Monday, October 26, 2015

Comments about Israel: Recent Events and Issues Oct 2015

Although Israel has no shortage of difficult days of commemoration on its calendar, today's anniversary is particularly difficult.  It is the anniversary of the assassination of the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin Z"l.  He was murdered by a Jewish religious extremist who maintained that Rabin must be killed to prevent Israel from reaching a peace deal with the Palestinians.  Twenty years have passed since  Rabin's murder.  Unfortunately, Israel is no closer to peace with the Palestinians than it was while he was alive.  If anything, the notion that there might be peace any time soon is one that, regrettably, seems shared by fewer and fewer Israelis these days.  I would imagine most Palestinians feel the same way.

As we commemorate this horrific and murderous act in Israel, I wanted to write about some of the things that have been going on here over the past several weeks.  I have not had the opportunity to write as frequently over the past few months.  This is certainly not for lack of material.  In fact, there have been so many incidents recently, that some bloggers and twitter users are releasing tweets and articles several times a day.

There is not necessarily a theme to connect the various incidents that I have picked out - but it is mixed bag of events and other items that I wanted to highlight.

1.  Terrorist Knife Attacks:

On September 30, 2015, Mahmoud Abbas, leader of the Palestinian Authority spoke at the U.N..  He had said he was going to drop a  "bombshell" prior to his speech.  While it remains unclear which bombshell was actually dropped, it appears that his intention was to kick off a new "intifadah" by raising the specter of an Israeli takeover of the Dome of the Rock - the Al Aqsa Mosque.  Abbas claimed that the mosque was under siege and that the Israeli government was plotting to take over the mosque and change the status quo.  As Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu confirmed at his speech to the UN days later, this was all completely false and fabricated.  Israel has always protected and supported the rights of Muslims to control, visit and worship at the mosque, just as it has done the same thing for Christians with respect to Christian holy sites in Jerusalem.

Nevertheless, since Abbas' incendiary address, there has been a wave of terrorist incidents across Israel. According to Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, there have been (as of October 25, 2015), 43 stabbings, 4 shootings and 5 car rammings.  These attacks have killed 10 Israelis and injured 112, 12 of whom were very seriously injured.  The vast majority of the victims have been Israeli civilians.  Most of the attackers have been young Palestinian-Israelis, residents of East Jerusalem, primarily.  They have claimed that their attacks are motivated by their determination to "protect the mosque."

Many of the attacks have been against Israelis civilians, including children and senior citizens, at bus stops, street corners or other public places.  Two of the stabbing attacks were very close to home, taking place in Ra'anana. 

It is hard to imagine how anyone can draw a connection between the perceived danger to the political status of the mosque in Jerusalem and the act of attacking civilians across Israel.  It is also hard to understand why Abbas seems to believe that this type of terrorism will further the Palestinian cause.  If anything, these actions seem destined to cause Israelis to harden their resolve and move to the political right.  Abbas has refused to condemn the attacks and in several cases has described the attackers as martyrs.  Moreover, he has distorted some of the events and lied about others to further incite the Palestinian people.  Perhaps, he has been buoyed by the notoriously outrageous coverage of these incidents by some of the world media, notably the BBC and NBC news to name a couple.  Both organizations have distorted reports of incidents to suggest that Israeli soldiers and/or police were at fault in cases in which they were defending against knife wielding attackers.

2.  Killing the Perpetrators and Collateral Damage

These types of stabbing attacks against civilians have caused a high level of vigilance, tension and stress among many Israelis, as well as outright anger.  Certainly these are all the intended consequences.

With respect to the attackers, there has been a vigorous public debate about whether the attackers should be killed if at all possible or whether they should only be "neutralized."  Of course the Palestinian Authority has claimed that Palestinian attackers are being "executed" even while Abbas refuses to condemn the stabbing attacks in the first place.  Some international media organizations have gone along with these accusations.

There is little doubt, in my view, that Israeli civilians, police and military forces, must take all appropriate steps to defend against these attacks.  In many cases, that will certainly result in the death of the attackers and that is probably the most appropriate result.  I have no moral difficulty with the argument that it is completely justifiable to kill someone who is trying to stab you to death.

Nevertheless, some prominent Israeli rabbis, like Rabbi Stav, have warned against excessive force and reprisals.  Rabbi Stav argued that Israelis should not murder "neutralized terrorists" who no longer pose a threat.  He also argued that Israelis should refrain from taking any "reprisal actions," especially against those who had nothing to do with the attacks in the first place.  In both cases, Rabbi Stav has urged Israelis not to abandon the moral high ground by acting like "our enemies."  Other prominent rabbis have disagreed with Rabbi Stav and have argued that it may even be a moral imperative to "finish the job" and ensure that the attacker will not be able to harm anyone else.

Certainly this wave of terror attacks has created a great deal of anger and frustration in Israel. There have been some vigilante attacks and some attacks against completely innocent Arabs.  Moreover, in one tragic incident in Beers Sheva, an Eritrean refugee was beaten to death just after a terrorist attack.  Those who beat him to death wrongly believed that he had been involved in the attack.

There is no justification for attacking innocent people, whether at the time of the attacks (i.e. those who are wrongly associated with the attacks) or attacking other Arabs who had nothing to do with the attacks as a form of reprisal.  However, with respect to events that occur in the midst of an attack, it is hard to judge the actions of those who are fighting for their lives or fighting to protect the lives of others. While there may be an argument that we should not "execute" completely neutralized terrorists (after all, Israel does not even have capital punishment), there is no reason to think that police, soldiers and attack victims should try, in any way, to avoid harming these terrorists, even fatally, in defending against these attacks.  Even so, we have had many bizarre situations where the terrorists remain alive after the attacks and are treated in the same hospital as their Israeli victims.

3. Rescuing Syrian Refugees

With everything going on in Israel, you might have missed a story of rescue.  An Israeli yacht crew was boating off the coast of Greece last Sunday (October 18, 2015).  They suddenly saw some people in the water and sprang into action.  They rescued 12 Syrian and Iraqi refugees and took all appropriate steps to treat them and then bring them to Greek authorities.  The crew members were certain that none of these refugees would have survived if they had not been pulled out of the water by the Israeli rescuers.  Hundreds of refugees have drowned in these waters this year.  When the crew members told the rescued refugees that they were Jews from Israel, they say that they received nothing but thanks, hugs and gratitude.  I don't think I have heard Mahmoud Abbas speak about this incident but this is the real face of Israel.  Just as Israeli hospitals have treated hundreds (if not thousands) of injured Syrians near the Israeli-Syrian border, these Israeli boaters did not think twice about rescuing refugees, even those who were fleeing from an enemy country.

4.  Prime Minister Netanyahu's Invocation of the Holocaust

In a speech last week, Prime Minister Netanyahu suggested that Haj Amin Al Husseini, in the early 1940s, was the one to suggest to Hitler that the Nazis should build mass crematoria.  Netanyahu's speech has attracted a great deal of criticism and condemnation.  It appears to be the type of hyperbole and historical distortion that he routinely accuses Israel's enemies of employing.

That being said, I enjoyed this article by a University of Maryland Professor about the actual historical record:

Netanyahu, Husseini and the Historians

However, even if there is more accuracy to Netanyahu's comments that most critics would concede, there was  little to be gained in making such statements other than as a means of incitement.  Moreover, some of the comments, according to many historians, were thoroughly wrong.  It is a disservice to Israel for the Prime Minister to distort the Holocaust in this fashion, even while he might be understandably frustrated by the recent events taking place in Israel (at the behest of Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, who has used lies to foment the current crisis).

5. Putin, Russia, Hezbollah and Assad

As if there weren't enough things to worry about in our neck of the woods, Russian President Putin stated that he was going "all in" on Syria.  That has meant that he is sending Russian soldiers, pilots, tanks, planes and other army support to his besieged ally in Syria.

I couldn't help but think of the famous scene from Fiddler on the Roof in a discussion with some friends in Israel recently:

Is there a Jewish blessing for the President of Russia?  (In the movie, the Czar...)

Of course there is.  May the Lord bless Putin and keep him far away from us....

Well, he is a lot closer now then he was recently.  He has suggested that he will protect Assad loyalists - which can often include Hezbollah and their supporters.  Will he try to prevent Israel from halting military shipments sent from Syria to Hezbollah?  If so, how far will he go?  Will he shoot down Israeli planes (or try to do so?).  Will he lose some planes himself in these efforts?

Unfortunately, all three of Israel's neighbours to the north and the east seem to part of a huge powder keg.  The inferno is already burning in Syria but Lebanon and Jordan may soon be drawn in.  Israel will have no choice but to protect its national interests, however that might best be done.

6. Visiting Entertainers  The Real Artists and the Pretenders...

On a lighter note, I must salute those artists who have stood up to the international pressure and insisted on going ahead with peformances in Israel.  Last year, it was the Rolling Stones, Cyndi Lauper and others who came to perform before appreciative crowds.

Recently, Israeli welcomed two well known acts.  In the first show, Kanye West delivered a performance that was universally panned.  It was a short concert and, apparently, pre-taped.  In other words, mostly lip syncing.  Sure it is true that thousands of fans were only too happy to lay out lots of shekels to attend the spectacle.  But it doesn't sound like the performance delivered quite what the fans were expecting.  I wasn't there, so I can't say for sure.  (After all, for those who know me, you could probably imagine how unlikely it is that you would ever find me at a Kanye West concert...)

On the other hand, Bon Jovi performed not too long after Kanye West.  This concert received some really great reviews.  The band was apparently quite enthusiastic, entertaining and very much live.  It probably would have been fun, though I couldn't justify the cost.

Israel gets its share of concerts though there are many artists who refuse to perform here.  Pink Floyd leader Roger Waters has been a one-man BDS campaign in the music industry sending out threatening letters and issuing public statements wherever he can to ostracize Israel and try to convince fellow performers to boycott the country in its entirety.

Fortunately there are many other artists who have been willing to ignore him - or even better, artists who have been willing to stand up in support of Israel and to publicly declare that they will not give in to boycotts.

7. The Canadian Election and Israel 

I suppose that this type of update article would not be complete without some mention of the Canadian election.  As you know, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper lost the recent Canadian election quite decisively to Prime Minister Elect Justin Trudeau.  A detailed analysis of the election is well beyond the scope of this blog article.

However, it is worth mentioning that the outgoing Prime Minister was one of the best friends that Israel ever had on the international stage.  Some of the outgoing government's senior ministers were also extremely supportive.  One such minister is Jason Kenney who held different ministerial portfolios over the course of this government's mandate.

The Honourable Minister Kenney has been an extremely active and vocal supporter of Israel, a supporter of the Jewish people and a staunch ally of Jewish people, across the world, on a range of issues of Jewish interest.  He has spoken at numerous Holocaust commemoration events. He has spoken at events across the world, about the dangers of anti-Semitism, even before very unwelcoming crowds.  Minister Kenney has truly demonstrated that he cares about the Jewish people and we will miss having such a tremendous friend.

At the same time, we will  have to hope that the Liberals have some strong allies for us in their ranks as well.  Certainly, there will be some Jewish voices in the the new government, like Michael Levitt, the newly elected York Centre MP and Anthony Housefather, who was elected in Mount Royal.  But how the Liberal government deals with its Israel issues portfolio is still something that remains up in the air for now.  After all, Canada's Prime Minister has many other priorities if he is to fulfill the huge number of promises that he made over the course of the lengthy election campaign.

Although much of this is not necessarily connected, I thought you might enjoy a bit of a wide ranging update type blog.  As usual, feel free to join the discussion and add in some comments. 

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Rosh Hashana 2015 - Saving Syrian Refugees?

Shana Tova!  It has been a while since I have had the chance to write a blog post but I thought I would take advantage of the opportunity today.

For starters, I managed to "shep some naches" this holiday.  I guess that can be translated to "deriving pleasure" (or something like that).  Usually from your kids.  In my case, I had the distinct pleasure of seeing all three of our kids read from the Torah on the second day of Rosh Hashanah.  Although the reading is a challenging one, the story of the Binding of Isaac (Akeidat Yitzhak), the trop is so poignantly matched to the narrative, that it is quite the emotional reading.  This was the first year that all three children were eligible to read, so it was quite an exciting event.

The Torah readings on the two days of Rosh Hashanah are both difficult readings that raise more questions than they answer.  On the first day, we read the story of the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael by Avraham, at Sarah's behest.  On the second day, we read the story of the binding of Isaac, at God's behest.  Many of us are left wondering about Avraham's value system after the two of these events.  But the Jewish tradition has always been to question, discuss, examine and consider these stories from many different angles.

So, as Rosh Hashanah was approaching, we began discussing the first reading in particular and whether it could have anything to say about Syrian refugees.  For someone with connections to Canada and Israel, the issue has significant implications for both countries.  Judaism has always been concerned with how we treat our neighbours - not just Jewish neighbours - all neighbours.  So it is a multi-layered issue.

I thought I would start by poking around with some Israelis.  I asked different people if they thought Israel should shelter Syrian refugees - and if so, how many?  This is a very complicated issue with no easy answers.

For one thing, Israel is still not at peace with Syria.  The Israeli government has no alternative but to view Syria as an enemy country - one which could be at active war with Israel at any time.  Which country would be willing to take refugees from an enemy country?  Spies could use "refugee status" as an opportunity to enter Israel for all kinds of nefarious purposes.  Moreover, those entering Israeli could decide after coming to the country to begin taking action against Israel from within the country.  As well, with all of the demographic challenges that Israel faces in trying to sustain a "Jewish state," the notion of bringing a large number of Muslim refugees to Israel could further threaten the character of the state.  Finally, there is the risk that openly sheltering Syrians in Israel could provoke the Syrians into taking aggressive action against Israel.

Despite all of these concerns, which have been shared by many Israelis publicly, including Prime Minister Netanyahu, we also consider our imperative obligations as Jews to help others.  If there is a way that Israel could help some number of refugees, whatever that number is, wouldn't that be a great example for so many other countries in the world?  The Israeli intelligence apparatus is sufficiently competent to minimize the risk in assessing which refugees can be accepted.  The number of refugees could be modest enough that it would not raise demographic challenges.  And the other issues could be addressed as well.  Some people I spoke to suggested that Druze refugees, in particular, would be welcome since they would be most likely to act loyally towards Israel.  I am not writing to make suggestions as to which refugees the country could or could not absorb.  But in discussing the issue with one person - I said "we can probably both agree that the country could not absorb 100,000 Syrian refugees.  But we could also both agree that it could easily absorb more than let's have a discussion about what the number could be..."  It is a difficult challenge for Israel, perhaps even more so than for most other countries.  But Israel has demonstrated, on so many occasions, in Haiti, the Philippines, Cambodia and in so many other places that it is willing to save lives of people in need, whether they are Jewish or not.  Israel has been saving Syrian lives throughout this civil war, as reported in many different news stories, by providing ongoing medical attention to injured Syrians.  And perhaps refugees are being sheltered by Israel, but quietly, to avoid provoking the Syrians.  The point here is that saving Syrian lives, at least some, is something that Israel ought to try and do (and certainly has been doing).  That could include sheltering some refugees.

Moving to Canada, the challenges are quite different. Canada has the capacity to absorb a much higher number of Syrian refugees.  But Canada also has some very legitimate concerns.  Would the refugees be properly vetted so that Canada is not sheltering war criminals and terrorists?  Both sides of the Syrian civil war have been involved in utterly despicable and criminal acts.  While Canada can and should save innocent Syrians from peril, it is not unreasonable to ensure that an appropriate vetting system is in place.  Canada can and should have legitimate security concerns.  Canada also has reasonable demographic concerns.  While the country could easily absorb 10,000 or 20,000 Syrian refugees without threatening its cultural fabric, the absorption of hundreds of thousands of refugees, as proposed by some, could have some very significant repercussions.  One need only look at the challenges that France and other European countries are facing by being unable to absorb large numbers of immigrants.

Interestingly, recent graphic pictures of two dead Syrian children led the NDP and the Liberals to turn the issue of Syrian refugees into a political issue for the current Canadian federal election campaign.  The parties began falling over each other to demonstrate which party would be willing to immediately accept a greater number of refugees and to attack the incumbent Conservatives for failing to do enough.  While it is certainly admirable that Canadians want to help (as they always do), there are legitimate issues to consider in developing the best possible approach.

For Canada and Israel - as well as so many other countries, there are a range of additional issues to consider aside from their own potential capacities and abilities to absorb refugees.

The first and foremost issue is figuring out how to end this conflict, stop the flow of refugees and allow people to return to their homes or to rebuild their lives in their own country.  This is obviously the main issue that the UN and other world bodies should address.

The second issue is pushing many other countries to accept refugees - including countries like Saudia Arabia, the UAR, Russia (which is probably one of the root causes of the war in the first place).  The onus of saving Syrian lives should not fall only on Canada, the US, Israel, Jordan, Turkey and a number of European countries.  It should be distributed among most, if not all of the UN member nations.

Getting back to the religious source of some wisdom on this issue, the Talmud teaches us that saving one life is like saving an entire world.  And we know, as a people who suffered through the Holocaust, that we look back with such disappointment on all of the countries that failed to save Jewish people when those countries had the chance.  So logically, religiously and historically, we know that we must take action to save Syrian lives even as we face different challenges in doing so.

Shana Tova to everyone - and hoping for a peaceful year.


Friday, July 10, 2015

Current Government: Religious Issues and Some Predictions

Chief Rabbs Yitzhak Yosef and David Lau
Does it look like Iran?  It's not.  It's Israel and here are a couple of Israel's major power brokers (under the current government) - the two chief Rabbis of Israel.

The rabbis and their supporters have had a busy week, filled with lots of newsworthy items.

Last Sunday, they were successful in rolling back a conversion initiative that was intended to make it easier for people to convert to Judaism in Israel.  This was rolled back at the behest of the Shas and Degel HaTorah parties which are major partners in the current governing coalition.  The rollback has widely been viewed as an effort to consolidate power over religious affairs in Israel back to the Ultra-Religious and away from the Zionist religious (i.e. the "modern Orthodox").

On Tuesday, a woman from Colorado, Linda Siegel Richman, was ordered to leave the Kotel (the "Western Wall) in Jerusalem because she was wearing a kippah (a skullcap or yarmulke).  The Western Wall ushers told her that she did not belong and asked her to leave the area.  She had come from the U.S. to study at the Conservative Yeshiva in Israel and was at the Kotel to pray and to place notes in the wall. The notes had been given to her by her students at a Denver school.  The incident attracted enormous public attention.  The next day, Western Wall Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch issued a half-hearted apology in which he noted that it was not clear that the incident had actually even occurred.  Rabbi Rabinovitch has, of course, made concerted efforts over the past few years to prevent women from having access to Torah scrolls at the Kotel, from praying out loud and from wearing tallithot.  So it is really no surprise that a woman wearing a kippah encountered such difficulties under his watch.

On Wednesday, the Israeli Minister for Religious Affairs, David Azoulai, (of the Shas party), lashed out at Reform Jews and stated that he did not even consider them to be Jews.  He had other choice comments for Reform and Conservative Jews that were along the same lines.  Prime Minister Netanyahu swiftly issued a condemnation of these remarks and called them "hurtful." Education Minster Naftali Bennett also condemned the remarks in no uncertain terms and stated that all Jews are Jews.  Bennett went on to say the home for all Jews, including Reform and Conservative, is in Israel.

Is all of this related?  Well, the current government includes 7 Shas members and 6 Degel HaTorah members as part of its 61 seat bloc, which gives the government the slimmest possible majority in the Knesset, facing 59 opposition Knesset members.  Prime Minister Netanyahu paid an enormous price to enlist these Ultra-Religious parties into the governing coalition.  Both parties were granted a range of powerful political portfolios as as significant policy and financial concessions. 

This is in marked contrast to the previous government.  After the 2013 Israeli elections, Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid had won 19 seats.  His party insisted that it would not join a government that would make so many concessions to to the Ultra-Religious parties.  Lapid held out and an Israeli government was formed without the Ultra-Religious parties - for the first time in quite a while.  As a result, the previous government began to make certain changes.  These included mandatory military enlistment for the Ultra-Orthodox, reducing government grants for non-working Yeshiva students, ensuring that secular subjects like math and science are mandatory for everyone and numerous other changes.  Many of these changes as well as other proposed changes that were in the pipeline were quite popular among secular and other non-ultra-Orthodox Israelis.

But when it came time to negotiate a coalition agreement this time around after the 2015 election, Prime Minister Netanyahu simply gave away everything.  He agree to roll back all of the changes that had been made or proposed in the last government and to go beyond that by providing additional monetary incentives for the Ultra-Orthodox to join the government.  The disappointing aspect of all of that is that Moshe Kahlon and his allegedly centrist Kulanu party simply agreed to all of these terms and conditions.  This was in marked contrast to Yair Lapid in 2013 who had retained some principles during the previous round of coalition building negotiations.

As the Ultra-Religious establishment increases its power during the current mandate, many Israelis are becoming more and more disaffected with this turn of events.  This will cause many Israeli voters to turn away from Kahlon and Netanyahu in the next election.  Who will benefit?  Bennett will be the winner among religious and more conservative voters and will take away some seats from Netanyahu and/or Kahlon on the right.  But the big winner is likely to be Lapid.  If he stays the course and continues to fight as an opposition member, Israelis will view him as one of the few principled politicians who is willing to stand up to the Ultra-Orthodox.

It is a fairly common viewpoint that the Labour party, Zionist Camp or other name that it might run under would be as willing as the Likud party to court the support of Shas and/or Degel HaTorah by making similar concessions in order to form a government.  Only Yair Lapid and, perhaps, Tsipi Livni, have shown that they would be willing to hold out against these demands.  It will be clear to Israeli voters that Kahlon will simply agree to anything in order to get a cabinet seat.

While there are many Israelis who simply do not care about many of these secular-religious issues or other issues of religious pluralism, more and more Israelis are starting to pay attention.  Many Israelis are looking for alternatives to Orthodox weddings, which currently have a monopoly in Israel.  Opening the door to civil marriage ceremonies could lead to widespread change and could also open the door to same sex marriages in Israel.  Easing the conversion laws could benefit a large number of Israelis including thousands of immigrants whose religious status as Jews has been called into question. Still other Israelis would like to see public transportation on Shabbat, demonopolization of Kashrut authority, or more liberal laws in other areas affecting personal status.

The more that the current government acts in a fashion that is viewed as extremist, the greater the resentment will be among centrist Israelis.  This may all lead to a large shift of voters from Kahlon and Netanyahu to Lapid and others.

The Shas and Degel HaTorah voters will not change.  Those parties will continue to attract similar numbers in any given election.  Their elected officials are doing a good job in advocating for policies that they support.

But the Israeli political landscape has a large number of undecided centrist voters who are mobile.  These voters have swung around over the past number of years, from the Kadima party, to Tsipi Livni and Yair Lapid and now to Moshe Kahlon and Kulanu.  Lapid and the Yesh Atid party make a strong case that the centrist voters should shift back to him and his party and that they are the only party that will stick to some principled positions on certain issues.

The current coalition is very tenuous.  It is hanging on by a thread and Prime Minister Netanyahu's government even lost its first legislative vote this week, although that vote was not a "non-confidence" vote.  We will probably see another election in Israel sooner rather than later.  And if the current trend continues, Lapid and his Yesh Atid party are likely to be the big winners.


Thursday, May 28, 2015

Kahlon: Key Reversal Announced Not Long After Bad Coalition Deal

Kulanu leader - Moshe Kahlon
It is two for one day on my blog.  Aside from my article about the FIFA scandal and the pending vote over suspending Israel, I couldn't resist adding a second blog.

I wrote about Israeli election results and the "Haredi Coalition" that was formed on May 6, 2015.  As you might recall, I was particularly disappointed with Moshe Kahlon.  Before the election, Kahlon had formed a new party - "Kulanu" ("all of us"), which was dedicated, primarily, to economic issues in Israel.  Its mandate was to lower the cost of living for Israels, break up monopolies and find ways to make Israel more livable.  Kahlon had taken credit for lowering cell phone prices in Israel and was promising to do the same for housing.  Sounds great so far.

But with all of these great ideas, Kahlon's first act was to sign on to a government that was promising to waste billions of shekels - adding cabinet ministers, providing huge payouts to the UTJ and other ultra-religious parties - and pledging funds to a wide range of other expensive programs demanded by the new coalition partners.  The stench was significant.  One was left wondering whether Kahlon was incompetent (i.e. a poor negotiator), stupid or corrupt.  I suggested that just the act alone of joining a government that was prepared to make so many monetary concessions to the ultra-religious would strip Kahlon of the credibility that he had built up.

Now some really interesting news emerged about Kahlon yesterday.  Prior to the Israeli elections, Kahlon had promised to break up the monopoly in Israel over the Tamar gas field, 30% of which is owned by Isramco.  Kahlon is good friends with Kobi Maimon, one of the major shareholders in Isramco.  When asked about this exact issue before the election, Kahlon said that his personal relationship with Maimon was irrelevant and that breaking up the monopoly was in Israel's best interest and that he would do it, irrespective of any friendships he had.

Yesterday, Kahlon stated that he would not be involved in any way in breaking up the gas monopoly in Israel, even though, as Minister of Finance, this would be within his bailiwick.  Instead, he indicated that he was punting the issue over to Prime Minister Netanyahu.  But, in explaining his decision, he noted that he was putting the issue on the back burner specifically because of his friendship with Maimon.  News agencies across Israel were juxtaposing Kahlon's pre-election statements with his diametrically opposite pronouncements made yesterday.  Not surprisingly, many colourful adjectives are being thrown around...

Some of Kahlon's supporters are arguing that it is still way to early to judge his performance and that he is a seasoned politician who knows how to get things done.  They argue that he will fulfill several of his pre-election promises and that over time, these preliminary issues will look very minor.  Perhaps that is true.  I suppose we will have to wait and see.

But I am inclined to be concerned about a pattern that seems far more unsavoury.  Between Kahlon's agreement to dole out billions of shekels to the ultra-religious - and now his reversal on the issue of breaking up the gas monopoly, I would suggest that Kahlon's support across Israeli public opinion is likely to plummet very quickly, which will be good news for Israel's centrists in the next election (which I still believe will be sooner rather than later).

FIFA, Corruption And The Vote Over Israel

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu with FIFA President Blatter
It couldn't happen to a nicer organization...

Perhaps it was not much of a surprise to see that seven top FIFA executives were arrested in Zurich yesterday on charges of racketeering, fraud, money laundering etc.,  The charges apparently relate to bribes that FIFA officials are alleged to have received in connection with awarding the World Cup to South Africa in 2010.  Investigations have been opened over the awarding of the World Cup to Russia for 2018 and Qatar for 2022.  Qatar as a World Cup host?  Is there any other plausible explanation aside from bribery?

FIFA has long been the subject of swirling allegations of match fixing, bribery of officials and all sorts of other conduct.  FIFA President Sepp Blatter, who is now running for his fifth term on Friday, has vehemently denied having any knowledge of any such activities.  Funny enough, one of his strongest supporters is Russian President Vladimir Putin, who always seems to have "no knowledge" of different circumstances, particularly the untimely deaths of his various political opponents.

It is in this context that one must consider the Palestinian motion that has been brought to oust Israel from FIFA.  What's wrong with this picture?  For one thing, "Palestine" is not even a state.  Why does it have its own FIFA team to begin with?  It should have "FIFA observer status."

But consider - that the Palestinian FIFA organization is asking the 209 members of FIFA for a popularity contest vote with respect to Israel.  Not sure how Qatar, Saudia Arabia, Yemen, Turkey and some other human rights luminaries are likely to vote but  they seem disinclined to support Israel, to put it mildly.  I haven't seen a vote on the FIFA agenda for the suspension of Russia for its activities in the Ukraine or, for that matter, for the suspension of Palestine for the launching of rocket attacks at Israel last year.  This motion to suspend Israel is obviously a blatant political move by the Palestinians in their ongoing effort to delegitimize Israel by using the BDS movement, instead of making political concessions to reach a peace deal.

Consider for a moment the structure of FIFA.  Israel is already in the wrong division in an organization that is supposed to be apolitical.  Israel is part of UEFA, the European Football association rather than the Middle Eastern division.  For this reason, it is so difficult for Israel to gain entry to the World Cup finals.  Geographically, Israel should be grouped with its neighbours.  It should have to play Lebanon, Egypt, Syria, Jordan etc., to qualify.  If those countries were to boycott the matches, they could be considered to have defaulted the game.  If there are any security concerns, matches could be played in neutral territory in Europe.  But instead, FIFA has always given in to the notion that a whole geographic area can exclude Israel and force Israel to play with the Europeans.  If FIFA had any balls as an organization (and not balls that were being artificially inflated or otherwise doctored), it would take the appropriate steps to ensure that Israel is in the proper division.

So the issue has already been politicized.  Now the Palestinians have clamoured for a vote to suspend Israel.  With yesterday's news of the arrests of several FIFA officials, it became clear that an investigation has been going on at FIFA for more than a year.  These FIFA officials have known, or certainly should have known what was going down. 

In the face of this type of pressure on FIFA, why not do what Middle Eastern countries always do?  Blame Israel for everything, lob the ball over to the Israeli side of the pitch and see if all of the negative attention can be deflected to Israel.  Moreover, with allegations of bribery swirling over the award of the 2022 World Cup to Qatar - a key financier of Hamas and backer of various terrorist activities, perhaps it was even a condition of the award to Qatar that this type of motion would be brought at FIFA.

A cynic might question the timing of U.S. prosecution officials and wonder why so many FIFA officials would be arrested just as the issue of suspending Israel was coming to a vote.  Fair enough, the timing is interesting.  But this investigation has been going on for more than a year and is apparently just the tip of the iceberg.  It will be really interesting to find out how Russia and Qatar were awarded their World Cups.  (South Africa apparently bribed officials to the tune of $10 million U.S. to get the games).

With this background information, it seems far more likely that the Israel issue is much more of a smoke screen, a cloud set up to distract attention from what is really going on at FIFA.  In other words, the timing issue is probably the exact opposite of what the cynic might suggest.  It is FIFA, down by a player or two (or seven), with a collection of yellow cards (or whatever colour U.S. indictments might be) that is begging the referee to hand Israel a red card at a crucial moment to deflect attention from its own foul play. 

Can anyone really say that Israel is the one country in the world that should be suspended from participating in world football with everything going on in the world?  I haven't heard of any pending votes on Russia (over Ukraine), China (over Tibet), or countless other countries.  If FIFA decides to go down this road of politicizing football even more than it already does, it may wind up with only a handful of member countries who are deemed to be worthy of participation in its illustrious organization. 

The best outcome for Israel, for FIFA, for world football and for international sports would be a vote in which Israel manages to scrape together more than the one-third that it needs to avoid suspension.  Hopefully, an even more decisive vote would send the message that political disputes should not be played out on the football pitch. 

Perhaps the next discussion topic, if Israel is successful, will be the realignment of FIFA divisions to put Israel in the Middle East, where it really belongs.  But, of course, that is just a dream.  Given FIFA politics, it is far more likely that the organization will soon vote to add a new member to the organization - ISIL/ISIS - with its apparent expertise at heading the ball - and beheading opposition players. 

World Football fans might even get to watch ISIL play Palestine at the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar, while some democratic countries like Israel sit out on the sidelines.  Can't wait...

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Netanyahu Finalizes His Haredi Coalition

Well, the negotiations are over and we have a new government in Israel.  A razor-thin 61 seat government, led by Prime Minister Netanyahu and his Likud party.  The government includes the UTJ (United Torah Judaism) (an ultra-religious Ashkenazi party), Shas (an ultra-religious Sefardi party, led by a convicted fraudster), Bayit Hayehudi (a religious Zionist party) and Moshe Kahlon's Kulanu party.  This is one big right wing party (or maybe a small right wing party, since it can hardly be described as a broad government).

Zionist Union Party leader Isaac Herzog called it "the weakest, most extortionist, most narrow government in Israeli history."  Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid called the coalition agreement "a liquidation sale."  Hard to argue with these characterizations.

By all accounts, the concessions given up by Prime Minister Netanyahu to the various coalition partners are excessive and wide-ranging.  The coalition agreement rewards the ultra-religious parties with a veritable reversal of a full range of changes that had been instituted at Lapid's behest in the previous mandate.  I have listed them already in previous blogs.  But "highlights" include:

  • Reversing the requirement that the ultra-religious be conscripted to the army, like other Israelis;
  • Reversing the requirement that state funded religious schools teach math and science and other secular subjects;
  • Reversing the cuts to yeshivas and restoring all funding to all ultra-religious programs to pre-2012 levels;
  • Providing the ultra-religious with an effective "veto" over any religion-state issues;
  • Installing UTJ Knesset members in some of the most important Knesset roles including Chair of the Knesset Finance Committee;
  • Turning over all key Education ministry positions to the religious parties, including responsibility for secular education.
The list goes on and on.  For those who favour religious pluralism, for liberal democrats and those who favour shul-state separation, the list of concessions is stomach churning.  In fact, I'm having a hard time thinking of anything positive to say about the composition of this government, other than, perhaps, the notion that Netanyahu may be the leader most capable of overseeing Israel's military and managing it in the face of a war or other major military event (which could occur at any time).

The "bright light" in the new government was supposed to be Moshe Kahlon, who had been elected to focus on economic issues and help make the country more liveable for the Israeli middle class.  But his opening act in this capacity has been the delivery of a stamp of approval to a governmental arrangement that will take billions of sheqels and pour it into parochial religious programs.  I would have to think that if another election were held today, Kahlon would lose at least half of his seats as a result of this display of a complete lack of judgment.

Perhaps surprisingly, Avigdor Lieberman has kept his rightist "Yisrael Beitenu" out of this unholy coalition.  That may well herald an early dissolution of what is bound to be a very unpopular government.

One would have to think that many Kahlon and Likud supporters will be demanding answers to why their parties felt the need to deliver so many concessions to the ultra-religious to form this government.  I have yet to hear any convincing answers, certainly not from Kahlon.

The big winners are bound to be Yair Lapid, Avigdor Lieberman and the Zionist Union party, all of whom will sit in opposition.  Of the three, it is really only Lapid and Lieberman who Israelis could count on to stand up to ultra-religious demands.  The Israeli Labour party, in the past, has made equally unpalatable concessions to the ultra-orthodox and had signaled a willingness to do so once again if that would have put them in power.  Only Lapid truly stood up to these demands in the previous Knesset and Lieberman has taken a stand this time around.

The good news, if there is any at this time, is that this government is not likely to last.  Netanyahu's coalition building decisions may well mean that his days as Israel's Prime Minister are limited.  There is bound to be a backlash as the government begins to implement this Haredi agenda.

Certainly Conservative and Reform rabbis and their congregations, in Israel and abroad, are likely to begin reciting the appropriate prayer for the speedy demise of this governing coalition and its replacement with one that is more representative, more pluralistic, more transparent and more committed to the rule of law (secular law, that is).  And that is not to mention anything about the prospect of peace negotiations, which are not even likely to make it to the back burner with this governmental configuration.

Looking forward to the next election already....

Monday, May 4, 2015

Lieberman: Hero or Opportunist? Latest Rumblings from Israel.

Avigdor Lieberman heads the "Yisrael Beitenu" ("Israel, Our Home") party in Israel.  He is a bit more of a complex politician than one might have thought.  On the one hand, he is viewed by some as a far right wing nationalist.  Certainly he has made some comments in the past about Israel's Arab population that can only be described as "racist."  He is unpredictable and will often say some things that many politicians would probably later regret.

At the same time, he can sometimes be far more practical than his right wing Israeli counterparts.  Lieberman, for example, has indicated that he is prepared to support a true "two-state solution" whereby one state would be a Palestinian state for Palestinians and the other state would be a Jewish state.  While some of his opponents call this a form of "ethnic cleansing," it is actually a far more logical solution than such epithets might suggest.  As part of any solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he argues, the Palestinians should be prepared to resolve any issue of Palestinian refugees by taking in as many Palestinians as would like to come - to their nascent state.  In this context, he also argues that it is logical to draw the borders of the two states in such a way that the large Jewish populations in Gush Etzion and other West Bank areas remain in Israel; whereas areas with overwhelmingly Palestinian populations, even if those areas are currently part of Israel, are to be ceded to the Palestinian state.  These proposals, he holds, would be most likely to ensure that there is a truly workable two state solution to the Palestinian conflict.  For many, this makes much more sense for Israel's long term security than Bennett's plan to annex the West Bank ("Judea and Samaria").  Then what?  Bennett and others on the right have no answer.  For the long run, Lieberman has suggested that Israel's Arabs who choose to continue to live in Israel, rather than the Palestinian state, should be prepared to serve in Israel's military or national service and should be entitled to full equality of opportunity. 

But getting back to Lieberman's current situation, he is a secular nationalist politician rather than a religious nationalist.  His constituency is in favour of easing the restrictions on conversions to Judaism, lessening the power of the religious authorities over the state (especially the ultra-religious) and reducing state funding of the ultra-Orthodox institutions.  Much of this would explain why Lieberman and his party were able to sit in a government with Lapid's Yesh Atid in the previous coalition, even though Lapid is viewed as much more of centrist.

But now, Prime Minister Netanyahu has reversed directions completely from the previous government that he led.  The first party that he signed up to join his coalition was United Torah Judaism.  I wrote about the concessions that Netanyahu made in my lost blog.  Certainly these concessions would be very hard to stomach for anyone with Lieberman's views about religion and state.  The concessions make it virtually impossible that Lapid's Yesh Atid party would even negotiate with this government, let alone join it.  But Lieberman was still negotiating.

Then today, Prime Minister Netanyahu announced another coalition agreement.  He had signed up the other ultra-religious party, led by convicted fraudster Aryeh Deri and was willing to provide that party with a fat range of concessions and ministerial portfolios.  Things get uglier and uglier by the day for those who endorse some level of shul-state separation or religious pluralism in Israel.

After the Shas announcement, Lieberman announced that his party would not join this government. This will leave Netanyahu with a razor-thin 61 seat government (out of 120 in the Knesset), once Netanyahu finalizes an arrangement with Bennett's "Bayit Yehudi" (Jewish Home) party.   

It is too early, in my view, to determine whether Lieberman is using this pressure as a negotiating tactic to wrangle some further concessions out of Netanyahu or whether he is taking a principled approach.  It is fair to say that over the years, Lieberman has not always been characterized as a man of principle.  We will probably have a better idea over the next few days.

If Lieberman stays out of the government, the big winners are bound to be Yair Lapid and Lieberman himself.  Many Israelis who voted for Likud or Moshe Kahlon's Kulanu party will be sorely disappointed to see that the biggest priority of their new government will be to restore a vast range of funding to various ultra-religious programs and to retract on the requirement that ultra-orthodox share the military burden of defending the state.  Many Israelis will find it hard to fathom that the solution for Israel's current financial situation is to take huge sums of money and pour it into ultra-religious programs, at the expense of universal health, education, infrastructure and other priorities.  This could mean a relatively short-lived government and a big boost for Lapid and Lieberman in the next election (at the expense of Likud and Kulanu seats).

On the other hand, if Lieberman simply uses this opportunity to extract further concessions for his party and himself and then joins a government which goes ahead with this ultra-religious program, he will undoubtedly alienate even more of his constituency (he had already fallen from 13 to 6 seats in the most recent election).

It should be interesting to follow.  I am inclined to suggest that many Israelis watching these events unfold will be much more likely to vote for Lapid in the next election.  This could create quite the pendulum swing in the religion-state relationship.  For Netanyahu to go ahead with such far reaching changes, while only holding a one seat majority, will be perilous for him and his party - as well as for Kahlon who will be seen as an accomplice to this shift towards the ultra-religious.   

Then again, all of that is an "optimistic" view of Israeli voters from a democratic, pluralistic view point.  If Israelis really do prefer to have the ultra-religious hold the balance of becomes hard to imagine where we are headed.

Prime Minister Netanyahu is supposed to present the final governing coalition by May 7, 2015.  It will be fascinating to see what takes place in the late night, closed door meetings between now and then.