Monday 27 December 2010

Hamas Trying to Confuse

Hamas military wing spokesman Abu Obeida gave an interview on Friday to the press pack who were all hungry to listen to his "words of wisdom". Rather than clarifying the direction in which Hamas is planning to move in the future, Obeida seems to have caused confusion about the organisation's intentions and created the impression that there is some confusion amongst its ranks. But is Hamas really as disorganised about its future tactics as his statements suggest?

Two years have now passed since the Gaza War, "Operation Cast Lead", which saw Hamas and Israel pit their forces against one another. Although Hamas was not completely routed by the IDF, it would be fair to say that the movement suffered a substantial setback to their military infrastructure and capabilities. Two years is, however, a long time in Middle Eastern politics and things appear to have changed dramatically since then.

Hamas has followed a strategy of not confronting Israel in a direct way over the past two years. The missiles that have been launched from the Gaza Strip during the intervening period, have come from so-called renegade organisations that are not associated with Hamas. Hamas has ensured that the Israeli authorities are aware of this fact in order to prevent any retaliation strikes being aimed at them. The two year "ceasefire" has allowed Hamas to substantively rebuild its political and military position. Its ceasefire has served to allow it to recreate its infrastructure that was destroyed during the war. There are those who say that Hamas has more sophisticated weaponry, and in greater quantities than before the Gaza War.

Hamas' adherence to its ceasefire has, however, changed over the past few weeks with the organisation's militants having launched a number of missile attacks towards Israel. One attack late last week saw a Qassam missile explode a few hundred metres from a kindergarten, injuring a number of civilians. Israel has already struck back at Hamas by hitting some of its supply tunnels and a training base used by its militants.

In his press conference on Friday, Obeida stated that Hamas is hoping to maintain the unofficial ceasefire with Israel. He also went on to accept responsibility for terror attacks carried out by Hamas on Israeli targets over the past couple of years. These attacks saw 15 Israelis killed and many others injured. The commander of the military wing, Ahmed al-Ja'abari was more belligerent in his tone when he said that Hamas will not rest until Israel is removed from Palestinian lands. He said that Israel faces one of two choices - death or departing the lands. This does not sound like the same organisation that hopes to maintain a ceasefire with Israel. How can we make sense of the mixed messages that are being sent?

The reason for the mixed statements is the fact that Hamas is seeking to address its comments to different constituencies with differing agendas. The organisation's wish to rebuild its military capabilities gives rise to its desire to continue to keep in force its unofficial ceasefire with Israel. At the same time, however, Hamas has been coming under a great deal of internal pressure from residents of Gaza who don't see visible signs of Hamas resisting the Israeli blockade. This has forced Hamas to launch a few missile attacks, and hold the press conference to publicise the actions that it has taken, even though they were some time ago. Along with this, the belligerent tone taken by al-Ja'abari is clearly directed at the internal Gaza audience.

Despite the fact that Israeli intelligence will surely be tuned in to the nuances of "Hamas speak", and the fact that many of their threats are an attempt to placate their internal population, they will not be ignoring these threats. Hamas clearly does not wish to enter into a further direct conflict with Israel at this time, and is sending clear ceasefire messages to try to avoid such a situation. Behind the scenes, arms are flowing into the Gaza Strip in large quantities despite attempts by Israel and Egypt to restrict this. The next military confrontation is inevitable. Hamas' statement of not resting until all "Palestinian lands" are reclaimed from Israel is not an empty threat and is probably the truest of al the statements made. Hamas will be attacking Israel and Israeli targets again in the near future, and Israel knows and understands this only too well.

A ceasefire for Hamas is equally a ceasefire for Israel. The "quieter" period has allowed Israel to take steps to reinforce civilian buildings, schools, kindergartens and private homes in the areas close to Gaza that were previously subject to unrelenting rocket attacks. They are now far more secure against rocket fire than before. It has allowed Israel to devote efforts to build the "Iron Dome" anti-rocket defence system that is designed to counter short-range rocket fire from Gaza. The tanks that have been deployed on the Gaza border have undergone training and changes to cope with the different circumstances created with the new anti-tank missiles that have come into Hamas' possession. This is a period of rebuilding for Israel as much as it is for Hamas. All the time, Israel continues its intelligence observation of the actions taken by Hamas in its efforts to become stronger. It is Israel's view that she has a better ability to counter this - we certainly hope so.

The mixed messages sent by Hamas are an attempt to "have your cake and eat it". On the one hand, they wish not to enter into direct conflict with Israel to facilitate their process of internal rebuilding. On the other hand, the organisation wishes its supporters to feel that it is continuing to oppose Israel at every opportunity. Ultimately, the rebuilding exercise will mean only one thing - a further direct conflict with the IDF, perhaps more bloody and intense than before.

The most meaningful statements coming out of the press conference are undoubtedly those stating that Hamas will not rest until Israel is does not exist any more. This is always going to be Hamas' ultimate intention, and they are not ashamed to say so openly. The mixed signals are not really mixed at all. They are all clear and consistent Hamas' stated objectives - to do all that it can to destroy Israel. With an organisation like this, a temporary ceasefire is possible. Any hopes of a lasting peace, however, are completely out of the question.

Saturday 25 December 2010

The Strange Thing About Christmas in the Holy Land

Christmas is undoubtedly the biggest annual event in the world. Whether you are somebody who believes in the religious aspects of the festival, somebody who follows its traditions or somebody who does not believe at all, it is difficult to go through the December period completely unaware of Christmas.

Despite this fact, Christmas in the Holy Land is something of a non-event. This may be unsurprising as almost all of the citizens of Israel, Jews and Arabs, follow religions that do not believe in Jesus as the messiah, and do not celebrate Christmas. For those Christians who do celebrate the festival around the world, it is surprising that Christmas is hardly celebrated in the place where the story of Christmas actually began. Most Israelis have no idea of when Christmas occurs, or what it really means. In the years when the day falls on a weekday, it is a regular working day in Israel.

In recent years, Christmas has seen an influx of tourists to Israel. There are many pilgrims who wish to celebrate this special day by being in the places where Jesus actually spent his time, and where the best-known events of his life took place. Favourite spots include Nazareth, Jerusalem and Bethlehem. Bethlehem is under the control of the Palestinian Authority, and they ensure that the scene is properly set for the celebration of a midnight mass in Manger Square and in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem for the many thousands of pilgrims who attend. Large numbers celebrate Christmas at the holy sites in the city of Jerusalem including the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, or by visiting the stations of the cross along the Via Dolorosa. Even though it is more traditional to visit the Jerusalem holy sites around the Easter holiday, many pilgrims can nonetheless be found in Jerusalem over Christmas as well.

Israel's holy sites play host to pilgrims from the three monotheistic religions. Under the Israeli government's policy, worshippers of all three religions have free access to their sites to celebrate festivals and at other times during the year. Whether it be Christmas, Ramadan or Yom Kippur, the sites are available to those wishing to visit in celebration of their own religious festivals. The policy of freedom to worship and celebrate festivals in Israel is so closely adhered to, that Christian pilgrims from Gaza were given permission to make the short trip to the West Bank to be allowed to celebrate Christmas in Bethlehem. With the recent security threats which have continued to originate from the Gaza Strip, this step is not insignificant. Naturally, it is also not something that the Palestinians would be keen to publicise for fear that Israel may have the opportunity to score some PR points.

For pilgrims visiting Israel over the Christmas period, being at the holy sites at this special time of year is certainly an unforgettable experience. They may, however, be disappointed when visiting shops and other parts of the country due to the complete lack of anything to do with Christmas. There are no decorations, tinsel or mistletoe to be found anywhere. For the majority of Israelis after all, it is a regular day like any other. Christmas decorations are more likely to be found in Israel during the festival of Succot when tabernacles are built and decorated. It seems to have become popular to recycle unsold Christmas decorations from last season to decorate the temporary booths that are constructed for this festival.

As a Jew who does not participate in all that is associated with celebrating Christmas, I feel good in the fact that other religions have freedom to visit and worship in our country. As long as they have respect for us and our land while here, I have no problem in allowing them free access to visit and worship as they wish. Besides bringing valuable tourist dollars to our economy, it epitomises the statement in our Declaration of Independence allowing for freedom of religion. It feels particularly good in light of our ability to rise above the poor manner in which these religions have treated Jews over the ages.

Sunday 19 December 2010

Playing Politics With the IDF Conversion Bill

With so many important matters confronting our government, I often feel really frustrated at the amount of time that seems to be wasted by politicians in playing needless political games. This is exactly the feeling that I have now watching the amount of time, effort and money that is being wasted in bringing the so-called IDF Conversion Bill through the Knesset.

The background to the story begins with what seems to be one of the great anomalies of the modern State of Israel. The Law of Return was enacted soon after the independence of Israel. This law is designed to give Jews an automatic right to take up citizenship in Israel without any need for a period of naturalisation. This was a particularly urgent need in the years following the Holocaust when so many Jews were displaced without being a citizen of any country, or who were citizens of countries that they were eager to escape from. The Law of Return grants the right to immediate citizenship of Israel to those who have one Jewish grandparent. The definition of those who have entitlement under the law, comes from the one that Hitler applied to those who he decided should be put to death under the "Final Solution". The definition is, however, at odds with the definition of a Jew under Jewish law. Under Jewish law (halacha), any person who has a Jewish mother is Jewish. This results in thousands of Israeli citizens, who have obtained citizenship under the Law of Return, who are not Jewish according to halacha.

This phenomenon particularly affects many of the immigrants who came from the countries of the former Soviet Union, and who increasingly found themselves hitting their heads against a bureaucratic brick wall as a result of their status as non-Jewish Israeli citizens. To them, it seems absurd that they are granted citizenship of a country, only to find that they are not treated as "full Jews" under the law. The great melting pot of Israeli society is the Israel Defence Force (IDF) and, as the IDF has seen more and more of these people coming through their ranks, they have decided to implement a program to allow those who wish to convert to Judaism during the course of their military training. Over the past eight to ten years, almost 5,000 soldiers have been converted to Judaism under the auspices of the IDF and its Chief Rabbi.

Recently, these conversions were brought into question by Israel's Chief Rabbinate, in its capacity as the national authority over all conversions to Judaism in Israel. This means that all those who were converted to Judaism during their military service, may find themselves being declared not "properly" Jewish if this is what the Chief Rabbinate decides. The status of 5,000 people is suddenly brought into question, and their lives thrown into turmoil. It seems that the reason for the Chief Rabbinate questioning the conversions has nothing to do with the process followed or the way in which the conversions were undertaken. We are told that they have found this all to be entirely kosher ! The reason for reopening these cases is seemingly all about power. The Chief Rabbinate needs to exercise the power which it has been granted on these issues, to ensure that the IDF Rabbinate does not exceed its own powers. The lives of the individuals concerned is nothing when compared to the necessity for these organisations to assert their power and authority.

The issue was brought to the Knesset when the Yisrael Beiteinu party,which has many of the IDF converts in its constituency of supporters, introduced a bill that will legally confirm these conversions and not allow them to be reopened by the Chief Rabbinate. Although I can fully associate with the party and its desire to represent the interests of its voters, the truth is that this issue should never need to be raised by the Knesset. This is an issue which can easily be sorted out between the Chief Rabbinate and the IDF, without Israel's legislature being forced to intervene. What makes things worse is the fact that the Shas party actually opposed the bill. The Shas opposition arises from the desire to strengthen Israel's Sephardi Chief Rabbi, who is also head of the conversion court. It seems as though the introduction of this bill is seen to be weakening his authority on this matter.

The Knesset battle is all about power. On the one hand, the converts and Yisrael Beiteinu are seeking to undermine the powers vested in the Chief Rabbinate, while Shas and its supporters are desperately working to strengthen them. Caught in the middle of this all is Prime Minister Netanyahu who has been forced to intervene, as the two parties opposing each other on the matter are both members of his governing coalition. A serious split on this seemingly insignificant issue could bring down the narrow coalition, and the government with it.

Irrespective of how the Knesset ultimately votes on this matter, it is shameful that precious government and parliament time needs to be devoted to this power struggle. While it may be true that the Chief Rabbinate formally has a power of veto on matters relating to conversions, there seems to be no logical reason why they could not come to an arrangement with the IDF to ease the path and future lives of the converts in question. Reopening conversions going back ten years seems to be a price that is too high to pay for the benefit of reinforcing the power of the Chief Rabbinate. The decision to do this has clearly been the wrong one. This is a classic case of power incorrectly exercised for personal gain.

For the record, the prime minister agreed not to enforce the coalition agreement (which binds members of government to vote in the way that the prime minister prescribes) for the purpose of voting on the IDF Conversion Bill, and allowed all members of the coalition to vote according to their conscience. The preliminary Knesset reading of the bill was passed by a large majority of 74 votes to 18. The significant issue of wasting valuable Knesset time has, however, not yet debated.

The largest issue at stake is the lives of 5,000 converts and their families. These are individuals who have come to Israel as new immigrants, and who have served the country with distinction by serving in the armed forces. This is the army that defends not only Israelis, but Jews around the world. It is right that those who have converted to Judaism according to the rules laid down, should be allowed to be secure in the knowledge that they are fully accepted within the Jewish fold. With so many Jews being lost to assimilation around the world, we can ill afford to disrespect and disregard those who choose to join the ranks, and who are prepared to put their lives on the line in the defence of the Jewish state. Jewish law requires us to respect converts to Judaism even more than those who were born Jewish. These converts deserve the greatest respect that we can give them.

Sunday 12 December 2010

Action or Reaction? The Rabbis' Ruling in Context.

A ruling initiated by the Chief Rabbi of Safed, Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, has again served to split Israeli society along the religious-secular divide. The ruling prohibits Jews from renting their properties to Arab tenants. The ruling was initially signed by 18 rabbis, after which it was signed by a further 50 rabbis from across Israel, many of them municipal rabbis.

Rabbi Eliyahu and his followers have warned that renting Jewish properties to Arabs will deflate the value of their homes and the value of others in the neighbourhood. Further, the rabbis warn that the way of life of the Arabs is different to that of the Jews, and that there are those Arabs who are bitter and hateful to Jews and who will meddle in their lives to the point that they become a danger.

The ruling is undoubtedly racist, and can be seen as an act of incitement. How can such a ruling be justified in a democratic country? It certainly doesn't make for good news sound bites nor good public relations. It has prompted many citizens of Israel to speak out, and to call upon the Attorney General to take action against the rabbis in question. The fact that many of the rabbis are civil servants means that they can be held to account by the government that pays their salaries. In a region which is already volatile, statements like these rub salt in the wounds of the conflicts which rage on every front.

The current state of Middle Eastern politics is such that it is difficult to determine whether an individual action is merely intended as a provocation to make a point, or whether it is genuinely a response to provocations or attacks. Under these circumstances, it is possible to justify almost any action as being a valid reaction to unreasonable behaviour by the other side. Inevitably, any controversial act leads to a chain of responses which, if not controlled, can spiral out of control. The rabbis in this case are citing prior actions by Arabs as justification for their ruling. But how far can we go in using previous negative behaviour to justify current action?

Was the first action that began the conflict, the act by Abraham to expel Ishmael and Hagar from his family at Sarah's insistence? Ishmael went on to father the Islamic people while Abraham's son Isaac was in the chain of the Jewish people. This may, indeed, have been the start of the Middle East conflict as we know it. But how relevant is this in looking at the ruling of the rabbis in the year 2010?

When looking at the endless cycle of action and reaction, I am inclined to look back a short 63 years to the day when the United Nations approved the Palestine Partition Plan. It was on this day that the world's nations agreed to bring into existence the State of Israel as a Jewish democratic country. This was the original action - taken by a majority of the world's countries. This also gave rise to the original reaction, this time taken by the Arab nations. They immediately attacked the newly independent State of Israel with a view to destroying the Jewish state. Every act since then could be characterised as a link in the chain of reactions to the "original reaction". This includes the recent ruling by the rabbis which attempts to hang onto each and every part of the State of Israel for Jews. It is my contention that such a ruling would not be necessary, and may have not have been issued, were it not for the fact that the Arabs have been intent on destroying Israel and her Jewish citizens from the outset.

In this context, the rabbis' ruling is not entirely without basis or justification. It is probably true that renting apartments to Arabs will reduce the value of the flats in the neighbourhood. Many Jewish Israelis are reluctant to live next door to Arabs in view of terror attacks, and the assistance given by Israeli Arabs to Palestinian terrorists in their attempts to find civilian targets for their outrageous acts. These attacks have frequently led to Jews being killed and maimed. Nobody would wish to have people like that as their neighbours. Arabs have also been found to exploit such a situation by creating an infiltration of a Jewish neighbourhood which has frightened the Jewish residents away. This effectively leaves the neighbourhood free to be taken over the Arabs. In a land where possession is everything, such a tactic can have enormous consequences for the demographic make-up of the area. In short, the ruling of the rabbis can be viewed as a reaction to events that have been building over the last six decades.

Although there are many Israelis who have spoken out in objection to this ruling and the related statements by the rabbis, most of those who will read and judge the ruling are those living outside of Israel. They will interpret the ruling on the basis of the environment in which they live, and predicated on the experiences that they have in their own local neighbourhood. Statements like this would be wholly unacceptable in Europe or the Unites States. But life in these parts of the world is a million miles away from life in the Middle East, and it would be entirely inappropriate to judge events in Israel by the same standards.

The main problem with the ruling and similar acts is that it allows no optimism for the future. To feel optimistic, one needs to feel that the chain of action and reaction can be broken at some point, to allow the groundwork to be laid for a more normal coexistence. While restraint has previously been interpreted as weakness and exploited in the worst possible way, it will ultimately be the only way to coax peace out of the situation of war that we currently find ourselves in. The trick is to find the right moment to act tough in defence of your rights and your people, and the right moment to be flexible in the search for peace. This is, however, like a search for the Holy Grail.

Sunday 5 December 2010

Israel's Greatest Tragedy

Israel is fighting probably her greatest single disaster in her 62 year history. A fire continues to rage in the Carmel Forest on the outskirts of Haifa. The fire has destroyed thousands of acres of forestlands, has burnt down numerous homes including the devastation of an entire kibbutz, and has tragically claimed the lives of 41 people. Not only is this Israel's worst fire ever, it is also the largest loss of life in a single incident in Israel's history including natural disasters and terror attacks.

Is comes as something of a surprise that a country like Israel, which has been forced to fight numerous wars and stave off waves of terror attacks designed to threaten her very existence, ultimately finds that a fire results in greater loss of life. This has perhaps been caused by the fact that the winter rains, due already some time ago, have simply not materialised. The country has seen two short rain showers in the last nine months. It would be a gross understatement to say that the countryside is like a tinderbox. A small spark would be all that is needed to set the whole country alight.

The irony is that most of the lives were lost in an act of trying to save those who have been working to destroy Israel. The incident took place when the flames began to approach near to the Damon prison in the Carmel Forest which housed some 500 Palestinian security prisoners. The prison service mobilised all its forces to evacuate the prison in order to save those housed in the prison from the fire. Amongst those called to help was a group of cadets in training to be prison officers. They were put on a bus and immediately transported to the prison in the fire zone. The bus was held up along the road as a result of access restrictions caused by the fire. The driver was instructed to turn the bus around on a narrow road, at which point the fire caught up with the bus and engulfed it and its passengers. This single tragedy cost 36 lives of those endangering themselves to save the lives of those who wish to see us destroyed.

In the case of a disaster like this, it sometimes helps to draw strength from any positive aspects that may arise from the situation. We are fortunate in that there are a number of positives that serve to lighten the heavy burden borne by this tragedy. The first positive aspect is the response by outside countries to the call sent out for help. Prime Minister Netanyahu succeeded in overcoming a classic Israeli character weakness when he acknowledged that Israel cannot go this one on her own, and put out a call for international help. The response has been astonishing with many nations sending manpower or equipment to help in the efforts. These countries include Russia, Cyprus, Greece, the UK, the USA, Azerbaijan, Italy, Bulgaria, Croatia, France and Spain. More surprisingly in view of regional politics is the help that has been provided by Jordan, Egypt, Turkey and even the Palestinian Authority. It is true that Israel has always been first to offer assistance to other countries in the wake of national disasters, even those who refuse to recognise Israel's place amongst the nations of the world. This has shown itself to be reciprocal in Israel's hour of need. We have much to be grateful to these countries for. It is clear that things would have been a great deal worse without their help.

The second positive aspect coming out of this natural disaster is the leadership shown by the prime minister and members of his government. In addition to reaching out to outside countries for help, Netanyahu has shown himself publicly to be in charge. He has held numerous TV news conferences to brief the country on the latest developments. He has shown himself to be fully up to date with all aspects of the fire, and has visited the fire scene daily to acquaint himself with facts on the ground. Today, the government's weekly cabinet meeting will be held in the Carmel Forest area in a show of unity with those who are threatened and have lost their homes. Netanyahu seems to have learned the lessons of the lack of leadership shown by President George W. Bush during the Hurricane Katrina disaster. He has certainly not repeated that mistake.

The third positive point is the extent to which the Israeli public has pulled together to help and support those in the fire zone. Homes and community centres have been opened up and down the country to provide assistance to the 17,000 people who have been evacuated from their homes. Some of these people have lost all of their possessions as the fire swept through everything that they owned. Collections are taking place to provide the basic necessities to get these people through the next few days until they can get back onto their feet. It is true that the process of rebuilding will take more than simply a few days. It is, however, pleasing to see the willingness of others to help during their darkest days.

The long lines of traffic heading up to the fire zone are not only curious onlookers wishing to see first-hand the results of the fire's devastation. Many of these people are volunteers wishing to provide help and relief to the weary fire-fighters. Such is the indomitable spirit of people in this country that teenagers and young adults are lining up to go into personal battle against the fire. The fact that they are putting themselves into harm's way seems not to be a consideration. For them, it is more important that they offer their help rather than be concerned about their personal security. This was the spirit of Elad Riven z"l, a 16 year-old boy killed in the line of duty. Elad had been volunteering with his local fire department in Haifa as part of his high school personal obligation. All Israeli high school students are expected to undertake some voluntary work as part of their personal obligation to Israeli society. Elad could not see his colleagues from his local fire station deployed on the front lines without going to truly fulfil his personal commitment. It was here that his young life was taken alongside his senior fire-fighting colleagues.

Today, Israel will bury tens of its finest and bravest. This time not killed in the line of defending the country against the threat of war or terror attack, but killed in a fight against a natural disaster. The circumstances are different, but the spirit is the same. This is the spirit that says that nothing will be allowed to overcome the will to survive in our homeland.

Our condolences and heartfelt sympathy goes out to the families of those who have perished in this disaster. Yehi zichram baruch - may their memories be blessed.

Wednesday 1 December 2010

WikiLeaks Heaven For Israel

We have only seen the tip of the WikiLeaks iceberg so far. The direction of the floe seems clear and there are already more than one or two embarrassed faces around. We have discovered from a 2009 cable released on WikiLeaks, that Libyan president Colonel Gadafi cannot manage to be away from his Ukrainian nurse, Galyna, described as a "voluptuous blonde". The US embassy staff in Tripoli speculated that she keeps him healthy in more than one way. We all know that diplomats like to gossip - is this not what they are paid to do? Perhaps some of us did not realise the extent to which they gossip, and what they are prepared to say in cables that were once assured of secrecy.

Having examined some of the recently released information from an Israeli perspective, I am fast coming to the conclusion that WikiLeaks is one of the best PR tools the Israeli government has accidentally come across. Almost all of the stories surrounding Israel, and particularly those connected to Iran, have served to substantially enhance Israel's world standing. The documents show that many countries are saying in private the things that only Israel has been brave enough to stand up and say publicly. More than this, it seems as though many countries are relying on Israel to undertake actions that will help them, without giving any public backing to Israel for these.

I was sure that Israel could not be the only country that recognised the threat presented by the Iranian nuclear program. I was astonished that, until quite recently, the USA seemed to be ambivalent about it, even going as far as supporting the Iranian claims that the program was intended for civilian purposes only. Finally, the Americans had the good sense to recognise the real threat that this Iranian development presents, not only to Israel, but to the entire free world. Perhaps it was the Saudi Arabians who convinced the Americans of the threat when calling on them to "cut off the head of the snake", as described in another WikiLeaks document. Not only has the USA finally recognised the threat publicly, Israel's position is further vindicated by the release of the WikiLeaks documents where some of the back channel information has been made public. The attitude of the Saudis, however, seems to the same as other countries in the region. Everybody appears to be waiting for Israel to do the dirty work on behalf of the rest of the world. Why should others risk their citizens and their army if Israel will do the work? Not only this, it is quite conceivable that the Saudis would come out publicly criticising such an attack, while privately thanking their lucky stars that there is a country like Israel which is prepared to stand up for what it truly believes.

The Emir of Qatar is quoted in a further WikiLeaks document as telling US Senator John Kerry that he can't blame Israel for mistrusting the Arabs. His sympathy for Israel is further supported by his privately-held (now publicly known) view that Israel has been under threat from the Arabs for so long, and this justifies Israel's lack of trust in the Arabs. This statement was made not long after he broke off what little ties there were between Israel and Qatar. Although no diplomatic relations exist between the two countries, there was an Israeli commercial mission in Qatar which was sanctioned by the Emir. He decided, however, to expel the mission when the Gaza War broke out.

These are only a few of the numerous examples of duplicity being shown towards Israel and now exposed by WikiLeaks. In public, Israel is forced to endure a great deal of criticism and humiliation. In private, many of those criticising Israel support the actions that Israel is taking against some of the world's bully-boys. The WikiLeaks revelations will go some way towards exposing these countries and their two-faced actions.

While the initial release of WikiLeaks documents seems to play into Israel's hands, it will be interesting to plot where this leads the future of information secrecy in the world of international politics. I wonder whether WikiLeaks will have the same impact on the world of international diplomacy that the Internet had on general information availability. Before the Internet revolution and the advent of search engines like Google, information was usually obtained by going to libraries or paying professionals to provide it. Now, it takes a few seconds via an Internet search. Will the release of documents by WikiLeaks ensure that diplomatic secrecy will be impossible to safeguard in the future? Will countries like Israel also come under pressure to make available political secrets? Probably not, but it may cause the whole secret world of international politics to become more transparent in the future.

For Israel, such a future is not very attractive. Particularly in its formative years, Israel was fortunate to be able to achieve a great deal using back channels. These dealings were only made possible by the secrecy with which such interactions were shrouded. Some of these back channels are still in operation today and will probably remain relevant as long as Israel continues to be in a situation where certain countries seek her destruction. This fact, along with the constant situation of war along her borders, necessitates secret dealings not visible to the general public in order to survive.

In the short-term, WikiLeaks has proved to be a gift from heaven for Israel. This benefit will be greatest if the established rules of international diplomacy do not change substantially in the future. If the world expects international politics to be played out more in the public eye in the future, the short-term gain for Israel may be translated into longer-term pain.

Sunday 28 November 2010

Shas Shows its True Face

Two interviews published in local newspapers with ultra-orthodox Shas member of Knesset Chaim Amsellem have served to publicly expose some of the inner workings and beliefs of the Shas parliamentary party in a way not previously seen. Although operating within a democratic environment, the religious parties in the Knesset have a distinctly undemocratic way of working, and this has been challenged in the open by Rabbi Amsellem.

Israel's proportional representation system requires each party contesting Knesset seats to submit its list of prospective members of Knesset prior to any general election. The way in which the order of the names on the list is determined varies from one party to another. In the case of the non-religious parties, democratic primaries are held in which party members vote for those who wish to be placed on the list. The position the list of each prospective member of Knesset is determined by the results of the party vote. In the case of the ultra-orthodox Haredi parties, and the Shas party in particular, the list is drawn up by the "Council of Torah Sages". In the case of Shas, this is a council headed by the party's spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, and includes rabbis and "wise men" who are members of Yosef's inner circle. Their decision is final and no appeals against it are offered. This council represents the final word on all major issues concerning the party, including decisions about participation in a coalition and policy on many important issues. It is remarkably undemocratic in its workings considering the democratic environment in which it operates.

The rebel Shas member of Knesset came out criticising some of the policies followed by Shas in a newspaper interview conducted a few weeks ago. In his interview published in Israel's Ma'ariv newspaper, he condemned strictures against conversion, growing joblessness and army evasion among yeshiva students and an absence of non-religious education for children. These criticisms amount to an attack on the very foundations and beliefs of the ultra-orthodox world. Their type of Jew is one who will study religious texts as a vocation in order to promote the religion in the most literal sense. This means that there is no need for secular education at schools - there will be no use for subjects that are not focused on the religion in their ideal world. In addition, young men and women are encouraged not to enlist for the army, but rather to attend yeshiva where they will further their religious education. This also sets the pattern for their future lives as young men are encouraged to remain for the rest of their days in this religious framework at yeshivas studying the religious texts. They are able to gain exemption from the army via a special deal struck between the state and the religious institutions many years ago. They are able to continue studying at yeshivas thanks to stipends granted to them out of government money, to allow them to continue their religious learning indefinitely.

Amsellem has recognised the effect on Israeli society of following this policy, which has resulted in a dramatic growth in the number of yeshiva students in Israel. Limiting the education at primary and secondary school level ill-prepares young people for the challenges of daily life, irrespective of the vocation chosen. The policy also reduces the number of young men and women enlisting in the army. In its current situation of being constantly under threat of attack, Israel needs all the soldiers it can get. Once these young men and women get married and begin to raise children, there is an increasingly unmanageable burden on the state arising from the responsibility to fund their stipends without receiving any contribution in return from employment.

To add insult to injury, it turns out that many of the young yeshiva students are not suited to religious study and have no desire to pursue it. There seems to be no exception for these young people, and they are forced to toe the line and be squeezed into the religious framework despite the obvious problem that they have no place there. The ultra-orthodox system does not make allowances for these young people to find alternative vocations and paths for development, where they may seek a more appropriate way for them to make their contribution to society. Chaim Amsellem was speaking out not only against the sausage machine system and uniform path expected from all Haredi young people, he was also speaking out in favour of directing these people towards a life that will allow them to have a useful place in society. This does not mean that they will be forced to leave the religious fold. On the contrary, their religious convictions may be strengthened by virtue of the useful contribution that they can make and the happier place they can have in society.

Unfortunately, the Shas leadership does not view things in the same way as Rabbi Amsellem. They were particularly unhappy about the manner in which he expressed his views, and the Council of Sages decided to expel him from his Knesset seat and from the party. By choosing him to be one of their members of Knesset, they expect him to toe the line. Failure to do so gives them the right to remove him from the list, and they did not hesitate to take action. Amsellem, however, took his rebellion against the party hierarchy to the next stage and has refused to relinquish his seat. Together with this, he issued his harshest criticism of the Council of Torah Sages yet. He expressed the view that each Knesset member should have the right to speak his or her mind, and that the upper echelon of spiritual leadership should be sticking to its role in the religious world and should not be meddling in politics. He accused the party's leadership of trying him in a "kangaroo court" where he had no opportunity to present his own views or defend his position.

Support for Rabbi Amsellem's position has not only come from the secular world. It seems that there is an increasingly large constituency of Shas supporters who agree with his view, but may be afraid to express it. Amsellem has now given these people a voice to express their opinions and frustrations. While many of them may not be minded to challenge the revered position of the Council of Torah Sages, they would be delighted to be given an opportunity to find a vocation that can give them a useful position in society that can bring greater value to themselves,their families and the State of Israel.

In dealing with Amsellem's revolt in this way, the Shas party hierarchy has shown its true colours. While working for the benefit of its own constituency and special interest group, the Shas party frequently works against the better interests of the State of Israel and her people. A country of little more than 6 million people cannot afford to carry passengers who do not serve to defend the national security of the country, nor contribute anything to her economy while all the time sucking on the state coffers. It is my hope that Rabbi Amsellem can succeed, not only in hanging onto his Knesset seat, but also in mobilising similar thinking people within his community to change the face of Shas and other ultra-orthodox parties alike.

Sunday 21 November 2010

How Relevant is NATO to World Security?

Member states of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) have been meeting in Lisbon over the past few days. This meeting of member countries is regarded as one of the most important meetings of NATO in recent times, as its purpose has been to define a new mission statement, and to sign up to a new strategic doctrine for the next decade. But how successful has NATO been in addressing the real security needs of its 28 member states, and how relevant is NATO in our current world order?

NATO came into being as an organisation for military cooperation in 1949, when the first 12 member states from Western Europe, Scandinavia, the USA and Canada signed an agreement in Washington DC. The parties agreed that an armed attack on one or more NATO members in Europe or North America would be considered an attack on all members. Under such circumstances, all member states would be obliged to assist the member under attack, although the nature of the assistance was left quite vague. It did not necessarily oblige member states to respond with military action against the aggressor in helping its fellow NATO members. This key concept was articulated in Article 5 of the NATO charter.

In the early years of NATO, it proved valuable in forging cooperation between the defence forces of the member states. This allowed for the standardisation of many pieces of equipment in use, and many processes and practices employed by the military. It created "best practice" across many military forces. NATOs first real test as an organisation came with the Korean War in 1950. The threat posed by the Communists forced member states to make available a NATO force, and the forced the organisation to formalise the way in which it ran itself. The Soviet Union was refused membership of NATO in 1954, and this resulted in the USSR setting up its own rival to NATO. The establishment of the Warsaw Pact to stand up to NATO laid the groundwork for the Cold War, which lasted until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. NATO's first Director-General, Lord Ismay, once famously stated that the organisation's goal was "to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down". The Warsaw Pact was eventually dissolved in 1991, thereby removing NATO's main adversary and perhaps part of its reason for existence.

The collapse of the Soviet Union has brought into question NATO's relevance in the modern era of conflict and military threat. NATO took an active role in the Balkans War where NATO forces operated against the former Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. The attack on US soil on September 11, 2001 resulted in NATO invoking Article 5 of its charter for the first time in its history. The attack on the US was considered an attack on all NATO members, and NATO responded by joining US forces in the war in Afghanistan. This war has occupied NATO for the last decade.

The Lisbon meeting seems to have been dominated by concerns of NATO members as to how their forces can be extricated from the quagmire of the war in Afghanistan. Afghan president Hamed Karzai also attended the NATO meeting to engage in this discussion. The difficulty in the relationship between NATO and the Afghan government was reflected in a difficult meeting earlier in the week between Karzai and NATO commander in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus. Karzai has expressed concern about certain tactics employed by NATO forces on the ground in Afghanistan. Although the war in Afghanistan has cost NATO member countries huge sums of money to support and significant loss of life to its soldiers, it has at least provided some relevance to NATO as an organisation over the past decade. This relevance is waning, and could run out completely with the approach of the the targeted withdrawal date of NATO forces from Afghanistan in 2014 or 2015.

To help define NATO's role in the future, NATO asked former US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, to assemble a committee of experts and to draft recommendations for NATO's strategy over the next ten years. The Albright document makes interesting reading, not only for what it does say, but specifically for what it does not. In my view, it is far too bland and reflects a lack of willingness to tell things as they really are. In following this path, NATO runs the risk of being irrelevant and not addressing the real security and military risks confronting its member countries.

Interestingly and tellingly, the Albright committee document is indirect and weak when addressing the threats on NATO members arising from the Middle East. Although there is a reference to Israel's conflict with the Palestinians and her other neighbours, Albright's document calls upon NATO to be involved by adding value to dialogue groups in the region. This is tantamount to avoiding the issue at all. Considering that many security experts have gone as far as labelling this conflict as having a substantial impact on the stability and security of the free world, the recommendation of the NATO experts is surprising. More than this, the experts call upon NATO to help to implement a peace agreement consistent with conditions that have been laid down. There is no reference to playing a role in getting to this agreement. Is this something that does not interest or affect NATO as an organisation?

Most interesting of all is the way in which the nuclear threat posed by Iran is addressed. The document simply says that the allies should be open to discussion with its partners on the implications of a possible nuclear breakout by Iran. Surely, this is the world's greatest military and security threat. Considering the fact that most NATO members are situated in Central and Western Europe and, fall quite neatly into Iran's missile range, it is my view that NATO is simply ignoring the greatest threat to its member countries and to world peace. When adding to that its unwillingness to recognise the threat posed by Iranian proxies in the Middle East in the form of Syria, Hezbollah, Hamas and others, NATO risks making itself completely irrelevant to its member states. One of the requirements for membership of NATO is that members must be democratic countries. As the only democratic country amongst a sea of nations seeking the downfall and destruction of NATO members, Israel is surely a natural ally and partner for NATO. Ignoring this fact risks the relegation of NATO to the trash heap of history.

One of the driving forces behind this policy of ambivalence is surely Turkey's membership of NATO. Once, Turkey was a critical member of the organisation in that it gave geographical access to locate missiles in critical positions to counter the threat of the Warsaw Pact. These days, Turkey's position on the world political stage is much more threatening and less in line with its NATO allies than ever before. Having had its approaches for membership to the European Union rebuffed, Turkey is increasingly moving into the clutches of its ally Iran. Both countries share the fact that vast majority of their populations are Muslims. Previously this was not a major factor, and now it is not politically correct to point it out. The truth, however, is that this is an increasingly important issue when evaluating the military and security risks of the modern world. Turkey has shown its true colours in recent months by working in NATO to prevent the sharing of critical security information with Israel. Such an act weakens the security of the vast majority of NATO members, and shows that Turkey's continued membership of the organisation, while moving increasingly closer to Iran, is a direct conflict of interests.

Since it came into being in 1949, NATO was never really called upon to exercise its main objective as set out in Article 5. Even though the article was invoked in 2001 for the first time, the circumstances in which the article was exercised were completely different from the situation that was envisaged 60 years ago. The attack on a NATO member was not by the army of a country, but by the army of a renegade terrorist group representing one of the world's major religions. NATO may now have agreed upon its strategy for withdrawal from Afghanistan, but it has failed to show what relevance the organisation will thereafter. The threat from Russia is long gone, and NATO now has the chance to establish itself a strong position in protecting its members from the Islamic threat. Attacks on London, Madrid, New York, Washington and other locations on the soil of NATO countries have already shown NATO to be ineffective against this threat so far. There is still time to respond to it by recognising the problem and taking actions to protect members against it. Failure to do so will, however, prove NATO's irrelevance, and ultimately spell the end of the organisation.

Sunday 14 November 2010

A Country Amongst the Nations

A family tragedy in my home town of Ra'anana has shocked Israel to its core, and reopened many questions about pressures under which people live in this country. The story involves two young girls aged 4 and 6 who were found dead in the flat in which they lived. The person under suspicion for strangling these two young girls is none other than their own mother. The events have left me feeling so shocked that I have been forced to delve deep into myself to try to rationalise how this could have happened.

The phenomenon of parents killing their own children seems, unfortunately, to be on the increase around the world and in Israel. The pressures of modern life along with a lack of coping mechanisms has ensured that more and more people see no alternative solution for their families. There can be no doubt that anybody who goes to such an extreme is suffering inordinate pressure, and probably some form of insanity. Quite frequently, this is also accompanied by the suicide of the murderer, and sometimes also the murder of the other parent. Most family murders are committed by the father of the family, which makes the Ra'anana tragedy even more horrific. The awful nature of this crime comes as a shock to many inside and outside of Israel, who have a different expectation from a Jewish country.

When Israel was established in 1948, it was expected that it would be an extension of a Jewish neighbourhood in Europe or America. All of the regular Jewish stereotypes came to the fore when anticipating the character of the Jewish country. It was expected that there would be an oversupply of accountants, doctors, musicians and scientists while there would be a shortage of farmers, bus drivers, carpenters and electricians. There was a notion that the worst crime that would be committed in the nascent Jewish state, would be that of over-eating! Most of those who had come into contact with the Jewish community in Europe, the USA and other countries knew Jews as white-collar workers whose mothers were more concerned about them getting a good university education than anything else.

As always, the Jewish stereotypes arose out of necessity. For many years in Europe, Jews had been prohibited from engaging in certain professions and taking on particular jobs. The Jewish spirit never gave up, and mothers insisted that their children received a good education wherever possible, as "they could never take this away from you". Jews did whatever they could to stay alive including trading and money-lending. These skills, born out of lack of alternative, ultimately gave rise to some of the world's greatest and best-known companies including famous names such as Rothschild's Bank, Salomon Brothers and Marks & Spencer. Even though these behaviour patterns gave rise to Jewish stereotypes, they showed that Jews could be adaptable, and were prepared to do whatever it takes in order to stay alive.

This survival spirit showed itself when Israel came into being, and served to defy those who expected Israel to be annihilated by her Arab enemy neighbours. The fact that Israel succeeded in surviving the onslaught of the Arab attacks and has gone on to build one of the most potent armies in the world has turned all Jewish stereotypes on their heads. After all, Jews were typically non-combatants whose mothers would prefer them not to get into fights. And yet, out of this arose a fighting force which, man-for-man, is arguably the strongest in the world. It is a force which has Jewish boys and girls at its front and at its rear, and not only in the back rooms.

The State of Israel was founded as a mostly agricultural economy. This, too, was surprising to many who had never heard of a Jew turning the soil. Agriculture was a way of demonstrating not only the close links to the physical land of the State of Israel, but also a way of reversing the stereotypes that had been forced on Jews for centuries before. Jews could also be farmers, and proved themselves to be good farmers who could produce food for their own communities and for export to the rest of the world. The Jaffa orange and large volumes of Israeli flowers seen every day in European cities bear testament to this.

Although the country in the early years was dominated by those who had arrived from Europe, the population was soon boosted by Jews arriving from other countries, particularly from countries in the Middle East. They arrived with their own stereotypes as well as behaviours inherited from the countries where they had been raised. Soon, these clashed with the dominant European behaviours to produce interesting, and sometimes bad, results. Over time, these behaviours were added to by those arriving from the former Soviet Union who had, over the period of Communism, been forced into different survival tactics. These immigrants were doctors, scientists and musicians in large numbers, but not accountants nor economists. They also seemed to consume larger quantities of Vodka than Israelis had ever seen before.

It was former prime minister Menachem Begin who saw this mix and clash of cultures as an inevitable part of the development of Israeli society, and an Israeli nation. Begin said that Israel would only be a country "amongst the family of nations" once it also took on all the negative characteristics of other countries in the world. He was of the view that Israel would only come of age when there were Jewish prostitutes.

In the most unfortunate way, Begin's "dreams" have come true. Not only do we now have Jewish farmers and bus drivers, we now also suffer from Jewish alcoholics, prostitutes and even murderers. While I would gladly live in a society that does not suffer these evils, I can see Begin's point. If Israel wishes to be integrated into the world structure and economy, it is inevitable that the pressures and strains suffered in other countries will also be felt in Israel. Having said this, it is incumbent upon us all to learn lessons from social decay experienced in other countries, to try to prevent it from manifesting itself in ours.

For me, it is pleasing that the level of crime on the streets in Israel remains lower than in many western countries. This means that it remains safe for our children to be out alone at night, and to be able to live independently from a very early age. This reflects the Jewish neighbourhood mentality where we all care for the country's children, even if they are not our own. I would also like to believe that we can learn lessons from tragedies like the one suffered last week, to respond in a way which reflects our Jewish heritage. Mothers, like the one in question, need more help from society in order to provide them with skills and coping mechanisms to overcome the inevitable stresses and strains of modern living. The social services and friends and neighbours are required to respond to prevent such tragedies happening in the future. This is where the Jewish adaptability and ability to respond will really be called upon to get over a tragedy like this, and to prevent this from happening in other families.

It is my prayer that the memories of little Roni and Natalie Aloni z"l, who were taken before their time, will be for a blessing. May Hashem comfort the mourners amongst the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.

Monday 8 November 2010

The Irony of Israel's Benefits From International Terrorism

The scourge of international terrorism has affected the daily lives of many people around the world. Something that was once only the concern of those living in the Middle East or Northern Ireland has become the greatest threat to world peace in a few short years. This phenomenon affects more people around the world than the most widespread war. Even where terrorists do not succeed in detonating their devices or causing the death and destruction that they had intended, they do succeed sowing fear in the hearts of people trying to go about their everyday lives. This fear is enough to cause great disruption and inconvenience to all concerned, and to cost large sums of money while countries work to secure the lives of their citizens.

Not very long ago, terrorism was limited to certain countries around the world. Israel was viewed as being one of these countries. After her Arab neighbours failed to wipe the Jewish state off the map in wars in 1948, 1956, 1967 and 1974, the tactics changed. Instead of using their armies for a direct confrontation with Israel, the Arab enemies decided instead to strike at the soft underbelly of Israeli civilian life. Numerous attempts were made to strike at innocent people going about their daily lives by planting bombs in coffee shops, on buses and in markets. There were even strikes against Israeli targets abroad including attempts on Israeli embassy buildings and an attack on the Israeli Olympic delegation to the Munich Olympic Games in 1972. Some attacks were not only reserved for Israelis, but were aimed at the wider Jewish population. The hijacking of Air France flight 139 which precipitated the raid at Entebbe in 1976, the hijacking of the Achille Lauro in 1985, the attack on the Jewish Centre in Buenos Aires in 1994 and the Mumbai attack on Chabad House in 2008 are only a few examples of attacks aimed at Jews around the world.

More recently, the attacks have spread in their reach to include not only Israelis and Jews, but members of the free world in general. The most visual symbol of these attacks was the destruction of the World Trade Centre on September 11th, 2001. Many other similar attacks have been carried out including attacks elsewhere in the USA as well as in London, Madrid, Mumbai and numerous other attempts that have been partially successful, or successful only in creating further fear and anxiety.

One may conclude that a country like Israel would suffer substantially from the activities of international terror groups. For those who have not visited Israel previously, it would be easy to surmise that the threat of terror causes people to be fearful in their everyday lives, and has a negative economic impact on a small democratic country in a sea of enemies. Ironically, the opposite is true. Terrorism has had a substantial negative effect on Israel and its citizens, particularly the loss of innocent lives and the injuring and maiming of thousands of others. Perversely, however, Israel has also gained a great deal from international terror.

The first thing that Israel has gained from dealing with terror is resilience. The people of Israel have shown a willingness to get up and dust themselves off after each and every terror attack that they have had to endure. More than that, people have been determined to continue with their daily lives as normally as possible, despite the ever-present threats from terror that exist. A classic example was demonstrated by the bus drivers on Jerusalem's line number 18 who came under concerted attack in 1996. Despite the fact that the drivers of the number 18 buses knew that the buses on their line were under threat, they took a philosophical view on things by insisting that they continue to carry out their duties in order not to give in to the threats of terror. During this period, they were witnessed praying together at the bus station in the morning before the start of their shifts. This same resilience has been shown by security guards who secure the entrances to shopping centres and other public areas, and many others like them.

In order to confront the threat of terror, Israel has been forced to develop tactics and technologies which help to secure the country and her citizens. These tactics and technologies continue be improved upon, and have shown themselves to the be the most sophisticated anti-terror capabilities in the world. At one time, the only consumer of these capabilities was Israel. As international terror has spread around the world, the number of customers for the anti-terror devices has grown dramatically. There is practically no country in the world today that is not forced to deploy security systems in its airports or other places considered to be a terror threat. Israeli anti-terror systems have shown themselves to be effective in the fight against terrorism, and present an obvious choice for other countries wishing to take advantage of systems that have proven themselves in the line of fire. Out of this has grown a massive industry satisfying the security needs of numerous countries.

Today, many security systems that are deployed around the world are Israeli systems, or are based upon ones developed and used in Israel. More than this, the job of securing major public events such as Olympic Games, UN General Assembly meetings and other major events has turned into an industry of its own. The leading participants in this industry are Israelis. Not only do they come with creativity, innovation and leading-edge technology, they also come with hands-on training and experience in securing the State of Israel. Security has become a large export industry for Israeli companies and individuals. Each time the security level is raised for any reason, Israeli companies are benefiting financially from the increase security requirements. Israeli companies are major beneficiaries of the enormous sums of money spent by the US Homeland Security and many other countries.

Each time a major terror attack takes place around the world, it allows the residents who are the subject of this attack to gain a better insight and understanding into the experiences and fear which plague Israelis all the time. It is a fact that those who have not been through similar experiences have less ability to understand the Israeli situation, and why Israel is often forced to act in defence in the way that she does. Those who have suffered from terrorism somehow have a closer and easier understanding and empathy with Israel and her citizens. Each time a terror attack takes place, there is a greater population of people who understand this evil phenomenon, and the Israeli situation.

Although it is my sincere hope and prayer that international terrorism is eliminated once and for all, it is currently the reality that terrorism is serving some perverse advantages for Israel. I do believe that Israelis are adaptable enough to find the next best thing when terrorism is finally eliminated for good and, with it, the security industry that has been built around this. Until then, Israel will continue to be well placed to help satisfy the world's security needs.

Sunday 31 October 2010

The Threat of Muslim Terrorism

A story broke late on Friday regarding parcels containing explosive materials that were sent via international courier services, and that were intercepted before they did any damage. The source of the parcels was traced to Yemen, where a further 24 similar parcels were found ready for shipment. Unsurprisingly, the final destination addresses for the parcels were Jewish organisations in Chicago USA. Equally unsurprising is the fact that various security organisations have said that plot bears all the hallmarks of having been hatched by Al-Qaeda.

The world has reacted with shock and horror. Statements have been made by the president of the USA and by government officials in the UK and Dubai where the parcels were found. Even the Yemeni president has come out confirming that intelligence obtained from foreign countries has led the Yemeni authorities to arrest a woman suspected of being involved in the plot. Calls have been made to tighten security in the airline industry even further! International terrorism rears its ugly head once again to place everybody on high alert, and to cause further disruption and inconvenience to those law-abiding citizens who need to travel for business or pleasure.

Events like this cause me to question the intention of Islamic terror. What exactly is this campaign of terror designed to achieve? I know that it is not politically correct to blame Muslims for the terror campaign that the world has experienced since the 1960s and 1970s. It was people like Nobel Peace Prize winner Yasser Arafat who blazed the trail of airline hijackings and acts of international terror. As much as it is not nice to lay the blame of this type of terror entirely at the door of the Muslims, I am not sure what other term to use in order to describe this phenomenon. While it is true that not all Muslims are terrorists, it is increasingly clear that those behind these acts of international terror are all Muslims. What are the intentions of these people? In particular, what compromise solution could be reached in order to convince these Muslims to cease their campaign of international terror?

There are those who hold up the Arab-Israeli conflict as being the cause of all instability in the world. Many have contended that the resolution of the Palestinian issue will somehow magically wipe out all international terror. This has, in turn, placed undue international pressure on Israel to compromise on a peace agreement with the Palestinians in recent years. As if this pressure was really required. I would suggest that the ongoing threat to life and limb of Israelis, and the possibility of the Jewish state being driven into the sea is sufficient incentive to come to any possible agreement with the Palestinians. In recent times, activities of the "infidels" in Iraq, Afghanistan and other similar actions has also been held up as justification for international acts of terror against western countries. Rather than being the real factor which has "forced" Muslims to acts of terror, I believe that these are only weak excuses to try to justify the unjustifiable.

I have often envisaged a Palestinian equivalent of the Irish Good Friday Agreement, or other similar international treaties which have resulted in a significant reduction in violence by virtue of people achieving political compromise. I have wondered what this equivalent of the Good Friday Agreement would look like, or indeed whether the Palestinians or Al-Qaeda are even prepared to enter into one. Unfortunately, I always seem to end up with the same conclusion, no matter which way I look at the situation. My conclusion is that the only agreement that the Muslims will be happy with, is one which is a one-sided agreement; one where they are the sole rulers over the world in every respect and can apply their rule over all inhabitants. Until the Palestinians have full control over Israel, there does not seem to be a compromise agreement that is good enough for them to sign up to. This is my perception of the situation. Acts of international terror, including the most recent parcel-bomb attempts, serve only to reinforce my views in this regard.

Although countries in the west have beefed up their security services, and have vowed to fight international terror "on the beaches, on the landing grounds, in the fields and streets and in the hills, and never surrender", critical mistakes are being made in this battle. One of the biggest mistakes is to refuse to call it what it really is - Islamic terror. The president of the USA feels that it is more important to engage the Muslims and to hold out a hand of friendship in a softly-softly way. This may have something to do with his own Muslim roots, or maybe not. To hold out a hand of friendship to those who will be your friend is acceptable, and there are some Muslims amongst these people. But I feel that it is a huge mistake to actively court Islam as a friend when there is such a significant threat currently originating from this source, and such disdain and disrespect shown to all who are "non believers". A show of weakness like this will be exploited to the maximum, and the Muslim blood flowing through Obama's veins will not save him from the same fate as the rest of us.

The time has come to leave political correctness behind in the fight for survival. The way to do this is to show strength, and to demonstrate a clear understanding of the enemy's intentions. In this way, the international world can act with true conviction to fight the substantial threat to its freedom, and that is growing daily. The parcel bombs discovered over the past few days serve to remind us of this ongoing threat, and to reinforce the need to take decisive action to punish those responsible for this and many other acts of terror. Unwillingness to do this will unfortunately only result in disaster for the free world as we know it.

Monday 25 October 2010

The Issues Surrounding the Loyalty Oath

The decision by the Israeli cabinet to approve an amendment to the loyalty oath for new immigrants to Israel has created a great deal of controversy, and occupied newspaper columns all over the world. It is the timing of its proposal, the proposed wording of the oath as well as the fact that it currently only applies to some immigrants while not applying to others which has generated the interest and criticism.

A loyalty oath in itself is not a strange or unusual concept. Many countries around the world, including the USA, require new citizens to pledge their loyalty to their adopted country. Until now, Israel required some of its new citizens to pledge loyalty to the state. The main reason for this is the fact that the bulk of the new immigrants have taken up their citizenship under the Law of Return, and they are not required to make the loyalty oath. The Law of Return allows anybody with one Jewish grandparent to immediately claim citizenship of Israel without any naturalisation requirement. So why was it deemed necessary to suddenly amend the loyalty oath at this time?

It is clear that every country has the right to make changes as circumstances demand them. It is interesting to study how America's "Pledge of Allegiance" was initially introduced more than 100 years after the country's independence, and how its wording has been changed four times over the years. So, the idea of amending a loyalty oath is not unique. Like with most things in the Middle East, however, the timing is not coincidental. In Israel's case, the amendment to the loyalty oath has come out of the latest events in the peace negotiations with the Palestinians.

The proposed amendment to the loyalty oath will require new immigrants to pledge loyalty to the "Jewish and democratic State of Israel". The reference to a Jewish state has been added as part of the currently proposed amendment. The issue of recognising Israel as a Jewish state has become a central issue in the ongoing peace talks. Prime minister Netanyahu has insisted that the Palestinians not only acknowledge Israel's right to exist, but recognise her right to exist as a Jewish state as part of the peace agreement. The Palestinians have skirted around this issue for many years, and continue to show an unwillingness to give an undertaking in this form.

The concept of Israel being a Jewish state is not entirely new. Both the Balfour Declaration in 1917 and the UN Partition Plan adopted in 1947 called for the establishment of a homeland for the Jewish people. The Declaration of Independence in 1948 also declared the establishment of a Jewish state in Eretz Yisrael, the State of Israel. Surely nothing could have been clearer than this.

Since independence, Israel has continued to operate as a Jewish state, and as a homeland for the Jewish people. Israel's laws relating to marriage and divorce are based upon Jewish religious law. The working week is Sunday to Friday in line with the commandments in the Torah, the Jewish holy bible. There can be absolutely no doubt that the intention continues to be the same as the one expressed at independence i.e. that Israel will be a Jewish state.

So why the attempts to deny this on the part of the Palestinians? It seems as if being prepared to make this "concession" may harm their negotiating position on the return to Israel of the thousands of Palestinian refugees whose predecessors fled their homes upon Israel's independence in 1948. These people continue to be housed in refugee camps in Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, in the West Bank and in Gaza on the promise that they will be allowed to return to Israel to reclaim their homes when a peace agreement is reached. The act of recognising Israel as being a Jewish state means that there can never be an agreement to house millions of non-Jews in Israel who may challenge the Jewish majority.

By proposing a change to the loyalty oath, Netanyahu has tried to utilise all the tools at his disposal to demonstrate to the Palestinians how seriously he takes the issue of Israel being recognised as a Jewish state. Even though this tactic seems to be fairly extreme and has been interpreted by many to be racist, the prime minister has the support of a large section of the population. Finally, a prime minister of Israel has been prepared to stand up in front of the people who have attempted to annihilate the Jews for so many years and drive us into the sea. Finally, he is prepared to say that if you wish to be recognised for what you are, you need to recognise us and our country for what we are. Nothing less will do. The reluctance on the part of the Palestinians says it all.

The amended loyalty oath will probably never be adopted. It seems not to have the support of the majority of the Knesset, and perhaps it is just as well. Despite debates about whether it should, in its revised form, apply to Jews as well as non-Jews, the truth is that this act will probably not bring the recognition nor the peace that we wish for. By raising this issue into the public domain in such a visible way, however, it has brought focus on Israel's continued desire to be acknowledged as a Jewish state more than 62 years after world voted in favour of this at the UN.

Then like now, the Arab nations are not prepared to accept this fact. They pursued war on that occasion in the belief that the Jews could be driven out. Now they sit at the negotiating table in the begrudging knowledge that the Jews are here to stay. Somehow, they can still not find it in themselves to openly admit and acknowledge the right of the Jewish state to exist alongside their own state. They would rather not have a state than be forced to concede to this. But this is what peace agreements are made of, and peace is not possible when you refuse to acknowledge the nature and character of the other party. Denial has brought war. Only acknowledgement can lay the basis for peace.

Sunday 17 October 2010

Six Weeks Later and The Time Article Looks So Different

The article published in Time Magazine on the 2nd September 2010 went under the heading "Why Israelis Don't Care About Peace." The heading was not a question, it was a statement. The article tried to create the impression that Israelis have no interest in the peace talks with the Palestinians, or whether a peace agreement is achieved or not. After interviewing 3 or 4 Israelis who sent the message that the ongoing peace talks were not on the forefront of their minds, Time writer Karl Vick concluded that this attitude applies to all Israelis.

The article was taken by many Jews around the world to be anti-Semitic, and as an unjustified criticism on Israelis and Israeli society. It is certainly a judgement on Israelis in the sense that it expects them (us) to be preoccupied with making peace with the Palestinians, instead of concerning ourselves with daily issues. Millions of citizens around the world are entitled to live their lives by worrying about their children, making a living, and other daily concerns. Israelis, however, are seemingly obliged to be preoccupied by peace-making. In the event that Israelis have the audacity to enjoy the "good life" and reap some of the benefits of 62 years of sweat and toil, does this mean that they are doing the wrong thing? Is it a requirement that Israelis not have fun or enjoy everyday activities until there is peace with the Palestinians? This could produce generations of very miserable people, as peace does not seem imminent.

The reality is that, when the article was written some 6 weeks ago, the prospects for peace were looking more optimistic. The Palestinians had decided, seemingly against their better judgement, to enter into direct peace talks with the Israelis. There was talk of peace within 12 months, which seemed to ignore the reality that, over decades and even hundreds of years, there has been an inability to reach a peace. There was the sense of being on the verge of a great achievement, which was particularly felt by the USA and other countries who were involved in attempts to bring Palestinians and Israelis to the negotiating table. Optimism was felt by many people around the world, and the impression was that it was only a matter of time before peace would suddenly break out. For Israelis, however, the same level of enthusiasm was not felt. After all, this is the nation that has been through similar events over many years at Wye Plantation, at Camp David and numerous other peace meetings. All of the previous peace-making attempts proved to be unsuccessful, even when it seemed as though many of the most important issues had already been agreed upon. It is surely unwise and inadvisable to begin to pop the champagne corks before even the first key meeting has taken place. History has made the Israelis realise that it is better to lower expectations until the final outcome is decided. This is the way to avoid feeling disappointed, and let down over and over again.

Now, 6 weeks later, with the Palestinians refusing to return to the negotiating table, it would seem as if the "lack of interest" in peace may have been justified. Whether the Israelis are to blame for not unilaterally agreeing to extend the construction moratorium, or whether the Palestinians are to blame for not agreeing to recognise Israel as a Jewish state is not really the issue here. The fact is that the peace process is, once again, in tatters. It is just as well that nobody raised their expectations or devoted too much of their time to it. Perhaps the optimism of a couple of months ago was simply an illusion created by the international community for public consumption, which was not necessarily felt by the parties to the discussions? I wonder whether Karl Vick would still be so critical of Israelis for not caring about peace under the current circumstances. The question that I ask is "what peace?"

Despite the impression that Vick left readers of his story with, Israelis do care about peace. They care very deeply about peace, due to the fact that each and every citizen has an interest in a peace agreement. The main reason for this is because a lack of peace continues to put Israel at war with its neighbours. This is a war that has lasted for 62 years and even longer. In order to fight this war, Israel has been forced to call upon every citizen of the country to participate in fighting the war. All the time that young men are conscripted for 3 years, and young women conscripted for 2 years in the defence of their country, Israelis are "forced" to care about peace. As the parent of conscription-age children, I know that any peace agreements will go some way towards creating a safer environment for my children during the time of their national service. There is no family in Israel that does not have some link to children currently serving in the army, or due to serve in the army in the near future. There can be no greater incentive to care about peace than this.

The colloquial term to describe an Israeli is a "Sabra", a prickly pear. The reason why Israelis are called Sabras is because they are believed to have a tough and prickly exterior to those who first meet them. The comparison continues in the contention that, once the thick exterior is peeled away, there is a soft and sweet interior which is only visible to those who care to delve deeply enough. The hard outer shell not only allows Israelis to somehow survive 62 years of incessant war, it also gives protection against the raising of expectations, which are largely dashed soon afterwards. After all, this seems to be part of the daily cycle of life in Israel. This may give the impression that Israelis don't care about peace, but nothing can be further from the truth. After all, their very existence and future is ultimately dependent upon finding a secure, just and lasting peace.

It may be that Karl Vick has not been able to see pass the outer shell of the prickly pears that he has met. His article shows an extremely superficial analysis of the way in which Israelis think, and sees past the things that truly affect their lives. The fact that the people that he interviewed succeeded in convincing him that they are able to continue with their lives despite the unstable political and security situation in which they are forced to live, is perhaps a tribute to the determination and the resilience of the Israeli spirit. But don't, for a moment, interpret this to mean that we do not care.

Monday 11 October 2010

Jerusalem is Always Full of Surprises

I truly love visiting the Holy City of Jerusalem. There is no doubt that it has a certain spiritual atmosphere that I have not experienced in any other city in Israel, or elsewhere in the world. I am not sure to what extent this atmosphere is real, or created as a result of my expectation that I will feel it. The only thing that is important is that I feel it, and enjoy it very much. I usually try to make a point of setting aside at least one day each year to visit Jerusalem as a tourist. I like to travel around to the famous sites and vantage points and just experience the unusual things that can happen only in Jerusalem.

People in Jerusalem are totally different, and a good number seem crazy to me. Many of its residents have one religious leaning or another, and behave in ways which would not be acceptable or seen anywhere else. Where else in the world would it be completely normal for men to enter the bus at the front, with women getting on at the back. Although I find this odd, and even offensive, the residents in Jerusalem do it like it is the most normal thing in the world. This strange behaviour even seems to rub off onto the tourists who visit the city. Jews, who would not be seen dead wearing a kippa (skullcap) in public in their home towns, are all of a sudden enjoying wearing it in Jerusalem. There are those who experience Jerusalem Syndrome and other strange psychological occurrences, apparently all unique to this much fought-over city, which is holy to the three monotheistic religions, and the capital of the State of Israel.

On Friday, I had the good fortune to have an excuse to pay Jerusalem a fleeting visit. The occasion of a visit by friends to Israel from abroad took me to the City of Zion. I was, however, wholly unprepared for I what I was to witness. After entering the city from the north, and then heading eastward towards French Hill, I made a stop on Mount Scopus. In my quest to get from there to the area of the Germany Colony, I managed to take a wrong turning and momentarily lose my way. As a result, I was forced to drive unexpectedly through Wadi El Joz, an Arab neighbourhood of East Jerusalem. I had driven down these roads on a number of previous occasions, and had no hesitation about following this route to my destination. Even though the character of this neighbourhood is clearly different from that found in the neighbourhoods of the western parts of the city, or even the area within the walled Old City of Jerusalem, there seemed to be no logical reason not to travel this way.

This all changed when I suddenly observed three or four young Arab children, perhaps ten or eleven years of age, hurling rocks at passing cars. I was travelling up the hill past them, and they seemed only to be throwing rocks at the cars travelling down the hill. I could not quite figure out why they were throwing rocks at some cars, but not others. Perhaps they thought that they could identify Arab cars and spare them a pelting. Whatever it was, my shock turned to real anxiety when I was detained behind a bus and a long queue of cars heading up the hill. My car was brought to a halt directly opposite these children while I waited for the traffic to proceed. For some reason, they chose not to direct their attack at my car, and my anxiety became relief when the traffic proceeded, and I left the location of the random violence in my rear-view mirror.

After returning home later in the day, I read of the incident involving settler leader David Be'eri, who was filmed driving into a group of Arab children who were pelting his car with stones in the Silwan neighbourhood of East Jerusalem. This was not far from where I experienced my incident. Be'eri claims to have acted in self defence as he felt his life was in danger. There are many questions to be asked about this incident, especially how come an Associated Press film crew just "happened" to be on hand to film the incident, and then post the film clip on the Internet. Although I don't subscribe to Be'eri's right-wing brand of politics, I honestly understand what he means when he says that he felt threatened. I felt the same fear, and I did not even have a stone thrown in my direction.

This incident, although fairly minor in the overall scheme of Middle East politics, made me wonder a great deal about what is acceptable, and what is not. There can be no doubt that the extremism that people demonstrate in Jerusalem is a cause for many of its problems. When can it be OK for children as young as ten years old, to be stoning cars of innocent passers-by? What do we expect of these children when they eventually grow to twenty and thirty years old? Is this fight really about the Holy City of Jerusalem, or is it about the fact that possession is nine tenths of the law, and it is worth taking any actions to retain the possession? It left me feeling less optimistic and less spiritually cleansed by being in Jerusalem.

Later in the afternoon, while enjoying a late lunch in Emek Refaim Street with our friends, the first rain of the season arrived. These were the first drops of rain seen in Jerusalem for at least 5 months, and almost seemed to try to wash away the negative memory that still lingered in my mind following the earlier incident. As exciting and welcome as the few drops of rain were, they could not eradicate the picture imprinted in my mind of the young children seemingly randomly throwing rocks at passing cars.

This was certainly not the Jerusalem that Jews pray about in their daily prayers. Nor is it the Jerusalem which is holy to Islam and Christianity. This is the Jerusalem of violence, extremism, political brinkmanship and film cameras. Although I loved Jerusalem more before this act of random violence on Friday, nothing will stop me from cherishing it as the holiest place in the Jewish religion, and as the undivided and eternal capital of the State of Israel.

Monday 4 October 2010

The Warfare of the Future

Reports have surfaced in the international media over the past week regarding a computer virus that has infiltrated computers at Iran's Bushehr nuclear plant. It has been claimed that the deadly Stuxnet virus has infected computers at the plant, which has damaged some of the reactors and delayed the program of loading enriched nuclear fuel into the reactor.

Almost simultaneous to these reports, were the claims that the Israeli secret service was involved in creating the virus and infecting the Iranian computers. The claims allege that the virus was actually intended for the Natanz plant, which is considered to have a higher risk of producing nuclear bombs. In addition, there have been assertions that the Israelis have infiltrated the supply chain for the Iranian nuclear program, and have succeeded in supplying faulty hardware for the centrifuges. The result of this is that up to 3,000 centrifuges at Bushehr have been damaged. All of this has not sufficiently affected the nuclear plant to prevent the continued enrichment of uranium, but it has certainly caused a setback to Iran's nuclear plans.

The reports suggest that this is a new development in the conflict between Israel and those Arab and Muslim countries seeking her destruction. While the world has focused on possible military options available to Israel to destroy the Iranian nuclear threat, it would seem as if the Israelis have been seeking out different solutions in an attempt to catch the Iranians off-guard. But how new is the idea of cyber or electronic warfare? Is it really a new development, or is this something that has been around for a while?

According to the New York Times, the unit in the Israel Defence Force (IDF) which is responsible for the creation of the Stuxnet virus is the 8200 unit (known in Hebrew as "shmone matayim" or eight two hundred). This is the Central Intelligence Gathering Unit of the Intelligence Corps, and is responsible for collection of signal intelligence and code decryption. This unit has been around for many years - since before the Six Day War - even though the intelligence-gathering was probably less sophisticated or hi-tech in the earlier years. This unit now oversees a dedicated unit which engages in defensive and offensive digital warfare. This is only one small part of a central pillar in IDF strategy to vigorously pursue all aspects of cyber and electronic warfare. The pursuit of options for sabotaging the core computers of foes like Iran, along with mechanisms to protect its own sensitive systems, were unveiled last year by the military intelligence chief, Major-General Amos Yadlin. Even though these public statements are new and recent, the work being done by units dedicated to digital warfare is certainly not.

A recent article in the Jerusalem Post presented details of a unit in the Israeli Air Force (IAF), the Sky Crows Squadron. This is the cyber warfare unit of the IAF that uses intelligence for two main purposes. The first is to block enemy communications and the second is to disrupt enemy radar systems. Probably the most well-known of the Crows' successes was the 2007 attack on the nascent Syrian nuclear reactor along the Euphrates River. The IAF F-15I aircraft probably could not have entered Syrian airspace and successfully dropped their payloads on Syrian radar installations and on the nuclear reactor itself, were it not for the fact that the Crows had succeeded in deactivating all Syrian air defence systems. All of this was achieved without sustaining as much as a scratch on an IAF aeroplane. During the Second Lebanon War and Operation Cast Lead, the unit was again activated but this time mostly to break into Palestinian and Lebanese TV and radio channels to push anti-Hamas and anti-Hezbollah propaganda.

During 2010, the Sky Crows Squadron will be celebrating its 40th anniversary. The IAF has been engaging in electronic warfare for quite some time already. This is one of the ways that the IDF feels that it will be able to maintain its military advantage in the Middle East, and around the world. This is particularly true during an era of an unprecedented military build-up in the region. This is best epitomised by the recent $60bn arms deal to Saudi Arabia, and the construction of the Iranian nuclear reactors. Israel is often unable to spend the same sums of money spent by her adversaries, and the qualitative military edge is what allows Israel to create its ultimate advantage.

The technological changes in our world have created an ideal operating environment that play to Israel's strengths. Communications and computer networking have become the core of our work and social worlds, and also form the backbone of military attack and defence systems. Israel is the country which was first to create a firewall to protect computer networks. Having access to brains that can protect networks from all manner of attack also means having the ability to create attacks that can overcome these protections. This technological capability is being nurtured and developed in the next generation of IDF soldiers, starting from a very young age. Israeli schools run a wide number of programs to develop computer and technology skills in children to ensure that the IDF has a wide choice of top-notch resources to call upon for its needs in the foreseeable future.

The Iranians have meanwhile predictably announced that a computer virus was not to blame for the delays at its reactors. No nation would wish to admit to having its secret installations infiltrated in such a blatant way. In an attempt to avoid further embarrassment, an announcement was issued that arrests have been made of people who are suspected to have been involved. Israel seems well positioned to take advantage of the change in the nature of military conflict. Military strength was once measured in terms of numbers of aircraft, soldiers, tanks and missiles. Military attacks were once in the form of bombs launched and weapons fired. Although this has not completely gone away, it is clear that the rules of the game are changing.

If Iran is continuously scanning its airspace in the belief that clear skies mean the nuclear reactors are safe, it seems as if it may be looking in the wrong place for the source of the real danger. Electronic warfare is set to become the military playground of the future.