Ehud Barak – the comeback leader
“The state of Israel is facing the total dissolution of its democracy,” says former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak. “This is a strategic threat no less than the Iranian threat.” This is the alarming opinion of the man who occupied the country’s top seat from 1999 to 2001.
This 77-year-old Israeli general and former leader of the Labour Party is referring to none other than the leadership of incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Declaring it to be either “the state of Netanyahu or the state of Israel”, Barak has announced a comeback. His political return is plastered across election posters now lining many of the major highways in Israel.
The former defence minister says he can no longer sit and watch as Netanyahu destroys Israel, whether it be through, as Barak claims, his attempts to fight corruption charges, undermine democracy, or radicalise institutions.
The good news for Barak is that he’s regarded by many Israelis as a leader of equal stature to Netanyahu. Among those who’ve come forward to express their support for him is Yitzhak Rabin’s granddaughter, Noa Rothman.
But the latest polls show that his newly formed Israel Democratic Party won’t cross the electoral threshold if it runs alone in the 17 September election. Barak needs coalition partners.
The most obvious choice would be his former party, which desperately needs an injection of credibility and political weight.
April’s election results were the worst showing for the Labour party in its history. A party that had ruled Israel for decades received only six out of 120 Knesset (parliament) seats. Former Sderot mayor and former head of the country’s national trade union, Amir Peretz, was recently re-elected to head the party. He headed Labour from 2005 to 2007.
Peretz is optimistic, declaring that if the left-wing centrist parties unite, they can oust Netanyahu. He believes Labour can realistically receive 15 seats in the next election.
As for co-operating with Barak, Peretz says that “every potential political bond will be considered based on its prospects for widening our block and defeating Netanyahu”.
But let’s not forget that 12 years ago, Barak fired Peretz via fax from his post as defence minister. Still, in the overriding “anyone but Bibi [Netanyahu]” furore, casting past rivalries aside seems a small price to pay.
It’s not just Peretz who needs to forgive Barak. In January 2011, Barak abandoned Labour to found a new, now defunct, political party. The Independence Party, as it was called, lasted less than two years. It’ll be interesting to see whether Labour supporters are willing to forget that.
But, aren’t there enough centrist parties already? What exactly does Barak’s new party offer that’s different?
Netanyahu’s Likud voters are unlikely to support Barak, and the Blue and White party headed by Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid already has too many leaders.
It wasn’t so long ago that Gantz, who was barely a colonel when Barak was chief of staff of the Israeli army, was the hope of the centre-left. The 35 Knesset seats garnered by the young party in April was unprecedented. There’s no advantage for it to join forces with Barak – and it’s unlikely to. The concern is whether they’ll lose seats to him. Although all the recent headlines in Israel have been focused on Barak and not Gantz, the latter’s party, alongside Netanyahu’s Likud, remains one of the country’s two largest political forces. Gantz will continue to believe the competition is between him and Netanyahu only, but is it?
Barak is said to be considering the possibility of forming a centre-left electoral bloc with Labour, Meretz, and former Foreign Affairs Minister Tzipi Livni.
After resigning from politics in February, Livni is now said to be considering a comeback and running as part of a left-wing bloc, but only if an alliance is formed between Labour and Barak’s new Israel Democratic Party.
Livni’s Hatnuah party ran on a joint ticket with Labour in 2015, but the former chief of the party, Avi Gabbay, abandoned the partnership in the run-up to April’s election. Livni decided not to run at all, saying she didn’t want to risk splitting the left-wing vote among so many parties as it would result in some failing to cross the electoral threshold, and their votes being wasted. That’s the concern once again. Barak just brings a new party to the fold, and unless a large, left-wing block is created, it’s unlikely they’ll topple “King” Bibi from office.
There’s another concern about Barak. As much as he purports to be against Netanyahu now, he could change overnight, as he has done before. When he broke away from Labour in 2011, it was because he wanted to keep his position as defence minister and not join the opposition. Israelis are asking themselves – rightly so – whether, if Netanyahu somehow wins the 17 September election and offers Barak the chance to become defence minister again under his leadership, will Barak bite?
And then, the final concern is what his views are politically. After meeting with Nitzan Horowitz, the new leader of the left-wing Meretz party, and the first openly gay political leader in Israeli history, Meretz officials said there was “no breakthrough”. They complained that “Barak has a problem with Arabs and others” among Israel’s non-Arab population that would prevent Meretz from being able to run with him.
Barak’s premiership lasted only a year and seven months, during which time he went further than anyone else in trying to reach peace agreements with Syria and the Palestinians, failing in both attempts. His term ended with the suicide bombings of the Second Intifada.
The right-wing bloc is also considering its options. Still bruised from the wasting of at least seven Knesset seats in April’s election because of the proliferation of right-wing parties, it is adamant about avoiding the same situation again. One of the most important considerations will be that made by former Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked after she and former Education Minister Naftali Bennett formed a new party at the end of last year that failed to cross the electoral threshold. At the time of writing, Shaked was mulling which party to join. New right-wing political alliances are expected to emerge in the next few days.
Netanyahu is painfully aware that he might not do so well come September, and he is also weighing his options. His pre-trial hearing is fast approaching, and now with Barak in the fray, the field amongst those campaigning to unseat Israel’s nearly-longest serving prime minister just got a little more crowded.
The deadline for submitting party lists (who’s running with who) to the central elections committee is 1 August. That’s two-and-a-half weeks from now, which in Israeli politics can be a lifetime.
Commonwealth Jewish Council calls for release of ‘Nigeria three’
All Rudy Rochman wanted to do was to shine a light on unknown, disconnected, and re-emerging Jewish communities around the world, but something went horribly wrong.
The charismatic 27-year-old Israeli activist, who has more than 97 000 followers on Instagram, was working on a new documentary series titled, We Were Never Lost, which focused on these “lost tribes”. At the beginning of July, he and his team travelled to Nigeria to film their first episode.
However, Rochman, filmmaker Andrew Noam Leibman, and French-Israeli journalist Edouard David Benaym were arrested by Nigerian security services when the three presented a Torah scroll to a local community. They remain in custody, haven’t been charged, and haven’t been given legal representation. Organisations and individuals around the world are working desperately to get them released.
“Our first season is set in Africa, and we are filming our first episode on the Jews of Nigeria,” Rochman’s team wrote on Facebook on 8 July. “There are many Jews in Nigeria, Igbos included, and we are here only to help local practising and observing Jewish communities, to provide them with resources, and to document their lives, experiences, and aspirations. We don’t take any position on political movements as we aren’t here as politicians nor as a part of any government delegation.”
But the next day, they were arrested, supposedly for supporting “separatist activists”. Commonwealth Jewish Council (CJC) Chief Executive Clive Lawton is one of the many people working behind the scenes. Speaking to the SA Jewish Report from his home in the United Kingdom, he says he is alarmed that the men have been held in detention for more than a week without being charged. “That would indicate it’s only an investigation, but they still have no legal representation, and how can such an investigation take more than a week?”
He says the CJC has written to the Nigerian high commissioner to the Commonwealth, His Excellency Sarafa Tunji Isola, urging him to pressure his government to release them soon. “They are being detained on the flimsiest of pretexts. I’m sure the Nigerian government wouldn’t want to cultivate an image that foreign visitors can be snatched up on spurious accusations,” says Lawton.
He has also written to the secretary general of the Commonwealth of Nations, Baroness Patricia Scotland. “In this family of nations, the quality of relationships and expectations of decency carry a lot of weight. It’s shocking that Nigeria might continue to hobnob with other heads of governments while treating foreigners like this. It should be seen as shameful. Yes, they might need to investigate something, but that doesn’t take 10 days. This isn’t just an investigation. It’s intimidation. Acting without due process is against Commonwealth principles,” he says.
He hopes that the less formal relationships between Commonwealth countries will make an impact. “At the very least, they should be released to go home. But more desirable would be that they be allowed to return to their cultural activity of making a documentary.”
Lawton says his organisation seeks to build relationships between Jews from around the world. More than 40 countries, including South Africa, are members.
Although the media reported that “three Israelis” were arrested, it’s unclear if all three have Israeli citizenship.
Lawton says Rochman and Leibman entered Nigeria on their American passports, and Benaym on his French passport. “We knew that they planned to make this documentary and were in the first stages of filming. They went to south-east Nigeria to visit a community. Like anyone making such a visit, they wanted to bring artefacts or objects to present to them. In this instance, they very generously brought a Sefer Torah.”
Two weeks ago, Rochman wrote on Instagram about how his team had “just acquired a beautiful Torah that survived the Holocaust and is believed to have come from an old community in Ukraine about 200 years ago”.
“The scribal experts our team spoke to stated that the ktav [writing] had since gone extinct, and they couldn’t believe their eyes when we sent them pictures of the scroll.
“We will be bringing the Torah and gifting it to the youth movement of Igbo Jewish communities of Nigeria for them to have access to our nation’s holy text.”
“It would seem that some separatist activists wrote Facebook messages along the lines of ‘welcoming this act of solidarity’”, Lawton says. “But in fact the filmmakers categorically stated that they had no interest in political issues and were there for a cultural reason – to make a film.
“They arrived on a Thursday, and visited a synagogue,” he says. “That was when Nigerian security services entered the synagogue and arrested them, taking them to the capital, Abuja. On the Friday, the men’s embassies were alerted, and sought to get involved. Chabad in Abuja has managed to organise provision of kosher food for them, which the security services agreed to allow. They also agreed for Benaym to be transported to the French embassy for medical attention, as long as he was returned to detention, and that is what was done. Israel has no ‘formal locus’ to help as they didn’t enter on Israeli passports, but it has sought to engage government and services.”
He believes that they are being held in some kind of “detention circumstances”, but cannot say what these conditions are like, if they are separated, or if they are being held with others. But he says that the fact that the French embassy was willing to return Benaym suggests it was “probably not extreme”.
A member of the Igbo community, speaking to the SA Jewish Report on condition of anonymity, says, “Our information is that Rudy and co. came here to do a documentary on the connection of the Igbo people to Biblical Israelites. Many Igbos are reviving the practices of their ancestors and returning to Judaism. This is what Rudy and his team wanted to do – to hear our story as told by our people. But sadly, some local people hijacked the original intention of Rudy and began to make political capital out of it. The team was bringing a Sefer Torah to be donated to our community. We were very happy that many Israelis would get to know about our Israelite heritage and know that we are brethren.
“Our people are very saddened by the arrest, but we don’t want to heighten tension by making utterances as the matter is being handled. We keep praying for their safety. We believe they will be released because their visit was for religious reasons. We don’t believe they came here to undermine the security of Nigeria. In our synagogues, we don’t entertain separatist activities. We are very sad about their plight. We see it as someone getting into unforeseen trouble while in search of a long lost brother.”
The most recent update on the We Were Never Lost Instagram page is that, “Rudy, Noam, and David are still in custody, but are ok. Their spirits remain high. Three embassies are working diligently towards a resolution. No other action is necessary from the community at this stage, but thank you all for the care and support.”
Diaspora minister expresses concern and support after riots
The newly elected Israeli minister of diaspora affairs this week sent a heartfelt message of support to the South African Jewish community following last week’s devastating protests and riots.
Dr Nachman Shai this week expressed his “warmest regards and personal blessing” in a letter to the community.
“All of us in Israel have watched the recent events in the KwaZulu-Natal region and around South Africa with deep concern. We stand with you in solidarity, and are particularly thinking about the Durban and Johannesburg Jewish communities during this challenging time.”
He said it was also a difficult moment for Jewish communities around the world. “In South Africa, we witnessed the rise of antisemitism following Operation Guardian of the Walls, which challenged your safety and sense of security.”
His ministry is a partner in ensuring the resilience of the community, and engaging actors within Israel to understand how its military actions had a direct impact on the Jewish world, Shai said.
“Our ability as a Jewish people to take on our shared challenges depends on our ability to engage effectively with one another.”
Shai said he was sure that his upcoming meeting with the South African Zionist Federation (SAZF) and leadership would be the first of many “as we develop an ongoing conversation between us”.
“The secret of Jewish resilience rests in our sense of shared responsibility towards each other. With this frame, I look forward to working hand in hand with all of you to live up to our potential as both a diverse and unified Jewish people.”
He said the South African Jewish community had long been “a thriving epicentre of Jewish life and a true friend of Israel”, and as Israel’s new diaspora affairs minister, he looked forward to finding opportunities to further strengthen the relationship between South African Jewry and the state and people of Israel in the coming months.
Rowan Polovin, the national chairperson of the SAZF, said he appreciated Shai’s heartfelt message.
“The past few months have been an extremely challenging and difficult time for South African Jewry. Our connection as Jews living in the diaspora remains vitally important as a continued source of comfort and strength at all times, but particularly in times of hardship.”
He said the SAZF looked forward to further engagement with the minister on “developing and building upon the crucial relationship and bond between the state of Israel and the South African Jewish community”.
Shai was in South Africa in August 2017, when he led a delegation of five members of the Israeli Knesset to “promote dialogue, understanding, and co-operation”.
The delegation met leaders across the South African political spectrum, including Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, former President Kgalema Motlanthe, former Johannesburg Executive Mayor Herman Mashaba, and former Democratic Alliance (DA) leader Mmusi Maimane. It held meetings in parliament, and met members of the DA, Congress of the People, African Christian Democratic Party, Inkatha Freedom Party, and Freedom Front Plus. The delegation, a product of co-operation between the Israeli Knesset, the Israeli foreign affairs ministry, and the Jewish Agency, also met leaders of the Jewish community and engaged with the key figures in the Christian and business communities, where it reiterated Israel’s commitment to sharing expertise and experience in agriculture, water, and hi-tech.
Transforming a rubbish dump into an oasis
After greening the desert with fruit and vegetables, Israelis looked elsewhere to make improvements. The country’s latest environmental achievement is to turn the Hiriya rubbish dump between Tel Aviv and Ben Gurion Airport into a park.
This former dump has been transformed into the largest green area in the Middle East, with more than 8 000 dunams (8km2) of parkland.
The Hiriya dump (Hiriya in Arabic means good in the sense of goodness and blessing in the past) was an eyesore and a rather smelly one at that, accumulating the majority of garbage from the greater Tel Aviv area.
The vision to convert this dumping ground into a green space came from the late Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. He was also the general who, during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, led his soldiers and tanks behind the Egyptian Third Army and surrounded them, cutting them off from mainland Egypt in the heat of the Sinai.
Today, the luscious green park has little lakes, dams, and revitalised rivers, with a huge variety of plants, bushes, and trees. Aptly, it has been named the Ariel Sharon Park. Venture to the edge of it, and you see a spectacular view of Tel Aviv.
The gas released by the landfill is being collected and rerouted underground, past the Shapirim Stream and Route #1 (the main Tel Aviv – Jerusalem highway) to a textile plant in Azur, where the gas is converted into green energy.
According to Shlomit Doten Gissin from the department of environment and sustainability at the park, the number of bird species has risen from only 80 to more than 200 species, with bird hides everywhere for visitors to watch birds in silence.
Gissin says the vegetation in the park was specifically planted to encourage low-flying birds so as not to interfere with the flight path to Ben Gurion Airport. Hundreds of indigenous plants, trees, and shrubs have been planted among fresh water ponds.
Some plants have been planted diagonally on the slopes to allow easy movements of butterflies so they don’t hit a “wall” of plants. There are also tiny animals to be found, even jackals and smaller cats.
This park is one of the wonders of unusable space being converted into flourishing public spaces in Israel. Completion should take about another year, but it’s already being enjoyed by many.
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