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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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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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