Monday 30 January 2012

Going Through the Motions

The most recent round of peace talks held between the Israelis and the Palestinians has been declared a failure by the Palestinians,  Even though the talks were held at a low level, involving only negotiating representatives from each side, there always somehow seems a little more hope when a dialogue is taking place.  In hindsight, it seems quite clear that there was never really any prospect that this round of talks would go anywhere.  For the Palestinians, it was always a case of simply going through the motions to get safely to the next trigger point.

Following the unsuccessful attempts by the Palestinians to gain recognition from the UN Security Council and General Assembly in the summer of 2011, the Palestinians had promised the Quartet that they would give another round of talks a chance until the 26th January 2012.  Having promised this, the Palestinians had no way of escaping from the commitment.  Despite the fact that a total of 5 meetings were held in the current round between the parties in a very short period of time, all of which took place under the sponsorship of the Jordanian government in Amman, it became clear very early in the process that there was little intent on the part of the Palestinians to make this round work.  Having seemingly exhausted its alternatives by making little progress at the UN, however, the question arises as to why the Palestinians were trying to torpedo these talks?  With few alternatives to allow them to make progress towards their objective, it would appear that talks seem to be the best alternative for Mahmoud Abbas and the Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority.

In order to better understand why the Palestinians sabotaged the latest talks, it is important to the sub-plots that are going on behind the scenes, and which are having more of an influence on the actions by President Abbas and chief negotiator Saeb Erekat.  The first issue to address concerns the PA's alternatives at the UN.  Even though the UN Security Council and General Assembly seemingly had little interest in promoting the cause of the Palestinians at their meetings last year, the UN is quite a disparate organisation with many different tentacles that are often disconnected from each other.  This was demonstrated when, soon after the failure at the General Assembly, the Palestinians did manage to win support for full membership to the UN cultural organisation UNESCO in October 2011.  Although this was a poor consolation prize for main objective, it did demonstrate to the Palestinians that they could use a slower and indirect approach in order to work their way into the UN organisation.  This includes the possibility of making use of the UN-sponsored International Court of Justice to charge Israelis with crimes against humanity arising from events in the recent Gaza War, Operation Cast Lead.  The Palestinians have repeatedly threatened to make use of this avenue in their battle against Israel.  Even if charges that they may bring through this court are ultimately dismissed, such actions could tie individual Israelis and the Israeli government up in legal proceedings for many years.  By bringing the latest round of peace talks with Israel to an end, the prospect of stepping up actions through these UN organisations is placed firmly back on the table, and exactly where the Palestinians wish it to be.

The second sub-plot concerns the evolution of the relationship between Fatah and Hamas.  The Palestinian Authority is controlled by Fatah, and with Mahmoud Abbas already serving his 8th year of a 4-year term, there is a great deal of pressure for elections to be held.  Fatah is clearly reluctant to call elections when there is a real prospect of them being routed, even in their perceived stronghold of the West Bank.  Many of these issues were taken care of, when a deal was signed between Hamas and Fatah to create a unity government for the Palestinian Authority.  This deal is a typical attempt to extend the longevity of politicians on both sides of the divide, by denying the electorate the right to express its will through the ballot box.  With Hamas being absolutely opposed to holding any negotiations with Israel at all, the establishment of the unity government was put on hold while the latest talks were held.  Now, with the talks dead and buried, the blockage has been removed.  For Fatah, entering into a closer relationship with Hamas may allow it to share in some of the popular support that Hamas continues to enjoy following recent prisoner exchange deal.  It may also extend the political lives of some of the bigger names.

A further sub-plot in play concerns the ongoing events in the Arab World, and the events which have resulted from the "Arab Spring".  Mahmoud Abbas has announced that he will be taking the issue of the failed talks with the Israelis to the Arab League, to get direction as to what should happen next.  With the Arab League occupied with events in Syria, Abbas may have a created a smokescreen under which to operate.  Interestingly, the effects of the Arab Spring also seem to have created something of a split within Hamas, which may yet have an impact on the Palestinian Authority via the inclusion of Hamas in the unity government activities.  The leadership that was formerly based in Damascus (reports suggest that Khaled Meshal and his team have fled the Syrian capital) feel that non-violent protest against Israel may be effective as a "Palestinian Spring", after having seen the impact of the popular uprising in Syria and Egypt first-hand.  The Gaza leadership is quite clear that it has no intention of adopting a new non-violent approach against Israel, and this issue may yet cause further internal conflict within the Palestinian camp.

The way in which the Palestinians went through the motions in the recent peace talks seemed a little more transparent than usual.  Despite the fact that the talks were primarily addressing the issues of borders and security, an Israeli official was prevented from fully presenting Israel's position on borders to the Amman meeting.  An Israeli document setting out 21 points of principles needed to reach a peace agreement was not considered, and was then dismissed as being "just an outline".  These attempts to dismiss Israel's honest efforts in the talks seem clearly designed to sabotage the talks.  In the press, Israel's border proposals have been labelled as "preventing a Palestinian state from being established", and have been blamed for the breakdown of the talks.

In spite of the obvious reasons for the breakdown, the stale mate somehow seems still to have produced a slight edge for the Palestinian side.  The breakdown of the talks has been presented by the international community by saying that the Palestinians have at least fulfilled their commitment to continue to try until the pre-agreed date of 26th January.  Having tried and failed, all bets are off the table, but the rewards due to the Palestinians are triggered.  European foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton even had the audacity to call upon Israel to deliver "confidence-building concessions" to encourage the talks to continue.  We have already learned that this means delivering confidence to the international community, and concessions to the Palestinians.  The Palestinian side seems not to be expected to deliver confidence nor the concessions.  The international community would be better off understanding that any such concessions on Israel's part, would amount to rewards to the Palestinians for bad behaviour.

It seems clear to me that a lasting peace will only be possible via a negotiated settlement.  This was also recognised by Fatah strongman Marwan Barghouti, who remains in an Israeli jail serving five life sentences for murder of Israeli citizens.  He made a rare court appearance during the last week, and managed to send out a message indicating that he believes in a negotiated settlement based on the 1967 borders.  The precise terms of the negotiated settlement remain a large outstanding issue, but it is interesting that the person believed to be the instigator of both the first and second intifadas is talking about a negotiated settlement at all.  The problem right now, is that there appear to be few Palestinians who believe that this is the correct route to take, and who are prepared to make the painful concessions necessary to bring this to reality.  Until this happens, the Palestinians will be going through the motions, and the cycle of violence will continue.

Monday 16 January 2012

Racism Has No Place in the State of Israel

Israel is frequently accused of racism, particularly by those who continue to undermine her right to exist.  Despite being forced to fight a war of survival against the Arab nations since independence in 1948, Israel continues to come under a microscope for the way in which she behaves towards Arabs who are Israeli citizens, and those who are not.  It is a complex analysis, and not simply an issue of racism.  Arab citizens have a completely different status in Israel.  Their allegiance to the Jewish state in which they live and which feeds their every need, continues to be under suspicion.  They have frequently been found to assist those who wish to destroy Israel.  They are not obliged to serve in the nation's army in the same way as others citizens are required to do.  The relationship between Jew and Arab in Israel is not simply about race, but more about Jewish survival in the Jewish homeland.  There is, however, another sort of racism that has reared its ugly head in Israel in recent times, and which needs to be stamped out before it is becomes unmanageable.

It seems that the practice of attempting to elevate the status of one population group at the expense of others is almost part of human instinct.  Historically, Jews have been victims of those who have tried to increase their own social standing by putting down other weaker groups. The African nation has also suffered from this problem almost wherever their people have found themselves, both within Africa and elsewhere.  In modern America, the Mexicans play the role of the fall guys, in India the caste system defines those who are at the bottom of the ladder, Gypsies in Europe are frequently discriminated against and Philippino workers in the countries of the Gulf of Arabia take their place at the bottom of society.  This instinct has unfortunately not by-passed Israel.

In the early years of the State of Israel, the country was populated by two distinct groups of Jews.  The first group escaped many years of persecution in Europe, and arrived in Israel out of the ruins of the Holocaust that ravaged their population and people.  The second group had made their homes in Arab countries of the Middle East and North Africa, and had been forced to endure discrimination for many years, especially during the period when the Holocaust was ravaging Europe.  This discrimination became even more acute after the birth of the State of Israel, and many were expelled from their homes.  Those in the European group were generally better educated and were well versed in European culture, while those in the Middle Eastern group were less exposed to western values, education and culture.  Many clashes took place between these groups, and the human instinct came out in their attempts to elevate themselves to make themselves better than the others.  The horrific discrimination that each group had been forced to endure in the years prior to their arrival in Israel had a significant influence on their attempts to better themselves, even at the expense of others.  After having been treated as the dregs of society for so long, each group was eager to elevate themselves to the top of society.  To be at the top, you need to have somebody who is below you.  Hence was born racism and discrimination in Israel, which manifested itself largely in the form of European Jews discriminating against Middle Eastern Jews.  The fact that the Middle Eastern Jews were also generally darker skinned than their European counterparts also somehow fitted the standard expectations of discrimination, even though the darker skin was not the source of the discrimination.  Despite the fact that these discriminatory views have presented their problems over the years, it is pleasing to note that the problem has been substantially diluted by inter-marriage and the blurring of edges between the two groups.  It is also notable that representatives from both groups have reached the upper echelons of business, politics and academia.  Nobody will ever forget where they and their families have come from, but the future in Israel looks less defined by these two groups than was previously the case.

Recently, however, racism has again become evident, this time against another weaker population group in Israel.  In operations starting in 1984, Jews from Ethiopia were airlifted to Israel in large numbers.  Operation Moses saw some 8,000 people brought to Israel and this was followed up with further operations which brought a total of about 80,000 people to Israel.  Today, the Ethiopian community in Israel numbers over 120,000.  The Ethiopians have become easy targets for discrimination for a number of reasons, and many have taken advantage of this situation

Upon their arrival in Israel, the Ethiopian community was forced to take on an entirely new environment.  Many of them had never seen a flush toilet in operation or slept in a bed that was not on the ground.  This learning process put them in a very weak position, and made it easy for others to take advantage of them.  The Ethiopians show a gentle and mild temperament, and are not outspoken or loud in their actions.  In the Israeli aggressive and rough-and-tumble environment, their gentleness is interpreted as weakness.  In the Israeli context of whoever screams loudest and shows most aggression will get what they want, the Ethiopian community has lost out significantly.  Even though the Ethiopian community has been forced to take on many of the ways of the modern Israeli environment, they have still done their best to maintain some of their traditions and practices from their days in the deserts of Africa.  Many of these practices are very different from those in use by other Israelis, and cause some level of friction in residential neighbourhoods.  This friction crossed the line last week when it was revealed that residents of some apartment buildings in Kiryat Malachi, had banded together in a pact not to sell apartments in their block to Ethiopian families.

What these people had not realised, is that there is a new type of person that has arisen within the Ethiopian community over the past ten years or so.  This is a group of teenagers and young adults who were born in Israel, and have grown up with Israeli style of doing business.  While these people are strongly influenced from the home by the traditional Ethiopian style of living, they also know the kind of action that is needed in Israel to be heard and to get what they want.  These young adults led other members of the Ethiopian community out onto the streets in protest against the racist practices that are making things difficult for their community.  This protest captured the attention of the media and of the nation.  It reached the highest levels of the political establishment, and President Shimon Peres responded by visiting a school in Jerusalem that caters to a large number of Ethiopian students.  He shared with them his experiences of coming to Israel from Poland at the age of 11, and the taunts that he was forced to endure as a result of his lack of Hebrew and different style of dress.  He reassured the children by saying that he found his way of fitting into Israeli society, and he is proof that they can achieve whatever they want - even becoming president of the state.

The Ethiopian community includes some of the most genuine people to be found in Israel today.  They gave up everything they knew and their style of living in Africa to come to the Jewish homeland.  Despite the fact that their lives and communities have literally been turned upside down by moving to Israel, they are delighted to be in Israel to be allowed to practice their Jewish faith and peace and without the fear of anti-Semitism.  They have suffered every sort of discrimination known to any group of people in Israel.  Even the Israeli government stands accused of discriminating against the Ethiopians in terms of the help and assistance provided to them.  Many were forced to convert as the Jewishness was not recognised at the same time as blood relatives had been accepted as Jewish.  The amount of money allocated to the process of acclimatising the Ethiopian community has been a fraction of that required.  And yet, they are simply delighted to be in the Land of Israel.  While it is understood that not everybody can feel comfortable with the style of living and practices of the Ethiopians, this cannot be the cause of racism.

No matter what the cause of racism, it needs to be stamped out.  This is particularly true in a country like Israel where racism has no place at all.  The weaker members of our society, usually those who are the victims of discrimination, require greater help and support rather than actions to increase their hardship.  This is particularly true of groups like the Ethiopians who have been forced to undergo dramatic changes to their way of life and to the environment in which they live.

It is only by banding together and strengthening the weaker parts of our society, that we will also have the strength to fight the war of survival.  The Ethiopians have more than demonstrated their allegiance to this cause, and their willingness to participate in the defence of the State of Israel.  The other citizens of Israel need to do all that they can to support and respect this.

Monday 9 January 2012

Justice Prevails

The meeting of the Judicial Appointments Committee on Friday turned out to be something of a pleasant anti-climax.  In a meeting that lasted only 90 minutes, four new justices were duly appointed to the bench of the Israeli Supreme Court.  The cordial nature of the meeting and the appointments seemed to conceal the less-than-cordial path that led to this moment.

Israel's Supreme Court plays a very central role in Israeli society.  In addition to acting as an appellate court, it also acts as a High Court of Justice in which decisions by government and state authorities can be challenged and set aside.  The right of the Supreme Court to set aside government decisions creates a critical place for it in Israeli democracy.  It is little wonder that the appointment of new justices to the bench of this court is such an important and controversial exercise.  Once appointed to the Supreme Court, justices serve until they are seventy years of age and cannot be removed except under extreme circumstances.  The judges on the bench need to be act independently of government, and need to be seen to act independently of government to maintain their important role as defender of democracy.

For some time now, certain ultra-Orthodox and right-wing citizens of Israel have protested that decisions by the Supreme Court have discriminated against their views and positions.  While many Israelis have regarded the court's decisions as representing the voice of reason in situations which have seemed wholly unreasonable, some groups feel discriminated against by these decisions.  Surprisingly, it seems as if this view was not only shared by extremists.  In the lead-up to the meeting of the Judicial Appointments Committee, the Minister of Justice and the Prime Minister threatened to become caught up in a judicial appointments row.  Their actions pointed unashamedly to the fact that they also subscribe to the view that the bench of the Supreme Court has become too left-wing.  Certain actions and statements on their behalf attempted to influence the makeup of the Judicial Appointments Committee in the hope that this may influence the appointment of the Supreme Court judges towards their right-wing views.

The nine-man Judicial Appointments Committee includes two members who are appointed by the Israeli Bar Association.    The remaining seven members of the committee are made up of three sitting judges of the Supreme Court, two ministers and two members of Knesset.  The two Bar Association representatives are chosen in a vote that is conducted according to a simple majority.  The two representatives were chosen to the satisfaction of the Bar Association, and this revealed that one representative was somebody known to be politically left of centre.  Individuals close to the Minister of Justice embarked upon a campaign to retroactively change the rules by which the Bar Association candidates were selected, in order to replace the left-wing representative.  It was hoped that this would ensure that the right-wing candidates to the bench would be appointed.  This attempt to undermine the due process of appointment of justices is shameful, and can be seen as an attempt to meddle with an important arm of the democracy of our nation.  No person is larger than the system, and no individual should be allowed to undermine the operation of a process that is so fundamental to the democracy of the country.

Ultimately, the attempts to change the rules retroactively were unsuccessful, and the original vote of the Bar Association stood.  Their two representatives took their place on the Judicial Appointments Committee and four new judges were appointed.  Despite the controversy and shenanigans leading up to the vote, the four new candidates can be seen as typifying compromise and organisation.  Justice Noam Sohlberg lives in Alon Shvut on the West Bank, and was elected by eight of the nine committee members as a representative of the right.  Justice Zvi Zylbertal  was elected unanimously as a candidate from the left.  He is regarded as being very close to retiring Judge President Dorit Beinisch.  Justice Uri Shoham was also elected unanimously, and is seen to represent those of North African and Middle Easter (Mizrachi) origin.  Finally, Justice Daphne Barak-Erez received unanimous support as the only female new judge.

Whereas in the USA, the appointment of judges is a highly politicised process and is a good way for presidents to leave a legacy long after the end of their presidential term, in Israel this has not been the case until now.  It may, however be set to change in the future, even though it seems as though this would be an unfortunate development.  Due to the fact that the Israeli Supreme Court is frequently called upon to adjudicate matters which have strong political overtones, it is important that the bench should be as politically impartial as possible.   This is particularly true when living in a society with so many minority groupings.  Citizens should feel confident that the Supreme Court will judge fairly and independently on each case that is brought before the court.  On this occasion, democracy has ensured that even the Minister of Justice was unable to influence the process of justice.  This is real democracy in action.

Monday 2 January 2012

The Best and Worst of 2011

As we welcome 2012, it gives the opportunity to reflect on the best and worst parts of 2011.  In Israel, 2011 was an eventful year, including a number of interesting and challenging events.  For some, it was a year that they would prefer to forget.  Despite many negative aspects to the year, I think that Israelis will regard 2011 as having been a year that was more positive than negative.  Here are the main reasons why I think that this was the case.

The best story coming out of 2011 was the release of captured Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit.  It is not only the fact that Gilad was returned safely to the arms of his family that makes this story good.  The fact that the Israeli government was finally able to agree and execute this deal sends some amazingly strong and positive statements to all Israelis.  For me, this is a classic story where the right thing finally triumphed.  Like all good stories, this has a negative side to it as well.  I really cannot blame all of those who opposed the deal due to the "price" that had to be paid in terms of the number of Palestinian prisoners who were released, even those who have murdered Israelis.  I also know how paranoid the Israel Defense Force (IDF) is about the possibility of soldiers being kidnapped in the future, and the measures that have been put in place to try to avoid this at any price.  I feel that working to avoid future kidnappings is a better reaction than leaving Gilad in captivity under the conditions that he was held.  This was, by far, the highlight of the year in my view.

Another good story of 2011 was that of the social protests.  Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets to demonstrate against lack of social justice, and of the dramatic increases in the cost of living without commensurate increases in earnings.  This was a great story for a number of reasons.  It was good to see the Israeli public having the time and energy to devote to social issues, and behaving in a manner that most "normal" countries behave.  In the 63 years since Israel's independence, most of the time has been spent worrying about an existential threat.  Wars have been fought, terror attacks overcome and many people have been left dead and injured.  This allows little time or energy to give even a fleeting thought to daily social issues.  The fact that hundreds of thousands of Israelis were able to come out into the street to protest social issues gives some indication that the existential threat is not quite at the same level as it has been in the past.  It also shows what Israelis really care about, and shows the real democracy that exists in Israel.  On all of these levels, the protests were extremely encouraging.  These good points, however, should not cause us to lose sight of the core issue of these protests - the economic inequality and hardships that many people are suffering.  Unfortunately, the government has not responded sufficiently to the message of the protest marches, and this issue is likely to plague us for some time yet.

A further good story for 2011 was the extent to which the economy succeeded in holding up during the year.  Even though this seems to be at odds with the message brought by the social protest movement, more Israelis were in employment during 2011 than at any other time in Israel's history.  In addition, while economies around the world were floundering and suffering all types of economic problems, Israel somehow managed to keep its economy on track.  This does not mean that the year translated into a boom year for Israel.  It does, however, continue the theme of displaying a real underlying strength to Israel's economy that was shown during 2008 when the credit crunch hit many economies so hard.  Once again in 2011, Israel's economy has performed admirably.  Along with the good things, come some very difficult questions.  Why are so many Israelis struggling financially when the economy is at almost full employment?  This is clearly something that needs to be addressed as part of the social equality agenda.

The major regional story this year was the unfolding of the Arab Spring in countries in the Middle East and North Africa.  The way in which the Arab Spring has swept through the region could never have been predicted.  Even though this is great news for democracy in the Middle East, it has created an instability that is proving to be negative for Israel, and many countries in the western world.  While the free world has an obligation to support the move towards democracy in principle, there is a real problem about whether these countries are really ready to embrace democracy.  In many respects, stability in the Arab world is more important than democracy.  As things seem at the moment, the two don't seem to be able to live side by side.  The change of regime in Egypt is particularly concerning, with the increasing popularity of the Muslim Brotherhood.  The protest movement in Syria also promises some dramatic changes to regional politics, and they are not necessarily all going to be positive.

The second major regional story surrounds Iran's development of nuclear weapons.  2011 can be characterised as a year of confirmation and inaction where this is concerned.  The international community were presented with irrefutable evidence of Iran's development of nuclear missiles.  Even the International Atomic Energy Agency were forced to accept that Israel's representations about Iran's nuclear program have been correct all along.  Having had this fact confirmed, the best that the international community could muster up, were a few ineffectual sanctions.  It has become clear that Iran is not only setting out to threaten Israel.  The events over the past few days in the Straits of Hormuz are a clear challenge to the US.  The military exercise on this occasion closed the straights for only a short period of time.  The next time could be for longer, precipitating a potential military conflict with the USA.

Despite the fact that 2011 was a hugely eventful year, it seems only to have set the scene for what awaits us in 2012.  Israel's social justice movement is likely to be more vociferous, particularly if the economy suffers more than it did in 2011.  The government will need to be prepared to commit to spend more money on social issues, and to see these promises through.  This is an issue that is no less imporant than Israel's security challenges.

The Arab Spring will come to a head in Syria.  It seems as though the Sunni Muslims, who represent over 70% of the population, are likely to gain the ascendancy after having been ruled by the minority Alawites for many years.  The Spring could yet spread to other countries in the region, and this could present a greater threat to Israel as more of her neighbours became destabilised by these events. 

I expect that 2012 will also see the Iranian nuclear issue come to a head, as Iran continues to intimidate and provoke Israel, the USA and other western countries.  All of this adds up to 2012 looking to be a tough year.

In between the pessimistic expectations are a few rays of light.  Even though I expect a great deal of instability during 2012, it is my hope that this will then bring a period of greater stability as is often the case.  I also hope that the unfolding Arab Spring can create a new, more compromising, reality with the Palestinians to allow moves towards a genuine peace based on mutual recognition and respect.

It is my hope and prayer that 2012 holds only great things for all of you.  Happy new year!!