Friday, April 18, 2014

Israeli Ice Hockey Team Loses 4-3 in Shootout to Iceland at End of Tough Tournament

The Israeli national mens' ice hockey team recently played in the International Ice Hockey Federation's world championship - Division II, Group A.  This division meant that Israel was playing with teams ranked 29 to 34 in the world.

Just getting into this tournament had been a big accomplishment for Israel.  In 2013, the Israeli national ice hockey team won the Division II Group B tournament.  The winner each year moves up to the next division and the last place team is relegated one division down.

This year's Division II Group B included Estonia, Belgium, Iceland, Australia and Serbia.

 Israel started the tournament on April 9th with an exciting 4-3 win in overtime against Australia but then lost 10-6 to Serbia on the second day of the tournament.  On April 12th, Israel suffered a heartbreaking loss to Belgium - 4-3 in overtime. The toughest game of the tournament was a 16-4 loss to Estonia, the eventual group champions.

On the final day of the tournament, Israel still had a chance to remain in Group A.  It faced Iceland.  With a win, Israel would remain in the group for the 2015 tournament.  After three periods and overtime, the game was tied 3-3.  It went to a shootout.  The second Iceland shooter scored. Israeli star Oren Eizenman hit the post.  The game was over and Israel finished last in the group despite having been very evenly matched against three other teams.

Israeli forward Daniel Erlich tied for third in scoring for the tournament with 2 goals and 8 assists for a total of 10 points.  The leading scorer, Robert Rooba of Estonia had 14 points.  Israeli players Eliezer Sherbatov, Daniel Mazour and and Oren Eizenman placed 8th, 9th and 10th respectively in scoring.

Overall, this was a disappointing result for Israeli ice hockey.  The team proved that it belonged in the division.  It won one game and lost two in overtime.  It also lost a reasonably close game to Serbia.  Unfortunately, the two overtime losses left Israel one point behind Belgium.

Israel will now be relegated back to Group B of Division II.  Competing teams will also include Mexico, New Zealand, China, South Africa and Bulgaria.  The Group B winner this year was Spain which will move up and take Israel's spot in Group A.    

If the Israeli team can put together a similar roster, it will be well positioned to win Group B next year and move back to Group A for 2016.  It will probably face its toughest competition from Mexico.  I am not sure of the dates or location for the 2015 tournament - but it will take place somewhere in Europe in April or May of 2015.

The Israeli players deserve hearty congratulations for their strong effort.  They played  four very close games, three of which went to overtime.  They were only outmatched in one of the games.  Hopefully the Israeli national ice hockey program can build on the play of this team and advance further in the coming years.  It will probably help that Israel now has an ice rink in Holon that the players can use for practices - which is much closer to the centre of the country than Israel's only olympic-sized facility in Metullah.

Ice hockey is still a long way from mainstream in Israel but I think it is bound to become somewhat more popular over time.

  




Thursday, April 17, 2014

Pesach 2014 - Board Games Day and Kosher Pesach Burgers

What can you do in Israel over Pesach?  Everyone is on vacation, the roads are packed with travelling Israelis and the weather is usually beautiful.  So it's a great time to go the Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee), the beach (the Mediterranean Sea or the Red (Reed) Sea.  Many Israelis use this vacation period for trips abroad, since kids are off from school for close to three weeks.  Many soldiers even get a bit of break from the army...

There are many festivals across the country - music festivals, camping and all kinds of other cultural events.

One of the things that we have been doing is spending one day of Hol Hamoed on Pesach and on Sukkot at an all day board games day in Jerusalem.  We wind up with about 25-30 people, all of whom bring a bunch of their favourite board games - and we play all day.  The event is co-sponsored by the Jerusalem Strategy Games Club and the Ra'anana Board Games Group.  It is an opportunity to meet some new people, learn a bunch of new games and play some games at a fairly competitive level.

The event was in Jerusalem, which meant a lengthy drive from Ra'anana.  Even leaving late it in the morning (to avoid rush hour), we wound up facing some outrageously slow traffic.  It took us close to three hours to get from Ra'anana to Jerusalem, despite using Google Maps and watching for live updates as to the best available route.
Terra Mystica - in Action

Once there, we (my son and I) ran a five person game of Terra Mystica.  This is a fairly recent (2012) board game that has been tremendously popular since its release among avid board game players.  There are lots of pieces, a fairly lengthy rule book and a moderately long set up time.  But the game is lots of fun for those who like European style strategy games. Some of the players loved it and some were less enthusiastic. One of the interesting aspects of the game is that it features 14 unique teams (races) each with their own special abilities.  So the game is asymetrical, which makes it different each time.

I also tried playing Belfort and Carson City, both of which were fun. 

For dinner, the group members ordered hamburgers from Black Burgers in Jerusalem.  The burgers came on buns - and were Kosher for Passover - and Kitniyot free....They were actually quite good (the burgers, I mean...).  The buns...well...it's Passover after all.  Black Burgers has locations all over Israel, but very few are Kosher - aside from the Jerusalem location.  So being in Jerusalem, we took advantage and ordered the 220 g Shwarzeneggar Burger - the latest house specialty.  They cook it however you might like to order it - so we were able to enjoy some perfectly cooked medium to medium rare burgers and then returned to game playing on a full stomach.  It is quite something that so many restaurants in Israel take the trouble to convert over their kitchens and open up for the 4 days of Hol Hamoed.  

Good food, fun games and a competitive group - even if the commute to Jerusalem was exhaustingly long.

Getting a bit tired of Pesach food already and we still have 4 days to go....

Chag Sameach to all!


Friday, April 11, 2014

Toronto to Tel Aviv via Frankfurt - With Frankfurt Visit

I wound up with another flight from Toronto to Israel via Frankfurt.  So I thought I would add in another article since I also stopped in Frankfurt for the day this time. I wrote a blog about flying through Frankfurt previously - you can find that one here.  That was about three years ago, so I thought it would update it.

First of all, the prices between Toronto and Tel-Aviv have been rising dramatically.  This is probably connected to the fluctuation of the dollar (the Canadian dollar has taken quite a beating).  It is probably also related to the fact that US Air has left the Star Alliance and that Air Canada has increased prices significantly on this route.  Secondly, I was a bit late with my booking - so the options for finding a reaonably priced flight were more limited, particularly on Air Canada, United or El Al.

So I decided to find a less expensive route.  I took a Lufthansa flight from Toronto to Tel-Aviv - with a 12 hour stopover.  The savings were more than $400 over the Lufthansa flight with a 2 hour stopover - and I figured I could see a few sites in Frankfurt.  It was $800 less than flying El Al or Air Canada. 

This time, I flew Lufthansa for both legs of the route.  The flight from Toronto to Frankfurt left at about 6:30 p.m in the evening.  The plane was reasonably comfortable and clean.  The flight crew were extremely friendly, helpful and attentive.

I ordered an Indian-Vegetarian meal.  It was really quite good.  Curried spinach and curried tofu together with basmati rice.  It also came with glabjammon (an Indian dessert) and some yoghurt.  It was one of the better economy class meals that I have had in quite a while. 

The airline staff went up and down the aisles qutie frequently offering drinks - so I took advantage and had some wine - and some cognac.  The European airlines still serve alcohol at no charge on trans-atlantic flights - as does Air Canada.  The U.S. Airlines tend to charge $7 a glass - and usually the wine is not even as good as the free wine that you can get on the European airlines.

Lufthansa has a personal entertainment system.  It had a reasonable collection of movies and music.  I watched one movie and then tried to sleep.  Lufthansa also has available wi-fi - though it is about $20 or so for 3 hours.  There are no electrical outlets on the plane or USB plugs, so you cannot recharge your electrical devices.  I didn't need internet that urgently - so I simply listened to my own music and tried to sleep.

The flight is about 7 1/2 hours from Toronto.  We arrived around 7:30 a.m. and I was quite tired.  The next flight was leaving for Tel-Aviv at 7:20 p.m.  So I had about 12 hours and had to decide what to do in Frankfurt.

At first, I thougt that I would rest for another hour or two.  I went to look for a lounge.  The Frankfurt airport is huge and the nice lounges are all in the B terminal near gate B40.  There were two or three Lufthansa lounges that I could have used but I came across an Air Canada lounge there.  I decided that this would be a decent place to spend some time.  It was quite a nice lounge.  It had lots of fresh fruit, yoghurt, croissants, bagels, omelettes, and many other food items. There was a cappucino machine and some big comfy chairs.  It also had free wi-fi and lots of outlets.  So I charged my phone, had a couple of coffees and plotted my  Frankfurt trip.

Frankfurt has two Jewish museums - the Juedische Museum and the Judenstrasse Museum.  I figured I would start with the Juedische and then see how I was doing for time.

Franfurt has a huge network of convenient public transportation.  There is train service from the airport to
Frankfurt Train
downtown Frankfurt and it is quite easy.  I walked to the train station from the Airport.  There were so many trains that it was a bit of a challenge trying to figure out which train to take - on which platform.  My German is quite limited (my exposure is mainly from  the Yiddish that my granparents used to speak and sometimes my parents - when they wanted to say things that we couldn't understand...).  I got some help from the information desk and bought an all day Frankfurt public transportation pass for the grand total of 8.5 Euros.
Then I took the train from the airport to the main Frankfurt station - which is enormous.  I went over to another information counter and was provided with walking directions to the museum and a map. 

I didn't have gps with me and I couldn't make out the names of the streets that well.  I thought I was headed in the right direction..Anyways I sauntered through the streets of Frankfurt for a while - quite a nice walk actually - before realizing that I might be headed in the wrong direction. Along the way I passed many different Turkish restaurnts, MidEastern banks (not Israeli...) and, of course, many coffee bars, high end stores and other German specialty shops.  I stopped at a coffee shop and asked for some help.  The barrista was quite friendly - but she told me that I had gone in the exact opposite direction.  So I decided to grab a cab and head over the museum.

The Juedische Museum is housed in quite a nice building.  There is an admission cost of about 7 Euro - though you can get a combination pass to both Jewish musuems for 10 Euro.  The reception staff were helpful both with information about the museum and with directions to the next destination.

For me, the Museum itelf was a bit of a disappointment. If has three floors.  The top floor had information about the history of the Frankfurt Jewish community.  Some information went back to the 4th and 5th centuries. Much of the information was about the period between 1100 and 1700.

The exhibits detailed the history of persecution, isolation and discrimination to which the Jewish community was subjected over hundreds of years.  There was a particularly poignant section addressing the change in Martin Luther - from being sympathetic to the Jewish people initially - to being one of the most vicious anti-Semites in his later years.  Most of the museum was pre-enlightenment.  I felt that there was a complete disconnect betwen the history of this "Jewish people" and the Jews of later years.  There was very little on the vibrancy of Jewish life in Germany post enlightenment.

Even more disturbing was the minimal detail as to what happened to this community.  There is virtually no information about the Holocaust.  One is left wondering what happened to this Jewish community.  For someone who might not have very much historical knowledge - it would appear that the community simply vanished. 

On the second floor, there was a collection of items used for Jewish ritual and holiday celebrations and an explanation of the various holidays and how the items are used.  There was a syngogue display (with an open Torah on the wall), a collection of Chanukiyot, Shabbat candle sticks, Havdalah spice boxes and many other items.  Most of the items were from anywhere from 700 to 1600.  Some were quite ornate.  But all of these traditions were described historically, with no connection to something that still exists.  I suppose that is true of Judaism in Franfurt (largely), but I felt uncomfortable in this museum.

Tram from Judengasse
So after about 45 minutes, I decided to try the other one - the Judengasse.  I was able to take a short tram ride over to this one 

Judengasse means "Jewish Alley."  (It does not a word describing what eventually happened to much of the community).  In any event, this museum focuses on the Judengasse which existed between 1462 and 1796.  The museum features preserved sections of 5 buildings there were part of the old Franfurt Ghetto.  There is a decent article on Wikepedia describing it here.

I wandered around the museum and looked at these sections of very old stone buildings.  There were remnants of ancient Mikvot, ovens and other rooms.  There was some information as well.  Interesting enough to see, I suppose.  I would not be running back...

So I was done by about 3 p.m.  I could have wandered around Frankfurt and sat in a cafe or a bar or just taken in the sights and sounds of the city.  But I would have to confess that I simply had no interest.  I don't really view Germany at the top of my list for site-seeing, for obvious reasons, even though many Israelis see things differently.  I felt quite uncomfortable, even on the tram ride.  Looking around, there were quite a few Muslims and Indian people.  But I wouldn't really describe what I saw as feeling cosmopolitan.  On the contrary, I had the feeling that this was now a place almost completely devoid of Jews.  I did not really see very many east asians, black people or others for that matter - but the combination of these two museums and the feelings about German that I simply couldn't supress led me to return to the airport rather than wander around more. 

Judengasse Frankfurt
 
The museum was right across the street from a tram stop.  I was able to take the tram to Frankfurt main station - and then a short train ride from there to the airport.  Total travel time would be about 1/2 hour or so.  I made my way through security and headed over the Lufthansa "Senators Lounge" which is located right near gate C13 - the Lufthansa gate that is used for flights to Tel-Aviv.  This time (unlike on my previous visit three years ago) there was free wi-fi in the lounge.  There was also a wide ranging selection of food and drinks.  The lounge has showers, comfortable chairs and other facilities.

Finally, after about 2 hours in the lounge, I was ready to go to the gate for the flight from Frankfurt to Tel-Aviv. There is an extra security check-in for flights to Israel featuring a full pat-down for every traveller.  But not much has changed since my last blog about this flight.  It is a very cramped airplane.  There are no amenities on board - other than some washrooms at the back of the plane.  No personal video screens or overhead screens.  Limited space.  Fortunately it is only a three and a half hour flight.

I had another Indian vegetarian meal.  Not as good a the first one but still decent.  I tried to sleep.  I arrived in Tel-Aviv at about 12:30 a.m., having travelled for about 24 hours.  It was a long journey.  Overall, it would probably be worth spending some more money to avoid 12 hours in Franfurt next time but it is always worthwhile to have the experience of seeing and trying new things.

Happy to be back in Israel for the upcoming Pesach holiday.  I will try to write one more blog before then.  So for now - Shabbat Shalom!



Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Putin to Speak in Israeli Knesset

Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin does not like to shy away from danger.  In one photo opportunity (staged, of course), he is seen petting a leopard.  He also been seen hunting, horseback riding, spinning out in a dangerous race car - and taming nature in many other ways.  But where is the real danger? What is out there that might be so risky and dangerous, that it would even frighten President Obama?  Well, apparently, President Putin has agreed to address the Israeli Knesset.

Few other world leaders have tried it.  Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper performed the perilous feat earlier this year.  He was heckled relentlessly by Arab-Israeli MKs who stormed out of the Knesset when Prime Minister Harper called for the recognition of Israel as a Jewish State.  But Prime Minister Harper escaped unscathed, physically and politically.

I'm not good enough with photoshop to put together a picture of President Putin snuggling up to Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon but that might be even more frightening than holding a leopard.  Certainly U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry seems to think so.

President Putin has many things to discuss in the Israeli Knesset.  He would like to warn Israel against overreacting in the face of terrorist attacks and threats.  Putin's calm and peaceful approach to the threat of terrorism, as exemplified by his dealings with the Chechnyans is something he will advocate as a model for Israel to consider the next time that it is faced with challenges in Gaza, Lebanon or Ramallah.

President Putin would also like to lecture Israel about overreacting to Maritime terrorism.  Again, he will point to his country's efficient and friendly dealings with Somali pirates as the model that Israel should adopt.  If you simply blow the entire boat out of the water, so that there are no traces of the boat or its crew, there is no need for a U.N. investigation and certainly no need for reparation payments to be paid to the country that sent the boat in the first place. 

While in Israel, President Putin is also expected to make a major policy change.  Apparently after petting the leopard, he made himself a beautiful pair of leopardskin trousers.  He will be wearing them while marching in the annual Tel-Aviv Pride Parade and will announce a change of Russian policy.  Gay people in Russia will now be treated equally.  President Putin is also expected to announce that he is coming out of the closet (he was feeling very claustrophobic) and will be happy to have more space and breathing room.  There is apparently lots of space in the Ukraine...

Lastly, President Putin is expected to discuss Russia's vigorous initiatives against political corruption.  He will be conducting a series of meetings in Israel with former politicians, rabbis, mayors and others to discuss the successful initiatives that Israel has implemented.  He is expected to meet with Aryeh Deri, Ehud Olmert, former Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger and others as part of a fact finding mission.  Following these meetings, he will apparently be blessed, jointly, by Rabbi Metzger and Aryeh Deri in exchange for an unspecified sum of rubles.

Israelis across the country are looking forward to meeting this visionary and hearing all about good governance, human rights, equality, the fight against corruption and sensible foreign policy initiatives.  The visit will take place on an undisclosed date in the near future.



Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Watching the Olympics - In Israel: Good Luck!

While much of the world is caught up in the spirit of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Israelis remain largely oblivious to fact that these games are even taking place.  After all, Israel has more than its share of crucial agenda items to occupy the news.  Who will be Israel's next President after President Shimon Peres concludes his term in June 2014?  Will the government actually vote to force Haredim (Ultra-Religious Jews) to report for conscription, with criminal sanctions for failure to report?  What will happen with John Kerry's peace plan?  Will the Syrian conflict broaden?  And of course, will the price of cottage cheese go up in Israel?

Nevertheless, for expatriate Canadians (and other Canadians who spend a lot of time in Israel...), as with most Canadians in Canada, there is only one real sport that matters - ice hockey.  And these Olymics feature the best players in the world in a short tournament to decide which country will have ice hockey bragging rights for the next four years.  There is already some talk that the professional NHL players may not be back to the Olympics in 2018.  So this is a really rare event for ice hockey afficianados.

But for Israelis, ice hockey is nowhere to be found on the radar screen.  Soccer and basketball are the main sports.  Little else matters in the world of athletic competition.  This country will probably come to a standstill during the World Cup of Soccer (Football) in Brazil later this year, just as Canada will come to a standstill this coming Sunday (February 23, 2014) if Canada makes it to the gold medal game. But Olympic coverage in Israel is attracting very little interest.

So how can Canadians (and Americans, Europeans and other winter sports enthusiasts) watch Olympic coverage?  How can we watch this great high-level ice hockey?  Well, it is doable, but with some difficulty.

One cable channel, channel 20 (sport 5?) has been showing some Olympic coverage.  It touts itself as "Israel's Olympic Network."  However, this coverage shows a very small number of live events and includes the same Hebrew language commentators for every sport.  You can hear the same lines over and over again whether you are watching Curling, Ice Hockey, Ski Jumping or any other sport. (or probably MasterChef as well).   "She is not giving up,"  "these athletes are working really hard,"  "what a beautiful move."  "These athletes are in really great shape."

More troubling than the woefully inadequate commentary is the programming schedule.  The "Olympic channel" has been showing the two Israeli figure skaters over and over and over again, several times a day, instead of showing other live sports that are taking place.  While it is nice to encourage patriotism, surely the "Olymic Network" can cover some of the most exciting events live, even if no Israeli athletes are competing.  They can always show the figure skaters in the evening or early morning if they must keep showing their routine over and over again.

Last week, the network showed a live ice hockey match, in full, between Latvia and Slovakia, hardly two of the leading powerhouses.  But that was only the preliminary round.  This week, it showed only the third periods of two diffferent elimination matches. (i.e. two much more important games).  Today, there are four quarter final games taking place.  The Israeli Olympic Network is not showing any of them!  Not even partial coverage - a third period or even a first period.  So if it is hockey you are after, you need another option.

A second option is to try and stream Canadian coverage.   CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) has great winter Olympic coverage and superb ice hockey coverage.  CBC has been streaming live TV thoughout the olympics. It seems to be showing almost every Olympic event live, concurrently, but these streams only work in Canada.   So in order to watch CBC, you need  to set up a VPN (a virtual private network).  This VPN simulates a Canadian location.  It costs about $40 for the year the set up is easy.  So far so good, in theory. But the internet speed (and stability) has been too slow to watch CBC without huge lag time and broken pictures.

A third option is to watch European coverage streamed though a site like Wiziwig.com.  That is the option I have been left with.  So I have had a chance to watch some of the Finland-Russia Quarter Final match with German commentary.   The picture has been reasonably reliable.  I am hoping for some better options for tonight's game between Canada and Latvia.  Maybe the Israeli channel will even show the final game live on Sunday (or part of it). 

Over the course of this year's Olympics, I have managed to see the Israeli speed skater (more than a few times).  He started strong and then fell into last place.  I guess "pacing" wasn't part of the coaching manual.  I have also seen the Israeli figure skating couple several times (my son can now point out the exact spot where she falls...).  There is some talk of efforts to send an Israeli curling team to the next Olympics or perhaps a bobsledding team.  But it will be a long time (if ever) before Israelis have any serious interest in these winter games. 

So for now, those interested in watching the most exciting ice hockey in the world are left with trying to find the best available method of watching streamed coverage over the internet.  At least these options exist.

I guess I can understand how Australians feel when they are far away from Aussie rules football or how cricket fans might feel when they are in a country that does not pay attention to cricket.  And yet of course, this is after all, only sports, next to some very serious existential issues that people grapple with here in Israel.  Even so, I am sure there are many sports fans in Israel from Canada, the U.S. and other places, who really want to watch these hockey games and I am glad that there are some reasonable alternatives for doing so.

Go Canada Go - here's hoping for the Gold Medal!

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Kerry's Peace Proposals - Status of Current Negotiations

It is often said by mediators that a good deal between two sides is one which leaves each side equally unhappy.  That is the essence of a negotiated settlement where two parties have diametrically opposing demands and are trying to find a peaceful way to resolve their differences.  Indications are that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is trying to find a way to come to some of these middle ground positions in an effort to present a plan to Israel and the Palestinians that has some chance of acceptance.

Certainly, there is no shortage of naysayers on either side of the conflict.  Israeli cabinet ministers Naftali Bennett and Ze'ev Elkin have been pushing Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to walk away from the talks and reject Kerry's imminent proposals.  Similarly, officials on the Palestinian side of the table, including PLO Secretary Yasser Abed Rabbo have indicated that Kerry's proposals will not be acceptable to any Palestinians. 

At the same time, there are a number of high ranking Israeli cabinet ministers, including Tzipi Livni and Yair Lapid who maintain that a deal that is acceptable to Israel is within reach.  Any such deal, from the Israeli side, could necessitate a change in the current Israeli government.  Given statements made by Minister Naftali Bennett, he and his party would leave the government rather than agree to the type of peace plan being presented by Kerry.  On the other hand, there is significant skepticism in Israel that the Palestinians will accept this type of deal, even if Kerry can get the Israelis to agree.  Moreover, Israelis have real concerns as to whether the current Palestinian leadership could deliver the type of "peace" contemplated by the agreement.  Statements by various Palestinian officials seem to suggest that this type of deal will not be good enough and the Palestinians will reject a U.S. brokered proposal, yet again..  But that remains to be seen.

What are some of the key issues?

1.  Recognition of Israel as a Jewish State and Resolution of the Palestinian Refugee Issue.

In a sense, these issues are very closely related.  From an Israeli perspective, the UN partition plan in 1948 contemplated a two state solution - one state for the Jewish people and one state for the Palestinian people.  There can be little historical dispute that the Palestinians rejected the plan and declared war on Israel.  Over the course of that war, some areas were seized by Jordan and Egypt that would have been parts of the Palestinian state.  Other areas were captured by Israel and many Palestinians fled those areas.  Yet between 1948 and 1967, the Palestinian and pan-Arab animus was still directed at Israel with the goal of eliminating Israel's existence.  Such was the Arab rhetoric leading up to the 1967 war and the 1973 war - and for many years afterwards.  It is still the rhetoric of Hamas.   

The reason that Israel has insisted on recognition of Israel as a "Jewish state" as part of a peace deal is to signify that both sides accept a two state solution as a permanent peace deal.  It is not a stepping stone towards greater conflict.  Israel would recognize a Palestinian state with all of the trappings that a state might have, subject to security considerations.  The Palestinians would be expected to do the same and would agree to Israel's right to exist.  

What does a two state solution really mean?  It means that each side gives up its dream, goal or aspiration of taking over all of the territory held by the other side.  It also means that each side solves its own refugee problems within the borders of its territory.  For the Palestinians, this type of deal should leave them free to bring every single Palestinian refugee, from across the world, to the nascent Palestinian state, if they so choose.  Should that not be the purpose of a two state resolution?  Since 1948, Israel has absorbed millions of refugees, including Jews who were no longer welcome in Yemen, Egypt, Syria, Iran and other Arab countries.  The Palestinians will need to do the same and absorb the Palestinian refugees in their new state.

Most Palestinians have continued to demand the "right to return" to Israel.  This insistence is nothing more than a rejection of Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state and the expression of an intention to override Israel demographically.  It is, quite simply, for Israel, a non-starter.   If, as some suggest, Palestinians continue to insist that a large number of Palestinians be permitted to return to Israel rather than the new Palestinian state, this would be a deal breaker, in my view.

2.  Status of Jerusalem

Under the U.N. partition plan, Jerusalem was going to become an "International City."  It was never envisioned as part of the Palestinian state and certainly not its capital.  Between 1948 and 1967, much of Jerusalem was held by the Jordanians, with little push by the Palestinians to declare it the capital of Palestine.  In 1967, Israel recaptured parts of Jerusalem, including the old city and ultimately annexed most of the city.  Regardless of what some countries in the world might formally maintain, Jerusalem is not "occupied territory" as defined under the Geneva conventions. It was not legally held by Jordan nor was its status clearly defined. Since Israel has controlled Jerusalem, from 1967, the holy cites have been fully accessible to the different religious groups that claim access to them.  The Muslim Waqf has controlled the Al Aqsa Mosque and Christian holy cites have been overseen by Christian authorities. This contrasts with the picture that existed in Jerusalem between 1948 and 1967, during which time Jews were barred from attending the Jewish religious cites in old Jerusalem.

One of the key Palestinian demands is that East Jerusalem, including the Old City, become the capital of the new Palestinian state.  Once again, this is something that is simply not going to happen any time soon.  There would be no political will in Israel for dividing Jerusalem and certainly no appetite for Israel to relinquish the one place in the world that is holy to the Jewish people.  So Secretary of State Kerry has proposed using suburbs of Jerusalem, including Kafr Aqab or Abu Dis and calling those suburbs "Greater Jerusalem" or some other terminology so that "Jerusalem" can still be listed as the Palestinian capital.  While this would be unpalatable to many on both sides, it may be a reasonable resolution of the issue, especially when combined with the fact that Palestinians would continue to control the Muslim religious sites in Jerusalem as they do today, even though the Dome of the Rock sits on the very spot that was once the Holy Temple.

3.   The Settlements, the Border and Security

The United States has proposed a formula involving an approximate total amount of land for each side, equal to the 1967 borders.  The idea of "land swaps" would mean that Israel would keep the largest major settlement blocs while giving up other areas to the Palestinians.  There are certainly many on both sides who oppose this proposal entirely.

Many Palestinians have demanded that Israel withdraw, entirely, from all land that Israel has held since 1967. This would include major residential blocs, some of which were inhabited by Jews before 1948 (such as parts of Gush Etzion).  Some Israelis have demanded that Israel retain the vast majority of the West Bank and refuse to agree to turn over any territory, whatsoever.  Neither side is likely to get everything it is after in a negotiated settlement.

Media reports suggest that the settlement issue would be resolved through a number of approaches.  Under Kerry's proposals, which have not yet been formally announced, Israel would keep or annex the largest settlement blocs, but it would also agree to evacuate some areas of the West Bank on which there are now Israeli settlements.  Palestinians would receive other territory, with the total territory under Palestinian control for the new state the approximate equivalent of the 1967 borders.

The real challenge is security here, particularly security for Israel and even for Jordan.  Israel can ill afford, from a security perspective, to agree to the establishment of another fundamentalist terror-sponsored regime on its borders.  After Israel evacuated Gaza, the Gazan people promptly elected the rejectionist, terrorist group Hamas as its leadership.  Shortly afterwards, Hamas began lobbing rockets at Israel.  A repetition of this, in a different area, would be entirely unacceptable to Israel and would threaten Israel existentially.  Kerry's plans have apparently floated various approaches to address this security concern including a continuing, but gradually lessening Israeli presence in the Palestinian state or some type of U.S. presence.  This could present one of the greatest challenges for Israel and one of the biggest leaps of faith that Israel would have to make to agree to a deal.

Israel has a very small margin of error here the wrong decision or concession on security issues could be suicidal.  That is not to say that this is the plan of the current Palestinian leadership.  But looking at events in Syria, Egypt and other Arab countries in the Middle East, it is reasonable for Israel to insist on security measures that will be honoured and verifiable, irrespective of the type of Palestinian government that might get elected.  Some of these precautionary security terms are likely to be unacceptable to the Palestinians and that is where Kerry is working with both sides to try to find some way to reach a deal.

Conclusion

There are, of course, numerous other issues.  After all, many books have been written about this issue, from various historical, political and other vantage points.  I have reviewed some of them elsewhere on this blog.

The real question is what is going to happen now - and will anything come of this.  Most Israelis apparently remain unconvinced that a deal will be possible, according to recent Israeli surveys reported on by YNet News and Haaretz.  Many Palestinians have signified that they would view this type of deal as a "sell-out" and would reject it entirely.  So it is far from clear that there will be any kind of resolution.  Nevertheless, here are a few possibilities:

1.       Israel could agree to the deal, whether unconditionally or with some reservations.  In order to do this, it  appears that Israel's government would change, at least somewhat.  It is likely that Bennett would leave the government and that Labour, under the leadership of its recently elected new leader Yitzhak Herzog would join.  It is unclear whether some or all of the "Yisrael Beitenu" MKs would leave the government and if they were to leave, whether Netanyahu could still cobble together a majority that would support the deal.  If a Netanyahu-led government were to support the deal, my sense is that a deal could also win support in an Israel-wide referendum, even if the margin of victory was slim.

2.  Israel could agree to the deal, as above, but the Palestinians could reject it, either in connection with the ongoing talks or as part of some form of referendum.  This is probably the outcome that most Israelis anticipate, although there are signs that Abbas may be prepared to agree to a proposed deal, even if he does so conditionally or with some reservations.  It is unclear what the Palestinians will do if these talks fail.  They may look to the world community to try and exert economic pressure on Israel by advocating boycotts and divestment.  Some countries in the world have already been susceptible to these overtures.  Or they may declare a third intifada.  Either of these approaches would likely be disastrous for both Israel and the Palestinians and would probably set back a peaceful resolution by another twenty or thirty years, at least.

3.  The Palestinians could agree to the deal, as above, with some reservations or unconditionally.  However, Bennett could then cause the collapse of the government and Netanyahu could prove unable (or unwilling) to put together a coalition that would support the deal.  This could result in new elections in Israel or it could bring about a new right wing government that includes the religious parties and that has no interest in any type of peace deal.  In this scenario, (i.e. if the Netanyahu government were to fall) my guess would be that we would see a new election fairly quickly, though I am not about to predict the results.  It seems to me unlikely that Netanyahu would cling to power by cobbling together a far right -wing government.  I think he would be more inclined to hold an election. 

Stepping back from all of this, there are many reasons for pessimism and it seems unlikely that we will see an Israel-Palestinian peace deal any time soon. There are so many complicated issues, so much "bad blood," and so much hatred.  Yet, as I have told some of my friends, we are living in an age which has seen the collapse of the U.S.S.R; a peaceful resolution of the dispute in Ireland; the end to South African Apartheid; and many other world changes that people would have believed to be possible in our lifetime.  So maybe, just maybe, a peace deal between Israel, the Palestinians and the neighbouring Arab states will be another one of those historical moments.

It seems to me that both sides need this type of deal if they truly wish to avoid sentencing their children and grandchildren to generations more of bloody conflict.


Monday, January 27, 2014

More Downgrades at Aeroplan: Mileage Accumulation is Tougher and Tougher

I saw another one of those dreaded "announcements" from Aeroplan announcing mileage accumulation changes, this time for flights on United Airlines.  Aeroplan card holders will now find it even more difficult to achieve the various "Altitude" status levels when collecting Aeroplan miles from some key partners. 

I suppose it was only a matter of time.  Last year, Aeroplan introduced "Tango" flights for the Israel route and other international destinations.  With these tickets, passengers only accumulate 50% of the Aeroplan miles.  Plus, these fares are not eligible for free upgrades to first class.  It would take 20 round trip flights in a year between Toronto and Tel-Aviv on these fares to be eligible for "super elite" status (now called s100k).

Until now, there was at least one way around this problem.  Passengers could fly United from Toronto to Tel-Aviv (through Newark Airport) and still collect 100% of the air miles, even at the cheapest air fares.  Now this latest announcement from Aeroplan indicates that most of the cheapest air fares on United will only provide accumulation of 50% mileage, effective March 31, 2014.  This was already the case with Swiss, Lufthansa, Austrian, Turkish and other partner airlines.  The long and the short of it is that if you are flying with the least expensive air fares, it is getting harder and harder to accumulate Aeroplan points.  It is also worth pointing out that US Air is leaving the Star Alliance effective March 31, 2014 - so perhaps it is no coincidence that United made the change once it realized it had no Star Alliance competition between the U.S. and Israel.

This is not the only negative change that Aeroplan has introduced.  Over the past few years, the "tax and fuel surcharge" has skyrocketed on Aeroplan tickets.  So, let's say you want to use 80,000 points to get a "free" ticket on Air Canada.  It will cost you $680-$800 in "fuel surcharges."  Aeroplan calls these charges "tax and fuel surcharges."  But they aren't really fooling consumers.  These "fuel surcharges" allow for significant profit for Aeroplan on "free" tickets.  They aren't really "fuel surcharges."  They are simply ticket charges.  Paying $800 in surcharges to go to Israel in the winter, for example, is absurd.  You could probably find a ticket on another airline, taxes in, for close to $900, without wasting 80,000 points.

In fact, I looked into taking a trip to Montreal two weeks ago from Toronto.  The "surcharge" was $170.  A ticket with Porter would only cost $199, taxes in, if you could find a deal.  So what kind of "free" ticket is that.when you have to pay $170 AND 15,000 points?

This year, Aeroplan introduced "e-upgrade charges."  If  you are not Super Elite and you want to upgrade your seat on a transatlantic flight into the first class cabin, it will now cost $500, if there happens to be room.  Up until this year, there was no charge. That was one of the incredible benefits of flying Air Canada regularly - the ability to upgrade for free when there was space available.  I guess these changers are all intended to ensure that only the customers paying the much higher fares, on a regular basis, will get the benefits (that they probably won't need as much anyways).

Overall, it seems unlikely that I will come close to making Superelite status this year and it sounds like it will be less and less worthwhile to even try.  Mileage accumulation has become harder and harder, benefits have been reduced significantly and some of the better benefits have been eliminated.

To really try to fool everyone, Aeroplan rolled out its "Distinction" program to run parallel to its Aeroplan program.  Nobody that I have spoken to has been able to determine that there any benefits whatsoever of this program.  At first, the program made it sound like customers could, by achieving "Distinction" status, get discounted rates on Aeroplan tickets.  The advertised discount was as high as 35%.  But, on close reflection, people realized that Aeroplan is only offering the discount on "market rate" fares.  So in other words, let's say that an Aeroplan ticket to Israel would go for 80,000 points.  Aeroplan might say they are "sold out" and the market rate is now 130,000 or even 200,000.  (Or some other ridiculous, inflated, arbitrary number).  "Distinction" status holders will get their percentage discount on that number.  So instead of being able to pay $750 for a "free" ticket along with 80,000 points, you can now pay about 84,500 and $750, when the "market rate" is 130,000 points.  If the "market rate" is 200,000....well, you follow?

For someone flying back and forth on a long haul flight - like the Toronto-Tel-Aviv route, seven or eight times a year, this was enough, up until last year, to earn Super-Elite status and get some great benefits like free upgrades, double Aeroplan miles, wider available for "free" tickets and other perqs.  You could do this, even while buying the cheapest fares.  But now, it looks like you would have to pay an average of at least $300 to $500 more per ticket, which adds up considerably.

The difficulty is that there are very few options for Canada-Israel "commuters."  El Al still lacks the same in-flight amenities and has a horrible mileage accumulation program.  If an El Al ticket would get passengers full mileage accumulation on another system's program, that might start to make the decision a bit more complicated.

Ultimately, for a direct flight between Toronto and Tel-Aviv, Air Canada still offers the most convenient flight from Toronto and significantly better service.  The flight leaves at 5:30 p.m. and flies overnight, arriving in Israel at about 11:00 a.m. This is a great schedule, although it would probably be better if it were to leave around 8:00  or even 9:00 p.m.

The flight back on Air Canada, which is a 13 hour day time flight, is atrocious.  It leaves at 12:30 p.m. Israel time and arrives at 6:30 p.m. in Toronto.  The flight goes on forever.  For flights from Israel to Toronto, in my view, it is better to fly El Al or take United through New Jersey on its overnight flight.  At least that way, you can get some sleep.

Overall, the cumulative effect of all of these changes at Aeroplan is that the program seems to become worse and worse each year, while the benefits seem to be fewer and fewer.  Its quite unfortunate.  Maybe one day, some other airline, like Westjet, will start offering flights back and forth to Israel at a reasonable price with decent amenities.  For now, there are even fewer good choices.