Tuesday 27 January 2015

Freedom of Speech?

Disagreements between Jews are not new.  This is largely driven by the fact that many Jews are highly opinionated, and are not shy to share their opinions with all who care to listen.  Major disagreements have even taken place in Torah study over the years, the most famous of which is the disagreement between the Houses of Hillel and Shamai more than 2,000 years ago.  Any good Torah scholar knows how to answer a question when presented with two possible alternative solutions.  The answer is usually "machloket" or "disagreement", indicating that learned scholars have issued strong support for both possible solutions to the question.  In the modern State of Israel, it is common for people to refer to the fact that there are frequently three (or more) views and opinions expressed when two people get together to discuss matters.  While this can frequently indicate a healthy ability to see many different sides to the same issue, there are times when these disagreements can be undesirable and even destructive.

In recent weeks, we have seen disagreements arise amongst Israelis, which are less desirable in their nature.  One example of such a disagreement is the criticism that has been expressed for Prime Minister Netanyahu's recent visit to Paris to join the protest, following the terror attacks by the Muslim extremists.  Some Israelis, including senior politicians, have chosen to criticise every aspect of Netanyahu's visit to Paris, calling it a ploy designed to gain him personal support ahead of the upcoming general election.  He has been castigated for going to Paris at all, given the short notice and the huge cost of mounting the required security operation that travels with the prime minister at all times.  There was much written about the French government not really wanting him to be there, and being forced to ensure that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was also in the front row of the march in order to create political balance.  Some found it distasteful that Netanyahu supposedly pushed his way to the front row of the protest march.  He was accused of forcing his way onto the bus that was used to transport French President François Hollande to the march.  There were others who found his style of waving to the crowds during the march shameful.  Many newspaper columns were taken up explaining why the whole episode brought shame to Netanyahu and to Israel.

Last week, an attack was carried out in southern Syria that killed a number of Hezbollah operatives, and a few Iranian senior military men who were with them.  Although refusing to give any official response to the story, Israel has been accused of carrying out the attack.  This has given rise to all manner of response from Israelis.  Some have accused Netanyahu of using this military strike for election gain.  Others have accused Netanyahu and Israel of being too militaristic and too aggressive, while hiding behind the guise of looking after its security needs.  They argue that Mugniyeh and his compatriots who were killed did not represent a "ticking bomb" (the term used for somebody who is on the verge of carrying out an immediate attack on Israel) and should, therefore, not have been attacked by the IDF.  They further argue that the death of the Iranians (which some unnamed official sources claim was unintended) brings further unwanted tension to the already-tense relationship between Israel and Iran.

The most recent furore created by Netanyahu, is the announcement of a visit to the USA planned for the beginning of March, less than two weeks before the Israeli general election.  He has been invited to address a joint session of Congress, now dominated by the Republicans.  It is expected that Netanyahu will speak out strongly against reaching any deal with Iran, and will warn again of the threat presented by a nuclear Iran.  The White House has moved quickly to issue a statement saying that neither President Obama nor Secretary of State Kerry will meet with Netanyahu during this visit.  While the statement gives the explanation that the president has a policy of not meeting with political leaders so soon before a general election, we all know that there is a great deal of antagonism in the relationship between Obama and Netanyahu.  The fact that Netanyahu is in the USA at the invitation of Obama's rival party will not help the situation.  Israeli politicians and journalists alike have jumped up to accuse Netanyahu of endangering the sensitive relationship that Israel has with the USA by accepting the Republican invitation.  Perhaps they would care to consider the possibility that a Republican may occupy the White House after the upcoming presidential election at the end of 2016?

In a country that values free speech for people who sometimes hold more than one opinion on a subject, there is a valid question as to whether these criticisms cross the boundary where free speech becomes libellous or contrary to the best interests of the country.  While democracy in Israel is of paramount importance, including the right to think and speak your mind, there are times when this democratic right is used in a misdirected and unacceptable way.  People who take advantage of freedom of speech simply to cause damage or to attack individuals should be denied this valuable right.  Our democracy should not tolerate those who abuse their democratic rights.

How should we regard the actions of 43 reserve soldiers from an elite intelligence unit who decided to speak out against the intelligence work conducted by their unit?  Not only did they speak out against this work in the form of a strongly-worded letter to Prime Minister Netanyahu, they also disobeyed orders and the law of the land by refusing undertake their reserve duty.  Is this an exercise of their democratic rights, or did they cross the red line in terms of what is democratically acceptable?  They have all been dismissed from their military positions, probably the outcome that they were hoping for despite the fact that it is regarded as a punishment.  The case does, however, bring into sharp focus the issue of the right to free speech, and where the line should be drawn.  In the case of these soldiers, an existing process is made available for all soldiers to express their views and voice their objections.  The manner used by these soldiers was clearly designed to damage the State of Israel, and could threaten her security.  This cannot be tolerated.

There is clearly a very thin line between being allowed to exercise democratic rights and freedom of speech, as opposed to abusing this right in order to cause harm.  Anybody exercising their freedom to say what they wish, also has the obligation to do this responsibly.  This obligation, it seems, is frequently ignored in the interests of brazenly saying whatever is on the heart.  Democracy can be a dangerous tool when put in the wrong hands, or in the hands of those who do not exercise it responsibly.  Those who overstep the line should be dealt with decisively, particularly those who choose to threaten the security of the state and her citizens.

Ultimately, a democratic country like Israel should be able to withstand abuse of these democratic rights, and should have a process of dealing with the culprits accordingly.  Denying people their democratic rights is not a solution to the problem.   It is also important to provide better education regarding the obligations that flow from a democracy.  It is hoped that such education will bring a balanced assessment of the appropriate moments to say what you are thinking and feeling, and the best moments to keep quiet.  The democracy should never tolerate people who hide behind the right to free speech, with the intention of causing harm.

Sunday 18 January 2015

Je Suis Israel?

The huge outpouring of sympathy and shock over the past week following the terror attacks in France is entirely understandable.  The French people have not experienced an attack on their republic in this way, probably since the storming of the Bastille in 1789.  The reason why this represents a threat that is different from the various wars that the French have fought on their home territory over the years, is because this attack comes from within France, and not from outside of her borders.  The sight of native French speakers explaining that they follow the doctrines of Al Qaeda, Islamic State and other extremist Muslim groups has dismayed the average Frenchman, and even many within the huge French Muslim community.

The French (and the international community) came out in an immediate response to show their support for the Charlie Hebdo publication, which is also an expression of their support for freedom as demonstrated by a free press.   One could almost hear the cries of Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité.  Millions of Frenchmen made their statement in the presence of leaders from the international community in opposition to the attack on their freedom, and protested against Islamic extremism that was behind these latest attacks and many others.  The war on Islamic extremism is on the lips of people around the world, including the leaders of the most influential western countries.  Despite this fact, we saw Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas lining up with the world leaders at the protest rally in  Paris, in one of the most visible positions in the front row of the protest.  Many have questioned why a leader, who has been so closely associated with terror attacks over the years, could have been allowed to be in the front line of a demonstration to protest against exactly this

The organisation that was originally established in 1964 to represent the so-called Palestinian Arabs, was the Palestine Liberation Organisation (the PLO).  Current Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was one of the founders of the PLO.  The stated objective of the PLO was the "liberation of Palestine through armed struggle".  This armed struggle turned out to include hijacking aeroplanes and cruise liners, as well as kidnapping and killing people without any sympathy or regard for the value of human life.  Despite being a stated pan-Arab organisation, many of its Arab colleagues expelled the leadership of the PLO from their countries as a way of opposing the means of terror that they used to pursue their agenda.  This same PLO forms the backbone of the Fatah party that makes up the modern-day Palestinian Authority.  Since his death, it has been publicly recognised that former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was orchestrating a campaign of terror and violence even while standing on the lawns of the White House, and receiving a Nobel Peace Prize.  Now that Abbas has signed a unity agreement with Hamas, a party that is blacklisted as a terrorist organisation in the USA, Europe and elsewhere, surely the evidence of his terror connections is as clear as ever.  And yet, he is seen leading an anti-terror march through the streets of Paris.  How is it possible that the world does not connect the terror that he is involved with, to the terror that is being experienced around the world?

Prime Minister Netanyahu has long been trying to draw this link in a way that the international community can understand, and is willing to understand.  He has described the terror that is being experienced in France, Syria, Iraq and elsewhere around the world as a different branch of the same tree when compared to the terror that Israel is forced to contend with on a daily basis.  The money to fund these activities is coming from common sources, and the organisations that are providing the arms and the impetus to carry out the attacks are the same.  The penny, however, refuses to drop.  When in France, the prime minister tried again to draw the connection to link the fresh wounds being felt by the French to gaping wounds felt constantly in Israel.  Everybody is rallying around the slogans "Je suis Charlie Hebdo" and "Je Suis Juif".  Why not "Je Suis Israel"?

Much of this stems from the fact that the Palestinians have succeeded in garnering public sympathy for their cause beyond the level that is justified.  While it is certainly true that many innocent civilians amongst the Palestinians are deserving of our sympathy and support, it is equally true that their misery has largely been caused by their own leaders.  The Palestinian leadership has ensured that those who were instructed to run from their homes when the State of Israel was declared in 1948 (despite requests by the Israeli government for them to stay), have remained refugees for more than 6 decades.  This has been designed to ensure that this issue remains a thorn in the side of the international community, in an attempt to milk any sympathy and support that can be gained.  The original 700,000 refugees have turned into a problem affecting 5 million people today.  All of this, linked to the fact that the peace talks to achieve a two-state solution have not progressed at all, have generated a certain sympathy for the Palestinian cause.  This sympathy has somehow been translated into justification for the acts of terror committed against Israel.  It is almost as if Israel is considered to deserve the terror it receives, because of the ongoing inability to reach a satisfactory compromise solution to create a Palestinian state.  It is almost as if Israel deserves whatever terror she is forced to endure, simply because she insists that any agreement for a two-state solution will ensure her security in future years.  It seems as though terror is only terror when it is not directed towards Israel.  Israeli-style terror seems entirely justified, in the eyes of the international community, as a fight for freedom or a fight against the so-called occupation.

What makes this even more absurd is when the Palestinians take complaints to the International Criminal Court, charging Israel of war crimes that are alleged to have been committed in an operation to protect her future existence and the safety of her citizens.  How can it be that prosecutors in The Hague are even spending a minute examining these claims?  After living through incessant rocket fire directed towards innocent civilians for years, surely Israel is entitled to eventually strike back to protect her innocent citizens?  And when doing so, if she takes every precaution to prevent civilian deaths despite the ongoing efforts of the Palestinians to throw civilians in the path of the military crossfire, should it not be the Palestinians who are accused of war crimes?

The branches of the same tree referred to by Prime Minister Netanyahu are certainly not of equal size and weight.  Israel has been forced to endure terror attacks for years, which have been randomly carried out against any and all sectors of her society.  Without meaning to dilute the enormity of attacks carried out and lives lost in the process, terror attacks elsewhere in the world have been of a much lower number and intensity than those that Israel has been forced to endure.  Despite this, there is the commonly-held view that Israel has somehow invited these attacks, and that they are justified.

The fact that Palestinians have been offered the opportunity to set up their own state in Gaza and the West Bank, the conditions of which far exceed the starting point that the State of Israel was offered 66 years ago, seems to be ignored.  The Jewish people demonstrated what is possible when there are good and true intentions to build a country and a nation, even with scraps to start with.  Out of these scraps, a prosperous country has been built which holds her own and takes up a justifed position in the family of nations.

The world's lack of link between the Islamic extremists operating in Israel, and those operating elsewhere, will be at its peril.  Israel has become a world leader in combating terror, and has experience and expertise that other countries will be needing in due course.  Ignoring or diluting the terror threat that Israelis constantly live under, will not give Israel much incentive to join in to assist others who suddenly discover the real nature of this plague.

Je Suis Israel!

Sunday 11 January 2015

Elections - Threat or Opportunity?

Israel is headed towards another general election, a little more than 2 years after the last elections.  The fact that Prime Minister Netanyahu's government was unable to complete even half of its scheduled 4 years in office, is clear indication of the difficulties that continue to plague governing the Jewish state.  It also shows the lack of agreement that exists among the population in dealing with the key issues.  Problems relating to security, to the economy and to the Palestinian issue are top of the agenda, and are also the most divisive issues.  The prime minister was simply unable to keep his disparate coalition functioning as a government, as each party in the coalition pursued its own special interests and agendas.

Most vocal in protesting against the actions and policies of the government have been Finance Minister Yair Lapid and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni.  Prime Minister Netanyahu effectively announced his inability to manage his coalition by firing both ministers from his government, and giving a clear signal that elections would be his only alternative.  Once the election was formally announced, the prime minister acknowledged that he had been forced into the coalition with Livni and Lapid after the last election, and that his coalition was unmanageable almost from the beginning of its term.  This statement surprised many voters, and brought into sharp focus the almost impossible situation that Israeli politics finds itself in.  The issues that form the base of the election platforms are substantial, and some are even life-threatening in the determination of the future safety of the State of Israel.  The opinions on each issue are as diverse as the issues themselves.  While a split of voter opinion is a fairly standard occurrence in many western democracies, in most cases the split seems not to disrupt the effective governing of the country by the chosen government.  While it is well-known that coalition governments are notoriously less stable than governments that are comprised of a single party, this should not necessarily result in a total inability to govern.  For some reason, the combination of issues that Israelis are forced to confront, along with a total split of opinion as to how to deal with them, results in an ungovernable situation.  Not only is this situation enormously frustrating for the average voter, it also creates lack of stability in the government and comes at huge financial cost to the country.  Israel has had 33 governments in its 66-year history

Having resigned ourselves to the fact that an election is now unavoidable, the question is whether this election can be used as an opportunity to somehow improve the situation in which Israel finds herself.  Does this election present a real chance for change, or are we likely to get more of the same?  And is there anything that the new prime minister and new government will be able to do to change the status quo?  Most Israelis are seeking for an election result that can change the situation, particularly the security situation.  Along with the security threat that the country faces, there is huge frustration over the economy and over the issue of Israel's standing in the international community, where Israel is increasingly isolated.

When considering the political parties in the Knesset and the way in which the public views them, it is difficult to see any dramatic changes coming about in the next election.  Prime Minister Netanyahu is seeking a fourth term in office, and is currently looking like the only electable candidate for the office of prime minister.  Labour leader Isaac Herzog is doing all that he can to present himself as a viable alternative, but opinion polls show that he has been unsuccessful so far in reaching the Netanyahu's level despite these efforts.  He has little to show for his term as leader of the opposition during the last Knesset, and voters are sceptical about his ability to achieve anything as prime minister.  He is being roundly criticised for the concessions that he made to attract Tzipi Livni and her Hatnua party into a joint list with Labour, given that opinion polls showed that Livni was running the risk of not gaining even one seat in the next Knesset.  The question is being asked as to what concessions Herzog might make on behalf of the State of Israel if this is how he behaved with Livni?

The only political leader who has really enhanced his reputation and his standing in the last Knesset session was Naftali Bennett, leader of the Bayit Hayehudi (the Jewish Home)  Party.  Bennett succeeded in securing 12 seats in the Knesset in 2013 as a new party, which was a significant achievement.  Since then, he has presented himself as a voice of the people - somebody who is prepared to say out loud the things that many people are thinking but not saying.  He was, however, not really fully tested in the last Knesset session.  As Minister of the Economy, Bennett had the opportunity to make his views known without having a responsibility for which the public held him accountable.  It is expected that he is likely to increase his number of seats in the Knesset at the next election, and will have a position with greater responsibility in the next government that is likely to test him to a much greater extent than was the case until now.  For the upcoming election, Bennett is not presenting himself as a prime ministerial candidate.  It seems that he is setting the scene to be a possible prime minister following the next election, providing he can continue his ascent on the political ladder.

The three Arab parties that sat in the Knesset during the last session find themselves at an interesting crossroad.  In total, the Arab parties secured 11 out of the 120 Knesset seats.  This is despite the fact that Arabs represent around 20% of the Israeli population.  Even more concerning for Arab Israelis is the fact that two of the three Arab parties will not sit in the next Knesset if they don't increase the number of votes that they attract.  While they exceeded the election threshold of 2% that was set for the last election, they are well below the threshold of 3.25% that has been set for the 2015 elections.  This has driven the Arab parties to hold talks about the possibility of combining their lists in order to continue to secure at least the number of seats that they have held until now.  The Arab parties represent different constituencies of voters, each of whom believes in a different way of responding to the split identity that they have.  They wish to find a balance in supporting their rights as Israeli citizens, as well as responding to the Palestinian issue and Palestinian terror against Israel.  The different opinions on these key issues for them are also what is making it difficult for them to combine their lists.

The increase of the election threshold from 2% to 3.25% for the 2015 election is an attempt to somehow reduce the number of parties in the Knesset, and thereby also increase the stability of future governments.  There were a total of 12 parties represented in the last Knesset, and 13 if you split out the combined Likud - Yisrael Beiteinu list.  There were more than 30 parties who contested the elections, showing just how diverse Israeli views are and how many special-interest issues there are to be considered.  While this allows democracy to work in a more idealistic manner, it also creates great instability in the government.  Any reduction in the number of parties that this brings about will not be enough, however, to avoid the need to construct a coalition to rule after the election.  Prime Minister Netanyahu has recommended further amendments to create greater governing stability moving forward, but none of these will be in operation after the next election.  It seems doubtful as to whether greater could be achieved even after implementing the changes.

While the election issues are interesting, and some are critical for Israel's future security, safety and survival, there is no evidence that we will have greater governing stability during the course of the next Knesset, or even thereafter.  Some parties will come and some will go, but the main issues confronting Israel and its system of government seem to be with us to stay for now.  It seems that we will also have to live with the system that contributes to instability in the government, and accept that even the next government is unlikely to last the full distance under these circumstances.  The fact that there are so many special-interest groups and parties contesting the election, and substantial numbers of people to support them seem to point to more of the same in Israeli politics for now.

Israeli politics has never had a dull moment in 66 years, and the upcoming elections will be no exception.  At this juncture, there are many citizens of Israel seeking a little boredom in politics rather than more excitement.  If boredom spells stability, both in the government and in the security of the state, this would be preferred by many of the voters.  It seems, however, that more excitement lies ahead.