force people away from it.  I have no doubt that free will is much stronger than laws that are imposed.  The Shabbat is no exception.