Archive for April 2009

Blessings from Israel

April 29, 2009

This week, Israel marks two important days in the calendar; Remembrance Day and Independence Day.

The former honours 22,437 civilians and members of Israeli security services killed since 1948. Rabbi Ari Kahn noted in his article on facebook that one of the strongest blessings that he can offer to soldiers and to all Israelis is that “they return home safely along with all their comrades, and live normal lives …..” .

When you balance those remarks with current trends in the peace process, they take on greater significance. President Abbas appears to be retreating on previous commitments to recognise Israel. In the words of an official from the Israeli Foreign Ministry: –

The Palestinians cannot negotiate for a two-state solution where one is Palestinian and the other is Palestinian-to-be. This is essential; it is the choice between ending the conflict or failing to end the conflict.”

Yes, Israelis are still very much in need of the blessing of peace. The IDF Chief of Staff, Gabi Ashkenazi commented this week how: 

Even after dozens of years of struggle, we have still not lost our hope to live by your side in peace and mutual respect; but I don’t recommend that anyone tests the strength and determination of the IDF.

In direct contrast, as we review Israel’s celebrations for her 61st year, we can see just how much President Abbas has to learn from his adversary. The official event to start the 24 hours of celebrations saw the customary participation of all parts of society, including Druze and Bedouin. Pluralism at its best.

But it is more than that. Israel is a beautiful country. In the winter, you can ski on the Hermon, and then a few hours later you can sunbathe in Eilat. In Jerusalem, you can almost literally walk back thousands of years and touch elements belonging to the First Temple Period. Israeli technology is literally universal, as she has become one of the few countries to possess satellite capabilities.

Israel’s modern history is replete with triumphs, which others would be proud of, but have difficulty in bringing themselves to acknowledge.

Israel has many blessings to offer other peoples and nations around the globe. All are welcome to receive them in peace and with good health. They too have much to celebrate from Israel’s 61 years of independence.

Israel’s PM makes a weak start

April 27, 2009

The Israeli Finance Ministry is preparing a rolling budget for a 20 month period. Great – should cut out the usual financial uncertainty that would be expected to accompany the 2010 budget, as it would hit the Kenesset debating tables later this year.

But hang on, so what are the brave new measures of this new government?

The press has received leaks re the upping of tax on mobile phones given to employees. Wow! Tourists may be required to pay VAT on hotel bills. Staggering! Increased taxes on petrol. Clearly a sop to the green vote on the backs of the poor.

As for structural changes, well, public housing may be sold off through enhanced use of the financial sector. Again, not exactly earth shattering stuff. And so on.

Bibi Netanyahu has been in office for 2 months. Consider his experience. He is a former Finance Minister and former Prime Minister. And this is all he can come up with?

No strategy. Just a set of measures cobbled together. Vague mutterings of tax cuts delayed to 2010. No help for abandoned rail projects. No kick-start measures for SMEs, still coping with the awful paperwork and credit demands of local banks.

Compare that to the efforts of the Bank of Israel, which is demanding that Israeli banks conduct their affairs with far greater transparency and less recklessness. For example, whatever the outcome over the board of Bank Hapoalim, the country’s largest bank, the industry knows that the rules have been changed for the future. 

And the stock market has responded positively following the BOI’s efforts.

So, why do I write about Bibi and not his Finance Minister? Because the minister is a novice. In this week’s round of discussions with cabinet members over budget cuts, the individuals are being invited to the PM’s office. The Finance Minister is not even expected to be present!

It is too early to give a first term report or hand out marks. But on his performance to date, Bibi is merely dabbling with the economy. His spin has not covered that up. The economy demands more. The people deserve better.

Israeli tech meets Palestinian water crisis

April 26, 2009

Rainfall in the Middle East has always been an issue. This year, the winter rains in the region have been around 20-25% below average, and that average itself has been in constant retreat for some years.

So when the World Bank issues a report stating that  “Israel extracts 50% more water from the aquifers it shares with the Palestinian authority than it is authorised to do so”, ears prick up.

Double back to a detailed report from the office of the Israeli Water Commissioner. It carefully details the obligations of all sides under the 1993 Oslo Accords, and who has fulfilled what. In brief, Israel has gone way beyond the letter and spirit of the agreements in helping the Palestinians.

It is the Palestinians, who have yet to drill or to operate half the required wells in the Eastern Aquifer. And in the Northern District, they have sunk over 250 illegal wells.

But here’s the killer fact. Over 60% of Palestinian sewage is deliberately not treated. Its run off contaminates into the already precious reserves of water, rivers or lakes.

An internet search will show how loads of NGOs and other pressure groups have sunk tons of resources, research, man-hours, money into deligitimising Israel’s use of water. I personally have had correspondence with such activists over the years. If all that investment had been turned away from hate and ploughed into coexistence, much of the Palestinian water shortage could have been resolved.

How so?

Take Cequesta, a small Israeli company, based just outside Jerusalem. Using environmentally friendly tech, it recycles water from industrial or other use. The systems are not expensive, support the environment and provide a clear solution to populations with water shortages.

Whether it be Cequesta or other solutions, the Palestininas have much to gain from cooperating with the Israelis. They only people to lose out will be those determined to see Israel suffer, whatever the cost to truth.

Hungarians, Ahmadinejad, and the Big Mac

April 21, 2009

Today, the world honours Holocaust Day. In Israel, sirens will ring out for 2 minutes to recall the millions slaughtered by the Nazis.

The official name of the day is “Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes  Remembrance Day”. This is not just a reference to those who died in the gas chambers. It refers to those who fought back as partisans or otherwise. And it recalls those true heroes, a few thousand rare individuals, who performed supreme acts of courage to save the lives of the persecuted.

Take Hungary, where the Jewish community of 400,000 humans was wiped out in months.  A few weeks ago, Yair Lapid, an Israeli journalist, attended a ceremony in Budapest, which marked the heroism of 11 non-Jewish individuals, who risked their lives to save people they did not know. Lapid’s late father, a former cabinet minister, was one of the few Hungarian Jews to survive the Holocaust.

Lapid has written that the 11 were ordinary, ordinary people. For example, a lady had realised that she was simply staring a 3 Jewish orphans. On the spot she simply decided to hide, feed, clothe and protect them, until whenever. No payment. No reward.

Why? Yair’s sister, a psychologist, provided an answer. These were people with a profound, ingrained sense of right and wrong. No indoctrination or ideology can override that.

Lapid asks if he or his readers would have done the same in similar threatening conditions. And that is obviously impossible to answer. BUT, what can we do do in less challenging situations in order to correct an injustice?

The United Nations was set up to combat hatred. This week, it is hosting its second conference against racism. The first event, held in Durban, was hijacked by totalitarian countries who poured their bile and venom onto Israel and her supporters.

The follow up meeting is being held in neutral Switzerland, the country who “lost” millions of wealth owned by Jews, who died in the Second World War. The Swiss President officially welcomed  Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, his Iranian counterpart. In the name of free speech, Ahmadinejad, a known Holocaust denier, let forth his opinion as the opening speaker at the conference.

So, the UN, established to counter hate, allowed the world’s prime defender of such disgusting acts to state his views in front of the world’s media. DUH!

It is difficult to find an equivalent. Maybe at the next annual vegetarians conference, the organisers should invite the CEO of McDonalds…in the name of free speech. Not quite the same, but you get the point.

All the world had to do was say: “No. This is disgusting. We the world, the UN, cannot allow this.” True 9 countries boycotted the conference. 24 walked out of Ahmadinejad’s speech. But 10 + the UN’s General Secretary remained seated.

Two of those, who sat silent in their seats, were the reps of the Vatican and Switzerland, harrowingly similar to the blacks years of the Holocaust. They had a chance to act, but their sense of “right and wrong” was found wanting.

What has the world learnt in 70 years? What hope for the fight against racism, against anti-semitism, against hatred?

Israel’s economy – the next phase 2

April 20, 2009

As I was blogging yesterday about Israel’s economic status, Professor Stanley Fisher, Governor of the Bank of Israel, was presenting his annual report to the country.

With no small irony, the TV  cameras captured the new Finance Minister thanking Fisher for his efforts and then promptly forgetting the book on the table. Freudian slip, if ever there was one!

Much of the press has slammed Fisher. In another irony, nobody is interested in what happened in 2008. Everybody is focusing on the corrected and increasingly pessimistic predictions for 2009 and 2010. For the BOI, growth will recede by 1.5% and then rise by only 1% respectively. Allowing for population changes, this is a double whammy.

A headline in Yediot Ahronot, Israel’s largest daily newspaper explains why people are confused. Fisher talks with quiet optimism, but his stats are not looking good. He is now playing down Netanyahu’s call for lower taxes. Seasonal sales remain cool. Fisher is warning that there is more bad news to come before the upswing.

But I disagree with the critics.

The global recession is unprecedented in scope and form for at least 2 generations. Thus, any response cannot rely on standard formulas, usual policies, or spin. And that is what Fisher is saying today.

In fact, if I recall a briefing of his back in July 08 to a UK trade delegation, and before the credit squeeze really set in, Fisher was saying the same thing thing.

Any measures must be considered, now more than ever. Tax cuts to please politicians will not help the populace as a whole. calculated policies are the order of the day. Stay cool, endure some more nasty pain, and the economy could well already be seeing the first early stages of recovery.

The fact is that neither journalists nor politicians have a better solution to the crucial issues. Fisher’s opponents have chosen the easy path of being critical without providing an alternative.

They would be better off demanding that the Finance Ministry finally implements a package of measures to encourage small and medium sized businesses. That will clearly boost long-term and sustained growth.

Confused? For the moment it is Fisher who has the explanations. Stay tuned to him.

Israel’s economy – the next phase 1

April 19, 2009

I have long argued that Israel will survive this terrible recession better than others, and possibly come through even stronger.

The jury will remain out for some months to come. However, when the local stock market rises around 24% since the beginning of March, it is time to take stock.

First, in comparison to global equity prices, the Tel Aviv Exchange is on par. Good start. And we know that current prices often reflect future expectations and known prospects.

Further, like counterparts around the world, Israel’s leading bankers have been muttering that “maybe” there are “signs” that “possibly” we are somewhere around the bottom of the trough. OK, so they would not place their fat salaries on an open table if there was not some basis for that.

Evidently, there are still hard times ahead. Sales of cars and household appliances have yet to pick up. Traditional industries have still threatening lay offs due to lack of credit.

I have identified 3 indicators, which together can form a solid base for hope.

Since the beginning of the year, the shekel has lost almost 10% of its value against leading currencies. Israel is an export driven economy. So this stat convert towards higher corporate revenues, and thus investment and employment.

There are some indications that high tech is beginning to recruit again. Just as significant, when you consider what happened to AIG, Udi Klein, the head of the insurance agent’s assoc in Israel, believes that the industry will be short of 1,000 workers over the coming year.

And of course, there have been at least 2 significant discoveries of commercial gas in the past few weeks. The revenues are liable to have a major benefit on the economy and its long-term health.

Were to now? The Finance Ministry. Due to electoral consideration, Israel has lacked macro economic leadership for too long. It is time for the civil servants and politicians to come up and implement strategic and structural policies that will make a difference.

Israelis and Palestinians – no way to live

April 16, 2009

On Tuesday, I went for a wonderful walk in the midst of Samaria. Today, I finally realised what was disturbing me about the trip. For all the beauty of the nature, what I also saw was the very core of the Israeli – Palestinian conflict. For either side, it is no way to live (NWTL).

What do I mean?

 The walk itself was along the banks of the River Shilo. Spring flowers were out in full, and their colours won over the hearts of even your sarcastic author. The last winter rains mixed with some early summer sunshine ensured we were surrounded by a lush green backdrop.

The town of Shilo is nearby, built near the ancient city where the Tabernacle or Mishkan was located. This is holy for many different religions.

So why the phrase NWTL?

To get there, we travelled north out of Jerusalem along Route 60. Palestinian and Israeli drivers happily took turns breaking the speed limit. Each had their own number plates. Each was able to move freely to where they wanted. Fine, but then look again.

Under current peace proposals, Israel will be asked to surrender control of Shilo. Jews will not be allowed to return to a key holy site nor have access to the nature trail I trapsed. NWTL.

Sure Palestinians were zooming freely up and down the road. But on the edge of Jerusalem, they have to undergo security checks to visit friends and family. NWTL.

The security checks are staffed by young 18-20 year old soldiers, who are being asked to make immediate and sensitive decisions, all day every day. Not a fair imposition, leading to unsatisfactory results for all. NWTL.

Looking at the Palestinian villages from a distance and comparing them to the set up of Israeli towns, you can see that the Palestinian Authority is clearly unable (and unwilling) to invest resources in their social development. NWTL.

The route back to Jerusalem was poorly marked, and Israeli drivers nearly caused accidents as they desperately tried to ensure not to take an incorrect turn and thus drive into the wrong village. Who needs that danger or fear? Who needs to be humiliated by these drivers? NWTL.

The list goes on. But do not misunderstand me. Israelis have rights like any other people on the planet – to live their social /religious dream in peace and security. In parallel, the Palestinians deserve better.

And here’s the punchline. As Obama is sucked in to the depths of office, his lackies are also beginning to resort to the spin of the past. They are clearly gearing up to pressure the new Israeli government, assuming that this will bring results.

BUT, the fact is that there is no peace plan – Saudi, American, Israeli, European, etc – that gives a full and genuine resolution to these on-going subjects described here.

World leaders, including Israelis and Palestinians, must start to engage with those real, day-to-day, and on-the-ground issues, and in a manner that replaces rhetoric for realism and multi-level understanding. Then, maybe, we will see a sustainable peace process emerging for the Middle East.

Obama, Miliband and co have yet to reach that stage.