Monday 30 November 2009

Iran's Moment of Truth

A number of events have taken place in recent months that should have the world's headlights flashing red. Although these events have been reported in the international press, it does not appear as if anybody has really connected all the events together to draw a clear picture of what is happening with Iran's nuclear activities. Perhaps the world has already grown tired of too much information regarding Iran? Perhaps the world does not feel sufficiently threatened by the nuclear ambitions of a country that is ruled by an extremist, anti-Semitic tyrant? Whatever it is, the time has come for the world to take some serious action against Iran.

Until now, Iran has hidden its nuclear activities behind the veil that they are for exclusively civilian purposes. Even though Israel has always maintained that this is a blatant lie and that Iran is building a nuclear weapon, the doubt that has existed has been sufficient to lull the world into inaction. I classify the ineffective statements, resolutions and inspections into the category of "inaction". They are empty threats that have no impact upon the rate that Iran is ploughing forward to build a nuclear bomb. The events of the past few months and, in particular the past few weeks, have clearly removed this element of doubt. This leaves no excuses for the world not to respond. And yet, we are met with a deafening silence at a moment when decisive action is required.

The first of these events was the revelation in September that a second uranium enrichment plant is under construction at Qom in central Iran. This was met with some surprise by certain elements given the fact that Iran had succeeded in hoodwinking the international community and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) into believing that it was cooperating with all its demands. This revelation was a clear indication of Iran's intention not to cooperate with these demands.

The next event in the series was Iran's rejection of an attempt at a compromise offer. The international community offered Iran the possibility to ship its low-enriched uranium to Russia or France for further enrichment and processing into fuel for power plants. This would allow Iran to pursue its nuclear electricity program, but prevent it from being able to generate nuclear weapons. Iran's rejection of this compromise is surely the clearest indication to date of the fact that its true intention is to build nuclear weapons.

This was closely followed by the announcement made last week by the IAEA retiring chief, Mohammed El-Baradei. He announced to the IAEA board of governors that, "there has been no movement on remaining issues of concern which need to be clarified for the agency to verify the exclusively peaceful nature of Iran's nuclear program." He continued, "we have effectively reached a dead end, unless Iran engages fully with us.". These are indeed stark words coming from an organisation whose chief is much more accustomed to "diplomatic speak" rather than saying things as they are. El-Baradei's protestations could not be clearer.

The final action so far in this series of events is Iran's announcement this week of an approval that has been given to build 10 new nuclear enrichment plants. The Iranian government is quoted as saying that this approval comes as a reaction to the condemnation issued by the IAEA last week regarding its nuclear program. It should be clear to all concerned that it would be impossible to turn around an approval of this magnitude in less than a week, and that it must have been under preparation for some considerable time. It may be true that the timing of the announcement was specifically to counter last week's condemnation. It should be clear, however, that the announcement would have come, with or without the IAEA condemnation.

Each Iranian action seems to be bolder than the previous one. Whereas Iran was previously making an attempt to hide its nuclear ambitions behind a cloak of secrecy and create confusion about its intentions, now it seems quite happy to be open about what it is up to. Even though it has not come out and said that it is building a nuclear bomb, it is clear from current events that this is indeed the case.

So now that the truth about Iran is out there for all to see, the moment of truth has also come for the international community. The IAEA conclusions and condemnations have opened the door for much wider diplomatic and military action to be pursued. There can be no doubt that the only acceptable outcome to this sorry state of affairs is the complete destruction of Iran's nuclear capabilities. Currently, it seems like it is only Israel that is prepared to shoulder the burden of taking action against Iran. This is, however, not only Israel's problem. This is a world problem. But where are the offers to help going go come from? This is not at all clear right now, but time is running out. The clock is ticking.

Sunday 29 November 2009

How Equal are Israeli Women?

Judaism seems to have a somewhat ambivalent approach to the role of women in society and in the religion. On the one hand, female characters like the first women Eve, the four mothers Rachel, Sarah, Rivka and Leah, Ruth the Moabite and her mother-in-law Naomi and many others have strong positions in biblical stories and religious significance. Yet, the Jewish religion seems to firmly place women into a predetermined role as a home-maker. In addition, women are absolved or excluded from many of the religious practices. One example is the exclusion of women from the honour of being called up to the reading of the holy Torah. We are told that this exclusion is not one which is based upon biblical prohibition, but rather on interpretations and edicts issued by rabbis over the years, mainly for social reasons.

This ambivalence is also reflected in modern-day Israeli society. Women have an important role in society and, in many cases, there is an expectation that they fulfil duties that require them to be equal to their male counterparts. Israel is the only country in the world which has compulsory military conscription for women as well as men. More than 70% of women between the ages of 25 and 64 years old are currently in the Israeli workforce. This compares to approximately 60% in the USA. Golda Meir was only the third woman in world history to become the Prime Minister of her country. Tzipi Livni recently completed a stint as the country's foreign minister and continues as the leader of the Kadima party in parliament. A woman has occupied the position of CEO of a major Israeli bank, and there are women to be found in many senior positions in Israeli academia and industry. On the face of it, there would appear to be plenty of evidence of equal opportunities being afforded to Israeli women.

When scratching slightly below the surface, the picture of the role of women in Israeli society is not quite so rosy. Although women are conscripted into the army, the roles that most serve during the period of their military service are clerical and secretarial duties. It is known that those girls wishing to serve in fighting units or other front-line positions are required to fight hard for the right to do so. Such roles are usually allocated to their male counterparts and females wishing to fill them are forced to prove themselves way beyond their male equivalents. Alice Miller was excluded from the pilots' training course because she was a women. She was forced to petition the country's law courts before she was finally accepted to the course. This was only 14 years ago.

Incidents of sexual harassment in the military are commonly spoken about and well known, despite the fact that relatively few formal claims have been successfully pursued. Incidents of sexual harassment and cases where women are being taken advantage of by more senior men seem to be prevalent in all walks of Israeli society. The ongoing shameful court case against former president Moshe Katsav, or the conviction of former defence minister Yitzhak Mordechai on rape charges is evidence of this at the very highest levels.

In the workplace, there still seems to be a good deal of discrimination against women. It would appear that certain types of clerical roles are still associated with and reserved for women. The average salary earned by women in Israel is consistently and significantly lower than that earned by men. Although many of Israel's residents do not originate from Middle Eastern countries, the classic Middle Eastern stereotyping of women seems to be as prevalent here as it is in many of our neighbouring countries.

The real irony of the role of women can be found in the ultra-orthodox communities. Here, the men are expected to spend their days in learning institutions devoting their time and energies to the study of Judaism and the Torah. There are many thousands of such men engaged full-time in this activity. In return, they receive a stipend from the institution with which they study, money which is government-funded. Traditionally, it is expected that the wives of these men are at home raising (significant numbers of) children and taking care of the home. Because of financial pressures, more and more of these women are going out to find work and extra income. There are businesses, particularly in the Jerusalem area, that employ only ultra-orthodox women. The irony is that these women, who do not have the right to take part in many of the religious rituals, are the ones upon whom the entire home economy rests upon whilst their husbands are studying.

The good thing in Israel is that boys and girls have equal opportunities in the educational system to pursue an education and to follow their specialities and their dreams. Many high schools have successful girls' sports teams, and there are many girls who are following scientific specialisations such as physics, chemistry and robotics. Even though the average girl is toughened up during the course of her military training, something seems to happen between that event and the time that she enters the workplace. Even those women who have risen to the top of their professions and companies, have been forced to work harder and to endure unpleasantness at the hands of their male colleagues along the way only because they are women. This clearly needs to change.

The real interest for me is how modern Israeli society will continue to live alongside the traditions and laws of the Jewish religion, or perhaps the other way around. It seems as if those who safeguard the religion and the role of women in the religion, will be forced to reconsider their position on a good many issues in order to remain relevant. This does not mean that should sell the religion out and make changes to its most fundamental beliefs. It may, however, require the modern rabbis to question the edicts of rabbis from days in which the role of men and women were very different from the current day. Just as rabbis in days of old took it upon themselves to issue rabbinical laws to conform to their society, it is incumbent on our rabbis today to reopen these decisions, and to issue laws that will allow women to fill their rightful role in our society.

Monday 23 November 2009

Silence on Shalit is Golden

Speculation has mounted again over the past few days on a possible deal for the release of captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. Any progress in the negotiations to free Shalit, who has been held by Hamas terrorists in captivity for more than 3 years, is welcome.

There have been many previous occasions when speculation about his possible release has reached fever pitch. The big difference this time is that the Israeli press has been very subdued in its reporting of the developments. Most, if not all, the news items have been initiated by foreign press including newspapers in the Arab world. Israeli newspapers seem to only have carried reports of stories that are repeats of information in the public domain. The only piece of original reporting so far was the details of President Shimon Peres's trip to Egypt yesterday, and his comments regarding the Shalit deal. Nothing more than that.

On this occasion, I think that the Israeli press has got it right. It is probably thanks to the military censor that gory details of this story are being kept off the front pages. I believe that the negotiations for the release of Shalit should be conducted behind the scenes and not through the press. Public reports in the past regarding a possible release have been particularly unhelpful. Perhaps a lesson was learned, and this time the talks have been kept to the negotiating table where they belong. Reports in the press only serve to increase expectations, and could send messages to the other side which may even serve to derail the talks.

For now, the right thing to do is to work towards lowering speculation in the public domain whilst the negotiators do their work behind the scenes. The joy that will be felt by the Shalit family and the Israeli public will not be increased or decreased by significant prior speculation about a deal. There can be no doubt that limiting public gossip on the deal can only ultimately be advantageous.

We continue to hope that a deal can be done as quickly as possible to secure Gilad's release. Despite the obvious attempts by Hamas to keep the negotiations in the public domain, I hope that those with the power to influence public speculation on the deal will exercise as much restraint as possible.

Saturday 21 November 2009

Netanyahu's American Credentials

Bibi Netanyahu is regarded as "almost American" by many Israelis. It is true that Netanyahu, who spent many years in the USA sounds like an American when he speaks English. There is also a suggestion that he understands the American psyche. So why is it that Israel's relationship with the USA seems to deteriorate when Bibi is in charge? I am not only referring to the events of the past few weeks. On the previous occasion when Bibi was prime minister, Israel's relationship with the US also seemed to go through a significant dip.

Netanyahu returned last week from his trip to the Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly (GA) meeting in Washington DC. Netanyahu's trip to the GA had been scheduled for some time prior to the assembly. Due to the fact that the GA was held this year in Washington DC, and given the fact that President Barack Obama was also invited to address the GA, it seemed logical that Bibi should seek a meeting with the US president. There are a number of open issues on the agenda between the two countries. It is reported that Obama did not respond to a number of requests from the Israeli prime minister for this meeting. This has been viewed as a snub to Netanyahu by Obama. In the event, Obama cancelled his address to the GA and travelled instead to Fort Hood in Texas to attend a memorial for the victims of the mass shooting there. Obama's chief-of-staff, Rahm Emanuel addressed the GA in place of the president.

Netanyahu did eventually manage to engineer a meeting with Obama at the White House. There are conflicting views about how sensible it was for Netanyahu to insistent upon meeting with Obama after it was initially made clear by Obama that he was not enthusiastic about such a meeting. Many media sources suggested that Bibi had been humiliated by the manner in which Obama had ignored his initial requests for a meeting. There were even references made to unnamed sources in the prime minister's office who concurred with this view. It is mentioned that the meeting was specially scheduled for a late hour in Washington that would ensure that news of the meeting would be too late for the main news broadcasts in Israel. In this way, Bibi could not capitalise on the news arising from the meeting until the following day in Israel.

When news of the meeting did eventually hit the Israeli press, it was almost unanimously negative. This, in spite of the fact that no formal press conference was held nor press statements issued. It was described by the Israeli press as a bad meeting which was angry and confrontational. The reception given to the prime minister by the president was alleged to be "cold". In particular, the president is reputed to have expressed gross satisfaction over the issue of building and expansion in the Israeli settlements beyond the Green Line. The prime minister's office went out of its way to refute the press reports. Officials described the meeting as warm and open, and that it presented an opportunity to reignite the momentum to move towards renewed talks with the Palestinians.

Whatever the outcome of this particular meeting, there is no dispute over the fact that relations between Jerusalem and Washington have been strained in recent months. This is a stark reminder of the deterioration in relations between the two countries towards the end of 1996 when Bibi opened a new exit for the Western Wall tunnels which triggered riots and unrest amongst the Palestinians. But the main issue which annoyed the Clinton administration at that time was the same one which is now causing disquiet with the Obama government. The issue of expansion of settlements, then like now, is the main cause of a deterioration in relations. Whilst I do not expect the Israeli prime minister to compromise himself in carrying out matters of policy that may be good for Israel, I do question the way in which he does it.

I am trying to understand Netanyahu's tactics in his dealings with the USA administration. Even when taking actions that are known to be against the wishes of the White House, it seems to me that there is a way of doing this in order to minimise the negative impact. After all, the continued support of the USA administration is important for Israel. Bibi appears to ignore this principle, and has undertaken these difficult actions in a way which flies in the face of the president and his men. If he had only done this once, I could agree that it may have been an error. Now that he seems to be adopting the same tactics again, it appears to be deliberate. Is he trying to show that he is unafraid to stand up to the "most powerful man in the world"? If so, what will this achieve? Does he believe that his constituency will admire him more for showing that he stands up to the USA administration? If this is the case, I wonder whether he has considered the price that Israel has to pay for the breakdown in relations with USA.

The difficulty that Netanyahu experienced in getting a meeting with Obama will not be a new experience for him. President Clinton refused to meet Netanyahu when he travelled to the USA in November 1997. The summit at Wye Plantation which followed in 1998 was not only a disaster in advancing Israeli peace talks with the Palestinians, it also did not result in the release of Jonathan Pollard which was promised by Clinton at the time. By all accounts, Bibi's tactics did not yield any positive results.

We are forced to recognise that, without the involvement of the Americans, peace in the Holy Land is impossible. Whilst this should not mean that we need to compromise all our principles and only bow to American requirements, it does mean that it is important to recognise the importance of the Americans in our world. I feel that the time has come for Bibi to use his American skills to the best advantage of Israel and make more of an effort to court the White House, instead of flying in the face of the American administration which is unlikely to help Israel. Israel cannot afford to be in a situation where its prime minister is ignored when requesting a meeting with the US president. I cannot imagine anything which can present this as being positive for Israel. Netanyahu would do well to learn lessons from his previous experiences as quickly as possible.

Wednesday 18 November 2009

The Attraction of Israel

Israel is like a drug to those who know it. It is the quintessential melting point of all ages, all religions and people from all walks of life. It never fails to make an impression on those who have the opportunity to visit.

I have lived in Israel for the past 11 years, and each and every days leaves me with a new impression. Sometimes the impressions are less positive, driven by the extremes of people, their behaviours and the clash of different cultures. Mostly, however, the impressions are positive arising from people responding to total strangers as if they are family members or the quirky style of interacting with each other.

Although Israel offers the richest lesson in history and religion that anybody could hope to experience, my Israel is more about the people than the place. It is true to say that without the Holy city of Jerusalem and all that it represents to the three monotheistic religions, Israel would not be the place that it is. Along with many religious and historical locations around Israel, there are also cities like Tel Aviv and Eilat which are not as historical nor particularly religious. And there are all the other interesting places in between. It is exactly this which draws the strangest mix of people together in a way that no other country can boast.

My Israel, the people in Israel, the extremes in Israel, represents the Israel that I love. It is what makes it different and fascinating. It is what creates the addictive nature of the society which forces people to keep returning, or never to leave.

Flights to Tel Aviv are available frequently from major destinations.

Saturday 14 November 2009

Intel Inside Israel

Intel Israel has found itself in the news this week for all the wrong reasons. It is the target of threats of demonstration action by the religious community in Jerusalem after the company announced its intention to keep its fabrication plant in Jerusalem open on Saturdays, the Jewish Sabbath. The company's general manager, Maxine Fassberg, was involved in a series of meetings in the Knesset in attempt to avert community action against the company.

Intel as a company, and particularly its Israeli branch, should be in the news for much more positive reasons than this. Intel is the world's largest semiconductor and microprocessor producer. For those less technical, a microprocessor is an integrated circuit that contains the entire central processing unit of a computer on a single chip.

Intel's relationship with the State of Israel goes back over 35 years to 1974 when the first Intel chip design centre was established in Haifa, Intel's first outside of the US. Dov Frohman was instrumental in establishing this Intel presence in Haifa. Frohman joined the Intel Corporation in 1969, a year after it was founded. Here, he discovered the EPROM, the first semiconductor memory that was both erasable and reprogrammable. This was the catalyst that led to a long line of innovation and development that produced today's flash memory technology.

After a short break away from the company, Frohman returned to Intel in 1973 and managed to convince the management to allow him to return to his native Israel in 1974 and set up an Intel presence in Haifa. In 1985, he concluded a series of negotiations with the Israeli government to set up a semiconductor fabrication plant in Jerusalem. Frohman was general manager of Intel Israel until his retirement in 2001. He succeeded in setting up a second Intel fabrication plant in the southern Israeli city of Kiryat Gat. During his time with Intel, he managed to establish Israel as a global centre of excellence for the Intel Corporation. Today, Intel Israel employs more than 5,000 employees countrywide and exports more than US$1 billion per annum.

The achievements of Intel Israel are considerable and legendary. It was the Israeli Intel 8088 chip that was selected by IBM in 1980 for its first personal computer (PC) which launched a new era of computing. This major breakthrough for Intel was hailed as a victory for Intel in the microprocessor wars. By 1986, Intel Israel was producing the 386 chip which was 7 times faster than the 8088. With the continued increase in the speed of chips and decrease in their sizes, a new problem was encountered. More power was required to support the increasing speed and, with it came greater heat output. This caused chips to overheat, and computers were equipped with fans to overcome this problem. For laptops, fans could not be accommodated due to size limitations and chip production had hit the so-called "power wall". The Israeli team set to work to design a chip that could go faster without needing to use as much power and thereby overcome the problem of the power wall. The new chip used a type of gear system, similar to gears in a car, that allowed the chip to work faster whilst maintaining a lower clock speed. This also limited the heat output.

When the Israeli team triumphantly presented its new invention to the Intel headquarters team in Santa Clara, they were met with a less than enthusiastic response. Wall Street analysts would value the company on the basis of the clock speeds of the chips being produced. By developing a chip with a lower clock speed (even though the chip worked faster than other chips), it went against the standard parameters used to value the company. It was a little like trying to convince diamond dealers that the number of carats in the diamond was no longer significant. The Israelis mounted a campaign to convince Intel CEO Paul Otellini and the team in Santa Clara that their chip was the only way to go. Finally, Israeli persistence paid off and the Centrino chip was released in March 2003. Although its clock speed was approximately half of the reigning 2.8 gigahertz Pentium chip, it sold for twice the price. More importantly, it gave laptop users the portability and speed that they needed. The new chip was an immediate success and became the anchor of Intel's 13% growth in sales between 2003 and 2005.

Although Intel suffered revenue losses from increased competition in the period that followed, one bright spot in 2006 was the launch of the new Core 2 Duo chip. This was Intel's successor to the Pentium and incorporated dual-core processing which came directly from the Haifa labs. CEO Otellini claimed that "these are the best microprocessors we've ever designed, and the best we have ever built", at the launch of the new chip at the Santa Clara headquarters. Although Intel's stock price was down significantly during 2006, it climbed 16% after the announcement of the new chip. Today, almost every new computer is sold with a microprocessor that is based on this technology.

It is clear that Intel and Israel have had a relationship which has benefited both. Israeli technological insight, innovation and persistence have all contributed to drive Intel to the leading position that it enjoys in the field of microprocessors. Intel has provided Israel with the ideal opportunity to showcase its best, an opportunity that Israelis have grabbed with both hands.

It seems that it is essential for both Intel and Israel that the problems currently experienced in Jerusalem be resolved as quickly as possible. Intel continues to face a great deal of competition in its market, and Israeli innovation and development is essential for its future. Similarly, the Israeli hi-tech industry needs a company like Intel to allow it to show its capabilities off in the best possible way. After managing to maintain its Jerusalem facility for more than 20 years whilst respecting the Jewish Sabbath, I certainly hope that Intel is able to find a way not to have to change this now. By continuing to respect the spirit of the day of rest now and in the future, Intel can assure itself many years of peace in the Holy City.

With acknowledgement to "Start-Up Nation" by Dan Senor and Saul Singer published by Twelve, Hachette Book Group (2009).

Sunday 8 November 2009

Hi-tech in Silicon Wadi

In its short history, Israel has developed a name for technological innovation and advancement. In this respect, Israel is often compared to the famous Silicon Valley in California which is the hotbed of world technological development. Although comparisons are validly made between the two and close connections are forged in the interests of cooperating to advance the world's technology, the truth is that the differences are as remarkable as the similarities.

Israel has been in existence for a mere 61 years. During this time, she has been forced to devote a vast slice of her human and monetary resources to fighting wars in the defence of her right to continue to exist at all. Many other countries in the same situation would have collapsed and fallen by the way a long time ago. But Israel has succeeded not only in surviving 61 amazing years, but also in developing some world firsts. Silicon Valley, on the other hand, has been the beneficiary of many millions of dollars of investment money and a stable environment to cultivate new technologies. The link has resulted in Israel gaining the nickname "Silicon Wadi" after its more famous US counterpart.

I have chosen on this occasion to focus on three amazing developments that have come out of Israel. These are true technological firsts. They are three of numerous other unique developments that have come from Israel. I hope to cover other developments separately in the future.

Telephone Transmission:
Israeli company ECI Telecom was the first to develop Digital Circuit Multiplication Equipment (DCME) in the world. This is equipment that is attached to undersea and satellite telecommunications infrastructure to allow the transmission of many more simultaneous phone calls than the infrastructure was originally designed to carry. If an undersea cable was originally designed to carry 64 simultaneous phone calls, the attachment of DCME to the cable enable the transmission of many more calls without the need to upgrade the cable infrastructure. DCME was first marketed in 1988 and is still in use by many large telecommunications companies around the world, saving many millions in infrastructure costs.

Voice over IP:
Internet Protocol (IP) is the protocol that was developed for communicating data across networks. This is more recent than the protocol that was traditionally used for communicating voice for many years before. So it was a significant development when Israeli company Vocaltec succeeded in launching "Internet Phone", the first application that truly allowed the average person to communicate using a voice call over the Internet. Vocaltec's ground-breaking technology is the base for better known applications such as Skype, Jajah, and numerous others. Unfortunately, Vocaltec was never really able to build upon its amazing invention and many other companies managed to leapfrog it whilst using its technology. But Vocaltec is universally recognised as being the first of its kind.

Camera in a Pill:
Israeli company Given Imaging is the first and only company to develop a camera that is small enough to fit into a pill that can be swallowed by a human. The purpose of the camera is to create a short video film of the inside of the patient's body, and transmit the video to computers outside the body such that physicians can analyse its details. The video can transmit images for up to 8 hours before it is expelled from the body. The technology was initially developed by Gabriel Iddan who honed his scientific skills developing missiles for the Israeli military. This technology was used and is now evident in the capsules that are being sold around the world to assist the examination of the internal workings of the human body. Recent advancements to the pill include the ability to "control" the movement and location of the capsule inside the body. In this way, doctors can focus on particular areas and gain extended exposure of certain critical parts of the body in a way that was not possible before.

These remarkable stories show that it is possible to make an impact on the world and to create business opportunities, even in the absence of natural resources or a classic stable working environment. Sometimes big dreams, hard work and great ideas are enough to make the world sit up.

I hope that the above stories have created an appetite for additional Israeli technology stories. I hope to be able to discuss other stories in the future.