A change of focus

To my dear readers,

It was announced today that I will be joining The Wall Street Journal as Technology Editor for Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

For years, you have followed my writing here about Israel, its internal and external politics, and issues relating to its security and identity. I’ve found my voice covering these issues, and found a loyal and engaging readership in you.

Now I am changing course, and will start focusing on the technology sector in Israel, the wider Middle East, Europe, and Africa. I hope to bring the same seriousness and style to my new beat that you have come to expect from me.

To focus on my new challenge, I will let this blog rest for the foreseeable future, and do my blogging, with a focus on technology and how it affects our world, on the website of The Wall Street Journal’s tech section.

Thank you for supporting my blog throughout the years, and I hope you will follow me into my new venture.

Amir Mizroch

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The return of Avigdor Lieberman

The acquittal of Avigdor Lieberman and his expected return to the cabinet table will usher in a new phase of this government’s story. In the immediate future, Lieberman is unlikely to make any bold separatist moves, as his number one priority now will be to rehabilitate his national image, from that of a serial-suspect under perpetual suspicion, to that of political kingmaker and senior statesman. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will also seek to portray Lieberman’s return to the government as the return of a strong and supportive pillar, further cementing Netanyahu’s credentials as the head of a solid, united coalition facing a tough international battle against Iran’s campaign of deception and Palestinian intransigence — and the world’s misunderstanding of both.

There might even be warm talk of the strength of the Likud Beytenu alliance, and how Lieberman’s return to the cabinet table gives it added gravitas and stability. But make no mistake, there is growing bad blood between the Likud and Yisrael Beytenu, and several top politicians in both parties who will be working toward a split in the alliance.

Sooner or later, Lieberman’s political ambition will start to itch at him, and he’ll want to show the world that his political acumen — which took a severe beating with the defeat of his candidate Moshe Lion for the Jerusalem mayoral race — is still as sharp and powerful as ever. We already got a taste of this on Monday, when Lieberman, in a joint Likud Beytenu faction meeting, offered Netanyahu some advice on how to keep his coalition, which has seemed fractious as of late, under control. “Over the past two days, I’ve witnessed several internal arguments within the coalition,” Lieberman said, turning to Netanyahu. “I recommend that you and coalition chairman Yariv Levin, as well as Deputy Minister for Coordination Between the Government and the Knesset Ofir Akunis, set up a weekly forum of heads of coalition parties to overcome the unnecessary arguments that arise.”

Netanyahu’s own sharp political ears must have picked up the nuanced music in Lieberman’s ‘advice.’

The last two major issues the two parties fought over were the release of 26 Palestinian terrorists from prison as part of the negotiations process [Yisrael Beytenu ministers voted against the release], and the fact that Likud-Beytenu couldn’t support one candidate for the Jerusalem mayoral race.

The fate of the Likud and Yisrael Beytenu political alliance will be decided in the coming weeks. A tense period of waiting will clear up, and the two parties will have to decide on their paths going forward.

There are a lot of voices in both parties that believe the alliance has served its purpose: It returned a right wing government to power, with Netanyahu at its helm. The January election result wasn’t as good as they had hoped, but the main goal was achieved.

The two entities have acted as two separate parties but as one faction in the Knesset. For most of the last eight months they have acted as one, voting together on a range of bills, with only minor infractions on separate occasions when they acted differently. This, as stated above, ended on the issue of the release of terrorists. On most legislative issues there wasn’t much difference between them and whether they stay together or split in the near term won’t have much bearing on the way this government continues to function.

However, two things could shake up this picture: An Israeli-Palestinian peace deal should one be reached, and if general elections are moved forward for any reason before their scheduled 2017 date.

From Yisrael Beytenu’s standpoint, there is more to gain from eventually splitting off from the Likud. The longer Yisrael Beytenu stays with the Likud the longer they are thought of as a satellite party to the Likud, and thus in danger of losing its identity ahead of the next elections. Yisrael Beytenu has, from its inception, traditionally put reforming the system of government, civil and religious issues and universal draft as its core issues – way before Yesh Atid was even dreamt up in Yair Lapid’s head. The longer Yisrael Beytenu stays with Likud, the less reason there will be for voters to think of it as a separate entity, and the members of Yisrael Beytenu are not interested in that. For the Likud, Yisrael Beytenu’s platform of radical changes to the religious status-quo are far removed from traditional Likud values, which espouse slow, mediated reform. On a more granular level, many in Likud blame the alliance with Yisrael Beytenu for a significant loss of traditional voters, who preferred Habayit Hayehudi’s less anti-religious, more traditional makeup.

The longstanding issues that brought Yisrael Beytenu electoral success in previous elections, namely universal service for all, civil unions, electoral reform, and reforming [or abolishing] the chief rabbinate, have now been taken up as the main platform of Yesh Atid who have made it their own, and that could potentially hurt Yisrael Beytenu. Furthermore, an analysis of the January elections shows that Likud-Beytenu also hemorrhaged votes to Yesh Atid, not only to Habayit Hayehudi. With Likud Beytenu staking the nationalist ground on the right, the dismal election results for the joint list [31] saw a severe backlash within both parties to the merger, with top politicians in both parties believing their parties would have done better alone.

Now, with Lieberman’s acquittal, Yisrael Beytenu will seek to reassert itself. It will most likely start with trying to reclaim its core issues back from Yesh Atid, especially in the service for all arena as well as in chipping away at the ultra-Orthodox monopoly on religious bureaucracy. Both of these areas has seen the Likud move slowly, mostly so as not to alienate the ultra-Orthodox parties too much or create chaos and rupture within the population in general. As soon as Yisrael Beytenu starts to reassert itself in these areas again, sparks should start flying with the Likud.

By next May, when the nine-month deadline for the John Kerry-led peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians approaches, there will be another test for the Likud-Beytenu alliance. As a united faction but separate party, Yisrael Beytenu can still vote against any deal that Netanyahu brings to the cabinet table, but that would be extremely awkward, and possibly even untenable.

Lieberman himself is not against a two state solution in principle but believes it can’t be achieve in this generation, with these Palestinian leaders, and within the current climate of upheaval in the Middle East. For the past few years, Lieberman has been leading a campaign against PA President Mahmoud Abbas, a campaign which leaves few doubts as to the former Moldovan nightclub bouncer’s feelings for the man. Lieberman is very skeptical of the peace negotiations as well as the possibility that they will reach a positive conclusion at this time, a view shared by Habayit Hayehudi leader Naftali Bennett. Bennett and Lieberman have grown closer over the past few months. While it has always been assured that Bennett’s party will not support a deal that sees the creation of a Palestinian state, it was also always assumed that Lieberman’s party would support one, on condition that it provides watertight security, and an end to all further claims. But Lieberman’s acquittal and renewed strength, plus his party’s need to begin asserting itself, places that assumption back on the table.

Netanyahu and Lieberman have a close yet complex relationship. The way these two handle each other’s interests in the coming weeks and months could set the course for the political future of this government.

Israeli politics and coalition building for the Knesset

Avigdor Lieberman’s African Pogrom

Today MK Avigdor Lieberman said that the government of South Africa was creating a climate of anti-Israel sentiment and anti-Semitic hatred. He said that because of this, a pogrom against the Jews of South Africa was just a matter of time; and he thus called on all the Jews living there, some 70,000 of them, to immigrate to Israel immediately, before it’s too late.

While I don’t disagree that Pretoria is virulently anti-Israeli, and has done everything in its power to tar and feather the Jewish state, I can say that I don’t see any truth at all to Lieberman’s remark that a “pogrom is just a matter of time.”

And this is not a trivial remark from a former foreign minister, and a senior Israeli official.

But just  to be on the safe side, I called Avrom Krengel in Johannesburg. Avrom is the chairman of the Zionist Federation of South Africa. I asked him to look out the window and tell me if he saw any signs of an impending pogrom. Avrom said he couldn’t see any.

As head of the Knesset’s powerful and influential Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Lieberman may have been privy to intelligence pointing to an imminent pogrom of South Africa’s Jews. If he has such evidence, then the government of Israel must immediately share it with law enforcement officials in South Africa and demand that the plot to murder, rape, and pillage South Africa’s Jews be halted immediately.

If however, as I suspect is really the case, Lieberman has not seen such alarming intelligence, but was rather shooting from the hip, or as we say in South Africa, he’s speaking kak, then he should retract his statement, and apologize to the government of South Africa, as well as its Jews, for his unfounded and dangerous comment.

I suspect that Lieberman is under tremendous pressure. Last week he suffered a huge political defeat, when he backed the wrong horse in the Jerusalem mayoral race. Hell, he didn’t back the wrong horse, he practically invented the horse. Now, there are increasing voices from both within his own party and the Likud to dissolve their political alliance, and nobody is sure how many votes Yisrael Beytenu would be able to garner now, as both the Likud and Habayit Hayehudi are making serious claims to be the true representatives of the nationalist right.

But worse of all, from Lieberman’s, is that the verdict in his corruption trial is due on Wednesday. Whatever the judges rule, guilty or innocent, will see an appeal. If he’s acquitted, the prosecution will appeal. If he’s deemed guilty, he’ll appeal.

Either way, Lieberman is hurting, and it shows. His outburst today is not reflective of a man who is extremely calculated. If he is acquitted he will try reclaim the foreign affairs portfolio, which has been [shamefully] held in escrow for him.

Do we really want a man who can, without any compunction or evidence, make up a comment like “a pogrom is just a matter of time” back at the head of the foreign ministry?

 

The ‘No Solution Gang’

There are some serious people in this government, people whom I consider to be relatively intelligent. People like Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, Deputy Foreign Minister Ze’ev Elkin, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, and Housing Minister Uri Ariel, who, no matter what one thinks of their politics, one cannot get away from the fact that they are, in fact, intelligent, rational people.

And this is what worries me: that these clever people have recently articulated what has for a very long time been only whispered in the circles of the religious, irrational right in Israel:

There is no solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and we should stop looking for one. Not everything in this world can be solved, and what is necessary from the Jews is patience. We’ve done pretty well so far;  think of where we were a hundred years ago and where we are now. We need patience. 

Patience for what exactly? I’m not sure, and neither are they. Perhaps for the world [and the Arabs] to come to terms with the return of the Jews to their ancient homeland. How long will that take? A few more generations? Who knows?

Patience, perhaps, for the Middle East to become undone [undo the Sykes-Picot borders formulation] and then, maybe, a new geographical dispensation will present itself. How long will that take? Probably not that long, it is already happening in Iraq, Syria, and between Gaza and Ramallah. Patience.

Patience, perhaps, for the natural growth of Jews in Judea and Samaria to become irreversible; a fact on all of the ground.

There are no good solutions, only painful ones; everyone knows that, right?

People like Ya’alon, and others in the government have recently started to rail against what they call Solutionism – trying to find a solution to problems that have no solution.

Moshe Ya’alon referred to this kind of thinking as “the disease of solutionism,” a sort of delusion that if we repeated the word “solution” without ceasing, we would come to believe it.

I’ll give you an example:

When you tell them that the creation of a Palestinian state is a “two state solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they point out that this is not a solution because the Palestinians will never truly accept the presence and sovereignty of a Jewish state here. Also, we left Gaza and got terror, so we can’t leave the West Bank because a terror state will arise there.

So then you say to them: OK then, that just leaves the “one-state, binational solution.” And they say that’s no real solution either because the Jews might be a demographic minority there and anyway, the world won’t let that kind of state stand for very long. So that’s not a solution either.

So, what’s the solution then, you ask them?

And that’s when it comes: There is no solution. Why do you keep on saying that we need a solution? And what’s the problem with not having a solution? Why does everything have to have a solution?

No solution applies? Not one state, two states, three states, no states?

No, those are all solutions. Only non-solutions apply.

And I just stare at them and don’t know what to say. I go back to my Kafka books.

Poll shows that Israelis love to complain, a lot

A recent survey by the Geocartography Institute has found that given a choice, 48 percent of Israelis would prefer to live somewhere else. According to the report, released Monday, the sentiment was especially strong among participants ages 18-34. Some 52% of those polled said that given a choice they would remain in Israel.

The poll’s findings come on the backdrop of a public debate over Finance Minister Yair Lapid’s berating of young Israelis seeking a better life in Berlin, and findings by the Taub Center of an increasing brain drain from Israel.

Those who said they would like to live somewhere else ranked the U.S. as their top alternative, followed by Canada, Switzerland and Australia. Nine percent of those asked where they would the like to live said, “Anywhere but Israel.”

The poll, conducted by Professor Avi Dgani, was first held in 2007 and yielded very similar results: At the time 53% of those polled said that given a choice they would like to live in Israel and 47% opted for other countries.

The survey, which included 500 participants ages 18 and over, was based on Geocartography’s Mosaic Israel international population classification model, which reviews demographic, socioeconomic and lifestyle factors.

Twenty-seven percent of the survey’s participants noted that the faltering sense of security, peace and quiet were the main reasons why they wanted to live in another country; 19% expressed their yearning for a different cultural mentality and 18% expressed a desire to have a better quality of life. The poll found that the religious-Zionist community expressed the highest level of loyalty to and affiliation with the state (85%), followed by the ultra-Orthodox sector with 81%. Only 42% of secular Israelis exhibited the same.

Among the new immigrants polled, only 36% expressed affiliation with the state, compared to 57% of second-generation Israelis.

The survey further found that only 45% of participants ages 18-34 would like to remain in Israel, compared to 58% among participants 55 years old and older.

All good and well. But a recent  survey by the Central Bureau of Statistics shows that the number of Israelis who actually left the country in 2011 had not returned by the end of 2012 stands at 16,000 – one the lowest figures over the past three decades and among the lowest rates in the developed world.

According to Haaretz: In recent years, Israel’s rate of emigration has been two people per 1,000 residents, which is considered a particularly low rate compared to the world’s other developed economies, members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the OECD. As recently as 2006, the emigration rate from Israel was 3.2 per 1,000.

So why do we stay?

I’d love to hear your thoughts, so please leave me comments on this post, or talk to me on Facebook.

 

First we take Manhattan, then we take Lapid

Minister of Finance Yair Lapid has attacked emigrants who left Israel for Berlin because of Israel’s high cost of living. Lapid was responding to a Channel 10 report about young Israelis who left Israel for Berlin or the US to obtain cheaper housing and food and to lower their cost of living. This is what he had to say:

A word for all of those who are ‘fed up’ and are ‘leaving for Europe’,” wrote Lapid on his Facebook page. “As it happens, I am in Budapest. I came here to speak before parliament about anti-Semitism and to remind them how they tried to murder my father here just because Jews did not have a country of their own, how they killed my grandfather in a concentration camp, how they starved my uncles, how my grandmother was saved at the last moment from a death march. So forgive me if I am a bit intolerant of people who are prepared to throw into the garbage the only country that the Jews have because Berlin is more comfortable.”

I was just in Berlin for a conference. I asked people who live there how much their apartments cost. You know that in Israel it takes about 125 monthly salaries to buy an average 3 room apartment [that's without paying for anything else]? It’s about a third of that in Berlin. But many don’t buy there because rental prices are very reasonable. But you see Mr. Lapid, we in Israel are in a bit of trap. Rental apartments are in short supply here, so many young couples must either buy their own unit or live with their parents. Prices have risen dramatically over the past 20 years and many young couples simply cannot afford to buy. But as housing prices are rising by at least 15% every year [while salaries stay the same or even go down], these young people figure that if they don’t buy now, later might be too late. So many of them take out obscene mortgages [which the banks are only too happy to provide] and pay their entire earnings to service the mortgage [so they don't save anything, and can't put aside anything for their children either]. Also 134 months to build a four-room apartment is a world record, Mr. Lapid.

In the United States, it takes 2.9 years of salary to buy the average apartment. In Israel, it takes 7.7. According to the USDA Economic Research Service, Israeli consumers spent 15.9 percent of their expenditures on food in 2012, more than many other OECD countries.

You talked about your parents? Well let me tell you about my parents, and the parents of many other young people I know here in Israel. Our parents come out of retirement so that they can help us; they take out mortgages on houses they already own; they buy groceries for us, they babysit our children because we have to work 2 jobs, and because daycare, like everything else in this country, is exorbitantly expensive.

Our parents pay for the grandchildren’s nursery schools, clothes, and after-school activities. Without the help of our parents, we won’t be able to make it. A new study by the Taub Center for Social Policy finds that 87 percent of all Israeli parents help their adult children with finances.

Oh, and my parents all lost family in the Holocaust too Mr. Lapid. The Holocaust Mr. Lapid, doesn’t belong just to you and your family. And the country’s economy Mr. Lapid, doesn’t belong just to you and your family. So instead of berating us for trying to survive, for trying to make a better life for ourselves and our children, and even leaving for a few years so that we can breathe a little, maybe you should just do your job and lower prices, increase competition, break monopolies, get tycoons to return their loans [which they took from our pension funds], clean up financial corruption, and increase workforce participation.

When you’ve done all that, Mr. Lapid, then we’ll start taking you seriously. Oh and by the way, sources who were at your anti-Semitism speech in Budapest tell me that you really insulted the locals there by your Facebook page tirade against Israelis leaving for Europe. Good job.

Lapid

Happy Birthday Bashar Assad, you dog

Happy Birthday Bashar Assad. You’re 48 years old today; you’re a Virgo.

According to Astrology, you belong to a group of people known for their perfectionism and highly analytic minds. There’s a bit of a joke about how precise and demanding Virgos are but when you think about it, what’s wrong with being tidy, organised and clean? Especially when it comes to murder. Continue reading

The Unbelievably Small Mr. John Kerry

Secretary of State John Kerry said an “unbelievably small, limited” military strike will be enough to halt Syria’s use of chemical weapons and hasten a political settlement to the 2 1/2-year civil war.

What may I ask does that mean? Blocking Assad’s Instagram account? And if it is going to be so unbelievably small, then why the hell does Kerry and his boss President Barack Obama need to go ask Congress for approval? And what if Congress votes against an “unbelievably small” military operation against Syria? Does that mean that Obama will re-word his proposal and submit an even more unbelievably smaller attack? Is that kind of attack even possible? How unbelievably small can a Superpower military attack be?

Is this the way to treat a dictator who is now making open use of weapons of mass destruction? Is this the message you want to send the religious fanatics in Iran who are going for an unbelievably big nuclear weapon?

Mr. Kerry, you are the Secretary of State of an “unbelievably big” country; a superpower really. The way you and President Obama have handled this thing has been “unbelievably embarrassing.” It’s so embarrassing actually that I’m wondering if it’s all some unbelievably elaborate trick. I mean, if you are doing this on purpose, I must say, you are “unbelievably smart.”

Kerry

 

 

Shana Tova Prime Minister Netanyahu

Dear Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. I wanted to wish you a Shana tova. I think you’re going to have a busy year.

For better or worse, you’re it, there’s nobody else. Whatever happens next is going to be placed on your doorstep.

This coming year you’re going to have to make some tough decisions: you’re going to have to decide about the Palestinians, what do you want from the peace talks? What will you do to forge a deal, and what will you do if the other side doesn’t want to make a deal? Will you annex some of the land? Will you divide some of the land? And to do that, will you split with the Likud? Will you change your coalition government?

You’re going to have to decide on Syria: how much longer can you keep us out of the hell hole there? How will you keep the hell hole from devouring us? You will have to decide about Egypt: what is our long term interests in supporting a military dictatorship that, on the one hand keeps the peace treaty with us, while on the other hand is creating a new generation of Islamist extremists who hate the Egyptian military, and the peace that it keeps with Israel? And you’ll have to decide how much leeway you’ll give the Egyptian army in the Sinai if Israel is targeted. Will you risk the peace to keep the peace?

You’ll have to decide about Iran: to bomb them or to let them get the bomb? And if you decide to bomb, will you do it together with our American ally, or will you scuttle this, our most important strategic asset? After all, you do believe, and you always say, that we can only rely on ourselves. Will you stick to that no matter what, or will you keep our friends close?

And Apart from all these weighty issues Mr. Prime Minister, you will also have to decide on the Jewish character of the State of Israel: will it be Jewish or Democratic, Jewish and Democratic, or a bit Jewish and a bit democratic? And while we’re on the subject of Judaism, you will need to decide if our religion is to be inclusive and tolerant, or will continues down the path of extremism and seclusion? And you will have to decide about housing prices: they are too high for most young people to be able to afford homes.

I wish you a Shana Tova Mr. Prime Minister. I really hope it’s a good year for you, and for all of us.

benjamin-netanyahu

Looking for gas masks in all the wrong places

My wife and I have our own gas masks, but she insisted I get a gas mask kit for our little baby boy.I have it on pretty good authority that Bashar Assad knows that if he gasses us he won’t even live to regret it, but  I also know not to argue with my wife on these things, so I went onto the website of the IDF’s Homefront Command to see where I could get the goods. Continue reading