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Apr 24 2010

Israel’s new-found energy

For years Israelis have watched their oil-rich Arab neighbours and envied their abundant energy supplies and the political clout that they bring. More than 400 onshore and 25 offshore oil wells have been drilled in Israel since the 1950s – all to no avail. But recent developments are prompting some to think there could be a new natural gas kingdom – and a Jewish one at that.

Offshore natural gas drilling

Offshore natural gas drilling

A report just published by the United States Geological Survey (USGS) suggests there may be 122 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in the area between Israel, Cyprus and Lebanon. That is more gas than the whole world consumed and produced in 2008, and according to the agency, it is “bigger than anything we have assessed in the United States”. According to these estimates, only half of the potential gas belongs to Israel and then there’s the problem of how to drill for it successfully and carry it to shore. (more…)


Mar 13 2010

America’s secret weapon against Iran

The American flag used for ceremonial receptions at the Ben Gurion airport must be worn out already, as a slew of Obama administration officials and US military top brass are visiting Israel almost on a daily basis.

Joe Biden (photo: Munich Security Conference 2009)

Joe Biden (photo: Munich Security Conference 2009)

The list of dignitaries stopping by in the last two months alone includes national security adviser Jim Jones, CIA director Leon Panetta, Senator John Kerry and chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Admiral Michael Mullen. Topping them all off is Vice President Joe Biden, who finished his five-day visit last Friday.

The hunch that something big is going on is underscored by the simultaneous high-profile visits in Washington of Israeli defence minister Ehud Barak (in February) and of Gabi Ashkenazi, the chief of general staff (right now).


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Mar 11 2010

The fur ban

Brigitte Bardot is not a frequent lobbyist in the Israeli parliament, so her three consecutive letters to Knesset members, urging them to approve an all-out ban on the fur trade in Israel, seem to have left their mark. “All the world’s eyes are turned towards you”, wrote the French animal rights activist and former actress, adding flatteringly: “I am personally counting on your help”.

Brigitte Bardot

Brigitte Bardot

Bardot’s foundation is just one of many international animal rights organisations watching closely as Israel prepares to pass a bill that would make it the first fur-free country in the world.

Already hailed as “an historic event”, the bill will ban importing, producing and selling of fur and fur items from all mammals, except for fur on shtreimels, the fur-trimmed hats worn by married ultra-orthodox Hassidic Jewish men. While each of those hats is made of no less than 24 fox tails, their wearers number only a few thousand.


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Feb 18 2010

The plot thickens

The Mossad or not the Mossad – that is the question on everyone’s lips here, following the identification by the police in Dubai of at least seven Israeli citizens who also hold European passports as suspects in the killing of a senior Hamas military commander.

7 of the suspected assassins (photo: Dubai police)

7 of the suspected assassins (photo: Dubai police)

Mahmoud al-Mabhouh was assassinated in his hotel room in the emirate exactly a month ago on 19 January, and his death could have gone almost unnoticed if not for the hotel’s closed-circuit cameras. Images of the 11-member hit squad, caught by those cameras, were beamed around the world three days ago, together with names and passport numbers of the alleged assassins. European governments were quick to announce that the passports were forgeries and that the Israelis who they really belong to had had their identities stolen and were not involved in any plot. All fingers are now pointing towards the all-mighty Hollywood-style Israeli espionage agency, Mossad.

As a matter of policy, Israel prefers to leave unanswered questions about its involvement in special covert operations. It never took responsibility for the attack on a nuclear site in Syria in 2007, nor for the death in a car bomb of senior Hezbollah official Imad Mughniyah in Damascus in 2008 – both of which are attributed to its security forces. In fact, officially Israel doesn’t even have a nuclear bomb.

Mabhouh’s being a target is not surprising. A founder of Hamas, he recently admitted to masterminding the killing of two Israeli soldiers in the 1980s. More importantly, according to intelligence reports, he was in charge of the smuggling of Iranian long-range rockets into Gaza, enabling Hamas to threaten the Tel Aviv metropolitan area. Many believe that any confrontation between the international community and Iran would lead – or might even begin with – a barrage of missiles fired towards Israel from Gaza and the Lebanon. Mabhouh certainly seems to have had an important role in the Tehran-Hamas-Hezbollah triangle. Interestingly, on 16 January, the Egyptian daily Al-Ahram, considered to be the government’s mouthpiece, hailed the head of the Mossad, Meir Dagan, as a “superman”, for his covert operations against what it said were Iranian attempts to destabilise the region.

But still, say some ex-Mossad officials, something just doesn’t add up. The fact that so many Israeli citizens were quickly connected to the operation, together with the embarrassment caused to friendly European governments by using fake passports, suggests recklessness on behalf of the Mossad, or even plain stupidity. Why would the Mossad use the names of Israeli citizens and incriminate itself so clearly?

Intelligence analysts say that this would be the first time the Mossad had used Israeli citizens’ identities in an operation. In fact, Israel’s most famous spy, Rafi Eitan, who was responsible for locating Adolf Eichmann in Argentina and bringing him to trial in Israel in the 1960s, yesterday told Israeli radio that “some foreign service wanted to taint Israel. It took the names of Israeli citizens, doctored the passports and thus tainted Israel.” Perhaps.

In the meantime, the political fallout is being felt especially hard in the UK, where Prime Minister Gordon Brown has called for an investigation and the Israeli ambassador was asked to come in to “share information” about the fake passports.

Israeli and British intelligence services are known to cooperate closely, and political and diplomatic efforts are made to keep it just like that. After all, in the murky business of espionage, almost anything goes until you get caught – or for that matter, pictured.

(published originally in Monocle on February 18th 2010)

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Jan 30 2010

Can uniforms improve Israel’s schools?

Can a plain t-shirt be the answer to the problems of the Israeli education system? Education Minister Gideon Saar thinks so. He has just reintroduced mandatory school uniform and announced that the nation’s 1.5 million pupils must stand when a teacher enters class.

Japanese schoolboys (photo: abucho)

Japanese schoolboys (photo: abucho)

Appearing on TV last week, Saar suggested that uniforms improve the atmosphere inside schools, by increasing equality and creating a sense of shared pride. But, he said, his ministry is considering placing closed-circuit cameras inside schools in the near future.

Until 25 years ago, all Israeli schools had uniforms, but liberal educational approaches have since favoured more and more “freedom to the pupil”. The choice of whether to make uniforms compulsory was left to each school and as a result they all but disappeared. It has become very difficult for schools to punish children by sending them home or expelling them from a class. It is more common these days that parents call teachers to complain over perceived inadequacies in the curriculum or the treatment of the children.

When it comes to higher education, especially in technology related areas, Israelis tend to do especially well. In their recently published bestseller Start-Up Nation, Dan Senor and Saul Singer mention that the number of patents registered by Israelis between 1980 and 2000 was 7,652 (77 for Egyptians and 20 for Syrians).
But when you look at elementary school, the situation is not so good. Comparative international exams point to deteriorating performance of Israeli children, and the last PISA results, conducted by the OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development), have showed that Israel ranks 39th out of 57 countries.

Saar says that in order to change course, you need to have “a climate of learning” in schools, and that an effective educational system can be achieved only if you put boundaries in place and strengthen teachers’ authority. His critics counter that this is merely cosmetics and that he should start by increasing teachers’ salaries in order to attract the best possible personnel.

Etti Wolf, who’s been running an elementary school in northern Israel for the last 20 years, says that reintroducing uniform is an important and useful tool. Children in her school already wear uniforms, and this, she says, helps in creating the right atmosphere. “Ten-year-old boys and girls come to school with the most fashionable clothes you can find,” she says, “and that’s part of the environment – that everything is permitted. In my school I am very strict: if someone comes without uniform, their parents must come and bring it to school.”
Two years ago, one of the teachers in her school suggested that the staff should wear a sort of uniform too. The point was to set an example. Trousers or skirts could be any type but shirts had to be either black or white. The regime lasted only a year, she says. The reason? The teachers rebelled.

(published originally in Monocle on January 30th 2010)

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