Saturday 28 February 2009

Israel Sweet Home

When I decided to move to live in Israel nearly 11 years ago, my reasons for wanting to do so were fairly clear. I wanted to live in an environment which was predominantly Jewish, and to raise my children in a way which allows them to be openly and proudly Jewish without any fear. Whilst there are some people who argue that there are more than a few places around the world where this is possible, for me there is no doubt that Israel is the one and only place that fits these requirements. After more than 10 years of living in Israel and having the benefit of the things that were my reason for wanting to be here, there is the danger of taking them for granted.

When coming to live in Israel, I found many wonderful things along with the cultural challenges that all new immigrants experience. The feeling of sharing Jewish events and experiences with others around who are all Jews is unparalleled. All events are scheduled around the Jewish calendar and festivals. The feeling of Shabbat arriving on Friday afternoon accompanied with the wonderful smells of chicken soup and cholent, and people walking in the streets heading to shul is surely my favourite weekly experience. The festivals are celebrated with such gusto and enthusiasm by all citizens. Purim, which we celebrate in another week will see all Israelis, young and old, dress up to get into the spirit of the holiday. We will walk in the streets and into shops in our Purim costumes, and be greeted with a smile and a Purim greeting. On Succot, we all try to build a Succah and to decorate it accordingly to invite friends and family to sit in it with us. Even those who are not religious make an effort not to drive their cars on Yom Kippur. Instead, we all walk together in the streets to greet friends and acquaintances in honour of the fast day. This is the Israel that I have come to know and love.

There is nothing like a short trip abroad to be reminded of how good the Jews of Israel have things. I took a work trip during the past week to the Austrian capital, Vienna and to Paris. I spent only just a very short time in each city, but they are both locations that I have previously visited. So, although I cannot pretend to be an expert on either city, there was certainly a sense of familiarity about both places that comes with having been there before. Each time I travel abroad, there is a process which requires me to become more conscious of my heritage as a Jew and my Israeli nationality. This is something that I need not devote a second thought to in Israel, but that I am forced to bring to the forefront of my consciousness when travelling abroad. This necessity is even greater against the backdrop of the recent war in Gaza and rising anti-Semitism in Europe.

Israelis travelling abroad are advised by the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs to conceal the covers of their passports from public view by surrounding it by a passport cover. This is not to encourage people to feel ashamed or less proud of their nationality. It is a simple security precaution. There are currently active attempts to kidnap Israeli nationals in foreign cities to hold them as another Gilad Shalit, and for whom value can be extracted in exchange for their release. Concealing your passport from public view is just one precaution that we are advised to take.

It is noticeable upon landing at the foreign destination on a flight from Israel, that those religious Jews wearing kippot (skullcaps) ensure that they are removed or covered with ordinary caps and hats before disembarking the plane. Jewellery bearing Jewish symbols is subtly concealed by those wearing it for fear that it may provoke an unwelcome reaction. Some call this paranoia, others call it sensitivity to the realities of today's world. Although I regard myself as a proud Jew who is unashamed of my religion and my Israeli nationality, I am also sensitive to the fact that there are those who may react negatively to me because of this and may even wish to harm me.

The two countries that I travelled to are not well known for their tolerance of Jews and Israelis. Austria is the country that elected a right-wing extremist in the form of Jorg Haider to a senior
government position. Although he appeared to soften his position somewhat in the years before he died, there are many anti-Semitic comments attributed to Haider in praise of Nazi policies. These are the statements that preceded his rise to power, and are sufficient to indicate to me that there exists a substantial anti-Semitic element in Austria. Similarly in France, life for Jews has proven to be uncomfortable. The rising anti-Semitism has resulted in a large number of French Jews abandoning their comfortable lifestyle and social position to make a new home in Israel. If life is tough for the Jews who are native to France, it is a signal to me that I need to be cautious. The thing that makes it more difficult for me in foreign locations such as France and Austria, is the fact that I am not at all familiar with the country and what I should be looking out for. As such, I am forced to be ultra cautious to avoid becoming involved in anything unpleasant.

I was happy to visit both locations without incident, and to safely return to my home where I can relax and be a Jew in the most open way possible. I return from such trips with a new enthusiasm for living in Israel, and for being a Jew there. And this is with good reason. Israel gives me all that I need in this sense. For me as a Jew, there can be no home other than Israel.

Sunday 22 February 2009

The Long Dry Winter

Whilst Israel has been preoccupied with a war in Gaza and a general election over the past few months, the country's water resources have quietly been drying up. Maybe it has not been so quiet as it has received significant press coverage and air time. It's just when you are fighting a war of survival, water problems seem to take a back seat.

The water problems are not new. Israel is a country that does not see a drop of rain at all for approximately 5 months each year over the summer period. The winter rain is, therefore, critical to fill the main water storage sources to cover the summer period as well. The three main water sources are the Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee), which provides most of Israel's water, together with the underground coastal and inland aquifers. The winter of 2008/9 has proven to be a long dry one with barely any rainfall. The rains to date have been scarcely sufficient to cover the water demand over the winter, never mind provide supply for the summer. And this after the water situation at the end of the summer in 2008 was dire.

For the first time ever, the water level in the Kinneret has dipped below the "black line". This is the level of the pumps in the Kinneret, and below which it is impossible to pump any water. The Israeli government had previously determined a "red line" for the Kinneret below which it was not advised to continue to pump water for fear of damaging the Kinneret. A "lower red line" was subsequently coined to allow pumping for up to approximately 5 metres below the red line. The black line, more than a metre below the lower red line has now also been breached. Fortunately, some rain in recent weeks and snow on the Hermon has succeeded in raising the level above the black line for now. When the snow melts, this will hopefully direct more more water into the Kinneret. This will clearly, however, not be anywhere near enough for the summer months.

The water shortage has been driven by a combination of lower rainfall and higher demand. The government, whilst being aware of the impending problem for a number of years, has been slow to react. This is not to say that no action has been taken at all.
  • Desalination plants have already been built that currently satisfy approximately 10% of Israel's water needs. These include the world's largest reverse osmosis plant in Ashkelon. Further plants are under construction to provide significantly more desalinated water.
  • Drip irrigation has been in use for a number of years in much of Israel's agricultural sector and most gardens in Israel's towns and cities. This is a uniquely Israeli invention to allow the most efficient use of water for gardening and agricultural purposes.
  • Approximately 70% of Israel's waste water is recycled. It is intended to raise this to 100% in the near future. After going through a cleansing process, recycled water is used for agricultural irrigation.
  • Water restrictions and recommendations are in place across Israel. Although not sufficiently closely policed and probably requiring some even stronger measures, it shows evidence of an attempt by the authorities to reduce the water consumption.
But even these measures will not provide us with the water required in the summer of 2009. So what do we do? Despite the fact that the rainfall of the winter of 2001/2 filled the Kinneret from empty in one season, such a miracle will not happen in 2009 especially when considering that most of the winter is behind us. In typically Israeli fashion, a last-minute solution seems to have been found to tide us over the worst of our problems over the next few years. Prof. Uri Shani, Head of Israel's Water Authority announced that temporary desalination plants will be readied before the summer of 2009. These plants, whilst providing less water than the permanent plants and at a much higher cost, will provide Israel with urgently-needed water for the next 3 to 5 years until the permanent plants are ready. This, together with drilling more wells and further treatment of contaminated water, will suffice Israel's water needs according to Prof. Shani.

It is only in Israel where a last-minute solution is found for a national problem with severe potential consequences which works, and the government gets away with it.

Sunday 15 February 2009

Should Gilad Shalit's release be a pre-condition for a ceasefire in Gaza?

I was very pleased to read outgoing Prime Minister Olmert quoted in this morning's papers saying that there will be no truce in Gaza without the release of Gilad Shalit. As pleased as I was to read this, I have two regrets in this regard. My first regret is that he did not make this statement a lot sooner. My second regret is that he withdrew Israel Defence Force troops from Gaza, and called a halt to Operation Cast Lead, without first securing the release of the captured soldier. This is how strongly I believe that Gilad's release has to be a pre-condition for any further progress with Hamas in Gaza.

The reason for me holding this strong view is very simple. Gilad was kidnapped by Hamas with a supposed view to extract value from Israel for his release. After all, Israel has never been ashamed to admit to the fact that it values nothing more than the safe return of its soldiers, alive or dead. Whilst this has weakened Israel by laying it open to kidnappings such as the case of Shalit, there is no pretence on the part of Israel to hide the value that it places on bringing its boys home.

So, Hamas has kidnapped Shalit to extract value from Israel. Almost three years have passed since this day, during which time Israel has devoted much time and resources to negotiating with Hamas for his return. The press continually reports the fact that discussions between the parties mention many hundreds of prisoners to be released from Israel's jails in return for Shalit. And yet, Hamas never really looks serious about coming to an agreement. No matter how much Israel seems to be prepared to trade for Shalit's release, Hamas always seems to sense that it can extract more. Perhaps the release of Hamas prisoners is not as valuable to them as Shalit's release is to Israel? Maybe this has something to do with the fact that, whereas the Palestinian prisoners are treated like human beings and family visits are allowed, Hamas has not even so much as allowed the International Committee of the Red Cross access to Shalit. There is no certainty that he remains alive at this moment in time. A negotiation becomes very difficult when one of the parties is not really negotiating, and does not really value anything sufficiently highly to trade with the other side for this.

Such an impasse has prevented progress for nearly three years. During this time, Israel's only option has been to continue to search for the one thing that Hamas values enough to force a trade for Shalit. A surprise military strike in the form of Operation Cast Lead has created this opportunity. Finally, Israel has identified that Hamas values a long-term truce with the removal of other associated restrictions above all else. Having worked for such a long time to identify this, Israel is now forced to hold this as the bargaining chip for Shalit. There seems to be little alternative prospect of gaining his release.

The values system displayed by Hamas in its negotiations has proved to be difficult for the Israelis to understand. A society that praises its youth for becoming suicide bomb martyrs is indeed a very difficult one to trade with. If it does not value the lives of its youth, what does it value? Having finally isolated one chink in the armour that could possibly secure the release of Gilad Shalit, the Israeli government should not and cannot let this opportunity go.

Saturday 14 February 2009

Zionist or Jew

The general election held earlier this week in Israel to the 18th Knesset has produced a king maker in the name of Avigdor Lieberman. Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel is our home) party won 15 seats. With the deadlock between the two leading parties, Kadima (28 seats) and Likud (27 seats), it seems certain that the party that will form the next government is the one that attracts Lieberman's support.

Avigdor (Evet) Lieberman has always been a controversial character, and leads a party with controversial policies. He was born in Kishinev in Soviet Moldova in 1958. He immigrated to Israel at the age of 20, and served in the Israel Defence Forces before earning a degree in International Relations and Political Science from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Lieberman joined the Likud and served as the party's Director-General between 1993 and 1996. He was the Director-General of Netanyahu's Prime Minister's office between 1996 and 1997. He founded the Yisrael Beiteinu party in 1999 and was first elected as a member of the Knesset in the same year. He has served as Minister National Infrastructure, Minister of Transportation and Minister of Strategic Affairs.

His Yisrael Beiteinu party represents an interesting and unconventional mix of policies. Lieberman advocates redrawing Israel's borders to exclude areas which have Arab majorities. He proposes ceding these to the Palestinian Authority. In addition, he demands that those living in Israel should only be granted Israeli citizenship if they are loyal to the state. He advocates this for both disloyal Arabs as well as disloyal ultra Orthodox Jews who do not recognise the State of Israel. During the 2009 election campaign, he coined the phrase "no citizenship without loyalty". Another aspect of his policy is to relax certain national laws which are based on Jewish religious practices. He plans to introduce the option of civil marriage, and relax laws relating to the sale of unkosher foods and to the opening of business premises on the Sabbath. On the face of it, Lieberman seems to be strongly Zionist in the way in which he approaches issues relating to the tolerance of "anti-Israel Israelis". On the other hand, he appears anti-Jewish in his advocacy of reducing the influence of Jewish religious practices on everyday life in Israel. Can these two seemingly dichotomous views survive on a common platform?

Lieberman's policies unfortunately fuel the argument of those who try to separate Judaism from Zionism. Over the decades, there have been many who have claimed that anti-Zionism does not represent anti-Semitism. This view has been expressed in the UN during the course of many anti-Israel resolutions that have been passed, most notably resolution 3379 from November 1975 that equated Zionism to Racism.

There is no escaping the fact that Zionism is a uniquely Jewish concept. The Oxford English Dictionary defines Zionism as "a movement for the development and protection of a Jewish nation in Israel". This links the concept to its two important dependencies - Judaism and the land of Israel. Without either one of these dependencies, there is no Zionism. The term emanates from Jewish liturgy going back many hundreds, if not thousands of years. Jews pray every day for the return to Zion. This literally refers to Jerusalem, and specifically Mount Zion within the city. This mount was part of the ancient City of David, and is located on the boundaries of today's old city.

The fact that many Zionist leaders in history including Herzl, Ben-Gurion, Meir and Lieberman have been anti-religious has been used to justify the fact that Zionism and Judaism are not linked. It feeds the notion that one can be a lover of Jews and a hater of Israel. All Zionist leaders in history had two main characteristics in common - the fact that they were Jewish and their vision of a Jewish state in the land of Israel. The above-mentioned leaders all had a view of the Jewish state being one where Jewish religious laws should not dictate laws of the State of Israel. This view equates to one of a secular state for Jews. Whether one agrees with this or not, it is clear that their form of Zionism clearly advocated a Jewish (albeit non-religious) state. The link with Judaism remains unequivocal.

It is my personal view that the Jewish state does require some elements of Jewish religious law incorporated into its set of laws and norms. This preserves the Jewish character of the state and distinguishes it as a Jewish state as opposed to any number of other secular countries. The absence of Jewish religious laws as a minimum basis for the laws of the Jewish state risks the slide of the Jewish state into just another country that has a Jewish majority. Whilst not wanting to minimise the importance of the Jewish majority in any way, it should be clear that the concept of a Jewish state is founded upon Judaism. This fact should be clear in all aspects of the public management of the country. Because some Zionists are anti-religious does not change the fact that they are Jewish, and it is this Judaism which is inextricably linked with their Zionism. So, Zionists who are not orthodox Jews and oppose orthodox Judaism remain Jews and Zionists. With this in mind, when considering the policy platform of Yisrael Beiteinu, there seems to be no reason why the party cannot be both Zionist and anti-religious. The important point is that being anti-religious does not equate to being anti-Jewish or anti-Semitic.

Those people who feel that Lieberman and others like him create an opening to separate Zionism from Judaism are mistaken. For me it is not Zionist or Jew, it can only be Zionist and Jew.

Tuesday 10 February 2009

Winners or Losers?

The polling stations in the 2009 general election are closed and the exit polls are in. Indications are that Tzippi Livni's Kadima Party has won the most seats in the election followed by Netanyahu's Likud Party. The polls show that Kadima has won 2, or maybe 3 seats more than Likud.

But who is the winner, and who is the loser? Even though the President has historically always asked the leader of the party with the most seats to form a government, there is a feeling that things may be different this time. When adding up the number of seats won by each party according to the exit polls, it seems that Netanyahu is more likely to muster the 61 seats required to form a government by combining the right-wing parties into a coalition. Livni has the added burden of having failed to form a coalition in her previous attempt when she succeeded Olmert as the leader of Kadima. This failure is what led to this general election.

The formation of a right-wing government probably reflects the general mood of Israel in the wake of the recent war in Gaza and other recent events. The Israeli centre is further to the right now than it was this time last year, or at any time over the past 10 years. Truths have been exposed about the Palestinian "negotiating partners" which has made a peace arrangement look further away than ever. With the fantasy of a possible peace having been removed as a viable option in the near future, the backing has dried up for the left-wing parties which traditionally gained their support from the peace camp.

Livni, despite having grown up in the Likud, is ironically presented in the 2009 elections as left of centre. The pundits are predicting that she would be forced to team up with the left-wing parties, in opposition to Netanyahu's supporters, to form a government.

The unknown quantity and king-maker in the formation of a coalition government is Avigdor Lieberman and his Yisrael Beiteinu party. He has declined to commit himself to either one side or the other. As a former Director-General of the Netanyahu Prime Minister's office, many position him as a natural Bibi ally. In truth, Lieberman's policies are further to the right than the Likud, and a grouping with Likud certainly seems logical. Lieberman seems, however, to have left the door open to a possible alignment with Livni if this is to his advantage.

As strange as this combination seems, the Israeli people may well benefit most from it. It is my view that Livni is the best individual to fill the Prime Minister's seat. The left-wing baggage that she may be forced to carry with her in forming a government does not represent the will of the people in this election. So, a grouping with Lieberman may give her the right-wing credentials that she needs to form a coalition that more accurately reflects the current mood of the nation.

Whatever coalition is formed is likely to be one without a large majority, and one which is difficult to manage. This provides Israel with a weak government when it needs a strong one. Management of the coalition will undoubtedly occupy valuable time of the Prime Minister and other key ministers when they need to be managing the affairs of state.

All of this leads me to conclude that, whilst the winners of the election remain unclear, the losers seem to be the Israeli people. I hope that I am proved wrong.

Saturday 7 February 2009

General Election Duty

When I go to the voting booth to exercise my democratic right on Tuesday for the elections to the 18th Knesset, it will not be out of enthusiasm that one of the parties truly represents everything that I wish to see in the new government. Like many other Israelis, I have not fully made up my mind who I should vote for. The main reason that I will vote at all is because I feel the need and obligation to exercise my right to do so. I imagine what I would answer my predecessors who lived through the Nazi holocaust if they asked me why I do not vote in the elections for a new government in a Jewish state, in our Jewish country. So I will vote. I will try to vote positively for one of the parties as opposed to a blank white slip. But I am not yet sure whose name will be on my voting slip.

There does not seem to be one party that represents everything that I am looking for in a new government. I do not believe that my demands are unreasonable or harsh. On the contrary, I feel that they are quite ordinary, understandable and middle-of-the-road. I want a government that will be tough on security and deal with the ongoing threat against the State of Israel in an uncompromising, but fair manner; I want a government that will bring Gilad Shalit home soon; I want a government that will stimulate the economy and cut our tax burden; I want a government that will put a great deal more money and effort into educating our children; I want a government that will preserve the character and the nature of Israel as a Jewish state; I want a government that is free from corruption and behaves in a manner that is transparent and moral; I want a government that has as its leader a person who has an unblemished character and who can be trusted to make the right decisions in the best interests of Israel during good times and bad. As simple as this sounds, it feels as though I am asking for the impossible.

The choices on offer to the voters seem to be a mixture of people that should not be Prime Minister, and parties whose policies appear suspect. The leading parties (and their leaders who will be Prime Minister if they win) are Likud (Netanyahu), Labour (Barak), Kadima (Livni) and Yisrael Beiteinu (Lieberman). Netanyahu and Barak have both had previous stints as Prime Minister. Neither can be regarded as successful. Barak was exposed after offering to divide Jerusalem at Camp David in negotiations with Arafat. Ironically, this offer served Israel well when when it revealed Arafat as a liar and a cheat. It has, however, left Barak with a low domestic standing for his soft approach in negotiating with the Palestinians. Netanyahu lost his credibility when, as Prime Minister, he was exposed as promising many things that clearly could never be delivered. Neither Barak nor Netanyahu have really succeeded in rehabilitating their names since their respective failures in the Prime Minister's office. Lieberman, whilst attracting a great deal of support for his uncompromising stand on security issues, can never really be regarded as a serious candidate for Prime Minister. He has a reputation as a thug and is decidedly undiplomatic in his approach to most issues. This leaves Livni, who is undamaged by any previous experience as Prime Minister, but was recently unable to form a coalition when given the opportunity. She also carries some responsibility for what is regarded as a somewhat premature exit from Gaza after the recent Operation Cast Lead.

The polls show that Livni and Netanyahu are neck-and-neck. If the Gaza War has the strong impact on the elections that it is expected to have, Netanyahu will probably have the edge. It also appears to be in his favour that Lieberman is ending the campaign very strongly, as the two seem natural bedfellows in a coalition government. The problem is that many of Lieberman's most recent gains are at the expense of Netanyahu's Likud party. This serves to weaken the latter's Prime Ministerial aspirations, and possibly strengthens Livni.

Whatever the outcome of the election, it seems inevitable that we will have to tolerate a relatively weak government with a small majority. This disproportionately strengthens the coalition partners and creates a situation where substantial concessions will be demanded and given. It will be interesting to see to what extent the Prime Minister will ultimately be in a position to remain faithful to his campaign promises after dishing out the concessions to his coalition partners. On second thought, maybe my wish list is a little too much to expect.

The French proverb comes to mind, "the more things change, the more they remain the same".

Sunday 1 February 2009

Democratic Dilemma

The recent decision by the Israeli Central Election Commission to ban two Arab Israeli political parties from participating in the upcoming general election, and the subsequent decision by the Israeli High Court of Justice to overturn this ban has brought into sharp focus the participation of Israeli Arabs in Israel's democracy.

In 1948 when the State of Israel was declared, Prime Minister Ben-Gurion appealed to the Arab residents living within the borders of the newly established country to join the new democracy. In the event, less than half of the Arabs took up on the offer. A total of 650,000 Arabs took up on the offer of citizenship in 1948, whilst a further 750,000 fled Israel to Arab countries neighbouring Israel. Many continue to be housed in refugee camps in those countries to this day. Those that remained were granted Israeli citizenship together with the rights that arise out of citizenship, amongst them the rights to vote in elections and to be a representative in the Israeli parliament, the Knesset.

In 1948, the Arabs made up approximately one third of the population. Today, after significant growth in Arab numbers but also huge Jewish immigration, Arabs comprise approximately 20% of the population. Despite this fact, and despite the fact that the Proportional Representation method of parliamentary representation used in Israel is acknowledged to favour minorities, the Arab parties managed to secure only 8 Knesset seats in the current session representing less than 7% of the 120 seats available. This is attributed to low voter turnout by Arab voters, and to the fact that some Arab voters choose to vote for (and represent) left-wing Jewish parties. Ironically, some recent reports predict that Arab parties will not be represented in the next Knesset at all due to voter apathy in the Arab sector.

All of this is evidence of democracy running its course in a democratic country. But, to what extent should a democracy be obliged to protect freedom of speech and action. Most supporters of democracy would argue that freedom of speech is an important pillar of of any democratic country. This may be true. But what happens when this democracy begins to cross the boundary, and citizens begin to abuse their democratic rights against the interests of their home country?

Israel continues to find itself in the midst of a war against the Arab nations. With the exception of Egypt and Jordan with whom Israel has signed peace treaties, Israel does not have diplomatic relations with the Arab nations and finds itself at war or under severe threat from many of them.
Whilst this is ongoing, the Arab citizens of Israel show support, both moral and actual, for Israel's enemies. One such example is Ahmed Tibi, Arab member of the Knesset for the Ta'al party, who describes his nationality as Arab-Palestinian. He is a former advisor to Yassir Arafat and finds it acceptable to visit and support nations that are at war with Israel. Another example is Azmi Bishara who was forced to resign his Knesset seat in April 2007 after being accused of treason following numerous visits to Syria, and expressing open support for Hezobllah. He has chosen to remain abroad since resigning his seat, and has not been brought to trial in Israel.

Many Israeli Arabs on the street have assisted Palestinian terrorists in their quest to kill and maim Israelis in their attempts to destroy the State of Israel. Some of them, like the recent tractor killers in Jerusalem, have initiated acts of terrorism against Jewish Israelis. The Oxford English dictionary defines treason as "the crime of betraying one’s country, especially by attempting to kill or overthrow the sovereign or government". It is my view that these acts on the part of Israeli Arabs are undoubtedly acts of treason. Even more so, the behaviour of the Knesset members who use their parliamentary immunity to further the cause of enemy nations.

Time has come to insist that citizens of Israel behave in a manner that is loyal to the country which provides them a home, or be denied citizenship. There can be nothing more democratic than this. We need to start with the Arab members of the Knesset and continue with all Arab citizens of Israel who are suspected of betraying their homeland. The rights and benefits that they enjoy as citizens are indelibly linked to allegiance to Israel. This is neatly captured in a slogan coined for the upcoming election by Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beitenu Party - "without loyalty, there is no citizenship". People who are unable to pledge this, should be excluded. Jews around the world have found ways to support Israel as well as show allegiance to their home countries. If Arab Israelis cannot do this, they commit treason and should suffer the consequences.