Monday, February 1, 2010

Israeli Model Makes "Sports Illustrated Swimsuit" Cover

Mea culpa.

My apologies for having been absent for so long. I was and still am quite swamped with a number of personal obligations had had neither the time nor the energy to post. I still am not fully free, but as an apology of sorts, I offer this "lighter" post.

I hope people will continue to check in for when I can finally get back to writing again.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Geert Wilders: The Extremist or the Victim?

I received an e-mail the other day with an interesting article and an even more interesting question attached. The article was actually a speech by a member of the Dutch Parliament, Geert Wilders given in New York. When I read the speech, I could barely believe that it was an accurate transcript and so I looked it up, and indeed it seems to be authentic. The whole speech is here and I encourage you to read it before I get to the interesting question.

Having read the speech, you'll see that Mr. Wilders is obviously very concerned about Islam. He has little nice to say about the religion or its followers and paints a picture of a Europe being overwhelmed by populations of foreigners with no interest in integrating into Europe who may, eventually come to seize political power and then be in control of some of the worlds most powerful militaries and weapons. If this argument sounds to be extreme, apparently, it is not, and is even being championed, to a large part, by pundits, like Daniel Pipes.

So now the question that came with the article asked by the person who sent it to me: "Is this the Jew warning about the Nazis, or the Nazi warning about the Jew?"

Now, to be clear, I'm not suggesting that either Mr. Wilders, or Muslims are Nazis. The term is used here to highlight the question of whether this is the extremist who may be fanning the flames of racism, or is this truly a victim sounding the alarm? The reason I ask this question is because I really have no idea.

When I first read the speech, I could hardly believe it. It seems very extreme and I am frankly not even convinced that all the information in it is true. For example, his claim that the Holocaust is not taught in some schools for fear of offending Muslims is, at least in the case of the UK, not true. Some of his other claims, about not teaching Muslim children about farms seems equally outlandish, but I don't know if it's true or not. His fears of Muslims watching television channels from their countries of origin also seems natural to me and not a reason for concern and I have no problem with a school, even a public school, offering Halal food to their students if that schools happens to be in a predominantly Muslim area. His arguments about Muslims taking over the governments of European countries also seems completely absurd and the likelihood of each "step" in the gradual takeover he foresees just seems...outlandish. To be frank, even if every word of the speech were to be true, I would find it difficult to accept that such a speech was motivated by anything other than a profound xenophobia and scarcely concealed racism.

On the other hand, I do take Mr. Wilder's point about immigrants who arrive in a new country recognizing that the values and lifestyle of their new home may be different than what they are used to and that adaptation is necessary. Certainly, national values and mores change with demographics and populations, but there are core values of different countries that need to be respected and it seems reasonable to say to new arrivals that they are free to carry on as they wish within the confines of the laws and constituting principles of their chosen home. I think this is really the only point on which I feel comfortable agreeing with Mr. Wilders but I am willing to be persuaded on the matter and hope this interesting question will generate some interesting comments.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Israeli Minister in the United Arab Emerites

In the words of Minister of Infrastructure Uzi Landau, a splinter has been made in the ice of Israeli relations with the United Arab Emerites (UAE) as he became the first Israeli minister to visit that country. The minister was attending a conference of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) held in Abu Dhabi and was only actually allowed into the country because of UAE's agreement to let all members of IRENA attend.

It is difficult to see how this visit, which was for the purpose of attending an international meeting, and which saw the minister confined to his hotel for much of his visit is a "splinter" in the ice. Minister Landau suggests that because he was in UAE discussing common interests in renewable energy there is a basis for further discussions on issues of common interest. The reality, however, if that he was not in the UAE to speak to the Emeriti government but to speak to an international conference. Indeed, the UAE was firm that Landau's presence at this meeting did not represent the start of Israeli-Emeriti diplomatic relations.

On the other hand, Israeli delegations (at lower levels) have been to the UAE to attend previous meetings of IRENA and it is difficult to imagine that there were no bilateral meetings of any kind between visiting Israeli officials and their hosts. If even for the purpose of negotiating the logistics of Israeli participation in the meeting, contacts must have taken place at some level. Perhaps it is these, initial low-level dealings, combined with the mutual interests of renewable energy that Landau claimed to be his splinter.

Certainly, there is no ill that could come from the Minister's visit to the UAE and if the result is a low level relationship such as the one with Oman or Qatar, even over time, then the crack in the ice of relations between these countries will widen. There is no obvious reason for the UAE and for Israel to be enemies. Hopefully, Landau is right and his visit could be one of the first chips away at the stone.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Israel's Diplomatic Humiliation of Turkey Garners Mixed Reactions

The "pages" of the major Israeli online media sources are filled today with opinion and reporting on the recent humiliation of the Turkish Ambassador to Israel and the subsequent series of apologies issued by Israel.

Some of these articles highlight the apologies made by Israel and the statements made by individuals like Israeli President Peres who seems emphatic that this sort of humiliation was not the way Israel conducted its diplomacy. Others more forcefully opined that the author of the embarrassment, Ayalon, should resign for having caused the tension and having given the Israeli diplomatic corps the black eye they he did.

Some articles are unapologetic. For example, Ayalon himself is convinced that his actions will change the tone of Turkish rhetoric about Israel, especially that of the Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan. Erdogan has been a particularly vocal and harsh critic of Israel and seems to prefer to cool, rather than warm, relations between his country and Israel. This naive approach, which the Israeli foreign ministry itself disagrees with assumes that now that Erdogan realizes how Israel really feels about insults he will tone down his language. This is frankly a ridiculous proposition as it has changed Israel from the aggrieved party to the offending one. Erdogan, and other diplomatic opponents of Israel, have a whole new realm in which they can criticise (and with good reason) Israeli behaviour. How does Ayalon think Israeli diplomats will now be received? How does he think foreign diplomats in Israel will interact with the foreign ministry? Certainly feelings of trust and friendliness will not be reinforced.

Others writing in support of the humiliation argue that given the harsh rhetoric from Ankara against Israel, and given that the episode in question was meant to express concern over an offensive Turkish television programme, Israel should show more self confidence and not worry about offending those that have offended it. Still, a weak argument. This is a question of how Israel conducts its relations and how it seeks to achieve its diplomatic goals. For a deputy foreign minister to behave this way seems to--but hopefully does not really--speak to a rot in the effectiveness of Israeli diplomacy. As the old cliche goes, one catches more flies with honey than with vinegar.

Some of the articles also point to domestic political considerations as the real reasons behind the spectacle of senior diplomats from Israel humiliating those of another country. For example, given that the deputy foreign minister is one of the parties forming the Israeli government, he needs to consider his domestic audience, and the opposition has called him on playing with Israel's strategic position for cheap domestic points. Points that probably were not scored.

The point is also made of the fine line that Israel needs to walk with Turkey. This line is balancing taking a firm position in response to the harsh criticism it faces from Turkish officials, but in so doing, remaining cautious about offending the Turkish people, with whom the Israeli people have generally close ties. The act of humiliating a Turkish envoy, which is receiving media play all over the world, and undoubtedly in Turkey, could jeopardize these important ties and place the Turkish population firmly behind its government in the adoption of a harsh stance on Israel. Still though, all is not lost. Official ties between Israel and Turkey continue and deals, such as the one for military drones, move forward.

Time will be the judge as to how much this incident really hurts Israeli-Turkish relations and indeed on the reception and effectiveness of Israeli diplomacy in the future.