Sunday 30 May 2010

Are the Settlements an Obstacle to Peace?

I recently read an interview with Professor Alan Dershowitz that was published in the Jerusalem Post. Dershowitz has been a very vocal defender of Israel in his native USA, and has been particularly outspoken in his criticism of fellow juror, Judge Richard Goldstone, and the UN report into Operation Cast Lead that he authored. I could closely identify with most of the sentiments expressed by Dershowitz in the interview. One view that he expressed, however, gave me cause for a greater thought and reflection.

Dershowitz describes himself as "making the 80% case for Israel". By this, he means that he does not blindly support everything that Israel does, and the policies that the Israeli government pursues. In particular, he is opposed to the settlements. Although he is opposed to returning to the pre-'67 lines (especially relinquishing the Old City of Jerusalem and the Kotel), he makes no bones about his opposition to maintaining civilian settlements in the West Bank. The issue of the settlements has been on the forefront of all criticisms directed at Israel by the Palestinians and Israel's enemies over many years. It has been held up as the main obstacle to peace in the Middle East.

Over the years, I have regarded this criticism by the Palestinians in the same way as I have regarded other accusations levelled against Israel - an attempt to discredit Israel in the Palestinian pursuit to completely destroy the Jewish state. The settlement issue has been an additional and important bow in their quiver. When Dershowitz raised the issue of the settlements as something that he cannot support, it caused me to give the issue a second and deeper consideration.

Judea and Samaria (the so-called West Bank) were captured along with East Jerusalem, Sinai, Gaza and the Golan Heights during the 1967 Six Day War. The war was launched by Israel as a pre-emptive strike on the forces of Egypt, Jordan and Syria when Israel was on the verge of being attacked by these countries in an attempt to destroy her. The land that was captured during the war was regarded as an essential expansion of Israel's modest territory, thereby creating more distance between Israel's hostile Arab neighbours and the most populous part of Israel. Although East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights were formally annexed following the war, the remaining captured lands were not. Some attribute this decision to the demographic problem that annexation would have created for Israel, due to the large number of Arab inhabitants in the newly captured areas.

Following the 1967 war, successive Israeli governments have pursued a policy of establishing Jewish settlements in the West Bank in order to strengthen the security buffer between central Israel and the Arab enemies. This objective, and the building of settlements in pursuit of the objective, are entirely logical under the circumstances and can easily be defended. Only those who wish to see Israel destroyed, or those trying to destroy her would accept an argument that this additional land has not added to the security of Israel.

The policy of establishing settlements has also created its fair share of problems. It has been the root of many conflicts between the Arab residents of the West Bank and their Jewish neighbours, due to disagreements over the legal ownership over individual pieces of land. This, in turn, has been the source of many international diplomatic incidents. Jews have been accused of taking over land that is owned by private Arab individuals, or taking land which denies access to Arab-owned land. The army has been called out on more than one occasion when fights have broken out over olive groves, which provide vital income in an area which has otherwise little economic activity. There can be no doubt that the Arabs have used an uncertain situation to their advantage in creating diplomatic incidents and negative publicity for Israel. There is also no doubt that Jewish settlers have frequently overstepped their lines, and the government and the army has been forced to dismantle unauthorised settlements more than once.

The fact that Jewish settlers have behaved in a way that cannot be supported by their own government and army has certainly contributed to weakening the Israeli claim to its continued presence in the West Bank. This has allowed the Palestinians to exploit the situation to capture the hearts and minds of many governments and private individuals around the world. Most importantly, successive US governments have pressurised Israel to abandon its policy of settling the West Bank. Along with this view, it is also clear to me that unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank, similar to what was done in Gaza, will only relocate the border conflicts nearer to the heart of Israel. It will certainly not magically create a fix for the Middle East conflict. Although there may be some Palestinians who would be completely satisfied if Israel withdrew from the West Bank, most of them would only feel satisfied if this withdrawal was accompanied by a withdrawal from Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa, Netanya and the rest of Israel.

For now, maintaining an Israeli presence in the West Bank means that Israel is able to ensure that the border conflict is kept to the periphery of the country, and away from the main part of the country. This is vital for the safety of Israel. Leaving the West Bank will not bring any magical solution for peace, so there seems little reason to do so. In fact, it may create significantly more problems for Israel by putting its population at more risk. In the event that a comprehensive peace can be achieved, I would personally not oppose relinquishing the West Bank. This would only be in the context of a binding and comprehensive peace (if, in fact, such a thing exists). Having said that, I do understand the argument of those who oppose any land for peace arrangements. Their valid question is, what will happen if the peace is broken? Do we get the land back? For now, the Israeli government is taking the middle of the road approach which is not to relinquish any parts of the West Bank, but also not to actively create new settlements.

I can fully understand Dershowitz's 80% case that he is making for Israel. With such widespread opposition to Israel's continued presence in the West Bank, and with the ongoing attempts by Jewish settlers to act against the Israeli government and army, it is clearly difficult for him to defend this in the US. By defending the West Bank presence, he is in danger of discrediting and diluting the message of the other 80% which he wishes to promote. On balance, I think that his approach is probably the right one. At least he is able to convincingly promote an 80% message which Israel desperately needs. Israel needs more people like Alan Dershowitz in the USA to intelligently make the 80% case.

Saturday 22 May 2010

Israeli-Style Democracy for the UK

The long- awaited elections in the United Kingdom (UK) have taken place, and the electorate has spoken - or not. While politicians on both sides of the political divide have tried to convince us that the nation decided that it does not want any party to dominate the political scene for the next parliament, I find this explanation difficult to swallow. I am not sure how voters, when casting their votes, can have in mind that they do not wish one party or another to come out as a clear winner. Indeed, when I have cast my vote in the past, it has always been my hope that my chosen party will come out the clear winner, and I am sure that most other voters feel the same way. The more logical explanation to the outcome of the election is that none of the parties were able to convince sufficient numbers of voters to vote for them in order to gain the required majority. And so it is that the UK will have to live with the consequences of indecision for the life of the next parliament.

A coalition government is usually the territory of countries like Germany, Italy and Israel, and not the UK. In fact, it is quite seldom that a country with a first-past-the-post constituency electoral system has a coalition government. The countries who have become accustomed to operating with coalition governments on a regular basis are mostly those with proportional representation (PR) electoral systems. Living in a country whose elections over 60 years have never resulted in overall control being given to any party, I have found the confusion in the UK to be somewhat amusing. What is most amusing is that opinion polls have long predicted that an election would deliver no overall control, yet the public and the politicians seemed so unprepared for it when the result was delivered.

For a country which last had a situation of no overall control in 1974, and its last coalition government in 1945, the UK is into new political territory. As soon as the coalition discussions were initiated, we started to see the shuk-style negotiations that are only too familiar to Israelis. Nick Clegg and his Liberal-Democrats realised that they hold more power than their 62 seats or 22% of the national vote justify. He had no problem negotiating simultaneously with both the Tories and Labour to see where he could do better. Ultimately, it was the Tory leader David Cameron who seems to have come up with the goods for the Lib-Dems. So it is the leader of the party with 62 seats out of a total of 650 who is the UK's new Deputy Prime Minister. More than this, he has succeeded in ensuring that a number of policy issues, which are far from the Tory priorities, will be included in those matters to be addressed during the upcoming parliament. It feels so much like the minority religious parties in Israel who succeed in commanding way more than their support justifies, and have no qualms about going into a coalition with anybody who is prepared to pay a higher price.

It is perhaps ironic that the current electoral system will be one of the issues that will be up for discussion at the behest of the Lib-Dems. Had a PR electoral system been in place for the 2010 election, the Liberal Democrats would have gained closer to 145 seats rather than their current haul of 62. It is clear why they wish to reform the electoral system and implement PR as a matter of the highest priority. The implementation of this electoral system is, however, likely to create less stability rather than greater stability in future governments, as the prospect of no overall control under a PR system is far greater than under a constituency system.

For now, it appears to be "happy families" between the Tories and Lib-Dems. Smiling faces and presentation of agreements on coalition and government policies are the order of the day. I feel sure that this will all change when the first real test arises, and members of government are called upon to vote against their instinct and underlying beliefs in the interests of supporting the coalition agreement. I have a feeling that the issue of budget cuts will be the first one to rear the ugly head of the bad side of coalition agreements. Time will tell.

Despite the current positive appearance of the coalition government, it is my view that this coalition will go the way of many others before it. By this, I mean that it will not see out the full term of the parliament, or even near to the full term of the parliament. I predict that UK voters will be called to another general election before the end of 2011. If the Lib-Dems succeed in pushing through the adoption of a PR electoral system without special checks and balances by then, this will spell disaster for the stability of the UK electoral system.

The lesson is clear for the UK that can be passed on by other countries which have had years of coalition governments due to no overall control being achieved by one party or another. Be cautious not to allow small, niche-interest parties to extract more than their fair share in exchange for propping up a coalition government. These compromises have cost Israel dear in political and economic terms. The same is true of other countries, and there is the threat that the UK could also pay a heavy price if the government is forced to give in to its own niche-interest groups.

The UK is already reeling from the outfall of the expenses scandal which revealed the extent to which parliamentarians were abusing the expenses system. Perhaps a short parliament is what the UK needs right now to limit the damage that the coalition can cause. In this way, a new election can be called which will deliver the overall control needed to get back into the traditional style of Westminster governments.

Monday 17 May 2010

The Start of a Nation

The Jewish festival of Shavuot (Weeks/Pentecost) that will be celebrated during this week marks the occasion when the Children of Israel received the Ten Commandments on their way from slavery in Egypt towards the promised land.

The festival has many themes that are associated with it, the dominant one being the significance of receiving the Ten Commandments and, as it is believed, the Torah. This is considered a covenant between G-d and the Jewish people, and is likened to a marriage between the two.

According to the descriptions of the event at Mount Sinai, the entire “nation” was gathered to ensure that each and every member of the congregation was present to personally witness G-d revealing himself, and the receipt of the Torah. This was something that could not be relayed second-hand – everybody had to see it for themselves.

This gathering of all the Children of Israel was a one-time event in history, and also marks the moment upon which the Children of Israel became a nation. So, contrary to popular opinion, the nation of Israel was not created in 1948 when the State of Israel was declared, the nation was created many years before this and even before the arrival in the promised land.

The Israeli nation has survived almost 5,000 years since its creation on that day in the shadows of Mount Sinai. It has survived periods during which we lived in the Jewish homeland, and periods in exile, periods of persecution and discrimination, and periods of relative peace and tranquillity. The one thing that has never been lost or forgotten is the connection to the Ten Commandments and to the Torah which was also established on that day. This is the glue that has stuck the nation together through thick and thin, and has ensured that the nation has remained intact over all those years.

After the Torah, the next most enduring symbol to the Jewish people over the generations has been the link to the Land of Israel. It is not coincidental that the Jews were en route to the Land of Israel when the nation was created and when the Torah was given. For forty years, the Children of Israel sojourned in the desert and did not rest until they finally reached the promised land. For those people, the route to the promised land was arduous and unforgiving. Despite this fact, they never gave up on their yearning to finally be able to set up a permanent establishment when they reached the Land of Israel.

For Jews of today, the route to the promised land is much easier. In most cases, a simple El Al flight is enough to get you there. Nobody will be forced to eat manna along the way, and there is certainly no need to wander in the desert for forty years. The irony is that more people seemed to want to make it when it required greater effort. Now that the effort is considerably less (aside from the cost of an air ticket), there seems to be less desire to fulfil this magical journey than before.

Despite this fact, Israel is a real miracle that has attracted many millions of Jews who have made the decision to live here. Like most other countries, it has its problems to confront. But overall, it is a country that has a real vibrancy about it, and which reflects its Jewish values and heart to all its inhabitants.

This Shavuot, when tucking into your cheesecake or hearing the reading of the Book of Ruth, spare a thought for the moment when a nation was created. This nation continues to live, and to thrive in the Land of Israel, the land that is central to all that Jews stand for. Even though we seek peace with our neighbours, and may even be prepared to accept a two-state solution in our attempt to create peace, it should be clear that the State of Israel will always be a Jewish state, and will be defended by Jews under all circumstances. We are not about to throw away 5,000 years worth of history.

Tuesday 11 May 2010

Celebrating Jerusalem

Wednesday this week sees the minor holiday of Yom Yerushalayim (Jerusalem Day). It is not a holiday that is widely celebrated, and there will be many Jewish communities around the world that may not even be aware of the holiday. In Israel, and particularly in the capital city, the day will be celebrated as one of the happiest days of the year. This is the day which, in 2010, marks 43 years since the holy city of Jerusalem was reunified and installed as the undivided capital of Israel and the Jewish people.

The pictures that are synonymous with the famous victory achieved by the Israeli forces in the Six Day War show celebrations and tears at the Western Wall when it was restored to Israeli control. The feeling of being so near to the holiest site in Judaism, and being prevented from approaching it during the years of Jordanian rule over East Jerusalem, proved to be very difficult for Jews. The ability to touch the wall after the victory in 1967, the same wall that formed part of the outer borders of Herod’s Temple, was unsurprisingly the focal point of the celebration. This place and this city has been the object of Jewish prayers and yearning for almost 2,000 years during the period of exile. Finally returning it to Jewish hands brought about scenes of jubilation and unbridled joy.

During the nearly 20 years of Arab rule over East Jerusalem and the Temple Mount, no access to the holiest Jewish site was allowed to Jews. During the same period, there was no attempt to declare this the capital of any Palestinian State or the capital of any other country. The claims that Jerusalem be the capital of a country other than the Jewish State were only initiated well after East Jerusalem was returned to Jewish hands, and the united city of Jerusalem proclaimed as the eternal capital of Israel. When the opportunity was presented to proclaim Jerusalem as the capital of an Arab country, there was no interest in doing so. It is, therefore, hardly surprising that there is a great deal of scepticism around the claims by the Palestinians that Jerusalem be the capital of a Palestinian state.

When considering that Muslims have been allowed access to their holy sites in Jerusalem under Israeli rule and the Waqf council headed by the King of Jordan has jurisdiction over Muslim holy sites, there seems to be little reason for Palestinians to claim Jerusalem as their capital city. Despite this fact, the Palestinians have made the issue of Jerusalem one of the cornerstones of their claims against Israel. The now on-again proximity talks with US mediation will focus on 5 core issues, which include the claim by the Palestinians to have East Jerusalem as the capital of a Palestinian state.

The extent to which the claim to Jerusalem is really so important is brought into question by the actions of Yasser Arafat at the Camp David summit with Prime Minister Ehud Barak in 2000, under the mediation of US President Bill Clinton. At that famous meeting, Arafat rejected the generous proposals made by Barak to him. These proposals, which would most likely have been rejected by the Israeli electorate had they had the chance to vote on them, were still not enough for Arafat. Is the claim to Jerusalem to be regarded as a genuine desire to have the holy city as a Palestinian capital, or is it simply part of the strategy to expel the Jews from Jerusalem and Israel? I am forced to believe the latter.

During the course of the current round of proximity talks, it is my hope that prime minister Netanyahu will not be fooled by the tactics employed by the Palestinians. Despite my scepticism regarding the true intentions of the Palestinians, I am a supporter of the two-state solution which allows for the establishment of a Palestinian state for the Palestinian people. This does not, however include gifting any part of Jerusalem to this Palestinian state. The prime minister does not have a remit from his electorate to give any part of Jerusalem to the Palestinians. Jerusalem was annexed soon after the 1967 war (as opposed to the West Bank which remains under military rule) in order to send a clear message that an undivided Jerusalem will always be the capital of the Jewish state. This message needs to be resent loudly and clearly. The Palestinian headquarters are currently established in Ramallah, and there seems to be no conceivable reason why this should not continue to serve as a capital of a Palestinian state in the future.

This week on Yom Yerushalayim, not only will we be celebrating events of the past, we will also be considering what the future holds for the holy city. One thing is for sure, the right of Jews to visit the holiest site in Judaism can never be compromised. This is a minimum. The truth is that giving any part of Jerusalem will not be acceptable. My prayer is that we can reach an agreement with the Palestinians to allow them to establish a state without having to cede any part of Jerusalem to this state. I also pray that this state will agree to live alongside Israel in peace and mutual respect. Is this too much to expect?

Sunday 9 May 2010

Goldstone and the Barmitzvah

The furore surrounding the barmitzvah of Judge Richard Goldstone's grandson, and whether or not his famous grandfather will attend, has again catapulted Goldstone into the news. I have previously written about the Goldstone Report into Israel's war in Gaza in the blog "The Goldstone Farce". I was outraged, angry and let down by Goldstone's agreement to head up the UN Fact Finding Commission on the Gaza Conflict by the Human Rights Commission. I was even more outraged by his investigation, and the resulting report which he produced. This feeling has not subsided over the months that have passed since his report was published. I feel that he has done the State of Israel irreparable damage in the pursuit of his own personal objectives.

When it was made public that the barmitzvah would take place at the Sandton Synagogue, I was most interested in the reaction by the South African Jewish community. My understanding is that the South African Zionist Federation (SAZF) spoke out against his attendance of the barmitzvah, and the judge decided with his family that he would not attend in order to spare embarrassment and inconvenience on all sides. After a few additional days of consultations and negotiations involving the SAZF, the synagogue, the Jewish Board of Deputies (the umbrella body representing South African Jews) and the Goldstone family, a compromise situation was reached in terms of which Goldstone would attend the event.

I feel in two minds about the whole situation. On the one hand, I was pleased to see the South African Jewish community finally take a public stand against a man who has behaved incredibly badly. In objective terms, he took on a brief that was openly anti-Israel, a brief that even non-Jews were not prepared to accept. He represented an organisation, the UNHRC, which has a history of adopting an anti-Israel position over many years and which has passed more resolutions condemning Israel than any other country. He has leant unjustified credibility to the organisation and to the brief by allowing outsiders to say that his report represents the point of view of a Jew. As a Jew, he has caused undeniable damage to Israel, and so to Jews around the world. As a respected South African jurist and member of the Jewish community, I believe that the members of the community have a right and a responsibility to speak out against him and his damaging actions, and to show their displeasure.

On the other hand, however, I feel that creating a situation where a grandfather is unable to attend the barmitzvah of his grandson is not the correct way to demonstrate displeasure. While it is true that a synagogue is a public place which is representative of the community and its wishes, it is also a place where personal and family events and rites of passage are celebrated. No Jew has the right to prevent another Jew from celebrating a right which is prescribed by the Torah, and is part of the relationship between man and G-d. The action by the community of acting in a way which prevents a family member from attending a family event in a public place represents a dangerous precedent. Does this mean that we should evaluate the history of every father or grandfather before allowing him to attend the barmitzvah, batmitzvah or wedding of his child or grandchild? Which transgressions are acceptable, and which cannot be tolerated? Do the claims have to be independently proved, or is here-say and gossip enough to prevent them from attending? All of a sudden, many issues come into play which should not form part of the considerations involved in allowing a somebody to attend a family rite of passage. The synagogue is a place of prayer, learning and a meeting house for all members of the community, all done in the sanctification of G-d's name. Where the relationship between G-d and man is concerned, there is no room for judgements to be passed by other men, many of whom have their own missteps to answer for. Judaism teaches us that each man will be called to account for his actions on his day of judgement. Until then, it is the responsibility of other members of the community to behave in a way that will allow them to answer for their actions when their own day of judgement arrives.

Even though I am happy that Goldstone was ultimately able to attend the barmitzvah and I feel that the sense prevailed within the community, he should not be allowed to get away entirely scot-free. If I was the SAZF, I would call a community meeting of protest to the Goldstone report. I would be fair to the judge and invite him to attend to present his position. I would also invite a speaker, perhaps a senior Israeli, to present the contrary view which makes clear the damage done by his report to Israel and the wider Jewish community. Hopefully, the judge would be able to hear first-hand how much damage he has caused by his actions. In short, the South African community should use the publicity and outrage generated by the barmitzvah story to encourage the community to speak out against Goldstone as much as possible.

It seems as if any personal aspirations that Judge Goldstone felt he might be able to promote by agreeing to head up the fact-finding commission have been dashed. We can at least take some comfort from that fact. Hopefully, the furore surrounding his report will also prevent him from taking on further similar positions which could cause additional damage in the future. The power that he has provided to anti-Israel groups and to anti-Semites around the world can sadly not be reversed. For this, he will always be responsible. In the meantime, I hope that the South African community continue to make their displeasure felt to Goldstone and those around him. I would also like to add my mazaltov to the barmitzvah boy.