Tuesday, 27 November 2018

A British Aliyah – is it likely?

This article appears in the edition of the "Jerusalem Report" dated 
                                           10 December 2018  

On 27 July 2018 the UK's three main Jewish newspapers published precisely the same leading article, warning that a government led by Jeremy Corbyn would pose an "existential threat to Jewish life".

Some 25,000 of Israel’s nearly nine million citizens were born in the United Kingdom. This is not very many, but are they soon to be joined by a new wave of immigration from Britain such as Israel has witnessed in the past from mainland Europe, the Arab world, Russia, Ethiopia and France?

The question arises in the wake of a recent upsurge in the UK of anti-Semitic incidents in general, and the exposure of overt anti-Semitism within the Labour party, one of the nation’s two major political parties. A director of the Jewish Agency for Israel, Yigal Palmor, said recently: "Aliyah has become a popular conversation theme among many British Jews.”

“It's a very sad state of affairs,” said Gideon Falter, chairman of the UK’s Campaign Against Antisemitism , “because we have all grown up here and for most us this is where our grandparents found refuge during the darkest days of humanity."

Ever since the Labour party, traditionally considered a natural home for British Jews, elected Jeremy Corbyn as its leader in September 2015, it has been embroiled in a bitter dispute over the extent of anti-Semitism within its ranks.

Corbyn is an avowed Marxist and a long-time espouser of radical action in support of causes that he adjudges anti-colonialist, anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist. That sets him at odds with centrist political opinion in Britain. When he became a member of parliament in 1983, the Labour party had just suffered its worst electoral defeat in fifty years. It had gone to the country on a radical socialist manifesto that was later dubbed “the longest suicide note in history”. Its new leader. Neil Kinnock, much more of a social democrat, came into office intent on modifying the hard-left policies that had been so decidedly rejected by the British public.

Jeremy Corbyn was having none of it. In dogged pursuit of ideals that many see as relics of the class war within the UK, and of the Cold War outside, he voted against his party in Parliament literally hundreds of times, both when they were in opposition, and when they returned to power under Tony Blair. He was, and remains, implacably opposed to the social democratic philosophy underpinning the politics of a large proportion of the Labour party.

Corbyn was voted into the leadership largely by radically-minded young people who flocked to join the party to rebel against the established approach to politics of both main parties. Like many of his supporters Corbyn subscribes to the left-wing philosophy of “intersectionality”, which regards victimhood as a unifying condition, binding together all who are oppressed, no matter from what cause. Victims of racial discrimination are at one with the sexually exploited or the economically oppressed. Left-wing thinking, impervious to the complexities of an issue that has defied decades of peace efforts, regards the Palestinians as victims of Zionist colonialism. Supporting all victims as a matter of principle must therefore logically encompass opposing Zionism and Israel – a position that slips all too easily into frank anti-Semitism.

This tendency had already infected the left wing of the Labour party when Corbyn became leader. One prominent member, Ken Livingstone, once London’s mayor, had exemplified it by hosting virulent anti-Semitic speakers, comparing a Jewish journalist to a Nazi concentration camp guard, and linking Hitler to Zionism based on a highly questionable interpretation of Nazi efforts in the 1930s to expel Jews from Germany. Livingstone never acknowledged that this bizarre attempt to tar Zionism with a Nazi brush was anti-Semitic.

Early in 2016 public opposition to anti-Semitism within Labour’s ranks, and to Ken Livingstone in particular, led to the Labour party suspending him (he later resigned his membership), and to Corbyn setting up an independent inquiry into anti-Semitism and other forms of racism within the party.

Conducted by human rights campaigner Shami Chakrabarti, the report – immediately dubbed a “whitewash” by many Labour voices, Jewish and non-Jewish – concluded that the Labour Party was not overrun by anti-Semitism, but that there was an "occasionally toxic atmosphere". Very shortly afterwards Chakrabarti was elevated to the House of Lords, and is currently the Rt Hon Baroness Chakrabarti, Labour’s shadow Attorney General.

March 2018 saw Corbyn supporting a virulently anti-Semitic mural, reminiscent of the cartoons that used to appear in the notorious Nazi journal, Der Stȕrmer. Later, calling it "deeply disturbing and anti-Semitic", he said that he had not looked at it properly,

The summer that followed was a bad time for Corbyn.

In July Labour adopted a new code of conduct on anti-Semitism. Although based on the internationally recognized IHRA (International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance) guidelines, Labour’s version omitted four of its "examples of anti-Semitism" which dealt specifically with Israel. In brief Labour sought to establish that it was not anti-Semitic to accuse Jewish people of being more loyal to Israel than to their home country; to claim that Israel's existence as a state was a racist endeavor; to require higher standards of behavior from Israel than from other nations; and to compare contemporary Israeli policies to those of the Nazis.

Labour’s truncated version was immediately condemned by Jewish leaders and Labour figures. A combined force of 68 UK rabbis, from across the spectrum of Jewish belief, wrote a joint letter urging Labour to adopt the IHRA guidelines in full. The UK's three main Jewish newspapers, in a unique gesture of solidarity, published on their front pages under the title “United We Stand” precisely the same leading article, warning that a government led by Jeremy Corbyn would pose an "existential threat to Jewish life".

Although it rejected the criticism, Labour carried out a consultation and finally adopted the IHRA definition with all its examples. However the gesture was immediately devalued in an accompanying statement that "this will not in any way undermine freedom of expression on Israel or the rights of Palestinians". But of course the whole point of the IHRA guidelines is to constrain freedom of expression on Israel by respecting its definitions of anti-Semitism.

The committee’s statement was, however, milk-and-water compared with a much longer qualifying document that Corbyn had urged on it. A key passage read that it should not “be regarded as anti-Semitic to describe Israel, its policies or the circumstances around its foundation as racist, because of their discriminatory impact.” In short Corbyn would have Israel regarded as having been born in sin, never really to be redeemed.

Corbyn faced criticism in August 2018 after a video emerged in which he said a group of British Zionists had "no sense of English irony". Former chief rabbi Lord Sacks branded the comments as highly offensive, and accused Corbyn of being an anti-Semite.

Soon the questionable persons and places to which his political beliefs had led him began to emerge in a series of highly disturbing incidents. He came under fire over his presence at a ceremony in Tunisia in 2014 in which he was pictured laying a wreath on the grave of a perpetrator of the 1972 Munich terror attack, during which 11 members of the Israeli Olympic team were taken hostage and killed. Condemned by Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Corbyn said he had attended the event in Tunis as part of a wider event about the search for peace.

Responding to news stories about having hosted occasions which included representatives of Hezbollah and Hamas, whom he had called “friends”, Corbyn said: "In the past, in pursuit of justice for the Palestinian people and peace in Israel/Palestine, I have on occasion appeared on platforms with people whose views I completely reject. I apologize for the concerns and anxiety that this has caused." So far no pictures of Corbyn sharing a platform with supporters of Israel have come to light.

Corbyn has been entirely consistent in decrying the evils of racism, with which he includes anti-Semitism, and has declared himself dedicated to rooting anti-Semitism out of the Labour party. He has been equally consistent in his support for the Palestinian cause, while also declaring himself in favor of a two-state solution. In the recent Labour party conference he declared, to the wild waving of Palestinian flags in the hall, that the next Labour government would immediately recognize the state of Palestine as a step towards achieving just that.

Over the three years 2015-2017 Britain’s Campaign Against Antisemitism, together with the YouGov market research company, conducted interviews with more than 10,000 British Jews. 80 percent said they believed that the Labour Party was harboring anti-Semites in its ranks; three-quarters said they felt that recent political events had resulted in increased hostility towards Jews, while almost a third said they have considered leaving the UK because of anti-Semitism. Given the events of 2018, opinion must certainly have hardened,.

“A lot of Jewish people are worrying about what the future might hold," said Dave Rich, head of policy for the UK’s Community Security Trust, recently.

Well it holds Brexit – Britain leaving the EU – the outcome of which is uncertain indeed. If Parliament fails to ratify the deal being negotiated between the UK and the EU, or if there is no deal, major political disruption will follow. One possible outcome could be a general election, and in that event a Labour victory is entirely possible. It is the prospect of a government led by Jeremy Corbyn, even more than the rise in anti-Semitic incidents, which weighs heaviest on the minds of Britain’s Jewish community.

In April Jewish journalist Miriam Shaviv wrote in the Jewish Chronicle about how she came to the "heartbreaking" realization that her "family's longterm future cannot be in the UK… Corbyn embodies the reason why Israel's existence is forever necessary, as a refuge for Jews fleeing persecution and distress."

For their own sake it must be hoped that Britain’s Jews are not forced into Aliyah in order to flee persecution or distress. There are other more positive, hopeful and uplifting reasons for Jews to return to Zion.

Saturday, 17 November 2018

The two Irans

                                                                                     Video version
          The dynamics of the Iranian state make for an intriguing case study. Informed observers maintain that two strong internal forces are pursuing irreconcilable political objectives. On the one hand there is the reformist camp, concerned about the people’s welfare and willing to engage with the outside world. On the other, there is the “deep state”, led by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, supported by the powerful IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps), dedicated to upholding and strengthening the Islamic Revolution. It is the deep state that has complete dominance over the country’s political affairs, and can exercise its will in defiance of any contract or agreement enacted between Iran’s government and other countries,

          For his own good reasons Khamenei facilitated the re-election in May 2017 of Hassan Rouhani as President for a second term in office. Rouhani drew a great deal of support from “progressives” within Iranian society, who believed he could – and would – carry through a program of economic development aimed at improving the standard of living for the nation as a whole.

          This belief was founded on the nuclear deal signed on 14 July 2015 between Iran and the permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany. For years the Iranian economy had been crippled by severe sanctions imposed by the UN and the USA for violating directives laid on Iran regarding its nuclear programme. With the grudging support of the Supreme Leader, Rouhani negotiated the deal under which a whole raft of sanctions were lifted, as a quid pro quo for Iran severely curtailing its nuclear development programme. Incidentally, no sooner was the deal signed, than Khamenei issued a statement hedging on some of its terms. “Even after this deal,” he pronounced, “our policy toward the arrogant US will not change.”

          It is doubtful how high a priority Khamenei and the ruling Iranian élite placed on the economic wellbeing of the nation. The Supreme Leader had been fixated for a long time on a concept he dubbed “resistance economy” – an idea he introduced in 2011 in response to Western sanctions.

          Resistance economy lays down measures aimed at overcoming the economic pressure of sanctions, such as creating domestic versions of foreign products, increasing barter trade, and smuggling. The idea has re-emerged in Iranian official rhetoric following the wave of unrest that swept the country in late December 2017 and early January 2018.

          Khamanei himself, Iran’s religious bureaucracy, and leading IRGC officials were equivocal from the start about the negotiations leading to the nuclear deal with the West. They went along with it to win the lifting of sanctions, but once the sanctions were eased, assets unfrozen and substantial loans poured into Iran’s coffers, nothing was done to improve housing, education, public health, or transportation for the nation.

          In a recent report, Radio Farda – which broadcasts to Iran under the aegis of Radio Liberty – maintained that many Iranians subsist on the bare minimum while their rulers live lavishly. “Khamenei suggests that the nation should consume less,” ran the report, “while the government wastes the country’s resources.” It cites in particular the chronic embezzlement and financial corruption, and the petro dollars poured into financing the IRGC. Resources were lavished on proxy wars in Syria and Yemen, and supporting IRGC’s ballistic missile program. Millions more were given to terrorist factions such as Hezbollah and Hamas.

          Khamenei and his supporters reject the idea that the civil unrest, which continued well into 2018, was an expression of dissatisfaction with the regime itself, despite the clearest indications during the uprisings that this is what they were. They blame Iran’s economic problems on “foreign enemies” and Rouhani’s administration, which they accuse of neglecting the principles of resistance economy.

          The defenders of resistance economy are in fact isolationists. They oppose improved ties with the outside world, and are thus at total odds with one of the major concepts behind the nuclear deal – to restore Iran to the “family of nations”. Rouhani responded positively to this aspect of the deal, having recognized, together with his supporters, that the end result of resistance economy is to maintain the Iranian people in a permanent state of poverty and, for large numbers, misery.

          The high hopes placed in Rouhani by the progressive movement were shattered with the emergence of Donald Trump as US president. At total odds with his predecessor, President Obama, Trump was fundamentally opposed to the deal, withdrew from it step by step, and has re-imposed the lifted sanctions.

          Although Khamenei has asserted that the sanctions would make no difference to Iran’s economy – an assertion that may well prove correct, given the determination of the EU to circumvent them – Rouhani’s political position has been gravely weakened. His own support base feels frustrated, while the reformist movement has lost credibility among ordinary Iranians. The economic benefits they had hoped for never materialized. As for the Iranian establishment, they are now castigating Rouhani for the whole nuclear deal policy, and for placing any faith at all in the West.

          Strangely the two Irans have shifted places. Rouhani and the progressives, once favoured by Washington, are now lobbying strongly against the US administration in the hope of a Democrat president in two years’ time.

          The Iranian regime, on the other hand, is delighted that eight nations have been exempted from Trump’s embargo on Iranian oil. The concession was allowed on the proviso that the income is placed in an escrow account usable only for food and other humanitarian imports. The élite might have used the petro dollars very differently, but the exemption frees up other sources of income for them to get their hands on.

         In addition, in the belief that every cloud has a silver lining, Khamenei hopes the re-imposed sanctions will provide a long spell of isolation that will give Iran the chance to strengthen its adherence to the fundamentalist Islamism that lies at the root of the Revolution.

Published in the MPC Journal, 20 November 2018:

Thursday, 8 November 2018

How fares Trump's peace plan?

                                                                             Video version
In mid-October 2018 rumours about Trump’s long-awaited Middle East peace plan were flying around the Israeli media. On the 22nd one TV channel reported a conversation between Donald Trump and the French president, Emmanuel Macron, during which Trump had apparently said that he was prepared to “get tough” if necessary with the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.

“I gave Bibi a lot,” Trump was reported to have said, referring not only to his decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move the US embassy there, but also to the vast sums transferred annually to Israel by way of American aid.

 Officials and commentators were quick to draw obvious implications from these remarks namely that the Trump peace plan embodied several elements that would probably prove distasteful to Netanyahu, and that they might require some painful concessions by Israel that could involve him in political difficulties at home.  It seemed equally clear that, once the plan was unrolled and all its details revealed, Trump was likely to give no ground in demanding that Israel accept it in full, however distasteful certain aspects might be.  He would expect this as part of the normal “give and take” of deal-making.  

In fact these latest rumours were by no means new.  Twice since the start of 2018 Trump has remarked that, in exchange for his actions on Jerusalem, Israel “would have to pay more” in any agreement with the Palestinians.  The rollout of his peace plan which, according to media reports, could have taken place from about June 2018, has been awaiting a suitably propitious moment.

On the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in September Trump said that he intended to reveal the peace plan before the end of 2018.  It is still not clear whether he intends to stick by that timetable.

Three main factors seemed to be holding up the rollout.  There is PA President Mahmoud Abbas’s flat rejection of the plan in advance, and without knowing its contents, because of Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moving the US embassy there from Tel Aviv.  Abbas reinforced this position by declaring that the US was no longer acceptable as a peace broker. 

A second inhibitory factor has been the near-universal belief that the Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammad bin Salman (MBS), masterminded the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi embassy in Ankara.  Saudi Arabia is the Arab state closest to America, and it was believed that the Trump peace team had been counting on widespread Arab endorsement, led by Saudi Arabia, to underpin the plan.

Finally, the US mid-term elections were looming, and Trump probably wanted them out of the way before making any move. 

The elections on 6 November, widely perceived as a popular vote on Trump’s administration, left him battered but unbowed.  The House of Representatives regained a Democrat majority, but the Republican hold on the Senate was strengthened.  With full Republican control of Congress no longer available, Trump will certainly find domestic legislation difficult to achieve in the next two years. He may well think it more congenial to turn his attention to foreign policy.
And indeed, on the day after the mid-terms, 7 November, reports appeared in the media indicating that Jared Kushner, Trump's son-in-law who is leading the operation,  was heavily engaged in preparing a detailed promotional campaign aimed at selling the peace plan to US political and public opinion, and to the world.  The launch would, of course, be headed by Trump himself, but Kushner would then serve as the public face of the peace effort. 

If in unveiling the peace plan the US is prepared to discount the tarnished image of Saudi Arabia in general, and MBS in particular, one major factor in gaining impetus for it will certainly be Israel’s improving relations with a range of other Arab nations.  Towards the end of October Netanyahu and his wife made a surprise, eight-hour visit to Oman to meet the Sultan the first of its kind in over two decades.  There was a lavish dinner, traditional Omani music and what Netanyahu told his Cabinet were "very important talks", promising more trips would follow.

Sure enough, while he was speaking Israel's Sports and Culture Minister, Miri Regev, was at an international judo contest in Abu Dhabi, capital of the United Arab Emirates (UAE).  When an Israeli athlete took a gold medal and the Israeli national anthem was played – totally unprecedented on the Arabian Peninsula she burst into tears.

Later, while Israel’s transport minister was in the Omani capital, Muscat, proposing a railway between Israel and Arab countries, another Israeli official at an event in the Arab emirate of Dubai was talking about "peace and security".

All this occurred in spite of the fact that neither Oman nor the UAE recognize Israel, and Israel has no official diplomatic relations with either.

With the odd and the unexpected the order of the day, how the Trump peace plan will be received, when it is finally revealed to the world, is anyone’s guess.

Published in the MPC Journal, 9 November 2018:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 13 November 2018: