Sunday, 31 May 2020

Hezbollah brings Lebanon to its knees

          Lebanon is in a poor way. By January 2020 its currency had lost over 50 percent in purchasing power against the US dollar, and the country was ablaze as furious protesters took to the streets to condemn the stagnant economy, unemployment, corruption in the public sector, and inadequate basic services such as electricity, water and sanitation. 

          As Lebanon descended into near chaos, prime minister Saad Hariri resigned. That was the point when, to vociferous public dissatisfaction, it was announced that his proposed replacement was to be a former minister of education, Hassan Diab. The public viewed this potential appointment as simply the discredited ruling elite clinging to power.

          With near riots taking place outside the parliament building, on 22 January 2020 Diab presented parliament with a plan aimed at rescuing Lebanon from its economic and financial crisis. He promised to fight corruption and introduce reforms in the judicial, financial and administrative fields. There are 128 seats in Lebanon’s parliament. Just 84 parliamentarians were present when the vote in support of Diab was passed by 63 of them. Those in favour were Hezbollah members and their allies. The party of the previous prime minister, Saad Hariri, and his allies voted against.

          It was no part of Diab’s plan that Lebanon would default on its national debt. However, just one month later, this was precisely what Diab announced to the nation in a television address. For the first time in its history Lebanon was unable to meet its financial obligations. He said that the continuing economic crisis had led the country’s foreign currency reserves to hit critical levels.

          Lebanon’s debt ratio, standing at more than 150 percent of GDP, is one of the highest in the world. It had been deteriorating for years, with the country recording nil economic growth and high unemployment. Across the country, prices have at least doubled since March 2020, leaving basic goods outside the reach of more than half the population.

          So May 20 saw prime minister Diab writing in the Washington Post pleading for aid from the US and its affluent allies. Lebanon, he said, was on the brink of an “unimaginable food crisis”

          “Many Lebanese,” he wrote,” have already stopped buying meat, fruits and vegetables, and may soon find it difficult to afford even bread… by the end of the year more than half of Lebanese households may not be able to afford to purchase food.” He promised to introduce subsidies for basic foodstuffs and to direct the central bank to defend the crippled Lebanese lira,

          It is unlikely that these promises will placate the Lebanese public. They have heard it all before. The most probable outcome will be continuing fierce mass opposition to the administration.

           In the twenty years since Israel withdrew from the security zone it had created along the Lebanese border Hezbollah, a rapacious predator, has been consuming the political, military and administrative organs of the once proud state, until only the outer shell of an independent sovereign country remains. Slowly it has become clear that Hezbollah, a body deemed a terrorist organization by large parts of the world including the Arab League, has done more than create a “state within a state” inside Lebanon. Many now believe that the Lebanese state and Hezbollah are in effect indistinguishable.

          This new reality impacts particularly in the military field. Officially Lebanon possesses its own military force – the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) – under the overall command of the president, Michael Aoun. But alongside the LAF, and reportedly larger and far better equipped by Iran, are the Hezbollah fighting forces. As in Lebanon’s political and domestic spheres, Hezbollah has infiltrated the Lebanese army and gained, if not complete control, then considerable influence over it. President Aoun has said he regards Hezbollah’s military capabilities as not merely complementary, but essential, to the LAF. No wonder there are voices in Washington demanding an end to the financial aid poured into the LAF.

          Where can Lebanon look to for help out of its multi-faceted crisis? Western governments will be reluctant to open their purses to support a Hezbollah-dominated administration. The US is considering cutting off its military aid to a Lebanese army in cahoots with Hezbollah, and thus with Iran. However much reformers and activists such as the Liquaa Teshrin group within Lebanon seek to throw off their Hezbollah shackles, the terrorist organization seems to be too fully embedded within the country and its institutions to be prized out. The outlook for Lebanon seems far from rosy.

          The problem is of long-standing . After nine years without a general election, Lebanon went to the polls in May 2018. The election resulted in the Hezbollah-led political alliance win just over half of the parliamentary seats.

          A major factor in Hezbollah’s popularity in Lebanon, especially among the Shi’ite population, was the vast network of social services, funded by Iran, that it operated, providing healthcare, education, finance, welfare, and communications. In fact Hezbollah had virtually taken over the state’s function in many areas, and the bodies providing the social provision disseminated Hezbollah’s ideology.

          Following the 2018 election, it took nine months to form a government which had to reflect the dominant political position attained by Hezbollah and its allies. Unfortunately the new administration was utterly incapable of remedying Lebanon’s endemic problems. Finally it was an inept government announcement imposing new taxes on gasoline, tobacco and access to social media that ignited mass popular protest. There was so much dissatisfaction in the country that the first protests in October 2019 quickly morphed into nationwide near-revolution.

          The latest opinion polls show that Hezbollah’s popularity has plummeted among some 60 percent of the nation, but that it remains very high among the Shia Muslims who form some 30 percent of he population. Iran will fight tooth and nail to sustain the dominant position that its puppet, Hezbollah, has gained within Lebanon. When, if ever, will Lebanon be able to throw off the incubus that has fastened itself onto the nation, and regain its sovereignty?

 Published in the Eurasia Review, 30 May 2020:

Published in The Times of Israel, 31 May 2020:

Published in the MPC Journal, 2 June 2020:

Friday, 22 May 2020

When Jordan annexed East Jerusalem and the West Bank

        This letter appears in the Daily Telegraph today, 22 May 2020


      The irony of El Hassan bin Tala’s letter (May 21) might be lost on anyone unfamiliar with the ins and outs of recent history in the Middle East.

      In speaking of the Israeli government’s reported desire to extend sovereignty over areas of the West Bank, he refers to an incident in 1982 when Mrs Thatcher was seeking Jordan’s support against the Argentinian seizure of the Falklands.

      She referred, he tells us, to UN Security Council Resolution 242 which states the inadmissibility of acquiring territory by war.

      What he fails to mention is that in 1982 Jordan was claiming sovereignty over East Jerusalem and the West Bank, which it had annexed in 1950, having seized them during its attack on the nascent state of Israel.  Britain was the only nation in the world (with the possible exception of Pakistan) to recognise the seizure as legal.

Neville Teller

Thursday, 21 May 2020

Khalifa Haftar – has the gamble failed?

          To be blunt, Khalifa Haftar, once a friend of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi and long a prominent figure in Libyan affairs, has been trying to overthrow the recognized government of his country and set himself up as its leader. A year ago he seemed on the brink of succeeding, and was apparently within days of capturing the capital, Tripoli. That never happened – and now it seems an unlikely possibility. Why has the wind gone out of his sails, and can he ever recover the momentum that carried him to within an inch of success?

          Ever since Gaddafi, Libya’s president for some 40 years, was deposed in 2011, the country has become a hotbed of disparate Islamist groups battling against each other. In 2015 under a UN-led initiative an interim Government of National Accord (GNA) was established. It was unanimously endorsed by the UN Security Council as the sole legitimate executive authority in Libya. It proved totally ineffective in its attempts to get a grip on the situation. On the contrary, it allowed the mayhem to spiral out of control. Chaos ruled in Libya until the autumn of 2019.

          Then, in October, Turkey came forward with an offer of assistance. Ever since, boosted by Turkey’s state-of-the-art military technology, the GNA has chalked up a series of successes against its main opponent, the Libyan National Army (the LNA), led by Khalifa Haftar.

          Until quite recently an impressive list of national governments have believed that Haftar is the one politico-military figure in today’s Libya possibly able to regain mastery of the situation and bring an end to the state of anarchy. That does not mean that he is considered a particularly admirable or attractive character, merely that he appears to have the power and leadership qualities that Libya seems to require at the present time.

          As a young army officer in 1969. Khalifa Haftar helped Gaddafi seize power from King Idris, but in the 1980s, following a failed campaign to annex part of Chad, he had a major falling out with the Libyan dictator. Haftar fled to the US, from where he spent twenty years planning Gaddafi’s overthrow.

          The BBC finds it significant that Haftar took up residence in the state of Virginia. “His proximity to the CIA's headquarters in Langley,” remarks the BBC on-line, “hinted at a close relationship with US intelligence services, who gave their backing to several attempts to assassinate Gaddafi.”

          When the final uprising against Gaddafi began in 2011, Haftar returned to a disintegrating Libya and re-established his control of the LNA. In the following years jihadists of various hues viewed Libya as a happy hunting ground. By February 2016 the LNA had pushed the jihadists out of much of Benghazi, and by mid-April they had been dislodged from their strongholds surrounding the city.

          In April 2019 Haftar announced his intention to seize the capital, Tripoli. He mobilized his forces and began a march on the city. The GNA launched air attacks against his forces. The UK arranged for an emergency Security Council meeting, which calleded on Haftar to "halt all military advances" – a call he ignored.

          Haftar has powerful friends. During the years of conflict that led to what now seems a bid for supreme power, he received backing and military support from a variety of international sources. These include Russia and France, both of which urged the Security Council to exert minimal pressure on Haftar and his LNA. Other states underwriting Haftar included Egypt, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Jordan.

          In short, it is clear that a significant group of nations regarded Haftar not as Libya’s problem, but as its solution. Their confidence in him may have been shaken by recent events. His campaign seems to have become log-jammed. The support that Turkey is providing to the GNA has undoubtedly resulted in a number of reverses for Haftar and his military forces.

          A full year has passed since Haftar began his advance on Tripoli. The task of actually capturing the capital proved a great deal more difficult than he had envisaged. While the continuing conflict claimed some 1000 Libyan lives, the GNA managed to hold Haftar and his LNA at bay month after month. Then came the strengthening of government forces under the agreement with Turkey. Finally on 18 May 2020, after weeks of fighting, GNA forces recaptured the al-Watiya airbase south of the capital – a strategic stronghold that had been under Haftar's control since 2014. Two days later Haftar’s forces were chased out of two towns near the Tunisian border, Bader and Tiji

          The loss of the al-Watiya airbase, one of Haftar's main fortresses in western Libya, is a significant blow to his effort to seize the capital, and shifts the balance of power in favour of the Turkey-supported GNA. Haftar had been using the base as a launching pad for attacks on government forces across western Libya, and has now been deprived of that strategic asset.

          While not exactly on the run, Haftar’s position has been considerably weakened. The question now is whether his formidable supporters will come to his aid. President Putin is no friend of NATO, but is he likely to involve Russia in an all-out proxy war against NATO member Turkey on Libyan soil? Are France, Germany, or the UAE? Some limited support and assistance might be on offer, but would that be enough for Haftar to recover and regain the initiative? Or has his gamble to take over the leadership of Libya failed?

Published in the MPC Journal, 22 May 2020:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 23 May 2020:

Wednesday, 20 May 2020

What the Iranian regime really wants – and what the West refuses to see

This article of mine appears in the edition of the Jerusalem Report dated 8 June 2020
          With the best of intentions world leaders have been pursuing a policy in respect of Iran that leads nowhere. The original goals of the Islamic Revolution of 1979 were quite clearly stated at the time by the first Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini – the destruction of Western-style democracy and its way of life, and the imposition of Shia Islam on the world. An analysis of Iranian policy over the past 41 years reveals a stark truth. The regime has never abrogated those objectives, and they remain the fundamental principles motivating the regime today. This is a truth the West has refused to acknowledge.

          “We have to wage war,” wrote Khomeini, “until all corruption, all disobedience of Islamic law ceases.”

          Despite the worldwide coronavirus pandemic and its effect within Iran – bad enough as reported, but probably far worse in reality – the hardline elements within the regime, in line with their true purpose, have maintained their pressure. On April 14, armed men boarded and briefly held a Hong Kong-flagged tanker and its Chinese crew in the Straits of Hormuz before releasing the ship. The next day eleven vessels from Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy approached six US military ships while they were conducting integration operations with Army helicopters in international waters. The US ships issued several warnings through bridge-to-bridge radio, blasts from the ships' horns and long-range acoustic noise-making devices. The Iranian vessels left after about an hour.

          Ever since 1979 the world has grappled with problems emanating from the Iranian regime. Consistently over the past 41 years Iran has either carried out, or initiated through its proxy militias like Hezbollah or the Houthis, a series of bombings, rocket attacks, assassinations and terrorist actions in the Middle East and across the world. For decades Iran also made determined efforts to develop nuclear power, with the aim – never openly acknowledged – of producing nuclear weapons. It is unlikely that the present regime has abandoned that objective.

          In 2015, in an attempt to cripple its nuclear programme, the permanent members of the UN Security Council together with Germany concluded an agreement with Iran. No doubt all those involved, including then-US President Barak Obama, had the very best of intentions. With that deal – which incorporated a substantial financial boost to Iran – they believed they had put the regime’s nuclear ambitions on hold for at least 15 years, making the world a safer place. Moreover they believed that they had taken an important step toward normalizing relations and bringing Iran back within the comity of nations.

          They were mistaken. To quote President Donald Trump, speaking on January 8, 2020:

          “Iran’s hostilities substantially increased after the foolish Iran nuclear deal was signed in 2015, and they were given $150 billion, not to mention $1.8 billion in cash. Instead of saying "thank you" to the United States, they chanted "death to America." In fact, they chanted "death to America" the day the agreement was signed. Then, Iran went on a terror spree, funded by the money from the deal, and created hell in Yemen, Syria, Lebanon, Afghanistan, and Iraq. The missiles fired last night at us and our allies were paid for with the funds made available by the last administration.”

          Where did the civilized world go wrong? The mistake was the same mistake the world made in the case of Adolf Hitler. Nobody read Mein Kamf, first published in 1925 – or, if they did, no-one thought he meant what he said. But the philosophy underlying Hitler’s political beliefs was there, in black and white, for years before he was in a position to implement it. If politicians, or opinion formers, had taken it seriously, his rise to supreme power could have been thwarted. He could never have manoeuvered his way into becoming Germany’s Chancellor.

          The problem that Iran poses to the civilized world stems entirely from the Islamic revolutionary regime that the nation wished on itself back in 1979. Ayatollah Khomeini, the figurehead for Iran’s new direction, became Supreme Leader in December 1979. His philosophy, which he made no secret of, and wrote about nearly 40 years before, required the immediate imposition of strict Sharia law domestically, and a foreign policy aimed at spreading the Shi’ite interpretation of Islam across the globe by whatever means were deemed expedient.

          “We shall export our revolution to the whole world,” he declared. “Until the cry 'There is no god but Allah' resounds over the whole world, there will be struggle.” Or again: “Establishing the Islamic state world-wide belongs to the great goals of the revolution.”

          Pursuit of this fundamental objective of the Islamic Revolution has involved the state – acting either directly or through proxy militant bodies enabling it to deny responsibility – in a succession of acts of terror, mayhem and murder directed not only against Western targets, but against non-Shia Muslims as well. “To kill the infidels,” declared Khomeini, “is one of the noblest missions Allah has reserved for mankind.”

          He was unequivocal about the basic purpose of his regime. “We have set as our goal the worldwide spread of the influence of Islam and the suppression of the rule of the world conquerors.”

          This partly explains Iran’s unremitting hostility to Sunni Saudi Arabia. With Islam’s two holiest cities, Mecca and Medina, within its borders, the Saudi kingdom sees itself as the leader of the Muslim world – a claim hotly contested by Iran. The regime sees Saudi Arabia as its great rival for political, as well as religious, hegemony in the region. In 1987 Ayatollah Khomeini declared that Mecca was in the hands of “a band of heretics”.

          Saudi Arabia gives as good as it takes. In 2018 the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, declared that Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, “makes Hitler look good…Hitler tried to conquer Europe. The supreme leader is trying to conquer the world.”

          Trump has repeatedly denied that he seeks regime change in Iran – he says he wants no more than a cessation of Iran’s terrorist activities and a renegotiation of the nuclear deal. These, if finally achieved through the tough sanctions imposed by the US, would indeed be welcome. But a clear-eyed look at the facts shows that a genuine accommodation with this regime is simply not possible. Western leaders want to believe in it, but they cannot, or will not, see that it would be a negation of the fundamental purposes underlying the revolutionary Iranian regime – its very raison d’être

          These are the words of the regime’s founder, its first Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khomeini: “We wish to cause the corrupt roots of Zionism, Capitalism and Communism to wither throughout the world. We wish, as does God almighty, to destroy the systems which are based on these three foundations, and to promote the Islamic order of the Prophet.”

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 19 May 2020:

Published  in The Times of Israel, 21 May 2020:

Tuesday, 12 May 2020

What kind of man is Iraq's new prime minister?

          It was on 6 May 2020, following nearly six months of political wrangling, that Iraq's new prime minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, took office, following parliamentary approval of most of his proposed ministerial appointments.

          Two previous presidential nominees for prime minister had failed to secure sufficient support over a period of increasingly violent public protest. The protests began in October 2019, when thousands of Iraqis took to the streets, accusing the political class of incompetence and corruption. The heavy-handed attempts by the government to quash the riots, undertaken with the help of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, led also to widespread objection to excessive Iranian influence within Iraq.

          The death of hundreds of protesters on the streets only served to exacerbate the febrile situation, and finally led to the resignation of then prime minister Adel Abdul Mahdi. What followed was a long search by President Barham Salih for a prime minister that would be acceptable domestically and also to the two major external states most involved in shaping Iraq’s future – the US and Iran.

          Mustafa al-Kadhimi, Iraq’s intelligence chief, but with a long career as journalist and peace activist behind him, proved an inspired choice. No professional politician, he was not tarred in the public mind with the brush of incompetence and corruption. Unallied to any political party, he had made few enemies among the political class. Having spent many years as an exile in the West, he was well-known and liked in Washington and London. And his four years embedded in Iraq’s security service while Iran strengthened its grip on the country’s governance, made his appointment acceptable to the Iranian regime.

          Born Mustafa Abdul-Latif Mishatat in 1967, he adopted the name al-Kadhimi (taken from his birthplace, Kadhimiya) for his career as a working journalist and peace and humanitarian activist. Strongly opposed to the dictatorial regime of Saddam Hussein, he left Iraq in 1985 for Iran, before moving to Germany, the UK and the US, and he remained in exile until the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, After that, although he continued to be based in London for the next seven years, he returned to Iraq from time to time. 

          ​For much of his time in Britain Kadhimi became involved with the work of the Humanitarian Dialogue Foundation (not to be confused with the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, a Swiss-based organization concerned with fostering the non-violent resolution of armed conflict). The Foundation was a body registered in Britain as a charity specifically concerned with Iraq. Kadhimi was working for it when it opened Salam House in north-west London as a cultural centre that hosted weekly talks, discussions and exhibitions by notable Iraqi and international speakers, and by bodies concerned with Iraq, British society and the Middle East.

          When it registered as a charity in 2009, the Foundation listed as its objectives the promotion of conflict resolution and reconciliation, with a view to relieving suffering, poverty and distress. In addition its purpose was to promote human rights, equality and diversity, with specific mention made of racial harmony, the education and welfare of children, women’s rights and gender equality. Later it expanded its purposes to encompass the promotion of peace and tolerance through an understanding of Iraq’s history, contemporary society, arts, culture and governance.

          It was with this organization and its unquestionable humanitarian values, that Kadhimi associated himself for many years while residing in Britain. The only conclusion to be drawn is that the values embraced by the Humanitarian Dialogue Foundation are values endorsed by Kadhimi, and that in Iraq’s new prime minister the world has found a leader motivated by integrity, dedicated to peace, and with the highest regard for a humane approach to conflict resolution. 

          Following the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, Kadhimi joined a group of Iraqi activists in the US to help Iraqis come to terms with their past. Using the already well-established Iraq Research and Documentation Project , founded in 1992 at Harvard University, they established a new body which they called the Iraq Memory Foundation. 

          The three founders – one of whom was Kadhimi – believed that justice in the future required the people of Iraq to come to terms with the atrocities perpetrated in their name during the 24 years of Saddam’s rule. The ultimate rationale behind the Iraq Memory Foundation was that only the truth could help heal a society that had been politically and physically brutalized on a large scale.

          Between 2003 and 2010 Kadhimi ran the London end of the organization, also commuting to Baghdad from time to time to help document not only the crimes of Saddam Hussain's regime, but all facets of the Iraqi experience of dictatorship. Managing a team spread across various countries, Kadhimi oversaw the documenting of testimonies and the collation of footage from victims.

          During this period Kadhimi worked as a columnist and managing editor of the Iraq section of the US-based international Al-Monitor news website. He also served as editor-in-chief and columnist of Iraq's Newsweek magazine for three years from 2010, and his articles are noteworthy for attempting to foster the spirit of social peace within Iraq.

          This, then, is Iraq’s new prime minister, a figure – if his past affiliations and activities are anything to go by – unusual to a degree in today’s Middle East. Everything about Kadhimi’s past suggests a man imbued with generous humanitarian instincts, an upholder of social justice, utterly opposed to the repressive dictatorship under which his country suffered for so long, and fired with the desire to help his nation come to terms with its past and move forward into a brighter future. If Kadhimi remains faithful to the principles and beliefs that have marked his past, then Iraq is fortunate indeed in the man selected by fate to lead his country forward.

Published in The Times of Israel, 12 May 2020:

Published in the MPC Journal, 15 May 2020:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 16 May 2020:

Wednesday, 6 May 2020

Yemen's dead end

          Yemen, a country spread across the base of the Arabian peninsula, was described by the Romans as “Arabia Felix” – happy, fortunate Arabia – an epithet that would certainly not apply in more modern times. Its recent history has been convoluted and bloody. The latest episode came on April 26, 2020, when the STC (the Southern Transitional Council) declared that south Yemen would break away from the national government and henceforth rule itself. 

          This unilateral declaration did not come out of the blue. Back in 1967, just after the British departed from Aden and its South Arabia protectorate, South Yemen became an independent communist state backed by the USSR. It was only in 1990, with the imminent collapse of the Soviet Union and after years of military and political in-fighting, that South Yemen agreed to unite with the north to form the Unified Republic of Yemen.
          The glue binding the two quickly became unstuck. It took only four years for the south to try to break away again. A short civil war ended with the south being overrun by northern troops and the national government back firmly in control.

          Now comes the latest bid to restore an independent South Yemen. Perhaps the instigators calculated that the current state of utter chaos within the country provided them with a golden opportunity. For more than a decade Yemen has been at war with itself, the two main parties backed by outside forces. The results reduced the country to what has been termed “the world’s worst humanitarian disaster.” Disease and starvation decimated the population.

         It all started in the sadly misnamed “Arab spring” uprisings of 2011. Inside Yemen mass protests, a near-assassination of the then president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, and pressure from neighbouring states forced Saleh to step down in favor of his vice-president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. Hadi sponsored a draft constitution in 2015 proposing a federal system split between northerners and southerners, but the Iran-backed Houthi rebels rejected it.

          The Houthis are a fundamentalist Shia group supported by Iran, but Saleh, although a Sunni Muslim, seemed intent on maneuvering a return to power in collaboration with them. It was through Saleh that the Houthis were able to gain control of most of the Yemeni military, including its air force. As a result, and supported with military hardware from Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, they overran large tracts of the country, including the capital city, Sana’a.

          Saudi Arabia, determined to prevent Iran from consolidating a strong presence in the Arabian peninsula, intervened in March 2015 to beat back the Houthis. The fighting has continued ever since, with neither party able to gain a clear advantage. The efforts of the UN special envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths, have so far proved largely ineffective.

          To the mass misery caused so far to the population must now be added the deadly coronavirus (the first case was reported on April 10), and the danger, in the absence of effective central government control, of its rapid spread.

          This is the moment chosen by the STC to strike at the concept of a united Yemen. On April 26 it declared a state of emergency and announced self-rule for regions under its control, including Aden which it seized from government forces in August 2019 and has been holding ever since. Actual fighting in the Aden region stopped last November, following an agreement signed in the Saudi capital, Riyadh.

          So far the STC coup cannot be counted a great success.

          The Saudi-led military coalition – including the United Arab Emirates, once firm supporters of the STC – immediately rejected the group's declaration of self-rule in the south, demanding "an end to escalatory actions" and return to a peace deal signed in November last year. Meanwhile Saudi began a unilateral ceasefire with the Houthis that it said would continue throughout the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.

          The United Nations also would have no truck with the STC’s demands. It called for a ceasefire, referring to the effect of torrential rains and flash floods that hit the country in March,

          "Countless families have lost everything," said Lise Grande, the UN's Humanitarian Coordinator for Yemen. "This tragedy comes on top of the COVID-19 crisis, which comes on top of the famine last year, which came on top of the worst cholera outbreak in modern history. The solution is clear. The parties to the conflict need to find the courage to stop fighting and start negotiating."

         But, much to the disappointment – perhaps even dismay – of the STC, within hours of its declaration no less than five of the eight southern Yemeni governorates refused to endorse it, confirming their adherence and loyalty to Yemeni President Hadi.

          Moreover the attempt by the separatists to take over the Yemeni island of Socotra was thwarted by government forces, which foiled an attempt by armed units of the STC to take over the capital, Hadibo. Socotra’s governor, Ramzi Mahrous, was another of south Yemen’s leaders refusing to back the STC. He announced on national television that his forces had confronted the separatist militia and "managed to stop their advance".

          And so Yemen staggers on, much of its people subsisting in abject poverty and misery – the victims both of natural disasters such as unprecedented floods and coronavirus, and the man-made calamity of civil war. It is difficult to see where an impetus to break the political impasse might come from.

Published in The Times of Israel, 7 May 2020:

Published in the MPC Journal, 8 May 2020:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 9 May 2020:

Monday, 4 May 2020

Dreams Never Dreamed

My review of Kalman Samuels's inspiring memoir: "Dreams Never Dreamed" appears in the edition of Jerusalem Report dated May 18, 2020
        This is a true story that both tears at the heartstrings and fills one with wonder at what human beings are capable of achieving. The first part of Kalman Samuels’s memoir takes us on his personal journey from secular to orthodox Judaism, then the early days of his marriage to Malki and, after a while, their first baby – a girl they named Nechama Leah. The real burden of his story begins in October 1977 when Malki takes their second baby – one-year-old Shalom Yoseph, known as Yossi – to the well-baby clinic to receive the routine triple immunization, DPT, against diphtheria, pertussis and tetanus.

        What followed is the stuff of nightmares. It quickly became apparent that something terrible had happened to their child. Specialists in Israel and America confirmed that baby Yossi had been rendered blind and deaf. Eventually Samuels proved to judicial satisfaction that by the time his son was injected with the vaccine, Israel’s health authorities had known for almost five months that the batch they were using was dangerously flawed.

        The family’s journey to the courtroom, involving medical tests and the gathering of written testimony from a succession of specialists, took six long years, and it was only in September 1983 that the Samuels family was in a position to file their suit. The case itself, contested by the authorities every inch of the way, dragged on for another seven years, and it was not until 1990 that a court-brokered settlement was agreed by both sides.

        But what had happened to Yossi over that period was little short of a miracle. When the time came for him to start formal education, he was assigned to a special school and provided with his own teacher and a personalized programme. Through the school, the Samuels came to know a special education teacher called Shoshana Weinstock, herself rendered deaf at the age of five following meningitis. Yossi was eight years old, unable to speak and with no knowledge of sign language, when she agreed to give him private tuition. This she combined with teaching the family sign language, so that they could communicate with him.

        One day, when Shoshana brought Yossi home, she was in a state of wild excitement.

        “He got it!” she cried. ”His life has changed forever.”

        Kalman and Malki had no idea what she meant.

        “He understands that I’m signing letters in his palm. His entire world has just opened.”

        Shoshana had been finger spelling on his hand the five symbols that spell the word “shulchan” (table) in Hebrew – something she had been trying for some time, but with no response from Yossi. Suddenly a smile had lit up his face, and he began touching the table top with his other hand. The penny had dropped. Shoshana had opened his door to language.

        From that moment Yossi advanced with astonishing speed. He learned braille – letters consisting of raised dots which the blind read with their fingertips. Soon he was not only reading braille, but writing it on the special six-key braille machine. Then a gifted speech therapist at his school undertook the apparently impossible task of teaching Yossi to speak Hebrew. To a child who could neither see nor hear she had to convey what sound is, and how to vocalise letters and words.

        As Samuels puts it: “She all but crawled with her fingers into Yossi’s mouth to teach him each consonant and vowel….Yossi placed his hands on her face and neck, fingering her lips and the vibrations around her mouth and throat, as he struggled to pronounce the symbols and sounds finger-spelled into his palm.”

        The almost incredible outcome was Yossi’s bar-mitzvah, when he was called up to the Torah and, Samuels tells us, “boomed out the blessings, deliberately and precisely, each word loud and clear.”
        The story of Yossi’s victory over the disabilities inflicted on him is uplifting in itself, but Dreams Never Dreamed has even more to reveal – its inspirational result. Way back, in the time the Samuels were first trying to understand what had happened to their son, Malki had made a pledge to the Almighty: “If You ever decide to help my Yossi, I will dedicate my life to helping so many other mothers of children with disabilities whom I know are crying with me for their children.”

        By way of utter determination on Malki’s part to hold fast to her intention, and through a series of events, some almost miraculous, in 1990 an afternoon programme for eight disabled children was established in a local apartment. Malki called the program Shalva, which translates as “serenity” or “peace of mind”.

        It proved to be only a beginning. The enterprise developed, funding was forthcoming, planning permission was granted, construction was undertaken, and what emerged in Jerusalem was a splendid, purpose-built structure, now one of the world’s largest centers for disability care and inclusion which hosts some 100,000 visitors each year.

        Dreams Never Dreamed is an inspiring and heartwarming story – an object lesson in how much can be achieved by determination and faith.

Friday, 1 May 2020

The Jewish Chronicle rescued

          What can one say about the directors of a Jewish organization – a charity, no less – who choose a few hours before the Seder to inform their 54 staff that the business is folding and they are to be made redundant? This is precisely what happened this year, on Wednesday, April 8. Shocked and distressed as the journalists and support staff of Britain’s two leading Jewish newspapers – the Jewish Chronicle and the Jewish News – must certainly have been, the news hit Anglo-Jewry like a hammer blow. 

          Founded as far back as 1841, the Jewish Chronicle, long known affectionately as the JC, has been a pillar of stability of the UK Jewish community. Generation after generation of English speaking Jews from all over the world have recorded their births, marriages and deaths in its “hatch, match and dispatch” columns. A world without the JC seemed well-nigh unimaginable.

          The Kessler Foundation, a charitable trust, had owned the old-established Jewish Chronicle for 36 years, but financial difficulties had been dogging the publication for years. A shrinking UK Jewish population and the consequent loss of circulation and of advertising revenue led to a loss of £1.5m in 2018. Last year, it was saved from closure only after a financial appeal to private individuals led to an injection of working capital.

          The Jewish News is a johnny-come-lately on the scene, but a very successful one. Established in 1997, Jewish News started as a free newspaper serving the Jewish communities of Greater London. A few years later it launched on-line, and it was soon attracting growing internet traffic. Its success in this did not, unfortunately, translate into profitable income. On February 12, 2020, a merger between the two papers was negotiated, and the Jewish News also came under the control of the Kessler Foundation.

          The merger seemed to make sense. With the JC strong in the print field, and the Jewish News in digital, the aim was to create a modern print, digital and events brand. "The community would be better served,” read the statement issued jointly by the two publications, “by bringing the two operations together to ensure that the high level of independent quality journalism and community news that the UK Jewish community has come to expect from these cherished newspapers has a sustainable future.”

          Alas, it was not to be. Two months of effort left the Foundation unable to secure the solid financial backing necessary to take the merger forward. Having hung on for so long, one might have expected sufficient human feeling in the directors to have allowed their staff to celebrate the Passover, before announcing the liquidation of their company and the loss of their jobs.

          What was to follow proved equally distressing. The Foundation’s plan seems to have been to go bankrupt (“seek a creditor’s voluntary liquidation” is the technical term), and to start up again by submitting an offer to the proposed liquidators which would, in the words of the Financial Times, “have seen them acquire the assets of both publications and run them as a merged publication.”

          If they had thought this tactic would be a walkover, they must have been thoroughly shaken when a consortium of eminent figures drawn from the worlds of banking, politics and the media submitted a last-minute rival bid to acquire the liquidated assets of the Jewish Chronicle.

          The move was immediately condemned by Alan Jacobs, the then chairman of the JC, as “a shameful attempt to hijack the world’s oldest Jewish newspaper.” He attacked the rival bid for not making clear the source of its finance, and because it had not announced its plans regarding the future structure it proposed for the JC.

          The latter discrepancy was soon made good. In a tit-for-tat gesture made just before Shabbat, on Friday April 17, Stephen Pollard, the respected editor of the JC for 15 years, issued a statement resigning his post and explaining why he was supporting the rival bid.

          “I cannot in good faith lend my support to the Kessler Foundation’s bid to take the paper out of liquidation,” wrote Pollard, “while there is such a compelling alternative on the table.” Endorsing from personal experience the integrity of the individuals who comprise the rival consortium. Pollard compares their intention to make the JC’s creditors whole and retain many of the current team, with the fact that the Kessler Foundation has made no such offer.

          Even more to the point, perhaps, is the one intention that the Foundation did make clear. It announced that the post of editor of their proposed combined publication would go, not to Pollard, but to the current editor of the Jewish News, Richard Ferrer. It proposed according Pollard the title of “editor at large”.

          “If the [rival consortium’s] bid for the JC prevails,” said Pollard, “I will consider entering into discussion about the possibility of staying on as editor.”

          And so it has turned out. On April 23 Pollard tweeted the good news. The consortium’s bid had been accepted, the JC’s future was assured, and the editor will remain the editor. All’s well that ends well. 

Published in The Times of Israel, 5 May 2020: