Yair Lapid is the kind of pro-peace politician the Middle East is crying out for (Independent)

I joked earlier that Yair Lapid is, essentially, the main character of Aaron Sorkin’s as-yet unwritten series about Israeli politics. By which I did not mean that he would inevitably find the key to the stalemate in the Middle East – as President Bartlet so memorably managed in The West Wing – but that he is attractive, charming, media savvy and media friendly (he is, of course, a former journalist), and that above all, he comes across as largely sincere in his beliefs.

As West Wing fans will know, Sorkin’s politicians tend to be the heroes, championing the right and good. If Lapid comes anywhere close to this, that surely is good news for Israel and for all those who want to see it thrive and build a peaceful, stable future with its neighbours.

On Tuesday Lapid’s Yesh Atid party claimed 19 seats, more than expected and enough to make it the second biggest player. In the run-up to the Israeli election, when Lapid’s chances of winning a substantial number of seats seemed dim, especially against the trajectory of the right-wing, uncompromisingly pro-settlement Naftali Bennet and his Jewish Home party, one of the questions was whether this untested politician could walk the walk quite as well as he could talk the talk.

Lapid is a smooth, modern politician in the Obama mould, able to make rousing speeches and engage with the everyday voter and their concerns. He is corruption-free, comes across as affable, and is well-known to voters by way of a regularly broadcast slot. And like Barack Obama, his perspective has been shaped by his personal story; he too published a memoir, Memories After My Death, telling the tale of his Hungarian immigrant father’s journey.

Israel, in common with most electorates that invest disproportionate faith in the abilities of one individual to transform the political landscape, has been disappointed before. It is not entirely surprising that after various well-intentioned dreamers ultimately failed to bring about real change, many Israelis turned instead to more pragmatic, expedient politicians like Ariel Sharon and Benjamin Netanyahu.

Yet Lapid, with his commitment to working with both the most staunchly religious and the most ardently secular, and his desire to work not just for a two-state solution but for domestic progress, belongs in that first category. His victory speech – “I hope to change things for the better. For 30 years, this country has been about left versus right. Now we want to change things on the inside: national service, education, housing, a middle class that cannot finish the month” – could have been written by Sorkin, or spoken by Obama.

He is an idealist – a clever, politically attuned one for sure, but he is not a career politician (although in true Israeli style, he is the son of one). Enjoying success and stability as a journalist, he did not have to enter the muddy waters of Israeli politics.

He has not been particularly vocal in terms of foreign policy – although he vowed last year not to join any government opposed to diplomatic negotiations on the peace process – but the consensus is that he is pro-peace, and the suggestion is that he is at least aware of international opinion and how Israel can damage itself with settlements or stubbornness.

That is not to say he is only a naïve dreamer; he is aware there is no perfect solution – “we’re not looking for a happy marriage with the Palestinians, but for a divorce agreement we can live with” – but appears at least to believe an imperfect one is possible.

Perhaps Lapid is no different from the scores of other ambitious and self-serving politicians who have gone before him, flying in on an “outsider” tagline only to become as “insider” as the rest. Perhaps – and as yet it is unclear whether he will enter the coalition or become the main opposition player – all the hopes and aspirations shared on the campaign trail, from drafting the strictly Orthodox into army service to building a fairer economy, will disintegrate once the messy business of governing gets in the way.

Only time will tell. But, after months of scaremongering about a sharp rightward turn for Israel, it can only be positive that a moderate centrist who still believes in all that “hopey changey” stuff has emerged as kingmaker. For a country founded on the dreams of figures like Theodor Herzl, Rav Kook and David Ben Gurion, Lapid’s rise can only be a good thing for Israel and for the wider region.

To see the original and read the comments, click here.

My two weeks in writing

I’ve been abroad for a week, despite the best efforts of a superstorm to stop my flight from reaching the other side of the Atlantic. While I was in New York, I briefly covered the view on the street ahead of the presidential election, finding mainly that voters were somewhat disillusioned with Obama but not wildly keen on Romney either. In keeping with the spirit of the election, I also wrote a piece for Optima ahead of the vote, assessing the position of First Ladies in US political culture.

Elsewhere, I wrote about a shoe designer who truly is deserving of the label “fabulous” for his creations that resemble just about anything – anything, that is, except for shoes themselves. My personal favourite? The coffee cup stilettos; surely worth getting up and out for.

I reported on the protests against the Batsheva ensemble as the Israeli dancers began their national tour, and covered laughable comments from Lib Dem MP Sir Bob Russell, who professed his desire to see Israeli medicines labelled. But, he explained, he had no problem using them to make himself better, if need be. A coherent approach, that one.

And in an enjoyable interview with Dr Giles Fraser, the reverend told me about his agonising efforts to learn the Hebrew language; a skill I have not yet mastered to a level beyond very basic.

‘Pinkwashing’: Israeli pride and the peace process

If I asked whether the Obama administration was using its record on healthcare reform to excuse its policy on Syria, what would you think?

You might well have strong opinions on either subject – perhaps that healthcare reform was a brave but costly step, or that the White House should put its money where its mouth isn’t quite on Syria. But looking at the two together? For most people, the one has very little to do with the other.

Now, change the Obama administration to “Israel”, healthcare reform to “gay rights” and Syria to “Palestine”, and ask the question again. Except that you don’t have to: Time magazine has helpfully done it for you in this week’s issue. Writes one David Kaufman:

“Around the world, major Pride events are being used as battle grounds to combat what some pro-Palestinian, progay activists are calling pink washing: Israel’s promotion of its progressive gay-rights record as a way to cover up ongoing human-rights abuses in the West Bank and Gaza.”

“The accusations stem from efforts over the past half-decade by the Israeli government to weave the country’s gay-friendly policies – including national hate-crime laws, employment protection for LGBT workers and openly gay military service – into its larger national-rebranding strategy, in the hopes of redirecting its global image away from politics, terrorism and the occupied territories.”

The writer then goes on to look at the debate in more detail, as you can read here, discussing various controversies at gay rights events involving pro or anti-Israel groups.

He adds: “Israel does have some of the world’s most progressive LGBT policies, yet its also mired in an illegal, militarized West Bank occupation.”

The article is not an unbridled attack on Israel. But I’m at a loss to understand its point.

There are certainly some interesting points to be made in the way in which the gay-rights movement interacts with the pro-and anti-Israel causes. I’d love to read an article on the subject.

But why assume that Israel’s support for gay-rights is about something other than improving the rights of gay people?

Yes, Israel does, as Kaufman puts it, promote its “progressive gay-rights record” as one example of its democratic nature, but what country doesn’t promote its achievements?

Every government in the world seeks to make political capital from the things it does well; see Britain with the Royal Wedding, Obama with the bin Laden triumph, Jamaica with its good weather and freely-available rum.

Hell, every job applicant in the world focuses on the good points when trying to make a public persona. It doesn’t mean they are not aware of their faults. And if I write that I have good shorthand on my CV, I’m not trying to “excuse” my rubbish French, I’m just pointing out my strength in a different area. The one does not compensate for the other and I’m not trying to convince anyone it does.

But when it comes to Israel why is it that celebrating one aspect of the country automatically implies that you are consciously ignoring another?

The argument Israel presents to the world isn’t “We’re nice to gay people so we can be super-mean to those darn Palestinians” or “gay pride was great, so stuff the peace process”. It’s that of any country in the world; celebrate what you do well and work harder at the things you don’t.

I’m a regular reader of Time magazine, have been a subscriber for years. But this, and last year’s similarly disingenuous cover story on “why Israel doesn’t care about peace” seem to me be fishing-trips in finding a provocative new angle on an age-old story, however tenuous.

Sometimes, there’s more to what’s going on in the Middle East than land and religion.

That doesn’t mean everything that happens in the region is about land and religion.

WikiLeaks’ in-house Holocaust denier

Whether or not you think Julian “WikiLeaks” Assange is guilty of heinous crimes or the successor to Barack Obama’s saviour-of-mankind crown – in my view the jury is still out – it seems he’s been keeping some interesting company.

As reported by Reason magazine, the author of the article that first suggested the CIA might have had something to do with the Swedish rape accusation against him, was none other than Israel Shamir – an activist who also uses the aliases Adam Ermash and Jöran Jermas.

Michael C Moynihan, the magazine’s senior editor, writes “Israel Shamir, when he is not accusing Assange’s accusers of setting CIA honey traps, works with WikiLeaks in an official capacity.”

According to the article, Mr Shamir is the man who “selects and distributes” which WikiLeaks documents go to which Russian media organisations.

Mr Moynihan adds: “Yulia Latynina, a reporter at the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta…also found that the Kremlin-friendly paper working with Shamir to promote the WikiLeaks material had already published “outright lies” Shamir claimed were supported by leaks.

“According to Latynina, Shamir faked a cable related to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s speech to the United Nations, which supposedly showed collusion amongst those who walked out of the talk in protest.

“That he would invent such a cable is perhaps unsurprising, considering Shamir has previously written an encomium to the “brave and charismatic leader” of Iran.”

So who is Mr Shamir? Well, for those unaware, he is no friend to the country that bears his name or to the Jewish community in general. Moynihan describes him as “an antisemite and semi-literate Holocaust denier with ties to both the extreme right and left and a well-documented penchant for lying”.

Elsewhere, The Times columnist David Aaronovitch has noted that he is a “believer in the blood libel”.

Mr Shamir has also spoken of those age-old Jewish conspiracies, stating that the Middle East policy of the United States and Britain was driven by “the same old fight for ensuring Jewish supremacy,” and that “Jews indeed own, control and edit a big share of mass media.” (This at a reception in the House of Lords in 2005 organised by Labour peer Lord Ahmed).

At one point he allegedly praised the BNP leader Nick Griffin as an “anti-bourgeois nationalist,” and at another he suggested the Jews had been warned in an advance to escape the Twin Towers before the September 11 attacks.

What a lovely fellow. Positively Wiki-ed, if you ask me.

This post originally appeared on theJC.com

A Republican tantrum is just what Obama needs

If I was Obama I’d probably want to stamp my feet right about now. “It’s not fair,” I’d cry. “How can I be so unpopular, Look what I’ve done.”

But there’s a reason Obama has the support of half a country (and he still does – plenty of people still went for the Democrats in the mid-terms, and I don’t. Here he is, fresh from his party’s worst performance since 1948, humble and conciliatory. Robert Gibbs, his spokesman said: Obama would be “open to listening to what the debate is on both sides” of the tax-cut issue.

That may be just talk, he may be, inwardly, fuming and anything but “open to listening”. But he has to appear as if he is willing to reach across the divide, to promote bipartisanship and act as though he understands what the voters are upset about.

Because the Republicans are hungry for power, hungry for revenge, hungry to erase everything that the Obama administration has achieved over the past two years. What they aren’t is in a particularly conciliatory mood; they are unlikely to be up for working together.

And of course, as Bill Clinton’s experience suggests, the more Obama offers to cooperate, and the more the Republicans refuse, the better it is for his reelection chances. In 1995 the Republicans refused to play ball on the budget, and turned down any chance of a deal. They told Clinton that “they would shut the government down and my presidency would be over”, if he didn’t give in to their demands.

Well, the first part of that was true. On November 14, the federal government did shut down, but public opinion went against the GOP and Clinton came off as the good guy, returned for a second term in 1996.

Obviously, it was a different situation, but at the heart of it was that the Republicans, and in particularly Newt “Contract for America” Gingrich, looked petty and childish. They looked, essentially, like they were throwing a tantrum for not getting their way.

The Republicans, with their tax cut plans, their ambitions to destroy healthcare reform and so forth, may be on their way to tantrum territory. The more Obama supports them, the more he shows willingness to compromise, the more it could all end in tears for the Republicans.

Helen Thomas: why it isn’t about free speech

Several months ago there was a great big furore over when Daily Mail columnist wrote what was deemed a homophobic piece. Jan Moir’s murmurings about the death of Boyzone singer Stephen Gately led to a host of complaints to the PCC and a storm of upset on Twitter and in the blogosphere.
 
Moir lived to write another day, but another journalist who didn’t watch what she said has not been so lucky.
 
Yesterday, amidst much pressure, veteran White House reporter
Helen Thomas announced her resignation from the Hearst news agency. Given her age – 89 – and the fact that she has been a Washington writer since Kennedy, her stepping down is perhaps unsurprising.

But of course, her age had nothing to do with it. Thomas walked only in the wake of a scandal of her own making.

She told a Rabbi, on video and during a White House Jewish Heritage Month event no less, that all Jews should “get the hell out of Palestine” and “go back home to Poland, Germany, America and everywhere else.”

Around the comment-sphere opinion has been mixed about whether she should have been fired (she was also sacked by her agency and asked not to speak at scheduled school event) or whether it was ‘censorship’ to call for her head.
 
Most prominently, Roy Greenslade weighed in with this:

 “So, in the land of the free, where freedom of speech is guaranteed under the constitution, a person who expresses what are deemed to be controversial views is effectively gagged…

 “… one can see clearly how people in America who are willing to express anti-establishment opinions are demonised, marginalised and finally excluded from public debate.”
 
But with due respect, he’s wrong. This isn’t a case about free speech, or the lack thereof.

Free speech, as Voltaire would put it, is about defending the right to share abhorrent opinions. Thomas has the absolute right to do so, to say what she likes about anything from Israel to Lady Gaga, (and incidentally, her resignation will not prevent her from airing her views elsewhere), but not when she sits as a professional in the White House press room.
 
She can be as offensive as she likes, but to do so from a position of power is irresponsible.

And if she wishes to criticise Israel – as is her prerogative – she should do so with reasoned argument not narrow-minded slur.

Journalists can, and should, share their opinions. But it is a basic principle that fair comment should be based on true facts.
 
By calling for the Jews to go back to Europe Thomas forgets that a high proportion of Israeli’s were born in Israel and have lived there for generations, and that many of the immigrants to the country come from the Middle East, not Europe.

The reference to Europe, with its clear resonance of Holocaust-era attitudes, was particularly troubling from a woman who lived through the atrocities of the Second World War. It was a cheap comment, perhaps meant as a throwaway jibe, but cheap nonetheless.

And, whatever you think of Israel, Thomas’ comment was not simply a criticism of policy. She referred to “all Jews”, yet the Israeli government by no means represents the opinions of every Israeli – the intransigence of the Knesset is testament to that – nor indeed every Jew.
 
President Obama
called it “the right decision” for her to resign, and it was.

Substitute “Jews” with blacks, Muslims, gays, or any other minority, and the insult would be just as abominable and deserving of the same outcry.

Journalists should not shy away from controversy, and others from Moir to Thomas will continue to make such inflammatory comments. There are few writers out there who are not also passionate opinion-holders.
 
And most of the time, it’s OK to disagree. But in a just, democratic society, free speech must still be balanced with the prevention of bigotry.