Sunday 23 December 2012

The Oath that Really Counts

I had the immense pleasure to attend the ceremony which marked the end of my son's basic training course.  The young soldiers were presented to us in a parade to mark their formal induction to the Israel Defense Force (IDF) as fully-fledged soldiers.  It was truly an amazing and an emotional scene to witness the commitment of these young people to the cause of defending their homeland, and the enthusiasm with which they accept the need to give up three years of their young lives in doing so.

During the course of the ceremony, the new recruits were called upon to make an oath of allegiance to the State of Israel and the IDF.  An oath of allegiance is common in ceremonies in which new immigrants to certain countries becoming citizens.  In the USA, the pledge of allegiance is commonly recited in schools as a way of instilling a feeling of patriotism towards the motherland.  In reality, such oaths are more of a mantra and, while those reciting it may believe in its statements in their hearts, they are seldom called upon to act to fulfil the pledge.  This is not so in the case of young Israelis.  The oath that they take includes the statement that they will even be prepared to sacrifice their lives in the protection of the State of Israel, and its liberty.  This is no idle undertaking.  Thousands who have taken this oath before have made the ultimate sacrifice.  This point was not lost on any of the new recruits as they made their oath in front of the gathered crowd, and their commanders.  Even at their tender age, each understood in no uncertain terms how serious this oath is.

The ceremony was filled with symbolism as the recruits first recited their oath together in unison, and were then called upon individually to make their promise.  Each one stepped forward in front of their commander, was handed a Tanach (copy of the Old Testament)* and a rifle, and made his vow.  I was overwhelmed with pride and trepidation as my son also made the simple statement "I promise".  The Tanach in his one hand represented not only a holy book on which to make a vow, but also represented thousands of years of Jewish history that are now being entrusted into his hands.  The rifle in his other hand represented the determination of the Jewish people to survive, even if force is required.  It represented the piece that has been missing at certain critical stages during our history, and which was missing when six million of our people were annihilated at the hands of the Nazis.  The combination of the Tanach and the rifle is all that we need to move forward, determined never to allow such an event to happen again.  Each recruit stepped forward and made his promise with confidence and commitment.  Despite the obvious dangers that are involved in serving in the IDF, not one flinched or hesitated when making his vow.  I felt enormous gratitude to these young men and women, and great confidence in handing the future safety of our country and our people to them.  They are worthy in every way.

My mind wandered momentarily to think of those members of my family who were cruelly murdered in the Holocaust.  I considered what they may have thought if they were present to witness this amazing scene before me.  This is the one thing that was missing for them, and that would have protected them at the moment that they so needed it only 70 short years ago.  I felt thankful that we have learned our lesson sufficiently to create the powerful fighting force that is the IDF, and that I have merited to witness this with my own eyes.  I felt enormous pride that I can also be involved in this miracle via the wonderful work being done by my sons, and by the sons and daughters of our friends and neighbours.  This is truly a modern miracle that could never have been envisaged during the dark days that our people were forced to endure.

Today is the fast of the Tenth of Tevet, which also doubles as the memorial day for those whose date and location of death are unknown.  I feel pain in my heart that they could not be offered the amazing protection that the IDF offers us today.  I wish they could feel the immense pride that we feel, and experience the sense of comfort that we are privileged to feel in the knowledge that we are being protected by our own army.  As much as we all pray for the opportunity to live in peace and not be forced to have our army on constant alert to protect our country and our people, we will never again allow our fate and our safety to be left to the responsibility of others.  Our boys and girls are ready to take their oath to keep our safety in their hands.

* Non-Jewish soldiers make their oath on a holy book or symbol of their choosing. 

Wednesday 12 December 2012

Egotism and Politics

There was a time when people went into politics with the intention of serving their community, and making a difference to society.  The main imperative was public service, and offering personal skills and talents for the benefit of the country.  Unfortunately, those days appear to be long gone.  These days, politicians seem more interested in the power that their position brings, and the personal benefits that can be gained by entering office.

This is seen in many, if not most countries around the world.   Israel is no exception.  This has been very clearly demonstrated over the past week with the announcement that Tzipi Livni has formed a new party to contest the upcoming election.  The new party, Hatnua (the movement), seems to bring nothing new to the political arena.  So why would Livni form the new party?  When the press announcement of the new party was made, the main subtitle under the name of the party on the publicity boards was the tag line "under the leadership of Tzipi Livni".  This is the main point which supports the new party.  It is a place where Livni can be the leader.

Livni has already been a Member of Knesset representing two parties in the past, Likud and Kadima.  When she was ousted as leader of Kadima, she decided to leave the party.  It demonstrated what was important to her as a member of Kadima - the fact that she could be the leader and have control over the party.  As soon as she was voted out of the leadership position, there was nothing left in the party to keep her there.  The election platform of Hatnua looks remarkably similar to that of Kadima, which is also not too far away from the ideologies followed by Labour.  The centre left space in Israeli politics is an incredibly crowded area, and the addition of a new party serves to create even more congestion and probably reduce the number of seats that they can collectively win at the election.  The only real difference between the parties, is the people who lead them.  Perhaps this explains why Kadima has gone from a party with nearly 30 Knesset seats, to predictions of only 2 seats in the next election.  The original leader, Ariel Sharon, is no longer there.  Without him, there is no real substance to the party.  Perhaps there was no real substance even while he was there?

The electorate would like to believe that Tzipi Livni is in politics to progress the cause of the State of Israel.  This is not an easy task at the current time.  Instead, we find that she moves from one party to another, seemingly dependent on how well each party serves her personal interests.  Getting lost in this pursuit of personal glory, are the interests of the State of Israel and her citizens.  One of the members of Kadima was fully justified when asking what Livni thinks she can achieve with her new party, that she failed to achieve with Kadima's 28 seats when she was at the helm.  I suspect that whatever she failed to achieve with Kadima will probably also not be achieved with Hatnua.

What is even more remarkable in the politics of personal egos, is the fact that the centre left parties were unable to find a way to unite their lists for the purpose of progressing their policies and platform in a more effective way for the election.  Egos once again got in the way of sensible politics, thereby diluting the real message that the centre left groups are trying to promote.

There are some who would say that the aphrodisiac effect of power is not such a new phenomenon.  Lord Acton wrote in 1887, "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely".  This seems as true now as it was then, and is clearly evident in these latest moves by Tzipi Livni and others like her.  Nobody expects politicians to do their job for free or without personal remuneration.  There is, however, an expectation that, in return for reasonable pay and reward, they will carry out the requirements of their office which expects them to serve the people by whom they were elected.  This is in short supply at this time.

While the new Hatnua party may well succeed in securing 8 or 9 seats in this election, the longer-term prospects seem slim.  Any party that is built on the strength of individual personalities rather than on the basis of solid ideologies and policies, seems destined to land on the rubbish heap of failed political parties.  Hatnua will almost surely end up in this junk pile in the fullness of time.

Despite Lord Acton commenting on political corruption all those years ago, there was a time not too long ago when politicians had a completely different and more modest approach to their work.  Names like David Ben-Gurion and Menachem Begin seem to be from a bygone era, even though they were both people who some of us still remember with fondness.  They were happy to live in a small apartment, and to invite members of the public to their official residences whenever they could, even while they were serving in a lofty public office.  Somehow, the office in which they served never allowed them to become corrupt, or to stray from the values that formed their character.

I have considered the possibility that the general public demand too much of politicians when we expect them to behave selfllessly in the interests of the electorate.  The more I think about it, the more I seem to convince myself that this behaviour is really the minimum that we should expect of politicians.   How can we trust them to act in the best interests of our country, and to build a future for our children if this is not the case?  Tzipi Livni has not only disappointed the public by her behaviour, she has let herself down and many others who do behave appropriately.  We cannot help but tar all politicians with the same brush, and she is setting the standard.

Sunday 2 December 2012

The Meaning of the UN Vote on Palestine

The UN General Assembly voted on Thursday by a large majority to upgrade the status of the Palestinian Authority to that of a non-member state.  The issue at stake has nothing to do with the upgraded status that the Palestinian Authority managed to achieve at the UN.  I believe that there are few around the world, including in Israel, who would have a problem with this.  The main issue in this vote is the inclusion of the word "state" in the resolution.  By passing this resolution, the UN has effectively recognised the Palestinian Authority area as a state, something that has not been done before.

Israel fought hard, against the tide of world support, to prevent the vote coming to the UN.  When it became clear that the vote was to be held, Israel did all she could to convince UN General Assembly members to vote against it.  The problem is that there were two different issues at play in the vote.  The reason that Israel was trying to convince member countries to vote against the motion was completely different than the reason why they wanted to vote in favour.  Inevitably, the two issues became intertwined and intermingled, causing a great deal of confusion.

For many in the international community, the vote at the UN was all about recognising the idea of "two states for two peoples".    This idea says that Israel will have the right to exist in peace and security for Israelis, and a Palestinian state will be formed for the Palestinian people.  This has been recognised by the Israeli government, and has been formally supported by Prime Minister Netanyahu.  So why was Netanyahu intent on opposing the UN vote when he has not objected to the idea of a Palestinian state?  It has been accepted that the recognition of a Palestinian state should be done on the basis of mutual understanding, respect and recognition between the Israelis and the Palestinians.  The main barrier which has prevented Israel from wishing to continue peace talks with the Palestinians, is their unwillingness to acknowledge Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state.  This recognition of Israel as a Jewish state does not threaten any peace and harmony that could exist between Israel and a future Palestinian state.  A neighbouring country has no right to dictate the main religion or key identifying characteristics of the country that exists along its borders in peace and mutual respect.  So why is it that the Palestinians refuse to give recognition of this fact to Israel?  There is a feeling that the Palestinians may have ulterior motives by trying to prescribe to Israel what sort of country she is allowed to be.  Is there an attempt to scupper any hopes of reaching a peace with Israel, and then somehow blame the deadlock on Israel?  Or perhaps that is some other hidden agenda?

Having reached an impasse because of the unwillingness of the Palestinians to give Israel the basic recognition it seeks as a Jewish state, the Palestinians have spent a great deal of time and effort to find a way to circumvent the peace process that has been laid down by the international community.  Instead of negotiating with Israel and being forced to make compromises in return for the concessions that they will receive, they been working on unilateral actions that will give them what they seek without having to give in return.  This is effectively what they have achieved by the vote at the UN, and what Israel was so vehemently opposed to.  It seems somehow unjust that the Palestinians would be granted some of their demands via the UN, without them having to give anything in return.  This explains clearly why Israel and the USA were opposed to the unilateral action taken by the Palestinians at the UN last week.  Despite the fact that it has cemented the agreed "two states for two peoples" concept, it has granted unfair advantage to one of the peoples which has created in imbalance in the current situation.

The Israeli government reacted quickly to try to rebalance the situation, by approving the construction of 3,000 housing units in parts of the West Bank and East Jerusalem.  This action, while being roundly condemned by the Palestinians and other members of the international community (including the USA), is not as extreme as it is presented in the international media.  The construction of these units has been approved by the Israeli government in areas of the West Bank and East Jerusalem which are heavily populated by Jewish Israelis, and areas which have already been tentatively agreed to exclude from any future Palestinian state.  As such, these additional construction approvals do not present such a significant departure from the current status quo.  It is certainly not a point that is substantial enough to present is a deal-breaker to the peace process as has been suggested by the Palestinians.  It also masks the fact that the current Israeli government has acted on a number of occasions to dismantle the illegal construction of new settlements that could  have interrupted the status quo.  It is unfortunate that very little recognition of these actions has been seen in the international media, or from the Palestinians.

While it is true that the concept of a "Palestinian" people is a new invention by the Arabs since the establishment of the State of Israel, and has been presented by many as another tactic to try to remove the Jews from Israel, there is a related point that is difficult to deny.  This is the fact that the group of people who have united under the banner of "Palestinians" really have no other nationality that they can claim as their own.  It has been said that the Palestinians are made up of people who are really Jordanians and/or Egyptians and/or Lebanese or some other nationality.  On the contrary, the "Palestinians" are largely despised by the Arab countries around the Middle East, and these countries do all that they can to deny granting their nationality to the Palestinians.  It should be recalled that it was a Palestinian who assassinated King Abdullah I of Jordan, great-grandfather of the current Jordanian King.  There is certainly no love lost between the Jordanians and the Palestinians (even though current Queen Rania comes from a Palestinian family).  The main reason that Arab countries have supported the Palestinian cause so vigorously, is simply to remove the "Palestinian problem" and related threat from their own doorsteps.

The world, by voting for a Palestinian state, has rewarded the Palestinians for bad behaviour.  Israel, despite supporting two states for two peoples, could never have supported a unilateral move on the part of the Palestinians in the way that it happened at the UN last week.  None of this, however, changes the facts on the ground in any substantial way.  The state that has now been recognised still has borders that are not clearly defined, and they remain unchanged from the week before the vote.  If anything, it has created more uncertainty and more conflict than was the case before.  The level of distrust is higher than before, and the prospects of returning to the negotiating table are remoter than was the case previously.  It is also suggested that it gives the Palestinians reason to believe that the way to achieve their aspirations of an independent state, is not via the negotiating table.  Instead, they can manipulate the international community to get what they want, without any cost to them.

While the world may have had good intentions in supporting the Palestinian cause at the UN, it has done irreparable harm to the peace process.  If they thought that this would advance the cause of peace, they clearly have misunderstood politics in the Middle East.  They message sent to the Palestinians is entirely the wrong message, and will simply push any possible peace further and further away.  Israel is unfortunately extremely experienced in coping with negative UN resolutions.  For a country whose population numbers barely 7 million, and which occupies such a tiny area of the earth, there have been more negative resolutions adopted by the UN against Israel than any other country.  This reflects how absurd  the UN's obsession with Israel has been over the years.  As before, Israel will be forced to cope with the latest UN resolution and move forward.  Things could have been much easier had the countries of the world paused to try to understand the full implications of their do-good resolutions.

Monday 26 November 2012

Hatred and Ceasefires

In the hours following the terror attack on a bus in Tel Aviv on Wednesday, I had the same thoughts that I recall thinking during the course of the suicide bombing campaign in the Second Intifada.  I was desperately trying to envisage what sort of person it could be who would leave an explosive on a bus knowing that it would kill and maim innocent men, women and children.  I have also wondered in the past what sort of person would kill themselves in a restaurant or other public place, just because they have the opportunity to kill innocent men, women and children around them.  I cannot imagine the person who would undertake such a ghastly act, and why they would think that this is justified in any way.  I felt the same when I saw missiles being launched towards civilian areas, with the express hope and intention that they will hit apartment blocks or shopping centres full of innocent people trying to go about their daily lives.  And yet, there are such people in this world.  Many of them are neighbours of Israel who believe that they have full justification to massacre civilians.

When discussing this with one of my colleagues, the answer seemed quite obvious to him.  His take on the matter is quite straight-forward.  He simply said, "you have to understand how deep the hatred goes".  Perhaps he is right and we do need try to understand how deep the hatred goes, as difficult as this seems.  The problem is that I simply cannot understand hatred of this magnitude.  I have met people who do have a genuine and justifiable reason to hate deeply.  These are people who still have numbers that were branded onto their arms, and who were subject to the most depraved behaviour known to mankind.  They were herded and kept like cattle, and were forced to witness the deaths of close friends and family members at the hands of some of the most evil people ever known.  Deep hatred would be fully justified under these circumstances.  Strangely, many of these victims do not feel the hatred that may be expected of them.  Somehow, it is not in them to bear a grudge and feel hate in this way.  It seems to me that the type of hatred that we see coming from Gaza is hate that has been taught and cultivated over many years, and passed by one generation to another.  Even if we assume that this has arisen as a result of maltreatment, this has certainly not been at the hands of Israelis.  Even when Israel controlled Gaza, the treatment of the Palestinian population was in accordance with security requirements.  Israel certainly did not maltreat Palestinians in a way that cultivate the hate that is in evidence, and that could ever justify the deliberate murder of women and children.

So where does the hatred come from, and why is it so strong?  Although some say it goes back many centuries, there is a noticeable increase in the hatred since the State of Israel was declared in 1948.  Perhaps this was the moment that the anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist sentiments could be directed towards a physical entity, rather than a bunch of individuals.  It also represents the moment that the Arab leaders promised their people that Israel would be wiped off the map, and that the Jews would be driven into the sea.  To date, this promise has not been fulfilled despite their best efforts.  This also gives a basis for hatred, even though it is misdirected in many cases.  It may also be the case that Arab leaders ensure that the dissatisfaction of their citizens is channelled in the form of hate towards Israel, rather than directed towards the leaders who are the real cause of the suffering of their people.

The guns have now gone silent following another outbreak of hostilities between Israel and Hamas.  It was noticeable how the war was fought between the different parties.  Israel did all that she could to avoid civilian casualties.  Some targets were not fired upon when there was a risk that civilians would become involved.  The strikes that were made, were undertaken with pinpoint accuracy to avoid civilian casualties.  Hamas took a completely different approach.  Their objective was to place at risk the lives of as many civilians as possible.  Their rocket fire was always aimed at areas of high civilian population.  Hamas was happy to risk the lives of its own population by creating human shields out of people.  Rockets were fired from apartments where women and children live.  The leadership hid itself and some of its ammunition stores under a hospital.  All of this would ensure that Israel, with its humane attitude, would not aim its fire at these areas.  In the event that fire was directed towards these targets, it would make a great news story for the waiting press pack.  Not only is it difficult to wage a war against such people, it is also virtually impossible to make peace with them.

Operation "Pillar of Defense" has ended, and the rocket fire has finally ceased.  If it was not for the wonderful and heroic "Iron Dome" system, Israeli civilians may have been subject to 400 more rockets landing in their towns and cities.  This is to add to the thousands of rockets that have been fired incessantly over the past ten years, and more.  What is perhaps most astonishing about this situation, is the reaction of the international community.  It is incredulous that Israel is continuously criticised for being the aggressor, and that foreign countries try to dictate to Israel that any response to attacks on its citizens should be "proportionate".  What could be regarded as disproportionate, when a missile is fired towards the centre of a town or city with the aim of killing and maiming civilians?

Perhaps the international community should also try to understand the form of hatred that is being bred towards Israel in places like Gaza, and elsewhere in the region.  There should be an attempt to appreciate that this is hatred that is being taught by parents and in schools, rather than hatred based on rationality.  As such, it appears difficult, and perhaps even impossible to counter.  It is against the background of this hatred that ceasefires are agreed, and peace treaties negotiated.  It seems fairly clear that, while this hatred continues to be bred amongst the younger population and passed from father to son, ceasefires and peace arrangements will only ever be temporary.  Unfortunately, under these circumstances, a permanent peace can never exist.

Sunday 18 November 2012

Operation Pillar of Defense - Showing the Best of Israel

On Wednesday, Israel's patience finally broke down.  After months, and even years of incessant rocket fire from Gaza towards communities in the south of Israel, the government finally decided that enough is enough.  A pin-point assassination was launched against the military leader of Hamas, Ahmad Jabari.  In addition, air force planes were sent in to target the longer-range missiles stationed in the Gaza Strip waiting to launch attacks on the densely populated areas of central Israel.  Operation Pillar of Defense hit the road, and is now already into its fifth day.

It is not only that Israel has the right to defend herself and her citizens against these attacks.  The imperative is a great deal stronger.  The Israeli government and the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) have the responsibility that requires them to do so.  Israelis and foreigners alike seem to understand this.  The only criticism that is being levelled against the government by Israelis in the wake of the latest operation, is that it came too late.  For now, even the most dovish of the international leaders have at least expressed a level of understanding at Israel's decision to launch this operation.  It is clear that none of these leaders would tolerate one missile being fired at their civilian populations, let alone the thousands of missiles that have been fired towards Israel over the past few months.  It should be clear that this is a war of necessity, and not one of choice.  The aggressor is Hamas, while the IDF is taking the role of simply defending the nation that it is responsible for keeping safe, and out of harm's way.  Israel has no desire to kill, hurt or injure Palestinians.  Israel also has no interest to take control of the Gaza Strip.  The only objective of this operation is simply to stop the rocket fire which threatens Israeli citizens on a daily basis.

Even though we have unfortunately seen this more than once or twice, even in the recent past, the reaction of the Israeli nation is astonishing.  Now that I am a parent of two young soldiers in the IDF, I am able to see things from a slightly different angle than was previously the case.  The more I see, the more proud I feel.  Our young men and women in uniform are the most incredible asset to our country and to our people.  Even though they are merely children, they understand the responsibility that falls to them in this hour of need, and they are happy to accept this burden and to defend our country.  They are nervous as they make their way to their bases, knowing full well what awaits them when they get there.  They don't disclose their nerves to the outside world and, when the moment comes, they do their job with pride and purpose.  The State of Israel and the Jewish people owe everything we have to these young soldiers.

They are not alone.  When the call went out to the reserve forces to begin their preparations and to move to their bases, the response was overwhelming.  Some were called out in the middle of the night and on Shabbat.  Many of them are husbands and fathers to young children.  Some are entitled to defer the call to duty for justifiable reasons.  Many run sole proprietor businesses.  And yet, they moved to bases in a green swarm without a hesitation.  Roads were congested with buses and cars as thousands of reserve soldiers travelled to their staging points.  The patriotism and the incredible sense of pride and enthusiasm with which they defend their country never ceases to amaze me.  I feel sure that the grandparents and great-grandparents of these soldiers, many of whom lived during the period of the Holocaust and through anti-Semitism in Middle Eastern countries and who were unable to defend themselves without a Jewish army, would feel immense pride if they had the merit to witness this activity.  They are the true embodiment of modern-day heroes.

For Israel, by far the most important story of the war so far is the success of Iron DomeIron Dome is the anti-missile defense system which was developed entirely in Israel, by Israelis for the defence of the State of Israel.  Iron Dome has the unique capability of being able to respond to extremely short-range missiles, to shoot them down before they hit their targets.  The sophistication and accuracy of Iron Dome is such, that it only deploys itself when missiles are launched in the direction of populated areas.  At times, there are only 15 or 20 seconds available to detect the incoming rocket, and launch an Iron Dome anti-missile missile to destroy the rocket.  Over the past five days, almost 750 rockets have been fired from Gaza into Israel.  Approximately one-third of these have been intercepted and shot down by Iron Dome.  About 30 rockets have hit targets in Israeli populated areas.  This indicates two things.  Firstly, a very high proportion of the rockets from Gaza are purposefully being launched towards densely populated areas in Israel.  Secondly, the Iron Dome success rate has been remarkable.   There was one reported Iron Dome miss yesterday, and the missile crashed into an apartment building in Ashdod.  One cannot even begin to imagine the devastation that may have been caused if Iron Dome was not in existence, and not doing the unbelievably effective job that it is doing.

For a war of this level of intensity, the casualties have been relatively few.  This is no thanks to the tactics that have been adopted by Hamas.  On the contrary, they have been doing all that they can to maximise the casualties.  The IDF has aimed its attacks at almost 1,000 targets across the Gaza Strip.  Some of these attacks have been aimed at individuals who are instrumental in orchestrating and carrying out attacks on Israeli civilians.  Including the targeted assassination hits, there have been approximately 70 deaths on the Palestinian side.  Considering that war inevitably has "collateral damage", particularly when missiles are being fired from residential neighbourhoods in Gaza, this is remarkably low even though each civilian killed is regrettable, and should be avoided at all costs.  Israeli deaths have been limited to three people killed on Thursday in Kiryat Malachi.  This is thanks to a fantastic job by Iron Dome, and excellent support by the Home Front Command which has ensured that people know how to stay out of harm's way even when the rockets do hit.  It is nothing short of miraculous that we have managed to avoid further loss of life and serious injury when the Palestinians have shown such great determination in trying to create as much death, destruction and havoc as possible.  This says a great deal about the type of enemy that we are fighting against.  There is no hesitation to launch missiles from within their populated areas, risking the lives of their own citizens.  There is no hesitation in targeting the most densely populated areas of Israel with massive missiles.  Israeli citizens have much to be grateful for in terms of the fantastic protection that has been afforded us by our army, and by our anti-missile defense systems.

The name given to the operation in Hebrew is "Amud Anan" (עמוד ענן).  Although this has been translated into English by the IDF as "Pillar of Defense", in reality it is a biblical term which really means "pillar of cloud".  It refers particularly to the divine cloud which guided the Israelites through the desert, and shielded from those who might do them harm.  It is a perfectly chosen name, as we pray that our soldiers and civilians will be guided and protected by the amud anan in the same way that it guided and protected the Israelites in the desert.

Our forces are gathering in large numbers on the borders of Gaza in anticipation of a ground invasion.  The backup systems have gone into high action to make sure that everything is done behind the scenes to support this to the best of our ability.  We are immensely proud of our boys and girls in uniform who are unflinching in their commitment to protect our country, and our right to exist in freedom.  We wish all our soldiers Godspeed in the coming days, and it is our prayer that the operation to rid Israel of the attacks from its enemies will be effective and swift in its execution.  May all our soldiers be protected in all that they do.  The will and prayers of an entire nation are with them.

Sunday 11 November 2012

Barack is Back - The Aftermath for Israel

While half of America celebrates the results of the presidential election, many Israelis will be feeling quite depressed about the results.  It would be safe to say that most of Israel was rooting for Romney (or whoever would have opposed Barack Obama).  In four short years, Obama succeeded in alienating much of the Israeli public, and there is a fairly flat feeling about the prospect of Obama continuing similar Middle East policies over the next four years.

Of course, it is true that Israelis have very different interests than Americans have when viewing the presidential election.  Americans are justifiably mostly concerned about economic issues, and about domestic issues such as universal health care.  These are issues which are of much less interest to the average Israeli, even though the man on the street in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem still cares a great deal about who will govern from the White House.  The reason for this is quite simple.  The White House has historically had a substantial impact on events in the Middle East in the past, and this is likely to continue for the foreseeable future.  People are clearly hoping that this influence will be exerted to help the security of the Jewish people in Israel, and also to advance the cause of peace in the Middle East.  The experience of how this influence has been exerted over the past four years does not engender any feeling of confidence that the current status quo is likely to change, or that the current situation will move in a positive direction over the next four years.  Even though life for Jews in Israel has been far worse in the past, people continue to live in hope that it will be a lot better with the help and influence of the White House in the future.

When Barack Obama came to power four years ago, there was a great deal of scepticism in Israel about how a president with such close family links to Islam, could be good for the Jews in Israel.  The euphoria and excitement that swept through the USA, however, convinced many to give Obama the benefit of the doubt and the chance to prove himself one way or the other.  Now, four years later, many believe that he has proved himself, and that their initial scepticism was fully justified.  In President Obama's first presidential visit to the Middle East, he made a point of stopping in Egypt to lay out his policy for the region.  Since then, he has not stepped foot in Israel nor shown himself to be particularly engaged in Middle Eastern issues.  He has waged a battle against policies that Prime Minister Netanyahu has pursued to secure the safety of Israel as a Jewish state, and has allowed Iran to reach the verge of producing a nuclear weapon by not being prepared to support the required military action to remove this threat.  Even though not all Israelis are supporters of Netanyahu and his policies, Obama's opposition to these policies have been viewed as unhelpful to Israel's cause and her security.  Obama has not been sufficiently willing to speak out against the continued missile fire under which so many communities in the south of Israel have been forced to live under, and to make clear to the perpetrators of these attacks how unacceptable this situation is.

Obama's predecessor, George W. Bush was the one who coined the phrase "if they are not with us, they are against us", in the context of the war on terror following the 9/11 attacks.  Israel has been fighting a war on terror for much longer than this, and understands very well the fact that there can be no "abstentions" in this important issue.  Those who do not strongly support the fight and help to take steps to assist in eradicating terror, effectively enable it by their lack of action.  Those who do not actively work to eradicate the nuclear threat from Iran, are those who enable it.  Responsibility for this extremely worrying situation will fall to all of those who were happy to be spectators while it was clear that a nuclear weapon was being constructed by a rogue regime with full knowledge and in full sight of the world.  The UN was set up in the wake of the Second World War with a brief of preventing conflicts and avoid future wars.  This type of activity is surely exactly what the UN has been set up to act against.  Even though the clear understanding is that Iran's nuclear program has the worst of intentions, it is being allowed by the world, and by Barack Obama in particular, to proceed almost unimpeded.

With this background, it is hardly surprising that Obama doesn't have a place in the hearts of many Israelis.  There are those who claim that the Obama administration has done more than any other US administration to provide arms and funding for weapons to Israel.  It is also clear that a strong US economy is good for Israel's economy in many respects.  So, action taken by Obama to strengthen the US economy is good and extremely important for Israel's continued well-being.  But these are indirect, and often invisible to the Israeli eye.  The most public and obvious matters, being the Iran nuclear issue and the continued conflict with the Palestinians, particularly Hamas in Gaza, are always going to be the issues that grab the headlines.  These are also the things that will capture the attention of the Israeli public, and by which Obama's success and failure with regard to his policy on Israel will be measured.

What remains unclear, is the extent to which the personal lack of agreement between Netanyahu and Obama may affect Obama's Israel policy.  Netanyahu is reported to have got on the wrong side of Obama on more than one previous occasion, and was extremely clear in his support for Romney in the presidential election campaign.  Indications from the White House are, that this will not influence Obama's attitude towards Israel, but this remains to be seen.  Despite the lurch towards democracy by some Middle Eastern countries as a result of the Arab Spring, Israel is still the only truly democratic country in the Middle East that the US can truly rely upon as an ally.  Their partnership in the war on terror is also a critical for both the US and Israel.

Perhaps its a good thing that Israelis have a very low expectation of the support that Israel will get from the new Obama administration.  At least, this means that the chances for disappointment are much lower than was the case four years ago when he took office for the first time.  Of course, we would all like to be pleasantly surprised, but there is no expectation that this will be the case.  The real fear is that we will wake up one day during the course of the next few years, and find that Iran has a nuclear bomb.  This will change the shape of the Middle East, and of the world.  It is our hope that Obama will at least take action to prevent this nightmare becoming reality.  Even though Israel is known for acting independently where required, and is not bound to US agreement or support on these matters in any way, the problem is a global one and not one which is only a threat to Israel.  While Israel is clearly one of the main targets of the Iranian aggression, this issue should not be left entirely to Israel to take care of.  The US and other countries around the world have a clear share of responsibility.  The time to act is now.

Sunday 21 October 2012

Lack of Election Excitement

Months of speculation have now been put to rest with the announcement that Israel will hold a general election on 22 January 2013 for the 19th Knesset since the founding of the state in 1948.  The Knesset returned to sit this week after the summer recess, and  almost immediately dissolved itself to allow 3 months until the election is held.

Prime Minister Netanyahu announced the early election on national television last week.  He acknowledged that the main driver behind his decision to bring forward the date of the election, is his belief that he will be unable to pass the state budget for 2013 with the existing coalition.  Differently stated, I think that the prime minister has decided that the concessions that he would be forced to make in order to pass the state budget, do not warrant waiting until summer to hold the election.  It is clear that one of the terms that coalition partners will be forced to agree to when the new government is constructed, is that they will support the vote on the state budget.  The new government will aim to pass this as one of its very first acts when it comes into power after the election.

The Israeli public is particularly unenthusiastic about the prospects of being involved in a general election at this time.  This is not an indication that the public does not value the democracy that is such an important part of every aspect of Israeli lifestyle.  It is just that, at this juncture, most believe that an election will not bring about any change to the current set of circumstances that Israelis find themselves in.  If things were going well, this would be OK.  The issue is that things could be a lot better.  The list of challenges that Israel finds herself up against now stretch from economic issues to the conflict with Iran.  We should not forget the ongoing civil war on the border in Syria, and the downturn in relations with the USA.  Rocket fire from Gaza towards Israeli civilians continues unabated, and the politicians have failed to find a solution to resolve the conundrum of how to draft religious young people to the army.  Many of these problems are pressing, and require urgent attention by the political establishment.

The above list of problematic issues may make us seem ungrateful for what we have.  This is not the case, and there are indeed many good things about living in Israel for which we are extremely grateful.  The country continues to develop and grow, and is a miracle of modern times in terms of what has been achieved here in a short period of time.  The good things are not ignored or forgotten by those living here.  It is also true that we all desire more and better, even when things are good.  These desires can sometimes be tangled up with the real problems threatening the existence of the state, and the well-being of its citizens.  There can be no mistake, however, that there are some extremely urgent problems to be taken care of, upon which the future wellbeing of Israel and her citizens rests.  Economic information shows that a high percentage of citizens are living on or below the bread line.  This, in itself, is a very serious election issue and not a luxury or a "nice to have".  There are a number of other issues that are equally as important.

The problem with the current political environment leading into the next election, is that Prime Minister Netanyahu has no serious competition facing him.  The only real question which currently needs answering is how much of a majority his coalition will have in the next government.  There is no competitor to Bibi who looks remotely electable as prime minister.  This fact leads to apathy within the electorate, as there is a feeling that there is not the same ability to influence the outcome of the election.  As a result, many people prefer to stay at home rather than turn out to vote.  This, in turn, could influence the outcome of the election if too many people who would vote for a certain party decide not to cast their votes.  The other issue with the current situation is that governments are generally held more accountable when the opposition is stronger.  The current circumstances provide a real danger that the opposition will be weak after the election, which potentially gives the government too much of a free hand.

The public is increasingly disillusioned with politics and politicians.  There seems to be endless corruption and dishonesty inherent in Israeli politics, and this causes the electorate to distance itself from participating in the democratic process.  All of this means, sadly, that there is probably more interest in November's US presidential election than there is in our own general election.

The Israeli economy requires a state budget for 2013 to be passed as a matter of priority by the new government.  Thereafter, there is much more work to be done to ensure that the Iran issue is properly dealt with.  The list of important internal matters which awaits the new government is lengthy.  Even though it seems unexciting and the result appears to be inevitable, the Israeli public are advised to carry out their democratic responsibility and participate in the vote.  We understand that Bibi will continue in office as prime minister, but the make-up of the government is still undecided.  The public has the opportunity to at least influence this.

If we wish to ensure that Israel continues in its role as one of the only democracies in the Middle East, it is critical for all citizens to participate in this democracy, even when it seems that the result is difficult to influence.  It is important to strengthen this democracy by participating in it at every opportunity.  This is no exception.

Monday 8 October 2012

Technological Warfare Against Israel


It was announced on Saturday that the Israel Defense Force (IDF) shot down a drone that had penetrated Israeli air space earlier in the day.  It is not yet clear who sent the drone, or what its purpose was.  A few names have mentioned as to who could be behind this, including Hamas and Hezbollah.  The possibility that Iran is probably involved is not far from anybody's mind.

The IDF is well-known for having developed very sophisticated hi-tech weaponry and intelligence-gathering tools.  It has also developed hi-tech ways of infiltrating sensitive areas within enemy operations to cause them damage.  The best recent example of this has been the viruses that were found in the computer systems of Iran's nuclear program.  Although the use of technology for surveillance and intelligence-gathering is well known, the effectiveness of cyber warfare is unknown.  It is understood that the viruses may have contributed to delays in Iran's construction of a nuclear weapon, although even this is not entirely clear.  It has become clear that unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) have been very effective in intelligence-gathering to follow activities on the ground, and also for use in attacks while not endangering human lives in the process.  Israel's use of these has been extensive, and has even expanded to Israel developing and launching its own satellites for higher altitude surveillance.  It transpires that Israel's enemies also have access to similar technologies.  The IDF is having to respond by using its sophisticated technologies to defend against the use of hi-tech intelligence and weapons to harm Israel.

According to the IDF, this is the fourth time that a drone has penetrated Israeli air space over the past ten years.  The previous three occasions have seen much smaller drones enter Israeli air space from the north.  The fact that they have come from the north has given clear indication that Hezbollah was involved from its positions in southern Lebanon.  The drone that was shot down on Saturday is reported to have entered Israeli air space from the Mediterranean coast.  Israeli surveillance was monitoring the drone well before it entered into Israeli air space, and managed to shoot it down in a controlled way that ensured that nobody on the ground was injured or endangered.  The IDF will be examining the drone to determine its flight path prior to entering the space above Israel, and to see if Israeli intelligence is able to determine the identity of those who sent the drone.  The good news for now, at least as far as we know, is that Israel has the required surveillance capability to identify these UAVs that penetrate Israeli air space, and destroy them before they are able to transmit information to enemies in a way that could endanger Israel's safety.  Hezbollah has been proud to announce that the fact that this drone succeeded in penetrating Israeli air space, shows that Israel is vulnerable to this type of attack.  The fact remains that Hezbollah has yet to be successful in gaining any advantage from drones that have penetrated Israeli air space.  This is surely the main test.

It is quite astonishing that it is terror organisations like Hamas and Hezbollah who are the main suspects of sending the UAVs.  In the 2006 Lebanon War, Hezbollah launched Iranian drones capable of carrying explosives towards Israel.  The Israeli Air Force succeeded in identifying these in good time, and shot them down before they could do any damage.  The clear message is that these renegade groups have access to the most sophisticated weaponry and technology, and can never be underestimated.  It is also understood that these are being supplied by Iran behind the scenes, and that Hamas and Hezbollah are fulfilling their role as proxy armies for Iran in its fight against Israel.

The time for cyber warfare is here.  This is not merely limited to attacks on computer networks, or use of computers for monitoring and intelligence-gathering exercises.  It also extends to use of unmanned vehicles, in the air or on the ground, to gather intelligence and to carry explosives to carry out attacks against remote targets.  We can expect the technology to increase in its sophistication with each passing day, and we can expect terror groups like Hezbollah, Hamas, Al Qaeda and others to have access to the most up-to-date hardware and software available.

Not too long ago, war was conducted with enemies lining up and firing missiles and small arms at each other.  These missiles have developed to the point that they can be fired from much further away than was previously the case, so there is no real need to line up against each other.  It seems now that the nature of war has changed even further.  It is conducted using weapons that do not require humans to risk their lives, and it is sometimes conducted via computer and communications networks.  At times, people are not even aware that acts of war are taking place until it is  too late.

Israel has always ensured that it is at the leading edge of military technology.  This has proven to be the right decision in terms of maintaining an advantage over her enemies in the Middle East, and further afield.  As the technology moves to the next generation, it seems as though this decision will prove even more critical in the future.  This type of warfare plays right into the greatest strength that the IDF possesses in terms of its technological capability.  The next few years will be critical in telling whether this is the case or not.

Monday 1 October 2012

Red Lines and Green Lines

As is the usual practice at this time of year, the world's focus turned last week to the hallowed halls of the General Assembly of the United Nations.  The events there have, by now, become an annual ritual.  Eyes became trained upon Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as his travelling circus rolled into New York City.  Everybody was awaiting his next insult directed at Israel and other western countries.  He did not disappoint.  He did the rounds of the TV talk shows who were falling over themselves to get him on their stages.  He poked his finger in the eye of his American hosts and continuously threatened Israel's existence and place in the community of nations.  US President Barack Obama made his speech at the General Assembly, and left town as soon as he possibly could.  Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas pleaded for the establishment of a Palestinian independent state, without addressing any of the main sticking points that are preventing him from achieving this objective.  Prime Minister Netanyahu put on his usual show, defending the rights of the Jewish nation to exist in peace and security (for his speech to the UN click here).  All of these actions have become fairly well-rehearsed over the past few years.  This year, however, there were some subtle differences.

The assessment of one of the Israeli newspapers was spot-on when it wrote that the international leaders seemed to be talking straight past each other, and aiming their addresses at people who were a long way from the General Assembly halls.  The newspaper decided that Obama aimed his address at his Jewish voters in Florida, who he hopes will help to swing the vote to re-elect him for a further presidential term in November.  They thought that Abbas was aiming his speech at Hamas leaders who, he hopes, will find a way to further Palestinian unity and implement the agreement that was signed some time ago.  It was decided that Netanyahu aimed his speech at the central committee of his ruling Likud party in his attempt to convince them that he is not compromising his red lines on Iran's nuclear weapons, nor his position regarding conditions under which he would reach an agreement with the Palestinians.  Despite the world leaders being in close proximity to one another, nobody seemed to be talking to each other.

Illustration by Eran Wolkowski courtesy of Haaretz
Another newspaper described the Netanyahu and Abbas speeches as "one talking about green lines and the other talking about red lines".  The green lines refer to the borders originally drawn up for the State of Israel, and in effect until the Six Day War in 1967.  In his speech to the UN, Abbas again complained that the Israeli settlements are the main obstacle to peace.  With the support of many in the international community, Abbas believes that a future Palestinian state should be established on the borders of the "green line".  Netanyahu is firmly opposed to returning to the green line, and has made this clear on a number of occasions.  In an attempt to bring the international community around to his way of thinking, his government continues to act against settlers trying to establish new outposts in the West Bank, in places which are not properly authorised and legal.  The steps that Netanyahu has taken against these new and illegal settlements have gained the wrath of many in his Likud party.

Photo by Reuters
The red lines refer to the fact that Netanyahu feels that Iran is being allowed to behave with a free hand while the international community waits for the sanctions to take effect.  He is insistent that red lines should be drawn, which would create limits on Iran's behaviour.  The clear implication is that the international community should be prepared to draw these red lines, and should also be prepared to take military action against Iran in the event that it transgresses the red lines.  At the UN General Assembly on Thursday, Netanyahu made his point about red lines on Iran very explicitly using a prop showing a neatly-drawn nuclear bomb (in the shape of a hand grenade).  On this sketch, he used a red marker to add where he thought  the red line should be drawn.

There can be no clearer indication that the these  leaders are on completely different pages, and thinking about completely different things.  There appears to be no common purpose or urgency about what needs to be achieved next, in order to bring about the much sought-after peace in the Middle East.  Abbas is enjoying a period of stability within his West Bank stronghold.  A routine of some sort has been established for daily life within his constituency.  Few attacks on Israel have been perpetrated by Palestinians, and this has resulted in far less intervention by Israeli troops in Palestinian society.  Quality of life has been improved by the relative stability.  Abbas has greater support of his people (as evidenced by the lack of any real shows of dissatisfaction), and he has no interest at the moment to be put under pressure to call an election.  Hamas is weakened by its leadership struggle for somebody to replace the outgoing Khaled Meshal, and this has substantially reduced the tension between Abbas and his Hamas rivals.  It seems as though Abbas has little intention or reason to upset this situation.

Netanyahu's attention and focus is almost entirely devoted to Iran's nuclear program, when he is not stealing time for domestic matters.  Between Iran and working on his campaign for elections currently scheduled for 2013, Netanyahu seems to have little time or inclination to deal with Palestinian matters.  The same is true for President Obama, who has not shown any inclination to spend much time on the Middle East conundrum in his four years in office to date.  Although all the speeches referred to work that needs to be done on the "peace process", actions speak louder than words.  The actions indicate that all three leaders are not unhappy with the status quo, and that none of them are poised to do anything dramatic to change it.  This perhaps explains the lack of coordination in the various speeches.  It almost appears as if the lack of coordination was coordinated!

The Ahmadinejad show at the UN is extremely unfortunate.  It seems as though the world has come to accept that this is the way that things are, and is prepared to tolerate his bad behaviour.  It is OK for him to bash Israel from the UN podium (and anywhere else), despite prior warnings by the UN and the USA for him to tone down his rhetoric.  The USA and Canada were the only two countries to walk out of the General Assembly when he rose to speak.  All of this bodes extremely badly for the world's response to Iran's nuclear weapons.  Will this be taken for granted as well?  If so, it is entirely appropriate for Bibi to be focusing on red lines, even if the rest of the world prefers him to concentrate on green lines.

Sunday 16 September 2012

Fifty Fateful Days

Former government minister Tzachi Hanegbi has been quoted as telling a closed meeting of Likud activists that the next fifty days are the most fateful in Israel’s history.  Hanegbi is not a member of the government or even of the Knesset, having recently been convicted of moral turpitude in relation to previous ministerial posts held.  He has also flip-flopped between political parties when he decided to join Ariel Sharon’s Kadima party, then return to the Likud.  Hanegbi is, however, known to be a close confidante of Prime Minister Netanyahu.  Under the circumstances, his statements are being closely analysed for hidden significance.

The fact that his statements were clearly not intended for outside consumption has added even greater weight to them.  Now that the words have been recorded and smuggled to the outside world, the press is taking the opportunity to speculate as to precisely what they mean.  In his statement, Hanegbi compared the next fifty days to a dozen or so days during the Yom Kippur War which he considers to be equally as fateful, and upon which the balance of Israel’s fate hung.  He referred to the fact that allowing Iran to have nuclear weapons has a price tag.  Hanegbi made a request of the Likud faithful to support Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, and to “allow him quiet” and “strengthen his legitimacy” so that he can take the necessary decisions calmly.

The seriousness of the situation with Iran has been evident and obvious to many within Israel and  outside for some time.  It is the first time, however, that somebody who is believed to be close to the inner core of government has indicated a timetable of any type on this matter.  The reference to the next 50 days seems to tie in quite closely with speculation that has been previously heard, suggesting that the window of opportunity to carry out a strike against Iran is limited until the US presidential elections are held in November.  After the election takes place, there are strong reasons why Israel will not be able to expect support for an attack on Iran, irrespective of whether Obama is reelected or Romney is successful.  It is not clear when the window of opportunity may reopen after the election, but it is assumed that it will take a good few months.  By then, the situation in Iran may be beyond the point of no return.

For some time now, Prime Minister Netanyahu has expressed his frustration over the lack of international support to deal with the Iran nuclear program.  Despite the fact that Iran has consistently failed to provide adequate responses to the international community in relation to its nuclear program, the world (led by President Barack Obama) seems content to provide it with the time it needs, while ostensibly waiting for the sanctions to take effect.  This is valuable time that is being wasted, and which Iran is taking maximum advantage of to get its nuclear bomb beyond the point where action can still be taken to destroy it.  I hope that the world will not look back in the future, and regret not having used these days more productively.

Many ask why it is that Israel does not act unilaterally against Iran, in the same way as the action was taken against Syria and Iraq?  It is my guess that we can never fully understand the differences in the circumstances that exist now with Iran, when compared to those that existed in Iraq and Syria.  For one, the Iranians are lying in wait ready and have hundreds, if not thousands, of missiles waiting to be fired towards Israel.  That seems to be a very powerful reason to change the tactics used.  The prime minister has responsibility for the safety of his citizens, both now and in the future.  As opposed to the situation that existed previously, the Iranian issue is far too public and high-profile to allow the IDF to carry out stealth missions without any consequences.  The world’s media is lying in wait for the first Israeli aircraft to take off from their hangars towards Iran.  Any attack of this type will probably be broadcast live on Al Jazeera and CNN.

When Tzachi Hanegbi spoke about 50 fateful days, I think he referred as much to the consequences of inaction, as to the consequences of any action.  If the prime minister has decided that it is too risky to send the forces in unilaterally, the question is what has he decided to do instead.  Clearly, doing nothing is not an option.  We are now relying on the creativity of the Israeli mind to find ways to get the Iranian nuclear bomb without the need to send in the troops.  Let us hope that this is  already in train.

With the onset of the Jewish New Year, we sincerely hope and pray that 5773 will bring a final answer to this issue.  We hope that, by the time we reach 5774, the issue of the Iranian nuclear bomb will be behind us once and for all.  We pray for the health and safety of all of our brave soldiers who give their time, energy and their souls in protecting Israel and the Jewish people.  May we find that elusive missing piece of the puzzle that will lead our country towards peaceful coexistence, and prosperity for all her people.

Wishing you and your family, and all the people of Israel, a happy, healthy and prosperous new year.

Friday 7 September 2012

Four More Years?

As the conventions for the nomination of presidential candidates swing into action, Israeli TV is bombarded with images of American politics at its peak.  It is understandable that Israelis are taking a keen interest in the developments across the Atlantic.  Not only are Israelis generally very well tuned-in to world politics and current affairs, the USA elections hold more than just a passing interest for even the most disinterested Israeli.

The outcome of the American election, and the policies that will accompany the victorious administration, rank among the most important items of interest on the Israeli political calendar.  It is only marginally less important to the Israeli electorate than the outcome of an Israeli domestic election.  Despite the fact that the close ties between Israel and the USA are widely known and understood around the world, it is probably difficult for those not living in Israel to comprehend the full extent of this relationship.  The outcome of the US election could substantially change the nature of the relationship.

The most obvious and public element of this relationship is in the military sphere.  America provides substantial financial help to Israel’s military effort, much of it in the form of loan guarantees.  This is money that is critical to allow Israel to continue to defend her borders.  The money is spent on funding the activities of the army, as well as developing and acquiring arms, weapons and military equipment.   Access to American military hardware is also of vital importance to Israel.  Without this, there are some who believe that Israel’s very existence may be endangered.  Public statements of support and operational support from the USA for Israel’s military activities are also an important part of the relationship.  Although Israel has gone it alone without the USA in the past, and may do so in the future, it is always much easier when the USA is in agreement.  This has never been more clearly in evidence than with the current deliberations over what to do with Iran’s nuclear program.  There is a view that Israel may have acted against the Iranians some time ago if the USA was fully on board.

The US economy is intertwined with that of Israel in many different ways.  Israeli companies are selling substantial volumes of goods and services into the US market.  Many Israeli companies are listed on the America’s NASDAQ stock exchange.  A great deal of American money is invested in Israeli start-up companies, and helps to keep Israeli charities and other institutions alive.  There is no doubt that if America sneezes, Israel catches a cold.

The above are only a few examples out of many that demonstrate how closely the two countries are connected.  And while these examples send a message that the USA is in the supporting role to help Israel, this is not always true.  Having an ally like an Israel, which is the only true democracy in the Middle East, is of essential importance to America and its security needs.  Israel’s technology and military developments as well as its security intelligence act as a source supplying valuable goods and information to the US security establishment.  There can be no doubt that this is a two-way relationship, and that each country is dependent upon the other in different ways.

There were those who predicted from the outset of his presidency, that Barack Obama would not be a good friend to Israel.  How can Israel trust an American president with “Hussein” in his name?  Even his Democratic predecessor, Bill Clinton, found it sufficiently important to pay visits to Israel during his time in office, something that Obama has yet to do.  He has preferred to manage things remotely and intermittently in an inconsistent and disinterested manner.  He has been happy to allow rockets to keep falling from Gaza while encouraging Israel to take “confidence-building” unilateral steps to appease the Palestinians.  He is happy to tolerate calls by Iranian leadership for the destruction of the State of Israel at every public opportunity, and to witness the construction of a deadly nuclear program before his very eyes.  Most problematic of all are his public announcements that he would not support Israeli military action to counter this menacing situation.  These are worrying signs and worrying times.  It is not concerning because Israel is unable to act without America in support. It is worrying because inaction on the part of the free world further emboldens the tyrants, and sends a strong message to them about what can and will be tolerated.

It is unsurprising, therefore, that many Israelis are rooting for Romney.  If the circumstances were different, they would like to support Obama.  He embodies the story of many Jewish families, and of the State of Israel itself.  He is proof that immigrant parents and an underprivileged upbringing need not impede the drive to reach the very top.  Perhaps this is what drove so many US Jews and Israelis to support him at the last election.  While this is a nice story, the issue of Israel’s survival remains uppermost and much more important.  It is for this reason that Israel will be saying that four years has been more than enough.

Wednesday 5 September 2012

South Africa Turning the Screws on Israel

South Africa's relationship with Israel has been a tenuous one to say the least, since the birth of the "new South Africa" and the ascent of the ANC to government in 1994.  This is hardly surprising, when considering the relationship between Israel and the ANC prior to 1994.  The military links beween Israel and the apartheid Nationalist government in South Africa did nothing to help the ANC feel positive towards Israel.  In their years in exile during the apartheid years, the ANC found a great deal of common ground with Yasser Arafat's PLO.  The two organisations cooperated and supported each other substantially during this period.  These links have not been broken since the ANC has come to power and the Palestinian Authority has been established.  All of this means that the relations between an ANC-led South African government and Israel will be cordial at best, and are unlikely ever to be warm or friendly.

The involvement of a number of South African Jews in the ANC's "struggle" never really helped to endear the organisation towards the Jewish community.  The fact that many of these Jews were and are virulently anti-Israeli has helped to engender a general feeling of contempt by the ANC organisation towards Israel.  The only saving grace in the ANC- Israel relationship has been the influence of Jews in big business in South Africa.  The Jewish community in South Africa, including the big names in the economy, have generally been strong Zionists.  The ANC has been smart enough to realise this, and has been forced to tread a careful path in displaying its contempt for Israel for fear of alienating these individuals and businesses, and the economic clout that they come with.  As Black Empowerment has worked to reduce this influence in favour of the new class of blacks who are seizing control of the economy for themselves, so the ANC has been allowed the freedom to turn the screws more tightly on Israel in the knowledge that this will not necessarily have the same economic consequences as it may have had previously.

Even though the ANC government's formal policy towards Israel appears unchanged, its actions display clearly that its position is tightening.  In the first instance, the SA government continues to support Iran at every opportunity.  This is despite the fact that Iranian leader Ahmadinejad has called for the destruction of the State of Israel at every possible opportunity, and the development of Iran's nuclear capability is clearly aimed at creating a threat against Israel.  While many countries have unfortunately chosen not to take a position against Iran, they are at least thoughtful enough not to support Iran.  The fact that the South African government has come out in support of Iran places it in a different category as far as I am concerned.  Former US President George Bush said "you are either with us, or you are against us".  Where Iran is concerned, South Africa is clearly against Israel.

The unfortunate episode of the labelling of goods from West Bank settlements, and the fact that South African government has decided that these goods should be differently labelled certainly sets South Africa aside from the rest of the world.  South Africa is the only country that has taken this outrageous step, and this is a sign of grave hostility.  The areas of Judea and Samaria were captured in a war, in a similar way to many other areas around the world.  The war was not one of aggression by Israel, but rather a defensive move to ensure that enemies of the type of Iran's Ahmadinejad did not succeed in their quest to wipe Israel off the map.  All fair and square, and in accordance with international law.  Is the South African government objecting to the fact that Israel has decided not to hand this area on a golden platter to those who would use it to attack Israel?  Does the South African government believe that those who are living in the settlements and producing the goods that are separately labelled, are not Israelis?  This is a step that is unprecedented, and entirely unwarranted.  Other than taking a hostile stance against Israel, this action is unlikely to have any impact on Israel or its economy.  The point seems to be a simple statement of hostility.

This action is supported by the ridiculous statement by a minister in the South African government, that South Africans should not visit Israel.  Although the statement made by Deputy Foreign Minister Ebrahim Ebrahim seems to be directly at odds with the formal policy of the government, nobody has responded to slap him down.  By implication, this suggests that the members of the government are not in disagreement with his statement.  An attempt by Mr Ebrahim to promote his own anti-Semitic agenda has served to expose the entire South African government as sympathisers-in-kind.

While the Israeli government has made some strong statements in response to the anti-Israel vitriol coming out of South Africa, accusing the South African government of implementing a form of boycott against Israel, the Israeli government is unlikely to take stronger action against South Africa.  This is because of the sizable Jewish community that remains firmly ensconced in South Africa.  Whereas the Israeli government may, under different circumstances, have taken firmer diplomatic action in response to such provocation on the part of any government, the South African government will be allowed to escape with less than what it deserves.  The Israeli government would prefer this scenario rather than putting the South African Jewish community at any risk.  The truth is that the current situation serves to place the community under increased threat by virtue of the clear anti-Israel and anti-Semitic sentiments coming out of the national government.  This should surely serve as a wake-up sign to the community that the situation is changing for the worse.

As the influence of the white and the Jewish community is weakened in the South African economy, the government will have view itself as having greater flexibility to operate against Jews and against Israel in the future.  It is difficult for me to see that the influence of the evangelical Christians in South Africa, who are important supporters both of the ANC and of Israel, will sufficiently sway the government such that it will take a less negative view of Israel.

In reality, there was never an expectation that the ANC government would be great supporters of the Jewish community and of Israel.  They were happy to act out the charade while it was in the best interests of the local economy.  Now that the economic interests are not the same as  they once were, the charade is likely to be abandoned with it.  While I would be happy to proved wrong on this point, it seems to me that the situation can only get worse and not better.

Tuesday 28 August 2012

Non-Aligned, But Extremely Maligned

Iran is playing host to the meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) during the course of this week.  The meeting sees 120 developing nations of the world attend, with special attendance by the UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki Moon.  Although the original intention of the NAM was to provide a home for countries who were not formally aligned with or against any major power bloc, it has always represented something of a political hot potato.  This is because its membership includes the so-called "axis of evil" countries, and many other pariah states of the world.  The NAM has, perhaps unwittingly, acted as a club for countries that are persona non grata in the developed world.  The best example is the the host of the 16th meeting of the NAM this week, Iran.

Since the NAM was established in 1961, a great deal has changed in the make-up of the world's power blocs.  Despite this fact, it seems as though many of the original members of the NAM remain members to this day.  The changes in the political power blocs have not succeeded in changing  the countries that are aligned with them.  The term "non-aligned", while accurately reflecting the fact that the member countries are not part of any major international power bloc, conceals the fact that many of the member states are aligned with each other in different ways.  It seems as though being non-aligned is not sufficiently compelling to link the NAM countries.  Even these countries need a common cause to create a more substantial link between themselves.  Iran has succeeded in creating a common issue for the NAM countries to rally around, and this is the issue of hating Israel and bringing into question her right to continue to exist.

Iran's policy of publicly humiliating and deligitimising Israel is already not a new phenomenon.  Iranian President Ahmadinejad has been allowed to get away with behaving like a thug on this issue for many years.  He has stood at international gatherings at every opportunity, and ranted against Israel's right to existence amongst the family of nations.  The international community has silently sat back and watched the spectacle without taking action.  This has even been the case when Ahmadinejad has had the audacity to stand up at the United Nations General Assembly, the place that is supposed to protect the rights of nations to exist in peace and harmony, and spew vitriol about the destruction of Israel.   Once again, the UN stands accused of failing to protect the basic rights of member nations by allowing UN Secretary-General Ban Kim Moon to travel to Tehran to attend the NAM.  In so doing, he has legimitised the attendance of all the other countries at the meeting, all of whom will be subject to tirades promoting the destruction of the State of Israel in the usual Iranian way.

Surely, this enough to convince the world of Iran's ban intentions regarding its nuclear program?  The evidence that Iran intends to construct a nuclear weapon is irrefutable.  The subject of Iran's wrath and aggression is equally irrefutable.  The fact that the world allows Iran to threaten Israel in every public forum in the most unashamed manner, is now supported by the world's unwillingness to take tougher action against the nuclear program.  Instead, the world has decided to hide behind the sanctions to defer action on this matter.  It has been clear for some time that the sanctions will neither prevent the countries of the world from buying oil from Iran, nor prevent Iran from continuing to build a nuclear bomb.  Once again, it seems as though it will be left to Israel to take on the world's responsibility in acting against a tyrant.  It is true that Israel is at the front of the line of countries at risk by Iran's aggression, but it is also true that Israel is not the only country at risk.  It is clear that any action by Iran to construct a nuclear weapon will place all of the western world, and beyond, in the firing line.  Perhaps the threat to these countries is not sufficiently pressing now to force them into action.  As has been the case a few times in the past, it will be Israeli soldiers whose lives will be risked to clean up the mess that others are not prepared to take care of.

Israel has acted in the past without the blessing of its allies to take care of problems.  Twice before, Israeli aircraft have destroyed nuclear reactors under construction.  It was notable that the US government opposed Israeli action against both the Iraqi reactor and the Syrian one under construction.  We now know that Israeli action saved some extremely nasty situations from arising, and history books could have looked extremely different had the timely and brave action not been taken in the nick of time.  Fortunately, all Israeli soldiers and equipment was returned to base safely on both previous occasions.  Where Iran is concerned, the operation looks to be infinitely more complicated and risky.  This is partially because the world has failed to take timely action to destroy the threat at a much earlier stage.  Any operation that Israel will mount against Iran is likely to be extremely risky, and will almost certainly result in Israeli loss of life.

In the interests of international diplomacy and world peace, the UN Secretary-General will appear alongside the world's thugs including Ahmadinejad, Zimbabwe's President Mugabe and others.  Instead of protecting the interests and the freedom of the democratic world, he has chosen to legitimise the unacceptable behaviour of those countries who present the greatest threat to world peace.

The NAM conference has given Ahmadinejad the perfect opportunity to stand up in front of the non-aligned, and malign them against Israel and the west.  In a few weeks' time, we will expect to see another of his tirades at the UN General Assembly in New York.  All of the actions that turn a blind eye to Ahmadinejad's bad behaviour, simply empower him even further.  He understands that the world does not set any limits in terms of acceptable behaviour, and will exploit this to the maximum extent possible.  As before, it will be left to Israel to draw the line and to take the required action.  It is my hope and prayer that our soldiers and our civilians will not be endangered in the process.

Thursday 23 August 2012

A Damaging Debate

The debate about whether Israel should or should not attack Iran's nuclear facilities has broken out into the public arena in the strangest possible way.  Over last weekend, the press reported a disagreement between the prime minister and the president over whether attacking Iran at this time is the correct course of action.

Indications are that Prime Minister Netanyahu is one of two lone voices calling for Israel to take military action to stop Iran building a nuclear bomb.  Ironically, his only supporter is Defense Minister Ehud Barak.  This is ironic due to the completely opposite ends of the political spectrum that these two politicians come from.  At the moment, however, they are bedfellows in calling for the IDF to act in the near future to strike at Iran's nuclear facilities.  President Shimon Peres is advocating a completely different approach.  He would prefer to allow America to take the lead, and is currently trusting President Barack Obama's approach in waiting to see whether the sanctions will bring the desired result.  Ultimately, Peres is opposed to Israel acting unilaterally against Iran.  Peres, always a dove in his approach over many years, was also opposed to the strike that Israel carried out on the Iraqi nuclear reactor in1981.  We know how crucial that operation ultimately proved to be.

Peres is not alone in Israel in his opposition to an attack on Iran.  From recent press reports, it is understood that the military leadership in the IDF is also opposed to such an attack.  This does not mean that they are not prepared to carry out such an attack, or that they would not do so if the government decided that this is the correct approach.  It is just that military leaders, in their individual and professional capacities, believe that this would not be the best approach.  In addition to this, it is reported from surveys undertaken, that most Israelis also do not support military action.  The Israeli public seems concerned about the safety of the home front in the event of an attack on Iran.  It is well understood that Iran will almost certainly take retaliatory action in the event that there are strikes on her nuclear facilities.  This puts the Israeli public at risk, as Iran's Shihab missiles are armed and ready to fire towards Israeli territory.  Clearly, this nervousness is influencing the view of the general public such that they are opposed to attacking Iran, even if this is by a slim majority.  Some Israelis feel so strongly that we should not be attacking Iran, that an online petition has been launched imploring Israeli air force pilots to reject orders to strike Iran if called upon to do so.  While the prospect of Israel's pilots not carrying out orders is something we could not contemplate, I guess that it does show the strength of the feelings.

The fact that this entire debate is being conducted via the press and in the public, is not positive.  While democratic principles are important in our society, and especially maintaining the right to freedom of speech, I believe that certain discussions are much better held out of the public domain.  This particularly refers to matters of national security, which this clearly is.  It may be true that President Peres should not be interfering in government business, and that he has previously made incorrect calls on whether the IDF should attack targets or not.  I feel, however, that these points should be made directly to him rather via articles in the weekend newspapers.  My choosing to use the media to canvass internal support for their respective positions, the prime minister and the president may have forgotten that our enemies (including Iran) have intelligence officers who are scrutinising every article that is published.  What sort of message are we sending to them?  I believe that sending a message which shows a lack of unity in our government potentially weakens our situation in  the eyes of the Iranians.  If we cannot even agree on the fundamental issue of whether we should be taking military action to protect Israeli sovereignty for ourselves and future generations, how are we expected to agree on more substantial matters?  Iran has reacted as we would expect, by making fun of our internal squabble, and by continuing at full steam to develop a nuclear weapon.

It is a good thing that we have an environment which supports internal debates and disagreements, and that we have the freedom to be able to express ourselves openly in the national media.  Better decisions are often made when there is a minority that disagrees, and that is strong enough to bring the majority to consider their view before the final decision is made.  Where issues relating to how we deal with Iran are concerned, the debate should be held in the well-secured hallowed halls of government and the IDF, and not in the press.  Although we are very used to playing out party political agreements in the media, there are times when this approach is not appropriate.  This is clearly one of those times, and the national security of the country must surely take preference over all other matters.

Sunday 12 August 2012

The Second Time Around Simply Doubles the Pride

It seems like only yesterday that we were on our way to the IDF recruitment base to deliver our elder son to begin his military service.  Ten months have since passed, and he has thankfully found his path in the military jungle.  He continues to seek out ways to make his service as meaningful and effective as possible, in order to allow the State of Israel to get the best out of him that he can offer.  I now find myself back  in a similar situation, and on my way to deliver my younger son for the start of his military service.

The fact that I now have a slightly better understanding of the military, does not make the second time around any easier.  I feel the same fears, concerns and trepidations now that I felt on the first occasion.  I am still worried for his well-being, and concerned that he will find his way to ensure that he can make his contribution to his country and to his people in the best possible way.  The thing that has changed on this second occasion, is the level of pride that I feel.  This has now been doubled.

I feel immense pride in my sons for the way in which they have approached their military obligation.  They have understood the importance of every Israeli boy and girl being recruited to defend their country and their people.  Together with their friends, these young men have decided that they will fulfil the obligation to serve their country, and have decided to do it willingly and to the best of their ability.  Thousands of young men and women will be joining the military over the course of the next few weeks, and will give their time and energy to ensure the well-being of the State of Israel.  All of these young people have witnessed the threats that the State of Israel has been forced to live under in recent times, and understand the importance of having a strong army to counter these threats.  Many of them have visited concentration camps such as Auschwitz, that bear testament to the consequences of not having a strong Jewish army to defend our people.  They have resolved not to allow these events to repeat themselves while we have the ability to defend ourselves with a strong army.

Israelis and Jews around the world are indeed fortunate to have a young generation of the type that Israel has.  These young people are not only seeking ways to fulfil their obligation in a minimalist way.  They are happy to volunteer to be members of elite units, and to take on the toughest and most dangerous of jobs in maintaining freedom for Israelis and Jews.  These jobs require training that is extremely demanding, and frequently put our young men and women in harm's way.  This does not deter them from agreeing to these conditions, and even frequently signing up to serve for more time than the law requires if this is what it takes.

For you, my son, today is a day that will change your life.  The time that lies ahead of you will ask the most difficult questions of your physical and mental strength.  I know that you are up to the task, and I have every confidence in you.  I know that you and your friends will do a great job in defending our land and our people.  You understand the consequences are of not having our own army, and you will keep this in the back of your mind when you are having hard days.  All I can offer is to be there for you in every way I can.  I will be available to you at all times of the day and night, and I will be ready to do anything and everything in order to give you the support that you need.  We will eagerly await every moment that you will be allowed to spend time with us at home.

I wish you a successful period of service that will contribute to your personal growth, and that will give you a sense that you have made your contribution to your country and your people.  May Hashem protect you in all that you do, wherever you are.  You are true heroes for Israelis and for Jews around the world.

Even though the level of my anxiety is doubled today with the start of your service, my pride is equally doubled.  Go well, and return home safely.