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Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Who is a refugee?

Who is a refugee?  It might seem straight forward but it isn't.
If I lost my house in a financial crisis and moved abroad with nothing but a couple of suitcases, am I a refugee? I suppose you need to be persecuted because of your sexuality, politics or ethnicity but what does it mean to be persecuted?

Were Jews who left the USSR in the 'Seventies (and allowed to take only two suitcases) persecuted? If they were persecuted for being Zionists, couldn't they have chosen not to be Zionists?
Are refugees people who are forced to leave their countries? But if they are persecuted for being Zionists and then leave willingly to a country that adopts them, then are they still refugees?  Were they refugees when they arrived?
What about the Palestinians, who having arrived as refugees, were persecuted by their host countries in order to force them to maintain their refugee status. Are they now refugees because of 1948 or because of their treatment by their Arab hosts?

Perhaps a refugee is someone who has formal UN documentation (and recognition).  For example, Palestinian refugees carry UN documentation and are "recognized refugees". My father was also a recognized refugee.  He arrived in England in 1939 with no citizenship and was at some point given UN refugee status which he kept until 1968, when he applied for British citizenship.  By that time he had a house in Muswell Hill and a family, he hadn't been a refugee for years. So does the documentation count?

In contrast only very few of the Jews who migrated to Israel between 1948 and 1958, had refugee status and yet most of them were fleeing persecution in the Arab world and Eastern Europe. Were they refugees?

At the time, Israel didn't regard them as refugees because it gave them citizenship and undertook to house and feed them.  To the Israelis they were coming home, but now 60 years later we look back and say they were refugees, this is especially true of the Jews who left the Arab world, many of whom left at very short notice  (perhaps the length of time you have to plan your exit defines your refugee status).  So many arrived that many lived in camps for years because Israel couldn't house them (does living in a camp make you a refugee?).

The issue is now raised because of the many Palestinians claiming refugee status. Unlike the Jews, the Palestinians have UN documentation and lack formal state citizenship, but many have lived in the same houses in the same countries for generations and their connection to "Palestine" is by now very tenuous.
The Jews are clearly no longer refugees, but Israel invested a great deal in caring for them at the time, and they left very valuable property behind so perhaps that is sufficient.  

Friday, February 15, 2013

Did Ben Zygier expose Israeli networks in Iran?

Do you remember how Iranian scientists kept getting murdered? Have you noticed that it has stopped?  You may also recall how the Iranians announced that they had caught the networks and put people on trial. They were all Iranians, supposedly recruited by Mossad. The Iranians accused the Israelis and desperately kept trying to kill Israeli tourists around the world.
Time Magazine reported two days ago that the Western Spy agencies say the Iranian story about catching the assassin networks are reliable.  The timing of the Time story, just as Ben Zygier was hitting the headlines strikes me as something which could be more than a coincidence.
Having said that, Zygier was arrested in 2010 and the last Israeli assassination was in January 2012.  The Iranians claimed to have wrapped up the network in June 2012.
The Iranians aren't the only ones to have wrapped up some Israeli networks in recent years.  Hezbollah has also had some successes, though reports I read suggested they did it by tracking rarely used cell phones.
Ha'aretz suggests this morning that Zygier talked too much and the Australian spy services got onto him. Someone in the Aussie service may have leaked information to the Iranians and Zygier might have damaged Israel indirectly.  As long as we don't know what he was accused of, its hard to judge what damage he did and how justified his treatment may or may not have been.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Political party funding in Israel and how it encourages splinter groups

Israeli political parties are state funded. The way it works is that parties receive funds according to the number of seats they hold in the Knesset and are subject to legal restrictions on how much they can spend in election campaigns. They are allowed only limited non-state funding sources, which are small private contributions and membership dues and there is a ban on anonymous contributions, contributions by people who are ineligible to vote or public associations.
 Any party which wins more than 1% of the vote is entitled to a refund of some of its election expenses (2% of the vote are required for a seat in the Knesset).
New parties that register for an election can use some financing sources that are not available to existing parties but are still subject to many of the restrictions.  TV time is allocated on the basis of 25 minutes for every party running in the election + 6 additional minutes for every MK in the outgoing Knesset.

If a party with Knesset seats splits, the splinter group can take a proportion of the funding, particularly if the splinter group includes more than 5 members of Knesset.  In general funding is calculated in a way that each five MKs gets you a higher level of funding.

Overall I think its a great system. In theory at least, it restricts the ability of big business (or trade unions) to control the parties and provides what would seem like a completely fair frame work. Israel has a vibrant democracy is which the system responds rapidly to voter shifts and new parties easily emerge, however there are serious problems.

One problem with this system is that it encourages party splintering. Once elected the MKs are not dependent on the party membership for future funding. They are now the source of the party's funding and if they choose to break away from the party to form a new party they can take their funding with them.  Politicians with sufficient public following - Tzippi Livni being the prime example - can now elect to form a new party with a group of associates from other parties. Being a new party enables them to initially circumvent restrictions on political party funding. When Tzippi Livni failed to win the leadership election in Kadima she simply left the party with a group of followers and formed a new party in which she controlled the list. Positions 2 and 3 of her list of candidates for the elections were former leaders of the Labour party who had, like her, had lost their leadership elections (Amram Mitzna and Amir Peretz).  It is probably no coincidence that soon after the political funding law was passed, Ariel Sharon left the Likud with a large number of Knesset members (including Livni) and picked up a large number of Labour MKs on the way.

A second problem is the emergence of parties with low levels  of dependency on their membership. Many of the new parties have no or little national organizations and whatever organization they have is as often as not staffed by paid operators rather than volunteers. Meanwhile, the larger parties rely on membership votes to decide their list and MKs need to endure expensive, difficult to fund, campaigns with uncertain results. Obviously its easier just to leave the party and take your funding with you.  Big business and trade unions can control the big parties by funding the individual leadership elections which are not state funded. Funding individuals may be a more effective path to political control then general party funding.

My view is that the law needs to be reformed so as to increase the importance of local party membership and discourage party splinter groups. Part of funding should be dependent on the existence of local branches with emphasis on representation in the peripherial areas. Groups which leave existing parties should not be able to take all the funding with them and sitting MKs who form new parties should face funding restrictions.

Source: http://www.knesset.gov.il/mmm/data/pdf/me00636.pdf


Saturday, February 2, 2013

I voted Labour in Israel's 2013 election and felt like a fool.

I voted Labour in the last Israeli elections, but I did so with a certain amount of dread. In 2009 I voted Labour and half the 13 members of Knesset subsequently decamped to a new party and sat in Netanyahu's government. You might say that half my ballot went to the Likud and half to Labour.  Not what I intended.
Most outrageously, the group that left included the party chairman, Ehud Barak.
I no longer remember who I voted for in 2006, but it may well have been Labour.  The party took 19 seats, led by the Sephardi union organizer Amir Peretz, who inspired hope that Labour would focus on social issues. Unfortunately he was offered the Defence Ministry by Olmert and his greed for power led him to take an office for which he was manifestly unsuited, followed by entry into a war for which he lacked appropriate experience. That and a photo of him looking through binoculars which still had their lens covers on, finished his career. Peretz also chose to leave the party, joining (former Kadimah leader) Tzippi Livni's new party, which got six seats.
Peretz won the leadership after a contest with temporary party leader Shimon Peres, who is notorious in Israel for losing elections which he should have won. Following his defeat, Peres left the party, along with a number of other MKs, joining Ariel Sharon's new party Kadima.
In 2003 I was out of the country.  Labour was led by Amram Mitzna who won 19 seats.  Mitzna also joined Livni's party last year. So two former Labour leaders are now in the Knesset with Livni.
Before Mitzna, the party leader was Binyamin Ben Eliezer, who is still in the party.  In other words, none of the last four leaders of the labour party  (before the current leader, Shelli Yehimovitz) are still members of the  party. Not only that, if you voted labour in the last 3 elections, some percentage of the MKs you helped elect ended up in different, more right-wing parties.
Under the circumstances I felt like a chump voting for Labour.