Sunday, August 30, 2009

Increased Trade: A Step in the Right Direction

Independent of Netanyahu's calls for economic peace with the Palestinians or any action the current Israeli government may have taken towards this goal, trade between Israel and the West Bank appears to be healthy and growing. Between 2006 and 2008, the value of trade between Israel and the West Bank seems to have increased approximately 28% and was (in 2008) apparently worth over $3.8 billion. It also appears that in 2009, this upwards trend was continuing and that it applies not only to domestic trade with Israel, but also to goods shipped to the rest of the world through Israeli ports.

The above was presented in a report at a conference held between Israeli officials and 40 or so Palestinian business people from various industries near the Allenby Bridge, where much of this trade comes across. This report has been difficult to find online, so it's unclear exactly what it says. The same is true of the identity of the Palestinians present, this would be interesting to know to get a better picture of who is directly involved in this increased trade.

No doubt aware of the increased trade, it will be stimulated by Netanyahu ensuring the Allenby crossing is open for longer periods to increase the volume of trade which passes through it.

All of this is good news on many levels. For one, peoples that have beneficial trading relationships are less likely to want to fight one another and disrupt this trade. It is also, hopefully, an indicator that things in the West Bank are improving (indeed, these figures are being presented as evidence of Israel and the PA to weather the economic storm unscathed) and that ordinary Palestinians will benefit from increased economic activity as well as wealthier business people (this blog post recalls that corruption in the West Bank could see ordinary Palestinians deprived of the benefit of this trade). It improves the viability of a future Palestinian state with an economy not only tied to its neighbour, Israel, but to the rest of the world and finally, it creates real relationships between Israelis and Palestinians. It allows people to know one another, even if only in a business relationship, but allows them to realize that the other is just like them, out to make a living and do well for themselves and their families.

A good example of this last point is the new Israeli-Palestinian Chamber of Commerce (IPCC.) The first of its kind, and not quite one year old, "The IPCC is a vital tool that advances cooperation through dialogue both in the private and public sectors." Essentially, it's a way for Palestinian and Israeli business people to learn about the economic benefits of working with one another as well as the ultimate goal of creating peaceful cooperation between the two peoples.

Peace we be built as a result of the thickening and the density of the relationship between Israelis and Palestinians on all levels and in all facets of life.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Why Netanyahu Reminds me of a Canadian Rock Song

There's a song I like by Canadian singer Matthew Good called: The Future is X-Rated which has the lines:

"Ambition, ambition's a tricky thing. It's like riding a unicycle over a dental floss tightrope over a wilderness of razor blades. Ambition can backfire."

Since it seems that for the first time in a long while direct peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians are about to begin, Mr. Netanyahu's situation reminds me more and more of these words.

His ambition, as he expressed in his foreign policy speech, is peace for Israel, but he's sure going to have a hard time on his unicycle.

First, consider US demands for a settlement freeze. In London, Mr. Netanyahu recently met with Obama's Middle East Peace emissary Mitchell. In these talks, Netanyahu offered to freeze Israeli settlement activity for 9 months, with the exception of ongoing projects, projects necessary for normal life (such as schools) and the guarantee that the PA also take confidence building measures and that Israel be given a clear "out" from the freeze if things don't work out. Much of this is actually similar to the status quo where Israel has not approved any new projects in the last while, but ongoing projects continue.

Mitchell doesn't seem to have accepted this proposal as the meeting resulted in little more than a short press release and an article from the Guardian suggesting that Israel is trading the settlements for the US getting tough on Iran, a proposition that Netanyahu flatly denies.

Despite the settlements not being "frozen," a previous precondition of his for talks to take place, Abbas, the new President of the Fatah party leading the Palestinian Authority has agreed to meet with Netanyahu as soon as this September, in New York on the margins of the UN General Assembly meeting. If these talks take place, Netanyahu has noted that a new "core issue" (which usually referred to the status of Jerusalem, Palestinian Refugees, etc.) would appear on the agenda: that of Palestinian acknowledgement that Israel is a Jewish state. He also hinted that Saudi Arabia and other countries in the region have a role to play. For their part, Palestinians are playing the whole thing down, saying that Abbas has not dropped his preconditions at all and that these will not be negotiations, but just a talk. 'A rose by any other name...' Let them call it a boy scout jamboree, it's better than nothing!

Even as the US pushes for a settlement freeze, and the Palestinians maintain that it's a precondition for talks, numbers from a recent poll seem to show that many Israelis seem to be opposed to a settlement freeze in exchange for Arab states normalizing relations with Israel. These numbers, which seem monolithically opposed to freezing settlements put Netanyahu in a tough spot. (I also question the methodology of this poll. It seems the questions asked are rather leading and designed to produce a certain answer. It's also unclear where the 500 some participants came from. Were they all settlers, for example?)

Not only is he under pressure--according to this poll--from the people not to freeze settlements even as the US pushes him to freeze them, but one of his own, hand-picked, "superstar" members of the Knesset, Hotovely, held a conference of other like minded MKs to pressure Netanyahu not to freeze the settlements and to reject the idea of a Palestinian state.

Meanwhile, after being given a tour of illegal settlement outposts by Peace Now, other MKs from Labour, also part of the coalition, are threatening to rebel and potential cause the coalition to fall if labour MK and defence minister Barak cannot meet his promise to remove these outposts in the next few weeks.

So that wilderness of razorblades must be looking pretty scary to Mr. Netanyahu. The US, Palestinians, and Labour all push one way while the Israeli public (ostensibly), and his own party push the other. Keeping them all happy will be quite the trick and what he chooses to do and which of these actors will show flexibility in their positions first, is hard to tell.

I would not put any money on it, but my guess would be that the threat of losing his government to a Labour revolt as well as pressure from the US and the possibility of receiving no deliverables of any kind if he doesn't meet with Abbas will be the force that's hardest to resist. On the other hand, he is a Likud party member and the Prime Minister of a democracy, doesn't he have an obligation to these constituents as well?

Makes one wonder why anyone would want to be Prime Minister of Israel.

Noam Sheizaf has an interesting post on these latest developments here. His perspective is worth a look.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Cross Border Soccer Practice

Ynet news carries a story about a resident of Eilat (an Eilatian? Eilatonian? Eilatnick? No idea!) Dov Sheref who, of his own volition, contacted a school in Eilat and another one in Aqaba, Jordan (around 30 minutes from downtown Eilat) and with the help of several NGOs created a mixed Israeli-Jordanian soccer team. The Israeli children come from Rabin school in Eilat (in Hebrew only) and the Jordanians come from a private school: Rosary Sister's School.

This is one of several examples of Israeli-Jordanian "rapprochement" and bridge-building to occur amongst children on either side of the border all with the help of what seems to be an umbrella group, connected in some way to the European Union, known as AETP (Aqaba-Eilat: One More Step Towards Peace.) Along with their partners, AETP has organized bi national summer camps, drama groups and sporting activities, like the soccer side described in Ynet.

Projects like these are not original, see for example these earlier postings about joint Israeli-sports teams and summer camps, or this youtube video, distributed by the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs about an Arab-Israeli school in Jerusalem.
Unfortunately, however, they seem too few and far between.

Just as it is said that the hate filled copyright violations of Hamas' Mickey Mouse and Palestinian textbooks sow hatred, the argument cuts the other way as well--meeting each other, playing with one another and seeing the other as a real person with similar hopes and interests can help raise children who will find it more difficult to hate and want to hurt their peer on the other side of the line. Therefore, Mr. Sheref and his colleagues who are working to advance mutual understanding, friendship and trust deserve credit for their highly noble efforts.

The e-mail addresses of most of the individuals involved in organizing this project are available here and here, and here as well as here. If you have the time, a word of encouragement to them would likely be appreciated.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Erekat Speaks

Ha'Aretz published an online interview with Palestinian (PA) negotiator Saeb Erekat in which Mr. Erekat took questions from readers. I must admit, I'm somewhat confused by the relative brevity of the interview. As I write this, the website still seems to be accepting questions for Mr. Erekat and I just submitted one, but I'm not sure if he's really still there, it's 6AM his time!

Mr. Erekat answers six questions about 1) settlements, 2) stopping Palestinians with dual citizenship at Ben-Gurion airport, 3) the real chances of improvements for peace under Obama, 4) the impact of Hamas on peace efforts, 5) Israel as a Jewish state and 6) corruption in Fatah.

1) Erekat rejects settlements as incompatible with peace and argues that Israeli suggestions to annex the larger settlement blocks in exchange for other territory in Israel proper is "dictation, not negotiation."

Granted, this type of interview may not lend itself to going into detail, but Mr. Erekat does not explain why the question should be rejected on its face. Naturally, Israel will want to retain its settlements, if for no other reason than that removing them will be costly in every sense of the word. Palestinians naturally want land for a state, but do they want that land, or will any land do? Certainly, in this part of the world, the tiniest bits of real estate can have massive value and so yes, sometimes that land is crucial, but maybe there can be a compromise on some of the land. There is no reason to flatly reject this potential compromise.

2) Erekat calls the detention of Palestinian-Americans (and Canadians) at the border and Israeli refusal to let them into Israel, shameful. He also says that he has no power to do anything about the situation (which is interesting because not to long ago he described Palestinians as being in a position of power.)

The question here is one of a state deciding who they want to let in to their country, and who they want to keep out. Nobody has a right to enter any other country in the world, and I can appreciate Israel's suspicion of those foreigners with Palestinian citizenship for a number of reasons. Some would argue that a Canadian/US citizen, no matter what their origins or dual nationality must be treated the same as any other citizen of that same country. In principle, this is true, but when the dual citizenship is from a group considered hostile to the state being entered, it's hard to blame a country for applying extra scrutiny and limitations on those from the enemy group. India, for example, has similar rules with regards to Pakistanis.

3) Mr. Erekat thinks that after 18 years of negotiation with Israel, not a minute has been wasted. He notes how Israelis and Palestinians now see each other as more than just soldiers or suicide bombers. He also goes on to say that Israeli leaders are at fault for exporting fear to their people and that the had of peace is extended, so they should stop.

The thought that not a moment of 18 years of negotiation with Israel has been wasted is an encouraging one, and Mr. Erekat deserves kudos for saying it. He's right, these processes are long, there have been setbacks, their have been ups and downs, but his optimistic outlook is refreshing. It certainly stands in contrast to the Israeli foreign minister Lieberman who said: "In the 16 years since the Oslo Accords, we haven't managed to bring peace to the region, and I'm willing to bet that there won't be peace in another 16 years, either. Certainly not on the basis of the two-state solution." It's true, there's no peace, but there's more peace and there's progress.

As for the second point about Israeli leaders exporting fear; it would be interesting to hear Mr. Erekat's examples of this. Netanyahu's speech uses language very similar to Erekat's: that Israel is ready to talk peace and to move forward anytime, anywhere. That's quite different than a message of fear. Similarly, it's incumbent upon the PA to stop the hate and denial or minimization of a Jewish presence in Israel on its airwaves and in its schools. The mistrust Erekat sees as problematic in Israel is a two way street.

4) Erekat thinks that Hamas will disappear if he can present a two-state solution to Palestinians. Failing that, he thinks moderates such as himself will vanish. The whole thing, he says, boils down to time. The sooner a solution is found, the sooner change can begin.

This seems like a gross over simplification. More than once Hamas has shown its willingness to use ruthless force against other Palestinians to stay in power, first against Fatah and here, and again, more recently against Al-Qaida elements in the Gaza Strip. Then, there is the oft cited Hamas charter, replete with vicious hatred. As much as Mr. Erekat's optimism is refreshing, it smacks of naivete to suggest that a group like Hamas--or even it's more extreme rivals, like Al-Qaida--will simply vanish overnight if he can produce an agreement with Israel.

5) Erekat says that he really has no interest in what Israel calls itself, and so if it wants to be Israel the Jewish state, that's fine, but for now, all he recognizes is Israel.

This is a somewhat disingenuous response, or perhaps the question was not phrased properly. Generally, what is meant by Israel as a Jewish state is Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people. Why would Palestinians have a problem recognizing this? Indeed, the term Jewish state appears multiple times in the Israeli declaration of Independence. Palestinian acknowledgement of this will help to assure Israelis that there is no desire to see the Jewish-nation state disappear.

6) In response to a question about corruption within Fatah, Erekat acknowledges that Fatah is not perfect, alludes to a "party court" which will deal with matters of corruption and mostly discusses the sixth conference of Fatah.

Many issues of interest were not raised in this interview (at least not yet, I don't know if it will continue.) It would have been interesting to hear Mr. Erekat's views on what the outcomes of some of the most contentious issues of the conflict are: Palestinian refugees, Jerusalem, demilitarization of a future Palestinian state. I asked some of these questions, and if the interview continues, I hope they'll be answered.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Cotler and the Queen of Hearts

The ongoing UN mandated inquiry in to Israel's war against Hamas being led by the highly-regarded Justice Goldstone--the so-called Goldstone Inquiry--has come under a great deal of criticisms for a number of reasons.

The most recent critic is the also highly-regarded Irwin Cotler, a Liberal member of the Canadian Parliament and a former Canadian Minister of Justice.

Mr. Cotler published an incisive, two part critique of the Goldstone Inquiry in the Jerusalem Post. Part one of his critique focuses on flaws with the inquiry itself. It points to the various flaws with the inquiry itself--some of which has already been pointed out on this blog--for example, inquiry member Professor Christine Chinkin who even while hostilities were ongoing, signed a letter indicating that Israel's actions were not self defense.

In response to critiques Professor Chinkin has defended herself by arguing that her letter referred to Israels violations of Jus ad Bellum--the legality of the use of force--as opposed to the inquiry's focus which is Jus in Bellum, how the war itself was conducted.
While it's true that the two concepts are different, it is a somewhat hollow argument as it does not change that Prof. Chinkin maintains that Israel never had the right to fight back against nearly a decade of rockets being fired indiscriminately at it's citizens. In the conflict Prof. Chinkin is being asked to evaluate, she has already declared one of the parties to have been guilty.

Cotler also verges on calling Goldstone naive for having allowed himself to become involved in the inquiry and for allowing himself to be so easily reassured that the mandate of the inquiry--which only mentions any violations of international law that Israel may have made--could be enlarged to include an investigation of Hamas. Cotler also correctly points out that Goldstone's claims not to have criticized Hamas prior to Operation Cast Lead because of Israel's failure to formally complain to the UN is nonsense, as Israel most certainly had made formal complaints. On the other hand, Cotler is too critical of Goldstone for signing a letter indicating the the violence in Gaza had shocked him to the core. This critique is unfair because, though justified, operation Cast Lead was a large, violent military operation and indeed, part of the purpose of the operation may have been to create shock. Certainly large scale violence of any kind, justified or not, is shocking.

Human Rights law Professor William A. Schabas, said: “The international community must apply the same standard to Gaza as it does to other conflicts and investigate all abuses of the laws of war and human rights. The current UN inquiry is no substitute for a full investigation. It is not only the UN personnel that deserve truth and justice, but Palestinians and Israelis themselves.” This is more or less what Cotler attempts to address in the second part of his JPost article.

Cotler begins by asserting that no people or country is above the law or exempt from scrutiny or prosecution, but that all countries must have equality before the law. Cotler suggests that the crux of the reason the Goldstone Inquiry should be opposed lies in its symbol as a denial of equality for Israel before the law. In not so many words, he argues that Prof. Schabas' admonition is being ignored because the standard applied to Israel is indeed different than the standard applied in other conflicts and that to equate Israeli actions with Hamas ones is ignorance of certain realities and intentions.

A significant omission from Cotler's text is his failure to criticize Israel for not cooperating with the inquiry. This blog has opined more than once that Israel is doing itself a disservice by not cooperating with the commission. Ignoring the commission means that Goldstone's best intentions to document and 'call-out' Hamas for its war crimes could fall flat or be little more than porous, weak indictments. While the Goldstone Inquiry is worthy of sharp criticism, Cotler could have examined how Israeli participation in the inquiry could turn things around.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

When Did it Become Okay to Throw Around Nazis?

I admit to not closely following the debate over health care in the US. Nonetheless, the following two videos struck a chord with me.



and



The debate about heath care aside, when did it become acceptable to compare anything you don't like to the Nazis, to Hitler or the Holocaust? Are we so far removed from world war two, or so ignorant of our history that feminists can be called "feminazis," artists can compare Prime Minister of Canada Stephen Harper to Hitler for cutting funding to cultural activities and then of course, a health care plan can somehow be equated with Nazism. Do feminists want to wage war on their neighbours? Is cutting to culture the same as unrestricted submarine warfare, or shooting unarmed POWs? Is a health care plan the same as an industrialized process of genocide?

Why has it become acceptable to make these connections? Only the Nazis were the Nazis. Only Hitler was Hitler and only the Holocaust was the Holocaust. Have there been other fascist or threatening political movements whose goal was world domination and the propagation of a master race. Yes. Have there been other ruthless dictators who have run their countries with brutality and reigned horror upon the people of the world. There sure have. Have their been other genocides. Lord knows there's one going on today.

Still, no other movement, leader or genocide rivaled the Nazis in terms of the scope of their evil, the fanaticism of their followers, the destruction they have wrought, the institutionalization and industrialization of their killing. Nobody and nothing has compared, before or since.

I don't even think Osama Bin Laden or Al Queda, for all their personification of evil can be correctly compared to Hitler or the Nazis. They are separate, yet equally evil spheres. On the other hand...Don't Hitler and Bin Laden both have moustaches?

I have often thought that comparisons to the Nazis, Hitler, the Holocaust, etc. are the second to last refuge of someone losing a debate. The last step would be a direct attack on the individual himself. A comparison to the evil of the second world war is simply a fallacious linkage of the opposing idea to something universally accepted as bad, therefore hoping to create some sort of guilt by association. As soon as someone in a debate compares his opponent or his ideas to Nazi's, I know the other guy has won.

Yes, there ought to be freedom of speech, but how has it become socially acceptable to make these insane comparisons? It is incumbent upon the leadership of the movement that opposes Obama and his health care plan to roundly and strongly condemn in the harshest of terms these offensive and fallacious comparisons.

Oh, and PS: if you want to start somewhere, apparently the woman who yelled at that Israeli guy in the first video, above, is on Facebook. Feel free to let her know what you think.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Get Out of Antisemitism Free

So, an Israeli-Jew was elected to Fatah's Revolutionary Council. Sort of.

Uri Davis has called Israel an "Apartheid State" and has been a long time supporter of the Palestinians and opponent of Israel.

Interestingly, however, the BBC article linked to above does not seem to be fully accurate. For example: "Dr Davis said his Israeli citizenship made no difference to his election." First, that's not exactly what the quote the BBC follows up with really says, but more importantly, Dr. Davis does not seem to be a citizen of Israel at all. According to Ha'Aretz, Dr. Davis renounced his Israeli citizenship in 1980 and instead took up Palestinian citizenship.

Theologically, Dr. Davis is also not Jewish. He converted to Islam some time ago.

An argument could probably be made that Dr. Davis has committed treason by renouncing his nationality and accepting the citizenship and a political role in the government of an entity in a de jure state of war with the country he has renounced.

Israel has enough critics and detractors, however, that it's not really worth prosecuting a citizen who has joined Fatah. More concerning is that Fatah will attempt to make Dr. Davis their get out of antisemitism free card.

For example, from the, Ha'Aretz report: "When his name was announced as number 31 on the list of winners, members in the auditorium of the Bethlehem school where the conference held its meetings applauded long and loud. " Was the applause the same or as noteworthy for any other candidates? That's not clear, but it's interesting that he, of all people should be singled out for such applause, a welcome accorded to a defector, 'one of them, who has come to us after having seen the light.' Perhaps the excitement is also self congratulatory for having the openness to receive a Jew into their midst. Perhaps now Fatah will attempt to claim immunity from any antisemitism because now they have a Jew in their midst. Certainly an antisemite would not allow a Jew onto a governing body. Certainly, that's a line that Iran uses regularly when pointing out the seat in their Parliament reserved for Jews.

So, in a nutshell, Dr. Davis has renounced Israel, renounced Judaism as a religion and has chosen to become a Palestinian. That's entirely his right, but it would be disingenuous for him or Fatah to cite him as an example of the inclusive nature of their movement.

A Freeze for Qatar (and Oman)--UPDATE

It seems my skepticism that Israel would freeze settlement activity without receiving some sort of valuable 'asset' in return was misplaced. Or was it?

According to Ha'Aretz (thanks to), despite not having officially accepted US demands to a settlement freeze, settlements have actually been frozen with the exception of work on projects which have already begun and continue; something the US has indicated they can live with. According to the article, the Israeli NGO Peace Now appears to concur: "Peace Now confirmed no new tenders had been issued but said more than 1,000 housing units were currently under construction in the West Bank on land Palestinians want for a state."

Apparently, however, that's not the whole story. Peace Now wants Israel to go further than what the US seems to be asking for and insists that even the projects underway be stopped. Furthermore, while Peace Now agrees that no new tenders have been issued by the Israeli government they note that this is a misleading statistic because "...govt sponsored construction of government only constitutes about 40% of all construction in the territories. Most of the building is through private initiatives from settler groups, NGO’s etc. Thus, even if there is a complete freeze of construction bids on behalf of the government – at least 60% of all construction in the settlements continues as before." It would be interesting to know more about what the other 60% of construction is. For example, is it improvements on existing infrastructure, and new roads in existing neighborhoods, or is it new building on previously unused land? The former is quite different from the latter because where in one case increased population--which further complicates matters on the ground--occurs, in the other, repairing already inhabited infrastructure is not worsening the reality.

It is also confusing to hear Peace Now's disappointed rebuttal of the claim of a de facto settlement freeze a la US. This is because according to Peace Now's website "Israeli planning and construction in the West Bank is not treated as just a technical or bureaucratic matter. Rather, it requires the direct involvement of the political echelons of the Israeli government – primarily the Minister of Defense and sometimes the entire cabinet – which must sign off on every stage of a project’s progression." This means either that the 60% of ongoing construction is being approved by the Israeli government despite claims that no new tenders have been issued, or it means that work is continuing illegally without proper authorization or a number of other possible scenarios which are not clear.

It remains to be seen if the US will be satisfied with the factual situation. If so, will they require that Israel declare the settlements frozen, or will they be satisfied with deeds (or lack of deeds) instead of declarations? Also, while I doubt that Israel made the decision not to issue tenders in order to win the good graces of Qatar and Oman, it will be interesting to see if the facts on the ground are good enough for them as well.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

A Freeze for Qatar (and Oman)

In a message passed to Israel from the U.S., the Persian Gulf states of Qatar and Oman are willing to re-establish ties with Israel is Israel "...agrees to a moratorium on construction in the West Bank." What Israel is being asked by Qatar and Oman (and by the U.S. as well) is to freeze all future--ongoing construction is exempt--construction in settlements indefinitely (no precise time line is given but 12 months has been mentioned.)

Qatar was one of very few Arab states to have any relations with Israel at all and there was a time when there was a great deal of optimism around these relations. Indeed, the uniqueness of Qatar's relations with Israel has attracted attention as it stands as an example of a small state pursuing very original foreign policies. Part of the interest in these relations for Qatar is to sell much needed natural gas to Israel and to help keep Qatar in the good books of the U.S. Part of the interest for Qatar also seems to be a nationalistic desire to "stick-it" to Saudi Arabia, a regional rival.

The benefits to Israel are trade, access to natural gas and someone else in the Arab world who will talk to and deal with them. These relations, which were ostensibly fruitful ended in January 2009 when Qatar broke relations with Israel during the war against Hamas.

Now the question must be, should Israel do it?

The settlements are not the obstacle to peace, but an obstacle and certainly a thorn in the side of the peace process as a whole. That being said, the current Israeli government has a domestic constituency that supports the settlements and is probably also using the ability to freeze and unfreeze construction as a bargaining chip. It also happens to be a big bargaining chip, one that everyone seems to want.

Israel needs to decide if re-establishing relations with two countries with whom it had--at least somewhat--beneficial relations in the past is worth one of the most valuable bargaining chips it seems to have. A "give" that has been inflated in importance by an almost singular U.S. interest in the subject and that could see the Israeli government fall.

From a purely realist perspective, this just doesn't seem worth it. Israel is now being asked to give something that it could probably exchange for larger concessions from Palestinians, other Arab states or the U.S. for something that it already had just 8 months ago. The deal just doesn't seem that good; except for maybe Qatar and Oman, who come out looking like heroes for forcing an Israeli concession and then get to keep selling their natural gas. Moreover, if the analysis that Qatar really wants to stick it to Saudi Arabia is accurate, then would making this concession to Qatar have the effect of encouraging Saudi Arabia to "one-up" Qatar in demanding an even greater concession from Israel? Perhaps.

From a hopeful, optimistic perspective, the contrary could be argued. Re-establishing ties with Qatar and Oman would perhaps be risky to the Israeli government, but beyond this myopic concern is the possibility of a better relationship with the U.S., with Qatar and Oman, potentially with other Arab states who may choose to believe that Israel is serious about peace and may generally have a snowball effect.

Israelis, however, tend not to like to bet the farm. It would therefore be unsurprising if the realist approach were the one chosen. A case could be made that either decision were the right one.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

The Curious Case of the Flying Rabbis

The BBC reports (and has a short clip) of a group of rabbis that took a flight over Israel while praying and blowing the shofar (a ram's horn) in an effort to " stop the [Swine Flu] pandemic so people will stop dying from it." One of the Rabbis also added that "We are certain that, thanks to the prayer, the danger is already behind us."

People ought to believe whatever they want and if religion gives them comfort and makes them feel safer, that's fine and wonderful for them and really ought not to be of any concern to anyone else. If these rabbis think that their fervent praying--which makes them look a bit silly to those who understand what they're doing and downright alien to those who may not--makes them and everyone else safe from the sickness, however, then it becomes everyone's concern. Not because everyone is really safe, but because if these rabbis and their communities now believe they're safe they may be less inclined to take measures to help prevent the spread of the disease. One must hope that, whatever these people believe, they're not ignoring the medically necessary measures to ensure that h1n1 is contained.

Another, perhaps more worrying example of religion becoming of concern to everyone is in the UK where Muslim medical staff in certain hospitals are refusing to use hand sanitizer--a key link in the strategy to prevent the spread of h1n1--because it contains alcohol. Apparently, a less effective, alcohol-free hand sanitizer has been made available to the individuals concerned, but this is another example of where religion, which normally ought to be nobody's business, crosses into the public sphere and becomes a concern to everyone.

Ranking the Right

An Israeli right-wing lobby group called Mattot Arim has published a list of Members of the Knesset most supportive and active on right-wing issues.

By visiting Mattot Arim's blog, one can send away for an e-mail copy of the full report, but this article and the blog itself indicate that the criteria for whether or not one is "...pro-Israel ("right")..." is if they are onside vis a vis "Palestinian state - danger for Israel, building Judea and Samaria, encouraging critical-location outposts, protecting civil rights for right-wing persons including settlers, checking hostile media, balances for the High Court of Justice, no release of terrorists, promoting the war on terror, and checking hostility of Israel's Arab population."

Mattot Arim's blog and the article linked above rank parliamentarians based on how much "action" (bills, motions, votes, etc.) they have taken on right wing issues.

Here's a bit more about some of the front runners.

MK Danon (36 actions). MK Danon was most recently in the news for suggesting that members of the Knesset should not attend the U.S. Embassy's July 4th celebrations because "The statements recently heard by representatives of the American government regarding Israel's commitment to stop building in Judea and Samaria, including natural growth, and the statements that accuse Israel of lying over the years to the White House, seriously damage Israel's honor. I call upon MKs to boycott the event at the ambassador's house, to deliver to the American administration a clear message - that the State of Israel is independent and not President Obama's pet."

MK Ben-Ary (35 actions). MK Ben-Ary, who has his own (apparently inactive) blog, was a member of the banned, racist Kach party in Israel.

MK Levin (33 actions). MK Levin is a former VP of the Israeli Bar Association and made headlines not too long ago when he was amongst several MKs to propose worsening the conditions of Palestinian prisoners so long as Gilad Shalit's condition remained unknown.

MK Professor Eldad (30 actions). Last year, MK Prof. Eldad suggested that anyone who gives up Israeli territory should face the death penalty (a remark made in connection to the Golan Heights.) He was also very upset about a popular German song played in Israel because of the associations of the German language and Jewish history.

MK Ariel (26 actions). When Israel was proposing its withdrawal from the Gaza strip, MK Ariel moved to a settlement in solidarity with the settlers who were going to be removed from their homes.

MK Hotovely (24 actions). Amongst the issues that MK Hotovely cites as important to her are re-infusing Israeli secular education with religious values and supporting the settlement movement in the West Bank. She is also the youngest MK in the Knesset.

MK Orbach (23 actions). MK Orbach was a journalist prior to becoming an MK. An example of his writing is here where he criticize Jews that aid the "Palestinian propaganda effort."

Minister Erdan (13 actions). MK Erdan suggested that to stop the rockets from Gaza, Palestinian prisoners should be interned within rocket range as human shields.

Minister Begin (12 actions). MK Begin, the son of the former Prime Minister of Israel who signed the peace treaty with Egypt has said: "...because the Oslo accord was scuttled by the Arabs' perpetration of terrorism, there is no alternative to having the IDF control security in the areas of the Palestinian Authority."

Minister Ya'alon (10 actions). A former military leader, MK Ya'alon is vocally opposed to the freezing of settlements and thinks Israel should not comply with what he terms US "dictates."

Minister Edelstein (10 actions). MK Edelstein is a supporter of the settlements and hopes that Netanyau will seek understanding with the US to allow such settlements to remain.

The fact is, not all the people on this list are so far out in right field that they can't compromise. Some of them have some very reasonable views on other issues and some of their right wing views are really, not that right wing. It is interesting to note, however, that the issues that make one right wing in Israel are all related to nationalism and security, not economic issues, as may traditionally define one on the Right or the left.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Israeli-Arabs

An article that was brought to my attention in the comments to a previous post about Arabs in Israel is somewhat sensationalized but nonetheless upsetting.

The article focuses one a family who lost their home when the land it was built on was expropriated. It also quotes Israeli officials from the region suggesting that the region belongs to all its inhabitants but it's important for all to remember that they live in a Jewish state. It further quotes the (shockingly bigoted) Israeli Minister of Housing arguing for a separation of Jews and Arabs in the Galilee. The article takes meetings with Arab member's of the Knesset and the 2003 Israeli Or Commission report as demonstrations of the veracity of the claim that there is discrimination against Arabs in Israel.

Though it's little comfort to anyone observing the comments of the obviously bigoted Minister of Housing, he advocates not only complete segregation between Jews and Arabs, but also segregation of religious Jews from secular ones. It's truly an embarrassment that someone like that could be a minister. Of course, he's entitled to his opinions, but as a minister, it's scary to think that he may actually act on them. His attitudes appear to be consequences of intense fear of the other likely entrenched by the examples he cites of Arab-Israeli riots.

On the other hand, on a slightly brighter note, positive things are happening for Arab-Jewish relations in other parts of Israel. Take for example the 2003 Or commission report--set up not to study the status of Arabs in Israel, but the Israeli handling of riots by Arabs in Israel--which concluded that there was a serious problem of discrimination in Israel. The report itself is a positive thing as it is a government recognition of a serious problem in the country. Nonetheless, the problems it exposes are serious. Amongst other things, it highlights, interestingly, that the Prime Minister's office seemed very unaware of the realities on the ground for many Arabs in Israel. This is a truly telling point since, if the government is not aware, how can the government work to fix the problem?

Two years after the report, this lecture was given examining what has changed since it was first published. Some important progress is highlighted including political recognition of the problem, changes in the education system and a more open discussion of how to deal with the discrimination being faced. Nonetheless, there remains a long way to go. That road is being travelled, however. Not too long ago, Ha'aretz reported (thanks to the Debate link) that the speaker of the Knesset was to give a speech on Jewish-Arab relations in Israel. The basic content of the speech as published affirms that Arabs are part of Israel and that expelling them, or moving them around is simply out of the question. The speech also, significantly, recognizes the "trauma" suffered by Arabs when Israel was created.

So yes, despite the full legal rights afforded to Arab-Israelis, discrimination remains, some of it quite serious. Nonetheless, it seems that at least some small steps are being taken in the right direction, even as some seem to continue to want to regress. As "they" always say, admitting you have a problem is the first step towards fixing it.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Lawfare in Two Hemispheres

Two interesting cases of lawfare to report.

The first comes from South Africa where two NGOs have filed what is being referred to as the "Gaza Docket" a multi-thousand page series of documents and affidavits pressing charges against some 70 South Africans who are also serving in the IDF because of the war crimes supposedly committed by the IDF in the war against Hamas in Gaza.

One reason to charge some of these 70, under South African law is a prohibition against South African citizens serving in foreign militaries. Apparently, however, exceptions are made for those with dual citizenship and so thousands of South Africans are legally enlisted in militaries outside of South Africa. It's also unclear that all of the 70 people named in the docket actually served in Gaza during the war.

The docket was drafted with the assistance of two South African law professors, Professors John Dugard and Max du Plessis whose notoriety and positions on the issue are clear from their previous work on the middle east. The views of these two lawyers, however, are not really the issue. What's most problematic about this case is that it seeks to have South African courts decide a question of international law, that it seeks to prosecute for war crimes, people who may not even have participated in the operation being labeled as a war crime and in so doing, seeks to create a legal precedent which would essentially make it illegal for South Africans to join the Israeli military even as they are free to join the militaries of other countries in which they have dual citizenship.

The other case of lawfare (first noticed on a blog I stumbled across by Fred) involves an Israeli with dual French citizenship who lives in Sderot. This individual claims that the EU bears some responsibility for the hardship he has suffered living within range of rockets and mortars fired from the Gaza strip because the EU has failed in its obligations to cut funding from terrorist groups in the Gaza strip. The Israeli-French complainant is demanding that the EU curb its funding to these groups, make all funds sent by the EU to NGOs and other groups in the region 100% transparent and finally, respect the EU legal guarantees of protection to all EU citizens, wherever they live by, amongst other things, helping to reinforce buildings in Sderot against rocket attacks.

This case is asking for a decision that may be based in law, but is also highly political, especially as concerns funding provided by the EU to various groups. For this reason, it would be surprising to see this case advance very far. Another interesting point is that the complainant asks the EU to stop the transfer of funds to any group Israel deems as terrorist and to bar the entry of any person Israel deems to be a terrorist to the EU. This seems somewhat strange as it is theoretically possible that the EU and Israel could define individuals and groups quite differently. It's unclear that there is any real EU obligation to arrest or cease funding to groups or individuals that a non-EU member-state deems to be unsavory or in violation of that third countries laws.

Both cases will be interesting to watch as each of them are highly political in nature and would, if successful, set significant precedents.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

The Cesspool of the Internet

I feel dirty, and a bit sad.

I was doing some searching for information for the previous post here and in doing so, came a cross a website (which I will not link to) from a woman, living in Austria who claims to be a Palestinian refugee forced from her home after being a journalist in Israel and reporting for over 20 years.

I clicked through to the site not knowing what it was and sincerely interested in what this woman had to say. What I found was so hateful, so digusting and so disturbing that I barely knew how to react. Amongst support for terrorism and suicide bombings, there was the assertion that all Israeli soldiers were psycopaths, weak, genocidal and well...one can imagine the other adjectives.

To give you an idea, the first post i read was one where she posts a comment she received from an Israeli who came across her site. The comment she posts is what she describes as far beyond what "these people" normally write to her. I've got to say, I read the comment and while yes, it was critical, it was not offensive. Some of my readers know that I too can be sensetive about the comments I recive, but if the comment she posted goes "far beyond" what she normally receives from "these people" then everyone else must be heaping praise upon her.

To give you an idea of what this site looked like, I tried to post the following comment. I think it was screened out:

"This comment is not related to this post in particular, but rather to this blog
in general. I just didn't know where else to put it.

I came across this blog and thought I would click through for some opinions that are
different from my own. I certainly found that, but I also found a great deal of hate.

The other comments on this post alone violate your own guidelines for comments, especially the parts about "- No insults against any religious, ethnical, political group." See for example this particularly offensive comment: "Because Israeli Jews are satanic talmudists nobody believes any jew. not a jew in Israel not a jew anywhere. We are full aware that everything what a jew says is b.s., remember that their God is Lucifer. the big deceiver." If this is not anti-Semitism, then I'm not sure what is. If I wanted to write the same things, but replaced the word Jew with Muslim, Christian, Hindu or animist, would it be posted?

I have to say, it makes reading your blog an offensive and uncomfortable experience and creates a situation where you're preaching only to the choir (which may be your goal.) I hold opinions different than yours, but if you want to share those views and try to influence my thinking, or the thinking of anyone else, an environment comments like "Israeli zionists are intensely selfish, intolerant and anti-social, et cetera. They are full of hate, greed, malice, et cetera." will drive people away, not draw them in. Your rules for comments are very good. I encourage you to stick to them.

Also, as an aside, you note inn this post that "Here is what “Eyal”, the Israeli working at Ben-Gurion Airport, left as a comment on my blog. The poor man clearly has someproblems writing correct English." Is it really necessary to attack this person's linguistic skills? English is clearly not his first language. Nobody is perfect and from the portions that I read, this blog could use a few re-reads and corrections as well. (As could mine, nobody's perfect.)"

After being sucked into the mire of this site, I clicked through to some of the links on her site which were just as hateful and offensive. I also tried to research this woman and her journalistic career, but the only other sites I found that mentioned her name were those similar to her own, and sites like the Neo-Nazi forum "Stormfront."

I feel sick for having spent as long as I did surrounded by such hatred.

One of my hopes when starting this blog was to ensure that whatever views I present were bereft of hatred. I really hope I'm doing that.

Sodium Free Key

In April, I blogged about a report from the World Bank suggesting that Israel was taking more than its fair share of water which ought to have been shared with Palestinians. Now, Israeli officials have met with World Bank officials to correct a report Israel finds to be inaccurate. The nature of the inaccuracies are highly technical and are probably only verifiable by on site inspections by real experts. Nonetheless, if Israeli explanations are to be taken at face value, then the onus of taking the next step to ease water shortages in the west bank is the Palestinians. Apparently, much of the work that can be done would take place in areas fully under Palestinian control, removing Israel from the equation. What is not explained, is why this work, which could apparently be done so easily, has not occurred. This would be the missing link. Hopefully, if the entirety of the discussions between the World Bank and Israeli officials are made public, this question will be answered.

In the interim, what may begin to ease the problem are the several new desalinization facilities to be constructed by Israel. By creating new water sources for Israelis, theoretically--in combination with efforts that have resulted in a decline in Israeli water consumption over the past month--more water will be available for distribution and in natural aquifers.
The desalinization facilities are also part of the solution to the problem of the dying Dead Sea. Significant water withdrawals from the Kinneret, or Sea of Galilee in northern Israel by Israelis, Jordanians and Palestinians, combined with a drought impacting the whole region are causing the Dead Sea which is fed by the Kinneret to shrink. This impacts not only a unique ecosystem, but also the many industries, including tourism, which rely on the Dead Sea. Environmental groups, such as Ecopeace have criticized a plan being discussed to pipe water from the Red Sea to the Dead one in order to save the latter. The project is fascinating in that it has Israelis and Jordanians cooperating with one another to find a solution, but as the critics point out, it's a proposal fraught with problems. The best solution remains the natural one. Let the Kinneret feed the Dead Sea and let the desalinization facilities do what they can to ease the pressure on it. As for the drought, well, if you're so inclined, pray for rain.
On a final, water related note, this article highlights the importance of water to the peacemaking situation and political dynamics and considerations in the region. In short, Syria has, apparently, seriously mismanaged its water resource and is, on a regular basis, being short changed on the water that Turkey allows to naturally flow across its border into Syria. This places Syria in a water crisis situation and naturally, they are looking at new sources for this water, the Golan Heights and the Kinneret amongst them. Rather than talk of war, discussions seem to be over how to share these resources peacefully. The problem the article points out is that there are no safeguards that Syria will not also mismanage water in the Kinneret, should it be given access, which would impact all other riparians of that basin. As seen under the Israel-Jordan peace treaty, however, even in hard times, the two states honour their agreements and share the water they both need. Maybe Syria can be trusted as well, but some sort of joint management system would need to be set up. If Syrians are as poor at water management as this article suggests, then they cannot be trusted; not because they have ill intent, but because despite their best efforts, they may simply have no idea what they're doing.
Another interesting point in this article is that Turkey, a country so eager to be the mediator between Syria and Israel is the one partially at fault for problems in Syria and so they have a national interest in seeing a deal struck which could ease the pressure on them to reduce their water consumption. Both Syria and Israel ought to be wary of this consideration and perhaps even allow another trusted mediator to work on that part of the deal. As always though, water will not be a point of friction between Syria and Israel, it will be a point for cooperation and confidence building. The universal need for water makes it too valuable to squabble over and risk losing.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

A Crazy Plan for Ghajar

Ghajar presents a difficult problem.

In a nutshell, the town was Syrian, captured by Israel in 1967 and its citizens given Israeli citizenship when the Golan heights were annexed in the 80s (the annexation is not internationally recognized.) After the last conflict in Lebanon, the UN found that the border between Lebanon and Israel (annexed Golan Heights) ran through this town. Israel seems to want to leave the town but the residents--Israeli citizens--would really rather just be a part of Syria and do not want to be part of Lebanon, literally fearing for their lives if Hezbollah should establish a presence in the village. At the same time, residents of the town have rejected the simplest proposal made by Israel to meet its security concerns, which is just building a wall through the town on the border. Israel rejects, for security reasons, the proposal to have UN peacekeepers protect the town, residents don't seem to like that idea either.

Where's King Solomon these days?

Unless a creative solution is found, someone will be walking away from this problem very upset and may, heaven forbid, turn up dead.

What if the status quo could be maintained somehow? It seems that the biggest problem with the situation at present is that Israel is on territory that Lebanon has legal sovereignty over, not that this IDF presence is actually causing problems (i.e. engaging in hostilities--it's just sort of sitting there, it seems.) Lebanon needs to be satisfied that its sovereignty over Ghajar has been restored.

What if, as suggested in the comments to the previous post, Israel could formally renounce its sovereignty over the northern part of the town, but, in order to maintain the status quo, somehow lease the town in a Hong Kong scenario?

Maybe it could work if Lebanon formally declared sovereignty over the town and the UN and Israel supported it. Lebanon could then suggest to the UN that since the residents of Ghajar do not want to be part of Lebanon, the UN should take control in the region for the long term, maybe even several generations. The handover would not be permanent, and would not be free either, Lebanon would expect compensation for the land it has sovereignty over, but was not taking direct control of. This is why, it could be agreed, secretly, that in turn, the UN would allow Israel to remain on the leased, northern part of Ghajar and Israel would somehow cover the costs of the "lease" over Ghajar by, perhaps, transferring tax revenue from the village or giving Lebanon--for free or for very little--certain non-military goods that may be produced in the region, similar to how Golan Druze sell their produce in Syria.

Therefore, in summary, Israel stays in Ghajar, as per the status quo except that now, the town would be under UN mandate and the UN would allow Israel to stay. This satisfies Israel's security concerns and the desire of the residents to not be transferred to Lebanon and not have their town divided. Lebanon would officially and legally have sovereignty over Ghajar but, under the terms of the lease would temporarily relinquish its access to Ghajar in exchange for some sort of compensation. This satisfies Lebanon's claims to the territory. The lease, could be many generations long and contain a provision ensuring that in the event the Golan is returned to Syria, a referendum can be held to decide which country to join, Lebanon can agree to accept the will of Ghajar residents.

Perhaps the talks between Lebanon and Israel which would be required to hammer out such a complex arrangement could be the start of discussions on other points of friction between the two countries. Perhaps it can be a starting point for more talks by this commission. Perhaps this plan has set of your "naivete" alarm or perhaps this post should be sent to my local Israeli and Lebanese embassies.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Ghajar Revisited

Ghajar, the town divided by the Lebanon-Israel border is back in the news.

Israel's foreign Minister Lieberman has been tasked with finding a solution to the boundary issue in the town and is proposing that a fence be built along the border cutting off the northern half of the village from the southern one and giving the Israeli citizens in the north the chance to move south, or forfeit their citizenship.

This solution stands in contrast to a plan whereby peacekeepers would act as border guards between the town and the rest of Lebanon, but the town would remain undivided and the IDF would withdraw from the north. This seems to be the plan the IDF itself advocates.

Meanwhile, residents of the town have pleaded with Israeli government officials not to divide the town or turn any of it over to Lebanon as this would be akin to a "death sentence." It's unclear if this is a literal fear of death or just a fear of disastrous consequences. It's easy to imagine the social and economic implications of dividing a small town like Ghajar, but a death sentence, literally? Probably not. Nonetheless, Siniora, the Lebanese Prime Minister described Israel's presence in the north of the town as a daily act of aggression and insists Israel must leave.

Israel has to withdraw from the town to comply with UN resolutions ending the last war in Lebanon. Israel's considerations are over drug smuggling, security and the unstated concern over the water resources around Ghajar. A fence is probably a quick fix to at least the crime and security concerns, but it ignores the interests and rights of the Israeli citizens living in the town. In the absence of more information about Lieberman's intent and reasoning, it's probably a fair guess that this plan of building a fence and all the negative consequences it may have stems from the mistrust of peacekeepers stationed in Lebanon and their ability or willingness to act on Israeli security interests. It is an oversimplified solution to a complex problem. A proper solution must take into account all the security considerations as well as the rights of the people living in the town and the whole issue should be examined to see if there is any way to use the case of this town to make contacts with Lebanon on some level. It's been done in the past, why not build on it? Only, don't build a wall!

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Goldstone the Jew's Investigation

In an article written by Alan Baker, former Israeli Ambassador to Canada (who I have met and spoken to on several occasions) he argues that the UN mandated mission to investigate the War against Hamas in the Gaza strip is fatally flawed from the outset because even in the language it uses, it seeks to portray Israel as the guilty party and makes almost no mention for the cause of the war, years of rocket attacks against Israeli civilians.

There are some points that Mr. Baker meets which I fully agree with. For example, the oft repeated description of Hamas' rockets as crude, or the repetition that so few were killed by them, is an irrelevant point. Attacking civilians deliberately, whether you kill them or not, is just as wrong if you do it once, or a thousand times and makes no difference if the killing is done by a ballistic missile, or a firecracker. It's the intent that matters, not the ability to succeed.

I also agree with the closing of his article, notably the line where he comments that he hopes that despite being ignored by the official mandate of the investigation, Goldstone--the lead investigator--will look into the suffering of Israelis and Hamas' violation of international law. Goldstone seems to have pledged to do this, despite his mandate.

Baker's concerns that Israel will be unfairly demonized could be reduced if Israel would cooperate with the investigation. Israel likely hopes that by not participating in the investigation, the report Goldstone produces will lack credibility and be a less valid arrow in the quiver of those who would seek to politically attack Israel. The fact is though, that those who wish to criticize Israel will do so whether or not Goldstones report is considered credible. Moreover, the fact that it comes from a UN body will lend the report credibility, despite many potential members of the investigation team declining the offer to participate because of the perceived bias in the mandate.

If Israel were to cooperate with the investigation there could at least be some hope of being on the record with its position and the possibility that--if Mr. Goldstone is as fair as he is reputed to be, and the facts are as Israel says they are--that the report will not be unfair towards Israel at all.

As an aside, I find it disquieting how it is repeatedly pointed out that Mr. Goldstone is himself Jewish, a fact that ought to be totally irrelevant to his ability to do his job. It is as though in an effort to preempt responses to his report that some will say--if he's critical of Israel--"well, even a Jew says so, so it must be true." and if he is not critical of Israel: "we'll he's a Jew, what did you really expect?" Repeatedly attaching his religion to reporting about Mr. Goldstone, as though his name were Mr. Goldstone the Jew is a repetition of an irrelevant fact that places Mr. Goldstone in an impossible position.