Jan 2 2010

Justice Beinisch: Stop calling Israel “Apartheid”

In a landmark statement, the President of the Supreme Court of Israel, Dorit Beinisch, has rejected unequivocally any comparison between Israel’s policies and the Apartheid regime of South Africa. Such a comparison is “improper… extreme and radical… [and] there is no basis of raising it at all”.

Justice Dorit Beinisch

Justice Dorit Beinisch

Beinisch made this official statement in her ruling this week against the Israeli Army’s decision to close a road for Palestinian vehicles, for security reasons. The Israeli Supreme Court, which enjoys a high reputation among its peers in the democratic world, has ruled many times against the army and other state organs. But this seems to be the first time Beinisch adds her voice to the “Apartheid debate” and in such a clear way.

Closing roads for Palestinian vehicles in the West Bank is one of the main issues raised by those who call Israel an “Apartheid state”. For them, such an act is segregation, and segregation means Apartheid.

In her ruling, Beinisch denounced categorically the comparison between the former South African regime and the State of Israel. She reminded the petitioners in the case that Palestinian terrorists attacked vehicles driving the relevant road numerous times, and that many civilians have lost their lives in that way. In any case, she said, the army’s decision was motivated by security concerns and not by racial superiority.

A synopsis of the ruling is available in English but the full ruling is available for now only in Hebrew. Here is my translation of the paragraph Beinisch wrote about Apartheid:

“Even if we take into account that an all-out separation between populations using the roads is an extreme and unwanted outcome, we should be careful and restrained when using definitions that refer to security measures – adopted in order to protect persons travelling on the roads – as segregation, based on improper reasons of race and ethnicity.

“The comparison made by the petitioners between the use of different roads because of security reasons, and the Apartheid policy of South Africa, is improper.

“The Apartheid policy is a very grave crime. It contradicts the basic principles of the Israeli law, as well as the international human rights law and the international criminal law. It is a policy of racial segregation and discrimination, consisting of a range of discriminatory practices, in order to create supremacy of one race and to subjugate other races.

The stark contrast between the security measures taken by the State of Israel as protection from terror attacks, and the unacceptable practices of the Apartheid policy, demands avoiding any comparison or use of this harsh expression (underlining is mine, A.S.).

“Not every distinction between people, in all circumstances, is necessarily an improper discrimination, and not every improper discrimination is Apartheid. The use of the word Apartheid lessens the gravity of this crime, which the entire international community fought against and which we all condemn.

“Therefore, the comparison made by the petitioners between preventing the traffic of Palestinian inhabitants along road 443 and the crime of Apartheid was so extreme and radical that there was no basis for raising it at all”.

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Dec 25 2009

A media star rises in the east

A spectre is haunting the Israeli press. It has reddish hair and expensive suits, owns some of the most luxurious hotels in the world, has influence in the corridors of power and, most importantly, the deepest pockets in town.

Sheldon Adelson

Sheldon Adelson

In July 2007, Sheldon Adelson made local media barons and journalists tremble when he launched a free week-day Israeli newspaper, Israel Hayom. Adelson is a US-based casino magnate whose fortune in 2008 (before the recession) placed him at the top of the list of wealthiest Jews in the world. He is a well-known philanthropist and donor to Jewish institutions here and abroad and is also known to be a confidante and backer of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Indeed, the owners of the country’s national paid-for newspapers had reason to believe that Adelson was simply using Israel Hayom to help Netanyahu win this year’s elections. And once the elections were over, they hoped, their agony would end too and the 76-year-old billionaire would return to his estate in Las Vegas.

Adelson, it seems, had a different plan in mind: and one that threatens the existence of the paid-for press. Over the course of this year, he has made Israel Hayom the second largest newspaper in Israel in terms of circulation and taken a 25 per cent share of the national newspaper readership. Distributed mainly in train stations, Israel Hayom, according to all accounts, is not yet a profitable business, and Adelson channels millions of dollars into it, which is still just a small slice of his fortune. Its progress could hardly have come at a worse time for Israeli newspapers struggling to survive the economic crisis and dwindling advertising budgets.

But then came another body blow to the old barons when, in November, Adelson launched into the weekend market. Starting with 100,000 copies, the print run grew to 150,000 within two weeks, and then to 250,000 copies after another two weeks. And in addition to distribution at stations, the newspaper is now delivered free to people’s homes.

The barons are trying to fight back. If they don’t, 2010 could well be a dramatic year for newspapers in Israel, because two of them – Maariv and Haaretz – are in danger of closing down. So on 16 December, a group of MPs proposed a law which would bar individuals who do not hold Israeli citizenship from owning a newspaper. The law would also mandate that the controlling interest in a newspaper is held by an Israeli citizen who is a resident of the country. That would effectively put pay to Adelson.

“Owning a newspaper is not like owning a toothpaste factory,” says Daniel Ben Simon, a former Haaretz journalist and now a member of parliament, who is one of the initiators of the new law. “Journalism has a role in a democratic country and letting an outsider, who made his money in casinos, take over this sensitive industry would be a mistake.”

Ben Simon, needless to say, is a member of Labour, and not of Netanyahu’s Likud party. Indeed, the initiative seems less occupied with defending democracy and more with a fear of Adelson.

“The new law is not reasonable,” says Dvorit Shargal, who runs the independent media monitoring blog Velvet Underground. “All newspaper owners have financial and other interests. The real problem might be that the Hebrew reading market is relatively small, and it cannot sustain all these papers.”

While the free paper model has experienced difficulties in many markets (such as London), in Israel it has the potential to create dramatic headlines in 2010. Who will be left standing in 12 months is far from clear.

(published originally in Monocle on December 25th 2009)

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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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Oct 17 2009

Driving a hard bargain

The most recognisable face these days in Israel is that of a missing person. His name is Gilad Shalit, a 23-year-old corporal held captive for more than three years in Gaza by the Palestinian movement Hamas. The sensational press constantly report every shred of information about him – leaked more than often by not-so-reliable sources, thus creating an emotional rollercoaster for an entire nation.

Gilad Shalit

Gilad Shalit

But the dilemma facing Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is far from simple. Shalit was kidnapped by Palestinian militants who crossed the border into Israel in 2006, a year after Israel’s disengagement from Gaza. A video released by Hamas just 10 days ago was the first visual sign of his good health.
 As a matter of tradition, negotiations between Israel and its neighbours are never on an equal basis. In June 2008, for example, Israel swapped five Lebanese convicted terrorists for the bodies of two of its dead soldiers. Now Hamas wants Israel to release 1,000 Palestinian prisoners for Shalit. One thousand for one, that’s the equation.

Netanyahu, it seems, would be crazy to agree. Some of the prisoners are being held in Israeli prisons for horrific and deadly acts of terror. Hamas’s prime minister, Ismail Haniya, has said that after Shalit there will be “another Shalit and another Shalit and another Shalit”, until all his demands are answered. Can a responsible leader possibly agree to such terms? The US government, for example, is known not to negotiate prisoner swaps to gain the return of its kidnapped soldiers. The reasoning is that terrorists must never be rewarded for their crimes. 
On the other hand, Shalit was sent to the border by the government of Israel, which bears the responsibility to bring him back home. Is it really fair for a young soldier to get caught up in such games? 
But here the plot thickens even further. Danny Rubinstein, Israeli author and analyst of Palestinian affairs, says that an agreement with Hamas will have far-reaching consequences on the inner politics of the Palestinians. In fact, he says, “An agreement between Israel and Hamas would be like a bullet in the head for the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas.”

Hamas and Abbas’s Fatah party are at loggerheads over governing the Palestinian people. Releasing so many prisoners, says Rubinstein, would be perceived as a tremendous success for Hamas, thus ridiculing Abbas in the eyes of his people. Israel might not be a huge fan of Abbas, but much less so of his militant opponents in Gaza.

The end is yet to be seen. In the meantime, Netanyahu is trying to barter for the best bargain he can. But as in so many other cases in the region, Israel remains without any really good cards in its hand.

(published originally in Monocle on October 13th 2009)

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