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.

Monday 19 September 2011

Terrorism, Short Memories and Lack of Empathy

Every year at this time, our media is bombarded with scenes of commemoration ceremonies at Ground Zero, and across America for the victims of the 9/11 terror attacks.  We are shown movies and documentaries about the events that took place on that fateful day, new revelations that have come to light since then and security arrangements that are now in place which have changed America and the world.  This year, which marked the 10th anniversary of America's largest terror attack on home ground, had greater significance and relevance as the new water feature at Ground Zero was finally opened to replace the buildings that once stood there.

At the time that the attacks took place on American soil ten years ago, there were more than a few Israelis who thought that the American people may view Israel in a different light in view of the terror attacks that they had experienced on their own soil.  For the first time in many years, the Americans were made to feel the threat and personal injury that Israelis have been forced to suffer since independence in 1948, and even before that.  There was a feeling among Israelis that Americans would be able to empathize with the Israeli people, and perhaps even view the ongoing conflict with the Palestinians in a slightly different way.  Perhaps there would not be such great pressure from the Americans and the rest of the international community to  force Israel to negotiate with the same group that is using terror to try to destroy the country.  Further terror attacks in London, Madrid, Bali and other locations raised this expectation even further.  Maybe these nations would also show greater understanding for Israel's fight for existence against these terror activities.

For a time, it felt as though the balance did swing a little towards greater sympathy for Israel's position.  Politicians and ordinary citizens of countries around the world showed some level of understanding for the extreme and unnatural circumstances under which Israeli citizens are forced to live while terrorists continuously attempt to blow up buses, restaurants  and other public areas, or launch missiles towards residential neighbourhoods where children sit in school classrooms.  This sympathy and understanding seemed to evaporate almost as quickly as it arose, and things went back to the same old situation that was in place prior to 9/11.  Instead, a level of self-pity replaced these feelings, with people feeling sorry for themselves that they were suddenly forced to suffer with increased levels of security at airports, train stations and other public areas.  And when the opportunity has arisen to associate with Israel and to hold the Palestinians to account for their terror acts against Israelis, suddenly the feeling of identification is forgotten.  The identification with another nation that has also been subjected to unforgiveable acts of terror, initiated by the same groups as those attacking the rest of the free world, is somehow completely missing.  The previous status quo has been replaced by a new one, and people have returned right back to where they were before.

Later this week on Friday, the Palestinians plan to bring a vote to the UN General Assembly requesting greater recognition for the Palestinian people.  It is not quite clear what the nature of the Palestinians' request will be, and whether they will be requesting full membership of the UN General Assembly, or whether they will be going as far as requesting the UN to authorise the unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state.  Whatever it is, more than 100 countries have lined themselves up to support the Palestinian initiative at the UN.  This is how the world is responding to an organisation that has constantly acted as a terror organisation over the years.  Although much of the world's ire is directed towards Israel for the current hiatus in the peace process, it remains on the record that the Palestinians have still not removed the clause in the PLO charter that calls for the destruction of the State of Israel.  The current breakdown in talks is down to the Palestinians not agreeing to acknowledge the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state.  Surely this should prevent them from coming to the UN with their application.

An article in an Israeli newspaper today referred to the current Palestinian initiative at the UN, and Hamas' position on this process.  Hamas has not supported the Fatah-run Palestinian Authority's intention to make an application at the UN, bringing to the surface many internal disagreements between the various Palestinian factions on this issue.  It was written today that Hamas would change their position and support the UN initiative, as long as it was agreed that there would be no acknowledgement of Israel's right to exist.  It astonishes me that the international community would even think about debating an issue like this under these circumstances.  Before the UN admits a new entity to its hallowed halls, it has a responsibility to protect and defend the rights of the existing members.  This responsibility is not being fulfilled in the current circumstances.

The events of 9/11 and other attacks of terror remain close to the families of the victims, and to the various countries who suffered from them.  There is much sympathy from Israelis for the victims of these events and their families.  Who knows more what suffering these people are enduring than those who have suffered it themselves.  The price paid in human casualties and the attack on their freedom will not be forgotten in a hurry.  This unfortunately does not translate into a feeling of identification and understanding from these countries for other countries who suffer from this assault on their freedom in a more extreme way i.e. by an attack on their very right to exist.  Despite the intention by some countries to oppose the UN initiative this week, it somehow seems that this is a battle that Israel is destined to fight largely on her own.  Any agreement at the UN later this week to upgrade the diplomatic status of the Palestinians will be clear evidence of this.

Sunday 11 September 2011

Israel's Half Million Man March

It started with a call for a million Israelis to take to the streets in a demonstration that would serve as the culmination of the social protests that have been taking place for the past two months.  For a country with a population of only 7 million, this was always going to be a tall order.  Ultimately, the call for a "million man march" to protest against economic hardships, struck a chord with enough people to mobilise more than 400,000 people.  This, in itself, was a record number of demonstrators that have ever attended a protest in the history of the State of Israel.  The equivalent in the USA would see 22 million people coming out to protest, and the equivalent in the UK would be more than 4 million.  I doubt very much that these numbers could be seen in demonstrations.

The social protests have the sympathy of most Israelis, including those who are not living below the breadline in the way that so many people are.  This was in evidence last Saturday evening, when many of those who took to the streets were not necessarily struggling to pay their monthly rental.  The notion of social justice impacts all aspects of Israeli society, and does not only affect those who are coping with financial difficulties.  Services such as health and education are provided by the government for all sectors of society, and have been used even by those who could afford to pay separately for private services.  Until now, the government-funded services have been of sufficiently high quality to satisfy all sectors of our society.  For me, this has been one of the most pleasant aspects of Israeli as a country, and one which contributes to one of the flattest societies in the western world.  There is nothing more pleasing than to see the rich and poor of the country receiving the same level of medical treatment and education, all provided by the government out of tax contributions.  Although this has been the case in Israel to now, the quality of services provided by the government have deteriorated in recent times.  This has contributed to all Israelis feeling the need to come out in protest to demonstrate their dissatisfaction at this situation.

It is true that many of those in the upper income brackets are able to buy these services privately.  Private schools and health centres have begun to appear in recent years to satisfy this demand.  I feel that a great deal is lost in the process.  It is not only the fact that a two-tier system arises where the wealthy can buy what they need, and those who are in tougher financial circumstances are forced to take what they are offered.  For me, it is also the connection that one sees at schools and medical health centres between different sectors of our society that will be lost.  This will serve to enlarge the wealth gap that is already making itself evident in Israel.  I feel that this lost connection will be harmful to Israeli society.  In this respect, I was heartened to see the number of people who took to the streets, and to note that they were not only restricted to one sector of society or another.  It is a credit to the event organisers that they succeeded in appealing to so many different Israelis, and managed to entice them out of their homes to demonstrate their displeasure to the government.  All ages of the Israeli people could be seen together, including men, women and children of all ages including those in pushchairs and on the shoulders of their parents.

One of the most surprising aspects of the demonstrations, was the good atmosphere in which the gatherings were held.  At the main event in Tel Aviv's Kikar Hamedina which attracted almost 300,000 people, a stage was constructed on which some of Israel's biggest names in music and entertainment appeared during the course of the evening of protest.  Not only did this demonstrate their identification with the important cause, it also lent something of a party spirit to the event.  So, while anger was in evidence against the government's seeming lack of willingness to engage with the protestors and their cause, there was also a great spirit in evidence when the entertainers took to the stage.  Once the show was over, everybody returned quietly to their homes without any major incident or violence.  The traffic may have been heavy, but crowd never got out of control, and always remembered the reason that they had come out on that evening.

I could not help comparing this event to some other protest events that have taken place around the world in recent months.  The protest events in countries around the Arab world comprising the Arab Spring all resulted in violence and deaths or injuries initiated either by the protestors, or the authorities against which they were protesting.  The recent riots which took place in London got completely out of control, and resulted in extensive damage to personal property affecting many hundreds of people.  In contrast to these events, we saw real democracy at work.  The rule of law was exercised by both the protestors as well as by the authorities, while people were afforded their democratic right to have their say.  There could be no greater display of mutual respect of personal and social rights, than was seen during the course of this protest.  Israel is a stronger country for having experienced these demonstrations.

The protest movement has decided to take down their tents, and move to a different phase of negotiation and lobbying to bring their demands to fruition.  The fact that the tents will not be visible on the streets any longer does not mean that the protest is not continuing.  Whether or not their aims are ultimately achieved, it would be safe to say that Israel will not be the same country after the protests of the summer of 2011.  These protestors have forever changed the face of Israeli politics, protest and demonstration.  They have also unwittingly chosen an excellent time to demonstrate this.  It could not be more stark how the Arab spring and the Israeli summer have contrasted each other.

Sunday 4 September 2011

What Are Turkey's Real Intentions?

Events in the relationship between Israel and Turkey moved very quickly on Friday after the publication of the Palmer Report which is the UN sponsored investigation into the Gaza Flotilla incident.  The Palmer Report had been scheduled for release a number of weeks ago.  Its release was delayed in order to facilitate efforts to try to reconcile the opposing positions that have been adopted by Israel and Turkey on the issue of the Gaza Flotilla incident.  Ultimately, no real progress was evident in reconciling the opposing camps, and the report was formally released.

The release of the report did not reveal anything new due to the fact that most of the report's contents had been leaked to the press in the weeks leading up to its formal release.  So, it would have been known that the report supports Israel's right to impose the Gaza blockade in order to counter the threat posed by terror groups in the strip.  Palmer recognises both the extent of the threat that these groups represent to the safety of the State of Israel, and also the fact that the Gaza blockade is a legitimate and legal way of preventing the flow of arms that feed these terror activities.  More than this, the Palmer report also recognises Israel's legal right to defend her territorial waters from those who seek to compromise her security in any way.

The report did reserve some criticism for Israel, for the way in which her security forces dealt with the protestors who mobbed them after they boarded the Marvi Marmara.  Palmer decided that the response of the Israeli soldiers was "excessive" and "unreasonable". Although I don't agree with Palmer's conclusion when considering the type of attack that these soldiers came under when they boarded the ship, I do agree that the soldiers should have considered the tactics used to board the ship more carefully, given the level of threat that was already evident from the protestors on the ship.

In view of the conclusions reached by the Palmer report, the response by the Turkish government on Friday took many people by surprise.  No longer had the report officially been released, and the announcement came from Ankara that the Israeli ambassador was to be expelled from Turkey.  This was accompanied by a downgrade of diplomatic relations to the lowest possible level, and the cancellation of all military agreements in place between the two countries.  Many have asked what justification Turkey has for this extreme response to the Palmer report, when the bulk of the report actually supports Israel's position.

Ever since the events of the Marvi Marmara which resulted in the death of 9 Turkish activists after they attacked the Israeli boarding party, Turkey has insisted that Israel issues a formal apology to Turkey for the deaths.  Turkey has also insisted that Israel pays compensation to the families of the 9 victims.  Israel has refused to issue a formal apology, even though the Israeli government did express regret for their deaths.  There are those, even senior Israeli government officials, who hold the view that it would be best for Israel to issue an apology in the interests of preserving the relationship between Israel and Turkey.  I believe that Prime Minister Netanyahu has made the correct choice not to issue a formal apology, even if this means the deterioration of diplomatic relations between the two countries.

The main reason that I support Netanyahu's position not to issue a formal apology, is because I feel that this would admit guilt on Israel's part.  The only thing that Israel was guilty of, was protecting its territorial waters and enforcing the Gaza blockade.  The Palmer report has already confirmed Israel's rights to these two activities.  Additionally, issuing an apology would conceal the role of the Turkish government in the Marvi Marmara incident.  The Gaza Flotilla was largely facilitated by a Turkish NGO known by the acronym IHH.  This was the organisation that purchased the Marvi Marmara with the intention of sailing to Gaza to break the Israeli blockade.  There are those who have accused the Turkish government of providing at least some of the financing to the IHH for the purchase of the Marvi Marmara.  Even if this was not the case, there can be no doubt that the IHH had the support of the Turkish government in its quest to confront the Israeli government over the Gaza blockade.  A year later, the efforts that the Greek government made to prevent the flotilla from departing Piraeus were in stark contrast to the tacit (or even active) support given by the Turkish government to the first flotilla.  It seems only logical that the Turkish government be held responsible for its role in facilitating the fiasco.  The truth remains that the Turkish government should have prevented the confrontation from taking place in the first place by preventing the flotilla from departing its shores.  Placing the entire blame of the confrontation on Israel is a gross misrepresentation of the truth.

The speed with which the Turkish government moved to expel the Israeli the envoy, and the manner in which the demand was made for a formal apology without any option of a compromise, has made me wonder whether the Turks were not simply looking for an excuse to downgrade their relations with Israel.  The Marvi Marmara incident may have given them the perfect pretext to do so.  One could possibly even trace the start of the downward trend in relations between the two countries to the re-election of Prime Minister Erdogan and his (Islamic) Justice and Development Party in 2007.  Turkey has come under greater influence of the Islamists, and this is clearly not compatible with close relations with Israel.  The Gaza flotilla incident is simply one significant point along a line that has been sloping downward for some time.  Could it be that Turkey's newest ally, Iran, has demanded that it break ties with Israel because Iran is unable to contemplate close relations with a country that counts Israel as one of its strategic friends?  This is certainly not inconceivable.

Turkey's behaviour in the Gaza flotilla affair, starting with its support for the flotilla through its demands of Israel for a formal apology, and now ending with its rejection of many of the conclusions of the Palmer Report risks alienating Turkey.  Whereas it had the chance to try to seek a compromise solution, there now seems to be no way down from its current position.  In downgrading its diplomatic relations with Israel, Turkey also risks damaging any relationship that it has with the USA and other European countries.  This is not because these countries are so concerned about Turkey's relations with Israel, but because it seems as though this decision pushes Turkey into the firm clutches of Iran. 

Having recovered from being the "sick man of Europe", a term attributed to the Ottoman Empire around the time of the First World War, Turkey has succeeded in achieving unparalleled economic and cultural development over the past twenty years.  It has also suffered disappointment, particularly in connection with its efforts to be accepted for membership to the European Union.  Any step, however, that takes it nearer to Iran and alienates it from the west will, in my estimation, be extremely damaging for Turkey in the longer term.  It also makes Turkey a much less attractive friend for Israel.  If Turkey continues to court Iran as a friend, Turkey is not an ally that Israel would wish to keep.