Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Wrap: Bishara/ Africa/Hizbullah trade/Olmert

Bishara's legacy (July 2)

What if, on the night of May 10-11, 1941, even as the Luftwaffe was blitzing London's Westminster Palace, a British MP was off in Berlin advising German leaders about how best to confront Winston Churchill?

Now fast-forward to another war, another time and another place: the summer of 2006. Hizbullah gunners are bombarding northern Israel from Lebanon; soldiers have been killed, soldiers have been kidnapped. Tens of thousands of Israelis are sweltering in shelters. The country is at war.

Knesset Member Azmi Bishara, however, is off in Beirut, where, authorities suspect, he is helping Hizbullah evaluate Jerusalem's political and military strategy. We say "suspect" because Bishara fled Israel before he could be brought to trial.

It is thus altogether fitting that the law passed on Sunday by the Knesset - that henceforth bars anyone visiting an enemy state for illegal purposes from running for the Knesset - has been dubbed the "Bishara Law."

In a 52-24 vote the legislature declared that anyone who unlawfully visits Syria, Lebanon, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia or Yemen must wait seven years before seeking a seat in parliament.
This legislation modifies the Basic Law: The Knesset, which stipulates that "a list of candidates or a candidate can be elected as long as their goals or their actions, literally or interpretively, do not negate the existence of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, [express] incitement to racism, or support [the] armed struggle of an enemy state or a terror organization against the State of Israel."

Anyone who now travels to an enemy state with criminal intent, the amendment just passed adds, "will be seen as a supporter of [the] armed struggle [against Israel], unless they prove otherwise," and thus be blocked from running for seven years thereafter.

IT IS regrettable, though entirely unsurprising, that Arab Knesset members have unleashed a torrent of invective against the Bishara Law. It is also sad because their stance hammers home just how wide, and deep, is the chasm between the political culture of Israel's majority Jewish population and that of its large Arab minority.

It is lamentable, too, because Arab MKs do a disservice to their constituencies by their unremitting, capricious exacerbation of the country's rifts. No one expects Palestinian Israelis - as many Arab citizens now want to be identified - or the representatives they send to the Knesset to champion the Zionist cause. Yet through their all-encompassing devotion to anti-Israel radicalism, rather than to the pragmatic building of legislative coalitions with Zionist parties - which could improve the quality of life in the Arab sector - these MKs are delinquent in their responsibilities to their voters and the state.

MK AHMAD TIBI has angrily predicted that the Supreme Court will overturn the Bishara Law as unconstitutional, supposedly because a simple Knesset majority cannot modify a Basic Law. We shall see.

MK Muhammad Barakei is more outlandish, complaining that the law imposes "a rule of terror in thought and political opinion." Nonsense. Arab citizens will still be able to visit relatives abroad, attend weddings and funerals and articulate any views they want, barring outright collaboration with the enemy.

MK Sa'id Nafa, a Druse who has visited Syria, has already filed a petition with the court to have the Bishara Law overturned on the grounds that it violates the Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty.

Yet no one will be barred from running for the Knesset if, say, they attend a conference on global warming held in Yemen. Arab politicians will still be able to travel to meetings in enemy states - not to support "resistance" against Israel, but in the cause of peace or religious tolerance.
We trust the justices will affirm that the law pertains exclusively to individuals who go abroad to meet with the likes of Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar - as Bishara did - and Hassan Nasrallah for the purpose of giving aid and comfort to the enemy; and that it will in no way restrict innocuous freedom of movement.

The assurance that from now on - the law does not apply retroactively - candidates will be ineligible for a Knesset seat if they conduct themselves precisely as Azmi Bishara did strikes us as eminently sensible... and regrettably necessary.

An African tyrant (June 30, 2008)

One cartoon can say it all. Sometimes only a cartoonist - in this case the Swiss-based illustrator Chappatte - can adequately encapsulate a phenomenon that is at once tragedy and farce.
Chappatte's latest creation has Robert Mugabe on stage speaking into a microphone: "I beat the opposition" while, off to the side, his supporters do just that, literally.

On Sunday, the 84-year-old Mugabe had himself sworn in for a sixth term as president after winning what The New York Times described as "a one-horse race." His opponent, Movement for Democratic Change leader Morgan Tsvangirai, dropped out of a run-off campaign and was given asylum in the Dutch Embassy in Harare. In the March general election, widely suspected of having been rigged in the president's favor, Tsvangirai won 48 percent to Mugabe's 43%.
Mugabe's henchmen have been murdering, torturing, raping and imprisoning Tsvangirai's supporters. One six-year-old boy was burned to death because his father was a Tsvangirai ally. The wife of a MDC mayor was kidnapped and killed.

To say this election was waged in an atmosphere of "intimidation" hardly does justice to the term. Mugabe's mantra that "only God" can remove him from office seems true enough given that he controls all the temporal sources of influence in Zimbabwe - the civil service, media and security apparatus.

MUGABE STARTED out as a socialist fighter with the ZANU-PF against Rhodesia's white minority government and was imprisoned in the 1960s. Independence and majority rule came in 1980, when Mugabe became prime minister. Two years later, he turned against his political rival, Joshua Nkomo, accusing him of treason. Mugabe's North Korean-trained praetorian guard killed thousands of civilians in Nkomo's tribal area of Matabeleland, and the country became a one-party state: absolute power vested in the person of one brutal man.

Mugabe continues to sees the world through the prism of "anti-colonialism" and socialism. This world view - compounded by the fact that he surrounds himself with obsequious lackeys - has led Zimbabwe to ruin. Inflation is 100,000 percent; only 20% of the population is employed; previously productive land has been confiscated and turned over to his supporters. The best those who oppose him can hope for is - in true totalitarian fashion - to be "reeducated."

THE UNITED STATES has called for an arms embargo against Zimbabwe and is planning a series of unilateral sanctions beyond those already in place against Mugabe's closest enablers. Britain will support additional sanctions, while the EU has called for a power-sharing arrangement based on the March elections won by Tsvangirai. The African icon, Nelson Mandela, celebrating his 90th birthday in London's Hyde Park before 40,000 well-wishers, denounced the "tragic failure of leadership" in Zimbabwe.

Mugabe has allies in the international community - South Africa (which announced it will recognize Mugabe but push for a negotiated settlement of the leadership crisis), China and Russia. They can be counted upon to keep the UN Security Council off Mugabe's back. Still, UN Deputy Secretary-General Asha-Rose Migiro, speaking after Mugabe's "victory," is urging a negotiated solution.

Africa watchers argue that only South Africa can nudge Mugabe from the stage - perhaps when Thabo Mbeki is replaced by Jacob Zuma in the presidency.

The 53-nation African Union, meeting today in Sharm e-Sheikh, says it is following developments in Zimbabwe "closely." Individual African leaders - Nigeria's and Zambia's for instance - have begun to speak out against Mugabe; as has the Pan-African Parliament.
Truth be told, the AU has a lot on its plate: Darfur, tensions between Chad and Sudan, and between Djibouti and Eritrea; the stability of Kenya; fragmentation in the Ivory Coast, and trouble in Somalia and the Congo.

The continent has a staggering 15 million people who are internally displaced. For instance, 500,000 Zimbabweans are displaced within their country because of government violence; two million others have fled to neighboring South Africa. So Africa may need to hear its friends elsewhere encouraging it on Zimbabwe.

Robert Mugabe is not history's - nor even Africa's - worst tyrant. He does, however, stand out as someone who took a country with extraordinary promise and has been steadily wrecking it before the eyes of the world. He needs to go.

The cabinet decides (June 30, 2008)

A nightmare that began on July 12, 2006, now draws to a close. That was when Hizbullah launched an unprovoked assault across the border from Lebanon, killing three IDF soldiers and capturing Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser.

In the course of the war that followed, 156 Israeli soldiers and civilians were killed. Our country was largely unprepared and, as the Winograd Committee determined, poorly led. Hizbullah's Hassan Nasrallah announced the war had been unleashed to obtain the release of Lebanese inmates in Israeli prisons, foremost among them Samir Kuntar, and hundreds of Palestinian prisoners.

The IDF did not follow through on its threat to turn Lebanon's clock back 20 years unless Regev and Goldwasser were returned. Yet hundreds of Hizbullah gunmen were killed and millions of dollars of damage was done to Hizbullah's infrastructure. No wonder that in May 2007, Nasrallah admitted that had he known the price Lebanon would have to pay for kidnapping Regev and Goldwasser, he would have thought twice.

SHORTLY BEFORE 4 p.m. on Sunday, the cabinet voted 22 to 3 to accept a deal far more modest than Nasrallah first demanded, which will see the two soldiers finally brought home.
The hearts and minds of Israelis were focused on the cabinet room, where the mood was solemn, and where everyone was given a chance to speak. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert wanted this to be a collective decision.

When it was his turn to talk, Public Security Minister Avi Dichter read a letter from Smadar Haran, who lost two children and a husband to Kuntar's brutality in 1979. Haran did not advocate Kuntar's release, far from it, but she wrote that she didn't want her suffering to sway the ministers from doing what was best for the country. Later, she remarked that until Dichter informally solicited her opinion, no Israeli official had ever bothered to make inquiries.

At the outset of the cabinet meeting, Olmert announced that as far as Israel knows, Regev and Goldwasser are no longer alive. Though the news does not come as a bolt out of the blue, family members were nevertheless shattered by the manner in which it was delivered - via the media.
The deal requires Israel to free Kuntar and four other Lebanese; return the bodies of dozens of terrorist infiltrators; provide information to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on four missing Iranian diplomats; and, following the implementation of the agreement, to release an unspecified, but presumably modest, number of Palestinian prisoners.

THIS NEWSPAPER opposed the release of Kuntar for the remains of Regev and Goldwasser because of the heinous nature of the crime he committed and because it will likely strengthen Nasrallah in his efforts to show Hizbullah's concerns transcend his own Shi'ite community (Kuntar is Druse and was a Palestine Liberation Front operative).

We also opposed a trade because Kuntar has become an important symbol throughout the Arab world; because of previous government commitments made to the family of IAF navigator Ron Arad (missing since his plane went down over Lebanon in 1986) not to release Kuntar without a quid pro quo; and because trading Kuntar for the remains of two dead soldiers will likely complicate the price we will have to pay for the return of Gilad Schalit from the Gaza Strip. This latter warning was echoed by the Mossad and Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency), which opposed the deal.

But the cabinet has spoken and its stance is supported by most Israelis, much of the media and IDF Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, who told the ministers that he feels himself responsible for all IDF soldiers - the fallen included. All of us must now respect the decision.
Israel's body politic has gone through a traumatic chapter. What we must now ensure is that we emerge from it stronger and better prepared for the battles ahead. And Hizbullah might want to remember that by taking on Israel - even when we were admittedly not at our best - it got far more than it bargained for.

Abdication, again (June 26, 2008)

If it is true, as the 17th-century French diplomat Joseph de Maistre argued, that "every country has the government it deserves," then Israelis can only blame themselves for allowing a dysfunctional cabinet and a discredited premier to rule them.

Since the interim findings of the Winograd Committee were released in April 2007, this newspaper has consistently maintained that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's bungling of the Second Lebanon War demands his removal from office. After the committee cited him for "serious failure in exercising judgment, responsibility and prudence" and placed "primary responsibility" for the lack of success in the war on his shoulders, we called for his exit.
Nothing that has happened since - his entanglement in yet another police investigation; his deep unpopularity; and, most notably, his continued inability to govern effectively - changes that assessment of Olmert's leadership.

DESPITE EVIDENCE that the government cannot make tough decisions in an effective, efficient and timely manner, Israel's politics-as-usual system has now prolonged Olmert's stewardship and the country's political near-paralysis.

On Wednesday, it looked as if the Knesset might finally vote to call for new elections and thus compel Olmert's departure. This followed on the heels of Defense Minister Ehud Barak's third warning that Kadima had better select a new leader with whom Labor could stay partnered - or else.

Barak issued similar threats in May 2007 and February 2008. In response, Olmert set in slow motion a process by which Kadima would make plans to hold a leadership race. But the widely-held perception that the government was not properly functioning forced Barak this week to insist on a specific leadership selection date, or Labor would support a Likud motion to dissolve the Knesset.

And so, in the early hours of Wednesday morning, Kadima ostensibly gave Labor what it wanted: a commitment to select a new party head by September 25.

NOW THAT the dust has settled, we know this much: Ehud Olmert, political Houdini that he is, has bought himself more time. Even if Kadima selects a different party leader three months hence, it would not automatically preclude Olmert's retaining the premiership. Moreover, lawyers for the prime minister are scheduled to cross-examine Morris Talansky on July 17 about those cash-stuffed envelopes. Now a poll of Kadima Party members suggests that if Talansky's initial testimony is punctured, Olmert could defeat Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni in the party leadership race.

Meanwhile, Olmert can be expected to accelerate diplomatic efforts in the hope that a breakthrough with the Palestinians or Syrians or Lebanese might salvage his career. All the while, the Shas Party will continue exploiting Kadima's and Labor's quest to keep the coalition alive by pressing its parochial demands for budget-busting child-support payments.

THE LATEST turn of events further heightens Israelis' already damaging level of cynicism and alienation regarding our political system. The handling of the Lebanon war was bad enough; also the sluggish manner in which key players in the political and military echelon took responsibility for their deeds. But Olmert's Machiavellian ability to retain power in the face of so overwhelming a case for his departure is perhaps the most damaging of all.

Foreign Minister Livni would like Israelis to know she appreciates how they feel. At a conference in Tel Aviv this week, she said: "There is no doubt that the public has lost its faith in politics. From here, the path to an unstable foundation of democracy and anarchy is very short… It is enough for one leg to be crooked in order to twist all of democracy."

BUT TALK is cheap. At the end of the day, Livni and Barak, together with more than two dozen other cabinet ministers, could not - even one of them - bring themselves to resign from this government: not on principle, nor to hasten its demise, nor even for the sake of dissociating themselves from a prime minister already castigated by a committee he selected to investigate the war and since further compromised by the demands on his time involved in his legal battles.

When the moment comes, at last, to elect a new Knesset, voters need to empower parties committed to changing the political system and making it more accountable - to give the resilient people of Israel the kind of government they deserve. The remarkable Zionist enterprise merits far better than the leadership we have today.

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