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.