Sunday 28 February 2010

Who Will Succeed the Pharaoh?

The reports last week of the return to Egypt by former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Mohammed ElBaradei, caught my attention. During his 12 years as the head of the IAEA, he was a public figure and, particularly in connection with his work on the Iranian nuclear program, captured many world headlines. Winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005 added to his international standing. There is the impression that certain elements of Egyptian society have been waiting for his triumphant return to his homeland for some time. ElBaradei has been mooted as a possible future president of Egypt, something which ElBaradei himself appears willing to contemplate. But how realistic is this possibility?

The current Pharaoh of Egypt, President Hosni Mubarak has ruled Egypt for almost 30 years. He assumed the presidency of the Arab Republic of Egypt in 1981 following the assassination of Anwar Sadat. He was "re-elected" in 1987,1993, 1999. These "elections" involved being elected by the Peoples' Assembly (which is controlled by his National Democratic Party) , and then confirmed by a national referendum. The Egyptian constitution, which was in place at the time, restricted anyone from running against the president in the referendum. In 2005, a constitutional change was passed which allowed for multi-candidate presidential elections. The election held in 2005 saw Mubarak use every state tool and trick in the book available to him (legitimate and otherwise) to secure himself victory in a "democratic" election. According to the official results, Mubarak gained almost 90% of the votes cast with a voter turnout of little more than 20%. The runner-up in the election, Dr. Ayman Nour, was arrested after the vote and sentenced to five years hard labour after being convicted of forgery.

Hosni Mubarak has ruled Egypt by presidential decree for 29 years. The state of emergency, which was declared following Sadat's assassination, has never been lifted. As president, Mubarak appoints the prime minister and cabinet. If there is dissatisfaction, or if things are not undertaken to the president's liking, he will accept the resignation of the prime minister and cabinet, and appoint a replacement. By convention, it is the president who controls defence and foreign affairs policy and the prime minister manages day-to-day affairs including the economy. During the time of Mubarak's presidency, he has appointed 7 prime ministers. Even though the position does exist, Mubarak has never appointed a deputy president.

Mubarak and his family have become entangled in corruption scandals. It is reputed that his sons Alaa and Gamal have been favoured with government tenders and privatisations. Political corruption appears widespread, with imprisonments and detentions without trial commonplace. It is charged that the Interior Ministry is an engine that has been constructed to support the continuation of the Mubarak presidency in Egypt. Transparency International, an organisation addressing corruption around the world awarded Egypt a Corruption Perceptions Index score of 2.8 out of a possible 10 awarded to clean countries, giving Egypt the 115th position out of 180 countries in their report.

The Pharaoh is now 81 years old, and even though he will continue to hang on to power for as long as he can, even he cannot continue in the job forever. Inevitably, attention has turned to speculating about who his successor could be. Mubarak's elder son, Alaa, left the political scene in 2000 which was the same time that younger son, Gamal, began making his presence in the National Democratic Party felt. This has resulted in the accusation that Mubarak is grooming Gamal to take over the presidency from his father. Although this has been denied by both father and son, it is difficult to escape the feeling that this is the case.

When Mohammed ElBaradei returned home last week after more than 20 years of living abroad, the succession discussion was instantly reignited. Due to having lived outside of Egypt for so long, he is untainted by the widespread corruption that dogs the Egyptian political scene. He is viewed as the saviour of Egypt by the democratic movement. In his first televised interview since returning to Egypt, ElBaradei criticised Mubarak by saying that Egypt has stagnated under his presidency, and that corruption is rife.

Examining this situation from an Israeli angle changes the view somewhat. Israel's relations with its Arab neighbours are considered in fairly black and white terms. With some neighbours, Israel has peace and with others not. In these terms, Israel has peace with Egypt and no conflicts of any significance have arisen between Egypt and Israel during the period of Mubarak's presidency. The peace treaty signed by his predecessor, Anwar Sadat, has held. Even though it would be a stretch of the imagination to suggest that trade between the two countries has blossomed or that tourism between the two countries has multiplied, sometimes less is more. In Israeli terms, a peaceful border is more than we could have expected, and this is considered as successful as can be anticipated. In addition, there has been increasing cooperation between Egypt and Israel on the important matter of the Gaza Strip. Gaza, with a lengthy Egyptian border and numerous tunnels that have been dug under the Egyptian border fence for the supply of arms and domestic goods, presents almost as much of a challenge to Egypt as it does to Israel. Although Egypt has not succeeded in putting an entire stop to anti-Israel activities in Gaza, there have been efforts on Egypt's behalf to assist Israel where possible.

So how does Israel view the possible successors to the Pharaoh? Israel has already experienced situations of family successions, of sons succeeding their fathers, amongst its neighbours. In Jordan, Abdullah took over after the death of his father Hussein, and Bashar is ruling Syria after the death of his father Hafez. In both cases, the sons concentrated their first efforts on strengthening their ruling position in the country before addressing other issues. In both cases, the sons continued their fathers' policies towards Israel. If Gamal was to succeed Hosni and continue the current Egyptian policy towards Israel, this represents a level of stability for Israel's relations with Egypt, and this would be welcome.

If, however, ElBaradei or another democratic candidate was to succeed Mubarak, the implications for Israel would be less clear. In his role at the International Atomic Energy Agency, I never really got the impression that ElBaradei had a great deal of time for Israel. Even when the agency was discovering new Iranian nuclear facilities and was not gaining much cooperation from Iran in allowing further international investigation, somehow ElBaradei always appeared unwilling to address or acknowledge the threat that this presents to Israel. It was only right at the end of his tenure, when the facts were so overwhelming, did we finally see ElBaradei make a clearer stand on this matter. Perhaps he knew that he was leaving his job, and did not care about the consequences of such a stand? It is hard to know.

Although I am a supporter of democracy, it feels strange for me to be saying that I am not such a great supporter of democracy for Egypt. The reason is not that I am anti-democracy, not even for the long-suffering Egyptians who may not be quite ready to confront this style of government. The reason is simply because of the uncertainty that the introduction of democracy in Egypt would bring to Israel. This is especially true if somebody like ElBaradei is crowned the new Pharaoh. At this time, when Israel is already fighting a war on two borders, a democratic Egypt is a scary prospect.

Friday 26 February 2010

Da Lieberman

Israel's foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, has been in the news a great deal recently. He has proved to be an outspoken and a divisive figure during his time in Israeli politics. Besides his public persona which has become better known in recent times, not a great deal is known about Avigdor Lieberman. I wish to use this opportunity to examine Lieberman in a bit more detail, particularly looking at the man behind the public figure.

Evet Lieberman was born in the former Soviet republic of Moldova in 1958. He immigrated to Israel with his family when he was 20 years old. Although he changed his name to Avigdor upon arrival in Israel and this is the name that he is officially known by, most of his associates still know him as Evet. Upon arrival in Israel, he served in the IDF Artillery Corps and then attended the Hebrew University of Jerusalem where he earned a BA degree in International Relations and Political Science.

Although he was active in political circles during his student days, his first major political break came when he was appointed as director-general of the Likud party in 1993 following the election of Bibi Netanyahu as the party's chairman. When Bibi was elected prime minister in 1996, it was natural that Evet would be the director-general of the prime minister's office.

It was in 1999 that Lieberman was first elected to the Knesset. He had founded the Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel is our home) party which catered mostly to the Russian immigrant community in Israel, and competed directly with Sharansky's Yisrael Ba'Aliyah party. In fact, Lieberman established the party to protest the way that Sharansky responded to the Wye Plantation negotiations, in which Netanyahu offered significant concessions to Arafat. Although Yisrael Ba'Aliyah achieved 6 seats in the Knesset as opposed to Yisrael Beiteinu's 4 seats, it was clear that Lieberman would present a major challenge to Sharansky and his party in the future.

After a short link-up with the National Union Party, Yisrael Beiteinu returned to fight the 2006 election on its own. The slogan "Da Lieberman" (Yes Lieberman) was used, showing two important facts. The first was the fact that the party was still focused on the Russian immigrant community. The second was the way in which Lieberman's personal appeal was viewed as being a vote-winner for the party. Many cynics made a play on the word "da", which is used in English slang as response to a statement which is stupid or obvious. In the event, it seems as if the tactics worked, as the party secured an increase to 11 seats in the Knesset.

Lieberman served as minister of national infrastructure and minister of tourism for short periods of time prior to the 2009 general election. In this election, his party attracted further support and emerged with 15 seats as the third largest party in the Knesset. As an important coalition partner, Lieberman was now able to demand and get, the foreign ministry portfolio for himself.

In truth, it is difficult to find a less diplomatic figure for the role of foreign minister, even in the very undiplomatic world of Israeli politics. I find the nomination of Lieberman to this post to be one which is detrimental to the cause of the State of Israel in the foreign community, especially at a time when international diplomacy is increasingly important. A number of recent gaffes, most notably the recent stand-off with Turkey, point to the damage that Lieberman is doing. He is wholly unsuitable for such a position.

Having said that, he does possess a number of virtues worthy of mention. His relationship with the Kremlin is an asset that needs to be carefully nurtured. Russia seems to be supporting Iran's nuclear and weapons aspirations, thereby bringing significant further risk to Israel and instability to the Middle East as a whole. Lieberman is the only senior Israeli with the sort of links to Moscow that may be able to change or divert this policy. Despite the fact that his efforts have not really borne any fruits to date, it is my view that this endeavour should be occupying most of Lieberman's time and efforts.

Evet is also willing to say the things that many Israelis would like to say, but are somewhat reluctant to express. One of his election platforms in 2009 was to deny Israeli citizenship from Arabs who are not loyal to the state. This is something that many Israelis believe in, although it is recognised that implementing such a policy may ultimately be more detrimental than helpful in the current state of Middle East politics. Lieberman has a following of right-wingers which far exceeds the community of former Russians that he focuses his election platforms on. He is also viewed as the protector of secular rights, and has been campaigning to open establishments on Shabbat and allow civil marriage in Israel. The religious camp, however, remains too strong at the current time for Lieberman to succeed in implementing such changes.

What is interesting about Lieberman when considering his right-wing views, is his attitude regarding the West Bank settlement of Nokdim where he has lived with his family since 1988. Lieberman is on record as saying that he would be prepared to vacate his home as part of a peace agreement. This may be viewed as somewhat surprising to those who view Lieberman as the epitome of the Israeli right-wing, which generally represents the attitude of hanging onto the West Bank almost at any price. It certainly shows a slightly different side to his right-wing views.

Despite Lieberman being labelled as something of a thug, I believe that people like Lieberman do have a place in Israeli politics. Although I feel that his place is not as minister of foreign affairs, it is Knesset seats that count when the portfolios are divided up. This sometimes dictates that people who are not the most suitable for the job will get it due to the power of their Knesset seats. Whilst I hope that he continues to speak his mind and to represent those that support his views, I also hope that the establishment is sensible enough to keep him on a short leash to prevent him from doing any damage to the land that he clearly loves dearly. Most of all, I hope that his efforts with Putin and Medvedev will be successful to take some of the intensity and instability out of the Middle East, and to prevent Russia from arming our enemies.

As an immigrant to Israel, Lieberman has certainly shown what immigrants to this country can achieve. Whether one agrees with his policies or not, one has to give him credit for his achievements under difficult circumstances.

Saturday 20 February 2010

The Money or The Box?

A new immigrant to Israel has many cultural changes and challenges to contend with. Many of these, such as the typical Israeli aggression and impatience, and the horrendous driving on the roads are fairly well documented. Due to the fact that these cultural changes are better-known, it is easier to prepare for them and to overcome them when they confront you. It is the less well publicised issues that somehow take longer to confront, and longer to overcome. I never expected that the issue of giving gifts at family celebrations would present such a challenge. Sometimes, life has some strange surprises in store for us.

The common practice adopted in my native South Africa is to give a gift, rather than a money present, on the occasion of a family celebration. The idea is that the gift should be carefully chosen to suit the recipient and to reflect the giver. Especially in the case of a wedding, the gift is designed to be something that will give the happy couple something of a start to set up their home and embark upon the path of married life. In the case of barmitzvah boys, this did not always produce the desired result in terms of the presents that they hoped for. For those people who may not have known the barmitzvah boy very well, a pen somehow always seemed to be an appropriate gift. I certainly received a few of them for my barmitzvah. Along with those, however, I received a number of gifts which I am still using today. They provide fond memories of my important day, as well as those people who gave them to me.

More recently especially for weddings, it has become common to set up gift registries at shops to avoid receiving unwanted gifts. The registry is advertised to all invitees and they are free to choose a gift from the register at the shop. This results in the happy couple receiving only what they want, and not receiving duplicates of any items.

The practice of gift-giving in Israel is, however, quite different. Here, it is expected that all invitees will give money gifts when invited to weddings and barmitzvahs. This may be understandable as money is, of course, something that is always needed and welcome. With the money, any items that are needed can be purchased and there are no issues with unwanted gifts or duplicates. As simple as this sounds, however, it presents its own set of issues and considerations. Most notably, there is always the question as to how much money is appropriate to give as a gift. We are told that the considerations are how close a friend or family member the person is, and how many members of your family will attend the function. There are also some people who believe that more money should be given if the function venue is a more expensive one. There always seems to be a danger of giving too little, or even too much money as a gift.

There is a problem with money - not everybody can afford what may be expected of them. Whereas with a gift, it is sometimes possible to give something which is more valuable than its cost, with money this is not possible. Sometimes a gift has a sentimental value or can be acquired at a significant discount which brings the recipient much greater value than its cost. So, where money is expected and an invitee cannot afford the amount that is expected, it happens frequently in Israel that people decide not to attend the function rather than embarrass themselves. This surely defeats that whole objective behind inviting people to a family function, and the giving of gifts?

I imagine that the giving of money gifts comes from a good place. In addition to the advantages of money gifts mentioned above, I can imagine that money gifts must in the past have had an importance for families wishing to celebrate an important event, but not having enough money to even put on the function. They would have been able to put on the function in the knowledge that many invitees would contribute money gifts equal to or greater than the cost of their meal. In this way, the party host could be sure of being able to pay for the function from the gifts, and even possibly having some over to keep for themselves. Even though many Israelis are thankfully not in the position of having to rely on money gifts to allow them to host a celebration function, the concept of using money to fund the cost of the party still persists.

This has been taken even further by viewing the celebration as a "business" project. The choice of where to hold the function and who to invite is increasingly being dictated by money considerations. The idea is to run the function at the best possible "profit". There are those who believe that hosting the function at a more expensive venue will generate better gifts. This is weighed up against those invitees who may decide not to come because the required gift is too expensive for them. It is also sometimes noticeable how many people are invited to functions, sometimes even people who are distant associates of the party hosts. I believe that all celebrants are entitled to host a function that will allow them to celebrate their happy occasion, even if this means using gift money to finance this. Turning the party into a business, however, seems to me to take be taking this practice too far.

I hold the view that, wherever possible, it is better to host a more modest function, but one which can be funded by those hosting the party without relying on gift money. This allows the guests to have the freedom to give gifts rather than money if this is their choice. It also allows the celebrants to have the gifts for themselves, rather than to be financing the celebration. In spite of the flexibility afforded by the receipt of money gifts, there is definitely a lot to be said for the giving of gifts that will allow the giver to be remembered in the future. It adds so much more sentimental value and meaning to the act of giving the gift. It also allows the personality and personal relationship of those giving the gift to be reflected.

Despite the fact that money gifts are generally expected of me when attending local functions, it still remains my personal preference to give a "real" gift. Maybe I am old-fashioned, and perhaps not sensitive enough to local customs. There are, however, some things from my past which I find very difficult to give up.

Thursday 18 February 2010

Murder in Dubai - the Plot Thickens

The fallout from the assassination of Hamas operative Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai continues to build. On Monday Dubai authorities released names and passport pictures of 11 suspects who they claim were involved in the hit on Mabhouh. Some of these names correspond in a way which is more than coincidental to those of recent immigrants to Israel. Today the Dubai police chief is on record as saying that he is 99% sure that Israel was behind the assassination. With each passing day, the Israeli Mossad is implicated more and more in the messy affair. Israel's Ambassador to the Court of St James', Ron Prossor, has been called in to the Foreign Office in London for a meeting that is expected not to be easy, and may have a negative effect on the good relations between London and Jerusalem. Similar meetings may also take place in other European capitals. It seems very difficult to make sense of all these events, and put them into some context. After having given the matter a great deal of thought, I believe that I have managed to internalise all that has taken place, and have reached some conclusions which I would like to share with you.

Mahmoud al-Mabhouh was assassinated in his Dubai hotel on 19th January 2010. He was a leading Hamas operative who had lived in Damascus for the past 30 years. He was involved in the capture and murder of two Israeli soldiers in 1989. He was reputed to be heavily involved in the shipment of arms from Iran to Hamas in Gaza. As such, it was immediately assumed that the assassination was a Mossad hit. There were allegations that Mabhouh had enemies in the Arab world, particularly in Jordan and Egypt. This fact, however, did not reduce the suspicion that the hit was carried out by Mossad. Even though it cannot be proved inconclusively that Mossad did carry out the hit, I am personally of the view that that assassination probably was a Mossad operation.

Mossad is one of the only secret service organisations around the world upon which the very existence of a country depends. There are few countries whose future and safety is challenged openly in international forums, and against which wars and terror attacks are constantly launched. The State of Israel owes a great debt to the fantastic work that Mossad has done on its behalf in the past, and continues to do now. Whilst some of Mossad's activities, successful and unsuccessful, have leaked out into the press and come to the attention of the general public, most of Mossad's work is not known. It is my contention that, without Mossad and its successes in the past, Israel would not be on the world map today.

I assess the success or failure of a mission in two parts. The first part is actually carrying out the mission that has been set. The second part is getting away with it without causing a major diplomatic incident for Israel. An example of a mission which passed both tests was the recent assassination of Imad Mugniyah in Damascus. The car bomb was detonated at the right time and the target was hit. The squad managed to get away without being caught or identified. Although Mossad was roundly accused of the hit (in my opinion correctly), Mossad has denied any involvement and there is little or no evidence to prove or disprove the accusation. This appears to have been perfectly planned, and perfectly executed.

A mission which was exactly the opposite was the attempted assassination of current Hamas chief Khaled Mashal in 1997. Not only did the mission carried out in Jordan fail in its objective, the operatives were captured creating a major diplomatic incident with Jordan. It is also resulted in the firing of Danny Yatom as the head of the Mossad.

This brings me to the current story. It seems like we have mixed success here. The objective of the mission was achieved. What is sure is that Mahmoud al-Mabhouh will not be able to attack Israel any longer, nor be able to murder any further Israelis or Jews. The second part of the mission - getting away without being caught - has been less successful. This part of the mission appears to still have some course to run before we know its final outcome.

Much has been written and said about the level of CCTV coverage in Dubai, which seems to have been a significant cause of the downfall of the hit team. Video clips are even available on YouTube showing operatives entering a toilet in a Dubai hotel, and then leaving a few minutes later in disguise. It seems obvious to all armchair pundits that Mossad should have taken the CCTV coverage into consideration. Perhaps this is true, although it is always easier to be an expert in hindsight. There are even those who believe that the actions were so amateurish, that they were purposefully undertaken by Mossad to fool people into believing that a professional organisation like Mossad could never have done this. This contention seems a little far-fetched to me.

The names used by the hit team, and the process of issuing their passports has also come under close scrutiny. The Dubai authorities routinely take copies of the passports of all tourists entering the country. This has allowed them to quickly identify the suspects. It is surprising that the team chose to use names of citizens of Israel who are recent immigrants. Any country has an obligation to protect the safety and security of its citizens, and it would appear as if Israel has not fulfilled her obligation to these individuals. It would be interesting to understand the reasoning for adopting this approach - I would like to believe that there was a good reason for choosing this path.

The act of issuing European passports to the hit team always risks the possibility of harming good relations with some of Israel's friends. Equally, the relationship with Dubai will not have been enhanced by actions carried out on Dubai soil. Although Israel does not have diplomatic relations with Dubai, a huge amount of effort has recently been invested by the two countries to try to develop economic activities that were designed to be a precursor to gradually implementing full diplomatic relations. This effort will undoubtedly be set back by the recent events.

From all of the above, it is clear that things could have been done better. More careful planning and greater sensitivity to important details could have avoided a great deal of embarrassment and unpleasantness for individual citizens of Israel, and for Israel's international relations. Despite this, I am happy that Mossad carried out this mission. Israel will be a safer place this week in the knowledge that Mabhouh can no longer do any further damage. I also suspect that Mabhouh's friends and counterparts in Hamas are more wary about continuing to try to undermine Israel's security than they were prior to his assassination. This can be no bad thing.

If the hit was a Mossad hit, I hope that this experience does not put Mossad off from continuing to be daring in the future. If the choice is to assassinate Mabhouh and suffer from diplomatic fallout or not assassinate Mabhouh, I would choose the first option. Perhaps this was also Mossad's reasoning. Sometimes, the opportunity to carry out a mission presents itself only once, and needs to be carried out despite the obvious risks. The failure of the Mashal mission has cost Israel dearly in terms of the damage that Mashal has done to Israel since the failed attempt on his life. Israel cannot afford to miss these chances, even if there may be diplomatic price to pay afterwards.

So, when looking at the big picture, I fully support Mossad's hit on Mabhouh no matter what the consequences. Of the two parts of each mission, the most important is the first part - succeeding in carrying out the objective. In this respect, Mossad has done its job. Having already given their approval to carry out the mission, we will now see if the politicians and diplomats can help to squeeze out of the problems that this has created. They are part of this team, and I hope that they can succeed in doing their job to clean up the fallout. No matter who was responsible for assassinating Mabhouh, Israelis can definitely be sleeping better at night.

Saturday 13 February 2010

Twenty Years Since Mandela's Release

I was following the recent events in South Africa to mark 20 years since Nelson Mandela was released from Victor Verster prison on that fateful day in February1990. For South Africa, there can be no doubt that this day will go down in history as one of the most significant, if not THE most significant, in its history. I have the feeling that I have grown up with the young multi-racial South Africa, albeit from a slight distance.

The 20 year celebration brought a ton of personal memories flooding back for me. I remember so clearly the day that President FW De Klerk announced that he was unbanning the ANC, and that he would be releasing Mandela from prison. Rumours had circulated all day about the importance of the announcement that De Klerk would be making on TV that evening. When the announcement came, few South Africans could have been prepared for the enormity of its contents. It seemed to me to be a sudden change of direction from the policies that had been pursued in the preceding years. There was no gradual build-up to the dramatic political change. In current political terminology, it would be called a "turn-around" of the most extreme kind. I suppose I would have preferred it if there had been some warning about the events that were on the verge of unfolding in order to allow us to prepare ourselves for them.

Growing up in apartheid South Africa proved to be challenging for a Jewish kid in a small town. Even though it was clear that the apartheid system was not just or democratic, it is tough for people born into such a situation to differentiate. It was all that I knew and, by virtue of that fact, I grew to accept it as such. Despite this fact, I found my years at the University of Cape Town during the mid and late eighties to be quite tumultuous. Universities are inevitably highly politicised and liberal environments, and South African universities were a dramatic hotbed of anti-apartheid activity during the final years of apartheid. It is also true that the eighties proved to be particularly volatile years in the history of South Africa. My memories of politics on the university campus include a combination of undercover security agents spying on all activities, daily anti-government protests, lengthy detentions without trial and a general air of defiance and protest. Even though I was more focused on earning my degree, I could not avoid being affected by the general environment which prevailed on the campus and around the country. The security services seemed to have free reign to do almost as they pleased in depressing anti-government protest. Many protesters were arrested, detained for lengthy periods without trial and even killed by the forces in their attempts to do the impossible and quell the uprising. It was against this background that the sudden announcement of Mandela's release was received.

After giving a short period for the South African public to consume this huge change to the political landscape, a date was set for Mandela's release from prison. A massive welcoming gathering was arranged on Cape Town's Grand Parade. I remember sitting in my apartment on Sunday 11th February 1990 with our television tuned into the live feed from the prison showing the latest exciting developments. Through my lounge window, I could hear the noise of the expectant crowd awaiting Mandela's arrival at the Grand Parade. I decided that these events were too significant for me to be watching on my television, when I was only a stone's throw from live history in the making. The delay in Mandela's release from prison and arrival at the welcoming party allowed me sufficient time to get to the Parade to witness the unfolding events. It is a moment that will live with me forever.

Six months after these events, Janene and I left South Africa. This means that we have lived out of South Africa for almost as long as Mandela has been out of prison. The 20 years that have gone by have been as significant in our personal lives as they have been for South Africa. We have learned a great deal about survival, raising children and searching for our own identities. South Africa has similarly been through a "growing up" process by learning to cope with a new fully-democratic and multi-racial environment.

Hearing that 20 years have passed since these events brought me to a realisation as to how long ago I left South Africa. The truth is that, although I have found happiness and a real belonging living in the Jewish homeland, I can never get away from my South African roots. And I am not seeking to escape from them as they represent much about who I am as a person, and the values that I hold. The memories of my childhood days in rural South Africa are still very fresh in my mind, and feel like they occurred only yesterday. They will continue to be a very important part of me in my future as well.

Now that Mandela has all but completed his journey in helping to determine South Africa's future, it is clear that South Africa has a long path yet to tread. Even from my new homeland, I will continue to take a keen and active interest in all that happens in South Africa, and I will be willing her and her citizens every success in the future. Viva Africa.

Saturday 6 February 2010

Which is the Road to Damascus?

The recent escalation in rhetoric on both sides of the Israeli-Syrian border has, once again, raised the profile of the relationship between the two countries. Defence Minister Ehud Barak told a gathering of senior IDF officers last week that, in the absence of a peace deal, Israel could find itself at war with Syria. Syrian Foreign Minister, Walid Moallem, responded by saying that an attack on Syria would result in an all-out war. Israeli Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman warned that a war with Syria would result in the Syrian President, Bashar Assad, losing power. All of this seems such a far cry from 2008 when peace talks were being conducted between Israel and Syria via the offices of the Turkish mediators. What has changed so dramatically in two short years? Like many other aspects of Middle East politics, I believe that the answer has everything to do with Iran.

Iran has long been a key player in regional politics. It was in 1984, only 5 years after the overthrow of the Shah, that Iran was designated for the first time as a state sponsor of terrorism by the US. As the main sponsor of groups such as Hezbollah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the al-Mahdi army, there can be no doubt that Iran is one of the world's most significant state sponsors of terrorism. It was one of the country's on President George W. Bush's "axis of evil", and with good reason. More recently, Iranian President Ahmadinejad has upped the ante by calling for Israel's destruction at every opportunity. Iran's continued threats along with its importance as a significant producer of oil mean that Iran is likely to continue to greatly influence Middle East politics in the near future.

On the face of things, Syria and Iran seem to have very little in common. Iran is a theocracy while Syria is secular. Iran is largely made up of Persians and Shiite Muslims while Syria is mostly comprised of Sunni Muslims. They do not share a border, although they do share Iraq and Turkey as neighbours. Behind the scenes, however, they have a great deal in common. Economically, Syria is drawn to its regional ally. In its position as a "pariah" state, Syria is forced to create economic links with all that will agree to have economic ties with her. As Syria's oil production declines and, eventually runs out, there is no doubt that Syria will be looking to Iran as a way to fill the gap that this creates in the local market. The main point that the two countries have in common is political - hatred of Israel. It is this fact that has drawn the two countries together over the years, a bond that currently seems to be stronger than ever. For Iran, Syria is vital in this link as Syria has a direct land border with Israel. This is even more pronounced when considering the control that Syria exercises over the Hezbollah forces in Southern Lebanon. Even though Iranian missiles could easily reach Israeli soil, a direct land invasion of Israel would require access via one of Israel's neighbours. Syria and Lebanon provide this access for Iran.

When Turkey offered the chance to engage with Syria, Israel smelled an important opportunity to try to drive a wedge between Syria and Iran. The chance to isolate Syria from Iran and prise it out of Iranian clutches appears to have been the main driving force behind Israel's most recent attempts to negotiate a peace deal with Syria. There can be little doubt that such an agreement would weaken Iran's access to Israel and, with it, the significant threat that Iran continues to pose to Israel.

For Syria, the decision whether to change the strategy that it has pursued against Israel for more than 60 years is not easy. The insult that Syrians continue to feel as a result of Israel having taken the Golan Heights during the Six Day War in 1967 seems to be a significant factor in shaping its foreign policy towards Israel. The optimism that was felt in western circles when Bashar Assad took over from his father in 2000 has largely not been borne out. Even though Dr. Bashar was viewed as more progressive than his father, and with a higher likelihood of guiding Syria towards closer links with the west, this has not happened. Syria can choose to keep close with Iran, keep sponsoring terror organisations and continue its relatively close links within the Arab world. Its alternative is to pursue a peace agreement with Israel and gain favour with the US and other western countries. Economically, the second is likely to be a much better option for Syria. Added to the fact that Syria and Iran are not comfortable bed partners, this is not beyond the realms of reality. Politically, however, Syria does not seem ready for this right now.

In the absence of being able to entice Syria away from its Iranian sponsor, there seems to be only one other way in which Dr. Bashar can be tempted towards closer western ties. This is to hope that Ahmadinejad can be unseated and that economic hardships in Iran will force it to give up its links with Syria (and hopefully, with it, the sponsorship of international terrorism). Until then, Syria will continue to warmonger and insult Israel in the knowledge that Iran stands right behind these threats. After all, Syria knows that, militarily, it is no match for Israel. Military threats will remain just that until Iran decides it wishes to take further action.

For Israel, any peace agreement with Syria must clearly require ties with Iran to be broken, and the cessation of the support of terrorist organisations. This is obviously in addition to the other more issues of the Golan Heights, water resources, military ceasefire and others. The real advantage to Israel of any peace with Syria is the cutting off of Iran's supply route to its terror organisations. It is this issue that is driving Israel's efforts to reach a peace with Assad's regime. With the presence of Lieberman in the Israeli government and Dr. Bashar on the Syrian side, this seems unlikely to happen any time soon.

100 Up and Plenty to Come

Having started to write blogs in mid July 2008, I am happy to celebrate this, the occasion of my 100th blog. It has turned out that I have more to say than I originally anticipated.

I started out writing my blogs as a personal therapy more than anything else. It was a way to channel my views on various subjects in a more organised fashion, and to allow an outlet for my strong views. Now, having written 100 blogs, I can honestly say that I have really enjoyed the discipline of researching various subjects linked to the Middle East and Jewish issues, and have learned a great deal in the process. Not only has the blog allowed me to convey my view to others, it has also afforded me the chance to reinforce my own views for myself.

Although my writing is only a hobby, it has progressed to the point where I am also publishing my articles on another Jewish blog site - The Israel Situation. In addition, I do a weekly radio slot on the South African Jewish radio station, Chai FM, where I broadcast the Israel Update each Tuesday afternoon. I thoroughly enjoy this and find it very rewarding.

Living in the Middle East and taking an active interest in Jewish affairs around the world, I am fortunate that I am not at a loss for subjects to write about. Judging by the way in which local politics is progressing, it seems like I will have a great deal more to write about - hopefully more of it positive in nature.

I wish to thank all those who are regular readers of my blog and listeners to my radio broadcast. Your support is greatly appreciated. Don't forget that your feedback is always welcome, whatever form it takes.

Special thanks go to my long suffering family who enthusiastically read what I write, listen to my broadcasts, act as my sounding board and editorial committee and are always a fantastic support to me.

There is a great deal more to come yet !! I hope that you will all keep reading and listening with me.