Sunday 26 June 2011

Five Years and No Signs of Life

Yesterday marked the fifth anniversary since Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was captured by Hamas operatives on the Israeli side of the Gaza border. Five unrelenting years have passed without any outside organisation having been allowed access to the young soldier at all. His parents have fought a tireless battle to keep their son's name on the agenda of the politicians, and on the lips and in the conscience of all members of the public.

How can such a situation arise, that five years are allowed to pass without any meaningful progress in securing Gilad's release? Even Terry Waite was not forced to endure this length of captivity, and was released before 5 years had passed. The psychological impact on Waite of those years behind bars was dramatic (see The Long Waite), so what can we possibly hope for Gilad, if and when he is released?

The intentions behind Hamas's decision to capture and hold Gilad were always based on pure evil. It was their view that they would be able to secure the release of Hamas terrorists held in Israeli jails, to allow them to return to kill and maim Israeli civilians. This view has been strengthened by the never-ending negotiations that have been ongoing between Israel and Hamas for the release of Gilad. These talks, sometimes facilitated by German mediators and sometimes by Egyptians, have focused on the number of Hamas prisoners that will be released, the specific names on the list and whether they will be released to the West Bank, Gaza or elsewhere. The Israeli demand is a simple one - to release Gilad safely into the hands of his parents. When dealing with organisations like Hamas (or like Hezbollah in the case of the capture of Terry Waite), their evil seems to know no bounds. There is no way of knowing what they might truly be prepared to agree to in order to release Gilad, and to what extent these protracted negotiations are simply a game to keep their name in the international headlines. The last communication and sign of life from Gilad was more than two years ago. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has repeatedly been denied access to him, contravening all international accepted norms in this respect. The latest appeal by the ICRC last week showed major concern about his well-being on their part. This time, they did not demand a sign of life, but immediate access to him. As before, the request was refused.

As time goes by, things certainly get worse. This applies particularly to the possibilities of seeing Gilad alive again. The capture of Israeli Air Force navigator Ron Arad is proof of that. Arad was captured in 1986 after bailing out of his plane over Lebanon. He was variously reported to have been held in Lebanon, Syria and Iran, but has never been seen since. A secret Israeli military report claimed that he died of an illness in 1995. The problem is that those that originally captured him were reported to have had no idea where he was, or who held him by that time. The trail became remote and cold. Simply to follow the track of where he was, and under whose responsibility, became an impossible task. The same danger exists for Gilad. Some of those who were involved in his original capture have been killed in operations with Israeli forces. Is he still being held in Gaza, or has he been smuggled via the tunnels into Egypt and then to who-knows-where? The more time that passes makes the tracking of his whereabouts increasingly difficult, and the prospects of his safe release increasingly remote.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has appointed mediators on behalf of the government to focus on this one matter, to bring Gilad home via a negotiated deal. He has accepted the involvement of the German and Egyptian mediators to resolve the issue. This has all been to no avail, as the ultimate goal has yet to be achieved. His latest statement on the matter is no different than the previous ones he has made. This amounts to stating that complying with the Hamas request for a prisoner swap would endanger too many Israelis. This is reference to the fact that those who would be released in terms of Hamas's demands are those terrorists who have killed Israelis, and would do so again. He is, of course, showing some respect to the families of those who have been killed by these evil beasts. The problem is that, by keeping them in jail, no lives can be returned. By releasing them from jail, there is a life that can be returned. This must surely be the main consideration.

I don't accept the statements by the prime minister, that the deal cannot be done because too many people's lives will be endangered by doing so. While I do agree that imprisoning key individuals has contributed to a reduction in the attacks that Israel has been forced to endure from both Gaza and the West Bank, I also feel that there are ways of managing a process of releasing these beasts in return for them releasing Gilad. We have previously released individuals like Sheik Ahmed Yassin in prisoner swaps, who then immediately returned to his evil ways of orchestrating terror attacks on Israelis. He ultimately paid for this with his life when an Israeli Air Force strike killed him. Any deal to release terrorist prisoners will require extremely good Israeli intelligence to track these individuals following their release. Any sign of activities on their part to hurt Israelis, should be met with immediate action to eliminate them. Not only will this remove them and their evil ways from the picture, it will also reduce the inclination on the part of Hamas to capture Israelis to force a prisoner swap. There will be no prisoners to swap.

It is my view that there are enough terrorists running around the streets of the West Bank and Gaza willing to do harm to Israelis, such that the release of the prisoners will not make such a big impact on the situation. For every one sitting in jail, there are probably ten on the streets. Now is the time for the prime minister to act decisively. His announcement last week to rescind rights to academic study for terrorist prisoners does not go nearly far enough. The ironic calls by Hamas that this step contravenes the human rights of these prisoners is simply a joke. Since when has Hamas been concerned with human rights?

Mr Prime Minister, I call on you to accept whatever deal is on the table to bring Gilad home without further delay. This will not increase the danger in which the State of Israel lives, nor the danger that soldiers will be captured in the future. These are ever-present dangers that we are forced to live with, and confront on a daily basis. It will, however, send an important message to the Shalit family and to families up and down Israel whose children serve in the IDF. This is the message that you and the Israeli government will be prepared to do everything, everything to return our children under such difficult circumstances. The strength of this message is far more important than the message that is sent to Hamas regarding the number of prisoners that you are releasing. This decision is also likely to shape the legacy of your time in office. After all, you will forever be remembered as the prime minister who brought Gilad home. Now is the time to act, and to act soon before it is, G-d forbid, too late.

Please say a prayer for Gilad's safe return.

Monday 20 June 2011

Cottage Cheese Wars

In the Jewish calendar, we recently celebrated the festival of Shavuot (Weeks). This marks the moment of the receiving of the Torah, which encapsulates all of the laws which have formed the basis for followers of Judaism for thousands of years. It is traditional to eat non-meat products on this festival (what would a Jewish festival be without some sort of food symbol?), and cheesecake has become the symbol of Shavuot. Therein lies the opportunity for Israeli suppliers of dairy goods.

Shavuot is the peak season of the year for dairy manufacturers, and sellers of dairy products. Sales of dairy products spike dramatically in the weeks leading up to Shavuot, as most of the nation prepares their cheesecake recipes. Whether your favourite is one which is baked, or if you prefer the fridge variety, the supermarket fridges are filled with all types of cheeses and recipes to satisfy every taste bud and recipe. This is the time of the year when new cheese products are launched, and when it is impossible to even get near the supermarket fridges without being lynched by a representative of one company or another to encourage you to taste (and buy) their latest offerings. If you have no idea how to make a cheesecake, there is no need to be discouraged. You can buy a pack that contains a recipe and all the ingredients required for you to make your own, fail-safe cheesecake.

This year, dairy manufacturers took more than the usual advantage of hapless shoppers at Shavuot. Not only were they promoting their cheesy offerings in the usual relentless way, they also took the opportunity to jump the prices of many dairy products, some by more than 20%. As much as this infuriated many members of the Israeli public which is already paying up to 25% more for a basket of groceries than the average across the European Union, it did not leave much time to organise a resistance campaign before the cheesecakes had to be served up for the festival. In the days following Shavuot, however, resistance has grown dramatically to the point where it has even reached the Knesset. Cottage cheese, Israel's favourite cheese and staple for generations of Israelis, has served as a focal point around which the campaign of resistance has rallied.

Until 2006, the price of cottage cheese (along with a number of other dairy products) was controlled by regulation. Price changes had to be agreed by the government before consumers would be required to pay more at the supermarket checkout. The price controls on a number of dairy products (including cottage cheese) were lifted in 2006 to allow the market to control the price. With hindsight, this move may have been a little misguided when considering the dominant position of one supplier in this market. Tnuva still controls some 70% of the volume of cottage cheese sold in Israel. Over the past 3 years, the price of cottage cheese has risen by nearly 40%. During the same period, the price of milk to the consumer (which is still controlled by the government) rose by less than 4%. Even though it is true that the costs of many raw materials have increased recently due to the dramatic increases in the price of fuel, it is also true that the cost of cottage cheese's main ingredient, raw milk, has actually fallen by 8% over the same 3 year period. All of this points to increasing profits for the dairy companies.

The final straw that broke the camel's back for the Israeli public came with a startling revelation. Tnuva is able to provide the same dairy products consumed in Israel, to its overseas markets in Europe and the USA for a price that is up to 50% less than the price paid by Israelis. This is after incurring the additional transportation costs necessary to ship their products to the markets abroad. This points to a clear conclusion - gross exploitation of the home market and oversized profits by Tnuva. This fact has left the usually volatile Israeli temperament boiling with rage. A call to action was made, and has been responded to by more people than was ever expected.

A Facebook page was started, which called for the boycott of cottage cheese for a month by the Israeli public. Within a few days, tens of thousands of people had "befriended" the Facebook page, and sales of cottage cheese were shrinking dramatically. Supermarkets were forced to respond within days by offering all manner of discounts on cottage cheese, including selling 2 for the price of 1. The damage, however, has been done and the Israeli consumer has finally stood up to the power of the monopolies and those who collude to keep prices high. They will not rest until the price of cottage cheese is returned to a more normal level on an ongoing basis. Not only that, there are already plans to boycott a different product every month in order to target other areas where people are being ripped off. Who knows how far this could go? Could it even reach the hallowed grounds of the mobile phone operators, where collusion between the different companies has conspired to keep the prices unreasonably high for Israel's phone-crazy public for so long? I certainly hope so. There could not be a more deserving target of this boycott campaign.

There is a call for the government to reintroduce the cottage cheese pricing regulations. The finance minister has announced that he is considering the possibility of licensing foreign suppliers to import their products into Israel in order to introduce greater competition. This sounds easier said than done, with the difficulties of adhering to the laws of kashrut and agricultural regulations. The chances of this succeeding seem very remote.

As much as Israelis are very outspoken, and seemingly no-nonsense type of people, it seems as though monopolies and cartels have taken advantage of the Israeli consumer for too long. If the reduction in the consumption of cottage cheese following the call to arms is anything to judge by, a consumer revelation may have begun. And this is not a moment too soon. Each month, a different item will be targeted and brought down to size. Candidates for the next "item of the month" are not in short supply.

This is a great example of Israelis pulling together to fight those trying to take advantage of the innocent consumer. Even though there are many examples of Israelis disagreeing with each other and fighting amongst one another, this is a truly victorious moment where Israelis have stood together. This is freedom of speech and expression in the best possible light, and has proven to empower the general public in a way previously never experienced. This is almost certainly not the last of the economic boycotts in Israel.

Monday 13 June 2011

Daylight Saving the Jewish Way

One of the unique things about living in Israel, is how seemingly every-day things are done in a slightly different way to accommodate the Jewish calendar or Jewish way of living. The most obvious example of this, is the fact that the work week begins on Sunday and that Saturday is the day of rest. Even though there are some businesses open on a Saturday (particularly restaurants and other places of entertainment in certain parts of the country), it continues to amaze me how Israel has succeeded in bucking the world trend by preserving the Sabbath day as a day of rest for large swathes of the economy.

Another example of things being done the "Jewish way" is the calendar of the daylight savings clock over the summer months. When I first arrived in Israel nearly 13 years ago, the daylight savings clock was linked entirely to the Jewish calendar. In that year, the total number of daylight savings days was 170. This compared to more than 200 daylight savings days in the USA and Europe. At that stage, I quite liked the fact that daylight saving time was implemented immediately after Passover (to avoid the Passover Seder meal having to begin too late in the evening), and that the clocks were returned to standard time prior to the Jewish New Year. The change to winter time accommodated those religious Jews who have the practice of rising very early in the period prior to the new year, to add slichot (special prayers of forgiveness) to their morning routine. This is prior to the day of judgement on Rosh Hashanah, when it is believed that each person's fate for the ensuing year will be determined. Because of the large numbers of people rising early during this period, it was determined appropriate to ease their plight, and to give them an additional hour of sunlight in the morning. It also accommodated those who believe that the 25-hour fast on Yom Kippur, which follows soon after the period of slichot, is easier to negotiate if it ends earlier. The fast begins at sunset and ends at sunset of the following day. The fast is always 25 hours no matter if the clocks are set to summer or winter times. In the winter mode, however, the fast begins earlier and ends earlier. In the opinions of some, this is an easier option than beginning later and having to fast later into the next day.

Despite the fact that the Passover Seder meal and the fast on Yom Kippur are the two events in the Jewish calendar that are observed by the most number of Jews (in Israel the numbers are well above 50% of the population for both of these events), the demand that the daylight savings clock be linked to the Jewish calendar has been regarded by some as another way for the religious community to impose their will on the rest of Israel. There are two main reasons why many have opposed running daylight savings in this way. Because the Jewish calendar is a lunar calendar, it does not coincide in a predictable way with the solar-based Gregorian calendar. As such, it is difficult to work out exactly when daylight savings will begin and end. Microsoft was forced to remove the option for Israeli users of Windows to automatically change the time on their computers when daylight savings comes in and goes out, due to the lack of predictability of the dates. Additionally, the number of daylight savings days is consistently substantially less than other countries. It has been calculated that daylight savings days save the country significant sums of money in terms of lower use of electricity in the evening, and save lives on the roads by making visibility better during the evening rush-hour. This saving is reduced when the number of days is less, and Israel has certainly paid the price for reducing the period of daylight saving.

In 2005, it was decided to go half way towards accommodating the opposition camp by enacting that daylight savings will begin at the beginning of April each year, and will continue until the weekend before Yom Kippur. This allowed the period to be a little more predictable (at least we can determine a date on which the daylight savings will begin), while also extending the period of the daylight savings. In 2011 the number of daylight savings days will be 184 days, not quite over the 200 mark like in the rest of the world, but better than was the case previously.

The announcement last week by the Interior Minister Eli Yishai that he has decided to accept the recommendations of the special Knesset committee formed to review the policy for daylight savings, will be lauded by many. Going forward, the period of daylight savings will be determined by the civil calendar and no longer by the Jewish calendar. In the future, the period of daylight savings will begin at the end of March and will run until the beginning of October. This decision adds approximately 10 extra daylight savings days a year to the calendar, while making the dates easy to predict.

It is somewhat ironic that the decision to make this change has been made by a minister from the religious party, Shas. It would seem as if he is going against the constituency that he represents in making the change. Arguably, it is only a religious minister that could implement the new daylight saving calendar without being accused of being anti-religious. Either way, Minister Yishai has made a brave decision that is the right one for Israel.

Even though I know that this is definitely the right decision for Israel, I feel more than a touch of nostalgia about the disconnect from the Jewish calendar that this creates. I guess, what is more important for the Jewish nature of Israel is the fact that people continue to participate in the Passover Seder and Yom Kippur. I feel sure that the change in the daylight saving clock will not affect this in any way.

Tuesday 7 June 2011

Israeli Econcomic Links Behind the "Arab Curtain"

Many Israelis were surprised last week to discover that the American State Department had imposed sanctions on an Israeli company, the Ofer Brothers Group, for allegedly selling an oil tanker to an Iranian company. This contravenes the stringent sanctions that have been placed on Iran in response to the country's continued development of its nuclear program, sanctions which were strongly urged by the Israeli government. The Ofer Brothers Group is one of Israel's largest companies and owns Zim Shipping Lines, the world's 10th largest shipping company. The Ofer brothers, Yuli and Sami, are amongst Israel's wealthiest individuals - Sami is listed in the 2011 Forbes billionaire list as Israel's richest man with a net worth of over $10 billion. The whole episode has served to focus the minds of Israelis regarding trade by Israeli companies behind the so-called "Arab Curtain".

In recent months and years, Israel has implored the US and other countries around the world to cease trade with Iran, particularly the import of Iranian oil, in order to punish Iran for continuously ignoring calls to open up its nuclear program for inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency under the auspices of the UN. These sanctions were recently implemented, and companies around the world are subject to severe penalties if they are found to be contravening the blockade placed on Iranian companies. This is particularly true of those found trading with companies that form part of the network of Iranian companies linked to the government. Nobody would ever have considered the necessity for Israeli companies to fall into line with these sanctions, as it was considered obvious that Israeli companies would not be trading with its arch-enemy, Iran. Iranian President Ahmadinejad never loses an opportunity to call for Israel's demise and destruction in public forums, and the Iranian government is sponsoring Hamas and Hezbollah, which are both engaged in ceaseless attacks on Israel. Although there are a number of countries that refuse to recognise Israel's right to exist, none can be regarded as an enemy in the same category as Iran. It seems inconceivable that Israeli companies would trade with Iranian counterparts, and it seemed an impossibility that Iranian companies would have any involvement with Israeli ones. And yet, it seems as though the Ofer Brothers Group may well have sold an oil tanker to an Iranian company (perhaps even one belonging to the Iranian government) via an Ofer Singaporean subsidiary. It turns out that Ofer ships may also have docked at Iranian ports on more than one occasion, indicating that they may have been involved in the transportation of Iranian oil.

The Ofers have come out strongly denying that they were involved in any wrong-doing. They claim not to have broken any laws during the course of their business dealings. The USA clearly believes that the Ofer Brothers Group has violated the USA and UN blockade on Iran, and has imposed sanctions on their company. It is possible that the Ofer Brothers Group may also have broken Israeli law in the process. There is also a little-known law on the Israeli statute book which was enacted during the British Mandate in 1939. This prohibits Israeli companies from trading with enemy countries. There can be little doubt that Iran is an enemy country, and the Ofers may find themselves to be in violation of this law.

This opens up something of a can of worms with regard to the activities of Israeli companies in Arab countries. Despite the fact that Israel does not have diplomatic relations with most countries behind the "Arab Curtain", the extent of Israeli trade with these countries would astonish many people. Finding Jaffa oranges in the gulf, or Israeli-developed software, security, telecommunications and water irrigation systems spread around the Arab world is already not a new phenomenon. Israelis have quietly been finding their way around Arab markets using sales people carrying foreign passports. There is a well-worn route via Jordan or Turkey which takes Israelis and their goods to countries in the Arabian Gulf, North Africa, Saudi Arabia and even Iran. In some cases, the recipients are aware of the source of their goods and choose to turn a blind eye, while in other cases the origin is somehow concealed. The question is whether these companies, some large and some small, should be prevented from undertaking their trade with "enemy countries"? Is this substantially different what the Ofer Brothers Group is accused of?

Besides earning foreign currency from these exports, Israel has also benefited from trade activities behind the Arab Curtain by being able to gain access to important intelligence information. We will never really know the extent to which intelligence-gathering activities have been tied in with some of this trade. Somehow, I have the suspicion that it has been substantial.

Interestingly, Wikileaks reveals that a secret cable from the US government in 2008 warned the Israeli government of steps taken by the US to enforce sanctions against Iran, particularly on Iranian shipping companies. It was almost as if the US government was aware at that stage of the activities of the Ofer Brothers Group, without mentioning the company's name. When the story first broke last week, a spokesman for the Ofer Brothers Group said that the company had received Israeli government approval for its ships to dock in Iran. Although the prime minister's office moved swiftly to deny this claim, I would not be shocked if the Ofer Brothers were somehow assisting Israel's network of intelligence-gathering in Iran through their activities.

In short, Israelis apply double standards when it comes to trading with Arab countries, and with Iran in particular. On the one hand, they wish countries around the world to enforce an embargo on trading with these countries to try somehow to damage their economies. On the other hand, Israeli companies wish to continue to undertake their unofficial trade with these countries to boost their own economic positions. In some cases, this trade can extend to forming part of the Israeli intelligence network as well. We may never know whether the Ofer Brothers Group has been involved in trade of this sort or not.

In the midst of huge headlines on this story and while I was writing this blog, it was announced that Sami Ofer died aged 89 of an illness that he suffered from for some time. He was laid to rest on Sunday, even while the storm engulfing his company continues. On the same day, the Knesset announced its intention to legislate the "Sami Ofer" bill. This will make it illegal in Israel to invest in a corporation that has business dealings with Iran. The punishment is proposed to be a year in prison and a fine of over $1m.

We may never find out the true story behind the story of the Ofer Brothers, and their business dealings in Iran. It is a shame that this should be the legacy left by Sami Ofer on the day that he died, as this is really undeserved. The Ofer Brothers built a business empire in Israel from nothing, and have brought great distinction to the State of Israel through their shipping companies and other business activities. It is a real pity that, at the time of his demise, the headlines attached to Sami Ofer were so negative. May his family be comforted amongst the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.