Saturday 26 December 2009

The Other Side of the Deal

With the details of the proposed Gilad Shalit deal occupying the front pages of every Israeli newspaper during the course of this week, I am finding it difficult to avoid writing about it again. A survey published in a national newspaper revealed that more than 90% of Israelis would support the government doing a deal with Hamas to release Gilad Shalit at "any price". Those of you who have read my previous blogs on the subject will know that I fall firmly into this 90% group. It may be worthwhile, however, to keep remembering that there is another view on the deal.

The reason why so many Israelis support bringing Gilad Shalit home at any price is because we all put ourselves into the position of the Shalit family. The words attributed to John Bradford, a sixteenth century theologian, come to mind - "There, but for the grace of G-d, go I". Due to the fact that all Israeli families are obliged to send their sons and daughters to serve in the IDF, the Gilad Shalit story could happen to any of us. We all want to believe that the government would do all it can to bring our children home if we were, heaven forbid, placed in this situation.

The counter view is discussed in the press, but perhaps not given the same level of consideration by everybody. In order to bring Gilad home at any price, the price is that many hundreds of Palestinian prisoners will need to be released back onto the streets. Some of the terrorists whose names have been submitted for release to the Israeli government, are terrorists who have actually murdered Israeli soldiers or civilians. For each of these terrorists that may be released, there are victims and there are families of those victims. It would be extremely inconsiderate and disrespectful to ride roughshod over these victims' families and their feelings.

An article forcefully outlining why terrorists should not be released was recently written by Rabbi Stewart Weiss and published in the Jerusalem Post (see "A nation held hostage"). Rabbi Weiss is director of the Jewish Outreach Centre in Ra'anana Israel, and the father of Sgt. Ari Weiss z"l who was killed in 2002 during an IDF raid on Hamas headquarters in Nablus. In his article, Rabbi Weiss describes a conversation that he held with a woman who is advocating a deal to free Gilad Shalit at any price. In the conversation, he asked her if the price that she is prepared to pay includes the life of her child. The implications of this statement are obvious - Rabbi Weiss has already paid this price. Clearly, every parent is willing the government to do a deal at any price, until the price includes the life of their own child. This is when the price becomes too much. In a letter published in the newspaper which followed up his article, Rabbi Weiss also argues that halacha (Jewish law) demands that the deal to save one life not be done when the deal endangers other lives. These people are not advocating that Israel should completely forget about Gilad Shalit. They argue that his freedom should be secured through a military operation.

I fully understand the notion that bereaved families rest easier at night knowing that the murderers of their loved ones are behind bars. Release of these murderers will surely be considered an insult to the memory of the departed. I am extremely sensitive to the need to continue to respect the memories of those who have died in defending the Jewish homeland, and those who have been innocently murdered whilst going about their daily business.

As much as one does not wish to present this as a conflict between honouring the memories of the departed and their families, and honouring one who is held in captivity, this is what it boils down to. Without any intention to disrespect anybody, my choice would be to respect the one life that can be saved over the lives that may be lost. I am under no illusions that the risk of Israelis losing their lives is made greater by the release of murderers from Israeli prisons. On the contrary, there are reported to be many Palestinians roaming free in the West Bank and Gaza who would be willing and able to murder Jews given the chance to do so. I do not believe that releasing murderers will make this occurrence more likely. So rather than speculating about lives that may or may not be lost, it is my choice to secure the life that we know will definitely be saved.

We are led to believe that the Israeli secret service knows exactly where Gilad is held in the Gaza Strip, but is unable to free him in a military operation. The reason for this is that the area around where he is held is so heavily booby-trapped that there is no prospect of freeing him alive. This casts Israeli memories back to 1994 when captured IDF soldier Nachshon Waxman was killed during a military operation to attempt to free him from captivity. The IDF is determined not to allow this to happen again. If this fact is true, the only prospect of Gilad returning home is via a negotiated deal.

There seems to be little choice for the Israeli government. The vast majority of the public expects that it will do all that it can to secure Gilad's release, and at any price. Failure to do so will be remembered long into the future of the State of Israel. No matter what good things he may or may not achieve, Netanyahu's legacy will almost certainly hinge upon the outcome of this delicate issue. Whilst he may posture and add conditions for Hamas to consider before agreeing the deal, it seems to me to be inconceivable that this deal will not be concluded in the near future.

At the same time, we should always remember people like the Weiss family, and the ultimate sacrifice that they have made. Despite the position that I hold on the Shalit deal, I will always respect those who have been prepared to pay "any price" in the defence of the State of Israel. The Jewish people can be proud that there are so many in Israel like the Weiss family who are willing to continue to protect Israel and the Jewish people, despite the dangers involved. May the memories of our heroes be for a blessing.

Sunday 20 December 2009

Why Force the Soldiers to Choose?

The Hesder yeshiva program has been in operation in Israel for more than 50 years. The "hesder" (English translation "arrangement") yeshivot have formed an important part of Israeli society by allowing religious boys to combine military service with Torah study. The programs usually run for 5 or 6 years of which approximately 2 years are spent serving in the military with the rest of the time spent studying Jewish texts. The number of such institutions have grown to over 40 across Israel, and the number of students/soldiers currently number in the tens of thousands. The hesder yeshiva students have mostly served as combat soldiers during their service, and have formed an important part of the IDF with the combination of their loyalty and strong ideology.

As part of their yeshiva studies, the students are instructed about situations that they may find themselves in which could present a conflict between their military service and their religious observance. The classic situations usually involve how they might react when called upon to violate the rules of Shabbat or of a religious holidaywhilst carrying out a military exercise. As a general rule, they are instructed to uphold religious observance unless they are in a life-or-death situation, or in a situation where the violation of the religious observance is unavoidable. Many of the situations where they are called upon to violate are fairly clear-cut, and not the subject of debate. For example, if soldier would be called upon to violate one of the ten commandments, this would be a clear conflict situations. Many rabbinical rulings over the years have also been adopted into broad-based common practice such that there is no debate as to whether violating one of the rulings would be an accepted violation of Jewish Law. There are, however, many rabbinical rulings and interpretations that are not widely accepted by other rabbis. So it could happen that some soldiers refuse to undertake an action due to their rabbi having ruled that doing so would constitute a violation, whilst other soldiers are quite happy to undertake the same action without any fear of violating Jewish Law as interpreted by their rabbi.

An issue of this nature has recently arisen which is threatening the very foundations of the Hesder yeshiva program. It concerns the evacuation of settlements which are being constructed in the West Bank, and which are in contravention of government policy. The religious community, which forms the driving force within the settler movement and also behind the Hesder yeshiva program, largely follows the ideology of the "greater land of Israel". This means that they believe that the boundaries set out in the Bible's book of Genesis are the real borders of the State of Israel. These borders are much broader than the current State of Israel, and go even further than simply including the West Bank and Gaza. So, although they don't hold out immediate hope that modern-day Jordan and parts of Iraq will become part of the Jewish state any time soon, they do hold onto the belief that any land in Israel's possession should not be relinquished. It is for this reason that they send people out to remote locations to "inhabit" the land. It is their belief that, in so doing, it makes it more difficult for the government to relinquish this land in any agreement struck with the Palestinians due to "facts on the ground".

There is a pecking order in the adherence to Jewish Law. Preserving life and personal safety is regarded as being of primary importance. This means that it is permissible to transgress any other rules and laws in the interests of preserving life and personal safety. There are those in the religious community who trust the government's policies and actions with regard to the division of land and territory, and recognise that the government would not choose to give up Jewish land unless it was in the interests of securing the safety of the people of Israel. In these terms, evacuation of settlements is permissible even though it is a transgression because it secures personal safety. This is where some lack of consensus arises with the reaction of the Hesder yeshiva students. Some rabbis rule that it giving up parts of the greater Land of Israel are permissible where it secures life and limb.

The government has had to call upon help from the military from time to time to evacuate outposts which have been established contrary to government policy. Some of the outposts are very temporary comprising a few tents or prefabricated buildings. Others already contain more permanent structures. The use of Hesder yeshiva soldiers for this task caused a great deal of controversy during the evacuation of the Gaza Strip in the summer of 2005, and recently reared its ugly head again. Some of the Hesder program rabbis have instructed their students to disobey military commands to evacuate such establishments within the greater Land of Israel, as this is contrary to Jewish Law. Clearly, the IDF finds a situation where significant numbers of its soldiers are refusing commands intolerable. This has led to a notable escalation in the tension between some of the Hesder yeshivot and the military establishment. These tensions reached a point last week where one yeshiva was even expelled from the Hesder program due to the head of the yeshiva calling upon soldiers to disobey commands.

I feel that placing the Hesder yeshiva soldiers in the middle of this controversy is unfair, and avoidable. The rabbis clearly understand that instructing a large group of soldiers who hold influence within the IDF to disobey orders is intolerable in any army environment. Similarly, the military must surely understand the level of sensitivity involved in ordering soldiers to evacuate locations that may even house members of the soldiers' friends and families. Expecting the soldier to make the call in the heat of battle is not fair on anybody, particularly not fair on the soldier himself, and needs to be avoided at all costs. There must surely be enough other options available to the military and to the Hesder program to avoid these types of conflicts in the future.

The IDF does not conform to the typical command-control structure employed by many other armies around the world, which calls for blind obedience on the part of the soldier to the instructions of his superior. The IDF manages somehow to combine the adherence to superiors' commands with the promotion of thought and creativity of the part of each soldier. While this may disrupt the discipline typically expected within the military, this philosophy has paid enormous dividends in the IDF's history when situations arose where soldiers were better placed than their commanders to make decisions in the field of battle. The Hesder soldiers generally have strong decision-making skills, and it would be shame to remove their willingness to make important decisions by forcing them to make decisions which do not belong in the army, and have no winners.

For the sake of the future of the IDF and to guarantee the future of the Hesder program, the soldiers should not be forced to choose between the orders of their commanders and their rabbis. Rather, the commanders and rabbis should be holding a dialogue to find a way to allow these young men to adhere to Jewish law and to serve their country in the easiest and most efficient possible way.

Sunday 13 December 2009

Is Syria Getting Serious?

The past week has contained a number of announcements which are significant to politics in the Middle East. While these events were all reported in the international press, they seem to have been downplayed for reasons that are not easy to explain. Perhaps the Copenhagen summit was stealing all the main headlines, or maybe the announcements were timed in such a way so as not to attract too much attention.

The first event was on Sunday when it was announced that Israel would withdraw from the northern part of the village of Ghajar. The on and off Israeli presence in northern Ghajar has been cited as an obstacle to peace between Israel and its neighbours for many years. Ghajar was captured by Israel in 1967. Ghajar's residents were Syrian and members of the minority Alawite sect which is also the sect to which the ruling Assad family belongs. In 1981, the Golan Heights was formally annexed by the Israeli Knesset and many of the village's residents accepted Israeli citizenship. In 2000 when the UN demarcated the border, the border line split the village in two with the northern half of Ghajar allocated to Lebanese control while the southern half remained with Israel. In the 2006 Lebanon War, Israel recaptured the northern part of Ghajar thereby reuniting the village. In terms of the UN resolution that ended the war, Israel is obliged to withdraw from northern Ghajar.

Ghajar, together with nearby Shaba Farms, is claimed by the Lebanese government to form part of Lebanese sovereign territory. This is despite the fact that this area was clearly captured from Syria during the Six Day War. Although it seems illogical to divide the village again and the residents of the village have been protesting against an Israeli withdrawal, such an action on Israel's part would clearly be seen as a concession to its Arab neighbours. Unilateral actions, while they do sometimes happen, are highly unusual in the Middle East. They are more often than not part of orchestrated actions which make up some sort of deal or agreement.

It was only one day later, on Monday, that prime minister Netanyahu announced to the Knesset that Syria has agreed to give up its pre-condition to resuming peace talks with Israel. Up to now, Syria has always demanded that Israel agrees to give up the Golan Heights before it was prepared to enter into peace talks. This pre-condition has been relinquished, and this seemingly paves the way for peace talks to resume. The avenue for this message has been a party that has not previously been involved in the Israel-Syria peace track. It was French president Nicolas Sarkozy who advised PM Netanyahu of the change to the Syrian position. Previous peace discussions, which were reported to have progressed particularly in 2000 and 2006, were facilitated by the Americans or the Turks. It was reported that the previous negotiations secured Israel all water rights to the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee) , and also agreed on the security arrangements for both countries via an early warning system in the Golan. In addition, it was proposed that most of the Golan Heights would be a "peace park" open to visitors from both Syria and Israel.

For the Israelis, the above-mentioned arrangements might well be enough to exchange for a peace agreement. The Syrians have a more complex issue to address - that of national pride. The Syrian pride was severely dented in 1967 when Israel captured the Golan Heights. In particular, President Hafez El-Assad suffered a public relations catastrophe. Being of the minority Alawite sect, Assad was ever conscious of the need to keep the Sunni majority happy and in support of the presidential family. Until his dying day, Assad promised the people of Syria that the Golan would be returned to them. His son, President Bashar El-Assad has inherited the challenge of bringing back the Golan, although he seems to have been less forceful about promising this to his people.

The next significant event occurred two days later on Wednesday. A law was passed very quickly through the Knesset requiring that a national referendum be held before the government can agree to cede any territory as part of a peace treaty. This effectively means that Netanyahu may come to an agreement with Assad regarding the Golan, but it will not be binding unless approved by a national referendum. I believe that this is a tremendously smart move on Netanyahu's part. Firstly, he can never be accused of acting against the will of the people in giving up the Golan. Such a move will only be allowed if approved in the referendum. Secondly, he will undoubtedly use the referendum in all negotiations with the Syrians in an attempt to extract more from such a deal. One can almost hear him saying that he requires a more attractive deal from the Syrians in order to be able to pass the deal through a national referendum. The referendum will act as a safety net to save Bibi any responsibility if a deal goes wrong. After all, it will have been approved by the Israeli people.

Israel's biggest problem with Syria these days has little to do with the Golan Heights. Rather, it is the ongoing Syrian support for Hamas and Hezbollah. These two organisations are waging constant war on Israel's northern border and on its border with Gaza. If Syria was to agree to cease its support for these two terror organisations, there is no doubt that Israel's safety would be significantly enhanced, and such an agreement would be worth a great deal to Israel.

It is difficult to judge whether Syria is more serious about peace this time, although we certainly hope that this is the case. Perhaps Bashar Assad feels less responsible for the loss of the Golan, therefore less obliged to return it to Syria in the way that his father felt. Assad junior, however, has continued to support the terror organisations mentioned above and even increased his support for them. Any possibility of getting him to step away from this support and to distance himself from the terror regime in Iran would be worthy of serious consideration by the Israeli public in a referendum.

In the meantime, the three seemingly unrelated events seem very closely connected to me. In a region where there is nothing for nothing, I have to conclude that these steps are cogs in the machinery that may progress the Syrian peace track. I certainly hope so.

Saturday 5 December 2009

In Defence of Racial Profiling

A recent industrial dispute in South Africa in which a former El Al security agent sued his former employer for unfair dismissal has, once again, raised the issue of the validity and morality of racial profiling.

In the particular case, former security agent Jonathan Garb accused El Al of the non payment of a bonus. The disagreement between the two escalated to the point where Garb was dismissed from his position after working for El Al for some 17 years. He sued for unfair dismissal, but also went on a parallel press campaign to publicly discredit El Al in South Africa. He saw fit to approach an investigative television program to level claims against El Al which were aired on South African television. In these claims, he accused El Al of hiding Israeli spies amongst its security personnel which lead to the South African government expelling an Israeli diplomat. Perhaps most serious of his claims was one which accuses El Al of using racial profiling as part of its security operation. Garb claims that, in using this practice, El Al is acting above the law in South Africa. Clearly, racial profiling is a sensitive point in South Africa, which is still living under the cloud of the former apartheid regime. This has caused some tension between the South African authorities and the Israeli government, and with El Al in particular.

Racial profiling is not only a sensitive issue in South Africa. It has come under the spotlight on many previous occasions in various places around the world. Garb was clearly aware of the fact that he would be opening a can of worms in raising this accusation against his former employer. He was clearly intent on doing as much damage as possible to El Al.

Racial profiling is defined as the inclusion of racial or ethnic characteristics in determining whether a person is considered likely to commit a particular type of crime or an illegal act, or to behave in a "predictable" manner. Political correctness in our current society dictates that racial profiling is discriminatory and should not be used. For some people, this is where the argument begins and ends, and they are the ones who fight against racial profiling without considering other issues. But, like most things, the matter is not as simple as it appears on surface.

When considering the important subject of airline security, there are many competing considerations at play. First and foremost is the issue of ensuring that security procedures will guarantee the safety of the airline and its passengers - on each and every flight. Secondly, the airline will work to achieve this at the cheapest possible price. Security already comprises a significant part of the budget for any airline and, like all costs, there is a great deal of pressure to reduce costs to allow the airline to operate profitably and to be able to compete effectively against other airlines.

El Al has long been acknowledged as having very effective security procedures in place to guarantee the safety of its passengers. It would be widely, if not universally agreed that El Al is probably the airline that is most at risk to international terrorism in today's world. So, whilst El Al cannot afford to take any chances with its security, it is still forced to compete on equal terms with other airlines for its business. The fact that it is forced to implement more extensive security arrangements to secure its passengers will not justify charging its passengers more on ticket prices. This would almost certainly put it out of business. Instead, El Al is forced to work "smarter" to guarantee security whilst limiting its prices to be able to compete against others for its business.

Working smarter means many things. Amongst others, it means not forcing all passengers through the full extent of its security checks. If the airline is going to be able to reduce the security checks that it applies, it needs to decide which passengers will go through full security and which passengers it can afford to apply reduced security checks to. Because security cannot be applied on a random basis, the airline is forced to assess the risk that each passenger presents. During the course of this risk assessment, the airline has decided that Muslim passengers present a higher risk to the safety of the airline than other passengers. This conclusion was not reached in a haphazard or discriminatory fashion. It was reached on the basis of actual events that have taken place in recent years, and on the basis of actual threats that have been made against the airline, against Jews and against Israel and Israelis who comprise the bulk of its passengers. The reality is that the more terror threats and attacks around the world have been perpetrated by Muslims and Arabs than by any other nation or group. This fact cannot be ignored, and this cannot be blamed on El Al security.

The policy of racial profiling was challenged in a filing in the Israeli Supreme Court earlier this year. The challenge made by a civil rights group alleged that Arabs are singled out for tougher treatment by El Al security. The respondent did not deny this fact. It was mentioned that in the US the law prohibits racial profiling, and requires that passengers be singled out for security checks on a random basis rather than according to race

I feel that the policy of racial profiling adopted by El Al has more than justified itself. The airline has an exemplary security record which, for passengers, is the most important point. In addition, it is still in a position to compete against other airlines who do not have the same level of security threat to deal with. It is also noticeable that El Al was not forced to make wholesale changes to its security checks in light of the additional threats presented in the post-September 11 world. El Al is the only airline that routinely continues to use stainless steel cutlery on all its flights, and Israel is the only airport that continues to allow passengers to board flights with liquids in their hand luggage. In fact, it is my impression that El Al checks are much easier to negotiate these days than those of other airlines. I have never yet been asked to remove my belt or shoes prior to boarding an El Al flight. I cannot say the same for other airlines that I have recently flown with.

It remains clear to me is that racial profiling is an important and valid part of El Al's security process and can easily be justified. The profiling is based upon a real and identifiable threat posed by a certain group of people, and is not based on random discrimination. In order for this policy to be rescinded, the onus is not on the airline. Rather, the onus is on Arabs and Muslims to prove in the future that they do not present the same threat to airlines as they do now. Instead of being critical of El Al, perhaps the criticism should be reserved for those who are the cause of the lack of airline security, and who perpetrate terrorist acts on airlines and elsewhere.

Jonathan Garb should be ashamed of his accusations and his behaviour. Whilst he may have a valid claim for unfair dismissal against El Al, his decision to drag the issue of racial profiling into his case is a low blow. After all, Garb should understand more than most how important security is for El Al, and how it is best undertaken.