Sunday 30 January 2011

Analysing the "Palestine Papers" Leaks

The leak last week of confidential information regarding negotiations between representatives of Israel and the Palestinian Authority over the past decade has come as something of a surprise. The surprise is not in the fact that information has been leaked. We have already become accustomed to the publication of confidential government and diplomatic information, thanks to the recent revelations by Wikileaks. The surprise factor on this occasion surrounds the party responsible for the "Palileaks". Many have been surprised by the reaction in the Arab world, and by the Palestinians in particular, to the details published.

The so-called "Palestine Papers" have been made public by Qatar-based television station Al-Jazeera (AJ). It is not immediately obvious what interest AJ would have to publish this information. I can only speculate as to what I think may have driven AJ to take this step. It is a news station that has succeeded in joining the ranks of the most recognised 24-hour news stations around the world over the past few years, along with the likes of BBC, Sky, Fox and CNN. With the increased attention of international news-watchers to events taking place in the Arab world and the Middle East, and particularly how they affect events in western countries, AJ has brought an angle that many other of the international news stations have been unable to cover. It is recognised as an Arab news station, with access to Arab news and news-makers that other stations do not have. AJ has, however, been very careful not to become the protector of Arab points of view. In this sense, the station has had no problem in "betraying" the Arab world if the news item demands this. Those Arabs who thought that AJ would be some sort of propaganda tool to promote the views of the Arab world will be gravely disappointed by the news station that AJ has become. It appears as if it is more important for AJ to be regarded as a worthy, reliable and independent news broadcaster by its peers and audience outside of the Arab world, than it was for the station to be seen as a mouthpiece for the views of the Arabs. As the owner of AJ, the emir of Qatar is closely associated with the views that the broadcaster expresses. We are told that he was personally involved in the decision to publish details of the Palestine Papers. This decision has been true to AJ's desire to be regarded, first and foremost, as a station that reports newsworthy items, even if this may be at the expense of the Arab world.

The details of the Palestine Papers has come as a surprise to some, while reinforcing what others thought was already out there in the public domain. The contents have been presented in the international press as showing the Palestinians to be more accommodating in their negotiating position than they have been given credit for. This has led the left-wing press to accuse Israel of intransigence, and of not being willing to come to an agreement with the Palestinians. For the liberals, this has proven that Israel does have a "partner for peace", which is contrary to the views expressed by a number of Israeli prime ministers over the years from both the right and the left of the political spectrum. For some, this proves that Israel has not wished to take the opportunity for peace when the Palestinians have been willing to do so.

I have viewed the revelations in a different way. For me, it has reinforced how complex the issues in the negotiations really are. In particular, it is clear that trying to find a "package" that address all the issues and that both parties can agree to is almost impossible. The so-called concessions that have come out of the Palestine Papers, and that the Palestinian side has been given credit for, have not been offered for free. It is easy to show willingness to compromise on critical issues if the price that you ask in return is one that will never fly. Under these circumstances, the concession offered is no compromise at all, but it can be dressed up to look like one. The "concession" that seems to have been most written about, is the fact that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has acknowledged that it is not realistic to expect Israel to allow 5 million Palestinian refugees to be accommodated within Israel. What a shock! How could there ever have been an expectation that a country of 7 million people would admit 5 million new citizens? So why does the Arab world not make a move to find permanent alternative arrangements for these people, who have been housed under awful conditions for the best part of 60 years. They were not expelled from their homes by Israel but left of their own accord despite the nascent state's government inviting them to stay. Now, the issue of the refugees needs to be addressed by the Arab world, and removed as a threat from the peace negotiations. It does not take a nuclear scientist to work out that Israel can never accommodate this volume of new citizens, even with the best will in the world. As such, it should not be a point for negotiation at all.

Perhaps the biggest surprise for some people has been the reaction of the Palestinian street to the revelation of the Palestine Papers. Whereas the international press has painted the Palestinians as the good guys and surprisingly willing to compromise in the interests of reaching a peace agreement, the Palestinian reaction has been negative. The Palestinian leadership responded immediately to the revelations by AJ by being concerned for their own safety. They denied that the compromises were their compromises, and accused AJ of mixing up the Israeli positions for their own. The man on the street believed this for a while.

The Palestinian leadership understood that their constituency would not like the details of what was made public. But why is this the case? Are the Palestinian people not interested in reaching a final status agreement that would allow them to live in peace in their own state alongside Israel? Apparently, the Palestinians are more concerned about being sold out, than they are about reaching a peace agreement. The Palestinian leadership was concerned that the Palestinian people would regard them as a traitors for offering concessions that went further than the Palestinian public is ready for. When it finally dawned on the man in the street that AJ had indeed published truths, demonstrations across the West Bank ensued while the members of the negotiating team lay low to try to deflect the risk that they and their families were under.

I was reminded of the situation that then-prime minister Ehud Barak found himself in, when he returned from Camp David after making wide-sweeping concessions to Yasser Arafat on the status of Jerusalem. The Israeli public was obviously not ready for the extent of these concessions and clearly did not approve. Despite this fact, there were no demonstrations and there was no threat to Barak's life. At the occasion of the next general election, he was unceremoniously dumped from power which ended that episode.

The leaks of the Palestine Papers has demonstrated the difficulty that faces the parties to the peace negotiations. Positions which give the parties credibility in the international community serve to weaken their support in their home constituencies, and vice versa. This reality applies as much to the Israeli team as it does to the Palestinians. Any compromise on land in the West Bank offered by the Israeli team will be met with massive opposition from the settler movement. This realisation serves as a source of great pessimism regarding the prospects for any success in the negotiations.

The leaks of the Palestine Papers has caused anguish and anger in the Palestinian community while giving the Palestinian negotiators positive press abroad. While it seems to have achieved nothing in progressing the peace talks, I believe that it has probably not done any lasting damage either. As with the Wikileaks which set the precedent for the Palileaks, once the initial surprise factor has been overcome, people seem to get back to their everyday business quite quickly. The revelations have not moved the course of international politics in one direction or another. Nobody has been forced to resign over the information revealed, and nobody has been physically attacked as a result. All it does is provide a more comprehensive backdrop for the events which follow, and allows the greater public a better understanding of the secret interactions.

The big winner out of the whole Palileaks affair is AJ. Whether they are loved or hated, they have certainly been the name on everybody's lips over the past few days. It has been said that even bad publicity is publicity, and this has been the case for AJ. Their offices were closed down in the West Bank and Gaza, but I am sure that this will be a temporary situation. The Palestinians understand the value of stations like AJ keeping the Palestinian issue in the news headlines.

As an afterthought, it has been interesting that the current two issues which are preventing the continuation of the peace talks were not covered in the Palestine Papers in any major depth. Israel's demands for the Palestinians to recognise Israel as a Jewish state remain unanswered. The Palestinians demands for Israel to freeze construction have not been agreed to. Could it be that these two issues were left out on purpose? Maybe even those revealing the innermost secrets have limits that they adhere to. It does give some food for thought.

Saturday 29 January 2011

Violence Sweeps the Arab World

The winds of change seem to be blowing through the Middle East. Demonstrations which began in Tunisia during December have now reached Yemen and Egypt, the Middle East's most populous country. Whereas many of these countries have previously seen demonstrations, this time the unrest is different. Demonstrations in the past have usually been directed against western countries and non-Muslims. The current outbreak is directed against the leaders and governments of Arab countries. When considering the stability of the Middle East and particularly from Israel's perspective, the fact that the unrest has reached Egypt represents a substantial risk.

Most Arab countries have been governed in a distinctly undemocratic way. Even those that have held elections, have given only token representation to democratic principles. Egypt has previously held elections in which Mubarak was the only candidate. This seems to be the limit of democracy across the Arab world. Many Arab countries are ruled by royal dynasties such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the Emirates, or by family succession such as Syria and Mubarak's attempts to introduce his son to succeed his rule. It is not unusual for rulers in the Arab world to be around for lengthy periods of time. The thirty years that Mubarak's rule in Egypt has lasted is not an unusual occurrence in this part of the world. There are numerous other examples of leaders outstaying their welcome in the interests of clinging to power.

The unrest over the past couple of months has come unexpectedly, and it is unusual in that it has succeeded in ousting at least one leader from power so far. Events in Egypt indicate that President Hosni Mubarak may well be the next casualty. It would have been almost impossible to predict these events 12 months ago, or even 6 months ago. Traditionally, Arab leaders rule their countries in an autocratic type of way, and tolerate absolutely no opposition or threat to their authority. Despite this fact, the demonstrations in Tunisia which overthrew the rule of President Zine El Abiden Ben Ali, seem to have emboldened opposition movements in Yemen and Egypt. Under these circumstances, it is likely that these demonstrations may spread to other countries and it is difficult to know where this will end.

It is evident that the citizens of these Arab countries have had enough of their political aspirations being suppressed. Until now, they have been afraid to express their opposition to the ruling government. Having witnessed the success achieved in Tunisia, however, opposition movements have gained confidence in their ability to make their views known. The success achieved in Egypt will give even further momentum to those in other countries who wish to oppose their ruling governments. Until today, I would not have dared to bet against Mubarak surviving this attack on his regime. At the current moment, with Omar Suleiman installed as Egypt's first vice president in 3o years, Mubarak's hold on power is looking extremely shaky.

From an Israeli perspective, Mubarak's rule has proved to be good. He has cracked down on the Muslim Brotherhood movement which presented as much of a threat to Israel's safety as it did to the Mubarak regime. He has also placed a fairly tight control on the Gaza border which has made it more difficult for Hamas to smuggle arms into the Gaza Strip, which are then used to threaten Israel. If Egypt descends into a state uncertainty as a result of Mubarak being ousted from power, it is expected that Israel will not be immediately threatened. After all, the focus of all the parties is currently on internal political issues. In due course, however, Mubarak's successor will need to get down to the issue of foreign policy and, in particular, policy to be followed regarding Israel and the Hamas state of Gaza. No matter who replaces Mubarak, it is almost certain that Israel will be much more nervous about security on its Egyptian border, and on the border with Gaza.

Even if Mubarak survives the next few days and weeks, it is most likely that he will no longer be in power by the end of 2011. Indications are that the winds of change blowing through the Middle East will see that 2011 is a year of dramatic changes in the Arab world. For Israel, this brings a period of uncertainty and an element of nervousness. Even though Israel is always on heightened alert, the past 30 years have allowed her to be less concerned about events on the Egyptian border. This may be about to change.

Monday 24 January 2011

Is Barak Really Part of the Left?

One of the aspects of Israeli politics which has surprised me over the years, is the extent to which former military men have decided to become politicians for the Labour Party after retiring from the IDF. In my eyes, being a career soldier conjures up the vision of right-wing leanings, even though many of the most famous of Israel's military men have a kibbutz background. Despite this fact, there are a number of examples of former generals who have joined the Labour party, and even a few who have gone on to serve as Labour prime ministers. The most famous of these is the late Yitzchak Rabin who previously served as military chief of general staff (ramatkal in Hebrew). Another former ramatkal who went on to become prime minister is Ehud Barak. His true political views have, however, been brought into sharp focus due to events over the past week.

Barak announced last week that he has left the Labour party and resigned as its chairman. Instead, he has decided to form his own new party, the Atzmaut (independence) party. Were it not for the fact that he decimated Labour's Knesset faction by taking 5 out of Labour's 13 Knesset seats (including his own) out of the party and into the new Atzmaut Knesset faction, there may have been a small cheer from Labour faithful that Barak has left the party. For the Labour party, this Knesset has been characterised by splits and divisions over whether the party's true place is in the coalition government led by Benjamin Netanyahu. Ehud Barak has been at the centre of this controversy.

Immediately following his unsuccessful term as prime minister which ended in 2001, Barak left the political arena for 6 years. Since returning to politics in 2007, he has served as minister of defence and a member of the cabinet. For Barak, this seems to be the position that he desires most, and it seems as though he is prepared to do almost anything to retain it. A number of Labour's Knesset faction were unhappy when Barak took Labour into the coalition led by Benjamin Netanyahu. The main source of the dissatisfaction was the fact that the Labour party ministers are forced to sit around the cabinet table with Avigdor Lieberman, and other members of his Yisrael Beiteinu party. Less likely bed fellows would be difficult to find, and Labour party members certainly felt it.

Despite this fact, the Labour ministers have continued to serve in the government. In terms of government policies, the least comfortable aspect of serving in this government has related to the way in which the peace negotiations have been managed. It has been clear that many of the Labour party Knesset members have been extremely unhappy about being part of a government that has managed the peace negotiations in a way which is so opposite to that in which they would choose. A great deal of pressure has been exercised on the Labour leadership to withdraw from the government as a protest. Because this has not been the unanimous view of all members of the faction, it has resulted in a great deal of in-fighting and lack of unity amongst the 13 Knesset members. Interestingly, it has been party leader and defence minister Ehud Barak who has been one of those most eager to stay in the government.

By choosing to stay in the government, Barak has been accused of not remaining true and loyal to Labour party basic beliefs. He has preferred to bring about Labour's influence from within the ranks of the government, rather than from the opposition benches. There are those who have accused Barak of selling out on Labour's principles, and putting his own personal agenda ahead of the party and the country. He stands accused of keeping Labour in the government only to ensure that he is able to continue serving in a senior government role. This disagreement has proved too much for Barak, and is ultimately what led him to walk away from Labour to form the Barak Atzmaut party.

What is noticeable about the Atzmaut party is that it has only been presented as a "centrist Zionist party". We know little else about the party, its policies and what its election platform would be. Despite this fact, the party holds five Knesset seats and four government portfolios, including minister of defence. This is surely a highly unusual situation in a democratic country. For Barak, it is ideal. He can continue to be minister of defence without having to continuously answer to the Labour party faithful as to why he is not acting in a way which is true to the party's beliefs and policies. He is now able to act almost as he wishes. without having to account to any particular constituency.

Israel's political middle ground has become a very crowded space. Tzipi Livni's Kadima party is also in the centre, although I imagine probably to the right of the Atzmaut party. Both Labour on the left and Likud on the right have shown signs of encroaching on the middle ground. Under the circumstances, it is hardly surprising that Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu attracted the support that it received. It is the only truly right-wing party in Israeli politics, and accordingly receives support of those on the right side of centre.

I would be surprised if Atzmaut has a long-term future in Israeli politics. It feels like a niche party to satisfy the whims of Ehud Barak. I feel more confident that Labour will recover from the act of decimating the party which has been carried out by its former leader. This is a party which has a history of fighting for its values, principles and ideals. It has a substantial base of support in the kibbutz movement and the trade union movement. Although I have never been a great supporter of Labour policies, I do respect and recognise the important role the party has played in building the State of Israel.

As for Ehud Barak, he will go down in history as a traitor and a person who used public office for the promotion of his personal status and agenda, rather than for the greater good. This is an enormous tragedy for him personally, and for Israel.

Sunday 16 January 2011

The Pay Slip That Does Not Show All the Numbers

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been waging a private battle at the Knesset to increase the prime ministerial salary. Raising the salaries of public servants is never easy, and there is probably never a "good" time to choose for this, when lawmakers and the general public will support such a move without reservation. Netanyahu's timing, and particularly his tactics, have proved to be quite interesting.

The current state of the economy shows that, despite attempts to cut public spending, the salary levels in the market are on the rise. During the economic downturn in 2008, many companies in the private sector opted to cut salaries instead of laying off staff. As a result of this, salary levels in the market decreased noticeably. Since then, salaries have returned to their former levels, and have even surpassed them. This is also reflected by an increase in the level of the minimum wage which was recently agreed by the Knesset for implementation in two stages. The minimum wage will be increased from its current level of NIS 3,850 per month to NIS 4,100 ($1,155 at current exchange rates) per month in July 2011, and then to NIS 4,300 per month in October 2012. This, it seems, has provided the prime minister with a perfect opportunity for him to request an increase to his pay packet as well.

As part of his PR campaign to convince the general public of the fact that he deserves a pay rise, Netanyahu has taken the unusual step of releasing a copy of his pay slip for public consumption. The details were released on Netanyahu's Facebook page, and they make quite interesting reading. The pay slip shows that Netanyahu earns a gross monthly salary of NIS 41,987 ($11,987), an amount which is set by law. This is well above Israel's mean salary of NIS 7,900, but not much for a senior CEO of a major Israeli company who is required to be on call 24/7. By the time Netanyahu has had deductions applied for income tax (he pays a huge NIS 11,500 in tax for use of his armoured car), national insurance and social security contributions, his take-home salary is a mere NIS 15,000 ($4,225) per month. By comparison to other world leaders (at least those whose pay packets are publicly disclosed), Netanyahu's salary is modest. President Barack Obama earns $400,000 a year and Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong earns more than $2.1m per year. It could be argued that Netanyahu has one of the more intensive jobs amongst his international peer group, justifying a salary that compares with those earning at the upper end of the salary range.

The pay slip, however, conceals more than it reveals. Netanyahu and members of his family have use of the prime minister's residence with its staff and perks. Almost all aspects of his private expenditure are covered by the state coffers. All of this means that he has little need for private cash of his own while safely ensconced in the prime minister's residence. Before assuming his role as prime minister, he will have been required to deposit all of his business dealings into an escrow arrangement. These would include the royalties being earned on the sales of the numerous books that he has written as well as other business dealings from his time prior to entering government. While he is not allowed to actively pursue his business interests while serving as head of government, these interests are undoubtedly continuing to earn income and gather value. By the time he leaves the government and retrieves these activities from the escrow arrangement, there will no doubt be a tidy pay-off awaiting him.

Being able to enter "Prime Minister of Israel" on his CV is helpful for securing Netanyahu's financial future. It can be expected that he will be in great demand on the lucrative speaking circuit, and will be able to command a sum for each speaking engagement that would probably dwarf his annual salary as prime minister. Not only would Netanyahu be the ex-prime minister of a country that is constantly in the headlines and attracting world attention, he is also personally a strong character and eloquent orator. I expect that he will have the pick of the speaking engagements, and will probably be able to name his price.

While it is expected that the prime minister should earn a living wage to ensure that he can get on with his job and not have to be concerned about his day-to-day financial affairs, it is also clear that people do not take on the prime minister's job in order to get rich. Or at least, not to get rich while in office. Whatever salary would be on offer, could not compensate the holder of the office for the intensity of the job and huge responsibility that comes with it. This reward comes via the international exposure gained, the satisfaction of leading a country and achieving its hopes and aspirations, and reaping the financial benefits that can be taken advantage of after leaving office.

If Netanyahu does succeed in engineering an increase to his prime ministerial salary, it is unlikely to make any real difference to his financial situation. He currently has little need for spare cash, and probably has enough from his personal resources to make good any shortfall. He could find, however, that the damage suffered by increased scrutiny and negative public opinion may be more than the financial benefit of the additional money earned. In the same way as many other Facebook users have found in the past, his Facebook disclosure may yet come back to haunt him.

Monday 10 January 2011

A Unilateral Palestinian State is a Reward for Bad Behaviour

With the current attempts to resurrect the peace discussions between Israelis and Palestinians not making any progress, the Palestinians have renewed their intentions to "go it alone". For them this means going to the United Nations Security Council to ask this body to approve the establishment of an independent Palestinian state on the basis of the pre-1967 borders. The Palestinians have already started a PR campaign and have approached a number of countries, mostly those who are not members of the UN Security Council, to recognise this state. Many countries have come out in recognition of a Palestinian state on this basis. But why is this tactic one which the Palestinians prefer to genuine negotiation, compromise and agreement?

The first time that there was a call for a Palestinian state was after the Six Day War in 1967, in which Israel captured the West Bank, Gaza, the Golan Heights and East Jerusalem. Israel succeeded in attacking the Arab armies immediately just before they initiated an attack on the Jewish state to try to destroy it. Until 1967, the focus of the Arab countries (and the Palestinians as part of this) was to remove any signs of a Jewish country in the Middle East. The Arab armies were lined up to attack Israel to try to achieve this, but were surprised by the pre-emptive strike by Israel to the point that , not only did they not make any progress towards their goal, they actually regressed in their objective by losing additional land in the process. In recognition of the change in their situation, the Arabs decided to change their tactics. For the first time, a "Palestinian" people was born and a state for the Palestinian people was demanded in the West Bank and Gaza, which were lost in the war. Many Jews regard this is as a tactic to regain lost ground in order to allow the Palestinians to return to their original objective of completely destroying Israel. This view has been substantially supported by actions, statements and writings of Palestinians without shame or embarrassment.

The Israeli government formally agreed for the first time to negotiate with the Palestinians with a view to a "two-state solution" as part of the Madrid Conference in 1991. This was also the central tenet of the Oslo process which followed the Madrid conference, and has been at the heart of all subsequent talks, discussions and negotiations held with the Palestinians since then. The concept of a two-state solution is almost regarded as a foregone conclusion despite the still-prevalent view that it is intended to be used as a springboard to destroy Israel. The details of the talks between Israel and the Palestinians since then have centred on terms and conditions for the establishment of the two-state solution, in a way that will satisfy Israel's requirements for the peace and security that she seeks while giving the Palestinians self-government over their own country. There are those who are unsurprised that such a formula has not yet been found, when considering that the main objective of a Palestinian state remains the destruction of Israel.

The latest attempts by the Americans to bring the parties to the negotiating table have failed due to two main issues: 1) the unwillingness of the Palestinians to recognise Israel as a Jewish state and 2) the ongoing construction in the West Bank. While the Palestinians have never agreed to recognise Israel as a Jewish state, the Israelis did agree to a unilateral freeze in construction in the West Bank despite the ongoing housing shortage in Israel. More than this, Israel entered into negotiations with the Americans to renew the construction freeze as a gesture to facilitate the next round of talks. Unfortunately, the Palestinians did not take advantage of the original freeze to progress the talks, and were not prepared to make the required compromises to match those proposed by the Israelis in the negotiations with the Americans. The resulting deadlock is plain for all to see. The Israeli government is under significant internal political and economic pressure to continue to build new homes in the West Bank. In particular, the government is under pressure not to undertake any further unilateral steps where the Palestinians are not also making gestures to show their willingness to compromise.

The unwillingness on the part of the Palestinians to recognise Israel as Jewish state is central to the ongoing lack of progress. It seems inconceivable that they should be so insistent on withholding their consent to what is the current reality and status quo. Does this represent a new tactic that, if they cannot destroy the Jewish state by force, they will destroy it politically by insisting that Israel not be recognised as a Jewish state? How does this tie in to the reality that, despite promises to do so over many years, the PLO has still not removed from its charter the clause calling from the destruction of the State of Israel?

The Palestinians have succeeded in garnering the sympathy of the world for the wretched state of their people. Many are unemployed and living in miserable conditions which is, of course, blamed neatly on the "Israeli occupation". While the ongoing military situation does not make for easier living conditions for anybody, particularly those in economically poor situations, the truth is that the leaders in the Palestinian Authority are guilty of acting only to improve the economic situation of themselves and their own families. It is in their interests to keep the rest of their people downtrodden to continue to enjoy sympathy and financial donations from countries with a conscience. This tactic has reached the point where they feel that it may even help to ease the path of the establishment of a Palestinian state via UN resolution. It is difficult not to see the parallels with the UN resolution in 1947 that agreed to partition Palestine and established the State of Israel. Many of the members of the UN will be feeling that a poor, downtrodden nation has the right to a country of its own.

By taking the route of going to the UN, the Palestinians think that they will be able to have their cake and eat it. They believe that they can get their state without recognising Israel as a Jewish state. Many of those sitting around the UN Security Council table may be inclined to agree in the interests of removing the Palestinian issue from the world's to-do list. If this was agreed upon by the UN, it would be the equivalent of rewarding the Palestinians for bad behaviour. Instead of being prepared to compromise in the interests of achieving a viable peace with Israel, they are essentially blackmailing the world into agreeing to their demands without requiring them to take on the responsibilities. This is surely bad diplomacy, and does not lay the groundwork for any sort of peace arrangement.

Any Palestinian state created in this way would essentially be an enemy state of Israel. Security will not have been agreed upon, the status of Jerusalem would be an ongoing disagreement, large towns inhabited by Israeli Jews would wind up in the middle of the Palestinian state and the return of the refugees would continue to be a point of contention. The truth is that the Palestinian state would have little more than it has now under the self-government arrangement, except for an enemy called Israel. Besides proving to Israel that it has the support of influential countries in the world to vote upon the creation of such a state, it is quite difficult to see what the Palestinians would really achieve by going down this route. They have proven over the years that, even with huge international assistance, they have made little progress towards creating the internal mechanisms required to run a country that is truly independent of Israel.

Fortunately for sanity in the Middle East, it appears as though the Americans would exercise their veto to any vote at the UN Security Council, thereby killing off the establishment of an independent Palestinian state via this route. The time has come for the Palestinians to accept their responsibilities along with the rights to a state that they believe they have. I think that the creation of a this state is a lot closer via the path of negotiations than they wish to acknowledge. The first step in this direction, however, has to be taken by them.

Sunday 2 January 2011

Time to Take Stock and Learn Lessons

Israel's most shameful episode in its short history came to a head late last week in the Tel Aviv District Court, when former President Moshe Katsav was found guilty of rape and sexual assault. This took place during his period in office as tourism minister and president of the State of Israel. The country has had to deal with scandal and shame in the past, but this episode must surely rank as the most shameful incident in history. What sets this story apart from other cases of rape and sexual assault, all of which are abhorrent, is the fact that this man used his power and position to force himself on women against their will.

Moshe Katsav was born in Iran and immigrated to Israel at the age of 6 years old with his parents and family. The family settled in a transit camp near the city of Ashdod. This camp went on to become the town of Kiryat Malachi, where Katsav and his family live to this day. At the age of 24, he was elected mayor of Kiryat Malachi and took his seat in the Knesset for the first time 8 years later. During his 23 years in the Knesset, he held a variety of government positions including three ministries and the post of deputy prime minister. He was elected as the president of Israel in 2000 in a surprise victory over his rival, Shimon Peres. Peres eventually succeeded Katsav in 2007 when he stepped down to face the charges levelled against him.

There can be no doubt that Katsav's Iranian background served to reinforce the prevalent Middle-Eastern culture of a society where males dominate. This attitude can also be found in many parts of modern Israeli society despite indications to the contrary. Many aspects of Israel project equality between the sexes to the international world. These include the fact that Israel was only the third country in the world to have a female prime minister, and the fact that girls are also subject to the draft and are obliged to serve in the military along with their male counterparts. Despite these measures of equality and others that can be found in Israel, the reality is that Israeli society continues to be dominated by males. This will also have been a contributing factor in setting the scene for the crimes that took place in the offices of government and in the residence of the president of the state.

When the accusations against Katsav first surfaced, he was already safely ensconced in the president's mansion. The fact that one woman had the courage to come forward to accuse the man in the highest position in the country, emboldened others to accuse him of similar crimes. Soon, a number of women were telling of their experiences at the hands of Katsav. Because of the seniority of his position in government, the women did not have the courage to come forward until this moment. Once the first of the stories were told, it opened the floodgates until the police were unable to ignore the accusations. It took some brave actions on the part of police and prosecutors to bring this action against the sitting president.

Katsav was offered the opportunity to avoid scandal and embarrassment when the police offered him a plea bargain. In return for dropping the most serious of the charges, Katsav was offered the opportunity to plead guilty to lesser charges and receive a suspended sentence. Astonishingly, he rejected the plea bargain in favour of a court trial in a quest to "clear his name". It is unclear whether he thought that he could use his political influence to engineer an innocent verdict from the court, or whether he genuinely felt he had done nothing wrong. I rather suspect that it was the former, but his audacity in rejecting the plea bargain added insult to injury in the eyes of the judges and the public. In this case, the Israeli legal system showed itself able to maintain its independence under enormous political pressure. Following a lengthy trial and an equally lengthy period while the judges considered the evidence, the three judges on the bench returned with a unanimous verdict - guilty! The former president's fall from grace was complete, together with the embarrassment that he has heaped on Israel.

The hearing to sentence Katsav will be held during the course of January, and he is expected to receive a long custodial sentence. Even the former president is not above the law. and he will be subject to the same punishment as all other citizens. Despite being accustomed to scandals of all types, the public has been shocked by the nature of the crimes and level of coercion and abuse of powers that has become evident from the case.

The story, however, cannot be allowed to end when sentence is passed. Israeli society needs to take a long hard look at itself in order to identify the flaws in society that allowed such a crime to take place. Even though it is the most high profile of its type, it is certainly not the only example of such abuse of power to commit criminal acts. It is high time for such behaviour to be stamped out. It is easier said than done, however, with almost every aspect of Israeli society affected.

An example needs, firstly, to be set by the country's senior leaders. They need to make it clear that such abuse of position and encroachment on the privacy of women is unacceptable. They also need to behave in a way that reinforces this position. A huge undertaking is required within the ranks of the military where such behaviour is reported to be rife. The central position of the IDF to Israeli society means that this action is essential and urgent.

I recognise that a change of this magnitude will take years, if not generations until a noticeable change is seen in Israeli society. In the meantime, it is important for me that my children and their peers will grow up understanding what is right and what is wrong, and holding the relevant people responsible for behaving accordingly. We cannot undo the damage done by Katsav, but it is our responsibility to learn lessons from this case to ensure that it does not happen again.