Thursday, April 30, 2009

Interviews With Israel's Foreign Minister

Two interesting interviews with Israel's new Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman have recently come to publication. One comes from the Jerusalem Post and the Other from an Austrian newspaper, excerpts of which were translated on the blog Kishkushim.

The JPost interview covered a range of interesting subjects, but was generally a softball interview. No overly difficult or challenging questions were asked. Basically, the interviewer, without probing too profoundly, had Lieberman give an overview of his position on a variety of Israeli international interests.

Lieberman expresses his clear support for a two state solution and that neither he nor his government have any interest in governing people (Palestinians) who do not want to be governed by Israel. He explains his view of peace making efforts to date by citing treaties with Egypt, Jordan and Oslo as proof of Israel's desire for peace while lamenting that the withdrawal from Lebanon (the first time,) and Gaza, as well as offers made by Olmert and Barak were met with violence--rockets, the second intifada and so on. Lieberman asserts that the cause of conflict in the region today has nothing to do with the so-called "slogans" of occupation, settlements and land for peace because, he notes, that violence and terrorism existed prior to the 1967 war in which the territory was occupied and settled.

Lieberman sets out his three key pillars for peace in the region, these are security--for the Israelis from terrorism and for the Palestinians from internal, sectarian fighting. The economy, especially for Palestinians whose unemployment rate and average income Lieberman deplores. A solution he suggests be remedied by creating situations where the Palestinians can have jobs and provide for their families (somewhat disturbingly, he mentions how settlements can be major sources of employment for area Palestinians.) The last point is stability something Lieberman does not elaborate on. He does, however, note that in his view, Hamas was elected as a response to a corrupt alternative and provided an option that would not only offer political representation, but had social services as well. His logic for strengthening the Palestinian economy is to deny Hamas the "social services" niche in which to operate and generate support.

A few other points made in the interview worth noting are Lieberman's preference for the West Bank "model" of relations with the Palestinians as opposed to the Gaza model--read: no unilateral withdrawals. He also states that the right of return of even a single refugee to Israel proper from the West Bank is, in his view, a non-starter for final agreement negotiations with the Palestinians. Again, disturbingly he cites Cyprus as the model to be considered in the region, one where [paraphrasing] 'Greeks and Turks lived together, and then the populations were concentrated in separate areas and now there's peace.' Hopefully, he's not talking about population transfers. Finally, Lieberman argues that he sees no benefit in negotiations with Syria who are demanding that Israel relinquish the Golan Heights captured from that country in 1967 before discussing peace.

The Austrian interview contains many similar points from Lieberman, or, at the least the highlights from the "quick and dirty" translation on Kishkushim does. Lieberman repeats his point that terrorism existed before settlements were built in the West Bank and that support for projects that can rebuild the Palestinian economy (as opposed to just proving money to the Palestinian people) will bring an improved economic situation and increased stability. He also makes the same points about Hamas and the reason for Hamas' election.

In much of what he says in these two interviews, Lieberman comes off sounding rather reasonable. A two state solution, check. Economic development for the Palestinians, check. Addressing core causes of conflict that go beyond the settlements, check. Security for Israelis, check. Nonetheless, he still gives the reader pause for some concern. No negotiations with Syria, his comment about settlements being sources of employment for Palestinians, the total separation he advocates in the Cypriot example are not exactly encouraging. Lieberman commented in the JPost that this new government would take the initiative in peace negotiations. Let's hope so, and lets also hope, as this blog suggested previously that until a clear policy is articulated by this new Israeli government, that Lieberman is still speaking for himself and that Netanyahu, the Prime Minister, remains the most authoritative voice and that Lieberman is still just one to keep an eye on.

Is Labour Crafty or is Charlie a Fool?

Ha'Aretz ran two stories today, each about a high ranking Labour party minister in the current Israeli coalition government.

The first article about Barak, the Minister of Defense reports that Barak thinks that Israel must and can make peace with the Palestinians in three years time. Barak posits that the leaders on each side were not too far apart in their positions. He also expresses optimism that on his first trip to the US, Prime Minister Netanyahu will tell Barak Obama that he supports a solution along the lines of two states for two nations. He cautions that if this solution is not finalized soon, the world could start losing interest in Israel and the Palestinians and end up promoting a single, bi-national state which would put an end to the worlds only Jewish state.

The second article about the Trade and Employment Minister Ben Eliezer also demonstrates optimism. After personal meetings with Netanyahu, Ben Eliezer is convinced that not only will Netanyahu pursue a two state solution with the Palestinians, but he'll also make strides towards peace with Syria. Ben Eliezer suggests that the current Prime Minister is a man reinvented, not like the previous Netanyahu, but a more relaxed, perhaps even more liberal minded man.

One hopes that Barak and Ben Eliezer are correct in their assessments and that this new government, whose policies have still not been fully formulated will adopt a position based on a two state solution, some arrangement on Jerusalem and on the "right to return" for Palestinians. A cynic, however, cannot overlook the possibility that these optimistic comments are merely a play at domestic politics.

Both men come from the Labour party, harshly criticized for joining up with the likes of Likud and Israel Beitaynu. In the absence of a clear government policy, this optimism may really be more about publicly stating their expectations and putting Netanyahu in a position where to say anything else could make him look foolish. Labour may be backing Netanyahu into a corner. If the predictions are accurate, then great, that's good news. If they are inaccurate, however, Labour can say 'this is not what we signed up for, not what you lead us to believe, goodbye.' Such a step would not kill the coalition, but would make it very shaky indeed.

So, these rosy predictions may not be founded on what these Labour politicians expect, but rather what they want. This may be less about fact and more about political manipulation. Be it a crafty ploy or an earnest belief, Barak and Ben Eliezer paint a nice picture of the future. It would be good to see them succeed.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Share That Water!

In an upsetting report produced by the World Bank, produced at the request of the Palestinian Authority, it seems that Israel is withdrawing 50% more water from underground water sources (aquifers) than it is entitled to and perhaps even more than should be permitted in order to sustain and preserve the aquifer.

The Jerusalem post wrote about the World Bank Report here, but you can read the lengthy report itself, here. Admittedly, I have only read a few sections of it myself. It is quite long, but the executive summary is here.

The article raises a few points which are worth highlighting.

The first is the amount of water used by Israelis as opposed the amount used by Palestinians which amounts to four times more water per capita for Israel than for Palestinians. It is not unusual that a developed country like Israel would use more water per capita than a developing area like the Palestinian territories. The question thus becomes, what are Israelis using this water for? In an arid region, especially one that faces a water shortage crisis as the region currently does, non-essential uses of water ought to be curtailed to the maximum.

There is currently no international regime which guarantees the right to water as a human right. One of the reason for this legal lacunae is that the scope of the human right to water is unclear. Is water used for industrial uses which ensures jobs included in the scope of a human right? Or is the right limited only to needs for basic physical survival and sanitation (cooking, drinking, cleaning)? The answer is unclear, but it is hard to justify people on one side of a line basking in a swimming pool while within eye shot, people barely have enough water to tend to crops or livestock required for their survival.

The point is, Israel seems to be withdrawing more than their fair share of water, and if that water is going for uses other than basic ones, then it is Israel's responsibility to find other sources of water (desalinization, better conservation, recycling of runoff and other uses of grey water) to compensate for this loss or to live a lifestyle that requires less water. This is not to say that Israel does not already do a good job of water conservation. indeed, Israel has been a pioneer in--for example--agricultural methods which minimize wasted water, such as drip irrigation. Obviously, however, it's not enough, and the solution is not to take water which has been allotted to someone else. Which points towards the second point worth highlighting.

The report criticizes the Joint Water Committee (JWC)--established by the Oslo II peace agreements between Israel and the Palestinian Authority--for not being a fair arbiter of the amount of water being withdrawn by either party. The JWC was set up by Article 40(11) of Annex III of Oslo II. It has ten specific functions outlined in the Oslo II agreement, but the basic theme of these functions is to enhance cooperation and coordination of water sources required by and in the territory of both parties. In short, the World Bank report suggests that the JWC is a failure. It points out how Israel has a veto over water projects in the West Bank (similarly, the Palestinian Authority also has a veto as per Oslo II, but the report does not phrase it this way) and, as a result there is an imbalance of power as it tends to be Palestinians who are placed in urgent situations that require immediate authorization and under the framework of the agreement, action cannot be taken without Israel approval. This is undoubtedly an institutional weakness of the JWC.

The JWC is not unique in the world for its joint management of transboundary water sources, examples such as the International Joint Commission (IJC) which operates in the Canada US context is highly successful but mainly because the institution is respected by both Canada and the US. For a number of reasons, both Israelis and Palestinians view the JWC with a dose of suspicion and so the organization, which is founded on principles of cooperation, cannot function effectively. On the other hand, the JWC has produced documents like this one, which pledge to keep water a separate issue in times of violence. This is an important recognition of the point that both sides absolutely require water and it is in the interests of both to cooperate and preserve the aquatic resources in the region.

This idea of water interdependence is captured well in this interesting draft final agreement on water by a regional NGO dedicated to both promoting peace and protecting the environment: Eco Peace Friends of the Earth Middle East. Again its a long read and perhaps worthy of it's own posting here on "Thoughts: A Buck Each" but it's interesting to see this kind of work being done and to note that serious consideration is being given to the resolution of this issue and concerned people on both sides are working towards finding solutions, not just pointing fingers.

If the World Bank report is correct (there is no reason to assume it's not, but Israel has yet to respond to it) it's deeply troubling to see Israel is not only taking water to which it is not entitled, but may be using up groundwater at rates that are not sustainable. Oslo II does provide provisions under which one party can buy water to which they are not entitled from the other. It's unclear if this is happening. If it is, it would considerably diminish concerns over Israel's use of water to which it is not entitled. In all cases, one hopes that since no institution wishes to commit suicide, that the JWC will, upon reading this report ramp up its efforts at coordination and cooperation and begin to make itself useful in resolving some of these problems. If not, hopefully committed, well-intentioned people on both sides who depend on this water will make efforts to communicate their concerns to their political leadership.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Thoughts on Durban II From Someone who was There

Below is an e-mail my friend David Grossman sent me after spending time at the Durban II Anti-Racism conference.

""I feel angry... I feel uncomfortable being here today."

Esther Mujawayo was sitting at a conference table in the basement Room XXVII of Building E in the United Nations compound in Geneva. It had been over 15 years since, in 1993, she named her child "Peace," fully expecting the worst of the Rwandan massacres to be over. A UN contingent with 2500 troops was already partially deployed in her country. She thought she and her family would be moving on with their lives. And yet a year later, over 800,000 people would be killed in 3 months. Her family would be murdered almost entirely, leaving only her and one daughter to survive.

Esther was speaking at a "side event" at the Durban Review Conference (DRC). While official state contingents were elsewhere, NGOs and other organizers assembled a series of speakers - including genocide survivors and witnesses like Esther - to tell audiences about the most pressing issues of racism and intolerance of the day. These included the genocide in Darfur, the execution of children and torture of political prisoners in Iran, and the denial of necessary aid in Zimbabwe ("the cheapest way to carry out a genocide").

Esther told her audience about a "miracle" in Rwanda. A boy was slashed, his eye gouged, and left for dead. His injuries were so severe that no doctor in Rwanda could help him. With complicated surgeries and rehabilitation in Europe, he was - years later - able to return to Rwanda.

When he returned, the man who originally assaulted him was still there. The man confronted him and threatened him again. The victim was forced to leave his home once more, and seek safety back in Europe.

Victims who spoke at many of the side events and "counter-conferences" shared a recognizable trait: cynicism. Esther is now, thankfully, a happy and fulfilled person; she is a psychologist working with patients suffering from genocidal trauma. But she is rightfully angry at the UN and the rest of the world for failing her, her family, and the victims of Rwanda. She tells us that she does not seek violent revenge against those who harmed her, but that when she smiles, she thinks to herself that her happiness acts as punishment for those who wanted her dead.

Gibreil Hamid is a Darfurian trying to get the genocide in his country to stop. A quiet man with an imposing frame, there were tears in Gibreil's eyes when he said: "People ask 'how long will it be like this?' Really, I have no answer..."

The symbolic grandfather of these survivors is Elie Wiesel. He spoke to an audience of thousands in the Place des Nations in front of the UN, in a moving Holocaust commemoration ceremony that took place on the same day Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad spoke as an invited guest at the DRC. Explaining how he had more optimism in the immediate aftermath of the Holocaust than he does now, Wiesel said simply: "The world has learned nothing." And in response to those who seek to draw meaning out of the Holocaust, he implored: "Antisemitism did not die in the Holocaust. The victims did." Antisemitism, he confidently believes, will never die.

This cynicism is more than a product of the genocides these survivors lived through. It is the product of a world that stands back while the genocide occurs. When she says, "I have problems with forgiveness," Esther contextualizes her comment not by calling out her family's murderers, but by expressing how it should have been possible for the international community to act so the victims could still be alive. Indeed Esther - who campaigns for victims of the Rwandan genocide to be offered help in putting their lives back together - and Gibreil - who knows that atrocity continues unabated in his homeland - are confronted with the reality of international inaction in their daily lives. Listening to his words, it is hard to believe that Wiesel is not haunted by it as well.

That said, because their voices were heard this week - even if not at the official DRC itself - there may be room for (very) cautious optimism. There is the distinct hope - if not expectation - that Durban II will be remembered years down the line less as a sequel to Durban I than as a conference with its own narrative -- Geneva I. Eight years ago, at the original conference in South Africa, the narrative of the conference was dominated by the antisemitism of the NGO forum; last week, in Switzerland, police intervened when antisemitic materials were distributed and offenders were thrown out of the conference.

Most important, many democracies drew a line in the sand at "Durban II." With Canada leading the way, states such as Italy, Germany, Poland, Australia, New Zealand, the United States and others boycotted the conference entirely, fearing - and through their actions helping prevent - a repeat of Durban I. 23 European countries and organizations walked out when President Ahmadinejad began repeating antisemitic tropes in his address, and the Czech Republic never returned.

Much had clearly changed since Durban I, which occurred in (pre-9/11) 2001. Events seeking to remedy not only the antisemitism of Durban I, but also the original conference's manifest inability to study the true struggles of the day, were held. Jewish groups helped organize a rally for Darfur as all participants chanted "Never Again." The next day, a survivor from Darfur who escaped to Israel spoke at a parallel conference, and then joined Darfurian protesters at the pro-Israel rally that followed.

It's still hard to tell whether the struggle for human rights took a step forward or not in Durban II. But at the very least, it didn't seem to take a step back."

Thanks to David for sharing his thoughts with me and allowing me to post them on my blog.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Lawfare and Political Pressure to Limit UK Arms Sales to Israel

In the wake of the operation in Gaza MPs in the UK are calling for a review of the relatively small amount of military equipment the UK sells to Israel. The UK has indicated that all weapons sales to Israel will now be reviewed with the Gaza conflict in mind.

One of the UK MPs involved in this campaign against arms sales to Israel asks rhetorically, "What does Israel have to do to be subject to an arms embargo..."

Similarly, in older news and another example of lawfare, in February as the Gaza campaign had just ended a group of Palestinian families and organizations has brought a case against the UK for continuing their arms sales to Israel while Israel was engaged in what has been called an illegal war. To decide this case the courts will need to rule on the legality of the Israeli operation in order to determine if the sales ought to have been suspended. The UK foreign ministry has called the petitioners claims inappropriate for decision by a UK court.

Limiting arms sales to countries in conflict or to a party waging war against unarmed opponents could be an effective way of preventing conflict. What the UK MP campaigners ignore and what the case brought to the UK courts don't account for is that Hamas continues to be armed and continues to make attempts to indiscriminately kill Israeli civilians and that these thousands of rockets over many years was the cause for the Israeli operation in Gaza. If the UK was also supplying arms to Hamas, or if there were no weapons of any kind in Gaza or if Hamas had not been attacking Israel then the UK could suspend any arms sales to Hamas as well and then without arms, both parties would have a much harder time fighting each other. The reality is, Hamas continues to re-arm and Iran continues to supply weapons to Hamas and Hizbollah both of whom continue to threaten Israel.

The consequences of these decisions in the UK may have little tangible impact in the short run because even if UK arms sales to Israel drop off, they are not necessarily critical to Israel. On the other hand, they could set the dangerous precedent that when a country strikes back against an irregular army that has been attacking it, that country can face sanctions even as its opponents continue to resupply themselves.

Opportunity for Israel-Kuwait Peace Aborted

A Kuwaiti journalist, Salah Bahman, running for a seat in that country's parliament has suggested that Kuwait should have full and beneficial bilateral relations with Israel. The reason for this, he says, is that: "Israel is a reality and has international influence... Kuwait would benefit from Israel's influence if we establish relations" and that relations with the west would be improved by such a normalization. He also said, tellingly perhaps, that he did not fear for his life after making such statements--even talking about peace with Israel could get him killed, it seems.

This could be a positive development. Kuwait shares no borders with Israel and while it has no diplomatic relations and a state of war (likely) exists, peaceful relations between the two countries would probably not do much to benefit either. It is not as though either Israel or Kuwait are in a situation where their armies are fighting one another. What could result, from the Israeli perspective is a new market from which to purchase oil. Kuwait could also be a test-case for other Arab countries. If Kuwait were to receive real benefits from peace with Israel (perhaps an even more enhanced relationship with the US or Europe) maybe other Arab states in the region would see the advantages reaped by Kuwaitis and follow suit. Israeli-Kuwaiti peace would be a potentially significant gesture, however, with few (at least immediate) benefits to either country.

It's also noteworthy that Mr. Bahman is not interested in peace because he thinks that Israel has a right to exist, or because Jews have a right to sovereignty in their ancestral homeland. Rather it's about the benefit to Kuwait. Naturally, as a Kuwaiti, this should be his prime interest, but these other factors to not even enter into his reasons for recognition of Israel, not even as a tertiary justification.

All this became moot, however, because the day after Mr. Bahman suggested that relations would be of value, he withdrew his candidacy. In a radio broadcast in Kuwait Mr. Bahman simply backtracked on his statements and then withdrew from the race. The real reasons for this about face are unclear and may never be known, but if anyone out there has more knowledge of Kuwaiti politics or other information, it would be very interesting to hear. One hypothesis may be that public response to the suggestion was too overwhelmingly negative. Apparently, just prior to the dissolution of parliament a bill was proposed banning any dealing with Israel and imposing penalties on violators. Also, the Kuwaiti government has repeatedly stated that it will be the last to make peace with Israel, which may be tough because they'll have to jostle for last place with Lebanon.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Remembering the Holocaust in the West Bank

The village of Na'alin in the West Bank now has a Holocaust museum. The founder of the museum a lawyer named Khaled Mehamid convinced the Hamas affiliated mayor of the village--who had no idea how many people were killed in the Holocaust--to allow the museum to open. The museum, paid for out of Mehamid's own pocket, will soon receive Palestinian students and is in part aimed at overcoming the absence of any explanation of the Holocaust in Arabic (including at the Israeli Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial which only recently began providing information in Arabic.) Mehamid also commented that his motivation was that "I believe that only by learning about the Holocaust and understanding the magnitude of the tragedy can there be peace and security."

Mr. Mehamid doesn't just talk the talk on Holocaust education. This is at least the second museum he's opened, another one being in Nazareth in 2005. Mr. Mehamid is paying a price for his work in Holocaust commemoration. His own brother was at least temporarily estranged from him because of the work he's done, and some Arabic press has gone so far as to suggest that he may have a mental illness because of his interest in the Holocaust.

Nonetheless, his dedication is steadfast. Mr. Mehamid was even invited to Iran to participate in that county's Holocaust denying conference where he was to be one of two speakers arguing that the Holocaust did actually occur. His invitation was rescinded, however, when it came to light that he had an Israeli passport.

Time magazine even dedicated space to Mr. Mehamid and explained how he first came to realize that the Holocaust is important to Israelis after a visit with his children first to the Security Barrier being built by Israel and subsequently to Yad Vashem. On his own website Mr. Mehamid tells this story which appeared in Time and provides some more insight into the political rationale behind his work. It is certainly worth a read. Nonetheless, some of Mr. Mehamid's comments in this article and a quote from him in the Time article linked to above:
"...we Palestinians are the victims of the terrible things that were inflicted
on the Jews by the Holocaust...If an Israeli child dies from a Gaza rocket,
the Israelis can take a photo of that child to America and remind Bush of
the 1.5 million Jewish children who died in the death camps, and Bush will
give the Israelis more money and weapons to use against us..."
give some pause and merit closer inspection.

It's a falsehood to suggest that Israel exists because of the Holocaust, that the Holocaust is the prime driver of Israeli policy or that the Palestinians suffer because of the Holocaust.

Israel, and the Zionist movement that lead to its creation had its earliest appearance in its modern/political form (and this distinction is relevant because culturally and religiously, Jews have mentioned a return to "Jerusalem" and "Zion" at pretty much every Jewish holiday for thousands of years) in the 19th century, well before the Holocaust. Political Zionism was a response to centuries of persecution, unequal treatment, pogroms, and expulsions directed at Jews. Indeed, Herzl, the "father" of modern Zionism was influenced by the scapegoating and the trial of Dreyfus, a French army officer wrongly accused of and punished for espionage. The Holocaust was the worst, most blatant example of this type of persecution. It's true that Israel was founded after the Holocaust, but not because of the Holocaust.

What of the Holocaust being the reason for Palestinian suffering or influencing Israeli policy? The implication that Israel was founded where it was arbitrarily, or that Palestinians were being made to suffer because of the Holocaust is also false. Why was Israel founded where it was? The answer is, because Jews have always looked to that part of the world as the birthplace of Jewish culture and indeed the Jewish religion. That's where the first Jews came from. It's where the first Jewish state (or at the time kingdom) ever existed. It's because Jews are indigenous to Israel.

There should be no question that the situation of the Palestinians in the occupied territories needs to change. No question that the situation in the territories are untenable, but this is not because of the Holocaust. If Israelis are security obsessed it's because their neighbours have called for Israel's destruction. It's because Palestinian leaders and the leaders of neighbouring Arab states have called for Jews to be driven into the sea. It's because Israelis have seen suicide bombers and all manner of terrorist attacks. It's not the Holocaust that elicits an Israeli security response, it's the actual threats and actions from Israel's neighbours.

The only place where the Holocaust may creep into Israeli policy making is that it has taught Israelis to be aware of threats made against them and to take them seriously. Perhaps the single greatest lesson taken from the Holocaust is that threats must be taken seriously and that someone says they are going to kill you, they mean it. As Canadian member of parliament Irwin Cotler has said on many occasions, the Holocaust began with words. This lesson was sadly repeated in places like Rwanda, where nobody believed that racial tension would actually erupt into genocide. In this regard, with respect to Iran for example, where the Iranian leader has called for Israel's destruction this lesson of the Holocaust, of the seriousness of threats, looms large in the consciousness of Israeli decision makers and should, be a lesson that resonates around the world.

Returning to Mr. Mehamid, whatever his motives (and they may be misplaced) his efforts are laudable. Right or wrong about the influence of the Holocaust on Israeli policy, the collective histories of Israelis and Palestinians are now inseparably intertwined. Mehamid is undoubtedly correct that each group would do well to learn the history of the other. Kudos to Mr. Mehamid for taking bold steps in the right direction.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Holocaust Analogy Fallacy

Gideon Levy, a regular columnist for Ha'aretz and one who I do not always agree with wrote a piece which for the most part embodies exactly what I think about some of the more insidious criticisms or attacks leveled at Israel: that Israeli presence and actions in the occupied territories are somehow comparable to the Holocaust and the Nazis.

Levy writes:

"In Europe, this designation is becoming more and more common. The IDF are
Nazis and Israel is a Nazi, Jews afflicting unto others all that was done to

A large part of the world's leftists - many of whom consider themselves to be
friends of Israel, some of them even Jewish - see the Israeli occupation as
a manifestation of renewed Nazism.

I reject that comparison with anger and contempt. It is incorrect,
horrifically infuriating and harmful to the just Palestinian cause. The
occupation is cruel enough, and while comparison to the Holocaust not only
cheapens that historical memory, it also undervalues the crimes of the Israeli

There is no one absolute evil. Comparison between the Israeli occupation and
Nazism is like comparing an elephant to a fly. What do they have in common?
Practically nothing."

Yes! Thank you for that Mr. Levy, but take it somewhat further. The fact is, that comparisons between the Nazis and the current state of the Middle East reflects a grave misunderstanding of one, both of these historic/ongoing events. What the Nazis did to the Jews, the Gypsies, Homosexuals, the Infirm, Jehovah's Witnesses, Poles, Soviets, Communists and anyone else they didn't like has not since been repeated in scale, organization, institutionalization or quantity since nor had anything like it taken place before. Yes, the evil required for the Holocaust was not unique, it's been seen in Turkey, Rwanda, Bosnia, Cambodia, Uganda, today in Darfur and in many other less known but equally shocking and abhorrent instances, but what the Nazis wreaked has never been repeated upon anyone else. Therefore, it is disingenuous and inaccurate to compare almost anyone or any group to Hitler or the Nazis, especially when the comparison is made when dealing with more trivial matters. Such comparisons are simply wrong and weaken the arguments of those making them. Hearing such comparisons raise the flag that any argument being presented in the same breath as a comparison to Nazis could be fallacious not only because it reports to mere name calling, but that it attempts to draw a false, emotional connection between the hatred and evil of Nazis with the target of the argument.

The inappropriateness of this comparison (with the exception of people who call themselves Nazis) ought to apply to everyone including, and again I agree with Mr. Levy on this point, Israelis who make this claim about others and even about their own Israeli political opponents.

Perhaps Levy should have a chat with the Iranian involved in yesterday's outburst at the Durban conference where he called the crowd protesting against him zio-nazis. That would be a good place to make this important argument. In many ways, making this case in Ha'Aretz is preaching to the choir.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Durban II: Can it get Worse?

Durban II just gets more and more difficult to watch.

After his hateful remarks from the podium of an anti-racism conference, where he repeated the antisemetic lie that Jews somehow seek to control the world and after diplomats from most democratic countries present walked out of the auditorium in protest Iranian President Ahmadinejad still doesn't really understand that he did anything wrong. Instead, he argues that the boycott and walkout during his comments had nothing to do with anything he said, but rather with the "arrogance and selfishness" of those who walked out. The man simply does not understand how hateful his language is. He simply does not understand that the democratic countries that walked away from him abhorred what he was saying because it was false and was the antithesis of what they hoped to accomplish in their racism conference. Perhaps the only truly arrogant one is the President himself, who thinks that a racism conference put on by the UN should only deal with what he perceives to be racism. Maybe he thinks his own arrogance was washed away or tempered by his dropping of language that explicitly denied the Holocaust from his speech.

In other news from Durban...Long before the conference ended, delegates passed the Durban II document which was the reason Canada and other countries boycotted the conference because this document reaffirmed Durban I which not only singles out Israel from all states in the world for criticism but specifically brands it as a racist state. Moreover, the new document was further limited by countries like China which refused to have any mention of racism against Tibetans included in the document. Some good news came in the form of the document calling for the enduring memory of the Holocaust which is an important message to the whole world about the consequences and evil of intolerance, ignorance and hatred. Nonetheless, predictably, the Iranian delegation fought to minimize references to the Holocaust in the document.

In perhaps the most shocking and despicable incident to take place at the conference so far a crowd of people protesting against Ahmadinejad's presence at Durban II which included Holocaust survivor, author and Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel, were screamed at by a member of Ahmadinejad's entourage and called "Zio-Nazis." To begin with, watching a diplomat, or a representative of his country break into such impassioned, hateful name-calling must be interpreted as evidence of the intellectual bankruptcy of his position. Such a childish, school yard type degeneration into name calling by a representative of a state must shock sensibilities. A slur like Zion-nazi is so difficult to respond to because it's difficult to know where to begin in the dissection of such a horribly offensive term (especially when hurled at a Holocaust survivor.) The confluence of Zionism and Nazism, two antithetical views of the world is an implication that one is equal to the other. That a representative of a country could spew such hate and falsehoods is a blight not only on him, on the country he represents but also on any international organization or state which continues to grant this person diplomatic immunity. Switzerland and the UN should both immediately invoke article 9 of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations to declare this hatemonger persona non grata and deny him access to any further official UN functions. David Scharaub's headline for a post on this guy says it best.

The Speech that Caused the Durban Exodus

Thanks to Lirun and his blog "East Med Sea Peace" for posting the full text of the President of Iran's speech yesterday at the UN Durban Anti-Racism conference.

It's truly an amazing read in that--hateful rhetoric aside--it reflects a very simplistic understanding of the world and of history. It's sort of like reading a the history essay of a grade 7 student who had done all their research online and only found websites like "Jew Watch" and "Stormfront" (I refuse to provide links to these sites) or who had only read the protocols of the Elders of Zion. An alternative analogy is that reading this speech is the intellectual equivalent of wading through a sewer.

Fortify yourself before reading.

Dramatic Durban Diplomacy

Today, everyone and their brother who has a blog seems to be writing about the dramatic events surrounding the President of Iran, Ahmadinejad's address to the UN conference against racism. Thoughts: A Buck Each will hop into this blogging bandwagon because it's an interesting subject, and because there are thoughts on it to be shared.

In a nutshell, this conference, intended to address global problems regarding racism was addressed by the Iranian president who, after being interrupted by protesters in clown wigs said amongst other things that "Israel was a "most cruel and oppressive, racist regime," which was created from the "pretext of Jewish suffering" during World War II..." At this, in a rare, dramatic diplomatic moment, on par with Adelai Stevenson's famous 'I know you understand me, don't wait for the translation' during the Cuban missile crisis, dozens of diplomats could be seen rising and streaming out of the room en masse.

Reaction to this spectacle was swift. The current president of the EU, the Czech Republic indicated they would not be sending their delegates back for the remainder of the conference while others made forceful statements calling Ahmadinejad's comments "shameful," "intolerable" and generally roundly criticizing them. Most notable perhaps is the statement released by Ban Ki Moon, the UN Secretary General who released a statement which can be found in full here. In a nutshell, Ban Ki noted that he had warned the President not to be inflammatory, that this was a conference to combat intolerance, that divisiveness was unhelpful and that the UN has long since disavowed the Zionism=racism slander. As David Schraub (whose blog carries the full text) correctly points out, when the diplomatic niceties are filtered out of the Secretary General's comment, the message is about as scathing as it could be.

Ban Ki Moon's messaging was somewhat less nuanced than Navi Pillay's, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. While Ms. Pillay strongly condemned the content of Iran's statements she also argued that not only did he have a right to speak at the forum, but that delegates should not focus on this one intervention and that in any event, walking out of the room was not the best way to respond, that it would have been better to have gone on record correcting the Iranian President. With regards to being unable to stop Ahmadinejad from speaking, since he is a head of state and this was the UN, Ms. Pillay is likely correct. It ends there though. This was a speech by a head of state, the only one to speak at the conference. On the first day of an anti-racism conference, the tone was set by his hateful remarks. They may not be the focus of the conference, but they were an appetizer that leaves a sickening taste in ones mouth, ruining the meal. As for the 'correctness' of walking out, this too was the correct decision. The impressive sight of these diplomats streaming out of the room caused the President to pause. A clear message was sent to him that his views are unwelcome and so reprehensible that even though what he will say is predictable, it's not even worth hearing. Also, walking out does not preclude any state from going on the record with their comments, as they clearly have. Furthermore, it is difficult to imagine that interventions at a conference like this one, would suffice to change the mind of a person like Ahmadinejad. His views seem so deeply entrenched and so contrary to widely available fact that it's unclear that anything could change them.

In Israel, the target country for much of Ahmadinejad's ramblings, his comments, notably that the Holocaust was a "pretext" for the creation of Israel (incidentally, look at the exact definition of the word pretext. It would be interesting to know if this is the exact meaning of the word used in Farsi. If so, and if Ahmadinejad knew this precise meaning, it almost implies that the Holocaust was staged so that Jews could have Israel) were particularly closely noted.

For starters, after the Swiss Head of State met with his Iranian counterpart in what was officially merely another display of Swiss neutrality, Israel recalled their Swiss ambassador. More significantly, however, is that fact that the night the speech was given in Geneva, Israel, and Jewish communities around the world, began their commemorations of Yom Ha'Shoah--Holocaust remembrance day. Both the Israeli Prime Minister and Presdident mentioned Ahmadinejad's comments and the conference itself in their remarks at Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust memorial.

None of what took place today could really have been unexpected. In fact, earlier, when there was discussion of a reformed, more acceptable draft resolution to be produced by this conference, this very blog expressed concern that something exactly like this would happen. Ahmadinejad has never kept his views secret. Given that it would likely be impossible to prevent a head of state from addressing the UN, and given that it was known that he would speak and that his comments were predictable, it is interesting that the countries that walked out of the meeting had been there in the first place. They should have been able to predict that a walk out would take place if, after all, they knew that certain words would be a signal for them to leave. In this light then, this walkout appears to be a staged diplomatic drama. Something that was easily foreseeable and could meet the (mostly European States' who walked out) desire to be seen to be engaging and working with the world as well as their principled position to brook no hatred from the podium. In effect, this may have been the outcome foreseen from the moment the decision not to fully boycott the conference was made.

What is perhaps an even more chilling coincidence, is that on the day of Holocaust remembrance, and on the day that racism and hatred go forth from the podium of a conference intended to combat these very phenomenon, neo (and not so neo) Nazis everywhere are celebrating Hitler's birthday.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Israeli Supreme Court

Israeli Supreme Court President, Dorit Beinisch, gave a talk at Princeton recently on the challenges that face the Israeli Supreme Court.

Media that covered the talk focused on how the judge commented that international law was not properly equipped to fight terror. This problem stems from two major issues. First, there is a lack of an internationally accepted legal definition of terror. Treaties such as the UN International Convention for the Suppression of the Financing of terror does make reference to any "...act intended to cause death or serious bodily injury to a civilian, or to any other person not taking an active part in the hostilities in a situation of armed conflict, when the purpose of such act, by its nature or context, is to intimidate a population, or to compel a government or an international organization to do or to abstain from doing any act." This language, however, does not constitute a definitive definition of terror (certainly there are circumstances that do not fit within this definition that could be called terrorism) and not all countries have signed on to such a definition.

A second reason that international law is not yet prepared to deal with terrorism is that much of international law is aimed at state actors not at non-state terrorist groups. Terrorists that do not wear uniforms, that are from non-state organizations or are from territories that are not signatories to international treaties cannot be prosecuted under the regime created by these treaties. Take, for example, the Rome Statute which creates the International Criminal Court (ICC.) To be prosecuted by the ICC one of three conditions need to be met:
"--The accused is a national of a State Party or a State otherwise accepting the
jurisdiction of the Court;
--The crime took place on the territory of a State Party or a State otherwise accepting the jurisdiction of the Court; or
--The United Nations Security Council has referred the situation to the
Prosecutor, irrespective of the nationality of the accused or the location of
the crime."

What this means is that members of a group like Hamas, for example, which is not a state at all, which is not on territory accepting jurisdiction of the court (even if one accepts that Gaza is occupied by Israel, it makes no difference as Israel does not accept jurisdiction of the ICC,) and which has not been referred by the UN, will not be subject to the jurisdiction of the court.

The Israeli Supreme Court's solution to this gap in the law, according to Beinisch, is to take the existing international legal framework on international human rights law--which, as it is written is generally intended to apply to conflict between states--and interpret it so that the general principles, the so called spirit of the law--is still applied in the war on terror. Beinisch in her comments (all 82 minutes of which can be viewed here) highlights a few examples of how the Israeli Supreme Court has conducted such interpretations. The examples she provides are ripped from some of the most controversial headlines in Israel: the questions surrounding targeted killings of terrorists, administrative detention of combatants, the security fence and the most recent military operation in Gaza.

The whole 82 minutes are worth watching for anyone interested in the Israeli supreme court. It not only discusses these interesting and controversial issues, but also explains the uniqueness of the Israeli Supreme Court (for example, it has jurisdiction by right, meaning all petitions before it have a right to be heard, a fact which results in over 5,000 cases per year and that when a petition relates to human rights before the Court is is always justiceable) and the Israeli procedure for judicial appointment.

The short guide to the video is as follows:

At or about 24:30 the discussion that international law does not work properly when applied to terrorism, begins. The first example presented at about 26:00 is the case of targeted killings and that the court reviews these on a case by case basis. Four criteria must be met. There must be strong evidence of the persons active involvement in terrorism and that removing them could save lives; there must be no other less harmful options available; every effort must be made to reduce harm to innocent civilians and an after-the-fact independent investigation must take place each time.

At about 30:30 there is a discussion of administrative detentions.

At about 40:50 there is a discussion of the security barrier. It is explained (43:50) how the test used in determining the legality of the fence is the proportionality principle and it was found that the lives that could be (and actually have been) saved by the fence outweighed the inconveniences to some. At 46:30 or so it is explained how the Court examines each and every section of the fence to be constructed and that security experts are required to explain why the fence is built the way it is every step of the way.

From about 50:00 to her conclusion (at around 58:40) the speaker describes some of the questions that the court faced surrounding the most recent operation in Gaza. These include questions of supplying Gaza (the duty to supply was upheld 56:10.)

The most interesting thing to take from the judge's talk is that one gets the sense that the "terrorism" related issues faced by those on the bench of the Israeli Supreme Court are more than merely academic. In Canada, when the Supreme Court rules on certain rights for people convicted of various crimes, the judges themselves are not necessarily directly impacted, on a daily basis, by their decisions. In Israel--and Beinisch refers to this when discussing the security barrier--the decisions on terrorism made by these judges literally affects their lives and the lives of people they know on a daily basis. Nonetheless, these judges have made rulings which, in some ways, hamstring the Israeli security apparatus and could, quite literally put the lives of their own acquaintances at risk.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

US Ship of State: Middle East ENGAGE!

US Special Envoy to the Middle East Mitchell just finished a series of meetings with Israeli PM Netanyahu, Foreign Minister Lieberman and Opposition Leader Livni. Some of the comments to come from these meetings, and some of the comments that didn't come at all are worth mentioning.

For starters, the US position on the Israeli Palestinian conflict was clearly articulated. The solution will be the creation of two states, a secure Israel living next to a Palestine in peace and security. Interestingly, Mitchell made reference to two states for two peoples and that Israel is and ought to be a Jewish state. Israeli officials held up this language as indicating that a final settlement's treatment of the right of Palestinian refugees to return will not actually be satisfied by a physical return--which could undermine the Jewish character of Israel--but rather by some form of compensation for them to settle in a newly created sovereign Palestine.

Netanyahu conveyed three messages to Mitchell in their discussions about Palestine. He emphasised that Palestinians must recognize that Israel as a Jewish state. He expressed a desire for peace but insisted that Israeli security concerns must be prioritized in any peace agreement. In making this point he rejected a policy of unilateral withdrawal from occupied territory with what may become a new Israeli slogan no "Hamastan in the West Bank." Finally, Netanyahu suggested that in negotiating peace countries like Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia should be brought into the fold.

This last point is interesting because traditionally, Israel has leaned on its friend and ally the US to support it in negotiations with its neighbours, this may be the first time an Israeli leader is suggesting that other Arab states be involved, especially one with whom Israel has no peace: Saudi Arabia. Why? Well, Netanyahu's stated position is that these states have a common fear of Iran and Iranian proxies (read Hamas and Hizbollah.) Nonetheless, this doesn't mean that any Arab country would be more sympathetic to Israel than they would be to Palestinians, why would Israel invite in parties that could work against it in negotiations? The answer may be an elementary political science question of balancing versus bandwagoning. The choice is to sign up with Palestinians to balance Israel and the US's negotiating power or to get on the bandwagon of states opposed to terrorism conducted by Hamas in Gaza. The reality is, with the US watching Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia could have to choose between siding with moderate Palestinians in the West Bank and Hamas. It is difficult to imagine them choosing to adopt any position that could bolster Hamas, especially when their own governments fear any Hamas style or inspired group appearing on their own territory. In other words, bringing these other Arab states into the fold could have the automatic effect of further isolating Hamas, which in itself, is not a new Israeli policy.

It is also worth noting that Netanyahu did not respond to Mitchell that Israel also seeks a two state solution. Not because Israel doesn't, but because it seems, from the meeting with Lieberman, that they just don't know, the exact term used was that there was an ongoing "policy review." Despite not having a clearly articulated policy, Lieberman was unequivocal that a change in policy was needed and that in his view, concessions (such as withdrawing from Gaza) don't work. Lieberman, like Netanyahu also stressed the need for international support for Israeli security.

The most interesting statements, the one about bringing other Arab states into the peace process came from Netanyahu, not Lieberman. In fact, Lieberman seems to have offered nothing that Netanyahu hadn't already. This could be a sign Lieberman talks tough when he's asked to and/or when he wants to, but the real shots and important messages are being called/delivered by the Prime Minister.

The leader of the opposition, Livini, in her meeting with Mitchell argued that time was of the essence in these peace negotiations and that the longer the diplomatic track stagnates, the more likely it is that the violent one will be taken up. Historically, there's some truth to this as the second intifada, for example, began after Arafat rejected the Camp David offer in the Clinton years.

In the meantime, as the "policy review" continues, Netanyahu continues to walk the difficult tightrope he's on, which is now complicated by the US attention and pressure to see some progress and movement on the diplomatic, peacemaking front. This analysis from the Jerusalem post explains the challenges Netanyahu faces from within his coalition. It concludes, however, that despite Lieberman's tough talk, Netanyahu's dependence on Labour in his coalition binds him to the roadmap for peace and guarantees that at the very least, he'll have to talk the talk. Walking the walk...still yet to be seen...

Thursday, April 16, 2009

The Netanyahu Show Ought to Begin, Brought to you by Lieberman

In an interview on Russian television, the Egyptian Foreign Minister Gheit said that he would not deal with his new Israeli counterpart, Lieberman, nor would Lieberman be welcome in Egypt" long as his positions, which we have seen before, remain as they are." Gheit did, however, say that his government would continue to work with the Israeli Government, only, not with the Foreign Minister.

Gheit was not exactly clear which of Lieberman's positions he was talking about. The new Israeli Foreign Minister has made comments which ought to be of concern to anyone hopeful for peace in the region and to anyone interested in a just Israeli society. For example, there have been comments about rejecting the Annapolis peace process, about the President of Egypt taking a trip "to hell" if he refuses to visit Israel (even though Israeli leaders visit Egypt,) that in the event of a war between Israel and Egypt, that Israel should bomb the Aswan dam and he has suggested that everyone in Israel be required to sign a pledge of loyalty to the state before being allowed to vote.

Gheit was most likely referring to comments vis-a-vis relations with Egypt, bombing the Aswan dam and the rejection of Annapolis. Lieberman may have just been talking tough to appease the constituency that voted for his party. He may also be the spokesman for the Prime Minister, Netanyahu's id, saying what, for diplomatic reasons, the Prime Minister cannot say himself. In either case, Lieberman is doing an excellent job of isolating and alienating himself from his counterparts in a major regional power and the most important Arab state with whom Israel has friendly relations. Friend's do not always need to agree, but when they don't, it's probably best not to hold a grudge and continue to antagonize. Lieberman is supposed to be Israel's top diplomat. It's time for him to start behaving like a diplomat and to recognize how his actions may be damaging to an important strategic relationship.

Another interesting point to make is that the latter scenario presented above: that Lieberman is Netanyahu's attack dog, is not likely a theory accepted by Egypt. In fact, Gheit's language suggests that Egypt is making a clear distinction between the policies of the Israeli government and Lieberman in that they will continue to deal with the former even as they shun the latter. This could have a number of consequences for relations with Israel, but most importantly, it offers Netanyahu, or the Israeli government as a whole, to demonstrate through words or through deeds that Israel will continue forward with its peacemaking efforts and that peace in the region remains the end goal.

Netanyahu has never refuted Lieberman's comments, neither has he publicly censured nor sanctioned them. Similarly, the Israeli Foreign Ministry has not responded to Gheit's latest remarks. Either way, Netanyahu is now walking a diplomatic tightrope--or at least about to start walking. One of his most important regional partners no longer wants to deal with his foreign ministry, he has to appease varying constituencies within his coalition and he needs to demonstrate to the world that Israel remains interested in peace. It's an unenviable position and the "show" on the tightrope will be interesting to watch.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Hellishly "Hot Returns"

For years, Refugees from the Sudan and other points in Africa have been trying to cross into Israel as refugees, mostly across the Egyptian border. Egyptian soldiers generally try to shoot anyone fleeing across the Egypt-Israeli border and arrest and detain those they capture. This eye-opening letter published in Ha'aretz explains the challenges these refugees face not only in Egypt, but also in Israel which, though it does not shoot at refugees, is not exactly stellar in its official treatment of them.

Of particular concern is a practice known as "hot returns." Basically, a "hot return" is when a person is caught trying to cross the border and is then immediately returned to the country from which they have just left. In effect, it means a person is not given full opportunity to demonstrate whether or not they deserve to be protected as a refugee and walks a very fine line between being able to protect sovereign borders and determine who can and cannot enter the country and violating the principle of non-refoulment which says that a person must never be returned to a country where they could face (amongst other things) death or torture.

Israeli civil rights and refugee rights groups have been actively advocating against the "hot return" policy. This has included (failed) injunctions before Israeli courts and letter writing campaigns to the President of Israel, specifically in response to the return of over 40 refugees to Egypt (some of whom were abused while in Egyptian custody) and protests. Israeli policy is to interview all "infiltrators" (as those who cross the border are called) within three hours of their crossing of the border during which time individuals may choose to declare themselves to be refugees (if they know to do this.) It's unclear exactly what these interviews consist of. In the judge's decision denying an injunction against "hot returns," the fact that, during their interviews, none of the people returned to Egypt claimed that they were refugees was grounds to deny their entry. An argument that, on the face of it, seems to deny these people the proper forums and procedures to demonstrate their status as refugees.

As the letter in Ha'aretz points out, and as elaborated on the author's blog, refugees who are lucky enough not to be returned to Israel have a hard time finding work and making a life for themselves. This being said, documentation (really interesting, by the way) by Human Rights groups in Israel show that some improvements have been made in the asylum process in Israel since 2002, but these changes fall short of sufficient. So long as those who make it to Israel alive face the possibility of being returned to Egypt, where they may face imprisonment or torture, or even be returned to the Sudan where they may face death, something has to change. So long as cases like this one, where documented asylum seekers in Israel were told they needed to wait for their hearings in jail, continue to occur, something needs to change.

There are refugees from Darfur who live in Israel, who are learning English and Hebrew, and who intend to build lives for themselves in Israel. There are also over 7,000 asylum seekers who do successful cross into Israel. This does not, however, excuse turning back, at the border, those who may face untold dangers to life and limb without due process. Travelling in Israel it was encouraging to meet teachers of some of these refugees from Darfur and to see that something, officially or unofficially, was being done to help them. Reading the accounts from refugees and human rights activists about the hardships faced and this difficult to justify and illegal "hot return" policy, however, was eye-opening and unsettling.

The situation is far more complex than this short post indicates. It touches on questions of international law and human rights which alone could be the subject of a volume. What should be taken away is that Israel is in a position to assist hundreds if not thousands of people fleeing war and genocide and does not seem to be doing all it can. Those who make it into the country face obstacles above and beyond what an ordinary immigrant may face, those stopped at the border face a violation of their rights. Anyone interested in this matter should take the time to look through the links in this post. There is a great deal of interesting information available on the subject.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

A Strange Season to Talk About Hebrew in Egypt

(Hopefully) one of the themes of this blog, insofar as it discusses the Middle East is to report on what may be lesser known stories of bridges towards peace in the region. Mutual understanding and connections at the grassroots level, as opposed to merely the political level will be crucial in building a lasting, meaningful, mutually profitable peace to people on all sides of the conflict. Eisenhower once said: "I like to believe that people in the long run are going to do more to promote peace than our governments. Indeed, I think that people want peace so much that one of these days governments had better get out of the way and let them have it."

On the anniversary of the Israel-Egypt peace treaty, this blog noted how little there was in the way of cultural exchanges between Egyptians and Israelis. It's true that these exchanges are few in number, but this week the Israeli paper Yediot Ahronot carried a story about an exception to this dearth in cultural relations. An Israeli cultural center in Cairo has, since its founding in 1982, been offering Egyptians the opportunity to learn Hebrew and gain insight into Israeli culture and history. It seems that (for varying motives, including required study for graduation) many Egyptian students do actually learn Hebrew.

An article that appeared in 2007 in the newspaper the Forward offers more detail about the work of the "Israeli Academic Center in Cairo" and includes an encouraging quote from an Egyptian participant at one of the centres lectures. A quote one hopes is contagious:
“We come here to encourage peace, I think my presence is a proof of peace…. What is not accepted today, it will be accepted tomorrow.”

Despite this optimism, the center's director Mr. Rosenbaum notes the heavy security required at the center and that visitors to the center and attendance at lectures fluctuates based on the prevailing regional political climate and more specifically, Israeli activities. The lesson here is that a peace treaty does not guarantee peace. It means that the sentiments of the populations in Arab countries with whom Israel enjoys peaceful relations are still subject to Israel's behaviour and improve and worsen in accordance with the prevailing political winds.

Nonetheless, Mr. Rosenbaum's attitude is encouraging:
"When you get to know a place, when you get to know the people, when you get to know the culture, you see that there is nothing to be afraid of. And that's what we do here at the academic centre."

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Unfortunate Israeli Expertise

Israeli news agencies are dedicating considerable coverage to the recent earthquake in Italy in which around 280 people were killed and many more left homeless or injured.

Israelis are also interested in the natural disaster because one of their own, a 23 year old medical student Hussein Hamada from the northern Israeli town of Kabul was killed when his dormitory collapsed during the earthquake.

Another reason for interest is that Israel has offered to send search and rescue teams to Italy to help with whatever work needs to be done. Italy has accepted Israeli help which, if it is not already on the ground, will be dispatched shortly.

In trying to determine exactly who from Israel will go to Italy to support recovery and disaster assistance efforts it was interesting to note that Israel actually has two, highly trained search and rescue agencies. The first, is linked to the military and serves under the "home guard" command. The website linked to above is simple, but clicking around on the links brings up some interesting information about the capabilities of this unit and the types of work they have done to date.

The second agency is actually civilian and volunteer search and rescue team that has operated not only domestically in Israel, but around the world, one would imagine in conjunction with or as a supplement to the military team. From the short description of this group provided and the accolades they have received, this agency, known as F.I.R.S.T. appears to be a uniquely qualified highly trained organization. Perhaps most interesting about F.I.R.S.T. is that it is part of a larger network called IsraAID, an Israeli humanitarian aid group that seems, for a country with modest resources, to do important work is some far-flung locations.

In the case of both the military and civilian search and rescue teams from Israel, both were born out of conflict and a need for the ability to quickly extract people from buildings destroyed in bomb blasts and they like. They also both stand out as having assisted in disasters all over the world and seem to show little regard for politics when offering their assistance. For example, this older article mentions how Israeli help was turned down by Iran after the devastating earthquake in the city of Bam.

It's unclear whether Israeli civilians or only military will be participating in the Israeli assistance to Italy. In either case, it is noteworthy that a small country with relatively limited resources somehow manages to offer its assistance to other, even wealthier countries and to note how an expertise developed from conflict pays dividends in the humanitarian and diplomatic realms.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The Nobel Peace Prize--A Medal of Courage

A medical doctor from Gaza who works and was trained in Israel and who lost three daughters in Operation Cast Lead has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.

Amongst the statements made by this doctor that are not what one may expect to hear from the father of children killed in war, especially such a protracted conflict as the Palestinian-Israeli one is:
"I have two options - the path of darkness or the path of light. The path of darkness is like choosing all the complications with diseases and depression, but the path of light is to focus on the future and my children. This strengthened my conviction to continue on the same path and not to give up."
That this doctor has chosen not to regress into hatred and vengeance and that he chooses to strive for reconciliation and peace despite what he has endured is truly laudable. It should be hoped that others in his situation, where the departed loved ones be combatants or civilians, would behave the same way.

Dr. Ezzeldeen Abu al-Aish has been nominated for the prize and he likely faces tough competition before winning it (though lists of nominees are kept secret for 50 years, so it's difficult to know who he's up against.) Dr. Abu al-Aish, however, is not the first person to react the way he did to losing close family in war. Notable other examples include this NGO which seeks to bring together the bereaved relatives of those who have been killed on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Another, perhaps better known, example is Mariane Pearle the widow of the journalist Daniel Pearle kidnapped and beheaded by terrorists in Pakistan in 2002 who in an interview after her husband's death said:
"...ultimately - what happens is violence brings more violence. And these people who have killed Danny you know they breed out of this violence - they use ignorance. We have to fight this ignorance."
The criterion to be awarded a Nobel Peace Prize is very general, the prize goes to the person a committee of five Norwegian members decides: "...have done the most or the best work for fraternity between the nations and the abolition or reduction of standing armies and the formation and spreading of peace congresses..." It's not exactly clear that Dr. Abu al-Aish meets this criteria, the same could be said of M. Pearle or the NGO linked to above. Perhaps all such people--bereaved families of victims of war who (and this is critical) choose to strive for peace and reconciliation--from conflict zones around the world could jointly accept the prize. Or, if it's more practical, perhaps Dr. Abu al-Aish could accept the prize as a representative of such people. Dr. Abu al-Aish's attitude is exemplary and reflects great strength. Unfortunately, he is not the only one to have such an experience and others who have shown courage similar to his merit recognition as well.

Monday, April 6, 2009

A Settlement Settlement

Credit where credit is due to David Schraub for highlighting this interesting story from the Jerusalem Post on Israeli settlements in the West Bank. The article is about settlers who, the article claims, would voluntarily pick up and leave the West Bank for Israel proper if they could be assured of fair compensation when they exchange their inexpensive land in the West Bank for a more costly life within Israel proper. David's analysis focuses on the fact that many of the settlers in the West Bank live there for practical, not ideological reasons. He makes the comparison to North American suburbanites who trade expensive urban living for large inexpensive tracts of land away from the hustle and bustle. This is an accurate analogy and the settlers that fall into this category are referred to by Israelis as "quality of life" settlers, as opposed to the religiously motivated "ideological" settlers who, by some accounts, make up only 20% of the entire settler population.

David also correctly points out that the settlements are perceived to be a serious obstacle to peace in the region. This is why having settlers leave voluntarily rather than in a dramatic confrontation, as was the case when the settlements in Gaza were removed, is preferable for multiple reasons. Not only does it make the removal of settlements easier and ensure that the majority of settlers left are the extremists, but by having the settlers leave, and discouraging them from returning will mean fewer people to defend, fewer targets for terrorism, fewer soldiers needed to guard them, less friction between Israelis and Palestinians and another demonstration that Israel is capable of removing the settlements in the interests of peace.

The angle David's interesting post doesn't delve into is the "how" to get these settlers to leave voluntarily when for many of them, the financial cost of leaving makes it unrealistic. The "how" would be a bill proposed in the Israeli Knesset known as the "Evacuation-Compensation" bill which was first presented in April, 2005 and has been languishing in legislative purgatory in the Knesset since then. According to the proposed bill, the Israeli government would take possession of the homes of settlers in the West Bank, compensate them, seal off the houses to prevent them from being occupied by new settlers, and then, in a final peace settlement, the homes could be sold.

The plan sounds encouraging, and received support from both the US and the EU. The problem is, it is deeply divisive within Israel. In 2007, then Prime Minister Olmert expressed support for the bill, but because of the fear of parties supported by the "ideological settlers" bolting from his coalition, even Olmert's support did not result in much traction for the bill. Those parties that count on the settlers for their political lives, and who themselves are settlers, suggested that such a bill would not only be a rejection of religious ideological values, but would reflect capitulation to terrorism, and that Israel may as well offer compensation to residents from Kassam-stricken Sderot, within Israel proper.

Many other questions have been raised about the bill as well. In terms of the application and final iteration of the law, nobody is sure which settlers will be entitled to compensation. Will it be anyone living beyond the pre-1967 borders, or only the settlements that Israel does not hope to keep in a final peace settlement with Palestinians? Will compensation for the settlers be fair enough so as not to create the significant social problems any country would face by suddenly absorbing thousands of new residents into its cities? Can Israel afford this compensation, or will it need to come from abroad, and if so, from whom? There is also concern that by diminishing the size of these settlements in advance of a final peace negotiation, there is the implication that Israel is ceding its control of these areas without actually negotiating for them; a semi-unilateral withdrawal, so to speak. This could harm Israel's negotiating position.

The fact remains, however, that settlements are perceived as a major obstacle to peace. Pragmatists in Israel realize that most, if not all settlements will need to be evacuated and in some cases, this will need to be done by force. There is also the Israeli domestic concern of "the day after" an evacuation. This is why the Israeli government should be considering how to ease this transition now. The concerns that Israel is ceding control of parts of the West Bank are easily dismissed: if soldiers are there, there's still control, all that's happening is that Israel is planning ahead to ease the transition for these settlers and at the same time is demonstrating to the world, clearly, that they are interested in removing settlers. If 25% of settlers would be willing to leave their homes in the West Bank immediately (and these are only the ones who would move right away, as opposed to those would would be willing to leave, just not right away), provided they are fairly compensated, then the benefits of this bill in its ability to move closer towards peace outweigh the concerns and its critiques.

Nonetheless, the bill is stalled, but based on the facts, not indefinitely. It's true that the current Israeli government is supported to a degree by the settler movement. Even the new Foreign Minister lives in a settlement. Nonetheless, the Foreign Minister has stated that he would be ready to peacefully leave his home if he knew it was part of what would be a lasting peace. The current Israeli government, however, is not one that would be naturally predisposed to the compensation bill. In fact, the two Knesset champions of the bill Colette Avital and Avshalom Vilan (a founder of Peace Now, whose name, incidentally, means father of peace in Hebrew) no longer sit in the Knesset.

All hope should not be lost though. The bill was also supported by Ehud Barak and the Labour party. Barak now sits in the government and has stated that he hopes to be able to moderate the government's position and pull it away from the settler movement. Furthermore, the former Minsiter of Justice Haim Ramon now sits in the opposition Kadima party and has been a forceful advocate of the bill. This creates a situation where there are supports for the bill both in the government, in the opposition, amongst the general population and amongst all but about 20% of the settlers themselves. At the risk of being overly optimistic, though the bill languishes, it is certainly not dead.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

More on Avigdor and the New Israeli Government

There was strong reaction from the Israeli opposition party, Kadima, to the inaugural speech by Israel's new foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman.

The outgoing Israeli Prime Minister, Olmert, was quick to make statements shoring-up his legacy by indicating that the Annapolis peace process--which Lieberman dismissed as non-binding to Israel--was indeed crucial as it marked the first time that representatives of Arab countries tacitly recognized the political fact of Israel simply by their attendance. More scathingly, the outgoing foreign Minister, Livni, commented that Lieberman had wiped out all efforts towards peace in just 20 seconds of his speech. She called on the new Prime Minister, Netanyahu, to disavow Lieberman's statements and has been critical that he so far has not.

An editorial in Ha'aretz worries about the costs Lieberman may have on Israel. It points out that even if Lieberman's comments are nothing more than talk, by "outflanking" the Prime Minister on the right, he risks alienating those around the world who may not wish to be associated with his positions, and this is support Israel may ultimately need.

The reason Netanyahu is not being more critical of Lieberman's comments is likely due to the fact that Lieberman's party is needed to keep Netanyahu and his Likud in power. If Lieberman bolted from the coalition government, or felt alienated and filibustered governance as a result of public criticism, the Israeli government could collapse, or, simply be paralyzed. Netanyahu has to play a careful game of allowing Lieberman to speak to the constituency that voted for him, without appearing too critical or allowing the world to believe that every extreme statement Lieberman makes is necessarily reflective of the Israeli government. Certainly, they are not, for two reasons.

1) In the first cabinet meeting amongst various domestic priorities, Netanyahu put advancing peace high on the agenda. If Lieberman seeks to prepare for war, Netanyahu, at least by the agenda of his first cabinet meeting, seems to be thinking peace.

2) Ehud Barak and the Labour party. Though he's been criticized by his own party for joining the government, Barak by his own words says he does not feel that he properly fits into the current Israeli government and is there as a moderating voice. It's his Labour brand of politics that prevents the 18th Knesset from drifting down a path away from peace.

Herein is the rub. Netanyahu needs Lieberman more than he needs Barak. This means that all the reining in of Lieberman will need to be done behind the scenes. Barak can help, and it was probably a good move in a helpful, peaceful direction, to have included Barak in the government. This means though, that the somewhat unpolished and unhelpful statements from Lieberman may continue until Netanyahu can crack the whip and keep his foreign minister in line. In the interim, however, it should be remembered that final decisions are made by Prime Ministers, not Foreign Ministers. For the time being, the words of the experienced statesman, Netanyahu, carry more weight than his politically necessary sidekick, Lieberman.

A Kick in the Right Direction

One of the most popular soccer/football teams in Israel, Hapoel Tel Aviv (not to be confused with Maccabi Tel Aviv) has initiated a program to bring Israeli kids and Palestinian kids from East Jerusalem together to allow them to each meet the players on this popular team and then to play together. The idea of the program is to allow this kids to know one another, have fun together all with the goal of reducing stereotypes that they may form about one another as they grow.

Considerably more information about the programme is here on the team's education and social projects' page. What's interesting to note is that not only is there such a programme for these children, but that the team also runs a similar one for special needs children. Beyond that there are also details of the great efforts officials from the team and their Palestinian counterparts are making in bringing tournaments involving Israeli and Palestinian children to communities on both sides of the green line (the pre-1967 Israeli borders.)

These programs are similar to ones carried out by NGOs like "Seeds of Peace" or "Right to Play" which bring together Israeli and Palestinian children at an annual summer camp and provide safe environments for children to play sports in, respectively. The Hapoel Tel Aviv project seems to take the best of both worlds and brings together these children--close to home--to play sports with each other, as opposed to Palestinians playing only with other Palestinians or Israelis playing only with other Israelis. The Right to Play website offers some statistics on the real impact this type of participation in sports could have on children and it is encouraging. Ideally, programs like this will receive widespread support not only from local authorities, but from the parents of the children and from national and religious leaders.