Saturday 7 September 2013

The Case in Favour of Acting Against Syria

The UN weapons inspection team has left Syria, after completing its investigation into the use of chemical weapons in Syria in an attack a couple of weeks ago.  Following the horrific scenes that were splashed across our TV screens and strong intelligence corroboration, it is difficult to anticipate that the UN team will conclude that no chemicals were used.  Indeed, there has been strong intelligence and media information to suggest that this is not the first chemical attack in Syria over the past couple of years.  With reports that 1,000 were killed in the most recent attack, however, it is by far the most serious use of chemical weapons in the Syrian Civil War so far.

Not only is the use of chemical weapons abhorrent to all sensible people, it is also outlawed by a number of international treaties and UN resolutions.  Syria's use of chemical weapons is an anathema to anybody who has any sensitivity to human suffering.  It is also an act that is objectively illegal in terms of international law.  The fact that these weapons were used by a government on its own people, is a fact that is extemely difficult to understand.  People should ordinarily be defended against terrible attacks like this by its national government, in the same way as young children should be defended by their parents.  When the parents are guilty of causing damage to the children, an outside body needs to be available to step in to protect those who are innocent and have no others to protect them.  The same is true of the situation in Syria.  This is the moment for the international community to step in, and protect the innocent men, women and children of Syria from being hurt by their own government forces.  It is also the moment for the international community to send the message that contravention of international law has consequences.

For Israelis and for Jews, the requirement for the international community to act is a much more personal issue.  The dithering of the international community in situations like this almost always evokes the parallel of the failure of the international community to act against the Nazi genocide machine.  International forces were implored to bomb the train tracks that led to the Auschwitz extermination camp, but refused to do so.  Millions of lives were lost as a result.  Jews can never forget this failure to respond.  For Jews living in Israel, it goes even further.   Failure to act against Syria could put Israel's security at direct risk.  There can be no doubt that Syria is watching to see if the world responds to this event, as a precedent for how it may behave in the future.  Syria's benefactor, Iran, is also watching with eager eyes.  Until now, Iran has been allowed to develop its nuclear weapons program with impunity.  By seeing that the international community does not respond to protect innocent people and international law when required, Syria and Iran will be led to understand that they have a free hand to do almost as they please in the future by virtue of the failure on the part of the international community to respond.  This is a message that we cannot afford to send.

It is understandable that the major world powers are war-weary, and are not seeking to open a new front after having fought harsh and costly battles in Iraq and Afghanistan in recent years.  Their reluctance to get involved in Syria is all the more understandable after it transpired that the Second Gulf War was instigated after publication of faulty intelligence information.  These events damaged reputations, and harmed the trust that was placed in world leaders at the time by their citizens.  Nobody amongst the current world leaders wishes to repeat these mistakes.  The British House of Commons has already voted, and rejected British military participation in Syria.  President Obama confounded even his closest advisers by deciding to seek the approval of Congress before taking action in Syria.  This approval is by no means assured, despite the strong conviction on the part of the president that action is required.  The American people, and Congress, needs to be more convinced that this will not end up being another Iraq or Afghanistan for US troops.  Somehow, world leaders need to be able to to sell the importance of intervention in order to get the support of their local constituencies.

There are a number of precedents in recent years for short, sharp operations that do not draw foreign troops into a protracted war.  Libya is one example that springs to mind.  This would surely be a good template to use in Syria.  It represents a sound solution that will mean the international community responds to unacceptable behaviour, while foreign forces are not drawn into protracted commitments in faraway countries.  The objective of such an operation will surely be to destroy stockpiles of chemical weapons still being stored in Syria, Lebanon, Iran and other countries. Such an action will make the region and the world a better and safer place.

The IDF remains on high alert in anticipation of a possible US strike on Syria.  For Israel, such a strike is a double-edged sword.  On the one hand it sends a message to Syria and Iran that the US remains ready and willing to intervene militarily in the region if rquired, and also will possibly destroy stockpiles of dangerous weapons held on Israel's borders.  On the other hand, a strike on Syria by the US will almost certainly elicit a strike on Israel by Syria.  Syria will not wish to have its honour publicly dragged through the mud by the US in the case of a strike by it on Syria.  The only realistic way for Syria to retaliate against the US is to strike its closest regional ally, Israel, in response.  It is for this reason that the IDF is on high alert, and the reason that many Israelis are opposed to a US strike on Syria.  By the US turning a blind eye to the use of chemical weapons in Syria, Israel will be assured a greater prospect of peace and quiet in the short-term.  In the longer-term, however, this would be a much more dangerous situation.  Syria will continue to build its stockpile of chemical weapons on Israel's border, and will continue to understand that they can use them with impunity and without necessarily being held to account.

In spite of the obvious short-term threat to Israel, it is my view that US and the international community needs to step in to respond to these actions as a matter of priority.  Syria cannot be left in any doubt about the unacceptability of using chemical weapons.  This will also send a clear message to Iran about the willingness of the international community to intervene when required.  I have every faith in the IDF, and its ability to repel any attack that Syria may launch on Israel in retaliation to a US attack on Syria.

Any action of war should be taken seriously, as it always results in people being killed.  Even if the US manages to undertake a short, sharp and concentrated attack on Syria, it will inevitably result in loss of life. This may even risk Israeli lives depending on how Syria chooses to respond.  I have no doubt, however, that this is preferable to the alternative which allows Syria to believe that it has free reign to behave as it pleases in the future.  Actions involving chemical weapons should always have consequences, and this is no exception.  Teaching Syria (and Iran) this lesson now, will ensure greater regional stability in the longer-term.

Monday 3 June 2013

Poacher Turned Gamekeeper

New Israeli finance minister Yair Lapid is learning that it is much easier to be criticising from the sidelines, than it is to be taking action from within the government.  Having spent much of his life as a journalist and TV presenter which had him criticising governments and government policy, his switch into politics has given him the opportunity to prove his own credentials.  The poacher turned gamekeeper is discovering that life in the political goldfish bowl is not quite as easy when he is having to fend off the arrows, as it was when he was shooting them.

Lapid has finally presented his budget for 2013-2014 for government approval.  When he was playing politics from outside governmental circles as a journalist, he was mostly focused on what the government was doing to improve social equality, and to address the needs of the weakest elements of Israel's society.  In his position as the minister of finance, he now knows that this nut is a tough one to crack.  How does a responsible government work to improve social equality, while also working to close the huge budget deficit and finance the mountain of government debt all at the same time?  The resulting budget prepared by Lapid and approved by the Knesset is much more about fiscal responsibility, than it is about helping the poor and the weak in Israeli society.  It includes increased tax rates, increased VAT, increased taxes on alcohol, tobacco and other luxury goods, and huge swathes cut from government spending.  Even the hallowed defense budget had three billion Shekels cut from it.  The result of this is that Lapid's popularity has dropped dramatically since he assumed his job as minister of defense.  In mid-April, Lapid was the most popular politician in Israel, topping even Prime Minister Netanyahu.  By the time May rolled around, Lapid found himself the target of anti-government street protests promoting social equality.  His popularity has steadily plummeted in the process.

The job of Israeli finance minister is something of a thankless task.  This is especially true for a finance minister who wishes both to promote economic stability and growth, while also helping the weak and vulnerable.  The difficulty was emphasised by reports that were published recently about key aspects of Israel's economy.  A report published by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has placed Israel first in poverty rate amongst developed nations.  The report said that one in five Israelis live in poverty, and one in three Israeli children live in poverty.  Israel's State Revenue Administration of the ministry of finance published its own report which showed that half of Israeli wage-earners do not earn enough to pay tax.  Given that the tax threshold in Israel is NIS 4,700 (less than US$ 1,300) per month, this is a sad statement about the conditions that people are forced to work in.  When considering that unemployment in Israel is at a relatively low 6.9%, there is not a great deal of hope that the economic situation can improve dramatically by some miraculous boost to the number of people in work.  The Boston Consulting Group published a statistic of its own when it said that Israel has the 10th highest number of millionaires in the world, when measured as a percentage of households.  Fully 3.8% of Israeli households are millionaires.  This simply reinforces the huge gap between rich and poor in this country.

Many point to the huge military burden that Israel has had to carry over the years as the main contributing factor to the current economic challenges.  It is true that with a defense budget of NIS 50 billion (approximately US$ 13.5 billion) and making up around 6% of GDP, Israel does indeed carry a huge defense spending burden.  This is exacerbated by the fact that the ultra-Orthodox and Arab sectors have significantly lower employment than other sectors of society, and earn substantially less than other groups.  This places a heavy burden on the social services for these population groups, who boast larger families and much lower income.  While addressing the earning power of the ultra-Orthodox and the Arabs will not be a magical solution to heal all Israel's economic woes, this must certainly be one of the actions to help the economy back to full health.

There is no easy fix to the Israeli economy that will give an answer to all the questions in the short-term.  The solution is longer-term austerity and responsible fiscal policy.  Even this will not answer all the economic questions that are being asked of our finance minister, but it is important to create an environment for economic growth.  This will give the best possible platform to provide as many possible answers to the numerous questions being asked.

In 65 short years, Israel has built its economy from zero to one which is now in the elite club of the most developed economies in the world in the OECD.  This is nothing short of a miracle, and has been constructed with no help from natural resources, and with maximum exploitation of human capital.  The enormous economic growth and success that Israel has experienced can be attributed in no small way to the hard work and innovation of the average Israeli.  The time has now come to re-examine this approach, and to reinvent it in order to move forward with the new set of realities.  Israel stands on the verge of a natural gas boom which is set to provide noticeable impetus to the economy.  The ultra-Orthodox community once numbered a few tens of thousands, but is now 10% of the population and growing.  The model adopted by the modern Orthodox community, that allows them to live a traditional Jewish life and work to contribute economically, needs to be expanded to the ultra-Orthodox community as well.  Attention needs to be paid to the growing Arab sector to ensure that it makes its fair contribution to the economy.  Weaker people in our society need help, and those who spend their days working to make a living should be entitled to make a living from the work that they do.  The country needs to be able to continue to protect itself, without the defense budget crippling the economy.  These are only a few of the enormous challenges that need urgent addressing.

With all of this in mind, there are some who wonder why Yair Lapid was so eager to take on the role as minister of finance.  Is he really up to this enormous task, and can he make a real difference?  Time will only tell.

Friday 17 May 2013

The Importance of Preemptive Strikes

Israel's recent double strike on Syrian weapons storage facilities has, once again, raised the issue of the validity of preemptive strikes.  Israel has used this tactic on more than a number of previous occasions, has already struck Syria already a few times this year.  There are those who go as far as attributing Israel's continued existence to the fact that she has been prepared to go out and defend herself even before the attack materialises.

The issue of preemptive strikes as a defense mechanism to counter a potential threat has a number of inherent problems attached to it, particularly when this encroaches on the sovereign territory of another country.  Firstly, there is always the question as to whether the perceived threat is real and credible.  We saw the consequences of a bad call on the perceived threat when it was revealed that intelligence information was incorrect prior to the Second Gulf War.  This dogged both Tony Blair and George W. Bush until the end of their respective tenures, and continues to dog them in their personal capacities to this day.  Secondly, there is the question as to whether one sovereign country has the right to attack another sovereign country in defense of itself even where the threat is sure.  It could easily be argued that there is an element of hypocrisy in this concept.  Does it make a difference if the perceived threat is not an immediate one, but rather a perceived future threat?  This is the case with Israel's strikes in Syria last week, where the rationale for the strike was that Hezbollah may use these arms against Israel at an undetermined time in the future.  There are no firm answers to these questions, and the international community has historically judged such deeds on the basis of the parties involved, rather than the act.  On this occasion, Israel succeeded in capitalising on the negative views currently held by the international community towards Syria and Hezbollah, and escaped with little or no censure by the international community - something quite rare for Israeli attacks.  But this has not always been the case in the past.

Israel, a small island located in a sea of aggressive and hateful enemies, has been forced to employ the tactic of preemptive strikes in order to survive.  Some of Israel's most famous and important victories - most notably that in the Six Day War - were achieved by surprising the enemy before they were able to inflict damage.  The Egyptian air force was destroyed while on the ground in 1967.  This surely paved the way for the famous Israeli victory.  Israel was roundly criticised for sending its air force aeroplanes to destroy the Osirak nuclear reactor site in Iraq in 1981.  It was only many years later in 2005 that President Clinton finally acknowledged for the first time that the strike on Osirak by Israel was a "really good thing".  Similarly, the strike on the Syrian nuclear facility that was carried out by Israel in 2007, attracted criticism from Mohamed ElBaradei, then head of the International Atomic Energy Agency.  Imagine if the civil war in Syria being waged at this time involved the added concern of nuclear weapons.  With the benefit of hindsight, the Israeli strike in 2007 has potentially saved massive consequences.

These historical experiences also put a context to the ongoing standoff with Iran concerning the development of its own nuclear facilities.  A preemptive strike against Iran's nuclear facilities would be much more difficult, and would have far greater consequences than the ones carried out against Iraq and Syria.  Both of the previous attacks solicited no military response at all.  This miraculous escape, after catching each of these countries off guard, is highly unlikely in the Iranian context.  It is almost assured that any attempt to carry out a military strike against the Iranian nuclear facilities would include a substantial response.  It is for this reason that Israel has tried using different tactics against Iran, including mounting a concerted campaign to assassinate key personnel employed in the Iranian nuclear industry and using cyber warfare to destroy software and hardware in use by the Iranian nuclear facilities.  Until now, these tactics have served to slow the processes down at best, and have not been effective in halting Iran's march towards becoming a nuclear power.  Israel is still considering a game-changing strike that will kill off Iran's nuclear push once and for all.  The threat posed by a retaliation to such a strike is surely much lower than the threat presented by a nuclear Iran.  Despite this fact, the threat presented by retaliation is substantial.

While not completely invincible, Israel's military and intelligence establishments have proven themselves over and over again.  Mistakes have certainly been made, but reports of potential threats which are reported by these organisations are always taken seriously by the Israeli government.  This is based on its amazing track record of getting things right more often than getting them wrong, and managing to sniff out information in a seemingly impossible way.  The way that the Israeli organisations work seems somehow to be different and more effective than similar intelligence agencies elsewhere in the world.  A potential threat to Israel which is reported by Israeli intelligence will almost certainly be taken seriously.  Equally, the Israeli intelligence community is well aware of the importance of the advice that they offer, and the consequences of giving bad advice or making mistakes.

It seems highly unlikely that Israel will reverse its tactic of preemptive strikes against enemies in the near future.  This tactic which has proved very effective in the past, and critical to Israel's survival. Despite the fact that a great deal of Israel's focus is on defense rather than attack, as evidenced by new developments such as the Iron Dome, the tactic of attack is often the best form of defense.  Despite this fact, we all wish to believe that this will always be used sparingly and very cautiously.  Ultimately, however, it is one of the ways that Israel will be able to maintain any superiority over its enemy neighbours around the Middle East.  If attacks and threats against Israel persist, Israel will be forced to employ measures to protect herself.  These measures include preemptive tactics to prevent the possibility of attacks taking place, and to prevent loss of innocent lives.  Extreme circumstances demand extreme measures.  It would be difficult to argue that Israel is not living under extreme circumstances.

Sunday 12 May 2013

War Against Women of the Wall

The group known as "Women of the Wall" have elevated themselves onto the front pages of the Israeli press in recent times.  They have clashed with police in Jerusalem over their desire to have the right to pray at the Kotel, the Western Wall, in their own way and style.  For them, their way and style means wearing a talit (prayer shawls) and tefilin (phylacteries), and undertaking other prayer-related activities which are usually the preserve of males in Orthodox Judaism.  Their mission says, "........ our central mission is to achieve the social and legal recognition of our right, to wear prayer shawls, pray, and read from the Torah collectively and out loud at the Western Wall".  Why does this lead them to become criminals in the eyes of the Israeli justice system?

Some of these actions on the part of the Women of the Wall have attracted attention from Jerusalem police officers, and even led to some of the women being arrested.  The legal system has relied on the law in Israel that requires respect for "local custom" at the site, which in this case refers to the Kotel.  The police have been called to arrest Women of the Wall on the basis that their actions do not respect local custom.  Clearly, the "local custom" is determined by what the Orthodox establishment demand.  Such arrests have been made on more than one occasion.

While we understand that, in most Orthodox Jewish custom, women do not wear prayer shawls and do not read from the Torah in public, the question is whether there is any actual prohibition on women doing these things?  It seems as though the customs of women not undertaking these activities stems from the fact that, in Orthodox Jewish law, women are not obliged to fulfil them in the way that men are.  In the case of the talit and tefilin, these are precepts (mitzvot) that are time-bound.  This means that there are certain times that the mitzva should be undertaken, and other times when it should not.  As a general rule, such time-bound mitzvot are not required to be undertaken by women in terms of Talmudic law.  It is not exactly clear why this is this case, but there are views that it is because women have a higher spiritual wisdom (bina) than men, and this exempts them from time-bound mitzvot.  Others contend that it is a more pragmatic issue of women having so many other household chores to take care of, that they can be exempted from time-bound mitzvot.  Our Talmudic sages are divided as to whether women are prohibited from performing mitzvot from which they are exempt.  The Rambam, one of the most famous of the Talmudic sages seems to accept that there is no prohibition on women performing mitzvot that they are not obliged to perform, and chooses instead to discuss whether women should pronounce the blessing which states that they are obliged to perform the mitzva before actually performing it.  He is supported in this discourse by Rabbi Yosef Karo and others.  This seems to give sufficient doubt to indicate that women are not entirely without justification when choosing to perform such mitzvot, and there is a strong case which supports women being free to carry them out.

Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky was drafted in by the government to try to help the situation. The actions to prevent the Women of the Wall from expressing themselves during prayer have served to alienate many US Jews from Israel.  The US community, which is notoriously heterogeneous in its interpretation of Judaism and which values pluralism in Jewish thought and practice, has reacted extremely negatively to the standoff at the Kotel.  It was hoped that Sharansky will be able to use his balanced approach to suggest a compromise solution, and that he can use his links with the US Jewish community to heal the rift which has developed.  Sharansky recommended allowing the Women of the Wall to use a separate section of the wall, known as Robinson's Arch, to allow the Women of the Wall to express themselves and carry out their practices without others being offended.  While this was originally accepted as a possible compromise by the Women of the Wall, their position has hardened recently and they are now rejecting this solution.

The hardening of their position coincided with the ruling by an Israeli court a few weeks ago, which decided that these actions by the Women of the Wall do not actually constitute disrespect for local custom at the site.  This reinforces the lack of agreement by the Talmudic sages.  This court ruling means that their actions no longer constitute an offence for which women can be arrested.  The Women of the Wall were emboldened in their view that their actions are entirely acceptable, and decided that there is much less justification in accepting a compromise solution that means they are forced to pray hidden from general sight.

The influence of the ultra-Orthodox in Israel has been substantial over the past few years, particularly during the years that successive governments owed their continued existence to the support of the ultra-Orthodox parties in the Knesset.  The ultra-Orthodox influence has pervaded many aspects of Israeli society.  Numerous concessions have been granted to the ultra-Orthodox community to keep them supporting the government, the most famous of which is the exemption of young ultra-Orthodox boys and girls from serving in the IDF.  This has granted disproportionate power to ultra-Orthodox groups.  With the construction of Prime Minister Netanyahu's most recent government that excludes the ultra-Orthodox parties for the first time in many years, ultra-Orthodox power has been substantially reduced.  Many in Israel are happy about this, as the influence of the ultra-Orthodox has permeated the lives of so many individual Israelisl.  Perhaps the drama at the wall is an attempt for the ultra-Orthodox establishment to exert their power where they can.

Even though the ultra-Orthodox establishment has been given control over the Western Wall, and Chief Rabbi of the Wall Shmuel Rabinovitz has rabbinic jurisdiction over this site, it should be understood that the Western Wall is a public asset for Jews in Israel and around the world.  As such, decisions such as those affecting the Women of the Wall should not be taken lightly.  It is not as in an individual synagogue where congregants are free to move elsewhere in the event that they do not wish to accept the rules pertaining to the synagogue.  The Western Wall has no alternative in Judaism.  To the extent that there is even the slightest doubt about the interpretation of a particular element of Jewish law, as is the case here, the rabbi has a responsibility to consider the national and international ramifications of his decision.

I salute the Women of the Wall for standing by their convictions, and for being prepared to take on the ultra-Orthodox establishment.  This is not an easy decision, and life has been made extremely for them as a result.  Ultimately, I believe that they will prevail, and that they will be granted the right to pray as they wish.  In reality, anybody who does not like this is not obliged to be present at the Kotel when the women are there.  Until now, the Women of the Wall have conducted their prayers monthly on rosh chodesh at a time known in advance.  This allows plenty of alternative opportunities for those who wish to attend the wall, without being forced to endure anything that they do not wish to see.  This simply demands a little tolerance and understanding by all parties, something that is unfortunately in short supply in Israel, especially in the ultra-Orthodox establishment.

The time has come for the government to exercise its control over the Kotel, and ensure that all who wish to pray there are able to do so.  It is ironic that the IDF, without the support of the ultra-Orthodox youth, was responsible for liberating this holy site during the Six Day War, only for the site to then be turned over to the control of the ultra-Orthodox.  This is a national holy site, and all Jews should have the right to worship there.  Bravo Women of the Wall.

Sunday 7 April 2013

Is the Time Right?

US Secretary of Sate John Kerry is back in the Middle East this weekend to try to progress peace talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians.  This is clearly an attempt to capitalise on the recent visit of President Barack Obama, and to try to maintain the momentum which the president tried to ignite when meeting with the parties a few weeks ago.

While any effort that may progress the peace process is welcome, there is also a question about the timing of the current round of shuttle diplomacy.  Is this simply an attempt to force the American foreign policy agenda onto the Middle Eastern parties to prove that the US administration had tried its best, or is there a genuine feeling that the talks could work out this time where they have failed in the past?  A simple assessment shows that, while there have been some changes on both sides of the political divide in the Middle East, the fundamental issues that led to failure in the past still remain unchanged.  This begs the question as to why the Americans are bothering to spend time and effort on this challenge, when the prospects for success seem no better than before?

President Barack Obama managed to turn a negative public image in Israel into a much more positive one during his recent visit.  He had been roundly criticised for not having visited Israel during his initial term in office, despite the fact that the conflict with the Palestinians was a relatively high priority on the US foreign policy agenda.  The US president was viewed by many in Israel as being more sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, and the Muslim cause in general.  This was evidenced by his decision to visit Egypt so early into his presidency, where he made an important foreign policy speech.  His visit to Israel was his first foreign trip in his second presidential term, and has succeeded in convincing at least some of the sceptics that he does have a sympathetic ear for the Israeli side of the story.  He may even have managed to convince some of the Israeli leadership that he understands Israel's position in the conflict.  Perhaps he thinks that he may be able to cajole some of those Israelis who were opposed to his position, into cooperating with him now that they are more convinced of his genuine concern?

The Middle East conflict is far too deep-seated and fundamental to have its path changed on a whim.  There are substantial issues which underly the conflict, that cannot be altered on the strength of people suddenly believing that Obama has their best interests at heart.  The matter that halted the discussions at the previous attempt still very much remains an obstacle today.  This is the important requirement on Israel's part for the Palestinians to be prepared to recognise Israel as a Jewish state.  If Obama's USA is able to give this recognition along with many other countries around the world, there is a real question as to why the Palestinians feel that they cannot.   This reluctance simply gives greater strength to the argument that the Palestinians have a master plan to take over the entire State of Israel, and that this is what is preventing them from recognising it as a Jewish country today.

Over the years that the peace process has been stuck, the Palestinians have succeeded in inching their way up their list of demands without making any real compromises in return.  Their unilateral action at the UN last year is one example of this, but there are many others.  Progressively, they have been able to get the world to recognise them as a state amongst the nations, their main stated requirement from peace talks, without entering into negotiations, making compromises or quid-pro-quo.  It is perhaps for this reason that the Israeli government has been hanging on so tightly to the other bargaining chips it has in its hands, such as the status of Jerusalem and the settlements.  There is an argument to suggest that turning the screws on these critical points is the only way to return the Palestinians to conduct meaningful peace talks.  Why should the Palestinians choose to negotiate and compromise with Israel when the world is granting them their wishes on a platter, even while they continue to behave in a way which is contrary to any peace arrangement?

Perhaps Obama spotted an opportunity to extract a slightly softer negotiating position out of Israel with the formation of the new government, and the inclusion of Tzipi Livni with primary responsibility for peace talks.  This may be his driver for sending Kerry to the region now.  The situation within the Palestinian Authority is also different from before, with Mahmoud Abbas finding himself in a much a weaker position now than was previously the case.  He is ageing and less enthusiastic about his role, and has an uphill battle to counter the tide of popularity that arch-rivals Hamas are riding at the moment.  It is my belief, however, that even these changes are not enough to create the environment that is needed to move peace talks forward.  It is my prediction that this round of talks is doomed to failure, in the same way as previous rounds have failed. There are those who argue that it is better to try and fail, than not try at all.  I do not agree with this.  The current situation on the ground is fairly neutral in terms of relations between Israel and the Palestinians - nothing good and nothing particularly bad.  Instigating a new round of talks that end up on the trash heap will probably create negative feelings, thus causing a deterioration in the overall situation.

President Obama's visit to Israel was vitally important in terms of redressing the imbalance that was created by his special attention to the Muslim side during his first term.  This does not automatically create an opportunity for peace to suddenly break out.  In politics, and especially in Middle Eastern politics, timing is everything.  All indications are that now is simply not the time.

Monday 1 April 2013

An Apology Too Far?

The Marvi Marmara incident from 2010 has dominated the relations between Israel and Turkey over the past three years.  Israeli Defense Force (IDF) soldiers were attacked by the activists after the soldiers boarded the ship in an attempt to redirect its passage away from its intended destination of Gaza, and towards Israel's Ashdod port.  In defending their own lives, the IDF soldiers killed nine Turkish activists.  Despite clear evidence that the activists on the ship came looking for blood if there was intervention from IDF soldiers, the Turkish government has insisted that the blame for the deaths of the activists rests with the IDF and the Israeli government.  As a result of this, relations between Israel and Turkey have been at a crisis point.

This all changed very dramatically a few hours after President Obama boarded Air Force One on his way to Jordan following his visit to Israel.  Prime Minister Netanyahu called Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan to offer Israel's apologies for the deaths of the Turkish activists, and offered to pay compensation to the families of those who died.  This represents a 180 degree U-turn from the position that the Israeli government had taken until that moment.  There was never any intention that an apology would be offered, even if this came at the price of diplomatic relations between the countries.  There was certainly no talk of compensation being paid.  Israelis went into the weekend feeling quite dazed at the sudden turn in events, and wondered how this happened without any prior indication or warning.

No secret has been made of the fact that this apology was all the idea of President Barack Obama.  Even though the phone call was made only after he left Israeli soil, there has been no attempt to conceal the fact that Obama "brokered" this call.  Many are interpreting "brokered" to mean that PM Netanyahu was coerced into doing so, against his will and better judgement.  The official reason for the about-turn which has been given by the Israeli government, relates to creating a united front against the threats posed by the Syrian civil war.  While it is true that it would be better for Israel and Turkey to be standing united against threats from Syria (and by extension, threats from Iran), there has not been a sufficient threat coming from Syria until now to fully justify the grovelling apology to Turkey.  Perhaps the apology was offered in the interests of keeping on good terms with Obama and his team?  A united Turkey - Israel front would certainly be in America's interest.  The United States would never wish to be forced to make a choice between Israel and Turkey in the event that this spat continued.  Forcing Netanyahu to back down on this issue has made life a great deal easier for the USA, and its national security interests.  Netanyahu has proven himself to be a tough customer on issues of principle in the past, so why has he seemingly collapsed in the wake of pressure from Obama?

The price for this climbdown has been heavy, and this is only one week after the apology has been issued.  The Turkish government was quick to rush out billboard advertisements depicting a strong, victorious Erdogan against the backdrop of a weak Netanyahu.  This is reminiscent of the victories that were declared by the Arab armies after the Yom Kippur War (which they lost), and by Hamas following Operation Cast Lead and Pillar of Defense.  Despite the fact that this is not a real victory for Turkey, the apology sends completely the wrong message to the Turkish government and to the Turkish people.  Having been involved in the funding of the organisation behind the Gaza flotilla and having allowed the flotilla to set sail from a Turkish port despite knowing full well that the Israeli government planned to stop it, the Turkish government has questions to answer about its own role in the deaths of these nine activists.  Instead, they have issued statements that they will continue to support their "Palestinian brethren", and will be taking further steps to break the "Gaza blockade".  In addition, they have opened a Turkish bazaar in the media about the value of compensation that will be paid for each victim.  They have opened their bidding at $1m per victim, when the Israeli government has given the public to understand that $100,000 is nearer the mark.  The actions of the Turkish government do not reflect a willingness to create a united front in the face of the threats from across the border in Syria.  The Israeli public remain confused as to what lies behind Netanyahu's actions.

In my attempts to understand Netanyahu's motivations a little more deeply, I have conjured up a scenario which I hope is close to reality.  We all know that the main topic for discussion between Netanyahu and Obama during the recent visit was the threat from Iran, and its burgeoning nuclear program.  We also know that Netanyahu has tried his best over a number of years to convince the international community, especially the USA, to be prepared to take earlier preemptive action against Iran to prevent it from constructing a nuclear missile.  Perhaps, maybe Netanyahu succeeded in convincing Obama to come closer to the Israeli position in terms of being prepared act earlier against Iran, and in being prepared to commit US forces to share in the front-line tasks.  In return, Netanyahu agreed to eat humble pie in its diplomatic crisis with Turkey.  This reconciliation also represents a more united front against Iran, with the Iranian forces and weaponry being used by the Syrian government in the Syrian civil war.  I wonder whether the Israeli public may be more understanding of the Turkish reconciliation if they knew that this has come in exchange for US agreement on Iran?

The Turkish tourism industry whispered a quiet cheer when news of the diplomatic reconciliation was announced.  The Israeli package holiday-maker felt equally as good.  Since the diplomatic crisis, thousands of Israeli families have been forced to pay more for their package holidays, or even give up on their holidays, due to the fact that Turkish resorts were removed from their map.  Activities between Turkish and Israeli businesses will also be given an opportunity to recover to their previous levels, and perhaps beyond.  Much of this will depend on sensible behaviour on the part of the Turkish government.  The government would be much better advised to gloat less, and not to cause the Israeli government and Israeli citizens to regret their reconciliation approach.  In so doing, it will make all parties feel better about the restoration of diplomatic relations.

I really want to believe that the real benefit to Israel of making these substantial concessions is being concealed from the glare of the public at the moment.  I hope that whatever quarter was given by the US will ultimately justify the substantial concessions that Israel has been forced to make.  As always in the Middle East, only time will tell.

Saturday 30 March 2013

Obama's Israeli Triumph

US President Barack Obama has concluded his trip to Israel after an intensive few days in the Holy Land.  Prior to this visit, Obama was perceived by a majority of the Israeli public as being unsympathetic and unhelpful to Israel's cause in the international community.  Some believe that a US president with the Muslim heritage that Obama has, can never be good for Israel.  Expectations that Obama's visit to Israel would dramatically change his attitude towards Israel were extremely low.

Now that he has been and gone, and we have had the chance to view the course of the visit's events in hindsight (albeit a very close hindsight), I believe that Obama has almost managed to pull off the impossible.  It was a very different Obama who was in Israel from the one who has spent the past four years taking neutral positions on matters which affect Israel.  From the moment that he stepped onto the tarmac at Ben Gurion airport and said in Hebrew that he was happy to be back in Israel, Obama seemed not to put a foot wrong.  He managed to say all the right things to help reverse the negative sentiments towards him.  He paid tribute to Israeli technology and military strength when inspecting the Iron Dome battery at the airport.  He reiterated his intention to continue to fund this program, despite the budget cuts in the US.  He paid tribute to Israeli fallen heroes during his visit to the Mount Herzl cemetery, and paid his tribute to the six million at Yad Vashem.  He met with Israeli students to relate his view of the future to them, and to listen to the things that they had to say.

On the pressing issue of Iran, the US president was eager to reiterate the points of common understanding rather than the differences.  He said that there was little daylight between the Israeli and US positions.  In truth, I think that he refers more to the assessment of what is happening in Iran, rather than the view as to how to deal with it.  Even though nobody expected that there would be a great deal of public discourse on the Iran issue, it was easy to read between the lines that Obama and Netanyahu are not precisely on the same page where this is concerned.  The Israeli public would like to know if Obama will be prepared to sanction military action in sufficient time to prevent the final steps being taken for the construction of an Iranian nuclear bomb.  It is also important to know whether the US commander-in-chief is prepared to commit his forces to be in the front line, or if they will be watching from a distance while Israeli forces are required to do the hard work.  Answers to these questions were not forthcoming in public, and we have the impression that the US answers to these questions are probably not the ones that Israel would prefer to hear.

It was important to hear Obama say that Israel's continued strength will ensure that a Holocaust does not happen in the future.  As much as it is a stark admission to make that it is not the free world and the powers of the UN that will prevent such a genocide in future, it was equally important for him to publicly recognise the central role that Israel plays in the future of Jewish survival.  It was also important to hear him say that being on friendly terms with Israel is in the US national security interest.  Relationships between countries are built on necessity and mutual-dependence, and not on sentiments.  As much as there are some in the US who do feel some sentimental attachment towards Israel, the only thing that will ensure that the US will continue to support Israel in the future, is a national security interest that drives this friendship.
President Obama's trip to Israel was a public relations triumph that saw him win over many Israeli sceptics.  He managed to convince some that America is indeed there to support Israeli, despite the many instances over the past four years when Israel felt isolated by the contrary view adopted by the Obama administration.  Could it be that the next four years will be different, and that there will be more help forthcoming from Obama and his friends in support of Israel?  Only time will tell.  Many feel that the president's appointment of Chuck Hagel to the position of US Secretary of Defense is more reminiscent of the old Obama, rather than a new one.
Hagel is perceived to unsupportive and unsympathetic to Israel's cause.  I do believe that most Israelis are prepared to give Obama the opportunity to prove his credentials again.  His actions over the coming months, particularly with regard to Iran, will be highly influential in convincing people of his true allegiance.

As a parting gift, Obama brokered an apology to be delivered by Prime Minister Netanyahu to Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan over the deaths of Turkish activists in the Gaza Flotilla incident three years ago.  While it is clear to see why a united Israel and Turkey serves US national security interests as a buffer against Syria, it is still unclear whether this is good for Israel's interests or not.  This apology by Israel represents a major climb-down on a point of principle, while the benefits sufficient to outweigh this concession are not immediately obvious.

A good relationship with the USA is certainly in Israel's best interests.  But this is not at any price.  Israel wishes to see the US being prepared to speak out and take actions on matters which would benefit Israel in the international community.  With the constant threats that Israel is facing, this is of importance to Israel's future surivival and that of the Jewish people.  Over the course of the next year, this will manifest itself in the support that Israel receives to counter the Iranian threat.  The clock is ticking.......

Sunday 10 February 2013

Israel Providing a Service to the World

The world has been observing the events in Syria, particularly over the period of the civil war that has raged there for the past two years.  Syria has long presented a threat to the international community because of two main factors.  The first factor is its substantial arsenal of conventional, biological and chemical weapons which President Bashar al-Assad appears to have no reluctance to use.  The second factor is its close links to Iran in the sponsorship of international terror.  During the course of the civil war, the threat has escalated even further with numerous international terror groups using the instability created by the war to take up camp in Syria.  This increases the possibility that dangerous weapons could fall into renegade terror groups around the world.  The world has been observing these events from a safe distance without taking any action at all to prevent the strengthening of international terror.

Israel's proximity to Syria, and the fact that a border is shared by the two countries, has always meant that all that happens in Syria is of significant interest to the Israeli security services.  Syria has been an enemy of the State of Israel from the moment Israel came into existence in 1948, a situation that has not changed until the present day.  The period during which the civil war has been fought in Syria is no exception, and has added further instability to the region due to the lack of predictability as to how the Syrian authorities and the rebels may direct their forces towards Israel.  A few isolated missiles have already landed in Israeli territory from Syria, but these have been regarded having crossed the border in error rather than having been deliberately directed towards Israel.  The truth is that the Syrian forces and their rebel enemies are too busy fighting against each other to spend much time worrying about launching an attack against Israel.  While this presents a source of comfort for Israel on one hand, it also presents a real threat on the other hand.

The war has led to the general opening up of Syria's arms and ammunitions depots for the Syrian army to use against the rebels.  Some reports suggest that it has even made use of chemical weapons in this war.  The opening of missile storage facilities means that these arms and missiles are also more easily available to other renegade groups who may wish to snatch them from the Syrians.  This has resulted in the Syrians trying to move some of their most strategic missiles to be under the care of its allies and friends, most notably Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. 

These movements undoubtedly lie behind recent reports coming from Syria that a convoy of weapons was attacked while in transit from Syria to Lebanon.  Israel has been accused of the attack, even though there is no formal word from the Israeli government or army on the matter.  Another attack was also reported, nearer to Damascus, at around the same time.  Syrian TV reported that Israeli jets attacked an army facility, widely rumoured to be a research centre involved in the production of chemical and biological weapons.  Once again, the Israelis have remained silent on the matter.  Even though there is no official word on whether Israel was involved in either or both of these incidents, the pinpoint accuracy with which they were carried out does bear the hallmark of operations that Israel could have been involved in.  Hints have come out of the US government to confirm this, and remarks made by Israel Defense Minister Ehud Barak also seem to support Israel's involvement.

While these attacks were clearly carried out in the interests of Israel's own safety, she is doing the world a huge service in the process.  The threat presented by the axis of Iran, Syria and Hezbollah, and their links to other terror organisations, is one that is not solely directed towards Israel.  The Bulgarian government confirmed that the attack against Israeli tourists in Burgas on the Black Sea in the summer of 2012, was carried out by Hezbollah.  In addition to the 5 Israelis who were killed in the attack in Bulgaria, there was also a Bulgarian tour guide who was a casualty.  The Bulgarian economy was also affected as a result of the decision made by tourists to stay away from the area while international terror organisations were operating there.  Attacks on targets in the US, Far East and across Europe which have escalated over the past 10 or 15 years, show clearly that terror that was once aimed solely at Israel or limited to the Middle East, has now become a global threat.  Any activities carried out by Israel against these terror organisations, even if it is solely in the pursuit of securing her own safety, represents a huge favour to the wider international community.

The unfortunate part of this is that Israel seldom, if ever, receives help, support and assistance in these activities.  At best, Israel may receive a "green light" in the form of an agreement not to resist or oppose the attack.  More likely, Israel is subject to international condemnation in the international press, and in bodies like the UN.  An example of this is the reaction that was received to Israel's bombing of Iraq's Osirak nuclear facility back in 1981.  Israel was roundly condemned by the international community, and resolutions were passed by the UN Security Council and by the UN General Assembly criticising Israel's actions.  It took until 2005 for US President Bill Clinton to finally admit in public that " I think, in retrospect, that it was a really good thing".  Clearly, the path of the Gulf Wars in Iraq would have looked completely different had Israel not been bold enough to carry out this attack.  A similar assessment could be made of Israel's attack on the Syrian nuclear reactor in 2007.  Even though the world condemnation was not quite as vociferous on this occasion, there was no other country lining up to challenge Syria's development of nuclear weapons, or to help Israel in destroying it.  As the Syrian civil war continues, a heavy sigh of relief is being breathed by the world that there is no nuclear option available to the Syrian government.

As in the past, Israel's strikes on the weapons convoy being sent to Hezbollah and the Syrian weapons research centre comes as a gift to the free world.  This is a further service provided by the Israeli military, which seems at times to be the only force in the world that is ready to do the impossible.  This impossible is frequently done on its own steam, and in the face of international condemnation.  Although Israel is not necessarily seeking thanks and recognition for these efforts, many of which place the lives of our young soldiers on the line, it would be a welcome change to receive some support for these audacious actions. 

Even if this is not forthcoming, I feel good to live in a country that is prepared to take the tough decisions to do the dirty work to secure the safety of its citizens, and has young men and women who are willing to put their lives on the line in the interests of executing it.  This is a source of immense pride, and source of great comfort to me.  It is a pity that the rest of the world gets a free ride in the process.

Wednesday 30 January 2013

Lapid Becomes Kingmaker

The election is over, the votes are in and the results are final.  Despite this, we still don’t really know where we stand.  The coalition negotiations are yet to take place, which will probably add most spice to the process.  The big story coming out of the election is the way in which Yair Lapid managed to propel his Yesh Atid (there is a future) party into second place by capturing 19 seats in the Knesset.  None of the opinion polls ahead of the election gave any indication that Yesh Atid was on the verge of such a significant achievement in its first election.  Many are wondering how Yesh Atid managed to sneak in under the radar in this way, and what the future holds for Yair Lapid and his new party.

It seems as though Lapid managed to pace his election campaign perfectly.  He peaked just as people were heading to the polls, still undecided about whose ticket they would place in their voting envelope.  An exit poll of Yesh Atid voters revealed that as many as 30% decided to vote for Lapid’s party in the last 4 days before the election.  This is an astonishing statistic, and reveals how little previously established voting preferences counted for in this election.  I also think that the combination of right of centre diplomatic polices, centre social policies and the insistence that all groups in society bear the burden equally, proved to be a popular platform for voters.  In particular, the idea that concessions should be given neither to the super-wealthy nor to the ultra-Orthodox, reflects a sense of fairness and equality that most Israelis can identify with.  Additionally, Lapid’s view that civil and social issues should have a higher priority on the new government’s agenda than diplomatic issues, has enjoyed a great deal of support.  Without minimising the threat to Israel or the level of its importance, many Israelis are tired of hearing the prime minister spend most of his time talking about Iran.  They would prefer to hear about how he will strengthen the economy, and make it easier for people to earn a decent living.  Lapid sensed this, and managed to incorporate these views into his platform.

Although the son of long-time politician Tommy Lapid, Yair Lapid has no political experience at all.  He is well-known in Israel as a journalist and TV anchor-man, a fact that clearly assisted him in his campaign.  He needs to use the next few years to accumulate as much political experience as he can if he is truly going to be able to take on the job of leading a government in the future, something he claims to have ambitions to do.  This also means that he has little choice but to join the coalition government that Benjamin Netanyahu is currently constructing.  Acting as leader of the opposition cannot be compared to taking on a senior cabinet role in government.  If Lapid is to progress towards his ambition of being a future prime minister of Israel, he will join the coalition at almost any price.

Despite having stood on a platform that opposed many of the outgoing government’s policies, Lapid and Netanyahu are politically not too far apart.  On paper, Lapid and Netanyahu have remarkably similar diplomatic policies.  Lapid appears more determined to create an environment that will encourage direct talks with the Palestinians than Netanyahu has shown himself to be.  Despite this, Lapid ‘s platform is clear in that it does not advocate the splitting of Jerusalem or giving up on the large settlement blocs in the West Bank in pursuit of a two-state solution.  The main difference between Lapid and Netanyahu becomes more obvious when looking at civil and economic policies.  Lapid is determined to pursue a responsible economic policy, which is also satisfies the calls for social justice.  Lapid’s interpretation of this means that he wishes to ensure that the social burden is equalised across all groups in society.  For the most part, this will manifest itself by reducing or withdrawing the special advantages that the ultra-Orthodox groups have enjoyed over many years.  In practice, Lapid aims to ensure that there is no wide-ranging exemption for the ultra-Orthodox from military service (or some form of national service), and he will be seeking to reduce or withdraw the special government grants that are paid to ultra-Orthodox men who are studying in yeshivot (religious learning institutions).  These two aspects have proved to be a drain on Israeli coffers, and have been the cause of great conflict and anger in Israeli society.

The difference between Lapid and Netanyahu is not because they have different basic convictions on the social and economic issues.  On the contrary, I believe that their basic beliefs are extremely similar.  The issue is that Netanyahu has been forced to accommodate the requirements of the ultra-Orthodox bloc in order to secure his position as prime minister.  He has played to the religious voters who support Likud, as well as to the ultra-Orthodox parties who he has been forced to share a coalition table with in the past.  This has meant allocating vast sums of money to maintain and support the stipends being paid to yeshiva students, and perpetuating their exemption from military service.  Both of these measures are extremely unpopular with the non-religious electorate, and contribute in a measurable way to lack of equality in Israeli society.  The decision earlier in 2012 by the High Court of Justice that the exemption from military service granted to ultra-Orthodox men is unconstitutional, has pushed the government into a corner to force it to make some changes to this policy.  If Netanyahu is able to structure a coalition to exclude the ultra-Orthodox parties, there is a greater likelihood that the required changes on the military exemption will be enacted in spite of the protests on the part of the religious groups.

The ultra-Orthodox parties have sensed the danger to their power base, and have decided to create single bloc out of the seats that were won by the two partes – Shas with 11 seats and the United Torah Judaism party with 7 seats.  Their 18 seats is a counter-balance to Lapid’s 19 seats, and forces Netanyahu to make a choice between one or the other.  It is almost inconceivable that Lapid would sit in a government with the religious parties, and vice versa.  It is my expectation that, after all the  negotiations are completed, Lapid will be in the government and the religious bloc will not.

As far as I can tell, Yair Lapid’s longer-term outlook looks more tenuous.  He has successfully created a political party that bases most of its strength on him as the leader.  Aside from himself, the members of the Yesh Atid list are relatively unknown, and much lower profile.  His platform of policies is not very unique, but rather borrows policies from many others, and packages them in a slightly different way.  His ability to continue to present this package in a unique way is key to determining whether Yesh Atid is a one-hit wonder, or whether it will be around in the future.  Political parties that were built around the fame and personality of their leader, have a poor track record in Israel.  Yair’s own father led the Shinui party, a party that no longer exists.  Similarly, Kadima that was built by Ariel Sharon, is in the process of dying.  There are many other examples of this, and I predict that Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua party will go the same way.  Perhaps Lapid has achieved what he needs from Yesh Atid.  His strategy may be to continue to lead the party in the current Knesset to his advantage, and then to fold into one of the established parties, probably Likud.  This is probably the best solution for Lapid to ensure his long-term survival in politics.

The tens of thousands of people who voted for Lapid are hoping that he will succeed in converting his written manifesto into policies on the ground, to make a real difference to Israeli society.  If he is able to achieve even a small fraction of what he set out to do, the kingmaker may go on to become a king in his own right.  Failure to do so my relegate him to the political trash pile.  The question is whether he is ready to take on the realities of Israeli politics, and to make them work to his advantage.  The challenge is a tough one.

Tuesday 22 January 2013

To Vote or Not to Vote? That is the Question.

The polls have now closed in the election for the 19th Knesset, and predictions of a low voter turnout have proved to be incorrect.  Even though it was claimed that the election campaign failed to capture the imagination of the electorate,  initial information is that this is the highest voter turnout since the 1999 election.  When the votes have all been counted, it is expected that more than 70% of those entitled to vote will have cast a ballot.  The positive trend even applies to the Arab Israeli sector, which traditionally has a much lower turnout than Jewish Israelis.  Overall, this is good for Israel's democracy, and shows that Israeli voters are less apathetic than was originally thought.  It is entirely logical for Israel to have high voter turnout.  Jews were forced to suffer many years of being denied the right to determine their own destiny.  This should drive people to flood polling stations to vote in order to influence how Jewish life in Israel will be conducted over the next parliament.  There remain decisions to be taken which are of substantial political significance to Israelis concerning the future of the country, and the how to achieve peace in the promised land.  Some may say that these are life and death decisions, and seem important enough to convince most to exercise their democratic right.

Despite the obvious compelling issues that drive Israelis to the polls in significant numbers, there are those who do so somewhat reluctantly.  This is mainly because of the general disillusionment with politicians and the political system.  Gone are the days when people stood for the Knesset purely for the purpose of serving Israelis and improving Israeli society.  The concept of selfless service of our society seems to be a historical dinosaur in Israel, and indeed elsewhere around the world.  While I am not suggesting that people should agree to serve in the Knesset or in government for free or without adequate reward, it is a pity that the reward has become more of the issue than the service.  This has led to increased corruption, and much less trust in politicians and the system that governs the country.  The fact that financial rewards can be extracted has the effect of attracting a certain type of person to stand for the Knesset.  In my view, the public is justified in feeling negative towards politicians, particularly when it is considered that these are the people who will be determining our destiny.

The second reason why people may be reluctant to vote, is the feeling that there will not be any change to the current status quo.  If this is so, why bother turning up to vote?  It has been predicted throughout the election campaign that Netanyahu will be returned as prime minister.  The person who is elected to lead the government is the most important issue at stake in the election.  The rest is in the details.  The fact that Netanyahu has continued to hold a seemingly unassailable advantage gives the feeling that votes cannot, and will not influence anything of any significance.

The government-sponsored advertising to encourage people to turn up to vote has been quite creative and entertaining.  This can claim a great deal of credit for the high voter turnout.  Unfortunately, not the same can be said for the party election broadcasts, and the party election campaigns.  They have been uninspiring, and have not provoked much interest at all.  Better campaigns would, almost certainly, have inspired undecided voters to come out to exercise their votes.

Only a few years ago, Israel had a voter turnout rate of over 80%, and was in the top 25 countries of vote turnout at general elections.  The last three elections before today have shown a dramatic reduction in the number of voters  turning out, to below 65%.  The challenges facing Israel, and the importance of the decisions, are no less than those that Israel was forced to confront at the time of independence in 1948.  Israelis are all required to serve in the army in defense of the country, and this reality should surely encourage people to vote in their droves. Casting a vote for the right option could literally save people's lives if a peace agreement can be reached with the Palestinians.  For this reason, it is appropriate and pleasing that people have decided to exercise their vote today.

Initial exit polls show that the split between the left and the right-wing in the new Knesset will be very narrow.  This reflects that huge dilemma facing Israelis with regard to the direction that should be taken in dealing with Palestinian issue.  Can we trust that there is a way of agreeing a way to survive harmoniously side-by-side with a Palestinian state, or do we take statements at face value which threaten that the Palestinians will not rest until Israel is entirely destroyed?  Most Israelis really wish to believe that there is a solution to give us the peace that we yearn for.  Many believe that this is not achievable right now, due to the Palestinians taking each concession and using it as ammunition to destroy Israel further.  Israelis are also split on the issue of how to deal with the social justice reforms that are being sought for the economy.  How can we give the weaker members of our society the help that they need, without being irresponsible with the economy?  These are extremely heavy and important issues, for which there are no easy answers. The country seems to be split almost down the middle on these matters.

Irrespective of who will ultimately occupy the prime minister's office, and who will sit in the Knesset, this day has been a great victory for democracy in our country.  Many countries that achieve voter turnout in excess of 70%, are those where it is a criminal offence not to vote in the election.  In Israel, such a law is not required in order to convince people to come to the ballots.  We are extremely fortunate to have a Jewish state of our own, and to have the opportunity to vote in elections to participate in the determination of the destiny of our country and our people.  This was finally achieved after many years of being denied the right to vote, and being denied the right to determine our destiny.  The turnout today is a vote of thanks to the many heroes who fought so hard to get us to this position,  and a tribute to the memories of so many lives which were lost in the process.