Sunday 8 June 2014

Is the Presidency Worth It?

The vote to elect the 10th president of the State of Israel is due to take place in a few days' time.  President Shimon Peres is nearing the end of his seven-year term, and the Basic Law that governs the term and responsibilities of the president dictates that there is no possibility to re-elect the president once he has completed his term.  For Peres, who is now 91 years old, perhaps this may finally force him into retirement.  It is easy to believe that Peres would seek re-election for a further seven-year term, if the law allowed for it, even at his advanced age.

The election campaign has attracted public attention for all the wrong reasons.  With the vote for the president granted only to the members of the Knesset, the Israeli public has no direct vote in this election and is relegated to being a mere spectator as the campaigns of the candidates play themselves out.  The public is a spectator with a huge vested interested, as the successful candidate will represent the State of Israel and the general public on the domestic and international stage for the next seven years.  The most recent unfortunate event, is the withdrawal by Benyamin Ben-Eliezer of his name from the list of candidates competing for the coveted office.  He decided to withdraw following the announcement by the attorney-general that an investigation would be launched into allegations that Ben-Eliezer has received illicit funds.  The timing of the allegations were clearly timed to damage his bid for the presidency, an objective that was achieved.  But this was not the only controversy during the lead-up to the election.

Before the final list of candidates was even confirmed, Minister of Regional Development Silvan Shalom suffered a similar public allegation.  He was accused of sex crimes dating back a number of years.  The attorney-general immediately launched an investigation into the allegations, and decided to close the case without taking any further action.  Shalom was effectively cleared of the allegations, but the public damage had been done.  He decided that he could not pursue his candidacy for the office of president under the circumstances.

There has also been controversy surrounding the candidate who currently leads the opinion polls, Reuven Rivlin.  He is the candidate from the ruling Likud party, and the one that you would expect to receive the natural backing of the prime minister and members of the government.  Due to personal clashes in the past, Prime Minister Netanyahu was extremely reluctant to publicly declare support for Rivlin. Only once the final list of candidates was published, and it was clear that the prime minister could not justify supporting any of the candidates, did he finally pledge his support for Rivlin.  This support, hesitant and begrudging as it was, had an unhealthy smell about it.  There are those who believe that the prime minister saw the writing on the wall in terms of an inevitable Rivlin victory, and realised that he could make his life in the future extremely difficult if a president is elected who did not receive his support.  Rather than suffer this situation, he understood that it would be better to publicly support Rivlin.

These allegations and controversies serve to taint the office of president, and not for the first time.  We have the unbelievable situation where a former president is currently serving a jail sentence after being found guilt of rape and other sex offences, some of them committed in the president's residence.  The office of president is considered to be above politics, and that of an elder statesman who keeps himself above the dirt and sleaze that has been associated with politics and public life in recent times.  Apparently, even this is not beyond the presidential office.  If any of the allegations made of the candidates have even the slightest basis of truth, the office of president is tainted.  And if the allegations are entirely without foundation, the office of president is tainted by the fact that people feel justified in using dirty tactics to prevent individuals from attaining the position.

When considering the role that president plays in Israeli society, it makes me wonder whether it is worth having the position at all in light of these shenanigans.  It is a position that is expected to be filled be a squeaky clean individual who is entirely trustworthy, and can proudly represent Israel on the public stage.  This image is being blackened more and more, but those who try to falsely fill the position, and by those who falsely try to prevent people from filling the position.  Even President Peres, who has very high public recognition as having done a good job as president, has come under criticism for being overly political in the job.  Does a person exist in Israel who can truly and honestly fill the position?  I am not sure.

The president has two key powers under the Basic Law.  The first is to call upon the leader of the winning party in a general election to form a government.  The second power is to pardon or commute the sentences of both soldiers and civilians.  The latter power is usually only exercised upon strong advice from a special committee set up to consider the matter.  The president also ceremonially signs bills into law (except those affecting the powers and responsibilities of the president), and has a number of other ceremonial roles, including the appointment of judges to courts and the receipt of credentials from ambassadors posted to serve in Israel.  The ceremonial roles are undertaken on the advice of others, and do not require the president to exercise his judgement or executive powers.  In my view, the role of president could be removed without a great loss to Israeli society or to its democratic nature.  It could also serve to save the treasury a few million Shekels a year in salary and running costs of the office and residence of the president.

It seems as though the type of person that was envisaged as the president of Israel may no longer exist.  The notion of a thoroughly clean and upstanding individual who represents each and every citizen of our country seems now to be only an illusion.  The mere fact that most of the candidates for president are current or former politicians tells a story of its own.  So do we push forward with electing somebody to the office who seems unable to fit the expectation, on the understanding that it is the best we can do?  Or do we abolish an office which seems to have little importance to the daily functioning of the country in our modern day?  It is a question that may be asked about monarchs across Europe, and non-executive presidents in other countries as well.  My vote would be to abolish the office, and clean up the dirty tricks that surround it.

Friday 6 June 2014

What Can We Conclude from the European Elections?

I have observed over the time of the existence of the European Parliament, that the results of European Parliament elections in the European member countries, frequently do not mirror the results of elections in those countries for their local parliaments.  This has provided much food for thought about why this happens.  Is it that the European issues are so substantially different from local national issues that people could choose to vote for entirely different parties?  Could it be that the electorate feels that they can make a statement via their vote for the European Parliament that has little consequence for their everyday lives?

The European Parliament election held a couple of weeks ago is a classic example.  Most of the votes that were cast in the UK went to the UK Independence Party, a party that secured no seats in the last UK parliamentary elections.  David Cameron's Conservative Party was demoted to third place in the European election.   In France, Marine Le Pen's National Front secured the highest number of votes in the European elections, while holding only 2 out of 577 seats in the French National Assembly.  President Francois Hollande's Socialist Party received only the third highest number of votes.  While this is not necessarily the trend in all European countries, it is sufficiently noticeable in a few countries to attract attention and warrant further analysis.

From a Jewish perspective, the most worrying aspect of the results of this European election, is the extent to which right-wing parties attracted support.  Many of these right-wing parties have strong neo-Nazi and anti-Semitic elements to them, something which is commonly known and unashamedly made public.  The reason that these nationalist parties are gaining in support is twofold.  Firstly, many Europeans feel the influx of foreigners to Europe over the past few years, such that immigrants from the Middle East and the Far East are creating an entirely different atmosphere than was previously the case in Europe.  It has also created a security threat in Europe that is unprecedented in recent times.  We all know the realities that we face when travelling by air.  We also know that these security threats are not caused by native-born Europeans (even though some of the terrorists do carry European legitimate passports).  A vote for the nationalists is seen as a vote to oppose the hijacking of Europe, as it has been taking place in recent years.

Of much greater concern, however, is the strength of anti-Semitic feeling evident in Europe, which is drawing people to vote for right-wing parties that promote openly anti-Semitic platforms.  The two right-wing platforms have a link.  The Muslims, who have recently made Europe their home and who threaten the security of the free world, frequently claim to be acting in opposition to Israel.  For many Europeans, the security threat that hangs over Europe and the western world is all Israel's fault.  Many believe that, if Israel was prepared to capitulate to the demands of the Palestinians, all of the world's problems could be resolved.  This gives further fuel to the anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist feelings that are on the increase across the continent.  Anti-Semitic attacks are on the increase across the continent, as has been evident in France and more recently in Belgium.  Jewish communities in Europe, that for many years existed without threat or concern, are now under siege.

Ironically, it is precisely this anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism that is creating the pressure on Israel to capitulate to the demands and threats of the Palestinians.  If the US administration is prepared to accept a Palestinian unity government that is comprised of an organisation that calls for Israel's destruction and is on official list of terror organisations in the USA, it is easy to see why European anti-Semitic organisations are finding much support and strength.  It is also easy to see why the Muslim community in Europe is gaining in power and strength in their local anti-Semitic activities, and in their anti-Israel activities.  The influence of these organisations should not be underestimated.  As much as Israel will always act independently to protect her safety and her security, Israel needs also to be accepted in the international community in order to ensure that she has a market for the delivery of the amazing array of goods and services that are produced in Israel.  This is a critical leg of Israel's economy to ensure a positive balance of payments.

The open nature of the support for right-wing parties in Europe is of real concern.  It gives greater power to the anti-Semitic and anti-Israel agendas that these organisations are pursuing.  It also reinforces the mistaken notion that Israel is the cause of the lack of security in Europe.  For now, this support is mostly manifesting itself in the European Parliament elections.  The greater danger is that these organisations may also enjoy greater support in the national elections of these countries.  The Israeli government should be planning for this to happen.

Sunday 1 June 2014

How the Palestinian Unity Deal Could Help Israel

On the face of it, the agreement between the rival Palestinian factions to form a unity government is bad news for Israel.  In response, Prime Minister Netanyahu immediately cancelled any possibility of talking about peace talks, and all prospects of reaching any sort of agreement with the Palestinians seem to be lost for the foreseeable future.  The Israeli government has vowed never to hold discussions with Hamas.  The fact that Hamas is effectively being drawn in as part of the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the unity government, means that talks with the PA cannot be contemplated.  Hamas could break out of their stronghold in the Gaza Strip, and become much more influential in the West Bank via their participation in the unity government.  This may allow for the expansion of their terror activities into the West Bank, and could provide a new launching pad for the rocket fire that has been prevalent from Gaza over the past few years.  The signs are, however, not all as grim as the above-mentioned picture depicts.  The link-up between Hamas and Fatah could, ironically, bring some benefits to Israel.

As a result of the agreement to form a unity government, Hamas will effectively be drawn into the PA.  In a number of countries around the world, including the USA, Hamas has been outlawed as a terror organisation.  If Hamas is part of the PA, US law will prevent the US government from dealing with the PA and from making financial donations to the PA.  It is well known that the PA has relied heavily upon financial donations made by countries around the world, including the USA.  The unity government is likely to result in less financial donations coming forward  to the Palestinians in general, as a result of Hamas's involvement in the PA.

By linking up with Hamas, an organised which has a much lower level of respect in the international community, Mahmoud Abbas and the Fatah organisation can be seen to be showing its true colours.  Abbas has been trying for many years to gain greater international recognition.  Just recently, he made application to a number of UN bodies and international treaties, for the Palestinians to be admitted as full members.  This has caused a stir especially considering that the Palestinians are not an independent state, something that is generally required for admission to these bodies and treaties.  The UN Secretary General will be the one who will have to decide in the case of most of the applications, whether or not to admit the Palestinians as full members.  His decision may be swayed against admitting them, if he will be required to deal with Hamas officials as part of the PA.  This may also reduce the  standing of PA President Mahmoud in the international community, when it is considered that he finds it politically acceptable to link up with a terror organisation as his partner in government.

A new Palestinian unity government with Hamas may also buy time for Prime Minister Netanyahu.  There was a strong view that US Secretary of State John Kerry laid the blame for the failure of the peace talks with Netanyahu.  Now that the Abbas has thrown his lot in with Hamas, the international community may have a lower expectation of Netanyahu in forcing him to be more accommodating in talks with the PA.

The fact that Hamas has decided to come to an arrangement with Fatah and the PA is telling.  Hamas has consistently opposed the idea of negotiating with Israel, and has been highly critical of Mahmoud Abbas for doing so. and for being prepared to recognise Israel's right to exist  Indeed, this has been one of the reasons that Hamas has used for not agreeing to a unity government on previous occasions.  The fact that Hamas has gone back on its principles may be an indication of the weak situation that Hamas finds itself in at the current time.  The friendship that Hamas had with Egypt has evaporated with the overthrow of President Morsi.  Hamas is clearly on the lookout for friends and supporters, and its agreement to enter into a pact with Fatah is a sign of real weakness.

The advantages that the Palestinian unity government (if indeed it ever gets off the ground) will bring to Israel will be short-lived.  There are already signs that US Secretary of State John Kerry is prepared to pander to the unity government, despite Hamas being a terror organisation under US law.  It is clear that the international community will continue to provide support to what is perceived as the underdog, even if this is a terrorist underdog.  Any advantages, however, that  Israel can derive from this situation, even in the short-term, will be welcome.