Saturday 30 May 2009

Practice or the Real Thing?

The newspaper advertisement states that a practice siren will be sounded throughout Israel on Tuesday 2nd June 2009. Upon hearing the siren, all the country's residents are requested to enter a "protected space". The purpose of this, it seems, is to test how long it takes to get the entire population into bomb shelters or protected rooms. The practice siren forms part of a week-long series of drills that will be conducted to assess the country's preparedness for an emergency. We, the Israeli public, are being told by our home front command that this is simply a drill being undertaken to implement the recommendations arising out of the Second Lebanon War. We are told that there is no deeper significance to the drill being held at this time.

Clearly, the fact that we need a drill at all signals the constant risk under which we live. Such drills, after all, are carried out in very few countries around the world. The question that I am asking, however, is whether the timing and nature of this drill indicates something lurking behind the scenes that the Israeli public are not being made aware of? With the current threat of possible hostilities from Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon and continued threats from Iran, the question that I ask is not without foundation. Add to that the somewhat ambivalent relationship with Fatah in the West Bank and we have more reasons to have a drill than not.

The attempts by the home front command to downplay the significance and timing of the drill are countered by other seemingly innocuous events. It is interesting to note that the rhetoric coming from Hezbollah in Lebanon has been escalating ahead of the drill. Hezbollah are using the drill to indicate that Israel is preparing for further cross-border hostilities following the war in the summer of 2006. In light of this, Hezbollah has not hesitated to advertise that they are ready for any possible raids across Israel's northern border, and that its armoury is replenished and ready for action. It is well known that the war in 2006 made hardly a dent in Hezbollah's military capacity. On the contrary, their success in holding the mighty Israeli army at bay simply provided them with the courage and desire to again confront and embarrass the IDF at the earliest possible opportunity. Moving further south, after a less successful campaign earlier this year than that of Hezbollah, Hamas seems to have wasted little time in replenishing its military supplies. Whilst I don't believe that they are quite ready yet for another round, it will not take too long until Hamas also wishes to engage the IDF once more.

I have observed that there has been a great deal of effort in my home town to rig up signposts indicating the location of all public bomb shelters in the town. In addition, these public bomb shelters, which are often used as storage rooms during periods of quiet, have all been opened up and cleaned out. Could it be that this huge effort has been undertaken only in the interests of the one-day drill? It seems to me that a drill would not demand such a large effort. I don't recall this being done for the previous drill that took place more than a year ago. So why is it necessary now? Maybe it is my paranoia, but I have the feeling that this drill is more than just a drill. I have the feeling that the security forces may have a higher expectation of a further outbreak of hostilities than they are currently making publicly known.

Because of its situation, the Israeli public is able to ready itself for war in a relatively short period of time. All new homes, apartments and office buildings are required by law to have a "protected space". This should be able to withstand an explosion and should be sealed to prevent the infiltration of chemicals in the event that unconventional warheads are launched. So, to arrange for citizens to be ready for a missile attack should not require a great deal of prior warning. At the time of the outbreak of the first and second Gulf Wars, when the risk of the use of unconventional weapons was deemed to be high, the government issued gas masks and chemical anti-dotes to all citizens. Currently, the gas masks have been collected up and none have been reissued in their place. Providing that the risk of attack is with conventional weapons only, Israel can be ready within a few short days or less.

Inevitably, as we approach the long hot summer and with a possible conflict in the back of my mind, my thoughts turn to Iran. Is this drill all about readying ourselves for a possible strike on the Iranian nuclear facility? I have previously written that I think that this is unlikely. However, when living in the Middle East, I have learned that anything is possible.

Sunday 24 May 2009

A Not So Special Relationship

The relationship between the USA and Israel has been regarded as "special" in many respects. Despite the fact that the USA is clearly the senior partner in a relationship which appears unbalanced in most of its aspects, the value of having an ally in the Middle East cannot be underestimated in US terms. This has become increasingly true in recent years with the US suddenly discovering that the scourge of Middle East-style behaviour and terrorism can also reach its shores. This fact gave rise to the invention of the well-known slogan emblazoned on many Israeli T-shirts, "Don't worry America, Israel is right behind you".

The relationship has had its ups and downs over the years. The last time it came under real pressure was notably when Netanyahu served his first term as Prime Minister, although there have been other times which tested the special nature of the relationship. There can be no doubt that the Jonathan Pollard affair caused a strain in the diplomacy between the two countries, a matter which remains unresolved to this day whilst Pollard languishes in a US prison. On the whole, though, the links have been symbiotic serving the interests of both parties.

I gain the impression that the election of Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu to lead their respective countries has caused a substantial change in the "special" relationship. It seems as though both leaders have taken a large step away from the positions of their respective predecessors in an attempt to try to redefine the ties that his country has had with the other. Each step has moved in an opposite direction. Netanyahu has made a point of not openly subscribing to the concept of a two-state solution as a part of a the answer to the ongoing Palestinian conflict. This premise is clearly a base-level building block for Obama in his desire to force a settlement on the issue. Netanyahu also appeared somewhat ambivalent about meeting Obama at this early stage. Such reluctance would have been unthinkable by previous Israeli Prime Ministers who always seemed exceedingly eager to meet their US counterpart. It can only be interpreted as an acknowledgement that things are not so easy between the current players. Obama, on his side, has also made some significant changes to previous policy. The "War on Terror" concept is out. This was always regarded positively by Israelis as it represented a level of American understanding of the constant terror threat that Israel lives under. Obama's statements about wishing to engage Iran diplomatically are interpreted in Israel as "soft" and clearly not understanding the existential risk that Iran presents to Israel. The fact that Obama can publicly announce a wish to engage in diplomatic contact with a man as undiplomatic as Ahmadinejad does make me wonder. If this is the case, who is Obama not prepared to talk to? On this basis, the answer is nobody.

Each of Obama and Netanyahu seem to have decided independently that they wish to conduct business with the other based upon a completely different basic understanding. This is partially driven by the fact that each has a predecessor whose policies are significantly different from the policies that are being pursued by the current incumbent. As such, certain facts on the ground require change to allow the new policies, and new style of working, to take effect. Despite the fact that each seems to be moving even further away from the other, certain things do not change. The things that don't change, even when a new administration is elected to power, are the facts on the ground. Even though Obama prefers not to refer to the "war on terror", it seems clear that he will nonetheless be forced to fight one. Even if Netanyahu prefers not to acknowledge a two-state solution, it seems as though he will not achieve a peace agreement with the Palestinians unless he is prepared to incorporate this into his thinking. The dual dependency remains important and it seems clear that both leaders will be forced to consider the other's views in a more flexible atmosphere in the interests of maintaining the symbiotic nature of the ties.

It is often true that a new broom sweeps clean. I have no doubt that each leader is enthusiastic and has much energy to pursue efforts to make a lasting difference to the political landscape in the Middle East. Necessity, however, is the mother of invention. I believe that each of them will be forced to revert back to some of the rules of his predecessor's game and that, before long, this playing field will look more familiar than it does now.

Sunday 17 May 2009

Why the Pope Should Not Have Visited Israel Now

Pope Benedict XVI has concluded his visit to Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Authority Area and is now safely back in the Vatican. This trip must surely rank as one of the most difficult to date by the present Pope. The reason for this is not only because of the the very sensitive political environment which exists in the Middle East today. It is also not only because of the centuries-old conflict that exists between Catholics and Jews. The combination of these two points and the actions of Benedict XVI in Holocaust-related matters in recent years has provided the background for a trip that was always doomed to fail. I believe that a trip to Israel at this time was ill-advised, and should not have taken place.

So that you should not interpret my comments incorrectly, I wish to state that Israel welcomes tourists to its shores, including the Pope. A visit by him reinforces the importance of Israel's geographical position as the incubator of Christianity. Accompanying the Pope were many Christian pilgrims who were eager to attend mass by the Pope in the Holy Land and to accompany him on his visit to Christianity's holy sites. The Pope, and all the pilgrims are naturally welcome visitors in Israel, and a cordial welcome was extended to all. In addition, it confirms for all to see that the Israeli government is happy to open all religious sites to worshippers of all religions. In terms of the ongoing roller-coaster relationship between the Vatican and Jews, the timing of the visit appears to me to be unfortunate.

There appears to be little progress under the guidance of the current Pope in the age-old issues continuing to blight relations between Catholics and Jews. In particular, the Vatican stands accused of retaining artefacts from the second temple which was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD. It is claimed that many items from the temple, including the Menorah from Solomon's Temple, remain housed in the catacombs below the Vatican City. What is known for sure is that the Vatican museum houses one of the richest and most extensive collections of Jewish manuscripts in the world. Quite how they came to be there, and why the Vatican feels that it is the best guardian of such holy texts is something that I do not know or pretend to understand. Benedict XVI's predecessor, Pope John Paul II, saw fit to maintain an open dialogue by making one or two symbolic gestures. In 2005, he agreed to loan to Israel a number of important Hebrew manuscripts dating back to medieval times. Amongst the manuscripts was a work by Moses Maimonides, regarded as one of Judaism's most celebrated and influential Rabbis and Sages. The gesture was reported as being "in the interests of improving relations between Catholics and Jews". One may have considered this gesture to possibly open the doors for additional gestures to further cultivate goodwill. Unfortunately, there were no such gestures from Benedict XVI.

Instead, he has become embroiled in two Holocaust-related matters that have raised the ire of the Jewish world. The first is the beatification of Pope Pius XII. He was the Pope during the Holocaust and stands accused of not making sufficient effort to assist the plight of those who were callously murdered by the Nazi regime. Even worse, he is accused of colluding with the Nazis to the detriment of many millions of victims. The beatification process of "Hilter's Pope" was initiated in 1967 and has suffered numerous lengthy delays along its route. Benedict has openly supported the beatification of Pope Pius XII on a number of different occasions, and praised his wartime efforts to help the Jews during a mass in October 2008 to commemorate 50 years since his death. Benedict was subsequently forced to announce a delay to the beatification process early in 2009 following international criticism and heightened tensions between Israel and the Vatican.

The second issue linked to the Holocaust is Benedict's decision in January 2009 to lift the excommunication of British Bishop Richard Williamson. Williamson, along with a number of his colleagues, was excommunicated from the Catholic Church in 1988 for openly protesting the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. Williamson has claimed that the number of Jews killed in the Holocaust is no more than a few hundred thousand, and that the universally recognised number of 6 million is grossly exaggerated. In addition, Williamson has stated that the gas chambers were a fiction. His revisionist claims were being made as recently as January 2009 on a Swedish TV program. Surely the act of readmitting Williamson to the Church under these circumstances should have been considered insulting to the memory of those who needlessly perished.

The issue of Benedict's Holocaust actions may not have been raised so conspicuously were it not for the fact that, as Joseph Ratzinger in wartime Germany, Benedict was a member of a Hitler youth organisation. Although it is claimed that this was forced upon him as it was on all children growing up in Germany at the time, not enough has been done to clarify his own position regarding the Holocaust. This has been compounded by his insensitivity in dealing with Holocaust issues as mentioned above, and by his somewhat detached statements made during his visit to Yad Vashem, Jerusalem's Holocaust Memorial Museum last week.

Middle East politics is a tough job, and I am not convinced that Benedict was ready to step into this cauldron. He was clearly taken advantage of by the Palestinians and their sympathisers who used him to promote their cause at every opportunity during his visit. Whilst I heard him declare that the Palestinians have a right to their own homeland, I did not hear him declare that there are responsibilities that come with a Palestinian homeland. I also heard him criticise the barrier wall that has been erected to protect Israelis from Palestinian suicide bombers, although I did not hear him recognise the reason why the wall was forced upon Israelis and Palestinians alike in the first place. Surely, for somebody who is known for a measured and highly nuanced style, it would not have taken a great deal to assume a slightly more balanced approach.

As head of the Catholic Church, Benedict XVI has the status of a head of state rather than a head of faith. He is welcomed by Presidents and Kings during his trips abroad. This reflects the ongoing power and influence of the Catholic Church, not only in the Catholic world, but much further afield. The status is accompanied by responsibilities, and requires a highly political approach to all relationships, despite the Church's stated preference to keep out of politics. In choosing to visit Israel against the backdrop of recent events, I feel that Benedict has displayed an amateurish approach to a task that demands a professional.

Saturday 9 May 2009

What About the Pollard Case Do I Not Understand?

Jonathan Pollard is the American Naval civilian intelligence analyst who was jailed for spying for Israel. He received a life sentence in 1987 with a recommendation against parole. Now, 22 years later, Pollard continues to languish in jail despite numerous attempts at very senior levels to free him. Criminals in the US who receive life sentences are generally freed on parole long before they have served 22 years in jail. So, what have I missed? Why does the American government insist upon keeping Pollard imprisoned?

I am able to accept the fact that Pollard committed a crime which deserved some sort of punishment. In his role as an intelligence analyst, he was expected to respect the rules under which he was engaged. Even though, as an Israeli, I appreciate his efforts to assist Israel, it is clear to most concerned that he transgressed his security clearance. This is despite the claims that the information that he passed to Israel was information that Israel was entitled to receive. It is also despite the fact that Israel is not considered to be an enemy nation to the USA. I believe that there can be little doubt that Pollard passed information to Israel that he knew he should not have passed. He was caught, and was deserving of a punishment commensurate with the crime.

Instead, the Pollard case is riddled with strange and unexplainable facts that would seem to have prevented him from serving his time, and being released to continue to live his life. Despite the fact that he betrayed his employers and broke the law, he can hardly be regarded as a common criminal who represents a danger to American society.

I have many unanswered questions about this case:
  • why did the American government not stick to the terms of the plea bargain?
  • what is contained in the various documents submitted by Caspar Weinberger to the courts regarding the case?
  • why did Clinton not stick to his promise to release Pollard during his term as President?
  • why would Bush not consider this?
  • why did it take the Israeli government so long to take responsibility for the man who acted on ideological grounds to assist the State of Israel?
These represent only a very small subset of the numerous unanswered questions on this case. There are so many others that contribute to the intrigue and seeming injustice that surrounds this case.

I call upon the Israeli and American governments to do all that they can to free Pollard from prison. It is up to us to ensure that the name of Jonathan Pollard is not forgotten and remains in the news every day.

Please visit the Justice for Jonathan Pollard website. For more facts about the case, please click here.

Sunday 3 May 2009

All Our Eggs in One Basket

The concept of the "in-gathering of the exiles", kibbutz galuyot in Hebrew, originates from the promise given by Moses to the Children of Israel prior to his death. This is the idea of all Jews living in the Jewish homeland in Israel. Although Moses envisaged that the People of Israel would sin in their homeland and be exiled, he also envisaged them being returned to the Land of Israel and predicted that they would have it better than their forefathers. During the Babylonian Exile following the destruction of the first temple, the prophets Isaiah, Ezekiel and Jeremiah all prophesied the in-gathering of the exiles by repeating Moses' words. Following the destruction of the second temple and the resulting exile, the concept of the kibbutz galuyot became relevant once more. It was the central theme of the Zionist movement and is the basis of the present-day aliyah movement. A prayer for the in-gathering of the exiles was added to the daily prayers by the rabbinical sages and, in his writings, the Rambam links the kibbutz galuyot with the coming of the Messiah. There can be little doubt that this concept is central to Jewish belief and to modern Zionism.

I have read a number of articles which indicate that there are more than a few Jews who do not consider themselves to be in Jewish "exile" by virtue of not living in Israel. For them, being able to live a Jewish life freely in their home country is sufficient. More than this, there are many who question how healthy it would be to have all Jews in the world living in one place, the promised Land of Israel. There are those who believe that this presents a security risk to the future existence of the Jewish nation. If all Jews live in Israel and something catastrophic happens to Israel, this would essentially eliminate Jews off the face of the earth, thereby achieving what many before have tried to do and failed. The notion of having all Jewish eggs in one basket is too much of a risk in the opinion of some.

There are also strong arguments in favour of having Jews living in the Diaspora. This affords opportunities to influence from critical political and business positions in foreign countries to promote Israel's interests. There can be little doubt that Israel benefited significantly in its early years from Jews in prominent positions in key countries. Despite Israel now being more established, it could still use any help that it can get. Whilst high ranking Jews could help, it seems as though Jews in influential positions these days may be more cautious about using their influence to help Israel. They need to be sure to demonstrate that their allegiance lies with their home country.

It is my view that Jewish continuity can best be assured for those Jews who live in Israel. It is a fact that more Jews have been lost to assimilation in countries in the Diaspora than have been lost to terrorism in Israel. It seems inevitable that this trend will continue. And whilst it is true to say that Israel is a target for a catastrophic attack in an attempt to eliminate the Jews, the good news is that it has a government and an army whose primary responsibility it is to guard against such an event. I believe that the chances of such an event taking place remain very low.

For now, Jewish existence in the Diaspora does not appear to be under an existential threat. Many Jews are able to have good, wholesome Jewish lives in all four corners of the globe. And for many of these people, living in Israel is not an option for any of a thousand good reasons. There is clear evidence, however, that a combination of rising anti-Semitism and assimilation is serving to diminish many Jewish communities around the world, or place them under threat. Israel represents the only growing Jewish community in the world today.

So whilst Israel would be happy to take advantage of any help that Diaspora Jews can provide in their individual spheres of influence, I cannot help feeling that it will be more the case that Israel will be helping Diaspora Jewry in the future. Having as many Jews in Israel as possible will certainly facilitate this help when it is required. Despite the many valid arguments against putting all your eggs in one basket, I feel that Jewish continuity ultimately requires this.