FEB. 26 2014
Forget olive oil. Israel’s offshore drilling is about to make it the Middle East’s next energy exporter
It wasn’t long ago that Israel’s oil and gas industry was the territory of wishful thinkers like John Brown, a born-again Christian from Texas who saw a map to oil gushers in readings of the Bible. In the 1980s, I interviewed his site manager, also a born-again Christian, who told me that the Lord had bequeathed oil to his chosen people. In a cluttered cabin in the hills of central Israel, the rangy Texan leafed through his copy of the Bible and read me Deuteronomy 33:24: “Of Asher he said, More blessed than sons is Asher. May he be favored by his brothers, and may he dip his foot in oil.”
Will Kate and William's baby trigger a royal retirement? Queen Elizabeth faces age-old question
July 7, 2013
LONDON – Two European monarchs have abdicated this year in favor of their offspring: Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands and, last week, King Albert II of Belgium, who explained his decision by saying, "I am old and sick."
Is there pressure on her to do so? Part of the answer is provided by a recent Royal Central poll, in which 83 percent out of 1,000 British people surveyed said the 87-year-old queen should not abdicate due to old age.
Queen Elizabeth sometimes appears frail, but is said by palace insiders to be in robust health, and shows every sign she'll follow her mother into centenarian territory.
So 64-year-old Charles, already the longest heir-apparent in British history, could be in his 80s before he becomes monarch.
Moreover, Charles, the Prince of Wales and his wife, Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, have been dramatically sidelined in the public's consciousness by his offspring, representing a more exciting, younger generation. The same poll found that at 28 percent, Catherine, the Duchess of Cambridge – known to millions simply as Kate – is the most popular member of the royal family, beating out the queen, a close second, with 27 percent. Prince Harry is the third most popular with 16 percent.
And anticipation is building around the expected birth of Kate's baby, which, regardless of gender, will be become third in line to the throne after Charles and William.
Yet outside the Lindo wing of St. Mary's Hospital in London, where Kate is expected to give birth, respect and affection for the monarchy is taking second place, for the time being, to more common-place publicity stunts.
A Queen Elizabeth lookalike, posing for the bored photographers, was bundled away by policemen who, like Queen Victoria, were not amused.
A British magazine set up a tent with a design of the British flag and handed out free issues.
An artist posed one day with a painting of the Duchess of Cambridge, and the next of a naked President Obama.
All want free publicity from the waiting media who are solicited by some yet sometimes insulted by others. A photographer quoted as elderly lady who shouted at him, "Why don't you get a real ******* job?"
It's an old question in Britain: Is the royal family a revered icon of the land, or has it become a tiresome soap opera that exists only to promote British business interests overseas and sell curios at home? The queen's husband, the Duke of Edinburgh, has often referred to the family as "The Firm."
Meanwhile, even the smallest royal detail is the subject of rumor. The latest? The royal gynecologist is reportedly eschewing alcohol to make sure he has a steady hand when called upon.
Gifts for the family are bounteous too, and include a gift box from the government of Finland - the same gift box given to the parents of all newborns there - which includes everything from baby clothes to condoms. A palace spokesman said, “It was a very thoughtful gesture and we’re very grateful for it. I’m sure the duke and duchess will be very interested to see the contents.”
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TWO HOSPITALS, TWO MEDIA SCRUMS
July 7, 2013
The world’s media are focusing on two hospitals nine thousand kilometers apart, fascinated by the cycle of life: birth and death.
A media scrum has been parked for weeks outside Pretoria’s Mediclinic Heart Hospital, where the man many call the world’s greatest living statesman appears at death’s door: 94-year-old Nelson Mandela is “critically ill” with a lung infection.
In London’s St Mary’s Hospital, the ‘stakeout’ began Monday when an APTN cameraman set up his tripod, sparking a frenzy of media copycatting; within two hours twenty cameramen and photographers had joined him.
Their target? The as yet unnamed, gender unknown, future monarch of Britain, the unborn child of Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge, wife of Prince William, whose suspected due date is July 13.
Which is bigger, the birth of the top royal, or the death of the great leader? The past or the future?
The royal infant will probably not be crowned for more than sixty years, after Charles and William have each ascended to the throne, and passed away. Longevity is a family trait. Will the monarchy even still exist?
When the baby is born church bells are set to peal across the land, a hundred million dollars worth of baby souvenirs are already in the shops, and bets are being placed on the child’s name: favorites being Alexandra and George.
While the passing of South Africa’s first black president, who emerged from 27 years in jail to call for peace and coexistence with his white jailors, thus avoiding a likely bloodbath, will be met by solemn, admiring, appreciative eulogies of love.
One is admired and adored for what he has done, the other admired and adored, by some, for what he or she may do.
Shakespeare’s Malvolio springs to mind: “Some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them.”
Clearly the royal infant will be born great but an interesting question is: did Mandela achieve greatness or was greatness thrust upon him?
One answer is: both. When Mandela was arrested for plotting against apartheid and jailed for twenty-seven years, greatness was thrust upon him because he responded with such grace. But he achieved greatness when he came out of jail, devoted himself to bringing a peaceful end to apartheid and against all expectations, succeeded.
He was president for only five years, from 1994 to 1999, yet the peace he achieved between the races has been maintained.
While the world watches and waits alongside his family, not all appreciate the media attention. As hundreds prayed outside the hospital for her father’s recovery, Makaziwe, Mandela’s eldest daughter, likened the foreign media to “vultures…waiting when a lion has devoured a buffalo.”
It is indeed not a pretty sight when the world’s press gathers, bustling for camera angles and pestering passers-by for comments. And from Pretoria to London, that’s one thing the two stories share.
At St Mary’s hospital in London staff and visitors are already asking photographers what on earth they are waiting for and why they are blocking the sidewalk. One journalist answered, “You haven’t seen anything yet. Wait till the baby’s born!”
Maybe this is the price of greatness.
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ISRAELI STRIKES IN SYRIA AIMED NOT AT SYRIA BUT HIZBULLAH
May 6, 2013
Syrian rebels have cheered Israel’s strikes against Syrian government facilities this weekend, while the Syrian government has said the attacks prove Israel is backing the rebels.
Nothing could be farther from the truth. Israel is not engaging in the Syrian civil war. Instead, it is striking early blows in Israel’s possible next war: against Iran’s Lebanese proxy, Hizbullah.
Professor Eyal Zisser, a Syrian expert from Tel Aviv university, told NBC today, “This attack had nothing to do with the Syrian civil war. The big story is Iran and Hizbullah, not Syria. Israel’s message is that we want to change the rules of the game. For the last twenty years Iran provided all kinds of weapons to Hizbullah through Syria. Now this is the end of the story. Israel will no longer accept the rearming of Hizbullah.”
Analysts here say there are four weapons systems on Israel’s blacklist, whose transfer through Syria would trigger air attacks: guided ground to ground rockets like the Iranian Fateh 110’s reportedly destroyed in this weekend’s attack; chemical weapons; land to sea missiles like Russian Yakhont missiles that can hit a ship two hundred miles at sea at speeds of up to Mach 2; and anti-aircraft rockets like the SAM 17s that would endanger Israel’s control of the skies.
Israeli analysts have taken to calling these weapons ‘game-changers,’ whose transfer must be stopped at any price. But others point out that fearsome as they are, Israel has answers to all of them and is in no real danger of losing its superiority against a relatively small outfit like Hizbullah.
So the public debate in Israel, which the military has kept out of, revolves around this question: Where is Syria’s red line? At what point will Israel’s attacks against targets inside Syria provoke the Syrian leadership into retaliating against Israel? Is Israel walking a tightrope that will lead inevitably to a sudden clash with Syria?
Israel takes comfort in its intelligence assessment that President Bashar al-Assad would rather absorb the blows and the humiliation than confront Israel, because any confrontation would lead to a brutal Israeli attack, probably against his air force and air fields, and that would lead to his defeat at the hands of the Syrian rebels.
Israel is also in a quandary about its best interests: What is better for Israel, Syria under the Iranian-backed leadership of Assad, Syria under a rebel sunni Islamist coalition, or, most likely, the breakup of Syria into ethnic and religious cantons? With no clear answer, Israel is electing to stay well out of it.
But its actions against Hizbullah on Syrian soil could backfire if Syria chooses to retaliate. So far, there is no real sign of that. Reports from Syria this weekend suggest that Syrian missiles are now trained on Israel. But while maintaining a heightened state of alert, and positioning two Iron Dome anti-missile systems in the northern towns of Haifa and Safed, Israel is also downplaying any threat, its citizens are paying little attention, and an order to civilian aircraft to stay out of the northern skies is expected to be lifted today.
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SYRIA AND ISRAEL ON EDGE
MAY 1, 2013
This week two thousand Israeli army reservists were woken in the middle of the night and instructed by recorded announcement to report immediately to the northern border. They raced there, armed for war, to discover it was a drill, Israel’s largest in the north for years.
But every day, Israeli military leaders say, is a day in which peace could turn to war, especially in the north. Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz warned ten days ago that Israel’s border with Syria, its most stable border since the two countries signed their disengagement agreement forty years ago, could explode at any moment. He phrased it more carefully at a think tank meeting: “We are commemorating the fortieth anniversary of the Yom Kippur War, and the years of quiet and stability are disappearing. Instability (on the Golan Heights ed) is increasing.”
This year bullets and rockets have been fired from Syria into Israel at least a dozen times. Most are believed to be errant fire from fighting on the Syrian side of the border, but several times Israel has fired back at what the army said was the source of fire. That source increasingly is bunkers abandoned by the Syrian army, which pulled out to defend the Assad regime across the plateau in Damascus. The vacuum along the border was reportedly filled by Islamist militias, especially the al-Nusra front which says it is allied to al-Quaeda.
Israel’s fear is that the militias will provoke Israel into responding and fall into the trap of invading Syria to restore calm to its northern border.
Forty-four thousand people live on the Golan Heights, which Israel conquered in the 1967 war and annexed, a move not recognized by the international community which considers the Golan to be occupied territory.
From a high point overlooking Israel’s border with Syria near the Syrian town of Quneitra, abandoned and heavily damaged during the 1973 war, there is little sign of tension. The United Nations base for a thousand inetnational peacekeepers whose job is to patrol the buffer zone between Israel and Syria, showed no sign of activity during a two-hour visit by a reporter this week. Not one vehicle entered or left the base.
It sits on the Israeli side of a new hi-tech razor fence that Israel built along its eighty kilometer border with Syria to keep the Syrian conflict from spilling into Israel. It is designed to keep out Syrians seeking refuge, militiamen seeking to attack Israeli targets, and above all, to keep Israel from being dragged into Syria’s civil war.
The jihadist groups in Syria say repeatedly their goal, after toppling President Assad in Syria, is to use his territory as a launchpad for attacks against Israel.
Israel has a history of short, sharp, specific attacks when its interests are threatened. In September 2007 Israel destroyed Syria's al-Kibar nuclear facility with a single devastating air attack. Earlier this year Israel destroyed a truck convoy allegedly transporting strategic weapons from Syria to Hizbullah in Lebanon. But the prospect of Israeli soldiers operating on the ground in Syria, even if to protect Israel’s interests, is at the very bottom of Israel’s agenda.
Nevertheless, Israel is reportedly sending fresh troops to man forward bases that have not been used for years because it was so quiet. The roads to the bases will be paved and improved, according to army sources quoted in Maariv newspaper.
However, Israel has warned it will do whatever is necessary to prevent the large Syrian government stockpile of chemical and biological weapons from falling into the hands of rebel forces, believing that one day they may be used against Israel. Better, Israeli leaders believe, to fight in Syria against Islamists armed with non-conventional weapons than wait for them to attack Israel with them.
The last thing Israel wants is to join the fighting in Syria. But the longer Syria’s civil war lasts, Israeli military analysts warn, the more likely it is that Israel will be dragged in.
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ISRAEL’S SURPRISING ECONOMY
APRIL 10, 2013
Under growing political pressure from all sides, economically Israel is surging ahead. The latest confirmation is a Bloomberg survey, released this week. Of thirty-one major currencies tracked over the last six months, the Israeli shekel was the strongest.
To stop its growing strength, which saw the shekel climb from 3.80 to the US dollar to 3.59, the Bank of Israel intervened Tuesday, buying a hundred million US dollars. It was its first intervention in the foreign currency market in almost two years.
Last week Israel passed another milestone, a potential game changer for its economy. Gas began to flow from its newly-discovered gas fields off the coast. By 2015 Israel is expected to be fully energy independent, and may be a net exporter.
More good news for Israel. In this water-challenged region, Israel is well on the way to water independence. Its developed water desalination industry provides up to forty percent of the country’s water, and another forty percent comes from recycled water from domestic and commercial consumption. Israel reuses its water two to three times. Moreover, in the last ten years, Israel’s water consumption per capita has actually declined, because of careful husbandry of resources and punitive prices.
It isn’t all good news though. Unemployment is relatively low at 6.3 per cent, but nevertheless the gap between rich and poor is one of the highest of all developed countries, according to the OECD.
That disparity swept Yair Lapid, 49-years-old, an inexperienced but popular new politician, into the Finance Ministry earlier this year. Most of his support came from the disillusioned middle class whose summer of protests in 2011 changed the country’s priorities from political to social issues.
Now Lapid has to make good on his election challenge, “Where’s the Money?” Newspapers Wednesday were already reporting dissent with ministry officials who proposed increases in tuition fees for university students. Minister Lapid responded on his facebook page that “if students have to pay more I’ll go home and demonstrate against myself.”
And as the government searches for budgets to cut and taxes to raise, newspapers are full of reports that Israel’s richest man, Idan Ofer, has decided to relocate to London in order to avoid paying more taxes, although his associates deny this is his reason for leaving. But he has become a juicy target for critics who have long claimed that the country’s couple of dozen ‘tycoons’ have been milking the country dry, leaving the poor to foot the bill.
The gap between rich and poor, and how strange this is for Israelis brought up on the kibbutz ethos of “we’re all equal,” was well illustrated by the proverbial taxi driver who told a reporter, “Israel has changed. We all used to wear sandals. If you were rich, you wore better sandals.”
Other critics point to an anomaly that they say may need to be corrected. If Israel is doing so well economically, they say, why does the United States need to continue supporting Israel to the tune of three billion dollars a year?
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ISRAEL’S FINANCE MINISTER TAKING ECONOMICS LESSON
MARCH 29, 2013
There’s a lot to be said for humility, but today’s headline news that Israel’s new finance minister is studying economics at home with a tutor is less than encouraging for Israelis.
Full marks for honesty though. Yair Lapid confessed on his TV show a couple of years ago that he didn’t have a clue about the subject. No doubt at the time he was not expecting to be taking the reigns of Israel’s two hundred and fifty billion dollar economy.
The 49-year-old leader of “Yesh Atid” (There is a Future), whose new party shot straight into the Knesset with nineteen seats, making it the second largest in parliament, campaigned on a platform of helping the middle class out of its trap of low wages, high taxes, expensive goods and services, and unequal burden of army service. Lapid wants to kick-start the economy by getting the Ultra-Orthodox, and the Arabs, to fully commit to army or national service, and to getting a job.
But Lapid, new to politics and hoping to hit the ground running, is already hitting a brick wall. His proposed cuts of about 1.5 billion dollars to the defence budget has been countered with a proposed demand of an increase of half a billion dollars. The total budget stands around fourteen billion dollars.
Lapid’s reported proposal to stop July’s one per cent wage increase for government employees met an even more pointed response from the Labour Union (Histadrut) chairman Ofer Eini. He told the newspaper Sof Hashavoua that the young minister should not tangle with him: “Lapid may not know economics, but he isn’t stupid.”
The good news is that Israel’s economy has two aces in the hole. The gigantic gas discoveries off the coast will deliver their first commercial gas within days and by 2015 Israel is expected to be fully energy independent, and may be a net exporter.
The second is that in this water-challenged region, Israel is well on the way to water independence. Its developed water desalination industry provides up to forty percent of the country’s water, and another forty percent comes from recycled water from domestic and commercial consumption. That means Israel reuses its water two to three times. Moreover, in the last ten years, Israel’s water consumption per capita has actually declined, because of careful husbandry of resources and punitive prices.
Unemployment is relatively low at 6.3 per cent, but nevertheless the gap between rich and poor is one of the highest of all developed countries, according to the OECD.
That disparity swept Lapid to power and the Finance Ministry on the back of the disillusioned middle class whose summer of protests in 2011 changed the country’s priorities from political to social issues.
Now Lapid has to make good on his election challenge “Where’s the Money?”
Taking from the Haves to help the Have-Nots is the challenge.
At least Lapid has a good tutor: Professor Manuel Trajtenberg was Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s economics advisor and chairman of the National Economic Council until four years ago, and today is the leading candidate to be the new Governor of the Bank of Israel.
As for Lapid, according to the newspaper Yediot Ahronoth, “informed sources” say he is an “excellent student.”
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BAR REFAELI VERSUS ISRAEL’S ARMY
March 25, 2013
As the beautiful face of a nation, super model Bar Refaeli, Leonardo DiCaprio’s ex, takes some beating. Blond, blue-green eyes, willowy, tall and curvy, Israel’s foreign ministry thought it was on to a winner this month when officials picked her to lead a PR campaign highlighting Israel’s world-beating technologies.
Instead it sparked a bitter controversy about just who is the Real Israeli. The Israeli army attacked the proposal, saying that Bar Rafaeli was a draft dodger and a bad example to Israel’s youth. The ultraorthodox have long had a beef with the supermodel, preferring women to wear wigs and floor-length dresses. And the Legal Forum for the Land of Israel and the Judicial Zionism students' forum supported the military’s call to cancel the campaign.
The army spokesman wrote to the foreign ministry, "I wish to turn your attention to the negative message that could be delivered to Israeli society."
The Foreign Ministry’s private response to the military, and everyone else, was to mind their own business. As diplomats though, their advice was phrased more carefully: "Bar Refaeli…is considered one of the most beautiful women in the world and she is widely recognized as Israeli. There is no reason to dredge up the past when we are dealing with a public diplomacy campaign of this kind."
In Israel the dispute hit a nerve. With compulsory conscription of three years for men and two years for women, army service was traditionally seen as a social equalizer and the glue that held the society together. However, in today’s reality, about half of Israeli women don’t serve, and about a third of men don’t. In both cases these numbers are made up of Arabs and ultraorthodox Jews who are excused, as well as others who are not drafted for a variety of medical and other reasons.
Bar Refaeli’s case, however, was particularly provocative. She stated that she did not want to serve because it would obstruct her career. Then, when obliged by the system, she reportedly evaded service by marrying a family friend, getting an exemption as a married woman, and as soon as her exemption was accepted, she divorced.
That didn’t win her many friends in Israel.
But her beauty did. And her liaison with one of the world’s most eligible bachelors captivated the country.
So much so that it seemed as if everyone in tiny Israel claimed acquaintance with her, or her family. This writer is no exception.
The famous six steps of separation are reduced here to two, although both are canine.
It so happens that the grandparents of my dog, Raja Paja, are owned by the parents of Bar Refaeli. It is more than likely that Bar Refaeli, when home, strokes Raja’s progenitors.
This is not to claim any particular insight into Refaeli’s affairs, rather to highlight the standing she has achieved among Israelis. She is very popular. She routinely espouses Israeli causes like calling for the release of Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard who has languished in American jails for twenty-eight years. She never fails to support Israel in any forum, calls her father the best dad in the world, and when at home hangs out on the beach like anyone else.
But she didn’t serve in the military and for the army, that disqualifies her from representing her country. For them, she is not a true Israeli.
But that sends a different message, exactly what the Foreign Ministry is trying to dispel. The diplomats want to dispel the notion that Israel is merely a military success story. They want to highlight Israel’s many other achievements in the field of technology and hi-tech, where Israel shines, to show the world that it is more than just a country in conflict.
So which is the true Israeli? Bar Refaeli in a bikini or Bar Refaeli in battle fatigues?
It is a perfect metaphor for a country seeking peace yet mired in conflict, a nation in transition, struggling to define itself.
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