Tuesday, 30 July 2019

Antisemitism and the battle for the soul of Britain's Labour party

 This article of mine appears in the edition of the Jerusalem Report dated August 5, 2019
          Discount the scenes of wild enthusiasm for Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of Britain’s Labour party, by the party faithful. Discount the 2017 general election, in which prime minister Theresa May lost her majority and Labour won an additional 30 seats. The truth is that now, in mid-2019, the Labour party is in the midst of a life-and-death internal struggle for its continued existence. Brexit and the split between Leavers and Remainers has little to do with it. Antisemitism has become the proxy issue masking the deep-seated malaise that affects the party. 

          The battle is between the social democratic wing and the hard left tendency represented by a movement called Momentum, set up in 2015 to support Jeremy Corbyn’s bid for the leadership. Britain’s Labour Party has always promoted itself as “a broad church”. Founded at the turn of the 20th century by a trade union movement based on Marxist principles, Labour also embraced from the start much gentler social democratic concepts inherited from the Christian and philanthropic impulses of the Victorian Liberal Party. 

          In 1918 the party incorporated into its constitution, as Clause 4. the out-and-out socialist objective of securing “the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange.” In practical terms that meant that a future Labour government would be obligated to nationalize as much of the state’s economic infrastructure as possible, and indeed when Labour came into power after the 1945 general election, it proceeded to enact this program. It brought into public ownership the coal and steel industries, Britain’s railway system, road transport, the electricity and gas industries, and of course, by establishing the National Health Service, the provision of health care. 

          Although at first there was general acceptance of this great socialist experiment, disillusion soon crept in. When inadequate services, soaring prices and strikes began to affect the public, their mood changed. Within the Labour movement the social democratic leadership began to see that electoral success depended on softening, if not abandoning, Clause 4. After losing the 1959 general election, Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell made a courageous attempt to have Clause 4 amended. The harder left wing fought back, and defeated him. 

          It was a Pyrrhic victory, since it was followed by the brilliant electoral successes of Tony Blair and his “New Labour”. Blair was an unapologetic social democrat, and for a time he succeeded beyond all expectations in gaining the confidence of the British electorate.

          Before Blair’s edifice came tumbling down in the débacle of the Iraqi war, he managed to have Clause 4 and all references to nationalization radically revised. After Blair’s departure the Labour party was in disarray. When a leadership election was held, three of the four candidates could reasonably be described as social democrats. The fourth was a wild card, a long-standing rebel within the parliamentary Labour party. Prominent figures in the party urged members not to vote for him. But Momentum had enthused thousands of young people to join the Labour party and support Jeremy Corbyn, and in the event Corbyn was elected by a landslide. 

          Corbyn, a Member of Parliament (MP) since 1983, had been a rebel before entering parliament, and remained a rebel after taking his seat. During the 1970s a Trotskyist hard-left group, called the Militant Tendency, embarked upon a long-term, calculated effort to infiltrate and eventually take over the Labour party. Corbyn supported Militant and opposed its expulsion. Eventually Militant defied the Labour establishment once too often, decisive action was taken, and the party was cleansed.
           The hard left, with its anti-colonialist traditions, sometimes includes support for a so-called world Zionist conspiracy. Representing the establishment of Israel as a colonialist enterprise, the extreme left aligns itself with rejectionist Palestinian opinion, and condones the policies of extremist bodies like Hamas and Hezbollah, condemned as terrorists by much of the world. Anti-Zionism morphs easily enough into antisemitism, and from the moment Corbyn became leader, antisemitism within the Labour party – never previously an issue of importance – became a major bone of contention. The principles of the hard left had become the principles dominating the party. 

          A year ago journalist Matt Seaton wrote: “From a journalist’s point of view, Labour’s antisemitism crisis is the gift that keeps on giving.” His observation has proved itself repeatedly over the past twelve months. In February 2019 nine Labour MPs even resigned from the party, citing as their reason the leadership's handling of antisemitism. 

          Now the party is yet again in the throes of a divisive issue centered on antisemitism. 

          Chris Williamson, a long-time friend and supporter of Jeremy Corbyn, has been a Labour party member for over 40 years and an MP since 2017. He was suspended from the parfty in February 2019 after video footage showed him telling a meeting of the hard-left Momentum group that Labour’s reaction to antisemitism allegations had been “too apologetic” and had led to the party being “demonised”. 

          On June 26 his case was considered by an antisemitism panel of Labour’s National Executive Committee (NEC). He was issued with a formal warning and readmitted to the party. 

          A furious backlash followed. More than 120 Labour MPs and peers led by the deputy leader, Tom Watson, demanded that Corbyn step in to expel him from the parliamentary party. Almost 70 Labour staff members wrote to express their anger at Williamson’s readmission. 

          The furore lasted 24 hours. Then one of the three-member NEC panel, Keith Vaz MP, wrote to Labour’s general secretary proposing that a new panel should be convened. As a result Williamson has had his suspension from the party reimposed, while his case is re-examined. Meanwhile the Equality and Human Rights Commission has launched an official inquiry into whether the Labour party has unlawfully discriminated against, harassed or victimized people because they are Jewish. 

          Britain’s parliamentary Labour party is now openly split. On July 9 three Labour peers – Lords Turnberg, Trieseman and Darzi – resigned, accusing Corbyn of antisemitism. The following evening the BBC broadcast a TV documentary on its main domestic channel: “Is Labour Antisemitic?” during which a number of former party officials alleged that senior Labour figures had interfered in the process of dealing with antisemitism complaints. The whistleblowers also claimed that they had faced a huge increase in antisemitism complaints since Corbyn became leader in 2015, and described the great personal strain they had faced in trying to handle them.

          The response by the tight team surrounding Corbyn was to smear the TV producer and attack the former party officials as having “personal and political axes to grind.” As a result two of them are suing the Labour party for defamation of character. In addition Labour backbenchers have published a letter condemning the “officially sanctioned spin campaign”. There is even talk of a leadership challenge to Corbyn from more moderate quarters within the party. 

          Meanwhile the hard-left, having gained power within the party, are not going to relinquish it without a fight to the death. This it might eventually turn out to be. With the emergence on July 23 of Boris Johnson as Britain’s new prime minister, a general election sooner rather than later is widely predicted. Johnson has two main priorities: to achieve Brexit by October 31, and to prevent Jeremy Corbyn from ever becoming prime minister. A recent UK-wide poll of voters found that 42% of voters believed antisemitism is a “genuine and serious issue” in the Labour party. In rejecting antisemitism, the British electorate would be rejecting the hard-left political philosophy that nurtures it.

Thursday, 25 July 2019

Radical solutions to the Hormuz bottleneck

                                                                               Video version
          Every day ships carrying 16.5 million barrels of oil – almost 20 percent of the world’s total oil consumption – pass through the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow waterway that links the Persian Gulf to the Gulf of Oman. In the past few weeks an uncomfortable reality has been forced on the world’s attention: the rogue state of Iran has a stranglehold on this vital shipping lane, and thus on a significant proportion of the global economy.

          Always aware of its potential power, Iran has from time to time chosen to demonstrate its muscle, but these isolated incidents were infrequent, In October 2015 a group of nine countries led by the US signed a deal with Iran aimed at preventing it from developing nuclear weapons. The European Union. a firm supporter of the deal, argues that the current crisis can be traced back to May 8, 2018, when President Donald Trump withdrew the US from it and re-imposed sanctions on Iran.

           Yet from the moment its terms were announced, Trump had made no secret of his distaste for the deal. Throughout his presidential election campaign in 2016 he said that he regarded it as fatally flawed, and he repeated this on taking office. A major criticism was that the deal was time-limited, and Iran would be free in some 15 years to resume its nuclear weapons program. He also believed that Iran’s continuing program of developing and testing ever-more sophisticated guided missiles broke the spirit of the deal.

          Tit-for-tat threats followed, and then action – Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani began openly to exceed the threshold set in the deal for enriching uranium, while the US increased its troops and military hardware in the Persian Gulf area on three separate occasions.

          Then on May 12, 2019, four commercial oil tankers anchored in UAE waters in the Strait of Hormuz were attacked and damaged. Exactly a month later two tankers were rocked with explosion and fire near the Hormuz Strait, and crews were forced to abandon ship. Finally on July 19 two British-flagged oil tankers were seized by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards in the Strait of Hormuz. One was allowed to proceed; the other was hi-jacked and taken to the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas.

          The Strait of Hormuz flows between Iran and the Musandam peninsula, a spit of land that pokes up towards the Iranian coast but does not quite reach it. At its narrowest the waterway is only 21 nautical miles wide. The chunk of land at the tip of Musandam belongs to Oman, although it is not contiguous with Oman proper. The region beneath this Omani exclave is the UAE.

          Iran’s dominance of the Strait of Hormuz has never satisfied its arch-enemy, Saudi Arabia. Back in September 2015 the Arab Century Centre for Studies published a study that proposed constructing a 950-kilometer canal connecting the Persian Gulf with the Arabian Sea. Initial highly optimistic estimates for the mega project were around $80 billion.

          Saaed Bin Omar, the head of the centre, believed that the canal – its proposed name was the Salman Canal in honor of the king – could be constructed within five years. “We hope the project will be completed during his rule,” he said, but little has been heard of it in the past few years.

          Blueprints for a less ambitious scheme to by-pass the Strait of Hormuz have existed for more than a decade. Back in 2008 the UAE considered a project devised by British engineers to construct a 360-kilometer canal across the Musandam peninsula, south of the Omani exclave. At the time it was estimated to cost some $200 billion, given that the canal would have to cut across the Hajar mountain range, to emerge at the oil port of Fujairah, on the east coast of the UAE. The plan envisaged recovering the cost of construction over time from charging vessels for use of the canal. After consideration the project was mothballed in favor of a 360 kilometer Habshan–Fujairah oil pipeline, which was started in 2008 and commissioned in 2012.

          An examination of the map indicates that an even simpler, and far less costly, canal scheme could be effective in protecting some particularly vulnerable shipping from Iranian interference. The tip of the Musandam peninsula is Omani territory. A 60-kilometer canal linking the Persian Gulf with the Gulf of Oman could be constructed across this Omani exclave, and would achieve the political objective of providing an alternative route for any vessel that would prefer to by-pass the Gulf of Hormuz. It would have the additional benefit of easing the pressure of traffic on the overcrowded Hormuz route.

          The shorter canals would do little to cut journey times, and thus costs but, by reducing Iran’s ability to disrupt western interests, could provide the civilized world with a political advantage.

          The longer proposed “Salman Canal” would indeed offer a much faster route for the world’s shipping between the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean, and could make a positive contribution towards reducing oil prices worldwide. Given Iran’s much more aggressive stance in the Strait of Hormuz recently, perhaps the time has come for some lateral thinking. If Saudi Arabia took those plans out of storage and dusted them down, it might be surprised at the support it receives from the rest of the world.

Published in the Jerusalem Post, 4 August 2019:

Published as "Blue sky thinking about the Strait of Hormuz"
in the Eurasia Review, 27 July 2019:

Friday, 19 July 2019

Turkey invites the Russians into NATO

                                         Video version
Turkey is not quite a founder member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), but with Greece was the first addition to the 12 nations that set up the organization in 1949. Both countries were admitted in 1952 in recognition of the vital strategic positions they occupied as outposts of Western democracy. The hope at the time, with the Cold War at its iciest, was that Turkey would help protect NATO’s eastern flank from Soviet aggression. 

          In the event Turkey frequently diverged from the consensus view within the alliance, but since Recep Tayyip Erdogan came to power – first as Turkey’s prime minister, and later as President – Turkey has pursued strategic and foreign policy goals increasingly at odds with the West. Believing that NATO was strategically dependent on Turkey, and that its place within the organization was impregnable, Erdogan has pursued his own agenda. For example, even when Western countries combined to fight Islamist terror groups like al-Qaeda and Islamic State, Erdogan continued supporting the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood and its offshoots. In Syria Turkey is at loggerheads with the US over its support for Kurdish forces that Turkey views as terrorists.

          Now, however, Turkey has placed itself so at odds with NATO that its very membership is being questioned.

          At issue are two big arms deals being pursued by Ankara. Turkey wants to buy 100 F-35s, the latest generation of US stealth jet fighters, produced by the Lockheed Martin Corporation. But Turkey is also engaged in installing Russia's advanced S-400 air-defense missile system. Defying strenuous American objections and the threat of sanctions, Turkey received the first shipment from Russia on July 12.

          If the deal in respect of the American F-35s were to go ahead, the situation would become impossible. The S-400 is designed to detect and shoot down stealth fighters like the F-35. If Turkey acquired both, the Russian engineers and other specialists required to set up the S-400 system would be able to learn much about the American-made fighter jets.

          So when it became perfectly apparent that Erdogan was insistent on receiving the Russian ground-to-air missile system, Washington cancelled the F-35 deal. In a formal statement issued on July 17 the White House said: “The F-35 cannot coexist with a Russian intelligence collection platform that will be used to learn about its advanced capabilities.”

          Pentagon strategists doubtless see the S-400 deal as part of Russian President Putin’s plan to undermine NATO, and Washington has already said that the administration intends to impose sanctions on Turkey. Legislation known as the Countering America's Adversaries through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) targets purchases of military equipment from Russia. The president could impose a range of measures such as banning visas to Turkish officials, and denying access to the US-based Export-Import Bank. Harsher options include blocking transactions with the US financial system and denying export licences.

          On the face of it, opponents of the Russo-Turkish deal seem to find no comfort in the fact that the advanced Russian S-400 system is to be installed in a NATO country, and is likely to be fully exposed to Western scrutiny. Russia’s President Putin has doubtless discounted that downside on two grounds. The first is that the export version of the S-400 system being supplied to Turkey differs significantly from what Russia itself uses – and that in any case Russia is working on a more advanced system for itself. The second is the political benefits of Russia having infiltrated into the heart of NATO.

          The sale will certainly enhance Russia’s growing influence in the Middle East. Every future NATO operation will have to take into account the presence of the S-400 system in Turkey – a disruptive effect on the Western alliance very much to Putin’s liking. And on the plus side the S-400 deal draws a line under the breakdown in Russo-Turkish relations which occurred back in 2015, when Turkey shot down a Russian jet on its southern border with Syria. The following year a Turkish policeman, shouting “don’t forget Syria”, shot and killed the Russian ambassador at an art gallery in Ankara.

          If this dispute between Turkey and the US results in the imposition of sanctions on Turkey, it could strain the long and close relationship between the US and Turkish militaries. An especially sensitive issue would be the impact on the Incirlik air base, close to the city of Adana in southern Turkey, 70 miles from the Syrian border. The base is operated jointly by the US and Turkish air forces, while air force personnel from other NATO countries are often stationed there. Critically, some 50 of America’s tactical nuclear weapons, a leftover of the Cold War, are stored at Incirlik.

          A NATO spokesman recently emphasized that “Interoperability of our armed forces is fundamental to NATO for the conduct of our operations and missions” and that Russia’s S-400 system is considered “technically incompatible with the weapons systems used by NATO countries.”

          It is doubtful if Erdogan considered that his insistence on acquiring the Russian S-400 anti-aircraft missile could lead to Turkey’s continued membership of NATO being seriously put in question. Yet calls for Turkey’s expulsion have appeared in various media. The broad consensus of opinion is that this would be a step too far. In any event, there seems to be nothing in the NATO’s rules about expelling a member. Such a step has never occurred, and if it were ever seriously considered, the procedures would have to be invented from scratch. This wrangle is likely to have a less dramatic resolution. 

Published in the MPC Journal, 22 July 2019:

Sunday, 14 July 2019

Iraq between a rock and a hard place

                                                                                 Video version
          Glance at a map of the Middle East, and the geopolitical–cum–religious complications facing Iraq are immediately apparent. The country is like a wedge, forced between the two bitterly opposed leaders of the Muslim world – Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran. Following decades of instability and civil war, it is only in the past few months that Iraq has been secure enough to start the process of carving out an appropriate place for itself within the political structure of the region.

          The overthrow of the Saddam Hussein regime in 2003 led to Iraq becoming a battlefield of competing jihadist militias. For a while US-led coalition forces attempted to quell the chaos. When this failed, the US formally withdrew its fighting force in an effort to outflank the strong anti-Western sentiment that provided the battle cry for many of the armed forces.

          Civilian rule was reinstated in Iraq in 2005 by way of a new constitution. After a shaky start, the nascent democracy slowly strengthened until it was again thrown off balance by the emergence in 2014 of Islamic State, whose forces rapidly conquered large tracts of the country, and imposed its version of harsh Sharia law over its self-declared caliphate. It took nearly four years of concerted effort by Kurdish and government forces, backed by the US and a Western coalition, before all IS territory was finally back in Iraqi hands.

          Elections in October 2018 resulted in veteran Kurdish politician, Barham Salih, assuming the largely ceremonial role of president, while experienced Shia politician, Adel Abdul Mahdi, became the nation’s prime minister. The defeat of the IS caliphate restored a certain degree of stability within Iraq, but a major challenge facing the new government is the continued presence, lodged within the body politic, of some 30 armed fighting forces known collectively as the popular mobilization forces (PMF), amounting to some 125,000 personnel..

           Volunteer PMF fighters fought hard in the campaign against IS, but as it drew to a close many of the PMF’s leaders sought to make political capital out of their positions of power within the state. These efforts to convert militias into parallel state structures have been compared to the evolution inside Iran of the Islamic Republican Guard (IRGC), or within Lebanon of Hezbollah. Moreover a number of PMF factions have close ties to Iran, are reaching into various sectors of the Iraqi administration, and using their military power to brush aside competition and opposition.

          In March 2018, prime minister Mahdi’s predecessor, Haider al-Abadi, tried to chip away at the militias’ independence by formally making them part of the country’s security forces – an initiative that largely failed, Mahdi has not only reinstituted al-Abadi’s order, but has gone further by requiring the militias to leave their local military headquarters and shut down their so-called economic offices. He has set a deadline of July 31 for the militias to comply.

          Troubling as this issue is, it is Iraq’s relations with its geographical neighbours that find the state balancing on a political tightrope.

          While Iraq contains a sizeable Sunni minority, it is essentially a Shi’ite state with an area in the north dedicated to a form of Kurdish autonomy. As such, despite sizeable US financial support, it has a strong relationship with Iran. Iran’s influence within Iraq is sustained by the over-mighty paramilitary groups it supports.

          In March 2019 Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, made his first official visit to Iraq. A few days later Iraqi prime minister Mahdi reciprocated, with a two-day visit to Iran, where he met not only Rouhani, but Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Discussions centred on the expansion of commercial ties, especially gas and electricity, and a plan to connect their railroads.

          Ever since Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait back in 1990, Iran has been no friend of Saudi Arabia, which joined the UN coalition to reverse Hussain’s victory. Recently, though, Saudi has been attempting to counter Iran’s growing influence in the Middle East, and is intent on repairing fences with its neighbour. Early in April 2019 Saudi Arabia reopened its consulate in Baghdad for the first time in nearly 30 years. The opening was accompanied by a one billion dollar aid package for Iraq.

          On April 17 the two oil-producing giants moved towards closer diplomatic and economic ties when King Salman welcomed Mahdi on his first official visit to the kingdom. Mahdi went to Riyadh with a large delegation, including officials and businessmen, with trade billed as a prime focus of the discussions. The visit produced no less than 13 agreements covering trade, energy and political cooperation.

          With his two powerful neighbours totally opposed to each other, Mahdi has to keep relations with them in some kind of balance. This perhaps explains Iraq’s less than wholly welcoming reaction to the latest overtures by Iran.

          In the wake of Iran’s shooting down of a US drone over the Gulf of Oman, an Iranian military delegation visited Iraq on June 23-24 and met with senior officers to propose closer military cooperation between the two countries. In a meeting with Major GeneralTariq Abbas, Iraq’s deputy commander of the army, Iran’s land forces commander Kioumars Heydari suggested joint exercises.

          The suggestion was endorsed by Alireza Sabahifard, commander of Iran's Air Defense Forces. “Iran and Iraq have many reasons … to unite and consolidate Islamic power in the region," he said “We are ready to create expert committees for all areas in order to establish and improve bilateral cooperation."

          Iraq’s leadership would have been fully aware that the idea of Iraq and Iran collaborating on military matters was scarcely likely to appeal to Washington, yet interchanges with Iran continued. Iran’s Heydari is quoted as saying that agreements had already been concluded "in the transfer of expertise in the field of armored vehicles, artillery and airborne and other exercises, and we are waiting for a positive response from the Iraqi army."

          He may have to wait considerably longer. The US and its anti-IS coalition is still providing training to Iraqi forces, and the US has designated several major Shi’ite paramilitary groups as terrorist organizations. If or when they become officially part of the Iraqi security forces, the situation will become even more complicated. On the other hand, a burgeoning Iraqi relationship with Saudi Arabia is likely to be welcomed in Washington.

          Mahdi and his government have a very narrow path to tread. 

Published in the Eurasia Review, 13 July 2019:

Published in the MPC Journal, 13 July 2019:

Published in the Jerusalem Post as "Iraq between the devil and the deep blue sea" on 20 July 2019:

Tuesday, 9 July 2019

The Anglo angle

This article of mine appears in the edition of the Jerusalem Report dated July 22, 2019
          One of Israel’s odder characteristics is the practice of dubbing citizens who happen to have English as their mother tongue “Anglos”, whichever part of the globe they chance to emanate from. Whether you hail from New York, Vancouver, Cape Town, or Sydney, to say nothing of London’s Golders Green, you’re an “Anglo” – which is actually a truncated version of “Anglo-Saxon”. In fact one nationwide and highly respected real estate agency in Israel trades under the soubriquet “Anglo-Saxon” – a clear signal to clients that “English is spoken here”. 

          Israeli citizens with English as their mother tongue are, therefore, a recognized sector of Israeli society, but they are only a minor sector. The Central Bureau of Statistics recently estimated them at something under 200,000 individuals. Organizations such as AACI (the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel) and ESRA (the English Speaking Residents' Association) claim the actual figure ranges between 250,000 and 300,000, but in a total population of nine million this is still very nearly insignificant – except, of course, to the people concerned.

          Given this statistic, however, it is perhaps surprising that when the last general election loomed on the political horizon, Anglos and their particular needs figured at all in the consideration of the political parties. Yet a fair number did go out of their way to address an English-speaking audience. Perhaps they did so in recognition of the fact that, while some fortunate people have a natural facility with language, for many who have acquired a working knowledge of a second language it is often a struggle to read or write in it. Or perhaps it is simply acknowledging that although Hebrew became Israel’s sole official language in July 2018, English is pretty much universal.

          Before the last general election, held in April 2019, no less than 47 parties registered to participate. In pre-election maneuvers and deals, they finally amalgamated into the 15 joint lists from which voters were invited to choose. 

          Some parties made no effort to venture beyond Hebrew in their pre-election promotion, and some scarcely did even that. United Torah Judaism, Shas and the Arab parties, and also the lists in which they participated, did not bother to set up websites or to open Twitter or Facebook accounts. The little they did to reach out to voters by way of leaflets and phone calls was couched in Hebrew. Surprisingly, the Blue and White joint list, which played such a major role in the election, also did not run a website to which interested voters, English-speaking or not, could turn for information.

          This deficiency was partly made good by the efforts expended by Yesh Atid (There is a Future), a founding partner in Blue and White – the alliance formed by the Israel Resilience party (Hosen L’Yisrael), Telem and Yesh Atid, specifically to contest the election. Yesh Atid ran an impressive website in English which set out its platform in detail, together with information about party members and planned political gatherings. It established a closed group on Facebook, and fostered debates and meetings in English. Neither its main partner, Israel Resilience, nor Telem were to be found on the internet.

          The two main parties to the left of cent
er were Labor and Meretz. The Labor party hosted a website which set out the party’s political platform in colorful detail, together with information about its candidates. The site was in Hebrew, but the touch of a button re-presented all the material in English.  Meretz had a webpage and Facebook account in English, but the center parties Kulanu and Gesher confined their internet presence to Hebrew.

          The governing party, Likud, vied with Yesh Atid in the effectiveness of its on-line presence and the presentation of its policies to English-speaking voters. It ran a website in English which set out its policies, listed its candidates, and provided on-going news of the campaign. At the same time Likud, like several other parties, ran Twitter and Facebook accounts, offering voters the chance to comment and offer opinions on the changing political scene.

          The hawkish New Right party, led by the prominent figures Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, ran a website in Hebrew only. Jewish Home-Jewish Power did not bother with a website at all. Two right-of-center parties in addition to Likud attempted to reach out to English-speaking voters.  One was Zehut 
which offered English speakers both its own website in English, with a detailed platform, as well as closed Facebook groups and Twitter accounts. The other was Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Our Home), the party established in 1999 by Avigdor Liberman, an immigrant from the former Soviet Union, whose main constituency is Israel’s large Russia- originating population. It set up a website providing basic information in Hebrew about the party and its objectives, but with the nominal capacity to convert the contents to Russian and English. This option, while working for Russian speakers, unfortunately failed to function for English. The party would be well advised to repair the site before campaigning gets under way for the September vote. 

          During the last election campaign Anglos keen to discover the political choices open to them would have had to scour the internet with determination, If they confined their search simply to what the political parties provided, they would have gained only a sketchy picture. Fortunately, for those determined enough to persevere, there were a clutch of other organizations intent on catering to the political needs of Anglos. It is to these bodies, as much as the political parties, that Anglo voters will be able to turn in the run-up to September’s general election.

          The Israel Democracy Institute is an independent organization dedicated to strengthening the foundations of Israeli democracy. As part of the wide range of its activities. its English language website provides a comprehensive rundown of all the parties and joint lists competing in each general election, together with the main planks in their political platforms.

         The Jewish Virtual Library is an invaluable source of intelligence about Israel, its past, present and possible future. Its website is a treasure house of information in general and, during a general election campaign, of detailed political material. The JVL is run by the American-Israeli Co-operative Enterprise, a non-profit and non-partisan organization set up in 1993 with the aim of strengthening the US-Israel relationship.

          In the run-up to the April general election a body called “Secret Tel Aviv” provided what it described as “the ultimate elections guide”. Its English language website was indeed replete with information about the participating parties and their policies, and encouraged comments both directly and by way of its Facebook account. Set up in 2011 by an Anglo and his wife, both originally from Manchester in the UK, Secret Tel Aviv is dedicated to helping what it describes as “internationals” to settle in Israel, assisting their businesses to grow, and fostering the integration of immigrants and native Israelis.

          And then, believe it or not, there is the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change (IGC). Of all the websites available on the net, including the special election editions of Israel’s English language newspapers. the best, fullest, most comprehensive survey of the parties, their policies and their leading figures was provided by the IGC, simply as a minor by-product of its main purpose. The organization has a worldwide remit to help countries, their people and their governments tackle some of the major problems they face. In respect of the Middle East, the IGC has a special objective, perhaps a hangover from Blair’s period as special envoy for the Middle East Quartet: “to increase stability and understanding between Israel and the Palestinians.” If the IGC undertakes the same in-depth coverage of Israel’s political scene for the forthcoming election, Anglos will be well-served.

          Finally there is the official website of the Knesset Central Elections Committee, available in three languages: Hebrew, Arabic and English. The website was created prior to the April elections specifically, as the chairman wrote, “to assist each of you in your efforts to come to an educated decision.” The website provided a wide range of information about the election process, the candidate factions, the election laws and statistics about previous elections. In addition there was information relevant to election day itself, including the arrangements for voting.

          In short, before voting day comes round in September 2019, Anglos will have a wealth of data available to them, provided they have the will and inclination to seek it out. On the evidence of the last election, the most obvious deficiency is that Anglos who may be attracted to one of the minor parties, or to Blue and White, have little opportunity to connect directly with it in English. For a political party to enter a general election in 2019 without a website appears an act of deliberate self-harm. To set up a Hebrew-only site, when it requires only minimal effort and money to enable conversion to English, seems perverse. Perhaps the political parties – and especially Blue and White – have reflected on the deficiencies in their efforts last time. If so, they will surely provide voters in general, and Anglos in particular, with an improved service in the forthcoming campaign.

Thursday, 4 July 2019

The sorry state of Lebanon

                            Video version
        Over the past few decades a rapacious predator has been consuming the political, military and administrative organs of the once proud state of Lebanon, until only the outer shell of an independent sovereign country now remains. At one time it seemed that Hezbollah, a body deemed a terrorist organization by large parts of the world, had created a “state within a state” inside Lebanon. Many now believe that the Lebanese state and Hezbollah are in effect indistinguishable. 

        In theory Lebanon should be a template for a future peaceful Middle East. It is the only Middle East country which, by its very constitution, shares power equally between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims and Christians. Theory, however, has had to bow to practical reality. Lebanon has been highly unstable for much of its existence, and its unique constitution has tended to exacerbate, rather than eliminate, sectarian conflict.

        Around 1980 Iran’s first Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, still basking in the glory of his 1979 Islamic Revolution, decided to strengthen his grip on Shia Islam by consolidating a number of Lebanon’s militant Shi’ite Muslim groups. He formed and funded a body calling itself Hezbollah, or “the Party of God”.

        Hezbollah declared that its purpose, in line with Khomeini’s, was to oppose Western influences in general and Israel’s existence in particular. Soon Hezbollah was acting as Iran’s proxy in perpetrating a campaign of terror against their two perceived enemies. A wave of kidnappings, bombings and assassinations were carried out across the world.

        It is no surprise, therefore, that Hezbollah in its entirety has been designated a terrorist body by the Arab League, as well as by a batch of other nations including Canada, the Netherlands, the USA, all the Gulf states that form the Gulf Cooperation Council and, of course, Israel. They were joined in March 2019 by the UK, which finally proscribed the whole of the Hezbollah organization, rather than only its supposed “military wing”.

        A few days later a British foreign office minister, Alistair Burt, visited Beirut and met Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun, a known supporter of Hezbollah. During the course of conversation, Aoun declared that Hezbollah’s allegiances in the region did not affect internal Lebanese politics. The president was, in effect, giving his stamp of approval to the terrorist body controlled by a foreign state. Iran, that has sucked much of the independence out of his country.

        Prime minister Saad Hariri. on the other hand, could never be reconciled to the increasingly dominant position that Hezbollah has been assuming within the Lebanese body politic. Regardless of his political objections, his personal reasons are overwhelming.

        On February 14, 2005, Hariri’s father Rafik, one-time prime minister and a powerful opponent of Syrian and Hezbollah’s increasing influence in Lebanon, was assassinated. The subsequent judicial proceedings, still ongoing after 14 years, have pretty well established that the murder was ordered by Bashar al Assad, Syria’s president, and carried out by Hezbollah operatives.

        How complete is Hezbollah’s takeover of the state of Lebanon?

        The country went to the polls in May 2018. The elections saw the Hezbollah-led political alliance win just over half of the parliamentary seats. A major factor in Hezbollah’s popularity is the vast network of social services, funded by Iran, that it runs, providing healthcare, education, finance, welfare, and communications. Initially set up to augment the pitifully poor services provided by the state, it has virtually taken over the state’s function in many areas.

        The government that was eventually formed some nine months after the poll reflected the dominant position attained by Hezbollah and its allies. The organization was allocated three ministries including, for the first time, the Ministry of Health which controls one of the country’s largest budgets. In addition the Finance Ministry went to a Hezbollah ally.

        As regards the military, there are two fully equipped fighting bodies in Lebanon – the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) and Hezbollah. The LAF may seem on paper the larger organization, with 72,000 personnel as against a Hezbollah maximum of 55,000, but it is a far less cohesive and unified force. Hezbollah has been equipped by Iran with a large rocket arsenal, thousands of anti-tank, anti-aircraft and anti-ship missiles, as well as tanks and other military vehicles stationed in Syria. The LAF has been well funded by the US over the years, and has air and naval capacity, but the unpalatable fact is that it is no longer the independent instrument of the state. Hezbollah has infiltrated the LAF, and there is evidence of cooperation between them.

        It is particularly concerning that the LAF has compromised its role as the nation’s defence force by collaborating with the Hezbollah military. As a result, in any future conflict Israel would be unable to restrict its military action to Hezbollah. Indeed in May 2018 Israel’s then education minister, Naftali Bennett, said that “the State of Israel will not differentiate between the sovereign state of Lebanon and Hezbollah, and will view Lebanon as responsible for any action from within its territory.”

        The distinguished commentator on Middle East affairs, Jonathan Spyer, recently analyzed the extent to which Hezbollah, acting as a proxy for Iran, has swallowed up the Lebanese state. The shell of the state has been left intact, he pointed out, both to serve as a protective camouflage and to carry out those aspects of administration in which Hezbollah and Iran have no interest. As a result, he concludes, it is impossible today in key areas of Lebanese life to determine exactly where the official state begins and Hezbollah’s shadow state ends. Lebanon is indeed in a sorry state.

Published in the Eurasia Review, 6 July 2019:

Published in the MPC Journal, 8 July 2019: