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.

Sunday, 7 January 2018

My Person of 2017

I have never really been a fan of the whole idea of nominating "people of the year".  I know that it has been popular and common-place for all respectable publications and newspapers to choose their person of the year.  Time Magazine's annual choice of person of the year is a highly anticipated occasion, with the chosen person given the privilege of gracing the publication's cover.  Is it really possible to choose one person who epitomises the year, and who can lay claim to having had the largest influence on events in that year?  I am not sure about that.  For some reason, however, this year I feel differently.  For me, there is one person who has emerged from the shadows during 2017 and truly stood out on the international stage.  That person is US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley.

Before even talking about Haley's achievements in her role as US Ambassador the UN, it is interesting to know a little more about the person behind the ambassadorial figure.  She is the daughter of immigrants from India, who came to the US after her father travelled from India to complete his PhD in Canada.  Nikki's parents are Sikhs, with all the visible differences that are associated with being a Sikh in a western environment.  It seems to me that growing up as a child in a minority family in a southern US state has given Haley the character and skills to be a leader who is sensitive to others, particularly minority groups.  After graduating from Clemson University and a short career in business, Haley began her political career in the South Carolina House of Representatives in 2004.  In 2010, she was elected Governor of South Carolina, and served in this capacity until she resigned early in 2017 to take up her new role as ambassador to the UN.

Over the years, the USA's  position at the UN has become a little confused.  There can be no doubt that the US was by far the strongest power and influencer when the UN was originally set up, and has continued to be the most powerful nation on earth during the years of the UN's existence until today.  The main organs of the UN are based in the US, and the US is also by far the most substantial financial contributor to the UN.  In its position as one of the permanent members of the UN Security Council, the UN also has the ability to veto any resolution that is brought before the Security Council.  All of this bears testament to the US being the most powerful country amongst the community of nations.  In the General Assembly and in other UN organ bodies, however, the US is an equal member like every other nation with much less power to influence.  As a result of this, there are many examples where US interests (and those of US allies) have been trodden on.  Israel, as an ally of the US and as the favourite target of many UN organisations, has suffered more than its fair share of unwarranted negative attention and condemnation.  Of late, the UN has become a tool for local interest groups to gang up on individual countries for the purpose of furthering personal political agendas.  Israel is certainly a victim of this.  And this unfortunately detracts substantially from the main reason why the UN was established in the first place.

Nikki Haley appeared to understand all of this very well from the first day that she stepped foot into her office at the UN.  Not only did she understand this, she has been willing to stand up for what she believes to be just and equitable.  It was clear to her that the US was being asked to contribute far more to the UN than it was receiving in return.  It was also clear to her that Israel, a key ally of the US, was being unjustly bullied at every opportunity by UN organisations.  She has been prepared to take on the world at the UN to put this right.  In the process, I believe that she has brought some respectability to America's status at the UN and in the international arena in general.  She has also been willing to tackle the unfair treatment of Israel by the UN.

Undoubtedly, Haley has been given the drive and incentive by President Trump, who seems determined to redress the imbalance of the US position at the UN.  But there is also little doubt that she has taken her role seriously, and has been prepared to take on the powers at the UN.  She has shown the willingness to say and do the difficult things required to reinforce the US position at the UN.  Last month, she was prepared to exercise the US veto at the Security Council to vote down another anti-Israel resolution, after a lengthy period of time during which the US veto was not exercised.  Not only that, but she was vocal in threatening those who voted in favour of the US-critical resolution at the General Assembly of the risk that they would lose funding that they receive from the US.  The way in which she has been supportive of Israel's position at the UN is very much recognised and appreciated.  She has shown the guts to swim against the tide, and take actions which are roundly criticised by the majority.

There is no doubt that international politics and diplomacy these days is a game of interests rather than having for consideration for what is just and right.  And, while this contradicts the original intention that lay behind the UN when it was first set up, we see this permeating through all parts of the UN.  The Arab lobby at the UN has been used very effectively to make Israel the bad guy of the UN.  No other single country has had more resolutions and condemnations against them than Israel.  Surely this says it all.

Nikki Haley has been prepared to take on the world in defense of the US position at the UN, and also in defense of Israel's position.  Her passion in doing this, and her unwillingness to compromise her beliefs stands out against the background of mediocrity that is evident in international diplomacy.  Her heroic acts in sticking up for what she believes in makes her, in my opinion, the stand-out person of 2017.  Nikki Haley will be a voice to be heard on the international stage for some time, and I am looking forward to following her activities.

Monday, 18 December 2017

How Important is Trump's Recognition of Jerusalem?

President Donald Trump's announcement to recognise Jerusalem as Israel's capital, and his decision to instruct the US embassy to be moved to Jerusalem, have dominated world headlines in recent weeks.  Many have analysed what lies behind his decision, and why he chose to take these steps now.  Amidst the speculation about these points, there appear to be no clear answers to these questions.

The reaction from around the world has been almost universally critically.  Except, of course, Israel's reaction where Prime Minister Netanyahu has lauded Trump's announcement as courageous, just and historic.  It is interesting to understand why western countries have been so opposed to this announcement, and why so many countries have responded in criticising Israel when Israel was not party to this action at all.  Not to speak of the anger shown by the Arab world with riots being held in many countries.  And the launching of missiles towards Israel in a way that one may have viewed Israel to be the offending party here.

Why has there been such a huge reaction to this announcement?  Previous American presidents, most notably Democratic Presidents Clinton and Obama, are on record stating the Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. The Jerusalem Embassy Act has been on the US statue books since 1995, and dictates that the US embassy should be moved to Jerusalem.  In reality, Trump has said and done nothing new.  He has simply followed in the footsteps of others before him by reiterating the obvious. 

The fact that Jerusalem is Israel's capital cannot be disputed.  The decision as to which city is the capital city of any country, is one that is taken by the country itself.  It is almost unheard of for any country's choice of a capital city not to be recognised or respected by members of the international community.  Israel declared Jerusalem to be her capital in 1948, a fact that was entrenched in the Basic Law in Israel in 1980 with the Jerusalem Law.  The Knesset sits in Jerusalem as do all government ministries.  Both the prime minister and the president have their offices and residences in Jerusalem, and foreign dignitaries are received in Jerusalem as the nation's capital.  Trump's announcement, or lack of announcement, makes no difference at all to the situation.  The fact that Jerusalem functions as the country's capital cannot be denied even by the most anti-Israeli person.

So why the furore over Trump's announcement?  It stems back to 1947 when the Arabs refused to accept the UN Partition Plan for Palestine that envisaged the sharing of Palestine, as it was, between Jewish and Arab states.  It also envisaged Jerusalem being a city under international control that would be shared between the Jews and the Arabs.  When the Arabs rejected this plan and grabbed whatever they could for themselves (including East Jerusalem), one would have thought that the UN plan was effectively rejected and binned.  Following a number of wars in the intervening period which saw the Arabs trying to grab more for themselves, but ultimately losing ground, the Arabs ironically still reject this plan as being not enough for them.  Perhaps this is because the Arabs continue to plot for the takeover of the entire city of Jerusalem, and the expulsion of the Jews from all parts of it.  In spite of all of the history, the international community has continued to pressurise Israel to honour the plan, even though it was formally rejected by the Arabs.  In this context, the international community refuses to recognise Jerusalem as Israel's capital, believing instead that the Arabs have some right to it.  They continue to demand a piece of Jerusalem for an Arab country, that seems unlikely to arise in the near future.  What has suddenly changed since 1947 when the Arabs rejected the plan to share Palestine and Jerusalem?  I don't think that anything has changed since then, and I suspect that the same plan would be rejected today by the Arabs as it was then.

For those who continue to insist that the Arabs have some rights to Jerusalem, Trump's announcement has been interpreted as reducing the possibility of this becoming reality.  They consider that Trump effectively took Jerusalem off the table from any peace talks that may take place.  If they were more honest, I believe that they would acknowledge the fact that the Arabs have no current plan or intention to sit down in peace talks anytime soon.  In my view, this means that Jerusalem was never really on the table at all.

Jerusalem has never been freer, than since the city was unified under Israeli rule in 1967.  All religions are free to worship at their holy sites, providing that they come with intention of behaving respectfully and peacefully.  While Jews were denied the right to visit the holiest site in Judaism when it was under Arab rule, Muslims have been assured the rights to their holy sites under Israeli rule.  The Israeli government has rebuilt the city of Jerusalem, improved its infrastructure and made it more desirable for all those who wish to live in and visit the city.  This should surely be something that influences the views of the international community regarding the most appropriate entity to rule over Jerusalem.  The argument that many of the citizens of Jerusalem, particularly in East Jerusalem, are Arabs who have no desire to be citizens of Israel is also used as reason why this area of the city should be ruled by a future Palestinian state.  It should be known that these residents were offered the right to Israeli citizenship, and have many rights as permanent residents of Jerusalem and Israel in spite of their rejection.  Just because entire neighbourhoods of Paris are dominated by Muslim residents, does not mean that these neighbourhoods should form part of an Arab state. Why is this different in Jerusalem?

The Trump announcement is not a trailblazer, and changes nothing in reality.  It is essentially an insignificant act for Israelis, Arabs and the international community.  Israelis may appreciate the statements of support for the Jewish right to Israel and Jerusalem, but are essentially indifferent to Trump's announcement.  They care little about what was said, and would have cared the same if it was not said.  Israelis are determined that the united city of Jerusalem be the capital of Israel, and nothing has changed.

There can be no doubt that the announcement by Trump has been seized upon by those who are determined to destroy Israel.  They have taken the opportunity to further their aim of ultimately ridding Jerusalem and Israel of Jews.  Trump's announcement is being used to justify this in a manner that is politically correct.  It seems entirely acceptable to launch rockets into Israel, to attack Israeli soldiers and to riot in Bangladesh in response to the Trump announcement.  The announcement itself was of no consequence, and nothing has changed.  Jerusalem will continue to be the capital of Israel whether the world accepts this or not.  Perhaps this is what Trump came to realise.