Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Israel Diary: Day 2

The day started with breakfast at our hotel with the British Ambassador to Israel, Tom Phillips. It's his second tour of duty here and he gave us an overview of the situation as he saw it. I asked him about Tony Blair's role here, which I hadn't realised was purely related to economic development in Gaza and the West Bank. For some reason I had thought he had a role in the peace process.

We then spent the morning at the rather impressive University of Tel Aviv. The campus is incredibly well kept, possibly due to the fact that the students haven't returned yet.

Our first meeting of the day was with Professor Asher Susser, the former Director of the Dayan Centre for Middle Eastern Research. He taught me more about the Middle East in half an hour than I thought possible. He believes that for the first time since 1967 Israel now suffers from an existential threat. He said Egypt has declined in importance and influence, especially with regard to Gaza and the Sudan. He believes there are now only three important players in the Middle East peace process, none of which is an Arab state. Arabs are not calling the shots any longer, he maintained. The three states are Israel itself, Turkey and Iran. I questioned him about this and asked why he failed to mention Syria or Jordan. He said Syria was now just the front man for Iran and played second fiddle. Iran had replaced the Soviet Union as the main influence on the Syrian regime.

Professor Susser maintains that the future of Lebanon is up for grabs between the Sunnis and the Shias, but because the centre of gravity in middle east politics has shifted from Cairo to the Persian Gulf and Iran is now establishing a Mediterranean presence through Lebanon. There is a retreat of secular politics and that Islamists are shaping discourse and politics in the area.

He does, however, believe that Iranian expansion may well be contained in 2009 because of the dramatic fall in the price of oil. Every $ fall in the oil price means $1 billion fewer dollars in revenue for Iran. This may well provide the opportunity to open a proper dialogue with Iran. He says you cannot boycott Iran out of existence. Pressure must be ratcheted up on the Iranian regime as a precursor to negotiation. He says Israel should prepare for a US-Iranian dialogue because it is surely coming. The US should concede Iranian pre-eminence in the gulf in return for full western recognition - but that's where a line should be drawn. The US must make clear that the Iranians cannot be allowed to interfere in the Mediterranean.

He likened the Iranian nuclear situation to that of Japan, which has the capability to make a bomb, but hasn't actually done so. He said it was up to the four great powers, plus maybe Russia, to supervise and verify any Iranian nuclear programme.

Later in the morning we had an economic briefing from Professor Dan Ben-David from the university's Department of Public Policy. He is a leading Kadima supporter and had been set on a political career, but next week he is starting a new job as head of the Israeli equivalent of the Brookings Institution. He started off by giving us a set of very impressive figures about the Israeli economy. Foreign investment has gone up from $600 million in 1993 to $13,500 in 2006. He was keen to stress that Israelis are some of the most innovative people in the world, with patent applications on a level with those of America. But then the good news stopped. Living standards were not as high as other nations with equivalent economies, poverty was higher and so was inequality. All have been getting worse since the 1970s. Labour productivity is a quarter lower than in the USA, with only 71% of males in employment (UK figure is 81%). Professor Be-David clearly believes Israel has the potential to become a thriving market economy, but is not quite there yet.

Our third session of the morning was spent at the Aerodynamic Lab, where we received a talk about, well, aerodynamics. Quite honestly it might as well have been in Hebrew, as I didn't understand a word of it. I got ungraded Physics O Level, so I wasn't entirely surprised.

The last engagement of the morning was an hour long tour of the Israeli Diaspora Museum. The museum explains how Jews have come to move to various countries throughout the world.

We spent the afternoon at the Institute for Counter Terrorism. I'm going to come over all Jack Bauer now and say that I would love to tell you what we talked about, but then I would have to kill you. There were some fairly bleak messages about the rise of radical islamic terrorism and what the West, and mainstream muslims, will need to do to counter it.

Tonight we're off for dinner at a private house, and tomorrow we're spending the day in Jerusalem. Later.

UPDATE: Due to being extremely tired I wasn't particularly looking forward to going out tonight, but it really was an evening to remember. They say you can't really get to know a country until you get to know its people. Well tonight we were invited to dinner at a private house in Tel Aviv by a lovely lady called Evelyn. There were about 15 of us altogether, including a journalist from the Haaretz newspaper and a senior official from the Foreign Ministry. We talked about all sorts of things, but I was keen to learn what they all thought of Benjamin Netanyahu. He seems to me like a politician who talks tough in opposition but is then rather more liberal in power.


DocRichard said...

Regarding Iranian nuclear plans, if we gave every Iranian one square meter of photovoltaic cells, it would generate as much power as their planned nuclear reactors.

But I suppose that is a stupid idea, because they might break the panels up, and use the sharp edges to attack us...

Jeremy Jacobs said...

The Iran, Turkey, Israel situation was mentioned in a talk I went to last year. Turkey's influence could well be the key to some sort of resolution in the short term.

Anonymous said...

"He believes there are now only three important players in the Middle East peace process, none of which is an Arab state."

Well he would say that, wouldn't he?

I'm sure he is very learned but this is not going to tell us anything in a 'fair and balanced' way. Of course, you will be talking to the other side 'later', but presenting this stuff without an immediate right of reply gives us not a jot of opportunity to see whether this is a widely held view or just propaganda.

I appreciate you are reporting his views as that, his views, and not facts, or your own views, but this is not teaching anyone very much.

Anonymous said...

No one is interested in this. Gettit.

Anonymous said...

I've not completely got my head around EU (or, hopefully, how it shall morph after this shakedown) acceptance of Turkey. I love Erdogan (is he still there??), assume so as spider sense has eyes. HE'S BEEN GETTING HIT WITH FEUDAL CRAP - him? He's an absolute star, which I think Turkey is too. We trust Saudi middle class warriors but get snobby with Turkey. It ain't us Brits but franco, german opposition? PQLeeR.

Israel is the same as any county in Britain - the locals know the tribes at village fares but come the next county to play cricket, we'll wait.

I think the knessett may be the only parliament dirtier than Westminster. Where are the moderates with better ideas? Still, impressive parliament - best of luck.

Anonymous said...

Forget boring Tel Aviv. Go to Jerusalem, stand on the Mount of Olives and look across that stunning, ancient city.

Pray at the wailing wall near the flames for 6 million killed in the holocaust.

Walk the Stations of the cross with a guide and visit the church of the Holy Sepulchre containing Calvary where Jesus was crucified.

And don't miss the church of the nativity in Bethlehem, built over the cave where Jesus was born. Ask the guide why this was the only major church in the Holy Land that survived intact from the early Christian period.

In 614 a Sassanian army from Persia invaded the Holy Land and began destroying all the churches. Yet they refused to destroy this church at Bethlehem because of its authenticity: they recognised the images of their ancestors, the Magi, above the entrance to the Church of the Nativity.

Johnny Norfolk said...

Thanks Iain that was most interesting. We just never get any reports like this from thr BBC as they are just following there own agenda. I think most people thought Blair was involved in the peace process, yet another failure of the BBC to inform us properly.
They are a waste of space

Anonymous said...

I could be wrong but I don't think you've mentioned Palestine yet? Any reason? Or are you as brain-washed as we expected you to be before your visit?

Iain Dale said...

Read yesterday's post and you will realise what an idiot you have made of yourself. On Thursday I am meeting the Chief Palestinian negotiator in the peace talks.

Anonymous said...

Iain. It seems to me that potentially the thing in the Middle East with the most potential to affect the average Briton is the possibility of Hormuz being shut in response to an attack on Iran. Oil prices of $150-200 are the last thing the world economy needs right now, it would be shades of 1980 only worse. So if I was in your privileged position, the one thing I'd be asking everyone I met is :

a) How likely do you think an attack on Iran is?

b) How likely is it that Israel would "go it alone" without the suppose (direct or indirect) of the US?

I see the betting exchanges that deal in such things put a 15-20% chance on Iran being bombed within the next 6 months, it would be interesting to see how influential Israelis feel about it. AIUI the basic feeling is that Iran must be stopped at all costs, but one school of thought would wait until Israel has a ballistic missile shield in place some time around 2010. Be interested to see what vibes you can pick up on the ground.

Anonymous said...

Interesting post Iain.

I used to live in Israel and 20 years ago I attended a similar lecture to the one you went to. The Tel Aviv academics were saying that Iraq and Syria were the great threats in those days. I raised the question of Iran and the Ayatollah Khomeini only to be informed that Iran was no threat to Israel. The common theme is that Israeli academics tend to concentrate on the countries which they see as most likely to develop nuclear weapons. Iraq in the 1980s and Iran today. It is quite logical and correct to concentrate on such countries because they are the greatest threat to Israel.

There are two overwhelming reasons why Israel is not a fully functioning market economy.

The first is that the state of Israel was created by socialists and they remained in power for 30 years after the birth of the state. A kibbutz is a socialist construction and the most extreme kibbutz even voted for complete disassociation between child and parent, to the extent that children were not told who their parents were. Thankfully, this policy was scrapped when two parents decided to take their children to the USA.
Stalin’s rabid anti-semitism, which became normal in Eastern Europe, destroyed any hope of Israel becoming part of the Soviet world and propelled Israel into the arms of the U.S.A. but the state remained extremely socialist with an extraordinarily powerful central trade union, the Histradrut, which I was forced to belong to. Socialism only began to lose its iron grip on Israel when the Sephardim (Jews of Spain, The Middle East and North Africa) began to gain political power at the expense of the old elite, the Ashkenazim (Jews of Russia and Eastern Europe) in the latter part of the 1970s.

The second reason why a full market economy cannot flourish is the urgent need for Israel to defend itself. All males have three years in the IDF (Israeli Defence Force) and a month in the IDF reserves every year. This takes an extraordinary toll on the general economy. In addition, the IDF is not like the British Army with an officer corps who are not involved in politics, It is more reminiscent of the Metropolitan Police, with entry being at the bottom rank and there being no commissioned officer entry. Everyone has to work their way up from the bottom in the IDF and the senior officers (Generals) are overtly political and often become politicians themselves. There is a built in bias towards the old socialist elite because those who wish to become commissioned officers have to do more training and kibbutzim (residents of the many kibbutz) have more time to train. The fact that Israel traditionally has a very young set of Generals (in their 30s and 40s) only exacerbates this situation, as budding entrepreneurs do not have the time to put in the training required to get to senior ranks in such a short time.

Israel is a fantastic place to visit and the country has a wonderfully young feeling. Informal determination is the order of the day. It was even bearable in the hyper- inflationary years of the early 1980s when you had to spend your weekly allowance on the day you got it, as the prices went up daily. You should never be deluded into imagining that Israel is a Thatcherite heaven, even if Melanie Phillips claims that it is. History soaks into you in Israel and contemporary argument can sometimes seem superfluous in the presence of such an ancient, impressive and tragic lineage.

Ted Foan said...

Fascinating stuff, Iain. I'm interested to know the role of Jordan. They seem to be relatively neutral because of their role in taking in refugees from all the neighbouring countries. I thought they had a problem with the numbers flooding over their borders. Is this still the case?

PS: Blair's role in the economic rebuilding of Palestine has been widely reported on the BBC. Some of your correspondents (and you?) should stay in more - and listen to the World Service. He's doing what he always does - talk a good game - but it's an uphill job. Perhaps Mandelson would be more suited to this task?

Anonymous said...

the old "charm offensive" - suprised you fell for it Dale

Anonymous said...

I can see from your last post Iain that none of their charm rubbed off on you.

Anonymous said...

Take care of your passport while you're away, Iain, or you could find yourself threatened with anti-terrorism laws like this family:

"A Dorset family was not allowed on a Ryanair flight because one of them had a "well thumbed" passport which check-in staff claimed was a security risk..."

"Mrs Higgins said they were turned away because the corner of her husband's nine-year-old passport was "worn".

"Servisair said the passport was "too damaged to allow Mr Higgins to travel"."

"We were eventually threatened with the police and anti-terrorism laws if we didn't leave the airport."

"We have been treated like criminals..."

"No attempt at all was made to establish the validity of the passport, the representative refused to refer it to a third party, customs and immigration, or border controls."

"She had no documentation to clarify what constitutes damage and tampering either by her own company or the airline..."

The passport office claim "a damaged passport is one which is illegible, has obviously been defaced and written over or water damaged or cannot be read electronically. My husband's passport is none of these" (from BBC News online report)

Excuse me, Ms Smith, but when exactly did you notify the public that well used passports have been made grounds for barring access to flights?

Manfarang said...

Blimey.Fancy not knowing Tony Blair's exact role.Watch RTE.

Johnny Norfolk said...

The other point to note is that I am not at all interested in what Blair is doing so thats why I may have missed it. After what he allowed Brown do to out economy he should be the last person to advise the Middle East what to do.Another waste of space.

Manfarang said...

Blair did help bring about the Good Friday agreement but N I was like a Sunday school tea party compared to the Middle East.

Word verification: oxforkus

Anonymous said...

Blair and Mandelson are the two biggest sleaze merchants. Blair has earned 12 million so far thanks to his support to Bush in Iraq war and popularity as a result in USA. The lucrative lecture circuits in America are gold mines for him! He did not support Iraq war out of conviction. He saw the benefit of supporting Bush to his wallet. As far Mandelson, Daily Mail reports that he is staying in a £5,500 a night hotel thanks to the stupid tax payers here. These are the two slimy bags without any comparison in any political party in this country.

I am not surprised about that Tel Aviv' academic's view of Iran's influence and threat to Israel. Again, Iraq looms large here. Bush went to war in Iraq withot having any plans to put quickly a successor framework after Saddam.. That country went through convulsions with Sunnis and Shias fighting. The lagacy of Bush and Blair war in Iraq would be a powerful Shia Iraq slicing itself off and joining Iran as ally in the foreseeable future. The rest bits of iraq splitting along tribal lines of Sunni and Turkish. This region was like that before that nation was artificially created. This scenario was warned by many before the war was launched and they were all ridiculed by Bush et al as Bush and Blair misjudged that the invading armies will be welcome as saviours which happened just for a short time.

I like what you have written about Israel so far Iain, please continue along the same lines. The politics of Israel is well rehearsed. It was Abba Eban who once said' Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity' Clinton and Ehud Barak gave all they wanted, but yet Arafat did not come on board.

Anonymous said...

"For some reason I had thought he had a role in the peace process."

Well, that wouldn't involve much in the way of work, as this process has been comprehensively stalled for a few years...

Whatever happened to the 'roadmap' ?

Please can you find out for us ?

Anonymous said...

Iain, Thanks for your fatuous response of 11.14pm. The point is that you don't seem to have mentioned Palestine with the Israelis. Of course you'll raise them with the Palestinians! Glad your junket includes some really hard-hitting questioning!!

Anonymous said...

Iain, I think the point anon at 11:07 was making is that your visit is built around Israeli concerns. You are their guest and daily situated in their environment. Meeting a token Palestinian is just ticking a box, providing a figleaf which you used in the 11:14 post.

Unless you deviate from the schedule, no doubt packed to give you little free time, this is a PR trip. Would you have the time and/or permission to wander around the West Bank to see conditions for yourself, and send Twitter messages.

I should add that it's highly commendable that you've been open about this trip and its funding.

Anonymous said...

"Benjamin Netanyahu. He seems to me like a politician who talks tough in opposition but is then rather more liberal in power."

Do you want to take that gamble?

Anonymous said...

One word for your hosts Iain - "Shatila"! I bet you won't be brave enough to touch on that particular nerve?

Anonymous said...

Manfarang - tea party? Are you an idiot? And if you think NI is sorted you know a lot more than I do.

Manfarang said...

Captain Skint
Belfast is nothing like Beirut.
Things may be bad in NI but the violence has never reached the horrific levels of Lebanon.

Word verification: tersomi

Anonymous said...

Manafrang - it bloody well has - low estimate being 3 million. This has been going on for over 300 years son.

Manfarang said...

Captain Skint
And the Crusades?

Anonymous said...

Manfarang - good shot! Shall we agree that plenty folk have perished for both tribal, religious and pseudo imperialistic reasons?

That Abraham - tsh, tsh.

Seems like we're getting back into some pointless clash of civilizations again.

Seriously though, I think NI's just gone subterranean - give it 50 years and I'll be more relaxed about it.

Take care buddy.