Tuesday 24 July 2012

Burgas - A Deadly Reminder

It is easy to be lulled into a false sense of security that bad things have disappeared when things go a little better.  In Israel, that translates into a false sense of security that perhaps the threat of terrorism may have subsided. or may even have gone away.  Despite the many notifications that are constantly issued to Israelis warning of threats to their safety and well-being both within Israel and outside of the country, these threats often seem exaggerated.  This is particularly true when we are fortunate enough to experience extended periods during which no attacks take place.   Unfortunately, all too soon, the silence is shattered as was the case last week on Bulgaria's Black Sea coast.

The bomb that was detonated on a bus outside the terminal building in the town of Burgas in Bulgaria clearly targeted the Israeli group that had just arrived.  It is no secret that resorts on the Black Sea in Bulgaria have become increasingly popular for Israelis over the past few years.  Package deal holidays have been directed particularly towards younger Israelis, including high school and university students.  Due to political tensions, Turkey is no longer a viable option for those seeking reasonably-priced pacakage deal holidays.  Bulgaria's Black Sea coast has become one of the new hotspots to replace Turkey as a holiday destination.  It would not take sophisticated intelligence work by terror organisations and other enemies of Israel to figure this out, and to lay some sort of a trap.  Israeli intelligence is obviously tuned into this fact as well, and had met with Bulgarian security officials only one month prior to last week's attack.  The truth is that countries like Bulgaria, Thailand, Nepal and other holiday destinations favoured by the travelling Israeli public, are not sufficiently equipped themselves to provide effective security to prevent such attacks being perpetrated against the large groups of Israeli tourists.  The Mossad extends its surveillance and prevention activities to these countries in order to protect the travelling Israelis.  The security establishments of countries like Bulgaria are usually happy to cooperate with the Mossad in the interests of keeping the tourist dollars flowing into their economy, while providing the necessary protection to its tourists.  Obviously, there was some lapse in the intelligence work last week.

In the period following the Mumbai terror attack which took place nearly 4 years ago, Israelis have certainly been lulled into a false sense of security.  This is despite failed attacks having taken place in Georgia and India in the intervening period, and reports of attacks having been thwarted in Thailand, Kenya and Cyprus to name but a few of the countries.  In a way, the better the job that is done by the Mossad to intercept and prevent such attacks, the less vigilant people become.  It is ironic that vigilance only increases when the terrorists succeed in their missions, and lives are lost.

Warnings are continually being issued to the travelling Israeli public to be cautious.  The foreign ministry has advised Israelis to place their passports in covers so that they cannot be easily identified when abroad.  They have also advised tourists not to speak Hebrew loudly in public places, and have disclosed the traits that terrorists may look out for in their attempts to identify Israelis in the streets.  The foreign office is trying to encourage Israelis to lay low and be as inconspicuous as possible when travelling around the world, in order to avoid any possible attack against them.  By behaving in this way, the security services believe that lives may be saved by Israelis being more difficult to identify.

The problem is that the current generation of Jew is not shy or self-conscious about being Jewish or Israeli.  He is proud to be a Jew and an Israeli, and is happy to announce this to all that he meets when travelling abroad.  He is the type of Jew that Zionist leader Zeev Jabotinsky dreamt about when he lived during the period when being Jewish was a source of shame and humiliation.  It is somewhat ironic that, having achieved this wonderful pride which can be found in many Jews, the government is forced to encourage Israelis to conceal their identity.  This pride was shown so clearly when two Israeli air force planes with emergency and medical teams were dispatched to Bulgaria to assist the wounded, and to provide fitting respect to the deceased.  Many of the survivors of the attack refused to leave the airport building until the Israeli assistance arrived.  Israeli soldiers and medical teams were given a rapturous round of applause when entering the airport building to take care of survivors.  For Israelis and Jews, the IDF uniform is the ultimate symbol of safety and security, no matter where they are in the world.

The attack in Burgas is about as bad as any that one can find.  Innocent civilians were targeted without regard, as has been the case so many times in past terror attacks.  Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has attacked Iran as being behind this attack.  I presume that he has intelligence evidence to support this accusation, and I expect that he has some plans up his sleeves about how to avenge the attack.  It is very seldom that attacks like this are allowed to proceed without some justice being sought in the name of those who died so unnecessarily.

For the rest of us, we are forced to mourn yet more innocent victims of terror.  It also is a stark reminder of the constant danger that Israelis and Jews find themselves in around the world.  This is the reminder for us that we need to be vigilant at all times, even when things are perhaps looking up and when we have a break from attacks for any period of time.  We can ill afford to be lulled into a false sense of security.

May the memories of the deceased be for a blessing, and may their families be comforted amongst the mourners of Zion.

Tuesday 17 July 2012

Olmert is Found Innocent

The events that took place in the Jerusalem District Court last week were quite extraordinary.  For the first time in the history of the State of Israel, a former prime minister was in the dock to answer charges of corruption alleged to have taken place in a period before he became prime minister.  On this occasion, the court found that fomer Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is innocent of the main corruption charges against him.  Even though this decision sounds to be the end of a story, in many ways it is only the beginning of this story.

The headline that Olmert is innocent conceals the most important aspects of the story.  A sitting prime minister was forced to resign his office, accused of corruption when in a former public office.  Now, more than 3 years later, a court has decided that all he is guilty of is a relatively minor offence of breach of trust.  It is for this that a prime minister was driven from office at a time when the country was fighting wars on a number of fronts, and facing a major economic crisis.  Not only this.  During the intervening 3 year period while the prosecution gathered its evidence, interviewed high profile individuals under subpoena and brought the case to trial, the press found Olmert guilty and publicly castigated him at every opportunity.   In one of the most dramatic U-turns seen in the modern press, it took 2 days after the verdict exonerating Olmert, for the newspapers to publish the results of a new public opinion poll.  This poll shows that Olmert would muster more seats than current Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu in the next year's general election.  This "zig zag" (as such political about-turns are known in Hebrew) seems quite astonishing.  Has Olmert suddenly become the blue-eyed boy of the press after suffering such horrendous treatment at its hannds?

State prosecutors have been forced to explain their actions in bringing this case to trial.  There was more than a sniff of political motivation in evidence at the time that they announced their intention to indict Olmert three years ago.  Now that they have lost the gamble, the country is rightly asking questions about what drove them to make allegations against a prime minister, which could ultimately not be made to stick.  While the prosecution continue to defend their decision to bring this case to trial,  they admit that the verdict will create great difficulty for future corruption charges against high profile figures, in the event that these need to be brought.  Even though our political landscape is far from perfect and seems to be riddled with bad behaviour and questionable judgement, there is perhaps no harm in forcing prosecuting lawyers to think 100 times before bringing about the downfall of public figures.  Although I feel proud that Israeli democracy is strong enough to see even a sitting prime minister indicted, democracy also requires that the consequences of an acquittal be considered.  This is particularly true of high profile public figures.

The judges in the Olmert trial, while finding him not guilty, confirmed that unacceptable practices were taking place in his office.  His bureau chief, Shula Zaken, was found guilty on corruption charges even though her boss was acquitted.  The basis of his acquittal was simply the fact that the prosecution was unable to prove that he knew what was going on, rather than the fact that it did not happen.  This serves to reinforce that practices of public officials in Israel leave a great deal to be desired.  There can be no doubt that the questionable and corruptive practices which were proven to have taken place in Olmert's office when he was the Mayor of Jerusalem, are practices that are established in public life and occur in numerous public offices up and down the country.  The message that such behaviour is unacceptable and needs to be stamped out was unfortunately completely drowned out by the headlines of Olmert's acquittal.

Although Olmert has escaped from this sorry saga, he still faces corruption charges in the so-called "Holyland Affair" in a Tel Aviv court.  Prosecution officials have already begun to re-examine the file of charges against him in this case, for fear that the charges could go the same way as the previous case.  They are well aware of the enormous damage that they would suffer if they lose this case as well.

Olmert seems happy to escape the public glare for now, and slip into the background.  There is no doubt, however, that this will not be allowed to continue for long - this is a man who has spent so many years in the public arena, that it seems unlikely that he will quietly fade away.  Olmert has said he has no interest in returning to politics, but it is difficult to take these words at face value for now.  The acquittal could not have come at a better time for the Kadima party.  The party runs the risk of disbanding at the next election due to its poor showings.  The prospect of Olmert returning to politics and heading up the party has created a great deal of interest, and even some expectation.  There are those who see Olmert beating Bibi to become prime minister at the head of a Kadima government.  The most recent opinion polls seem to support this. I find it difficult to see this euphoria lasting until the next election, and I still predict that Netanyahu will keep the hot seat.  I do think that Kadima could be saved if Olmert returns to head up the party.  If not, I believe it will be consigned to the dustbin filled with failed political parties

Thursday 5 July 2012

The Social Protest Risks Self-Destruction

The social protest movement has been making a come-back over the past few weeks, after capturing the imagination of the citizens of Israel during their summer demonstrations in 2011.  Having decided that the progress made by the government over the past 12 months has not been sufficient to satisfy the demands made a year ago, the protest movement has taken to the streets once again.  But things are very different now than they were a year ago, and this summer’s protest can never be the same as the one that was held last year.  This creates a risk for the protestors that they will not be able to continue to carry the support of the general public with them.

The biggest difference this year when compared to last year, is that the government and the authorities are ready for the protest.  This means that they will not allow the establishment of the tent cities that sprang up in towns and cities across Israel in the summer of 2011.  These served as constant reminders to the general public of the ongoing protest.  This act, more than anything else, captured the hearts and minds of Israelis and succeeded in gaining the vital support of the press pack.  In order to keep the protest in the public eye this year, more ingenuity will be required to replace the constant reminder that the tent cities represented.  The protestors will also have to continuously outfox the authorities, who are determined to avoid having the constant irritation that the government was forced to endure last year.

The first clashes have already taken place, and have not necessarily helped the protest movement in the eye of the general public.  A small group of protestors took to the streets of Tel Aviv on a busy Friday morning.  Police were quickly on the scene to force the demonstrators off the streets.  Some protestors who refused to cooperate were arrested, and the press was filled with pictures depicting aggressive police arresting peaceful demonstrators.   These scenes mobilised other protestors to take to the streets of Tel Aviv on Saturday evening.  This time, the demonstrations were not only focused against the government’s economic policies, they also vented anger against treatment received by the protestors at the hands of police and officials of the city of Tel Aviv.  Illegal demonstrations turned into sit-down protests in various locations in Tel Aviv, disrupting traffic and causing general chaos.  Once again, police and city officials removed protestors by force.  Some protestors also vented their rage at banks in the street near to the protest location, and rocks were hurled into bank windows causing damage to property.  The stand-off between the parties escalated further when sympathisers of the protest movement decided to disrupt activities in Tel Aviv’s “White Night” annual street party.  These attempts were only partially successful, with “White Night” proving to be a success albeit with a few less activities than were originally planned.  By this stage, however, the press started losing their positive spin on this story and the general public were displaying less sympathy for the cause.  It seems as though the protestors may have scored an own-goal through their actions, by losing the support of their greatest group of supporters.

Around the time that these events were taking place, the Minister of Finance announced that the government decided to increase the budget deficit in 2013 from the previous target of 1.5% of GDP to 3%.  This is in addition to tax increases that are anticipated next year.  The extra money is required to fund some of the concessions that have been granted in response to the social protests.  Bank of Israel Governor, Stanley Fisher, came out immediately in opposition to these steps.  It is predicted that the increase in the budget deficit will cause interest rates to rise and will weaken the Shekel even further.  The general public is not enthusiastic at all about these measures, and has realised that the social concessions do not come without cost.  These measures will hit the average person in the pocket in no uncertain terms.  Suddenly the social protest movement is having to bear responsibility for this cost, causing it to look increasingly isolated.

One of the greatest successes of the social protests in the summer of 2012, was the extent to which the general public supported their action.  Demands for cheaper housing, tax and welfare improvements and cheaper prices for consumer goods seemed to strike a chord with all members of the public.  This was true as long as the price of these concessions was not yet been factored into the public’s considerations.  Now that there is a realisation that there is a price to pay, the public is regarding the concessions with much less enthusiasm and the social protestors are carrying the responsibility for the costs involved.

The combination of the violent protests and the economic measures introduced by the government has certainly caused damage to the protest movement.  The press is not nearly as supportive of their efforts as they were last year, and the general public is scrutinising the protests with a much keener eye.  Further damage to the protest movement’s cause was done when it became obvious that many of the demonstrators were not quite sure what they were protesting against.  When asked for details of the cause and its objectives, some of the demonstrators seemed to be participating for reasons not remotely linked to the main social cause.  They were made to look more like rent-a-crowd than a unified group of people with a common objective.

Israel’s economy is sending out mixed messages.  Things seem to be very stable at a macro-economic level.  The banking system has held up well while the banks in countries all around have collapsed or required public funding to stay afloat.  Israel is the only country to have its credit rating raised (to A+) by S&P in the past year.  Germany is the only western country which has a lower budget deficit than Israel.  For individuals within the economy, however, things don’t look so rosy.  Approximately half of the citizens of Israel live on or below the bread line.  Despite the fact that employment is currently at one of its highest levels in recent years (meaning that whoever wishes to work has a job), families are still not managing to cover their ever-increasing costs.  This is almost worse than people not being able to make a living because they are out of work.  It is clear that attention is required to correct this situation.

The social protest movement has done a good job of bringing the issue of social justice to the top of the public agenda.  Now, the protest leaders will have a tough path to navigate in encouraging the government to implement the changes without losing the public’s support.  In addition, the protest movement will need to continue to take the moral high ground, and not allow its organisation to be hijacked by those with unrelated causes, and those intent on causing chaos, disruption and damage.  Indications are that they are not succeeding.