Sunday 27 September 2009

Iran Does Not Surprise Me

The statements issued at the G20 summit in Pittsburgh by Barack Obama, Gordon Brown and Nicolas Sarkozy about the latest state of the Iranian nuclear program came as a huge surprise to me and many others. I suspect, however, that my surprise is probably not for the same reasons that others are surprised.

Political leaders and press alike expressed their surprise that Iran's nuclear facilities are more extensive and further developed than have previously been acknowledged. They also seemed to express surprise that Iran was concealing and lying about so many aspects of its nuclear reactors.

I am really not surprised about the current status of the Iranian nuclear program, nor the confirmations issued at the G20 summit about further reactors. After all, Iran's intentions have been made clear for the longest time. Although recent reports by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) have been very limited in the information that they detail emanating from Iran, there have been sufficient rumours circulating in the market to understand that these reports have probably concealed more than they have revealed. The Israeli government has been actively pushing the Iran issue onto the front burner at every opportunity. Prime Minister Netanyahu's recent "secret" and urgent trip to Russia is just one more action in a lengthy list of attempts to raise this issue to the top of every government's agenda.

Against this backdrop, I am surprised about two things. The first thing that surprises me is the surprise that is being expressed following the G20 revelations. With all that has been happening over the past few years in Iran, and with clear evidence that the Iranian regime is not to be trusted, who can honestly feel surprise at what we now know to be fact. If this new information is surprising, the world had better brace itself for more surprising news. For what has now been revealed still only represents the tip of the iceberg of the reality of the nuclear production activities in Iran.

The second thing that I am surprised about is the fact that the world has done so little to date in response to the massive threat posed by Iran. It is now understood that the revelations at the G20 contained information that has been known by western governments for at least a year. So why has more not been done to oppose this and to prevent Iran from making such significant progress with its nuclear production? In fairness, the attempts by the IAEA to police and control the Iranians have been feeble. Efforts by the key western powers have been equally lacklustre and entirely ineffective. With the significant threat posed by allowing nuclear weapons to fall into the hands of somebody as unpredictable as Ahmadinejad, surely much more should have been done to put a stop to this.

Maybe the inaction on the part of the western powers is down to the fact that they don't really view their countries as being under threat. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu stated in his address to the UN General Assembly last week that Israel is not alone in the risk posed by Iran. Weapons currently in its possession can reach most countries in Europe, and the range is likely to expand until it will reach the US before long. It already certainly has the ability to attack US interests in the Middle East and Europe. The threats posed by nuclear weapons being in the hands of a fundamentalist government like that of Iran should cause all logical people not to sleep easily, no matter where they are.

In its previous actions, Israel has shown a willingness to take steps to prevent the build-up of such a threat on its doorstep. The most well-known of these actions was the destruction of the Iraqi nuclear reactor at Osirak in 1981. Although Israel is willing and able to take on Iran to prevent a further escalation of the threat posed by its nuclear activities, it seems on this occasion that the responsibility needs to be shared more broadly. It seems illogical that Israel should be responsible for bearing the entire burden of the consequences of such action when the threat is clearly a world-wide threat.

Having said that, it is clear that Israel is under significant threat. This is not only because of Israel's proximity to Iran which puts it clearly in reach of Iran's weaponry, it is also because of the constant tirade of anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli vitriol that Ahmadinejad issues at every opportunity. If one considers the audience given to Ahmadinejad at the recent UN General Assembly meeting and how many delegates found fit to stay in the session to give him a hearing, this threat is still being ignored by many governments around the world. By contrast, the walkout on Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu showed the number of governments that are not interested in hearing of the threat that Iran poses to the world. If the UN was living up to its ideals, a man like Ahmadinejad would not be allowed to address the General Assembly at all. All of this suggests that, in the absence of stronger responses on the part of the western powers, Israel may be forced to go it alone once again.

Following the statements made by the G20 leaders on Friday, there have been further discussions about increasing sanctions, there have been discussions about increasing the investigation activities of the IAEA and there have been expressions of surprise and condemnation. In stark contract Iran has responded by test firing two short range missiles and testing a multiple missile launcher. These tests have been surreptitiously timed to coincide with the eve of Judaism's holiest day, Yom Kippur, and the anniversary of one of Israel's hardest-fought wars.

The difference in style of the two responses unfortunately also does not surprise me.

Sunday 20 September 2009

The Goldstone Farce

The establishment of the UN Fact Finding Commission on the Gaza Conflict by the Human Rights Commission of the United Nations was accompanied by a great deal of scepticism. I also felt these sceptical pangs as I considered this strange decision on the part of the UN. I decided, however, that I would give it the benefit of the doubt in the hope that this would allow the world to really see Operation Cast Lead for what it was - an attempt to return peace and security to the citizens of southern Israel. After all, they were forced to endure years of insecurity with the incessant firing of rockets and other missiles randomly into civilian areas.

Judge Richard Goldstone was appointed as head of the Commission. I have in common with him the fact that he is Jewish and South African by birth, but it seems that we have little else in common. On the face of it, his extensive experience makes him an ideal person to head the Commission. He is a former judge of South Africa's Constitutional Court and he was a prosecutor in the International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. It did not take long, however, for it to become clear that the intentions of the UN were not to undertake an objective enquiry. Goldstone's anti-Israel bias made him a perfect person for the UN to appoint to ensure that their objective was achieved.

The Israeli government saw from a very early stage that the main purpose of the commission was to criticise the actions of the Israeli government and army, and hang them out to dry. As a result, they decided not to cooperate with the commission. This decision has been criticised by various parties, but I feel that it was the right decision. There is no reason to cooperate and to provide confidential information to an investigation when the purpose of this cooperation is to simply use it against you at every opportunity.

When the Goldstone Commission findings were published, many inches of newspaper columns were devoted to the one-sided nature of its findings. The Israeli government immediately went into attack mode to defend itself against the ridiculousness of the report. I decided that I wish to read the report myself, and not to rely on the filtered impressions of journalists and political commentators. I did manage to read the executive summary of the report, but only just. The truth is that I found it to be so openly biased and lacking in objectivity that I could not read any more.

A shocking aspect of the report for me was the fact that the UNHRC set a brief for the commission to cover only the events between 27 December 2008 (the date of Israel's invasion of Gaza) and 18 January 2009 (the date of the cessation of Operation Cast Lead). This simply ignores the reason for the invasion and the events that caused the Israeli government to decide to attack Gaza. In fairness to the commission, it did examine these contributing events (although in a very cursory manner) and even concludes that the firing of the rockets onto the Israeli civilian population is a violation of international law. The Commission even devoted a few lines of its report to the kidnapped Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit. Here, the language is much less forthright and the Commission says that he should be treated humanely and that the ICRC should be allowed to visit him. The report is, however, a catalogue of criticisms of Israel and the way in which it conducted its war. It even criticises Israel's specific attempts to avoid civilian casualties despite the use of civilian locations by the Hamas militants to fire their rockets and fight their battles.

For me, however, the biggest omission of the report is a recognition of the simple right that Israel has to exist in peace. The fact that Hamas continues to deny Israel this right in a public and unashamed way is surely the main contributing factor to the ongoing conflict. If it was not for the fact that Hamas wishes to destroy Israel or to see it destroyed, it would not spend more of its time attacking Israel and Israeli civilians than it does on looking after its own people. This is what justifies its bombing of Israeli civilians to cause terror and insecurity. This, in turn, is what forced Israel to attack Gaza. Surely Goldstone can understand this?

The Goldstone Commission report is indeed unfortunate. This is not only because it fails to address the key underlying cause of Operation Cast Lead in Gaza (and the Middle East conflict), or to treat Israel's actions in an objective manner. Having read parts of the report, it is not clear to me why the Commission was established at all. What was the purpose of the Commission? It is surely not too difficult to find evidence of acts of war during a war. Wars are inevitably situations which bring out the worst in people. We don't require commissions of enquiry to prove this. So why appoint a commission to prove that acts of war were committed during a war? And once this is proved, what happens next? Should governments and armies be prosecuted for acting to protect their citizens? Which conflicts justify the appointment of such a commission, and which conflicts need not have commissions of enquiry? Why was the Russian invasion of Georgia not subject to a similar commission? Will the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq have commissions appointed? I suspect not.

Unfortunately the UN continues to show its bias against Israel. This bias not only manifests itself in the report by the Goldstone Commission, it shows itself in the number of anti-Israel resolutions that have been passed. This does not even consider the huge number of resolutions that have been defeated due to vetoes being exercised. As a body that is theoretically unbiased and a protector of the rights of nations and peoples, the UN could do well to make clear the fact that Israel has a right to exist in peace. Is this too much to ask?

Monday 14 September 2009

Classic Israeli Heroine

Nobody would want to be in the shoes of Rona Ramon today, or ever for that matter. Imagine having to bury your 21 year-old son just 6 short years after burying your husband. The thought seems too awful to contemplate, and yet this is what she is doing today. The hearts of all Israelis and all Jews around the world go out to her today in her hour of grief. Not only is she having to cope with this tragedy, she is forced to do so in the full glare of the media and the public at large.

The reason for this is because Rona Ramon is no ordinary citizen of Israel. In addition to being the grieving mother of an F-16 fighter pilot, Capt. Assaf Ramon z"l, whose plane crashed yesterday during a training exercise, Rona Ramon is the widow of Col. Ilan Ramon z"l, Israel's first astronaut and national hero.

Ilan Ramon grew up in the rural town of Beersheba. Both his mother and grandmother were survivors of the Auschwitz death camp, who managed to make their way to Israel in the aftermath of the holocaust in defiance of the determination of the Nazis to wipe out the Jewish nation. Ilan was the epitome of this defiance. He was a fighter pilot in the Israeli Air Force and accumulated thousands of hours of flying experience. In 1981, he was the youngest of the pilots who were sent on a mission to destroy Iraq's Osiraq nuclear reactor.

When it came to selecting a person to be Israel's first astronaut, a more appropriate and deserving person could not have been found. Col. Ilan Ramon, a secular Jew in his private life, considered himself a representative of all Israelis and Jews around the world. As such, he sought to follow Jewish observances whilst in space. He insisted upon eating only kosher food and exercised the greatest rabbinical minds about how he should observe the Sabbath in space when the cycle between sunrises is approximately 90 minutes. He made sure that he carried with him into space a copy of a Torah scroll from the holocaust, a sketch "Moon Landscape" by Petr Ginz who died in the holocaust, a barbed wire mezuzah and a dollar of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. I recall my children, at the time 10 and 8 years old, following every aspect of his mission on the space shuttle Columbia. How proud they felt of this Israeli in space, who was representing Israel and all Jews in such an honourable and sensitive way. We knew exactly what he would eat at every meal, and what time he was being woken up by mission control to continue his intensive research and experiments. I remember how we waited proudly and nervously for his return to earth on that fateful day, 1 February 2003, whilst we were celebrating my son's 11th birthday. The scenes of debris falling from the sky that filled our TV pictures were confusing, but it soon became clear that Ilan Ramon would not return to earth safely. He perished on that day with his fellow crew members, having not even reached his 50th birthday.

The miracles concerning the belongings of Ilan Ramon that survived the ravages of the fire 37 miles above earth that killed the astronauts are legendary. 37 pages of his personal diary survived the inferno, their pages remaining white and not charred. With the help of experts from Jerusalem's Israel Museum, 80% of the text of his diary was deciphered. 1 of the pages displayed at the museum is a copy of the Kiddush prayer, recited on the eve of Sabbath, and which Ramon had with him.

Despite having already sacrificed a member of her family to the cause of science and to further Israel's standing in the international world, Rona Ramon agreed to support the wishes of her eldest son, Assaf, when he decided he wished to follow in his father's footsteps as a fighter pilot in the Israeli Air Force. It was in an F-16A, exactly the same type of plane that his father flew in his mission to Iraq, that Assaf died.

Rona Ramon, you have given to Israel two heroes. You are an Israeli hero and we salute your courage and your contribution to Israel and to all Jews around the world. Our hearts are with you today as you bury your precious son alongside the remains of his famous father. May you and your family be comforted among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.

Tuesday 8 September 2009

Fact or Fiction? Either is Good.

The episode of the “hijacked” tanker, the Arctic Sea is an intriguing tale. For those who have not been following this story closely, it involves a ship carrying a Russian crew that set sail from Helsinki on 21st July. It is reputed that it was carrying a cargo of timber bound for Algeria. When its anticipated docking date of 4th August came and went without any trace of the ship, the alarm was raised. Checks revealed that its signal disappeared in late July and the last report of a signal from the ship was in the English Channel. This resulted in reports of the first modern-day act of piracy in English waters, or in those of Western Europe.

The Russian government sent forces to search for the ship on 12th August, and found it a few days later off the western coast of Africa. News pictures were flashed around the world showing heavy-handed treatment being dished out to eight “hijackers” who were flown back to Russia handcuffed and lying on their stomachs.

It seems, however, that this may be a concocted story to prevent blushes in the Kremlin. The alternative story is that the Arctic Sea was carrying a shipment of advanced anti-aircraft missiles to Iran. These arms are reputed to have been sold by former Russian military officials linked to the Russian underworld. It is alleged that the cargo was loaded in the Russian port of Kaliningrad when the ship was there under repair. But, unbeknown to them, the Israeli secret service, Mossad was on their case and tracking the shipment. Mossad hired a gang of criminals who probably had no idea of the content of the shipment to attack the ship. The plan was simply to create a huge noise around the shipment in order to raise its profile. This would ensure that the ship would be blocked from reaching Iran.

It has been known for some time that Iran is interested in acquiring the Russian S-300 anti-aircraft missile to help repel a possible Israeli air attack against its nuclear sites. Israel has been in close contact with the Kremlin to try to convince them not to supply Iran with these missiles. It would come as a source of great embarrassment to the Russians that the weapons have fallen into the hands of criminal element s. When news of the “hijack” broke, Moscow was forced to act to save further embarrassment.

It seems to me that the original story is a cover-up. To imagine that a cargo of timber would be the target of sea pirates is inconceivable. The alternative story also appears a little far-fetched albeit not entirely inconceivable in today’s world. Even if it is only true in part, or not true at all, I still like it very much.

The reason why I like it is because it adds to the air of fantasy surrounding Israel’s secret service and its capabilities. The fact that people can manufacture such a story (if it is made up) and publish it in the belief that the public at large will easily believe it means that there is the view that this is the sort of thing that the Mossad could do, and actually does when required. Verified and public stories of Israel’s previous activities bear testament to this view. The daring operation to free the hostages at Entebbe is probably one of the best known stories of these. No doubt there are many others that have remained secret or unconfirmed.

Secretly, I hope that the alternative story is true.

The reports of Benjamin Netanyahu's secret visit to Moscow seem to support the alternative story. I will continue to keep an eye on this story.

Sunday 6 September 2009

The March of the Wealthy?

My 17 year-old son recently returned from a trip to Poland together with more than 100 of his classmates. This is a trip made available each year to all 12th grade students to allow them to visit the sites of the greatest and cruellest tragedy on earth - the holocaust. It is a pilgrimage that tens of thousands of Israeli schoolchildren make each year, and one which many thousands of Jews from around the world make under the banner of the "March of the Living".

Despite the obvious difficulties associated with a 17 year-old visiting the sites which saw such horrific tortures and killings of innocent people, I am happy that my son went to Poland. I am happy that he saw first-hand the sites of Treblinka, Majdanek, Auschwitz and Birkenau as well as the remains of the Warsaw Ghetto. In my view, the youth of today who are now 3 and 4 generations removed from the victims and survivors of the holocaust need to see this with their own eyes so that they will never forget. After his visit, I am convinced that my son will never forget. He took with him the names of the members of our family - my grandfather's brothers and their families - who perished. He lit candles in their memory at Auschwitz and said the mourner's prayer. This will surely remain with him for ever.

There can be no doubt that Jewish youth who grow up without strong Jewish education can easily forget that the holocaust took place. There are so many holocaust-deniers around these days, some of whom seem very convincing in their arguments. There are less and less survivors to convince us with their eye-witness accounts of events. All of this surely leads to a dilution in the awareness of the holocaust and the threat that it presented to the Jewish people and to the free world.

And yet there are those, even in Israel, who object to the trip made to Poland by the high school students. The main reason is because of the cost. The trip to Poland is sponsored almost entirely by the parents. The cost to our family was NIS 6,000 excluding spending money, equivalent to almost US$2,000. This covers a well organised and intensive 8 day trip including comfortable hotels, most meals, guides, security and transport and entrance to all sites of interest. Despite the fact that attractive payment options are offered, this amount is not something that all Israeli families can afford and immediately excludes those children whose parents are unable to finance this sum. It can also create some embarrassment amongst school mates between those who are able to travel and those who are not. The school did make an effort to raise funds for those students in need of financial assistance. Even this, however, does not seem to fully solve the problem.

An ideal situation would be that the Ministry of Education would budget sufficient money to finance all students who qualify to travel and wish to participate. There are some children opt out of the trip due to the fact they simply cannot cope with facing such horrors. With the current budget cuts, however, there is not sufficient money to cover the basic education requirements. So the prospect of having budget for the trip to Poland is as remote as ever. Under the circumstances, what is the correct action? The trip can either be cancelled completely, or continue to operate under the current circumstances? If this is the stark choice, I choose the second option such that at least some of our youth have the chance to "never forget".

Another issue that has been raised in reference to the Poland trip is whether it is even appropriate for our youth to be exposed to such horrors. There is a view that the holocaust is "stuffed down the throats" of our children at school from the age of 7. Every year sees the sirens wailing on Holocaust Day with the associated educational programs implemented in all schools. Holocaust study is a compulsory subject for all Israeli students to gain a matriculation (Bagrut). There is a view that this is simply too much, especially for children of this age. This view seems to be more pronounced in the community of Jews originating from Middle Eastern countries than the community of Jews originating from Europe. This may be due to the fact that the Middle Eastern community was spared the horrors of the holocaust while their European brethren suffered unimaginable horrors in Europe. I believe that too much is not good, but it is better than too little.

So, with all the arguments and politics which surround this trip, I remain convinced that it is a practice that should continue. My son, who together with his friends will be recruited to the IDF within the next 2 years, now has a much better understanding of the value and importance of the State of Israel to the Jewish community and to each Jew individually. Although he has always been a proud citizen of Israel and Zionist, his understanding of the need for a Jewish army is clearer than before. His commitment to the defence of the State of Israel and the Jewish people is absolute, and exactly what is needed prior to his period of service.