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.