Sunday 27 July 2008

Pursuing Olmert

I concluded a long time ago that being a straightforward person with a squeaky clean record is not a requirement to enter politics in Israel. It seems to me that such a record may actually work against any aspiring Israeli politician. When examining the current motley crew that make up the 120 elected lawmakers of the State of Israel, few if any of the members of the Knesset possess anything near to a clean track record. Quite a number of these members, including members of the cabinet, are currently facing lawsuits and police investigations for activities that are dodgy by anybody's standards. Judging by this state of affairs, one could be led to believe that prospective candidates for the Knesset should have been subject to at least one police investigation before their candidacy is accepted.

Against this background, how do we interpret the myriad of investigations and charges that are being levelled against Prime Minster Olmert? On the one hand, it is shameful that one person can have so many skeletons in his closet. All the more so when this person has served in public roles for so many years. It begs the question how he could have had time to carry out his job when he was so busy with apartment sales, receipts of brown paper envelopes and other questionable activities. There is a clear implication that the individuals who were involved in these dodgy deals, were doing so with the expectation of something in return. It creates more than a little insecurity for the country's citizens when it is understood that this is the same person making fateful decisions regarding the country's future in such delicate times. What sort of judgement is being applied to these decisions?

On the other hand, one cannot help but get the feeling that somebody is after Olmert at any price. By his previous actions, Olmert is making the work of this individual very easy. Nonetheless, there appears to be a campaign to smear the PM and to bring him down in any way possible. As a result, one episode after another is leaked to the blood-hungry press. The way in which it is being done does make me wonder whether some of the stories are not fabricated or twisted to portray Olmert in a worse light. The result of all of these stories is to cause Israel to look ridiculous in the eyes of the outside world, and to cause a great deal of insecurity inside Israel.

But more importantly, these stories act to divert Olmert's attention from matters of state that he should be attending to. When a country has minor matters on its plate such as a war on its southern border, a dramatic arms build-up on its northern border, the development of nuclear arms by one of its sworn enemies and prisoner swaps for its citizens held in captivity by enemy forces - not to mention a dire water shortage, failing education and an economy on the verge of a downturn - it is a requirement that the full attention of the Prime Minister is on the job to hand. How can Olmert do a proper day's work as PM when his time is taken up answering police questions and rebutting stories in the press.

The correct time for skeletons to be let out of the closet is at the time of the general election. All the stories now being publicised took place prior to Olmert's election as PM and are not related to his election to the post. Why were they not made known before he was elected so that the public could vote with all the facts to hand? Was there some sinister plot to allow him to take office first before discrediting him? The price being paid by Israel and its citizens is too high at this critical juncture in its history.

What the country needs right now is a PM, Olmert or somebody else, with both hands on the steering wheel. Seeing as it looks unlikely that Olmert will be replaced before the next general election, he should be allowed to continue his work unhindered. At the next general election, the citizens can take into account what they now know about Olmert to select the new Prime Minister.

Whilst Olmert's current public ratings are dismal, it is not guaranteed that he will be replaced at the next poll. After all, look who we have to choose from.

Wednesday 23 July 2008

Kaddish at the Good Fence

I was watching the recent prisoner exchange between Israel and Hezbollah live on TV. We had witnessed the two black coffins being handed over to the UN for the short trip across the border from Lebanon back into Israel. In the no-man's land between the two countries, the coffins were handed to Israeli authorities. They were adorned with the Israeli flag, and each was placed on a military vehicle for the crossing back home. Waiting on the Israeli side of the border at Rosh Hanikra was Ofer Dekel, the Israeli chief negotiator who struck the prisoner exchange deal with his UN-appointed German counterpart Gerhard Conrad.

As soon as the convoy crossed into Israeli territory, it stopped. Dekel approached the two vehicles from the back and stopped a short distance behind the coffins. Surrounded by an honour guard of Israeli soldiers, Dekel began to recite Kaddish, the Jewish Mourner's Prayer. Tears flowed freely as his prayer rang out on television all over the country.

According to Jewish tradition, Kaddish is recited by a surviving family member once removed from the deceased - a child, parent, sibling or spouse. So why was Dekel, somebody who had never met either of the deceased soldiers in life, reciting this prayer? Whilst I have no idea of the thinking of those who arranged the prisoner exchange protocol regarding this action, I can share a few thoughts of my own regarding its symbolism.

A close look at the words of the Kaddish will reveal that they have nothing to do with death at all. It is rather a prayer that sanctifies and praises G-d's name. The logic behind reciting Kaddish for 11 months following the burial of the deceased is two-fold. Firstly, to encourage the survivors to praise G-d and His name each day publicly (Kaddish requires the presence of at least a quorum of 10 men for it to be recited) at a time when the survivors may risk losing their faith as a result of their personal loss. This is designed as a tool to strengthen the faith and resolve of the survivors. Secondly, it is designed to create merits for the deceased to assure his or her entry into the world to come. Having completed his or her natural life, additional merits can only be accumulated by the actions of others, the survivors, in honour of the deceased.

So, how does this all tie into Ofer Dekel's actions at Rosh Hanikra on that auspicious day? It was fitting and appropriate for Dekel to be the one to "welcome" the fallen heroes back onto home territory. Despite the untiring efforts of many, especially the families, to secure the return of the boys, I imagine that nobody put in as many hours and as much of his soul as Dekel. This was a moment of personal triumph for him, and a culmination of many months of hard work. He had, during this time, become like a family member to each of the boys. He was like a father-figure finally ensuring that his sons return to their rightful place.

The boys, by all accounts, were killed in the ambush to capture them two years before. They had suffered the indignity of lying for two years without anybody reciting Kaddish in their merit. This had to be put right at the first possible opportunity, and it could not wait even a minute longer than necessary. The very first moment that they were in the presence of a quorum, Kaddish had to be recited. After all, who could be more deserving of merits in their honour than those who had made the ultimate sacrifice.

As Dekel quietly and solemnly recited Kaddish, it felt like he was intoning the words and prayers of an entire country. A more appropriate person for the job could not have been found.

Democracy for One and All

During the course of the discussion that I held with my 16 year-old son regarding the recent prisoner swap between Hezbollah and Israel (see A Fair Swap?), he asked why Israel agreed to release Samir Kuntar alive. His view was that it would have been fairer to release Kuntar in a coffin, the same as Israel received Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser in coffins.

I can understand exactly where he is coming from. It is not only the issue of balancing out the seeming lack of equality in the prisoner exchange deal. A justifiable element of revenge also seems to creep into the issue. In a perverse sort of way, however, I was proud of the fact that Kuntar was released alive.

I do not wish to turn Kuntar into a hero or minimise his horrific crimes. Let us be honest about who this monster is. He was convicted of murdering 4 Israelis in terror attacks in 1979. He shot a father in cold blood whilst his 4 year-old daughter pleaded for his life. He then bludgeoned her to death using the butt of his gun. This is not a person with a heart. This is pure evil. So what could cause me to be proud of the fact that he was released alive?

It is all about upholding democracy in a region where democracy is hard to locate. Israel is frequently upheld as the only democratic country in the Middle East. This means having to act in a manner which is contrary to all others around us in the interests of maintaining democratic principles and the rule of law. Kuntar’s release is a victory for democracy of enormous proportions.

Israel does not have the death penalty. As such, Kuntar’s conviction in an Israeli court of law in 1980 resulted in 4 life sentences being passed on him. Despite the fact that this man was a murderer and terrorist who aimed to destroy the State of Israel and its people, he was afforded the same rights as other prisoners in Israel. He married an Israeli Arab woman whilst in prison, and she received a government stipend as the wife of a prisoner until their subsequent divorce. No Guantanamo Bay here. Just the ordinary rule of law in a democratic country. I presume that an Israeli convicted of murder in Lebanon would not have been afforded the same courtesies.

A person can only respect himself if he has a healthy respect for others. The fact that Israel’s enemies may behave like animals towards Israeli prisoners does not justify similar behaviour in return. Living amongst peoples who glorify suicide bombers, I often wonder how a mother can feel pride in sending her son to his death in such an attack. It signals a lack of respect of your own people, so how can we expect them to behave towards the enemy? In emulating their behaviour, we risk sinking to these low depths.

It is said that the only behaviour that you have control over is your own. So, whilst we deplore the way in which our enemies act towards us and the prisoners that they capture, we can only ultimately control the way in which we behave. It is, therefore, our duty to exercise this control responsibly. We need to behave like honourable human beings even when we may be tempted not to. It is, after all, one of the key advantages that humans have over animals.

So Israel's democratic principles mean that we afford prisoners in our jails basic human rights, and we uphold the terms of the Geneva Convention when dealing with enemy prisoners captured. All of this despite the fact that our own captured soldiers are treated with the maximum disrespect possible.

These same principles mean that Kuntar was released alive, even though the natural inclination to seek revenge could not be satisfied. Returning him in a coffin may possibly have evened out the terms of the prisoner exchange, but perhaps it is better that this was not the case.

A Fair Swap?

Much has been written about the recent prisoner swap between Hezbollah and Israel in which the bodies of the kidnapped soldiers, Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser were returned to Israel for burial. In exchange for the return of the remains of the Israeli soldiers, Israel released 5 prisoners and the remains of 199 Lebanese and Palestinian militants to Hezbollah. One of the released prisoners, Samir Kuntar, was convicted of killing 4 Israelis in terror attacks in 1979.

On the face of it, the exchange seems rather one-sided. How could Israel agree to release so many bodies and live prisoners in exchange for the remains of two Israelis? The issues raised by this exchange were neatly captured in conversations that I held with my teenage sons in the lead-up to the exchange and, in particular, on the day of the exchange.

We had discussed details of the exchange package at some length prior to the swap taking place. All of its details were well publicised and widely reported in the local press. All details, that is, except the most critical one of all - whether the captured soldiers were dead or alive. Hezbollah succeeded in playing this trump card to maximum effect to extract value from the exchange. In the days leading up to the exchange, somehow the lack of balance in the exchange was much less of an issue as most of our thoughts were occupied by the hope that the boys would be returned home alive. Despite having been told by the government unequivocally that both boys had been killed in action at the time of their kidnapping, the whole country hoped and prayed along with the Regev and Goldwasser families that a miracle would transpire and we would receive life. Somehow, we could not accept that they had been killed without seeing their bodies.

So, I was a little surprised by the contents of the phone call that I received from my 16 year-old when he called me during the afternoon on the day of the prisoner exchange. Whilst most of us had watched the exchange take place and witnessed the return of two coffins live on TV that morning, he had missed all the drama whilst lying in after a late night out. It is, after all, the summer school holidays. "I don't like this deal at all," was the message I got from him. It seems that whilst there was the prospect of receiving life, the deal seemed worthwhile. In light of the realisation that we did not receive life, the seeming imbalance of the deal suddenly became more apparent. So began a conversation that lasted more than half an hour, and continued in my car as I made my way back from work.

"I cannot believe that we agreed to give them so much in exchange for two dead bodies," he continued.
"It depends how much you value and want the return of the two dead bodies," I answered. "It is a bit like going to a supermarket to buy an expensive grocery item. If you really want or need the item, you will pay the price. If not, you probably won't. Are you suggesting that Israel should not have made the exchange?"

"We are teaching them how to behave towards us," he answered. "If they know how much we we are prepared to pay to receive our citizens back, dead or alive, they will have more incentive to capture us." Valid point, but nothing new. This is exactly the reason why these soldiers and Gilad Shalit were captured in the first place. And, in a strange way, this message is sent with a certain amount of pride. Why should we be ashamed to say that we believe that two of our dead bodies are equal in value to 199 of theirs and 5 live people?

There was a short silence. "Well, I just think that we could have done the deal on better terms."

Ofer Dekel was chosen by the Israeli government as its chief negotiator. This was the best deal that Dekel could bring home, and the government had faith in that. There may be somebody else who could have brought a better deal, but we will never know.

By this time, I had already reached home and joined him in sitting at our kitchen table.

"Let's assume," I said, "that Dekel is the best man for the job. Let's also assume that this deal is the best one that Dekel can extract from his German intermediary. We are presented with this deal at the cabinet meeting and we are asked to vote. All those in favour, raise your hands." I raised my hand enthusiastically. I looked at him, and he looked at me. Slowly and reluctantly he raised his hand.

For me, it wasn't the fact the it was slow and reluctant. For me it was the fact that the hand was raised. This exactly reflects the Israeli view and the system of Jewish values. It is more important that the deal is done, rather than the terms on which it is done. In return for our sons, brothers, husbands and fathers being prepared to fight in defence of our country and sometimes lay down their lives in the process, our country owes it to their families to ensure that it will do whatever is required to bring them home. We need to be able to face the bereaved relatives and say that we have done everything in our power to bring their boys, our boys, home. We also need to be able to face the mothers who are sending their sons away to begin their national service. We need to be able to tell them that, if the unfortunate situation arises, the country will do whatever is required in looking after her son. In this respect, actions speak louder than words.

And so the deal was rightly done. Somewhat unbalanced, but who cares? What is more important by far is that it was done. The boys have been laid to rest with the respect and gratitude that they deserve. The families have an answer as to their fate, and a place to mourn their tragic loss.

Now is the time to trade for the release of Gilad Shalit from Hamas in Gaza - at any price and as soon as possible. Let's not forget Ron Arad, missing for over 20 years, as well as the other Israeli soldiers missing in action. We owe it to their families and to ourselves.

"Do you believe that we should trade prisoners for peace?" was the next question that was fired at me. That is the subject for an entirely separate discussion.