Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Kerry's Peace Proposals - Status of Current Negotiations

It is often said by mediators that a good deal between two sides is one which leaves each side equally unhappy.  That is the essence of a negotiated settlement where two parties have diametrically opposing demands and are trying to find a peaceful way to resolve their differences.  Indications are that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is trying to find a way to come to some of these middle ground positions in an effort to present a plan to Israel and the Palestinians that has some chance of acceptance.

Certainly, there is no shortage of naysayers on either side of the conflict.  Israeli cabinet ministers Naftali Bennett and Ze'ev Elkin have been pushing Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to walk away from the talks and reject Kerry's imminent proposals.  Similarly, officials on the Palestinian side of the table, including PLO Secretary Yasser Abed Rabbo have indicated that Kerry's proposals will not be acceptable to any Palestinians. 

At the same time, there are a number of high ranking Israeli cabinet ministers, including Tzipi Livni and Yair Lapid who maintain that a deal that is acceptable to Israel is within reach.  Any such deal, from the Israeli side, could necessitate a change in the current Israeli government.  Given statements made by Minister Naftali Bennett, he and his party would leave the government rather than agree to the type of peace plan being presented by Kerry.  On the other hand, there is significant skepticism in Israel that the Palestinians will accept this type of deal, even if Kerry can get the Israelis to agree.  Moreover, Israelis have real concerns as to whether the current Palestinian leadership could deliver the type of "peace" contemplated by the agreement.  Statements by various Palestinian officials seem to suggest that this type of deal will not be good enough and the Palestinians will reject a U.S. brokered proposal, yet again..  But that remains to be seen.

What are some of the key issues?

1.  Recognition of Israel as a Jewish State and Resolution of the Palestinian Refugee Issue.

In a sense, these issues are very closely related.  From an Israeli perspective, the UN partition plan in 1948 contemplated a two state solution - one state for the Jewish people and one state for the Palestinian people.  There can be little historical dispute that the Palestinians rejected the plan and declared war on Israel.  Over the course of that war, some areas were seized by Jordan and Egypt that would have been parts of the Palestinian state.  Other areas were captured by Israel and many Palestinians fled those areas.  Yet between 1948 and 1967, the Palestinian and pan-Arab animus was still directed at Israel with the goal of eliminating Israel's existence.  Such was the Arab rhetoric leading up to the 1967 war and the 1973 war - and for many years afterwards.  It is still the rhetoric of Hamas.   

The reason that Israel has insisted on recognition of Israel as a "Jewish state" as part of a peace deal is to signify that both sides accept a two state solution as a permanent peace deal.  It is not a stepping stone towards greater conflict.  Israel would recognize a Palestinian state with all of the trappings that a state might have, subject to security considerations.  The Palestinians would be expected to do the same and would agree to Israel's right to exist.  

What does a two state solution really mean?  It means that each side gives up its dream, goal or aspiration of taking over all of the territory held by the other side.  It also means that each side solves its own refugee problems within the borders of its territory.  For the Palestinians, this type of deal should leave them free to bring every single Palestinian refugee, from across the world, to the nascent Palestinian state, if they so choose.  Should that not be the purpose of a two state resolution?  Since 1948, Israel has absorbed millions of refugees, including Jews who were no longer welcome in Yemen, Egypt, Syria, Iran and other Arab countries.  The Palestinians will need to do the same and absorb the Palestinian refugees in their new state.

Most Palestinians have continued to demand the "right to return" to Israel.  This insistence is nothing more than a rejection of Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state and the expression of an intention to override Israel demographically.  It is, quite simply, for Israel, a non-starter.   If, as some suggest, Palestinians continue to insist that a large number of Palestinians be permitted to return to Israel rather than the new Palestinian state, this would be a deal breaker, in my view.

2.  Status of Jerusalem

Under the U.N. partition plan, Jerusalem was going to become an "International City."  It was never envisioned as part of the Palestinian state and certainly not its capital.  Between 1948 and 1967, much of Jerusalem was held by the Jordanians, with little push by the Palestinians to declare it the capital of Palestine.  In 1967, Israel recaptured parts of Jerusalem, including the old city and ultimately annexed most of the city.  Regardless of what some countries in the world might formally maintain, Jerusalem is not "occupied territory" as defined under the Geneva conventions. It was not legally held by Jordan nor was its status clearly defined. Since Israel has controlled Jerusalem, from 1967, the holy cites have been fully accessible to the different religious groups that claim access to them.  The Muslim Waqf has controlled the Al Aqsa Mosque and Christian holy cites have been overseen by Christian authorities. This contrasts with the picture that existed in Jerusalem between 1948 and 1967, during which time Jews were barred from attending the Jewish religious cites in old Jerusalem.

One of the key Palestinian demands is that East Jerusalem, including the Old City, become the capital of the new Palestinian state.  Once again, this is something that is simply not going to happen any time soon.  There would be no political will in Israel for dividing Jerusalem and certainly no appetite for Israel to relinquish the one place in the world that is holy to the Jewish people.  So Secretary of State Kerry has proposed using suburbs of Jerusalem, including Kafr Aqab or Abu Dis and calling those suburbs "Greater Jerusalem" or some other terminology so that "Jerusalem" can still be listed as the Palestinian capital.  While this would be unpalatable to many on both sides, it may be a reasonable resolution of the issue, especially when combined with the fact that Palestinians would continue to control the Muslim religious sites in Jerusalem as they do today, even though the Dome of the Rock sits on the very spot that was once the Holy Temple.

3.   The Settlements, the Border and Security

The United States has proposed a formula involving an approximate total amount of land for each side, equal to the 1967 borders.  The idea of "land swaps" would mean that Israel would keep the largest major settlement blocs while giving up other areas to the Palestinians.  There are certainly many on both sides who oppose this proposal entirely.

Many Palestinians have demanded that Israel withdraw, entirely, from all land that Israel has held since 1967. This would include major residential blocs, some of which were inhabited by Jews before 1948 (such as parts of Gush Etzion).  Some Israelis have demanded that Israel retain the vast majority of the West Bank and refuse to agree to turn over any territory, whatsoever.  Neither side is likely to get everything it is after in a negotiated settlement.

Media reports suggest that the settlement issue would be resolved through a number of approaches.  Under Kerry's proposals, which have not yet been formally announced, Israel would keep or annex the largest settlement blocs, but it would also agree to evacuate some areas of the West Bank on which there are now Israeli settlements.  Palestinians would receive other territory, with the total territory under Palestinian control for the new state the approximate equivalent of the 1967 borders.

The real challenge is security here, particularly security for Israel and even for Jordan.  Israel can ill afford, from a security perspective, to agree to the establishment of another fundamentalist terror-sponsored regime on its borders.  After Israel evacuated Gaza, the Gazan people promptly elected the rejectionist, terrorist group Hamas as its leadership.  Shortly afterwards, Hamas began lobbing rockets at Israel.  A repetition of this, in a different area, would be entirely unacceptable to Israel and would threaten Israel existentially.  Kerry's plans have apparently floated various approaches to address this security concern including a continuing, but gradually lessening Israeli presence in the Palestinian state or some type of U.S. presence.  This could present one of the greatest challenges for Israel and one of the biggest leaps of faith that Israel would have to make to agree to a deal.

Israel has a very small margin of error here the wrong decision or concession on security issues could be suicidal.  That is not to say that this is the plan of the current Palestinian leadership.  But looking at events in Syria, Egypt and other Arab countries in the Middle East, it is reasonable for Israel to insist on security measures that will be honoured and verifiable, irrespective of the type of Palestinian government that might get elected.  Some of these precautionary security terms are likely to be unacceptable to the Palestinians and that is where Kerry is working with both sides to try to find some way to reach a deal.


There are, of course, numerous other issues.  After all, many books have been written about this issue, from various historical, political and other vantage points.  I have reviewed some of them elsewhere on this blog.

The real question is what is going to happen now - and will anything come of this.  Most Israelis apparently remain unconvinced that a deal will be possible, according to recent Israeli surveys reported on by YNet News and Haaretz.  Many Palestinians have signified that they would view this type of deal as a "sell-out" and would reject it entirely.  So it is far from clear that there will be any kind of resolution.  Nevertheless, here are a few possibilities:

1.       Israel could agree to the deal, whether unconditionally or with some reservations.  In order to do this, it  appears that Israel's government would change, at least somewhat.  It is likely that Bennett would leave the government and that Labour, under the leadership of its recently elected new leader Yitzhak Herzog would join.  It is unclear whether some or all of the "Yisrael Beitenu" MKs would leave the government and if they were to leave, whether Netanyahu could still cobble together a majority that would support the deal.  If a Netanyahu-led government were to support the deal, my sense is that a deal could also win support in an Israel-wide referendum, even if the margin of victory was slim.

2.  Israel could agree to the deal, as above, but the Palestinians could reject it, either in connection with the ongoing talks or as part of some form of referendum.  This is probably the outcome that most Israelis anticipate, although there are signs that Abbas may be prepared to agree to a proposed deal, even if he does so conditionally or with some reservations.  It is unclear what the Palestinians will do if these talks fail.  They may look to the world community to try and exert economic pressure on Israel by advocating boycotts and divestment.  Some countries in the world have already been susceptible to these overtures.  Or they may declare a third intifada.  Either of these approaches would likely be disastrous for both Israel and the Palestinians and would probably set back a peaceful resolution by another twenty or thirty years, at least.

3.  The Palestinians could agree to the deal, as above, with some reservations or unconditionally.  However, Bennett could then cause the collapse of the government and Netanyahu could prove unable (or unwilling) to put together a coalition that would support the deal.  This could result in new elections in Israel or it could bring about a new right wing government that includes the religious parties and that has no interest in any type of peace deal.  In this scenario, (i.e. if the Netanyahu government were to fall) my guess would be that we would see a new election fairly quickly, though I am not about to predict the results.  It seems to me unlikely that Netanyahu would cling to power by cobbling together a far right -wing government.  I think he would be more inclined to hold an election. 

Stepping back from all of this, there are many reasons for pessimism and it seems unlikely that we will see an Israel-Palestinian peace deal any time soon. There are so many complicated issues, so much "bad blood," and so much hatred.  Yet, as I have told some of my friends, we are living in an age which has seen the collapse of the U.S.S.R; a peaceful resolution of the dispute in Ireland; the end to South African Apartheid; and many other world changes that people would have believed to be possible in our lifetime.  So maybe, just maybe, a peace deal between Israel, the Palestinians and the neighbouring Arab states will be another one of those historical moments.

It seems to me that both sides need this type of deal if they truly wish to avoid sentencing their children and grandchildren to generations more of bloody conflict.

Monday, January 27, 2014

More Downgrades at Aeroplan: Mileage Accumulation is Tougher and Tougher

I saw another one of those dreaded "announcements" from Aeroplan announcing mileage accumulation changes, this time for flights on United Airlines.  Aeroplan card holders will now find it even more difficult to achieve the various "Altitude" status levels when collecting Aeroplan miles from some key partners. 

I suppose it was only a matter of time.  Last year, Aeroplan introduced "Tango" flights for the Israel route and other international destinations.  With these tickets, passengers only accumulate 50% of the Aeroplan miles.  Plus, these fares are not eligible for free upgrades to first class.  It would take 20 round trip flights in a year between Toronto and Tel-Aviv on these fares to be eligible for "super elite" status (now called s100k).

Until now, there was at least one way around this problem.  Passengers could fly United from Toronto to Tel-Aviv (through Newark Airport) and still collect 100% of the air miles, even at the cheapest air fares.  Now this latest announcement from Aeroplan indicates that most of the cheapest air fares on United will only provide accumulation of 50% mileage, effective March 31, 2014.  This was already the case with Swiss, Lufthansa, Austrian, Turkish and other partner airlines.  The long and the short of it is that if you are flying with the least expensive air fares, it is getting harder and harder to accumulate Aeroplan points.  It is also worth pointing out that US Air is leaving the Star Alliance effective March 31, 2014 - so perhaps it is no coincidence that United made the change once it realized it had no Star Alliance competition between the U.S. and Israel.

This is not the only negative change that Aeroplan has introduced.  Over the past few years, the "tax and fuel surcharge" has skyrocketed on Aeroplan tickets.  So, let's say you want to use 80,000 points to get a "free" ticket on Air Canada.  It will cost you $680-$800 in "fuel surcharges."  Aeroplan calls these charges "tax and fuel surcharges."  But they aren't really fooling consumers.  These "fuel surcharges" allow for significant profit for Aeroplan on "free" tickets.  They aren't really "fuel surcharges."  They are simply ticket charges.  Paying $800 in surcharges to go to Israel in the winter, for example, is absurd.  You could probably find a ticket on another airline, taxes in, for close to $900, without wasting 80,000 points.

In fact, I looked into taking a trip to Montreal two weeks ago from Toronto.  The "surcharge" was $170.  A ticket with Porter would only cost $199, taxes in, if you could find a deal.  So what kind of "free" ticket is that.when you have to pay $170 AND 15,000 points?

This year, Aeroplan introduced "e-upgrade charges."  If  you are not Super Elite and you want to upgrade your seat on a transatlantic flight into the first class cabin, it will now cost $500, if there happens to be room.  Up until this year, there was no charge. That was one of the incredible benefits of flying Air Canada regularly - the ability to upgrade for free when there was space available.  I guess these changers are all intended to ensure that only the customers paying the much higher fares, on a regular basis, will get the benefits (that they probably won't need as much anyways).

Overall, it seems unlikely that I will come close to making Superelite status this year and it sounds like it will be less and less worthwhile to even try.  Mileage accumulation has become harder and harder, benefits have been reduced significantly and some of the better benefits have been eliminated.

To really try to fool everyone, Aeroplan rolled out its "Distinction" program to run parallel to its Aeroplan program.  Nobody that I have spoken to has been able to determine that there any benefits whatsoever of this program.  At first, the program made it sound like customers could, by achieving "Distinction" status, get discounted rates on Aeroplan tickets.  The advertised discount was as high as 35%.  But, on close reflection, people realized that Aeroplan is only offering the discount on "market rate" fares.  So in other words, let's say that an Aeroplan ticket to Israel would go for 80,000 points.  Aeroplan might say they are "sold out" and the market rate is now 130,000 or even 200,000.  (Or some other ridiculous, inflated, arbitrary number).  "Distinction" status holders will get their percentage discount on that number.  So instead of being able to pay $750 for a "free" ticket along with 80,000 points, you can now pay about 84,500 and $750, when the "market rate" is 130,000 points.  If the "market rate" is 200,000....well, you follow?

For someone flying back and forth on a long haul flight - like the Toronto-Tel-Aviv route, seven or eight times a year, this was enough, up until last year, to earn Super-Elite status and get some great benefits like free upgrades, double Aeroplan miles, wider available for "free" tickets and other perqs.  You could do this, even while buying the cheapest fares.  But now, it looks like you would have to pay an average of at least $300 to $500 more per ticket, which adds up considerably.

The difficulty is that there are very few options for Canada-Israel "commuters."  El Al still lacks the same in-flight amenities and has a horrible mileage accumulation program.  If an El Al ticket would get passengers full mileage accumulation on another system's program, that might start to make the decision a bit more complicated.

Ultimately, for a direct flight between Toronto and Tel-Aviv, Air Canada still offers the most convenient flight from Toronto and significantly better service.  The flight leaves at 5:30 p.m. and flies overnight, arriving in Israel at about 11:00 a.m. This is a great schedule, although it would probably be better if it were to leave around 8:00  or even 9:00 p.m.

The flight back on Air Canada, which is a 13 hour day time flight, is atrocious.  It leaves at 12:30 p.m. Israel time and arrives at 6:30 p.m. in Toronto.  The flight goes on forever.  For flights from Israel to Toronto, in my view, it is better to fly El Al or take United through New Jersey on its overnight flight.  At least that way, you can get some sleep.

Overall, the cumulative effect of all of these changes at Aeroplan is that the program seems to become worse and worse each year, while the benefits seem to be fewer and fewer.  Its quite unfortunate.  Maybe one day, some other airline, like Westjet, will start offering flights back and forth to Israel at a reasonable price with decent amenities.  For now, there are even fewer good choices.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Prime Minister Harper in Israel - More Comments

Prime Minister Harper in the Knesset

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper will be in the Middle East until Saturday.  Earlier today, he met with Israeli President Shimon Peres.  He also visited the Kotel - the "Wailing Wall" - as well as Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust Museum.  At a state dinner in the evening, the PM took the stage and tickled the ivories while signing a song or two.  Sounds like it must have been a fun event.  Unfortunately, I wasn't able to attend.

Prime Minister Harper in Israel - at the Piano

Unquestionably, the main event of the PM's trip was his speech at the Knesset - Israel's Parliament, yesterday afternoon.  The speech has attracted a great deal of attention in Canada and in Israel.  For ease of reference, here is the link to the full text: PM Harper Address to Knesset
Here is the link to the video of the full speech, which was delivered in English and French by Harper.  The speech was streamed live on CBC, the Israeli Knesset channel and some other channels.

PM Harper's speech was quite remarkable.  It was the first speech delivered in the Knesset by a Canadian Prime Minister.  It touched on a range of issues including Canada's regrettable refusal to allow more Jews to come to Canada at the time of the Holocaust, the continuing refusal of the UN to treat Israel as a full member nation with all of the associated committee privileges, the existential nuclear threat to Israel posed by Iran and the rise of new anti-Semitism, disguised as anti-Israel sentiment.  Canadian Jews must have been very proud to hear this speech in Israel's Knesset.

Although the policies of this Conservative government have been attacked by some as overly biased towards Israel, PM Harper called, quite clearly, for a two-state solution and an Independent Palestinian State, which he noted "must" come about.  This came on a day in which he had visited Ramallah earlier and pledged $66 Million to the Palestinian Authority while meeting with Palestinian President Abbas.  Harper also noted that Canada would be among the first countries to recognize a new Palestinian state that was formed through a process of negotiation with Israel. 

But Harper also denounced those who blame Israel for all of the Middle East's problems, and he attacked those who would call Israel an apartheid state.  At that point in his speech, two Israeli-Arab MKs began to heckle the Prime Minister and were then engaged in short exchange by Prime Minister Netanyahu.  The two MKs then got up and left, after arguing that Israel's treatment of its Arab minority population and Bedouin population was, in fact, "apartheid."  The irony was not lost on Netanyahu, who had pointed out earlier that the Israeli Parliament was probably one of the freest places in the Middle East for the expression of these types of dissenting views.  The very fact that Israel has Arab MKs, an Arab Supreme Court judge, and countless other fully integrated institutions makes it extremely insulting and inaccurate to refer to Israel as an apartheid state - and even more insulting to people who lived through South African apartheid.  

This whole issue of whether Israel and the Palestinians should be completely divided as part of a peace deal has drawn a great deal of attention in Israel over the past few weeks.  Minister Yair Lapid has called for a full separation of the two peoples for the mutual benefit of both.  Minister Avigdor Lieberman has made similar suggestions.  The issue is complicated since Israel has a large Arab minority population of Arab Israeli citizens  Would they continue to be citizens of Israel or would they now be citizens of Palestine?  Critics have called these proposals a form of "ethnic cleansing."  But the essence of a "two-state solution" is that one would be the "homeland" for the Jewish people and the other state would be the homeland for the Palestinian people and the two peoples would each benefit from having their respective homelands. 

In previous peace talks, including those chaired by President Clinton, the Palestinians were demanding that their state be free and clear of any Jews, while demanding that Israel agree to accept hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees into the State of Israel (not the nascent Palestinian State).  Some Palestinian negotiators are still making this demand.  But surely this is twisted and backwards.  It makes eminent sense that the Palestinian refugee problem would be solved through immigration by Palestinian refugees to the newly formed Palestinian state - not to Israel. 

President Obama himself raised the idea of 1967 borders with "land swaps."  What would "land swaps" mean?  It would mean that Israel would agree to retain some of the settlement areas in the West Bank (Judea and Samara) (with their residents) in exchange for some heavily Arab populated areas in what is now Israel.  No one would move, give up their homes or be "transferred."  But the territories, with their residents, would be exchanged. 

Minister Lieberman picked up on this idea and suggested that it would be a sensible solution.  Even John Kerry's proposal, judging from what has been leaked so far,  seems to contain something along these lines.  But the Israeli Arabs (understandably, as Netanyahu stated in the Knesset yesterday) were extremely upset at this idea.  Some Israeli Arabs indicated that in this type of case, they would leave their homes and move to Haifa (i.e. stay in Israel) rather than be part of a new Palestinian State. 

Well, isn't that an interesting answer to the comments made by MK Tibi yesterday?  Some Palestinian Israelis would rather leave their homes and move to another part of Israel rather than become citizens of a newly formed Palestinian State while staying in their own homes and communities.  In other words, they would rather continue to be part of an "apartheid state", as they describe it, than come under Palestinian Authority.  Of course, for some, this is because they are not willing to accede to a "two-state solution."  They prefer a "one-state solution" under which all of Israel and the Palestinian Territories would be one state, with equal rights for everyone.  For Israel, this would be demographic suicide and the end to Israel, as a Jewish state.  That is is precisely why it is advocated by some Palestinians.  That is also why it has been so important to Israeli negotiators to press for a recognition that Israel is the Jewish homeland.

Getting back to Prime Minister Harper, the press, particularly the foreign press as well as some Palestinian reporters have been trying to get Harper to agree to criticize all Israel settlements.  They have been baiting him with questions that are designed to get him to attack Netanyahu.   They pushed him to do this in Ramallah during a press conference and he refused.  Some Palestinians were incensed, arguing that he insulted them by refusing to call the settlements "illegal" in accordance with what was stated as long standing Canadian policy.  But Harper refused to take the bait and stated that he did not come to the Middle East to single out Israel for criticism.  Under the current negotiations that Kerry has been overseeing, there is said to be a recognition that Israel would keep certain settlement blocs under a proposed peace deal.  So it would not be helpful for any leader to simply take the position that anything built outside of the 1967 borders is necessarily "illegal" under international law.

To balance things out a bit (and I try to be as balanced as I can...), I have to turn back to Harper's speech in the Knesset.  Harper was preceded by Prime Minister Netanyahu and by opposition leader Yitzhak (Isaac) Herzog.  I thought Herzog's speech was quite good.  He called quite forcefully for Israel to seize the opportunity of the current negotiations and reach a deal with the Palestinians.  Herzog sounded much more pragmatic and realistic than the previous Labour Party leader Sheli Yacomovitch and this may well be a sign that the Labour party will look to join the government if it can do so to bolster a potential peace deal (possibly at the expense of Bennett's party).  Herzog stated that a majority of the members of the current sitting Knesset would support a deal with the Palestinians now and called on Netanyahu to do everything possible to reach such a deal.  Whether the Palestinians will agree to an deal is still an open question.

If there is a reasonable criticism of Harper's speech, Herzog's speech probably illustrates the area in which Harper fell short.  While his speech was very supportive of Israel and its many challenges, he offered no suggestions as to what might be done to push for a peace deal.  His call for a Palestinian State was strident but lacked any additional substance or suggestions.  He said little about the Palestinians, even while some Israeli opposition politicians would take a different approach from that taken by Israel's current government.  Not that I am suggesting that any foreign leader should come to Israel to meddle and criticize but there was probably some room for a bit more nuance.

Harper's visit to Israel is bound to solidify and bolster support among the Canadian Jewish community and, quite possibly, the Canadian evangelical community as well.  For the most part, that is not to say that it is simply a political ploy.  Harper's support for Israel seems to be heartfelt and logical.  Much of what he had to say seems unassailable from the viewpoint of those living in a Western democracy.  Even though many Canadians may well disagree with Harper on his Middle East policies, I feel that he must be given credit for taking a principled, morally supportable stand on a contentious issue in a thorny part of the world. 

Nevertheless, there is still some basis for cynicism.  Did this trip really require an entourage of some 200 people, largely funded by the Canadian government?  Was it necessary to take along 21 rabbis?  (Two or three would have probably been sufficient).  Is anything of substance being accomplished or negotiated?  These are some points that have been raised and they are legitimate. 

Despite these questions, the trip seems to be going quite well so far.  It is heartwarming to see Harper receive an Israel National Ice Hockey Team jersey from Prime Minister Netanyahu, to see Harper speaking at the Knesset and visiting the Kotel and to hear a Canadian Prime Minister standing up and taking a strong position against worldwide anti-Semitism and in support of Israel.  These are courageous positions for a Canadian Prime Minister to take  in the face of domestic and international criticism. 

Unfortunately for Israel, there are very few other world leaders who offer Israel this type of support and kinship.  Israel and the Canadian Jewish community are fortunate to have the Harper government's leadership on this issue and are undoubtedly enjoying this trip.  


Friday, January 17, 2014

Prime Minister Harper's Trip to Israel - January 2014

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper will be arriving in Israel on Sunday January 19, 2014 for his first visit along with a delegation of cabinet ministers, MPs, and others as well as some Canadian business and religious leaders.  He will also be visiting the West Bank and Jordan.  Among other stops, Prime Minister Harper will become the first Canadian Prime Minister to address the Israeli parliament - the Knesset.  This is, of course, something that President Obama refused to do, for fear of officially recognizing the fact that Jerusalem is Israel's capital.

Prime Minister Harper will also be receiving an Honourary degree from Tel-Aviv University.  It is unclear whether his itinerary will include a trip to the Canada Centre - Israel's Olympic-sized ice rink in Metullah, although given the PM's interest in ice hockey, this would seem to be an appropriate stop.  I'm sure that Israel's national ice hockey team would be happy to entertain the Prime Minister as they prepare for the upcoming IIHF Division II Tournament. 

Prime Minister Harper's government has been a great friend of the State of Israel.  It has been willing to take a principled approach towards issues of terrorism, Israeli security and fairness of treatment towards Israel by the international community, even when these issues have been unpopular.  Under Harper's leadership, the Canadian government has stood by Israel's right to defend itself in the face of relentless, unprovoked rocket attacks from Hezbollah in 2006 and Gaza in 2009.  The Canadian government has also refused to go along with pro forma anti-Israel resolutions put forward annually at the U.N. and other one-time U.N. resolutions that unfairly attack Israel.  For example, Canada stood alone in January 2009, opposing a U.N. Human Rights Council motion to denounce Israel, exclusively, over the military operations in Gaza in response to the rocket attacks that Israel faced from Hamas.  The U.S. is not a member of this distinguished council, which seems to define its success by the number of anti-Israel resolutions it can put forward at any given time, despite any other worldwide conflicts that might be occurring.

Some have argued that Canada's support of Israel means that Canada abandoned a long-standing position as an "honest-broker."  But what does this really mean?  Israel is the only country in the Middle East with values that are remotely similar to Canadian values.  It has a vibrant and free press.  Equality for all citizens.  Freedom of religion for all citizens.  The rule of law.  Contrast that with Israel's neighbouring countries and territories - Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Gaza...the list goes on and on.  How could Canada approach all countries in similar fashion in these circumstances? 

Canada can and should support and assist the Palestinians in their negotiations with Israel with the intention of building a democratic, peaceful, secure country and coming to a peaceful resolution with Israel.  That is the stated Canadian objective.  I have confidence that this Canadian Prime Minister and his government would be very supportive of Palestinians with those goals and would be prepared to provide economic and other assistance to bolster a mutually acceptable peace deal with Israel.  Maybe we could even wind up with an ice hockey arena in Ramallah to go along with the one that is in Metullah.  This Canadian government would also have credibility with the Israeli government in helping to work towards a comprehensive peace deal.

But in dealing with regimes that are not supportive of these types of goals, and that advocate violence and terrorism, such as Hezbollah or Hamas, it would make little sense for Canada to simply be an "honest broker" between Israel and those entities.

Much credit goes to Minister Jason Kenney, Canada's Minister of Employment and Social Development.  Minister Kenney has been a staunch opponent of terrorism, worldwide.  He has supported Holocaust education and awareness and has opposed antisemitism and other forms of racism wherever they might exist.  Even at conferences where antisemitism is in vogue, Minister Kenney has been prepared to call a spade a spade and demand that antisemitism be treated no differently from other forms of racism.  While this is anathema in so many other countries throughout the world, it is a principled approach that contrasts dramatically with the U.N's Orwellian attacks on Israel.   .

This is not all intended to mean that the Canadian government should support every one of Prime Minister Netanyahu's policies or that Canada must refrain from criticizing the Israeli government.  But any criticism of Israel, should be, as Prime Minister Harper recognizes, contextual.  Contrast this approach with the outrageous comments of then Canadian Liberal candidate Michael Ignatieff, who called Israel's actions in Lebanon (in response to a barrage of rocket attacks) a "war crime." (He later apologized).

With the credibility that Canada now has in Israel, it may well be able to assist Israel and the Palestinians in the current negotiations that have been taking place under the guidance of John Kerry.  Ministers in the current Israeli government including powerful Minister of Finance Yair Lapid and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman have been publicly supportive of trying to reach a comprehensive deal.  While there are certainly Ministers in the Israeli government including Minister Ayalon and Minister Bennett who are opposed to the current negotiations, there seems to be some basis for optimism.

It is unfortunate that support for Israel has been characterized as a "right-left" issue in Canadian politics and in other places in the world.  In the U.S., many socially progressive Democratic politicians have been strongly supportive of Israel for the types of reasons that Prime Minister Harper and Minster Kenney have put forward.  They have recognized that if there were democratic, free governments, like Israel across the Middle East, there is little doubt that those countries would be at peace with Israel.  While the Israeli record is far from perfect, Israel's policies in some social areas are completely unrivaled across the Middle East and throughout much of the world; its vibrant, free press; its treatment of minorities including religious minorities, gays, and others and its open court system which consistently adheres to the principles of the rule of law.

With these types of values, it makes sense that democratic countries like Canada and the U.S. would side with Israel in its current conflicts, just as it makes sense that Canada and the U.S. have sided with democratic European countries like Britain and France when they have faced threats from non-democratic, hostile forces.  Few people would say that Canada should have simply played the role of "honest broker" in some of the international conflicts in which Canada has been involved over the course of its history.

I wish the Prime Minister and his delegation the best of success in their travels and I trust that they will have an eye-opening, rewarding and welcoming experience and who knows, maybe they will even assist with some breakthrough negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians to bring about an end to a seemingly intractable conflict. 



Sunday, January 5, 2014

Haproyect Shel Ravivo and Daklon - An Evening of Mizrahi Music

I wrote about some Mizrahi artists and music on November 17, 2013 (See "Israel's Mizrahi Music...").  The blog post was not comprehensive but was a look at few influential singers who have enjoyed significant popularity in Israel in the past few years.  I had not actually been to a concert to see any of them perform live, though I had certainly been to some weddings where a good part of the music was Mizrahi.

So last night, we decided to go and see the "Haproyect Shel Ravivo" (Ravivo's Project) at Hangar 11 at the Tel-Aviv Port.  The concert was scheduled for 9:30 p.m., well after Shabbat ended to ensure that people could make it from a variet of locations.  Hangar 11 is a club-style venue, with seating in the round, a rotating stage and a capacity of well over 1,500.  The food served is certified Kosher under the auspices of the Tel-Aviv Rabbinate (though we actually didn't eat any of it - the menu was fairly limited and the prices were not particularly appetizing...).

The concert was billed as a special event with Haproyect Shel Ravivo welcoming a guest performance by Daklon.  Daklon is considered one of the fathers of Israeli Mizrahi music.  Now almost 70 years old, Daklon was popular in Israel in the 1960s in some segments.  He would string together chains of Hebrew lyrics, sometimes biblical, to Mediterranean (Greek, Arabic and even Spanish/Italian) melodies.  To get a flavour for Daklon, here is a clip of him singing "Shabechi Yerushalayim":

Haproyect Shel Ravivo put together a collaborative song with Daklon in 2013 which has been well received in Israel.   At this concert last night, they introduced him enthusiastically as one of Israel's greatest musical pioneers.  Given his age, Daklon has slowed down quite a bit.  But the members of Proyect Shel Ravivo accompanied him to the stage.  They took turns helping him around the stage, staying near him while he was singing and generally showing a mixture of admiration, respect and comradery.  The only word that would really fit would be the Hebrew word "kavod" - which means respect and honour.  Daklon sang about three or four medleys with Haproyect and then they helped back down off the stage.  The audience enjoyed it and it was very moving.

Haproyect itself is a 10 piece band, which performs a variety of Mizrahi influenced music.  Much of the music is revival music - Israeli hits from the 60s and 70s that have been reworked into modern adaptations.  Some of the music is based on traditional Yemenite or other Mizrahi melodies.  Most of it is infectiously upbeat and, as they describe it in Hebrew - מוזיקה שעושה שמח- music that "makes you happy...".

The group is a cross generational band with some of the musicians in their late 20s or early 30s (like the drummer) and others, probably close to Daklon's age.  The three front men, the lead singers, are probably in their 40s, if I had to guess.  The electric bass player looked much older.  Haproyect was formed in 2012 and has enjoyed some great success in Israel.

The concert began at about (9:45 p.m.) with an instrumental meddley.  The three lead singers then joined, dressed in black shirts, jackets and dress pants.  While the lighting was varied and, at times, intense, the musicians themselves were relatively understated.  They welcomed the audience and just jumped right into a series of medleys that appear on their CDs. 

As the stage at Hangar 11 rotated around the room, the three singers took turns singing to different parts of the fully packed house.  The audience was appreciative but not raucous.  There were many people who had come in large groups.  Some were extended families with grandparents and children all together.  There were groups of 8 or 10 guys in their early 20s - and all sorts of other combinations.  There was a large group of women in their 30s sitting right near us.  While most of the audience were probably in their 40s and 50s, it was quite a wide ranging audience.

After about 45 minutes, Haproyect brought Daklon to the stage.  Once Daklon's performance concluded, the lead singers of Haproyect took off their jackets, changed into white shirts, and upped the tempo further.  They invited everyone to get up and dance ("you have our permission," lead singer Raviv told the audience).

They played a mixture of some new medleys as well as some of their most popular hits.  One of the new medleys featured a whole series of popular Israeli hits from the 1970s (including Eurovision song "Abonabee Abonabay").  People were singing along, dancing and generally having a fun time.  The band members were smiling throughout, joking with each other and with the audience and prancing around the stage.  They certainly seemed to be enjoying themselves.

Just before midnight., they played their second and final encore - "Ten La Z'man Lalechet" - their biggest hit medley, which I highlighted in my blog post on Mizrahi music.  It was charged with energy, fast moving and lots of fun.  Quite a fitting way to conclude an evening of finger snapping, toe-tapping, hand-clapping music. 

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Memorable Events in Israel 2013

New Year's Day is not a national holiday in Israel.  Although there are certainly many Israelis who celebrate New Year's Eve (known in Israel as the "Sylvester" holiday - after Pope Sylvester - the origin of New Year's commemorations), it is a normal work day for most Israelis.

Nevertheless, with the calendar changeover from 2013 to 2014, I thought I would review some of the major Israeli events of 2013.  I wound up writing about most of these events in one way or another during the year, but not everyone has the chance to read all of my blog posts.  (Some intentionally disregard them...).  So I thought you might enjoy this collection of key events, in no particular order.

1.  Israeli National Elections:

This has to be considered the biggest event of 2013.  Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was re-elected, though he formed a very different coalition.  A new government was created without the ultra-Orthodox parties, and with a huge number of voters turning to the centrist party, Yesh Atid.  For a detailed discussion of the Israeli elections, you can have a look at my election summary post here or some of my other blogs about the Israeli elections which are listed in the contents by topic page.  The coalition is still a work in progress with some very different views being represented within the same government.  Nevertheless, the election was a sea change in some ways for Israeli politics.

2.  Visitors to Israel: 

President Obama visited Israel for the first time as President in March 2013.  It was a short visit and nothing particularly substantial was accomplished.  Nevertheless, any time the President of the United States visits Israel, it is a newsworthy event.  There was a great TV ad put together by McDonald's in honour of the occasion.  Other visitors to Israel in 2013 included performing artists Rihanna, Jose Feliciano, the Pet Shop Boys and Alicia Keys.  Pink Floyd member Roger Waters certainly did not visit.  Instead, he spent his time trying to vilify Israel and dissuade other artists from visiting or performing here.  Fortunately, many artists of goodwill and other celebrities ignored his wrong headed and quite possibly anti-Semitic attacks.

3.  Mishpacha:  Celebrations and Losses:

Israeli President Shimon Peres celebrated his 90th birthday in style.  Celebrants in attendance included former President Bill Clinton, Barbara Streisand, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and many others.

Israel lost one of its great musicians, Arik Einstein.  Two well known Rabbis passed away: former Sephardi Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef died as did Rabbi David Hartman, founder of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.  The American founder of the modern day Kabbalah movement (followed by Madonna and many other celebrities) Philip (Shraga) Berg passed away and was buried in Israel.  In December 2013, noted philanthropist Edgar Bronfman died.  He was a great friend of Israel and a noted advocate of Jewish causes worldwide.

4.  Charged, Released and Convicted:

There were many stories relating to criminal activity or accusations of criminal activity that made the news in 2013.  Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman was acquitted of all charges after facing a state led investigation and prosecution that spanned many years.  Israeli singer Eyal Golan was released without any charges after stories circulated about a sex scandal involving minors.  Former Israeli Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger was arrested on a slew of charges relating to fraud and bribery.  That process could take years until the outcome is determined.  Danny Dankner, the former CEO of one of Israel's largest banks, Bank HaPoalim was convicted on fraud and breach of trust allegations as part of a plea bargain.

5.  Another Large Scale Hi-Tech Sale:

Israeli security company Trusteer was sold to IBM for almost a billion dollars.  Trusteer manufactures software that is used for, among other things, securing bank account information.  This was yet another in a series of transactions where international business interests have been willing to pay top dollar for leading Israeli technology companies.

6.  Israeli Municipal Elections:

Israeli municipal elections were held on October 22, 2013.  While it is true that it was mostly a story of incumbents returning to office, there were some other stories of interest.  The election results in Bet Shemesh have been mired in scandal, with an Israeli Court recently ordering a new election due to evidence of widespread voter fraud.  In Ra'anana, a former Mayor returned to power with a landslide victory over the incumbent.  For a more detailed look at Israel's municipal elections, you can have a look at my article of October 24, 2013.

7.  The Kotel and Egalitarianism:

A Jerusalem District Court released a landmark decision in April 2013 (State of Israel v. Lesley Sachs).  According to this decision, there is no prohibition on women being able to pray in the women's section of the Kotel, wearing Tallitoth and Tefillin if they wish to do so.  This marked a huge change over the way in which Israeli laws were being enforced up until that point.  Within months, Israeli Cabinet Minister Naftali Bennett expanded and opened up the Davidson Center (the Southern Wall) in an effort to diffuse the effect of this ruling.  Women are still prohibited from bringing a Torah Scroll to the women's side of the Kotel.  However, this Court decision was a huge victory for Israeli organization Women of the Wall.  For a discussion of the issue as it was in 2012, see this blog.  For a discussion of the changes in 2013, see this entry

8.  The Weather:

Israel faced a huge rain storm in January 2013 that flooded many areas.  In December 2013, Israel encountered one of its largest snow storms in many years.  More than 30 centimetres of snow fell on Jerusalem by some estimates.  The city was paralyzed for days, with the loss of electricity and roads that became completely blocked.   Just my luck that after being in Israel for this storm, I happened to be in Toronto during a snowstorm that caused 300,000 families to lose power, in some cases for more than four days during the bitterly cold winter.  So everything must be considered in proportion.  But this was a huge storm by Israeli standards. 

9.  Ice Hockey:  

How could a Canadian summarize Israeli events of 2013 without mentioning Ice Hockey?  The Israeli national ice hockey team won a gold medal in its division - Division II, Group B at the World Ice Hockey Championships in April 2013 in Izmit, Turkey.  The team will now move up to Division II, Group A for the 2014 tournament.  Israel will play teams ranked 29-34 in the world, with a chance to move up to Division I if the Israeli team can finish first in this difficult group.  The tournament will take place in Belgrade, Serbia from April 9 to 15, 2014.  Israel will face Australia, Belgium, Estonia, Iceland and Serbia, with Estonia and Serbia listed as the favourites to win the division.  It is also worth mentioning that Twin Peaks Ice Rink in Holon, Israel became fully operational in 2013, providing Israelis who live in central Israel with a much more convenient place to get some ice time.  Until recently, the only place to play was Metullah, which is more than 180 kilometres north of Ra'anana.

10.  Wine News:

In November 2013, Israeli archaeologists found a 3,700 year old wine cellar near Nahariyah, Israel, containing 40 ceramic jars, each large enough to hold 60 litres of wine.  It is believed that this cellar was part of a Canaanite palace.  Many historians have noted Israel's ancient history of high quality wine production, which was dormant for many years during periods of Muslim rule.  While Israeli wine making was reintroduced in the late 1800s, as early immigrants arrived as part of the first two waves of immigration, the industry only truly took off in the early 1980s.  Israel is now blessed with more than 280 wineries, including Kosher and non-Kosher, large and small, producers.   

 The 2nd Annual Kosher Wine Festival was held in Jerusalem in January 2013 (I managed to attend the 2012 event with a visiting friend) and the Golan Heights Winery celebrated its 30th Anniversary in June 2013 with a big festival at the Tel-Aviv Port. 


This summary is by no means comprehensive, though, hopefully, it is reasonably accurate.  As usual, I welcome any comments, suggestions or additions.  I apologize in advance if I have overlooked some key events.  This is, after all, just a hobby for now.  Wishing everyone a happy, healthy and peaceful 2014.