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.