Iain Banks Dies at 59

I’ve just heard the very sad news that Iain Banks has died of cancer.  He announced that he had terminal cancer back in April – which prompted me to read one of his books, The Bridge – and said he was expected to have less than a year to live, but just two months is so incredibly tragic. He just missed the publication of his final book, The Quarry, which is due to be released in only a couple of weeks time.

I’ve been very late in becoming a fan of his work – and I really need to read more – but I can recognise that his contribution to literature and the political sphere have been immense.  He has around 30 published novels and has won many awards, including a Hugo Award and a British Science Fiction Award.  He has campaigned for political causes ranging from Scottish independence, Humanism, opposition to the Iraq War and the Israeli occupation of Palestine.

He will be very missed by the multitude of fans and admirers he has developed over the last three decades.

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Israel’s New Government

Israel’s new government has today, finally, been sworn in, after the rather awkward situation political parties were left in during the election earlier this year.  In many ways much is the same: Benjamin Netanyahu will return for a second term as Prime Minister, and the coalition will include parties which support Israeli settlements in the West Bank (most notably, ‘Jewish Home’, who I feared would become part of government).  The new Defence Minister and Housing Minister are both supporters of settlements.

However, there are also some marginal changes.  For the first time in around a decade, orthodox Jewish parties have not been included in government.  There are more ministers who would be described as moderate within this government than there were previously.  Most surprisingly of all, the liberal Hatnuah party, which supports the two-state solution, has also been included in the coalition.  What effects this will have, I do not know.

Although the government appears slightly more favourable now than it did last year, I don’t think a lot will change.  I highly doubt there to be a breakthrough in peace talks with Palestine, and I imagine the rhetoric against Iran will continue.  Perhaps the government will be marginally less likely to support military action against Iran now, but I really couldn’t say.

Israeli Election Analysis

I’ve been far busier than I expected to be (if you ever study Advanced Higher History in Scotland, anticipate the amount of research you’ll have to do!), which is likely only to get worse for the next two weeks, so I apologise if this isn’t as in depth as I would like.  The matter is also incredibly complicated and I know woefully little, but here is a basic analysis of the Israeli election held on the 22nd January.

The results:

As you can see, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Beiteinu coalition did indeed win the most votes of any party, and by a large margin.  But this is Israeli politics where votes tend to be scattered among a large number of parties, so even the ‘winner’ of this election won less than a quarter of the popular vote, which corresponds to its particular influence.

Predictions for the election suggested that the Israeli electorate would shift into the far-right, with expectations that the Jewish Home party and orthodox Jewish parties would do well.  And while collectively these parties did gain around a quarter of the vote, the main winner of the election seems to have been the centrist party, Yesh Atid, led by Yair Lapid, which is almost certain to be included within any potential coalition.  But even if Netanyahu does ally with Yesh Atid, which could easily happen despite their opposing views on Palestine and other issues*, they’ll collectively still only hold 50 of the 120 seats in the Knesset.  They could form a minority government, but with Israel’s divided and potentially unstable system this might be unwise.

Possibilities to complete this coalition with one more party would be with either Labor, The Jewish Home or Shas.  The most commonly cited party is The Jewish Home, though it stands opposed to Yesh Atid on many issues – such as forcing ultra-Orthodox Jews to serve in the armed forces – so it’s unclear how successful this would be.  I’m not sure why Labor hasn’t been touted as a greater possibility; perhaps because it disagrees with Likud Beiteinu on so many issues.  Neither side seems willing to engage with the Jewish religious factions.  The Liberals don’t have enough seats to join a coalition, and I can’t see the Arab parties being included.  But this process of negotiating the formation of a government could go on for months, and even then could end in failure and force a second election to take place.

So this could go any way.  I personally do not want The Jewish Home to be part of any potential government, though the surprising and welcome success of Yesh Atid may counteract the negative impact they could have.  Stay tuned!

*Netanyahu, going by his settlement policies, appears to support the one-state solution – i.e. that Israel takes control of the West Bank and incorporates it into its territory.  Lapid would prefer a two-state solution in which Palestine would achieve independence, though even he is in agreement that Israel should occupy the entirety of Jerusalem.

The Israeli Election

Tomorrow, the people of Israel will vote for their next government.  The most significant election to happen in the region since President Morsi was elected in Egypt last June, the way the vote goes will have a profound effect on relations within the Middle East.  Israel is arguably the most democratic country in the Middle East (unless you live in Palestine) and also has the most powerful military, currently being the only country to possess nuclear weapons.

The election will be held in the context of, as ever, a country which sees itself under siege.  There is the old problem of Palestine, which will particularly be in the public mind after the occurance of what Israel terms ‘Operation Pillar of Defence’, though according to reports this is having a surprisingly small impact on the election.  Most parties appear committed to Israel’s current covert strategy of slowly absorbing the territories and denying them of sovereignty; even the opposition, Labor, has been silent on the issue.  Which is surprising, really, considering recent clashes, Palestine’s recent admission as a non-member observer state in the United Nations, and the government’s decision to build more settlements.

More significantly, the old foe Iran is perceived to be the greatest threat to Israeli security.    Expected to soon reach nuclear weapon capabilities – though this is a highly contested statement – the debate in Israel is not if action should be taken in the event of Iran coming close to acquiring nuclear weapons, but the severity of that action.  It’s no secret that Prime Minister Netanyahu, seeking re-election, would love to launch military strikes against Iran, but it’s less clear if he would do so without US support.

With things calmer on the northern border with Lebanon, Israel’s main secondary threat is now a consequence of the Arab Uprisings.  It faces an Islamist-dominated government to the south in Egypt, which although seems dedicated to peace now may not always be.  Egyptian instability has also resulted in the advancement of insurgents in the Sinai region, leading to another wall.  To the east, Israel’s traditional foe from whom it still occupies territory, Syria, is wracked in a deadly civil war.  On this issue Israel is torn; Syria is an ally of Iran so it may seem in their interests to support the rebellion, but this risks bringing radical Islamic extremists to power, who would be all but certain to oppose Israel’s very existence – at least they know where they stand with Assad.  So it’s no surprise that Israel has stayed quiet, fearful of either outcome.

The debate within the election does seem to be mostly on the issue of defence and security, rather than the typical discussions on economic policies we’re seeing in Western countries at the moment.  This election quiz by Al Jazeera, despite providing confusing results, gives an indication of which issues are being discussed in the current climate.  It’s quite terrifying.

So how will the election go?  The latest opinion poll has predicted 32% will go to Netanyahu’s coalition party Likud Beiteinu, which would make it the largest party in the Knesset despite having a combined 10% fewer votes than in 2009.  Labor is polled at 17% – 4% more than in 2009.  The ultra-nationalist, and frankly extremely dangerous ‘Jewish Home Party’ is polled at 12%.  The remaining 39% is scattered among a variety of populist, Zionist and liberal parties.  It is clear that Israel is a very divided society and no party will achieve a majority, meaning more extreme parties will play a ‘kingmaker’ role in forming coalitions.  Although I am a supporter of proportional representation, I believe there is a strong argument to introduce a plurality system in Israel, considering the current political climate.

I expect Israel to continue down its current path after this election, with few changes in the near future.

Israel’s Obsession with Walls

Israel appears to be developing an obsession with walls and barricades that would have made the Romans proud.*  First came the infamous West Bank barrier, which upon completion will cover around 700km, clearly separating the territory of Israel and the West Bank.  The Gaza Strip is separated similarly.  The stated purpose of this was to protect Israeli civilians from Palestinian terrorism, and in that respect is appears to have been a success.  But underneath this reasoning there may be a humanitarian disaster for the Palestinians.  The Palestinian economy declined between 2000 and 2002 as work on the barrier began, and has only made a feebly recovery.  Communities have been cut in half.  They have lost their human right to the freedom of movement.  This isn’t even getting into Israel’s highly criticised settlement policy.

The city of Jerusalem is increasingly becoming cut in half, between West Jerusalem and East Jerusalem.  Both Palestine and Israel consider Jerusalem their capital city – and of course, neither respect the right of the other to exist.  Israel, having won the most wars and gaining the most foreign military aid, now appears to exist more so than Palestine.  But that’s a different subject/rant altogether.  Jerusalem is bearing more and more resemblances to  Cold War Berlin, separated by the Berlin Wall.  We can only hope this wall will be brought down as peacefully.

Then I read the news article which inspired this post, commenting on the Israel-Egypt barrier being built along the border at Sinai.  And then, just as I was planning this post in my head, I read this news story of yet another barrier being planned, this time along the eastern border of the Golan Heights as a result of the Syrian Civil War.

The Golan Heights were captured by Israel during the Six-Day War in 1967 and have remained in their possession ever since.   As the Syrian Civil War becomes ever more violent and bloody it has begun spilling into other countries – this can be seen in both Lebanon and Turkey.  Israel has remained neutral during the war – again a whole other subject – and does not want to be affected by the instability.  So up goes another wall.  Once more this barrier protects Israel from terrorism, this time the terrorists being radical Islamist insurgents who have gained influence in the Sinai region since the Egyptian Revolution.  However it was also intended to cut off the flow of African migrants into Israel, and in that respect it will certainly be successful once reaching completion early this year.  It is also hoped to crack down on illegal drug trafficking.

While there may be some legitimate reasons for all this obsessive building of walls, the fact is that it does nothing for Israel’s image of being an imperialist occupier, and the idea that a Second Apartheid is developing between the Jews and Arabs of the region.  In fact, a quick search with the words ‘barrier’ and ‘wall’ brings up results for every single one of Israel’s neighbours, though not all of these are quite so dramatic in scale.  Virtually, there are walls over every single one of Israel’s borders.  Extreme paranoia, an abuse of human rights or necessary defence?  I could not say.

*Well, okay, the Romans would have resented any attempt of wall-building by Israel, but that’s besides the point…

UN General Assembly Resolution 76/19

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A few days ago the UN overwhelmingly voted to upgrade Palestine to a non-member observer status. This map shows how isolated the Israel-USA position on the issue is, with reds voting against the resolution, greens voting for, and yellow abstaining (blue countries were not present).

Palestine is the issue which always seems to break the typical ‘West/Rest of World’ divide, with the USA seeming to abandon its support for freedom and self determination in attempts to placate Israel. You can tell it’s a complex issue when North Korea and Japan all vote the same, for instance.

It is difficult to say what effect this resolution will have, but it’s certainly a significant step towards the establishment of an independent Palestinian state. Though it appears to have also inflamed Israeli opinion over the issue.