Saturday, 29 December 2018

UK-Israel trade: the sky's the limit

  This article appears in the edition of the "Jerusalem Report" dated
                                            7 January 2019

Trade between the UK and Israel is booming.  The basic facts are quite astonishing.  Bilateral trade in 2014 was $6.3 billion; the following year it was pushing $7.5 billion; in 2016 it burst through the $7.5 billion barrier.  In 2017 it achieved $9.1 billion, while the first half of 2018 saw total bilateral trade between the UK and Israel grow by 8% compared with the first six months of 2017.

Success on this scale does not happen by chance.  One key component behind this explosion of business activity is the little known UK Israel Tech Hub. 

It was back in October 2011 that then UK ambassador to Israel, Matthew Gould, officially launched the Hub at the British embassy in Tel Aviv.  Its creation followed an agreement between then UK prime minister, David Cameron, and Benjamin Netanyahu to promote business partnerships between Israel and the UK, and the Hub was a ground-breaking effort to do so in the fields of technology and cutting-edge innovation.  Nothing of the kind had ever been attempted before between the British government and a foreign embassy. 

The UK-Israel Tech Hub aimed at a win-win partnership – to provide Israel with the  benefits of a close working relationship with the UK in developing its rapidly expanding technology and start-up sectors, but also to ensure that the UK market could benefit from the breadth and quality of Israeli R&D and innovation.  Early on the organization identified six key areas on which to concentrate:  Digital, Life Sciences, Cleantech, Arab tech, Fintech and government technology.  

A vital first step was to fill the top posts on both sides of the partnership.  Early in 2012 Haim Shani, a former director-general of the Israeli Ministry of Finance, was appointed Chair of the Hub.  From the British side the appointment of the UK’s first-ever tech envoy to Israel was announced by Cameron in December 2012.  It was to be venture capitalist and business executive Saul Klein, who took up the post with a track record of developing successful start-ups in both Britain and Israel. 

Announcing the appointment  Cameron said: “We want to work much more closely with Israel on innovation and technology.  That’s why a year ago we launched the UK-Israel Tech Hub at our Embassy to link up with UK Israel Business, the Israeli Embassy here in London and countless talented young people in both our countries.”

What followed was years of slog, determination and entrepreneurship by scores of British and Israeli business executives and officials, and the result has been the flourishing bilateral UK-Israeli trade figures that show no sign of having peaked, or how high any peak might reach.

The outstanding success of the UK-Israel Tech Hub, and the many organizations in both the UK and Israel working with it, was recognized on 25 October 2018, when Haim Shani was accorded the rare distinction for a non-UK citizen of being awarded an honorary OBE (Officer of the Order of the British Empire).  Normally these honours are awarded in person by a member of the royal family often the Queen herself in London or Edinburgh.  On this occasion the award was made on the Queen’s behalf by UK ambassador to Israel, David Quarrey.  The Hub has been based in the British embassy in Tel Aviv from the start, so appropriately enough the ceremony was carried out there. 

The award to Shani marked the fact that, since it was launched in 2011, this world-first tech partnership between the UK and Israel has helped to boost the UK economy by nearly a billion pounds sterling.  In doing so it has demonstrated that the vision behind its creation was no chimera.  The Hub has indeed enabled British companies to access Israel’s world leading innovations, while at the same time helping Israeli companies go global by partnering with UK firms. So far it has helped set up 175 Israeli-British tech partnerships in deals worth £85 million.

2017 saw more UK bodies, including some of Britain’s largest, using Israeli cutting edge technologies in areas unfamiliar to most people including AI (Artificial Intelligence), chatbots, blockchain, IoT (Internet of Things) and in projects such as smart cities and smart industries.

What are these strange concepts that are predicted to revolutionize the world around us?

Artificial Intelligence, which has already made a partial breakthrough into the everyday world, is essentially a machine-produced method of mirroring the human mind.  Chess-playing computers, which go back to the mid-1970s, were an early example. 

A chatbot is a much advanced system of artificial intelligence.  It is a computer program which conducts conversations with human beings, convincingly simulating how a human would behave as a conversational partner. 

The blockchain is a continuously upgraded financial and digital ledger that self-audits itself and is virtually impregnable.

The Internet of Things is a network of home appliances, vehicles, and other devices embedded with software and electronics which enable these objects to connect, collect and exchange data. 

            A smart city is an urban area that uses electronic data collection to manage assets and resources efficiently. This includes monitoring and managing schools, libraries, hospitals, and other community services as well as traffic and transportation systems, power plants, water supply networks, waste management and law enforcement. 

Smart industry, sometimes also called smart manufacturing, uses fully-integrated, collaborative manufacturing systems that respond in real time to meet changing demands and conditions in the factory, the supply network, and customer needs. Computer controls, modelling, data and other automation devices enable all information to be available when and where it is needed across entire manufacturing and supply processes.

These are the sort of front-line areas in which British and Israeli businessmen are working in productive collaborations.  As Ambassador Quarrey has remarked: “These new partnerships mean the UK is now a major destination for Israeli innovation, and Israeli innovation is now part of many areas of life in the UK.”

A major collaborator and facilitator on the Israeli side has been the Israel Innovation Authority (IIA), previously known as the Office of the Chief Scientist, a government department originally established in 1974.  An independent public entity, the IIA is responsible for Israel’s innovation policy and is proactive in fostering and supporting it.  The IIA provides most of the grants awarded to Israeli companies involved in research and development (R&D). These grants are paid back to the state in the form of royalties, calculated according to the amount of sales related to the research and development performed with the state’s funding.

In line with the innovative thinking that it supports, the IIA has become ever more forward-looking in how it offers its financial aid.  Originally, the authority simply made immediate cash payments.  Now approved companies can negotiate a payment plan which allows the IIA to continue to share in the risk of the company’s research phase right through to the commercialization of a product.

The IIA has gone even further.  Until quite recently companies that licensed knowledge to entities outside Israel were considered to have transferred intellectual property, and were obliged immediately to return all grants received from the authority.  In a move designed to ease the grant-giving process, the IIA decided that companies that offer licenses for the use of intellectual property, but leave ownership in-house, could continue to receive financial support for continuing R&D.

Healthy UK-Israel business collaboration is unlikely to be adversely affected when Britain leaves the European Union on March 29, 2019.  Britain has long been seeking trading partnerships for the post-Brexit period, and Israel has been high on the list.  In fact a new UK-Israel free trade agreement has been in negotiation since March 2017, although it cannot be finalized until after December 31, 2020, the end of the so-called “transition period” during which EU law will more or less continue to apply to the UK.

Meanwhile blue-sky thinking about a possible post-Brexit golden age continues to occupy some of Britain’s best minds.  One freshly minted concept is the “Anglosphere”. 

The argument is that these days, in the light of inexpensive modern freight and refrigeration costs, cheap flights and the internet, cultural proximity trumps geography.  Australia, for example, may be on the other side of the world, but it is hard to think of a country closer to Britain in every other sense. Moreover, the Commonwealth as a whole has surged economically: its combined economy surpassed that of the eurozone in 2012, and is predicted to overtake the EU as a whole in 2019.

In September 2018, at simultaneous events in London and Washington, 11 British and American institutes published a draft treaty setting out in detail how mutual recognition of goods, services and professional qualifications, as well as free movement of labor, could be achieved outside the EU.  The terms of the treaty were not confined to the UK-US situation.  It was drafted to be not bilateral, but multilateral – that is, open to other countries from the start.

On November 4, 2018, an article in the London Daily Telegraph considered which countries might first participate in a multilateral treaty of this sort. In doing so, the concept of an “Anglosphere” was extended beyond English as a common language, to encompass countries that share a legal system and have compatible levels of income.  In addition to the UK, the list included the US, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Singapore and Hong Kong.  To these, was added Israel which, as the article points out, “shares the others’ legal, commercial and regulatory approaches.”  Together these eight countries would constitute a third of the world’s GDP.

An “Anglosphere” trade nexus including Israel – there’s a prospect worth considering.

Friday, 28 December 2018

Destined for greatness

My review of "Churchill: Walking with Destiny" by Andrew Roberts appears in the Jerusalem Post magazine, December 28, 2018.

          Throughout his long life Churchill was convinced that he was destined for historic greatness. Aged only 16, he predicted to a school friend unprecedented future circumstances in which: “I shall save London and England from disaster…in the high position I shall occupy, it will fall to me to save the capital and the Empire.” 

          Half a century later, on 10 May 1940, just as Hitler was unleashing his Blitzkreig on Western Europe, events propelled Churchill into 10 Downing Street as Britain’s prime minister. In his war memoirs, he wrote: “I felt as if I were walking with destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and this trial.”

          In “Churchill: Walking With Destiny” Andrew Roberts achieves the rare distinction of producing an eminently readable book underpinned by scrupulous academic scholarship. It is an absorbing read – a complete, documented account of an extraordinarily rich and historically significant life lived to the full.

          It was the British class system, Roberts believes, allied to Churchill’s innate resilience, that provided the wherewithal to overcome a desperately unhappy and emotionally deprived childhood. Winston Churchill was born into the aristocracy – the grandson of the 7th Duke of Marlborough – and, as Roberts puts it, had the “unconquerable self-confidence of his caste.” Perverse by nature, and almost totally indifferent to what the world thought of him. Churchill sailed through, or rose above, a myriad of personal and political disasters.

          Not the least of these, of course, was the fact that as he became prime minister, Britain faced the imminent prospect of invasion and defeat by the Nazis. Somehow Churchill managed to rally his colleagues, and eventually the whole nation, and imbue them with his own courage, resolution and self-belief.

          Roberts, himself a founder member of the international Friends of Israel Initiative, is perhaps more alive to Churchill’s “philo-Semitism”, as he puts it, than other biographers have been. As a young man on the brink of his parliamentary career, Churchill refused to subscribe to the well-nigh universal anti-Semitism of his peers. On the contrary, says Roberts, backing his assertion with facts and figures, he was an active Zionist then, and remained so throughout his life.

          Churchill was elected to parliament for the first time in 1900. Returning a national hero from the Boer war because of his daredevil exploits, recounted to the nation in his newspaper articles, he stood as a Conservative. Three years later, out of step with his party on several issues, he changed sides, and moved across the House of Commons to sit with the Liberals.

          On the day he did so, Churchill published a letter in the Jewish Chronicle, The Times and the Manchester Guardian explaining the particular issue that lay behind his change of allegiance. The government’s Aliens Bill was intended to restrict the immigration into Britain of Jews escaping from pogroms in Czarist Russia, and Churchill refused to support it. He believed the policy was an appeal to prejudice.

          Roberts believes that Churchill’s liking for the Jewish people stemmed from his father, who had had a wide circle of Jewish friends, while both admired Benjamin Disraeli, Britain’s first prime minister to have been born Jewish. Churchill applauded the Balfour Declaration which, issued in November 1917, expressed Britain’s support for a Jewish national home in what was then Palestine. Prescient as ever, Churchill wrote: “If, as may well happen, there should be created in our own lifetime, by the banks of the Jordan, a Jewish state under the protection of the British Crown…” it would be “from every point of view beneficial.”

          In January 1921 it fell to Churchill, as the newly appointed Colonial Secretary, to make political and administrative sense out of the Middle East mandates handed to Britain by the League of Nations. Believing direct rule to be an impossible undertaking, he devolved Iraq and a newly conceived Transjordan to the charge of Arab emirs. Carving Transjordan out of the area previously known as Palestine was problematic, since the League had mandated Britain to create a national home for the Jewish people in the Palestine as understood at the time.

          Nevertheless, Churchill stood staunchly by his belief in Jewish self-determination.  He wrote: “It is manifestly right that the scattered Jews should have a national centre and a national home in which they might be reunited, and where else but in Palestine, with which Jews for three thousand years have been intimately and profoundly associated?”

          The USA recognized the new State of Israel on the very day it was created – 14 May 1948. Britain’s Labour government waited a full twelve months before granting recognition. While the matter still hung in the balance, in March 1949, Churchill spoke to a largely Jewish audience in New York: “Remember I was for a free and independent Israel all through the dark years…so do not imagine for a moment that I have the slightest idea of deserting you in your hour of glory.”

          The Labour government, although projected to power in 1945 by a landslide, lasted no more than six years, and Churchill returned as prime minister in 1951. He was a national hero but, aged 77, had suffered several strokes and was well past his prime. Roberts described it as his “Indian summer premiership.” He saw the 25-year-old Elizabeth crowned Queen in 1953, and finally handed over the reins of government in April 1955.

          Nearly ten years of active retirement followed. He remained an MP and resigned from the Commons in 1964, only a few months before he died. To the end his wit elicited the laughter of MPs on both sides of the House. Asked once if he feared death, he said, “I am ready to meet my Maker. Whether my Maker is prepared for the great ordeal of meeting me is another matter.”

          The encounter took place on 24 January 1965. Never have the events leading to it been more absorbingly described.

Published in the Jerusalem Post Magazine, 28 December 2018: 

Published in the Eurasia Review, 3 January 2019:

Published in the MPC Journal, 4 January 2019:

Saturday, 22 December 2018

Trump’s peace plan – hints but no details

          The world, fed hints but no details, ends 2018 with Trump’s “deal of the century” – his long-awaited Israel-Palestine peace plan – hanging in the air. 

          On Tuesday, 18 December, the US ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, gave her final address to the UN Security Council. She had announced back in October that she would be leaving the post at the end of the year in order, many conjectured, to prepare for a bid for the presidency in 2020. She spoke at the UN’s monthly meeting on the Middle East, dealing at length with the yet-to-be-unveiled Trump peace plan which, she said, she had read. She was privileged indeed, since it has been kept under the tightest of security wraps.

          "Unlike previous attempts at addressing this conflict," she said, "this plan is not just a few pages containing unspecific and unimaginative guidelines.  It is much longer.  It brings new elements to the discussion, taking advantage of the new world of technology that we live in. It contains much more thoughtful detail."      

          Although Israel has always wanted peace with its neighbours, said Haley, “it does not want to make peace at any price, and it shouldn’t.”  The same, she said, was true for the Palestinians. Her analysis was that “both sides would benefit greatly from a peace agreement, but the Palestinians would benefit more, and the Israelis would risk more.”

          This, said Haley was the backdrop against which the Trump administration had crafted its plan.  "It recognizes that the realities on the ground in the Middle East have changed - and changed in very powerful and important ways.  It embraces the reality that things can be done today that were previously unthinkable.  This plan will be different  from all previous ones, but the critical question is whether the response will be different."

          Asserting that there were things in the plan that all parties would like and that all parties would dislike, she said: “Every country or party will therefore have an important choice to make. They can focus on the parts of the plan that they dislike – for irresponsible parties that will be the easy part to do. The other choice is to focus on the parts of the plan that you do like, and encourage negotiations to go forward.” 

          UN member states, she said, would face the same choice, particularly the Arab states and EU member states. In addressing Arab states she said:  ”To my Arab friends… you have said that you know a solution is urgently needed. But your governments have not been willing to talk to your constituencies about what is realistic, nor to the Palestinian leadership about the harm they are doing to their very own people. By taking the easy way, you are really saying that the Palestinian people are not a priority for you, because if they were you would all be in a room helping bring both sides to the table.” 

          Haley said that the US would continue to offer its hand to the Palestinian people “who we have financially supported by far more than any country has done.”

          She maintained that the new deal is based on rejecting the “unspecific and unimaginative guidelines” that have marked all previous peace processes. Unlike them, the Trump plan is based on reality – or in her words, because it “recognizes [that] the realities on the ground in the Middle East have changed... in very powerful and important ways.”

          The European response encapsulated a mule-headed refusal even to consider any “out of the box” thinking. The little that Haley revealed of the in-depth analysis and reconsideration that has obviously gone into the long-awaited plan was clearly too much for minds wedded to the failed nostrums of the past. The eight European members of the Security Council – France, Britain, the Netherlands, Poland, Sweden, Belgium, Germany and Italy – issued a joint statement warning the US administration that any peace plan disregarding “internationally agreed parameters… would risk being condemned to failure.”

          The European statement continued, “The EU is truly convinced that the achievement of the two-state solution based on the 1967 borders with Jerusalem as the capital of both States – that meets Israeli and Palestinian security needs and Palestinian aspirations for statehood and sovereignty, ends the occupation and resolves all final status issues in accordance with Security Council Resolution 2234 and previous agreements – is the only viable and realistic way to end the conflict and to achieve a just and lasting peace.”

          They then reiterated that the EU “will continue to work towards that end...” 

          In short, any attempt to break out of the logjam that has persisted for half a century or longer, any attempt to inject new thinking into an age-old problem, will be resisted.  And so the world, fed hints but no details, saw the “deal of the century” dangling tantalisingly before them. 

          And then, at 2 pm on Christmas Eve, a shock announcement hit the social media – Prime Minister Netahyahu was about to dissolve the Knesset. Israel would be holding a General Election on 9 April 2019. 

          This immediately threw the rollout of the peace deal into free-fall. With Netanyahu President Trump’s favoured candidate, when would be the most opportune moment to unveil the plan? Almost certainly, counting on a Netanyahu victory, after the Israeli election. That would have the double advantage of giving the peace team more time to bring the moderate Arab states on side, and would also fit nicely into the US electoral timetable, providing Trump with a major achievement ahead of his campaign for a second term.

        Christmas day newspapers in Israel were crammed with speculation.

Published in the MPC Journal, 23 December 2018:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 24 December 2018:

Thursday, 13 December 2018

Peace in Yemen: the first steps

                                                                                             Video version
          Within ten months of his appointment as UN Special Envoy for Yemen, British born Martin Griffiths has succeeded in what has for years been regarded as the near-impossible – bringing the two main protagonists in the Yemen conflict to the negotiating table.

          Griffiths is supremely well-qualified for his unenviable task. Born in 1951, he is a qualified barrister and also holds a master’s degree from London University’s SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies). He came to the post with extensive experience of conflict resolution, negotiation, mediation and humanitarian affairs from a long career in international humanitarian organizations. Having also worked in the UK’s foreign service, it is perhaps that British diplomatic touch that has served him so well.

          The talks, held in Rimbo, Sweden, were a question of “second time lucky” for Griffiths. An attempt to sponsor negotiations in Geneva in September 2018 had foundered when the Houthis sought to trade their attendance against safe passage for some of their wounded soldiers. With such issues set aside, delegations from the internationally recognized government of President Abd-RabbuMansour Hadi and from the Iran-supported Houthi rebels actually sat down on 6 December 2018, facing each other across tables arranged in an open square.

          The atmosphere was far from hostile. Both sides appreciated the humanitarian disaster that had overtaken Yemen’s civilian population as a result of the conflict, and seemed willing to compromise on at least some of the key issues. 

          Griffiths described Hodeida – the port through which most of Yemen’s food supplies and aid were shipped – as the center of gravity for the war. He proposed that the port, as opposed to the city, should be brought under UN supervision, with the Houthis and the Yemen government cooperating with the arrangement. He also pressed for agreement on a package of measures, including an end to the Saudi air blockade of Sanaa airport, a mass prisoner release programme, and economic reforms designed to shore up the Yemeni currency.

          Of the main issues on the table, the prisoner exchange programme seems nearest to success. Word from within the talks indicated that as many as 6,000 prisoners could be exchanged in the coming months. The Houthis were expected to release several high-ranking commanders within the Yemeni army, including the former minister of defence, General Mahmoud Al Subaihi, and relatives of President Hadi.

          Mohammed Askar, Yemen's minister for human rights, is reported as saying: "the agreement included all detainees who were captured by the Houthis since the war erupted.” Mohammed al-Amiri, an adviser to the president, said the sides were discussing "operational mechanisms that would determine the date and place of the release."

          While the opposing sides appeared to be edging closer to securing a deal on prisoners, the fate of Sanaa international airport and Hodeida port remained for resolution. The Houthis said they were prepared to hand over the port to the UN, but only if the Saudi-UAE coalition stops its air strikes. In the breakthrough agreement, reached on 13 December, both sides agreed to a ceasefire both in Hodeida and in the wider province, to be backed by UN troops.

Yemen’s foreign minister Khaled al-Yamani (left) and head rebel negotiator Mohammed Abdelsalam (right) shake hands under the eyes of UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, during talks in Rimbo, north of Stockholm, on December 13 

          Hamza al-Kamali, a member of the Yemeni government delegation, said that talks were also focusing on easing the siege in Taiz. More than 200,000 civilians have been caught up by fighting in Taiz, a city some 200 km south of the capital, Sanaa, that has become one of the major front lines in the battle for control of Yemen.

          "If we're able to achieve something positive,” said Kamali, “we will also be looking at when to hold the next round of negotiations."   In the event a "mutual understanding" was also struck on Taiz.  And indeed Griffiths is planning to hold a further round of talks in the new year aimed at making progress on a long-term political settlement to end the four-year-long civil war. 

           The basis must be UN Resolution 2216, which aims to establish democracy in a federally united Yemen.  This new effort will have to be backed by a UN peace-keeping force. Through whatever means would be most effective – new sanctions if necessary – Iran must be prevented from assisting the Houthis and supplying them with military hardware. Humanitarian aid must be given unfettered access to all parts of Yemen. A lasting political deal would of course involve the end of the Saudi-led military operation, and probably a major financial commitment by Saudi Arabia to fund the rebuilding of the country.

          Finally the Houthis must be given the opportunity to choose. Do they wish to remain an outlawed militia permanently, or would they prefer to become a legitimate political party, able to contest parliamentary and presidential elections and participate in government? The price would be serious engagement in negotiations aimed at a peaceful transition to a political solution for a united Yemen.

          On 11 December, the fifth day of the talks, Griffiths held a press conference reporting progress on a number of issues and promising that tangible agreements will be announced by the end of the round. The exact date and venue of the next round of consultations, he said, are being discussed with the two parties but will probably take place early next year.

       “Hope is the currency of the mediator;” he declared. “If you do not provide a sense of optimism and hope for the parties, you will not encourage people to walk the extra mile.”

          Griffiths certainly seems to be making progress.

Published in the Eurasia Review, 15 December 2018:

Published in the MPCJournal, 17 December 2018:

Saturday, 8 December 2018

Lebanon's Sunni tangle

                                                                                    Video version
          As if the discovery of sophisticated Hezbollah tunnels penetrating into Israel and violating the UN truce terms was not enough of an embarrassment to the Lebanese government, the political situation is deadlocked as well.  Hezbollah is also at the centre of that débacle.    

          Lebanon went to the polls on 6 May, 2018. Seven months later, the political parties are at deadlock over forming a new government.

          Nine long years had passed since the previous parliamentary elections which, according to the constitution, were supposed to be held every four years. But there were no elections in 2014, and ever since ministers and politicians have voted again and again to postpone elections and extend the current parliament, citing security concerns, political crises and disputes over the election law.

          When the new poll was finally held, the political landscape within Lebanon and in the region had changed dramatically. The intervening period had seen both the rise and the battlefield defeat of Islamic State in neighbouring Iraq and Syria, a dramatic extension of Iranian power in both countries, the direct involvement of Hezbollah military forces – ­composed, be it remembered, of young Lebanese fighters – in the civil conflict in Syria, acting under direct Iranian command, and a huge build-up of sophisticated Iranian weaponry in Lebanon itself, together with the development of arms manufacturing facilities on a massive scale.

          Moreover, the previous pro-Western, Saudi-backed political alliance led by prime minister Saad Hariri, was crumbling. Over the nine years from 2009 Hariri’s government had included members of the increasingly confident, Iran-backed Hezbollah – one obvious sign of Iran extending its power base into Lebanon by way of its subsidiary. This was a dangerous development that Saudi Arabia, leader of the Sunni world, was determined to nip in the bud. 

          In November 2017, urged on, it is surmised, by Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, Hariri travelled to Riyadh, and from the Saudi capital he resigned as Lebanon’s prime minister, incorporating a resounding denunciation of Hezbollah and Iran in his announcement.

          The resultant political storm could not be contained. He stayed abroad for two weeks, then travelled back to Lebanon where he withdrew his resignation, and resumed his office. But all was far from well. Hariri could never be reconciled to the increasingly dominant position that Hezbollah was assuming within the Lebanese body politic. Regardless of his political objections, his personal reasons are overwhelming.

          On February 14, 2005, his father, Rafik Hariri, one-time prime minister and a powerful opponent of Syrian and Hezbollah dominance in Lebanon, was assassinated. The subsequent judicial proceedings, which are still ongoing after 13 years, have pretty well established that the murder was ordered by Bashar al Assad, Syria’s president, and carried out by Hezbollah operatives. So Saad Hariri had business left unfinished by his father to complete. There is no doubt that Rafik would have been appalled by the extent to which Iran has gained control over Lebanon’s military power, and is using the country as a manufacturing base from which to arm the Shi’ite crescent that it is consolidating. For Iran is building and equipping a Shi’ite empire extending from Yemen, via Bahrain, Iran, Iraq, Syria and through to Lebanon.

          There are well-founded reports that Iran has established facilities, managed and operated by Hezbollah, for manufacturing missiles and other weapons in Lebanon. The weaponry includes surface-to-surface and surface-to-sea missiles, torpedoes, spy drones, anti-tank missiles, and fast armoured boats. There are reports of at least two underground facilities constructed in Lebanon for manufacturing missiles and other weaponry including the Fateh 110, a medium-range missile with a range of approximately 300 kilometers − enough to cover most of Israel − and capable of carrying a half-ton warhead.

          The May parliamentary elections, which employed a proportional representation system for the first time, saw the collapse of Hariri’s Future Movement (FM) and the continued growth of Hezbollah. The FM lost 13 seats while Hezbollah gained three. But the biggest winner was the Free Patriotic Movement and its allies, led by Gebran Bassil, which emerged as the largest bloc with 29 members. Bassil, the son-in-law of Lebanon’s president Michel Aoun, was criticized by many Lebanese politicians for a media interview in December 2017 in which he stated that Lebanon does not have an ideological problem with Israel, and that he was not against Israel "living in security.”

          Seven months after the elections, however, talks about the formation of a new government in Lebanon remain at an impasse. The complex sectarian rules governing Lebanon’s constitution mean that Hariri remains prime minister designate, because that office is reserved for a Sunni Muslim and Bassil, a Maronite Christian, is debarred from filling it. But at the heart of the disagreement between the various political factions is how much power Hezbollah should exercise.

          Hezbollah is, of course, a Shia Muslim organization, but in the complex Lebanese political world it actually supports some smaller Sunni political groups. A particular bone of contention in the discussions is whether these Sunni bodies should be included along with Hezbollah in the formation of the new government. In particular Hezbollah has been demanding that one of its Sunni allies be awarded a ministerial seat in the Cabinet. If granted, this which would come out of the prime minister’s share of Sunni seats, and Hariri rejects the proposal outright.

          This is the so-called “Sunni tangle”. If past experience is anything to go by, unravelling it could take not months, but years.

Published in the Eurasia Review, 10 December 2018:

Published in the MPC Journal, 9 December 2018:

Saturday, 1 December 2018

All quiet on the Gaza front?

                                                                                  Video version
On 16 November 2018 Israel entered into a ceasefire arrangement with the de facto rulers of the Gaza strip – Hamas. It seems to be holding.

Nothing is more surprising than that calm should have descended on Gaza at this particular moment. For on Sunday evening, 11 November, a vehicle containing Israeli soldiers sped across the border into Gaza. In the warren of back streets in Khan Younis, a town in the south of the Gaza strip, it was challenged at a checkpoint, and an armed conflict ensued. According to some media reports the Israeli team were members of the élite Maglan unit, which specializes in slipping behind enemy lines to collect intelligence or destroy targets.

The exact sequence of events is unclear, but early on an Israeli lieutenant colonel was shot dead, and before too long seven Palestinians, including Nour Barakah, the Hamas commander for Khan Younis, had also been killed. The Israeli soldiers were extracted by helicopters of the Air Force’s Unit 669, taking with them the dead officer – reportedly a member of Israel’s Druze community – and an injured comrade.

The day after the botched operation Hamas fired more than 450 rockets and mortar shells at Israel. Israel responded with heavy airstrikes during which 14 Palestinians were killed and about 35 wounded, some residential property was destroyed and the building occupied by the Al-Aqsa TV satellite station was demolished.

And yet, less than 48 hours later, an Israeli-Hamas truce had been agreed and was in operation.

It is obvious that agreements as delicate as this cannot be arranged overnight. They must be the result of weeks, if not months, of complex negotiation. Israel and Hamas were certainly parties to the deal, but other principal players were Egypt and the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, Nickolay Mladenov. Qatar’s financial support for the Hamas administration was undoubtedly a factor.

The ceasefire announcement set off celebrations in Gaza City with hundreds of Palestinians taking to the streets. The Hamas line was that the months of protest along the Gaza-Israel border had reduced Israel to begging for a ceasefire. and that this was a great victory. The claim came in response to Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s statement that Hamas rulers “begged for a ceasefire and they know why.”

Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas, on the other hand, was reportedly furious, fearing that the deal would consolidate Hamas as the de facto government of Gaza, and negate his continuous efforts to re-establish PA control in the Strip. This would certainly be the outcome if other rumoured details of the agreement are correct, such as Hamas gaining access to a port of its own and a relaxation of Israel’s economic embargo.

Even more worrying for Abbas, the PA and its ruling Fatah faction was their growing suspicion that somehow the ceasefire is linked to US President Donald Trump’s long-awaited Middle East peace plan – reportedly cut and dried and only awaiting the opportune moment to be rolled out. Abbas rejected “the deal of the century”, as Trump has dubbed it, sight unseen, and also the US as an acceptable peace broker back in December 2017, in reaction to Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Now he accused Hamas of being in “collusion” with Israel and the US administration to implement the plan which, the PA claims, is aimed at separating the Gaza Strip from the West Bank.

Husam Badran, a member of Hamas’s political bureau, dismissed the charge. “Linking these understandings to the ‘deal of the century’ is a lie,” he said, “spread and believed by some.”

Abbas must be feeling immensely frustrated by the events of the past few weeks. According to the Oslo Accords, the PLO is the “sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people,” and the only party authorized to reach a truce with Israel. Yet he had been cut out of the negotiations that Israel, Egypt, the UN and Qatar have been conducting directly with Hamas. Moreover he was further marginalized when Qatar handed over $15 million in cash, enabling Hamas to pay the salaries of thousands of its supporters. Abbas had severely reduced funding to Hamas, in an effort to regain some sort of control over the Strip. In response to the delivery of the money over his head, Abbas hinted that he was considering new sanctions. As a result Abbas is being perceived as the bad cop intent on punishing Gaza, while others are trying to end the crisis – a risky strategy which could result in his complete marginalization in future peace negotiations.

How firmly based is the Israeli-Hamas deal? It led to a political crisis inside Israel, exemplified by the resignation of Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who represented the view that the ceasefire simply handed Hamas a breathing space in which to rearm in readiness for the next full-scale conflict. Netanyahu's critics accuse him of wanting to perpetuate the status quo, that is no war, no peace, and no resolution of the Palestine issue.

Other more sympathetic commentators believe that Netanyahu wanted a calm Gaza in order to pursue a weightier strategic policy. One arm of this, possibly related to the eventual unveiling of Trump’s peace plan, is to continue improving relations with a range of Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. Another is to foster better relations between Israel and the wider world. His own visit to the Sultan of Oman on 27 October, and the historic first-time visit to Israel of the President of Chad, Idriss Deby, on 23 November, are two recent examples (neither Oman nor Chad formally recognize Israel).

Peace is certainly better than conflict, but how long will the current preference of both Israel and Hamas for a cessation of hostilities outweigh their other long-term strategic objectives? Peace hangs in the balance on the Gaza front.

Published in the Eurasia Review, 29 November 2018:

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: