Archive for November, 2009

Nov 28 2009

The prisoner that could hold the key

Let’s start at the end: if the most famous Palestinian prisoner, Marwan Barghouti, is included in the looming swap deal between Israel and Hamas, the politics surrounding the regional conflict here will change dramatically. For a start his release from prison could end the current unbridgeable schism between the radical Islamist faction running the Gaza strip and the more moderate nationalist party of Fatah that controls the West Bank and, for the first time in years, create unity in the Palestinian camp. There’s still a big “if” here. Negotiations via the German mediator are to resume Monday, after the end of the Muslim Festival of Sacrifice, and success is far from certain.

Marwan Barghouti

Marwan Barghouti

Hamas’s insistence on the release of Barghouti is a well-calculated political move to show its people that they are also concerned with prisoners affiliated to rival Fatah. Some Palestinian observers, however, believe that Hamas would like to see him remain in an Israeli jail, as his popularity poses an electoral menace.

The 50-year-old former Fatah leader, who was imprisoned by Israel in 2002 on charges of murdering Israeli civilians and attacks on Israeli soldiers, exerts great influence in Palestinian society from his cell. In contrast to the weak style of the current Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, Barghouti is a charismatic figure and someone who has paid a heavy personal price for his views and actions.

For Israel Barghouti could prove useful too. At the moment politicians here are either faced by radical Hamas leaders who it finds impossible to negotiate with but who enjoy high popularity, or by Fatah leaders, who it is able to negotiate with but enjoy almost no popular support. Barghouti might be flexible enough for the Israelis and still be strong enough in the eyes of his people to carry them through difficult negotiations.

Last week Barghouti gave an interview to the Italian daily Corriere della Sera that was full of mixed messages. On the one hand, Barghouti said that Abbas’s mistake was to bet all his cards on negotiations with Israel, thus hinting that he would like to resume terror attacks and military operations. On the other hand, when asked what his goals were, Barghouti manifestly omitted the Palestinian refugees’ right of return – one of the main sticking points in the negotiations.

Judging by past experience, Israelis will be less concerned with his previous activities than with his future plans. The former Egyptian president Anwar Sadat was responsible for far more Israeli deaths than any Palestinian leader. Still, when he decided to change course and to accept the presence of a Jewish state in the Middle East, he was awarded with all he wanted, which was the whole of the Sinai Peninsula. Many Israelis believe that if Barghouti is brave enough to tell his people it’s time to end the conflict, he might be rewarded with a similar land deal.

(published originally in Monocle on November 28th 2009)

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Nov 18 2009

Moni Fanan – Israel’s Mini-Madoff

As in any good drama, it started with a dead body and a question mark. On 19 October, Moni Fanan, manager of Tel Aviv’s Maccabi basketball team from 1992 to 2008, was found dead in his apartment. He had hanged himself. Fanan, 63, was a well-known figure and anyone who had watched a Maccabi game would have seen him on the sideline, enthusiastically encouraging the players.

Moni Fanan

Moni Fanan

Maccabi is Israel’s most popular basketball team and enjoys a reputation in the country equivalent to that of Real Madrid in Spain or Manchester United in the UK. During Fanan’s time at the club, Maccabi was one of the best teams playing in Europe, and despite a subsequent spate of less successful performances, it remains an influential force in the European basketball establishment.

Initial press reports following Fanan’s death were measured and cautious. But in a small country where rumours travel fast, within a few hours everybody knew that Fanan was allegedly involved in running a Ponzi scheme. It was claimed that he had been the head of a secretive “private bank” that offered high-yield investments to players and Maccabi cronies. The assumption was that Fanan killed himself either because the tax authorities had begun investigating him, or because he couldn’t pay his investors back. He was Israel’s junior version of Bernard Madoff.

What has followed, however, has been a cascade of bizarre events that have kept the nation gripped. First, some players, both past and present, admitted investing their money with Fanan. Estimates have now put the total at between $25m and $100m. It was said that Fanan, with his far-reaching connections, also managed the investments of some coaches and referees both local and foreign. The Israeli Basketball Association has had no choice but to open an official investigation.

Next came suggestions that Fanan was somehow involved with the runaway British financier Nicholas Levene who, just a few days before Fanan’s suicide, had disappeared, leaving behind debts of over £70m. The British media called Fanan “Levene’s money channel in Israel”. Levene, who has visited Israel many times in the past, reappeared a few days later and denied any connection to Fanan. But the revelations just keep coming.

This weekend a businessman in Hong Kong claimed that Fanan bought land in Macau through him. Fanan’s personal life was also placed in the spotlight after a 50-year-old woman claimed that she had been his lover for the past 15 years and that they adopted a child while he was married to another woman.

Although there are official investigations underway, analysts fear that Maccabi Tel Aviv is just too big to fall, due to its place in Israeli society, its economic might and powerful political connections.

A personal investigator has been assigned by Fanan’s widow to find out where the money is (if there still is any), but few are confident that investors will get their cash back. So this week while people might wonder how Israel will play its hand in Middle East negotiations, at home the press is following a very different game.

(published originally in Monocle on November 18th 2009)

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