Monday 26 December 2011

Gender Segregation Pushed Too Far

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Despite many indications that Israel is a country that appears to promote gender equality more than most other countries around the world, there have been worrying signs of greater gender segregation creeping into some aspects of Israeli society recently.  Israel's Golda Meir was only the third female prime minister in the world, and Israeli women are required to serve in the Israeli army in the same way as their male counterparts.  These are all indications of Israel's progressive approach to women.  Yet this is the same country which closes off entire streets to the use of women, and requires them to sit at the back of the bus while their male counterparts sit at the front.

Ultra-Orthodox groups in Jerusalem and elsewhere around Israel, have been increasingly trying to enforce greater gender segregation.  There is also already fairly strict gender segregation enforced in ultra-Orthodox neighbourhoods such as Jerusalem's Mea Shearim.  This is tolerable inasmuch as those who are subject to the segregation, are those who subscribe to it.  For the people living in Mea Shearim, gender segregation is part of their belief system and lifestyle.  Women are raised with this from birth, attend separate schools and are readied to take on separate traditional roles in the home and society.  Visitors to Mea Shearim know that this is the way in which things work in this neighbourhood, and are invited to stay away if this is objectionable to them.

The problem arises when supporters of gender segregation allow this to creep out into the general public, thereby affecting those who do not subscribe to it.  This has already long been the case in Jerusalem, with advertisers refusing to show images of women on buses and billboards for fear of them being defaced by ultra-Orthodox protestors.  Despite a court order prohibiting gender segregation in specific streets, even in ultra-Orthodox neighbourhoods, residents of Mea Shearim set up separation barriers on Mea Shearim Street and Shivtei Yisrael Street during the recent Succot holiday.  The hard-line Toldot Aharon Hassidic sect were holding events relating to the holiday on locations in these streets, and were prohibiting women from approaching even near to these locations.

Two recent events have brought the gender segregation to a head, and have forced politicians and religious leaders to speak out on the issue.  The first event was a walkout of a military ceremony by religious soldiers when women soldiers began to sing at the ceremony.  The protestors subscribe to the so-called "kol isha" prohibition, which forbids males from hearing women sing.  The IDF's general staff has refused to back down on this issue.  The protesting soldiers were not given permission to leave the ceremony , and have been disciplined for their behaviour.  The military authorities have refused to heed calls to ban singing by women in future ceremonies.  This has brought the military into direct conflict with some ultra-Orthodox groups.

The second incident took place on a bus that was designated as a gender-separate service, something that has become more popular in Israel in recent years.  This means that women are required to sit at the back of the bus, while their male counterparts get to sit in the front.  Upon entering the bus, Tanya Rosenblit was requested by one of the religious males to sit in the ladies' section at the bank.  In a protest which was reminiscent of the actions by Rosa Parks in Montgomery, Alabama in the 1950s, Tanya refused to relocate to the back of the bus.  This sparked a stand-off in which the bus was halted and the police called.  In a statement after the incident, Rosenblit said that she had shown respect by dressing modestly because she knew she was going into a religious area.  She refused, however, to be humiliated by being forced to sit at the back of the bus.  She has taken on a somewhat heroic status in the eyes of many, by being prepared to stand up to the religious coercion, something that few women have been prepared to do.

Israeli Chief Rabbi, Yona Metzger, came out recently saying that religious people are entitled to live their lives as they see fit, but they have no right to impose their views on the general public and in public areas.  Prime Minister Netanyahu announced at the Sunday morning cabinet meeting that Israel is a liberal democracy, and that public spaces are made available to men and women to use equally in a safe and open way.  The police will arrest those who spit, raise their hand or harass others.  These statements will sadly have no bearing at all on those who perpetrate gender segregation.  They do not respect these leaders, nor take note of anything they say.  They subscribe only to the leadership of the rabbinical leaders of their sects, and will only be guided by their statements.

It is ironic that these events take place at the same time that it is announced that no fewer than 5 female pilots and navigators, the most ever, will graduate from this year's air force flight instruction course.  It is only 16 short years since Alice Miller succeeded in challenging the prohibition on women being admitted to the flight instruction course.  Since then, many women have graduated from this course to serve their country with great distinction.  This year, 5 more women will join their distinguished ranks.  This is closer to the Israel that most of us know, a country which does support the equality of women in our society and which does encourage women to play a full role.

Despite the insistence by religious groups to enforce greater gender segregation and become more extreme in their views and actions, it seems unlikely that the greater public and the politicians will tolerate this.  While this does not mean that religious groups will be forced to dilute their religious observance, it simply means that they will be forced to limit their extreme views to their own environments, while allowing others to live their lives without being dictated to.  Surely this is the correct answer.

Monday 19 December 2011

The Apple Never Falls Far From the Tree

Many were taken by surprise last week when it was announced that the Apple Corporation has decided to open a development centre in Israel.  The main reason for the surprise, is the fact that Apple's strategy to date has been to centralise all of its development effort at its corporate headquarters in Cupertino, California.  The Israeli development centre will be the first one that Apple will open outside of the Cupertino headquarters.  Has this new step been enabled by the recent departure and demise of former Apple CEO and icon, Steve Jobs?  Perhaps so.  Upon closer examination, however, it becomes clear that the direction in which new CEO Tim Cook is taking the company, is not far removed from the strategy which Jobs pursued so successfully prior to his death.

Apple's meteoric rise in recent years has largely been driven by the innovation of its range of new products.  This has not been the only contributing factor to Apple's success.  In addition to bucking the trend by developing products and features which are different and exciting in a world which is oversupplied by all manner of electronic goods, Apple has also succeeded in achieving gross profit margins in excess of 40% on its sales.  This is far higher than its peer group of hardware vendors.  The way that Apple has achieved this, is by taking full control of its supply chain.  This has not necessarily required the acquisition of key suppliers, although this has been done on more than a few occasions.  Rather, the way in which this control has been achieved is by securing large volumes of required components ahead of time.  By doing this, Apple has succeeded in avoiding seasonal fluctuations in supply volumes and prices, even though it has required a substantial commitment of capital.  It is this strategy that has led Apple to Israel, and ultimately led it to the decision to establish a development centre here.

Apple's products rely heavily on flash memory, and the company spends billions of dollars a year in acquiring these components.  Israeli company Anobit has been a supplier of NAND flash memory to Apple, and develops systems for improving this component.  Apple has decided that acquiring Anobit could save it 10-20% on its purchase of flash memory each year, and Anobit has been put firmly on Apple's shopping list.  Acquiring Anobit may also allow Apple to cut off the company's cooperation with Samsung, one of Apple's fiercest rivals in the field of smartphones and tablets.  Anobit seems also to have been a catalyst for Apple's interest in Israeli technology, and appears to have influenced the decision taken by Apple to set up a development centre in Israel.  This centre will focus primarily on semiconductor development, a field that Israeli companies have excelled in over the years.

Even though the marriage between Apple and Israeli technological development seems obvious to some, it still requires a champion within a large company to drive through an initiative of this sort.  In Apple's case, the  decision to open a development centre in Israel has been championed by former Haifa resident Johnny Srouji, who was hired by Apple 3 years ago.  He has risen in the ranks of Apple to the level of vice president.  Now, the Israeli press is full of details of the fact that Apple has been searching for premises in Haifa which are reputed to be large enough to house as many as 250 employees.  Israeli high-tech veteran Aharon Aharon has been hired to head up the new Apple development centre.

Companies such as Intel, Microsoft and Google have enjoyed tremendous success by using Israeli brainpower.  It is no secret that it was Israeli engineers who helped Intel to break through significant barriers in the development of their processors.  This has contributed, in no uncertain terms, to Intel's continued successes over the years.  Now, Apple has decided to also tap into this pool of talent to help take its products to the next level.  It is expected that Israeli expertise in flash storage could help to speed up iPhones and iPads, as well as the data transfer between them.

Apple representatives have said that the company will continue to open the new development centre even if the deal to acquire Anobit does not go ahead.  The truth is, that either one of these acts on Apple's part would come as a huge compliment to Israeli hi-tech and engineering.  Both deals being done would surely make Apple a substantial player in Israel's technology sector, and will place Israeli technology at the forefront of the world's leading-edge products.  This is a great achievement for the previous generations of Israeli engineers, and a fantastic incentive for the next generation in order to keep Israeli hi-tech to reach greater heights.

Despite the fact that Israeli technology has already received recognition as amongst the best in the world, the decision by Apple to open its first development centre outside of California is a fantastic accolade.

Wednesday 14 December 2011

How to Bring Israelis Home

The Jewish Agency recently took a decision to make a change to their usual activities to attract Jews to come and live in the Jewish homeland. Until now, the activities of the Jewish Agency have been focused towards attracting Jews who have lived their lives in the Jewish Diaspora, to come and make their homes in Israel.  They have concentrated on two main targets.  Firstly,  they have concentrated on Jewish communities at risk or in need, such as the Jews in Morocco, Yemen, Russia and Ethiopia who were shipped to Israel in large projects, and sometimes in some haste. The Jewish Agency has also focused on attracting the attention of Jews in communities which were not under threat, such as Jews in the USA, the UK, South Africa, Australia, South America and other locations. The tactics employed in these communities has largely targeted the youth and the young adults to experience the vibrancy that Israel offers people of this age, in the hope that parents and other family members will follow the youngsters to Israel.
The new campaign that the Jewish Agency has embarked upon recently is aimed at an entirely different community. This time, the Jewish Agency is trying to attract former Israelis to come back home. In some parts of the world, and particularly around the USA, fairly large groups of former-Israelis (or yordim as they are sometimes known) have established themselves. It is estimated that as many as half a million Israelis live in the USA, and that this number has grown by 30,000 in the past ten years alone.  Most yordim continue to have a close connection with Israel, and visit members of their family on a fairly frequent basis. Although many voice an intention to return to live in Israel at some point in the future, the numbers of yordim continues to grow.  The link to Israel for these people is stronger during times of security crisis. They obviously have a strong concern for individual friends and family who may be at risk during times of unrest, and those who are serving in the IDF during periods of war.  There is a concern, however, that their link to Israel and Judaism gets weaker the longer they live outside of Israel.

The Jewish Agency campaign to try to convince yardarm to return home, has caused a great deal of negative reaction in the USA where adverts have appeared on billboards in areas where large communities of Israelis reside.  This has been supported by online video adverts that have been launched. The campaign focuses largely on the fact that the intermarriage of children of yardarm may result in assimilation. One video advert shows Israel grandparents communicating with their grandchild, in the USA on Chanukah. The parents ask what holiday the child is celebrating, to which he answers “Christmas”. In another advert, a yored father is upset by the fact that his child is calling him “daddy” rather than “abba”. The message is clear. The longer these people stay in their current environments, the more assimilated they become.

The Jewish community in the USA has come out in strong objection to the advertising campaign.  The main reason for their objection is that the assimilation referred to in the adverts is not limited to Israelis who marry non-Jews.  It also  includes the situation where Israelis marry Diaspora Jews.  This is particularly reflected in advert which shows a young Israeli woman watching a Yom Hazikaron ceremony on-line, while her American husband is seeing asking her to go out to a party.  The insinuation that  American Jews are somehow disconnected, is seen as being a slap in the face of the Jewish community in the USA, and their attempts to maintain their Judaism and their links to Israel.  I can understand the insult felt by the USA Jewish communities.  Apparently the Israeli government has also understood this as they have pulled the campaign since the uproar flared up.

As much as the campaign is disparaging towards the American Jewish community, it also contains a great deal of truth.  There can be no doubt that assimilation has ravaged the world’s Jewish population in the period following the Shoah, particularly that in the USA.  Recent statistics suggest that 40-50% of American Jews marry non-Jews.  Of these, only 33%  provide their children with a Jewish upbringing.  This means that there is an increasing number of “Jewish” children who are not halachically Jewish due to their mothers not converting to Judaism.  There are also a large number of children who are simply lost to Judaism as a result of their Jewish parent marrying a non-Jew,  and the family not identifying with the Jewish community at all.  This trend will have an impact on the Israeli community in the USA as well, even those who have a strong national identification with the State of Israel.

Israel has one of the few Jewish communities in the world that are growing.  This is not only because of aliyah and population growth.  It is also because there is much less of a problem of assimilation in Israel.  It is sometimes amusing to note the effect of the Jewish and Israeli national holidays, even on the non-Jewish foreign workers in Israel.  It is simply impossible for a child in Israel, even those raised in homes that don’t have a strong sense of Jewish identity, to miss a Jewish festival or not to be familiar with its main aspects.  This must surely be a strong reason why it is right to do all that we can to attract Israelis back home, as much as we wish to attract others to make Israel their home.  While I have a great deal of respect for the efforts made by the Jews in the USA and elsewhere to identify with Judaism and Israel, I feel that the only way to assure ourselves of Jewish continuity is to have as many Jews in Israel as possible.

Sunday 4 December 2011

Egypt's Elections Produce a Surprise Package

The Arab Spring uprisings began exactly 1 year ago this month.  The demonstrations against the government of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia began in December 2010, and resulted in him being removed from power 1 month later.  The Spring subsequently spread to many other countries in the Middle East, and has been encouraged by enthusiastic support from the western countries.  Ironically, the one voice of hesitation against the uprisings came from Israel.  At the time, it was difficult for many to understand why Netanyahu did not support the Spring whole-heartedly.  Now, a year later, his reasons are starting to become apparent.

Netanyahu's concern about the uprisings were most obvious when the demonstrations reached Egypt, and thousands of Egyptians gathered in Tahrir Square demanding the head of President Hosni Mubarak.  It was clear that Mubarak had ruled with an iron fist in the 30 years that he had presided over Egypt.  He was never elected in a free democratic election, and he never repealed the emergency laws under which his government and his security apparatus were entitled to do almost as they wished, and which they used to maximum effect.  Most citizens around the world who have lived in a democratic system (as well as many who have not) felt some level of empathy with Egyptians as they demanded, and finally got, the resignation of their president.  Netanyahu's voice was a lone one during that time, and it seemed strange to many that the leader of a free and democratic country would express concern about the democratisation of another country.  There were silent whispers about whether the relationship between Mubarak and Netanyahu held more than what was publicly known.  There were mutterings about whether the gas deal that was struck between Egypt and Israel, and which Mubarak's family are reputed to have personally profited from, possibly held personal profits for Israel's leaders too.  All the while, Netanyahu was heard to speak out in understated tones about his concerns for the Arab Spring.

Fast forward 11 months since the day that it was announced that Mubarak had resigned from power, and how different the situation looks.  Egypt has undergone its first round of voting in its nascent democratic process, and things are looking distinctly worrying for Israel and the west.  Voting for the lower house of Egypt's parliament has revealed that Islamic extremist groups are likely to rule in the new Egypt.  The Muslim Brotherhood, which was held responsible for the assassination of former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and which remained a banned organisation throughout the 30 years of Mubarak's rule, has emerged as the strongest party in the elections.  There are those who believe that this support comes as a result of euphoria over the unbanning of the Muslim Brotherhood, not unlike the euphoria which saw the ANC sweep to power in South Africa after it was unbanned.  There are those, however, who believe that this reflects a trend towards Islamic fundamentalism  that can be seen in many countries around the world.  This is borne out by the meteoric rise of the Salafist Al-Nour party which received the second highest number of votes in the first round.  The Salafists advocate greater Islamic fundamentalism than the Muslim Brotherhood, and wish to apply Islamic Sharia law to Egypt.  They make the Muslim Brotherhood look like amateur fundamentalists.

The fact that the Muslim Brotherhood had strong showings in the elections in Tunisia and Morocco, is not nearly as concerning as the indications of the trend in Egypt.  Besides the fact that Egypt has a direct land border with Israel, Egypt also enjoys a strategic position both geographically and politically in the current fragile state of international diplomacy.  Is the election result in Egypt showing that some countries are not yet ready to cope with western-style democracy, as so many people claim?  Or is the truth that Hosni Mubarak's iron fist also worked to protect the west against the scourge of Islamic fundamentalism?  Netanyahu seems to have been one of the only western leaders who understood this at a stage that it was still early enough to do something.  Unfortunately, his was very much a lone voice, and he had no prospect of stemming the tide towards the overthrow of Mubarak.

The Israeli establishment understood as soon as Mubarak left power that Israel's relationship with Egypt has changed forever.  There are some doubts as to whether the peace treaty signed between late Prime Minister Menachem Begin and late President Anwar Sadat will be respected by the new regime.  Even if it is, a new era has dawned for Israel and Egypt.  This will also manifest itself in Israel's relationship with the Palestinians.  The Muslim Brotherhood is a close ally of Hamas.  Whereas President Mubarak worked hard with the Israelis to try to prevent Hamas from acquiring weapons into the Gaza Strip, the Muslim Brotherhood is likely to do the exact opposite.  This promises greater and more sophisticated attacks coming from Gaza, spelling real danger for southern Israel, and for the safety and security of the State of Israel as a whole.

It will be interesting to watch what sort of political system will manifest itself in post-Gaddafi Libya.  In this case, western countries were actively involved in overthrowing Gaddafi by supplying NATO air power to assist rebel forces against him.  Now, they will be forced to stand back to allow a new democratic government to replace the old dictatorship.  But who will be the new elected leaders of Libya, and could it be that the west may yet come to regret this too?  Sometimes, you need to be careful what you wish for.

Saturday 26 November 2011

Message To My Son

My son,

For the past fourteen years, we knew that this day would eventually come.  Somehow, I did not imagine that it would be like this.   When we decided all those years ago to make our home in Israel, you were only 6 years old.  The notion of you becoming a soldier in the Israel Defense Force (IDF) seemed so far removed from the reality of our everyday lives. We were living in the post-Oslo period, which gave us all a false sense of security that peace was about to break out in the Middle East.  The advantages of moving our lives to the Jewish homeland, seemed to far outweigh the disadvantages.  This was true even when we considered the fact that you would be obliged to serve in the Jewish army.  Now that your draft date has arrived,  I find myself revisiting those decisions taken on your behalf, and the events that have occurred since then.

Over the years, we have discovered that the hopes that we all had for peace, were simply a false facade for the duplicitous dealings of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.  We have been forced to endure wars, terror attacks and continued threats to destroy Israel and the Jewish people.  We have witnessed how any young man or woman in the IDF uniform has become a target for attack or kidnap by our enemies.  All of these things contribute to making your service in the IDF a much more dangerous and risky prospect than was previously the case.  In a perverse sort of way, it is also these events that make your service of greater value and importance to Israel and the Jewish people than before.

During the course of your schooling in Israel, you have learned about the numerous attempts to annihilate the Jewish people.  You have visited Auschwitz and other death camps in Poland where millions of Jews were put to death, only because they were Jews.  You understand very well, the context of the service that you are about to render in the IDF.  You know that 6 million Jews would not have lost their lives in the Holocaust if a Jewish army had existed at that time.  You also know that new Hitlers arise in every generation.  Given the chance, Ahmadinejad, Nasrallah and others would follow in Hitler's footsteps to try to wipe the Jews off the earth, even in our day and age.  There is only one thing that stops them from doing so, and this is the IDF.  The IDF not only ensures the safety and survival of Israel and her citizens, it also gives freedom to Jews around the world to exist as Jews in relative safety, freedom and security.  As a soldier in the IDF, you will continue to protect all Jews around the world against the numerous enemies that seek to destroy the Jews.  You understand the importance of agreeing to serve in order to ensure that the IDF continues to be a strong force and protector of the Jewish people, even in the future.

Even though the big picture is clear and a great motivating force, it does not necessarily make the day-to-day realities of military life any easier.  You feel unsure of what the future holds for you, and are not clear what your task in the IDF will be or where you will serve.  We feel nervous with you and for you, as you contemplate this great unknown venture ahead of you.  We all know that the army cannot necessarily accommodate every individual's needs and requests, and place each person in the position that is best suited to them personally.  The army's needs come first, and you will be forced to undertake a role which is not one that you would have chosen for yourself.  In spite of all of this, we have watched you approach your military service with tremendous maturity and a positive attitude.  You have done all that you can to guarantee that your rights are protected, and to try to find your way to a role that will keep you interested and well-utilised.  We have equally seen your willingness to do whatever is needed, even where this does not necessarily match what you want.

Today, as I watch these events before my eyes, and contemplate the next three years in which you will be a soldier in the IDF, I feel a tremendous pride.  I am enormously proud of the fact that you and your friends are willing to sacrifice three years of your life to serve your country and your people.  At a time when only one in two eligible Israelis are actually being drafted, every man and woman counts for a great deal.  You have stood up and been counted.  I am extremely proud of the fact that you are determined to undertake a role that will keep you challenged and allow you to make a real contribution.  Many have decided that they prefer to lay low and do as little as possible to allow the three years to pass in any uneventful way.  This is not for you.  You are determined to have a job that will keep you interested, and will allow you to make some use of the tremendous talents and skills that you have.  I am proud of the fact that you understand the necessity for you to play your role, at a time when many others are finding ways to escape this.

You have benefited over the past fourteen years from all the good things that Israeli society has to offer its children.  You have had the opportunity to walk the streets in relative safety whenever you wish, and to learn the independence that is typical of Israeli youth.  You have explored all corners of Israel, and connected to the Jewish homeland that was inhabited by your forefathers.  You have celebrated Jewish festivals and Israeli national holidays amongst your fellow Jews.  You have explored and developed your technical skills in an environment that is amongst the most technologically advanced in the world.  You have represented your country in an international competition, bringing great credit to your country, city, school and family.  You have volunteered to help underprivileged youth, and experienced the difficulties that so many people in Israel are suffering.  And now you are ready to take this further in making a commitment to safeguard your country and your people.

We wish you success and happiness during the time that you will serve.  We hope that you will find a way to make a meaningful contribution, and that will allow you to develop yourself in the process.  We pray for your health and safety, in mind and in body, and for the safety of those serving alongside you.  No matter where you are or what you are doing, we will be supporting you all the way, and eagerly awaiting the hours that you will be allowed to spend with us at home.  May Hashem guide and protect you in all that you do, wherever you may be.  I am extremely proud to be your father.

Monday 21 November 2011

Assad Keeps Fighting, But Cannot Survive

The uprising in Syria has continued unabated for the past 8 months.  Despite the fact that thousands of people have already been killed in the process, the uprising shows no signs of being quelled by the strong-arm tactics adopted by President Bashar al-Assad.  Despite Assad fighting the civilian uprising using all military options available to him, he cannot survive this challenge to his leadership.  In the interests of preventing further loss of life, Bashar should accept the inevitable as soon as possible and leave office.

The Syrian uprising has progressed in a substantially different way to the uprisings that took place in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Libya.  The biggest difference in Syria is the fact that the regime has managed to survive for as long as 8 months, despite constant protests by the opposition and Syrian civilians over this time.  We all know that the long-ruling and well-established governments of Gadaffi, Mubarak and others were unable to survive the attacks that they came under for more than a few months.  So what is it about Assad and Syria that has allowed him to survive for this period of time, despite having already killed more than 3,000 civilians (according to the UN) in his attempt to put down the uprising?

Despite the fact that the uprisings in other countries in the region proved to be the catalyst for the demonstrations in Syria, Assad has benefited from the fact other countries have been suffering unrest.  This has diverted the attention of the world and the international media elsewhere, while he tries to take care of his own back yard.  So far, he has managed to escape the fates that Mubarak and Gadaffi suffered when the world's leaders and media were focused on the events in these countries.  While there have been a few reports and international condemnation of events in Syria, these have not been anywhere as directed as those that were directed at Mubarak and Gadaffi before the demise of these two leaders.  In Assad's case, there are indications that this is about to change over the coming weeks and months now that Syria has been brought into target by the international community.

In the case particularly of Libya, oil had much to do with the decision by NATO to take an active part in Libya's uprising.   There can be no doubt that Gadaffi would probably still have been in power, if it was not for the role played by NATO war planes.  Even though oil exploration and export is an important part of the Syrian economy accounting for as much as 25% of the government's income, Syrian oil only makes up about 0.5% of the world's oil production.  As such, the world has not looked upon Syria with the same concern for its stability as it did when chaos ensued in Libya.  It also means that NATO has no interest in getting involved in Syria.  It enjoys little strategic relevance to the world, either in terms of its location or in terms of its production of oil.  The only possible point of strategic relevance relating to Syria is its ongoing dispute with Israel over the Golan Heights.  It is clear that the world would wish for this issue to be resolved in order to reduce the threat of a war between Syria and Israel which would, undoubtedly, drag other countries in the region into conflict.

Perhaps the most important reason why the world has not come down more harshly on Syria until now, relates to its connections with Iran.  Despite not sharing a common border, Syria and Iran have forged extremely close links over the past few years.  Ahmadinejad's Iran has proved to be the "catching net" for those countries seeking international links, but which have been rejected by countries in the west.  As one of the world's major sponsors of terror, Iran has cast its influence far and wide.  It has also stood up to huge criticism by the international community over its nuclear program, thereby showing itself as a leader of the renegade countries which oppose the influence of the USA and other western powers.  In this respect, Iran has shown itself to be quite an attractive ally for Turkey, Syria and other countries that are struggling to gain acceptance into international circles.  The world has realised that any action against Syria, effectively equates to action against Iran.

On the basis of the close links between Syria and Iran, it is difficult to separate action against Iran's nuclear program from action against Syria's extreme crackdown against protestors.  There is a view that says that the world, by escalating Iran on its nuclear program, is trying to divert Ahmadinejad's attention away from Syria in order to allow the world to take a separate position on this.  There seems to be an attempt to divide and rule.  The Arab League has taken a bold and significant stand against Syria over the past week, by suspending it from the organisation, and threatening to take further diplomatic actions against Syria if Assad does not pull his military forces out of civilian areas and halt the violence.  Although there is no love lost between the Arab League and Iran, the Arab League has taken its time in adopting this stand against Syria in view of the fact that it clearly represents taking a stand against Iran at the same time.

Despite Assad's closeness with Ahmadinejad, he will not be able to survive this uprising against his leadership.  He is destined to go the same route as Gadaffi, Mubarak and other casualties of the Arab Spring.  The question is whether he has learned any lessons from those that have fallen before him.  By hanging on to power longer than he should have, Gadaffi issued a death sentence for himself.  When his demise came, the hatred against him was such that he was never going to survive being captured by the opposition forces.  If Assad is sensible, he still has the opportunity to remove himself from power, thereby saving his life and that of his young family.  Continuing to direct his military forces to kill more civilians will make this outcome less likely, and will endanger his life further at that moment when he is driven from power.

Israel is watching carefully to see where events in Syria will lead.  The fall of Assad's regime will surely weaken Ahmadinejad's influence in the region.  Equally, any action taken against Iran's nuclear program will weaken Syria.  Assad has warned that any action taken by the international community against Syria will cause an earthquake in the region.  He knows that this is likely to drag Iran into a broader war in the Middle East, and the international community knows this too.

Ahmadinejad, it seems, is the big winner in all of this.  Leaders like Assad are running to him like little puppies in order to gain his acceptance and support.  He is standing up to the international community with his continued defiance of their calls against his nuclear program, and by continuing to fund international terrorism.  His name is on everyone's lips in the international press, and at organisations like the UN and the IAEA.  He is the modern-day version of Stalin that all seem to fear.  Even Ahmadinejad, however, cannot save Assad's head.  Assad will need to decide whether he is prepared to jump, or whether he is waiting to be pushed.  The latter option will not be without its consequences for him and his family.  Either way, Assad's eventual downfall can only be good for the region and the world by weakening Iran's influence.

Monday 14 November 2011

Iran Back in the Headlines

Following an eventful summer which has seen the Arab Spring dominate the headlines, Iran's nuclear program is back in the headlines again.  And not too soon.  The fact that the Iranians have had a period of peace while world attention has been focused elsewhere, has allowed them to stay under the radar while continuing to build a nuclear bomb.  The report delivered by the International Atomic Energy Agency last week confirmed this fact, and the world is no longer in a situation where it is forced to rely on seemingly biased intelligence produced by the Israelis or the Americans.

I have heard it said that Iran has the same right as anybody else to build a nuclear bomb.  Nuclear countries, including Israel which continues to maintain nuclear ambiguity, have been accused of double standards by keeping nuclear weapons themselves while trying to deny the Iranians a right to run a nuclear program.  The question is why some countries have the right, while others come under huge international pressure to prevent them from building a nuclear arsenal?  The answer is fairly simple.  It is all down to who has his or her finger on the trigger.  It seems obvious that there is a huge difference between allowing the leader of a democratic country to hold the trigger, and allowing the likes of Ahmadinejad, Saddam Hussein or Colonel Gadaffi to have this right.  Ahmadinejad has succeeded in clinging onto power in Iran only by rigging elections to cheat his rivals, and by silencing and eliminating those who oppose him.  He spends little or no effort dealing with the main issues which confront his country i.e. dealing with economic challenges.  Instead, he spends most of his time and energy on the international stage trying to create some sort of an international personality for himself.  He never misses an opportunity to threaten the destruction of Israel, the USA and other western countries.  Is he the sort of person that we can trust to hold the trigger of a nuclear weapon?  I don't think so.

It has been interesting to watch the development of the Iranian nuclear story.  Initially, there were many denials about whether Iran has a nuclear program at all.  Later, when it was proved beyond a doubt, there was disagreement whether this was focused on civilian or military purposes.  In 2007, US intelligence announced that Iran had ended "nuclear weapon design and weaponization work" in 2003.  Last week's IAEA report has shown that statement to be completely inaccurate.  And now, even when it is proved beyond a reasonable doubt that Iran is building a nuclear bomb, the world seems to stand by and watch from a distance.  Sanctions have proven to be wholly ineffective, and world events such as the Arab Spring and financial crises have served to divert attention elsewhere.   This week, when Iran is back in the headlines, a survey conducted in the USA shows that 57% of Americans think that Israel should attack Iran.  I know that  the Americans are war weary, but surely this seems a crazy expectation?  Why should it be Israel's responsibility to protect the world from one crazy, unpredictable mad person who is building a nuclear weapon?  It is well understood that Iranian missiles can easily hit American targets, and those of many other countries.  The answer may have something to do with the fact that Israel has proved itself capable in these types of attacks before, and has shown sheer audacity in carrying them out on two previous occasions.

As it turns out, the Israeli government also seems to be warming to the idea.  It is well-known that PM Netanyahu is a supporter of such an attack.  Defence Minister Barak, previously opposed to the idea, now seems to be won around.  Indications are that, if a cabinet vote was taken today, the Israeli cabinet would support such a move in principle.  The real challenge is to conceive a plan that would succeed in doing the required damage, and not place Israel in mortal danger of her existence at the same time.  The Iranians have more than a few Shihab missile launchers trained in Israel's direction.  They could do a great deal of damage and result in high numbers of casualties, and would certainly be used to retaliate any strike by Israel on Iran.  It is not clear what sort of attack the Israeli government could approve that would achieve the objective of eliminating Iran's nuclear reactors, while not bringing undue harm to Israel and her citizens.  This is particularly true under the current circumstances, where every newspaper and TV news station in the world is filled with speculation as to what Israel will do next.

And yet, the IDF has a reputation for being highly inventive as well as daring.  The rescue of the hostages under the noses of the terrorists at Entebbe is probably one of the best examples.  The destruction of the Iraqi nuclear at Osirak in 1981 is another example.  Could it be that the IDF has dreamed up something so unexpected and unusual, that the Iranians will not be ready for it when it hits them?  I wouldn't rule this out completely, although the response by Iran when they finally discover what has happened, will be a magnitude larger than Iraq's reaction 30 years ago.

The willingness by Ahmadinejad and his Ayatollahs to fly in the face of world opinion in the construction of the nuclear program, shows that they will stop at nothing.  No sanctions, international condemnation nor diplomatic actions will make any difference to what they are doing.  The only language that they will understand, is the language of force.  This requires a short, sharp strike that will entirely destroy the heart of the program pursued by Iran.  It is true that Israel seems the best qualified, and the country with the greatest incentive, to carry out this attack.  As a very minimum, I would like to believe that other NATO countries will provide some sort of backup, and give Israel all the help and support that she needs to succeed in this highly risky mission.  The consequences of not carrying this out, or not succeeding with such an assignment, seems a much more risky option.  But, who will have the guts to take the required decision, and to carry out the mission?  If this responsibility lands on Israel, will the support there in the way that it should be?  Time will surely tell.

Sunday 6 November 2011

A Spitting Shame

I was horrified to read the details of the trial of Johannes Martarsian, which took place in the Jerusalem Magistrates Court last week.  Martarsian, an Armenian priesthood student, was charged with assault after he punched an ultra-orthodox Jew in the face and made him bleed.  The incident took place in Jerusalem's old city after the ultra-Orthodox man spat at Martarsian.

Judge Dov Pollock annulled the indictment against Martarsian and wrote, "putting the defendant on trial for a single blow at a man who spat at his face, after suffering the degradation of being spat on for years while walking around in his church robes is a fundamental contravention of the principles of justice and decency."  Fortunately, in this case, the judge had the good sense not to waste any more taxpayer money on proceeding to a trial.  Throwing the case out of court was exactly the right response to such a disgraceful situation.

The trial has brought to the fore some of the bad behaviour which is prevalent amongst the ultra-Orthodox community.  It seems as though the spitting incident is not an isolated one.  Clergymen from the Armenian church who are based in Jerusalem report that they are frequently subject to being spat and cursed at by ultra-Orthodox Jews.  One Armenian priest said that he wonders to himself if he will be spat at each time he walks by an ultra-Orthodox Jew in the street.  For some priests, it is difficult to simply ignore the repeated incidents of bad behaviour that they are forced to endure.  Johannes Martarsian is an example of one who decided to respond rather than to simply turn the other cheek, despite the fact that Armenian priests are encouraged by their church not to respond to these incidents of gross provocation.

The ultra-Orthodox community in Jerusalem has an unfortunate reputation for bad behaviour in many different situations.  Women who venture into ultra-Orthodox neighbourhoods in Jerusalem like Mea Shearim, and who are not dressed according to the ultra-Orthodox conservative dress code, will already know that they also become spitting targets.  Equally, cars driving through religious neighbourhoods on Shabbat have been subject to stoning attacks.  This has given rise to the famous T-shirt that has been sold in Jerusalem and purchased by thousands of tourists stating, "I got stoned in Mea Shearim"!  Although these types of attacks are unacceptable, there may be some part of a reasonable person that could condone such behaviour where people enter religious neighbourhoods without respecting the norms of the people that live there.

The attacks on the priests seem of a completely different nature.  There is no disrespect of the ultra-Orthodox lifestyle involved, and no violation of the norms by which they live.  Jerusalem is a city which is open to all religions which wish to be present there.  Not only is this a policy which is rigorously adhered to by the Israeli government and the city of Jerusalem, it is also the source of a great deal of tourist Dollars into the city.  At times, it seems as though the ultra-Orthodox community are completely divorced from the society in which they live, and their actions cannot be tolerated by other reasonable people.  The truth is, that some of their actions are so intolerable, that even those who have grown up within their sects and have become used to their social norms, cannot accept the way in which some situations are dealt with.

The types of insults that these young men give by spitting at others created in G-d's image, have caused me to wonder how they can reconcile this behaviour with their religious beliefs.  The Jewish religion believes in 613 mitzvot (precepts) that observers are required to adhere to.  They are split into mitzvot concerning man's relationship with his G-d, and mitzvot concerning man's relationship with his fellow-man.  Neither group has precedence over the other - they are both equally important.  On many occasions such as stoning a car that is transgressing the Shabbat, the justification for the action taken by somebody against his fellow-man is to protect his relationship with his G-d.  In light of the fact that these mitzvot do not enjoy precedence, there is a view that says that the transgression against the fellow-man cannot be justified, even if it is an act to protect his relationship with his G-d.  The act of spitting at the priests, however, seems to serve no religious purpose at all and has no positive side to it.  Rather, it represents an act of unjustified discrimination.  So how much less can this be justified in religious terms?

What is even more unfortunate about this sad situation, is the fact that priests say that reports made about these incidents to the police fall on deaf ears.  Perhaps it is because the police feel that it is impossible to catch the perpetrators and bring them to justice, that no action is taken.  It is also fair to say that Jerusalem's police force has its hands full with high-level security threats which it is required to take care of on an ongoing basis.  Whatever the reason for the lack of action, it is sends an entirely wrong message about the acceptability of this behaviour.

The ultra-Orthodox community present themselves as representing all that is good when acting in strict observance of the Torah.  Too often, however, the pursuit of individual points of observance causes the individual to lose the wood for the trees.  There seems to be no broader perspective, or ability to see the bigger picture.  This is extremely damaging to the standing of the ultra-Orthodox community in the world in which they are forced to live.  The time has come for concerted action to be taken to change the bad behaviour.  The yeshivot (institutions of religious learning) need to be responsible for teaching their students about the unacceptability of spitting at others.  The police on the streets need to keep their eyes open for such incidents, and act upon them immediately. 

Jerusalem is a city that is open to people of all religions to visit and to live in.  While it serves as the capital of the Jewish State of Israel, the government has undertaken that the city will be open to all religions for tourism, learning and worship.  This means that it is not the private domain of ultra-Orthodox Jews, even though it is their religion's holiest city.  There should be no reason why priests who have come to Jerusalem for the purpose of furthering their religious studies and experiences, should be subject to any sort of bad behaviour by ultra-Orthodox Jews or anybody else.  The time has come to take action to stop this intolerance and insulting behaviour.

Monday 31 October 2011

Why Should Israel Help Fatah?

The prisoner swap deal which saw Gilad Shalit released, played right into the hands of Hamas.  The prisoners who were released, as well as those set for release in the second stage of the deal, are names given by Hamas.  At least for now, Hamas has gained public relations points in the Palestinian world.  The organisation has shown itself to be able to stand up to Israel, and to extract value for the Palestinian street despite Israel’s statements that this would never happen.  At the same time, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah party has achieved a resounding failure.  Abbas returned from his visit to the United Nations empty-handed following his application to the UN to admit Palestine as a full member.  This situation has brought some Israelis to call for a “gesture” to Fatah, to try to dilute the way in which Hamas has been strengthened by these events.

For some time now, Israel has been playing a game of trying to weaken Hamas by strengthening Fatah.  Throughout the time that Mahmoud Abbas has been president, and even dating back to the days when Yasser Arafat held the position, Israel has been taking steps to promote Fatah’s interests in order to help its standing amongst Palestinians whose loyalties are split between Fatah and Hamas.  The reason for this is that Fatah has demonstrated itself to be more willing to enter into a dialogue with Israel, interpreted by Israel to mean it represents a possibility that it may reach a negotiated peace agreement.  Hamas, on the other hand, has remained steadfast in its objectives of trying to destroy Israel, and not agreeing to negotiate.  As ironic as it may seem, Fatah is simply the better of the two evils, and hence Israel’s attempts to promote its cause.

Despite the fact that it has tried to present itself as a genuine political party, Fatah has never really given up on its terror activities, even while continuing to sit at the negotiating table.  This was particularly true in the days of Yasser Arafat, who lied unashamedly about giving up on violence with Israel while continuing to orchestrate terror activities in the background.  Abbas has seemed more serious about foregoing the terror route, but has still not completely given up on this or eradicated it from his people and the territory under his control.  The fact that Hamas has never agreed to forego violence against Israel has presented greater appeal to the Palestinians.  Hamas’s strategy is to escalate violence against Israel and never agree to recognise or negotiate with the government of the Jewish state, until it achieves the destruction of the State of Israel.

Israel’s response to this situation has been to continue trying to negotiate with Fatah in order to try to extract greater security for Israelis, while responding to Hamas’s violence and terror using military solutions.  It is in Israel’s interest that the Palestinian street will embrace the route of negotiations and support Fatah, while rejecting the route of violence pursued by Hamas.  It is for this reason that Israel has been trying to prop up support for Fatah over the years by allowing it to show fruits for its strategy of negotiating with Israel.  Negotiations are long-winded affairs (especially in the Middle East), and show few results along the way.  This has proved to be tiresome for the Palestinians, who are eager to see instant results or some evidence of the fact that their chosen route has short-term advantages.  The Hamas-led campaign of violence has succeeded in bringing this to the people in a much more blatant way.  Palestinians have rejoiced to see rockets destroying Israeli homes and threatening Israeli lives.  The perceived success of standing up to the might of the IDF has been a rallying force for Palestinians.  The fact that Fatah succeeded in opening a road or removing an Israeli checkpoint after a lengthy negotiation, seems somehow less exciting and not the same level of achievement.  To counter this perception, Israel has acted to release Fatah prisoners remain incarcerated in Israeli jails to so that it can be associated with benefits of negotiations.

With Hamas’s standing on the up and up after its success in securing the release of hundreds of its prisoners as part of the exchange for Gilad Shalit, there are those who feel that these events could serve to alienate Fatah and reduce its standing amongst Palestinians.  Some Israeli politicians have called for a release of Fatah prisoners as a gesture to Mahmoud Abbas to try to redress the situation.  Abbas himself, desperate for any success he can lay his hands on, has mentioned the fact that former prime minister Ehud Olmert offered a release of Fatah prisoners in the event that Gilad Shalit was released.  Olmert has confirmed this verbal undertaking, although I suspect that the promise was made on the basis of the expectation that Abbas would actually do something to help to secure Gilad’s release.

In truth, I do not understand why Israel would choose to release Fatah prisoners at this stage.  At the time that the final details for Gilad’s release were being negotiated, Abbas was at the UN in New York seeking full membership for the Palestinians.  This action by Abbas served to undermine the entire notion of a negotiated settlement.  Abbas’s tactic is to get a seat in the UN, and then approach the UN to grant him and his people an independent homeland.  If he succeeds, he will achieve this without having to make any concessions that are inherent in a negotiated deal with Israel.  This is surely a massive snub to Israel’s efforts to help Fatah over the years.

Now that Gilad has been released and, along with him, hundreds of Hamas prisoners, Abbas is feeling left out and alienated.  The problem is that he is responsible, at least in part, for his own situation.  His continuing refusal to recognise Israel as a Jewish state and to make the required concessions at the negotiating table, and his acts to try to unilaterally declare an independent state have not helped his cause.  They have damaged his standing on the Palestinian street, and with his Israeli counterparts.  There should be no reason in the world for Israel to reward him with a release of prisoners.

Israelis should never be duped into believing that Fatah is a true ally of Israel or a friend the Jewish people.  It just so happens that we have a common enemy, Hamas, which causes us to come together in opposition to the threat that Hamas presents.  As was evidenced by his recent actions at the UN, Abbas will use any opportunity to go behind Israel’s back and pursue his own agenda at Israel’s expense.  The continued refusal by Fatah to remove the clause in their constitution calling for the destruction of the State of Israel is evidence of the fact that Fatah’s true intentions may be concealed to the world, and that it may be playing a double-faced game with Israel.  While continuing to pursue a path that will ultimately bring peace and security to her citizens, Israel is forced to respond with caution and suspicion to everything that Abbas does.

The time has come for Israel to treat Fatah with a great deal more suspicion and contempt.  While it is acknowledged that having a Fatah government in the West Bank is preferable to one controlled by Hamas, this is still not a bed of roses for Israel.  Gestures by Israel to Fatah should be matched by gestures on Fatah’s part to Israel.  This is the only way to ensure that Fatah will value Israeli gestures.  The time for freebies should be over.

Sunday 23 October 2011

Gilad is Finally Home, But the Controversy Rages On

Israel experienced its highest-ever TV ratings over a one day period last week on Tuesday, when captured IDF soldier Gilad Shalit finally returned home.  The nation was glued to its TV sets as we watched events unfold over the day, finally culminating in a weak-looking Gilad returning to Israel and to the waiting arms of his family.  He had spent 5 years and 4 months held in captivity by Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

Representatives from Hamas have made public statements about how well Gilad was treated.  It is claimed that he was well fed during the years of his captivity, and allowed access to media including Israeli TV and radio broadcasts.  Although they have also claimed that he was not subject to torture at their hands, Gilad's father Noam has expressed doubt about this.  He does, however, concur with the Hamas statements that Gilad was treated better in the latter years of his captivity.  Noam's comments allow us to believe that the first years were not easy, and may well have included torture.  The facts on the day of the prisoner transfer, however, speak for themselves.  It was difficult not to notice the stark difference in the conditions of the 477 Palestinian prisoners released by Israel, when compared to that of Gilad.  The Palestinian prisoners looked well-fed and physically in good health as they sat on buses and smoked while waiting for the exchange deal to proceed.  They had been granted access to members of their family and international organisations as required by the Geneva Convention.  The same could not be said for Gilad, who walked with difficulty after being kept away from daylight for most of his years in captivity.  Neither his family nor members of the International Committee of the Red Cross were allowed access to him for more than 5 years, despite repeated requests.

As Gilad tries to get to know his family and friends again at his home in Mitzpe Hila, the debate rages through the pages of the Israeli press and around the world about whether the prisoner exchange deal that secured his release was justified.  With 477 Palestinian prisoners already released, and a further 550 slated for release in 2 months' time as part of the deal, there are those in Israel who feel that the price paid for the return of just one prisoner was too high.  This view is even further enhanced when considering the crimes committed by those who have been set free.  The list of released prisoners includes murderers and terrorists who collectively succeeded in killing hundreds of innocent Israelis.  The incidents in which these attacks took place range from the detonation of a bomb in pizza restaurant in downtown Jerusalem to an explosion at a hotel where thousands celebrated the Passover holiday, and more.  It is perfectly understandable that the family members of the victims of these attacks are suffering anguish as a result of these killers being set free.  There are those who believe that the release of these terrorists, many of whom have vowed to return to their old murderous ways, increases the security risk to Israeli civilians.  There are many naysayers who are literally waiting for the next wave of terror attacks to hit Israel in order to justify their resistance to prisoner exchange deal.  Yet others are opposed to the deal because they believe that it represents capitulation to terrorists, and encourages them to kidnap Israeli soldiers or civilians in the future in order to secure similar deals.  This prisoner exchange agreement, they say, shows a weakness on the part of the Israeli government and her citizens.

Most of the points for and against the exchange deal are fairly well-known, and have enjoyed broad discussion in the Israeli and international press.  There are, however, additional considerations that have come to my mind, and which are perhaps less widely discussed.  The first point is that the concept of a prisoner exchange deal of this nature is not new.  The truth is that Israel has been doing such deals for many years.  The only thing that has differed from one deal to another, are the names and the numbers.  Over the past 30 years, Israel has released some 7,000 Palestinian prisoners and released the remains of many more.  In exchange Israel has received 19 Israelis and the remains of 8 others.  Looking back over the years, I don't believe that this has weakened Israel in any way, or shown that it is capitulating to terrorism.  On the contrary, Israel has increased its defences against terrorists in a variety of different ways to strengthen its opposition to the vile actions taken against innocent civilians.  At times, Israel has employed fairly extreme anti-terror defences, including a policy of targeted killings against those orchestrating terror activities or carrying them out.  This surely demonstrates that Israel is not getting soft on terrorists.  While agreeing to enter into prisoner swaps on the one hand, Israel has shown itself to be extremely tough on terror in many other ways.

Instead of interpreting exchange deals as showing weakness to terrorists, it is my belief that Israel is showing strength by adhering to basic principles and values which are fundamental in the Jewish religion.  These same principles are the same ones that most reasonable people around the world would identify with.  These are the principles of attaching value to the life of each and every citizen of Israel, particularly those who have fallen into captivity during the course of serving in the country's army.  This makes an important and powerful statement, not only to those serving in the army and their families, but also to our enemies.  Often, a strong set of values and principles is more important than military strength.  Armies around the world will tell you that it is tougher to fight against an enemy which has strong fundamental beliefs in its cause and in its values, than an enemy that does not.  This has not gone unnoticed in the Arab press.  A reporter writing in Abu Dhabi's English language Gulf News wrote, "It is not a secret at all that the value of an Arab person in the stock-exchange of Arab regimes is sort of nil ....  Have you ever seen an Arab regime trying to get its captives out of Israeli prisons?  Forget about it.  Most Arab regimes have no problem at all letting their nationals die in Israeli jails."  I believe that such actions do not serve to strengthen a society.  It is my view that this attitude shows greater weakness than being prepared to stay to true to a country's citizens, even if this means having to release terrorists.

Israel has a few weak spots in its history of valuing and securing the release of its citizens held by enemies.  Three soldiers, Zachary Baumel, Tzvi Feldman and Yehuda Katz were captured by Syrian authorities in their tank in the Golan Heights in 1982.  They have not been heard from since then, and are presumed dead.  No evidence has been produced to support this view, however, and the three are listed as missing in action.  A similar story is the one of missing Israeli airman Ron Arad, which captured the attention, imagination and sympathy of the world.  Navigator Arad bailed out of his plane over Lebanon, and was captured by the enemy in 1986.  He was known to have been alive as late as 1988, after having been "sold" by Hezbollah to the Iranians.  Israeli attempts to free Arad came to nothing, and there is a strong suspicion that he died during the course of his captivity.  For 25 years, his wife and family have been unable to move on with their lives as there is no official pronouncement of life or death.  Officially, he is missing in action.  These are stains on Israel's record, and all Israelis know this.

Every nation at war is called upon to make tough decisions.  Sometimes, these decisions involve the possibility of "sacrificing" soldiers or other individuals in the interests of a greater good, or the safety of a large number of others.  In the case of Gilad Shalit, I think that any decision to sacrifice him in exchange for keeping 1,027 terrorists in prison would have been one of the toughest for anybody to make.  In due course, we think we will know the price of not sacrificing him, but it is still difficult to say that any terror activities that may occur over the coming months and years would not have occurred if the 1,027 had remained in prison.  It is my belief that there are enough "terrorists in waiting" out there to make the impact that the 1,027 may make, look insignificant.

On balance, given the alternatives between another Ron Arad situation or the current Gilad Shalit situation, the choice for me is an easy one.  We are obliged to value the life that we know that we can rescue.  In this respect, the government has made exactly the right decision.  We are also obliged to ensure that those who are released, are not allowed to cause any further damage or bloodshed.  I am sure that the IDF is on a close look-out for this.  And even though many will interpret the release of the terrorists is to be an insult to the memories of those who were killed at their hands, it is really a clear statement of the value of life.  Even if it is only one.

It is my wish that Gilad will enjoy a quick and full recovery to everyday life, and that he and his family will enjoy many years of health and happiness together.  It is equally my wish that the memories of those who were brutally murdered by terrorists, will be for a blessing.  Perhaps, above all, the fact that our society can hold this type of debate in an open and honest way, is a great demonstration of our democracy at work to build a just, caring and sensitive society.  Am Yisrael Chai - The People of Israel live!

Sunday 16 October 2011

Gilad To Be Released - The Agony With The Ecstasy

The mood across Israel was changed in a dramatic fashion on Tuesday last week when the news was made public during the early evening that an agreement had been reached with Hamas for the return of the kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.  After 5 long years during which Hamas had allowed no access to him at all, not even by human rights organisations like the International Committee of the Red Cross, it seems as though Gilad Shalit will finally be on his way home.

Of course, the agreement that was finally struck by David Meidan and the Israeli negotiating team comes at a high cost to Israel.  The objective behind the kidnapping in the first instance, was to extract a high price from Israel by insisting that prisoners in Israeli jails be released in exchange for any agreement to release Shalit.  This is exactly what they have achieved, even though it has taken more than 5 long years to finally reach the agreement.  Israel will release 1,027 Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails in order to secure the freedom of one IDF soldier.  Many of these prisoners are serving life sentences, and have "blood on their hands" for murdering innocent Israeli civilians.  Among those due for release are those who planned the Sbarro and Moment restaurant bombings in Jerusalem, those who planned the Seder night bombing at the Park Hotel in Netanya and those who planned the kidnap of Gilad Shalit.  There are also many others who were involved in numerous bus bombings, and others who have committed similar heinous crimes.  Along with the euphoria of knowing that Gilad will finally be returned to his parents and to the people of Israel, have come searching questions about the terms of his release.

As we sat in our Sukkah on Wednesday evening celebrating the festival of Sukkot (Tabernacles), the conversation inevitably turned to the deal that was struck for Gilad's release.  There were some sitting around the table who felt that the price was too high, and that the deal should never have been done on these terms.  All the old concerns and issues were raised to justify why this deal endangers Israel's security going forward.  One friend said that he thought that the prisoner exchange shows a weakness in Israeli society that we are prepared to contemplate a deal that will return only one of our soldiers for more than a thousand of theirs.  It is his view that our one soldier should effectively be sacrificed in order to protect the security of Israel going forward.  The welfare of one soldier should not be allowed to destabilise the security of the entire State of Israel by placing convicted murderers and terrorists back on the streets.  This friend has a daughter currently serving her two years in the IDF.  When I asked how he would respond if the soldier in question was Heaven forbid his own daughter, he brought me the story of Joseph Stalin who refused to accept a deal with the Germans for a prisoner exchange to return his own son, Yacov, from captivity whilst a soldier in the Red army.  Yacov ultimately died while being held by the Germans.  My friend's point is that the state is larger than any of its individuals, and that the government should behave accordingly.

As expected, the prisoner exchange has come under a great deal of resistance from the families of the victims who were maimed and murdered at the hands of the prisoners due for release.  Many have already made it clear how insulted they feel by the release of the murderers of their loved ones.  We can all understand their pain, and the fact that they feel that this insults the memories of their dearly departed.  The government went out of its way to arrest and imprison the perpetrators of these horrible attacks.  Now, it seems that all is being thrown away by the prisoner exchange deal.  This view would be entirely valid if our circumstances were normal.  Unfortunately, like so many other things in Israel and the Middle East, things are never straightforward.

My view is that we should do all that we can to respect the memories of those who have fallen in the line of duty protecting their homeland, and those whose lives have been taken by those seeking to destroy our country and our people.  While doing so, however, we are also forced to confront the new realities and circumstances that arise each day.  I think that the strength of our society lies in the fact that we do value each individual as if he is the only one.  While I agree that the price seems unbalanced when we exchange 1 for more than 1,000, the message that it sends to our serving soldiers and their families can only help to strengthen the resolve and the strength of our military, and of our society as a whole.  Our security forces can operate in the knowledge that they are more than simply a number, and that the government will do all that is required to protect them, even under the most extreme situation.  The argument that, through this prisoner exchange, the government is releasing murderers and terrorists to kill and maim again is valid.  The security services have said that they can take care of this situation, and I believe that there are so many potential terrorists and murderers in the West Bank and Gaza, that the release of this motley crew does not significantly increase the risk.  And while the exchange deal does reinforce what the terrorists already knew when they kidnapped Gilad, which is that Israel values each of its individual soldiers and will be prepared to strike an unbalanced prisoner exchange deal to release him, I don't believe that this dramatically increases the risk of other soldiers being kidnapped in the future.  This is because the risk has been at the highest level for many years, and the fact that 5 years have passed without another soldier being kidnapped is not because they have not tried.  Regular attempts have been made to kidnap soldiers, and we should expect that such attempts will continue.

Israel is forced to exist under extreme and severe circumstances.  The risk of a terror or missile attack against her civilians is ever-present.  The act of rounding up those who have brought death and destruction on Israelis in the past is more about justice than it is about reducing the risk levels.  It is clear that removing such individuals from a situation where they can repeat their crimes does give some increased level of security.  I am not convinced, however, that arresting these individuals, even when related to 1,000 people, serves to dramatically improve Israel's security.  Apparently the Shin Bet security agency agrees with this assessment, and has given its approval to the prisoner exchange.  The Shin Bet chief Yoram Cohen described the prisoner exchange deal as "a bad deal, but the only one available to us".  This sums it up for many in Israel.  We would prefer not to have to release criminals back onto the street, but the alternative of not doing so is worse.

The Israeli government last night released the names of the first group of prisoners set for release.  This is to allow the 48 hour period that the law requires for any legal challenges to the prisoner exchange before it goes ahead.  Objections to the exchange have already been filed with the High Court of Justice, and the court will hear these petitions during the course of today.  Assuming that the court gives its approval to the exchange, it is expected that Gilad Shalit will return to Israel during the course of Tuesday.  For one family and for many Israelis, this will be a moment of great joy and the ultimate fulfilment of the government's responsibility to each of its citizens.  For many families, it will reopen painful wounds and memories.  Our joy is tempered by their pain, and the sacrifice that these fmailies have made will never be ignored or forgotten. Unfortunately, nothing can return their loved ones, and it is my hope that they will find a way to feel the joy of the Shalit family and other Israelis.  We wait expectantly for the moment when Gilad will emerge, alive and well, into the arms of his family and the Israeli nation.

Monday 10 October 2011

The Price That is Not Worth Paying

A new and unwelcome phenomenon has been taking hold in Israel over the past few months.  The phenomenon involves attacks on Arab targets in what has become known as "price tag" attacks.  The name "price tag" comes from graffiti sprayed at the attack sites by the perpetrators, and that uses these words.  This all adds up to an attack in revenge for other events that have taken place.  The attacks that have taken place to date largely involve damage or destruction to property, and have been attributed to extremist religious Jews who have been taking the law into their own hands.

It is true that the Middle East is an extremely volatile part of the world.  It is also true that we see behaviour that would never be tolerated in other parts of the world, but here is somehow regarded as acceptable.  Despite this fact, the government of the State of Israel insists that the rule of law should prevail.  This means, amongst other things, that individuals do not have the right to summarily judge and punish others.  There is an established court system for this purpose, and individuals do not have the right to replace the court system in any way.

The price tag revenge attacks arise out of a frustration that almost all Israelis feel.  This stems from the fact that we seem to be in an almost constant state of war, and under continuous attack from terrorist groups based in the Arab countries that surround Israel.  Despite the IDF's efforts to keep us safe and their many successes in preventing attacks from taking place, the threat under which we live remains constant.  Some Israelis feel frustrated that Israel insists on behaving correctly and respects the human rights even of those who seek to destroy us, while Hamas violates every possible human right while holding Gilad Shalit in captivity.  This frustration still does not justify taking the law into one's own hands.  Certain groups, particularly religious groups, feel that the Israeli court system is stacked against them.  They believe that the courts pass judgement against them because there is too little recognition of the values and frameworks which guide their lives.  Even this cannot be used as a justification for taking the law into your own hands.  Even though there are many who will have sympathy for these frustrations, nothing and nobody is above the law.

The recent events that have particularly provoked price tag attacks have included the deaths a few weeks ago of Asher Palmer and his infant son in a car accident near Hebron.  It is reported that the car accident was caused by Arabs throwing stones at the car.  The government's actions to dismantle unlawful settler outposts in the West Bank have also provoked price tag attacks.  It should be emphasized that it is a small group of individuals who are involved in these attacks, and that they do not in any way represent the views of most Israelis in the actions that they have taken.  In fact, some religious Jewish groups have already begun fundraising to replace the holy books and repair damage done to the mosque.

When a mosque was burnt down in the Bedouin village of Tuba Sangariye destroying many religious books in the fire, Israel reacted with outrage.  The exact reason for choosing this village for a price-tag attack was not clear, but the response was clear.  This type of attack cannot be justified in a country that respects the rule of law.  President Shimon Peres and both chief rabbis of Israel visited the village to show solidarity, and to demonstrate that the establishment does not condone or tolerate this behaviour.  Over the period of Yom Kippur, Judaism's holiest day, Christian and Muslim graves in Jaffa and Bat Yam were vandalised.  The irony of such an act over Yom Kippur hardly needs to be highlighted.  There are those who equate attacks on cemeteries and places of religious worship with the attacks that were carried out on Jewish targets during the period of the Holocaust.  Now, it seems that Jews are resorting to similar tactics to make their own point.  The Israeli government has rightly resolved to crack down on this behaviour, and has increased the police's presence in areas considered to be targets.  There is some speculation that the Yom Kippur vandals were not from extremist religious groups, but were rather hooligans looking to take advantage of the climate that has been created by the price-tag attackers.  Whatever the truth may be, none of this behaviour can be tolerated.

As much as Israel is often a country under siege due to the constant security threats to her citizens, we are forced to protect our freedom and democracy for law-abiding citizens.  This freedom and democracy also extends to Arab Israelis, even when members of their clan or family are not abiding by the law.  Besides the negative effect that such behaviour has on Israel's standing in the international community, it has a greater negative impact upon ourselves.  We need to ensure that we are not dragged into behaving as badly as our enemies have behaved towards us over the years, no matter how tempting this prospect may be.

Unfortunately, the recent price-tag attacks are evidence that we have not quite begun the year on the correct foot.  We have a great deal to do in order to take care of the way that we respond to provocations by our enemies.  Reacting in the incorrect way could potentially draw us into consequences that are more damaging than any good that could come out of this.  Allowing individuals to continue to take the law into their own hands is clearly unacceptable.  The price on this price tag is one that we do not wish to pay.

Sunday 2 October 2011

New Year's Dreams

With the Jewish New Year occurring immediately after the UN General Assembly meeting in New York as it just did, it made me take stock of Israel's current situation compared to last year (which seems like only yesterday).  In particular, I thought about where we were in our attempts to make peace with our Palestinian neighbours at this time last year, and the year before that.  As is the custom at the time of the new year, I thought about the future and what could realistically be achieved over the course of the next year.

The truth is that the peacemaking efforts have remained stagnant for many years.  Israeli leaders have come and gone, and a Palestinian leader has gone and another one come.  We have tried peace conferences in Madrid, Oslo, Camp David, Wye Plantation, Ramallah and Jerusalem.  And yet, the obstacles have not moved even one iota.  We are suffering with precisely the same issues as we have suffered with over the years, some of which seem to be beyond solution.

I heard a good piece of advice from our local Rabbi over the new year period about how to set behaviour patterns for the forthcoming year.  He said that we should close our eyes, and dream of where we wish to be in a year's time from now.  We should think about the things that we would wish to achieve by then, and then think about the stage that precedes that achievement.  By continuing to think about the step which precedes each stage, we can finally return back to our present situation with a roadmap of how to reach our goal.  Although this sounds good in theory and a little more difficult to implement in practice, the concept is a good one.  It is important to close your eyes and dream a little, and to set objectives which can serve to guide you in your work and private life.

While thinking about all of this, I spent a few moments considering whether Mahmoud Abbas may have done some of his own dreaming for the Palestinian people which he leads.  Maybe the time of the Jewish New Year is not exactly when you would expect him to be considering this matter, but perhaps he would do so after Ramadan or on Ras as-Sana al-Hijreya, the Islamic New Year which falls at the end of November this year.  If he was to close his eyes and dream of what he would like to see for himself and his people at the same time next year, what would this be?  If we are to believe his public statements, this would be an independent Palestinian state.  Clearly there are details such as the borders and capital of this state, but the "big picture" dream, we are told, is the Palestinian state.  This is what he left us believing following his actions and speech at the United Nations.  If this is true, the answer is in his hands.  The Israeli government has agreed to it, and the sponsors in the form of the US and other members of the Quartet have also accepted this point.  All that is required for him to get there, is for him to make a few concessions and to compromise by dropping the detailed demands that he is making, in return for which the Palestinian state will be his.

The problem is that the details seem to be more important than the big picture objective.  He will not accept a Palestinian state unless its borders comply with specific conditions, or until Jerusalem is handed to him as its capital amongst some of his demands.  Although the Jewish people have prayed for more than 2,000 years for their return to Zion, to Jerusalem as the holiest city in the religion, the Jewish state existed for 19 years with Jewish access to only the western side of the city.  This meant that the holiest sites, including that upon which the holy temple once stood, were out of bounds to Jews.  This fact (and the small issue of being attacked on all sides by Arab countries in the region) did not deter the Jews from establishing Israel as the Jewish state.  The truth is that the objective of having an independent Jewish homeland was bigger than any of the details, no matter how important.  I do not get the same feeling that the Palestinians have the same objective.  Somehow, the details are playing a more important role than the headline objective.

My new hope is that his experiences at the UN a couple of weeks ago would somehow change Abbas's approach to the peace negotiations.  Maybe, by some miracle, Abbas may decide that he needs to acknowledge Israel's position as a Jewish country in order to make progress with his own objectives?  I am sure that he understands the need to make this concession, and how this may give him the state that he claims to yearn for.  His refusal to acknowledge this critical point is extremely concerning.  Is it possible that holding on to his position is more important than getting his independent state?

There is a real danger that the inhabitants of the Middle East have forgotten how to dream, and are forced to be reactive in confronting daily emergencies.  This would a great pity.  In the case of Mahmoud Abbas, it is not clear whether he has stopped dreaming, or whether the dreams that he is communicating to the outside world are not the same ones as the those that he is dreaming.  Under the current circumstances, his dreams will not be fulfilled, no matter what they are.  

My new year’s dream is that Gilad Shalit will be with us and his family, for him to celebrate the new year in freedom next year.  I also dream that Mahmoud Abbas may change his dreams to create the possibility for real peace, although this may be expecting too much.  It is my wish that you will all realise your dreams in the new year, and that our nation's dream of living in peace alongside our neighbours with mutual respect will be realised.  Shana Tova.

Sunday 25 September 2011

Palestinian Attempt to Hijack the UN Leads Nowhere

All eyes were focused last week on the opening of the 66th session of the UN General Assembly in New York.  For weeks prior to this event, the Palestinians had dominated the international press with stories of taking a unilateral declaration of independence to the UN for a vote.  Even though the events of last week turned many minds back to the fateful vote by the same organisation in 1947 which paved the way for the establishment of the State of Israel as the Jewish homeland, the two situations could not be more stark in their differences.

After the build-up that took place to last week's meetings, it all ended with something of an anti-climax.  There was no vote on the unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state.  There was not even a vote to admit the Palestinians as full members of the UN.  Ultimately, the best that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was able to do, was to submit his application to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon for full membership of the UN by the Palestinians.  This application will need to be approved by the UN Security Council, and US President Barack Obama has already said that the USA will veto this vote if necessary.  As a compromise, the Palestinians may be able to upgrade their current status of membership of the UN from an "entity" to a "non-member state" in UN speak.  This requires only a vote by the general assembly without the need for approval by the Security Council, and is likely to be approved with some ease.  The benefits of this upgrade for the Palestinians, however, seem marginal.

Despite the fact that all of the hype resulted in very little action, there were a few important results that came out of the events of last week.  The first major outcome was the way in which President Barack Obama behaved when he was truly put on the spot.  Obama has distanced himself from the peace process since assuming office nearly 3 years ago.  He has yet to pay a visit to Israel or to the Palestinian Authority area, and has preferred to focus his time and energies on the many other issues currently confronting the USA.  Despite his statements about the importance of resolving Middle East conflict, and his attempts to set timetables within which this issue should be resolved, he has yet to devote any significant chunk of his time to make this happen.  When he was backed into a corner last week and forced to decide whether the Security Council should approve full membership for the Palestinians, he knew that exercising the USA's veto is the only answer.  This was accompanied by a speech which was one of the most pro-Israeli addresses made by a US president at the UN for many years, and which surprised supporters and detractors alike.  In his speech, he told the story of the terror and hatred that Israelis have been forced to live with over many years, and he recognised Israel's right to exist as the Jewish homeland.  This was perhaps the most critical statement, as it is the point which currently presents the main stumbling block to renewing peace talks.

The address to the general assembly by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was equally an important event during the week.  Despite his many faults, Netanyahu has consistently shown his ability to present Israel's position on the international stage.  Once again, he did this with great confidence and conviction.  In particular, he addressed those people who feel that Israel should show greater flexibility in its negotiating position.  There are those who believe that Israel should be playing to the "Palestinian moderates", by making concessions to give them greater position and power amongst their Palestinian colleagues.  In theory, these moderates will lead the peace agreement with Israel, and lead the Palestinians to a more moderate position.  In refuting this position, Netanyahu reminded the general assembly of the many concessions that Israel has already made in the interests of pursuing peace.  The most substantial of these concessions, a unilateral withdrawal from Gaza with all the implications of uprooting the lives of many thousands of people, has served to distance peace rather than bring it closer.  After handing the keys of Gaza to PA President Abbas, he proceeded to lose control of it to the radicals of Hamas.  Israel has been forced to endure constant rocket fire from the areas which were previously under Israeli control ever since.  If this is a model for making concessions, it is not particularly successful and does create much of a precedent for future concessions.

Overall, the right conclusion was reached at the UN.  This conclusion is that the UN cannot act as a replacement for the peace process.  The UN cannot grant a state to people who are unwilling to come to the negotiating table, because they refuse to recognise the most fundamental rights of their neighbour.  Until the Palestinians recognise the rights of Israel to exist, and to exist as a Jewish state, there can be no further discussion.  Without this recognition, there will always be the suspicion (or maybe a confirmation) that the Palestinians seek a state of their own alongside Israel only in order to use this as a springboard to destroy the Jewish state completely.  Hamas, along with their Hezbollah and Iranian friends, have not been shy to make this point clear in public.  Perhaps this is Mahmoud Abbas's little secret.

The difference between the UN vote of 1947 and the UN non-vote of 2011 is perhaps best reflected by the responses of the general public awaiting the outcomes.  Jews were dancing in the streets of Jerusalem, across then-Palestine and around the world.  In contrast, Palestinians lined up across the West Bank with stones which were thrown at Israeli security patrols, and burning posters of President Barack Obama and Israeli flags.  Israeli military was on high alert in the south of the country after a concrete threat of a terror attack in the area.

While the UN has in the past been a very unhappy hunting ground for Israel and Jews around the world, these two occasions stand out as crucially arriving at the correct conclusion.  Each, for its own different reason, will take its place in Jewish history as a critical moment in time.