Tourism in Israel

I am always looking for places to take visitors, especially those that have been here many times. Then I am always amazed to find that they haven’t been to some of the most obvious places.  Some of my favorite tourist sites are:

  • Caesarea – wonderful Roman and Crusader ruins, excellent video presentation and a nice place to eat lunch by the shore
  • Appolonia – also formerly a Roman port near Herzliya, with extensive Crusader castle remains
  • Tzippori – excellently preserved Roman houses and mosaics, in Galilee near Nazareth
  • Beit Shean – the best preserved Roman city in Israel, quite amazing
  • Haifa – the view of the Bahai gardens and the city from the Carmel is spectacular
  • Tiberias – a lovely city and the view from Lake Kinneret (Sea of Galilee) at night is unbeatable, especially on a dinner cruise
  • Masada – take the cable car and spend time wandering around the historic site
  • Jerusalem – so many places to see in Jerusalem, especially the Old City, the City of David excavations, the underground passages at the Western Wall, and much more
  • Akko – don’t miss the underground Crusader city that was buried by the Muslims
  • Tel Aviv – Neve Tzedek, the old train station, Jaffa and the restored Sarona area
  • Netanya – the cliff-top walk with its amazing wooden constructions
  • Beersheva – Tel Beersheva, the Negev Brigade memorial and the Air Force museum
  • Mitzpe Ramon – view the incredible Ramon Crater, visit the museum, and then descend into it
  • Eilat – sun and fun on the beach

WIth all these wonderful places to visit (and many more) no wonder April broke a record for visitors to Israel with 350,000 in one month and this year 2017 will likely be the largest number ever.   Compare this to nearby Syria.  Would you rather be an Israeli or an Arab.  Tourism is always better than terrorism.

The Israeli Coalition Crisis

Most non-Israelis will be flabbergasted at the origin of the current Government Coalition crisis in Israel.  It has been caused by the dispute over the Israel Broadcasting Authority (IBA) and whether or not it should be closed down and replaced by a similar agency.  The origin of this situation goes back to previous Communications Minister Gilad Erdan and Finance Minister Yair Lapid, who decided that the cost of the IBA to the Government was exorbitant. Current Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon has committed to abolish the IBA and  replace it with another agency (I have described this situation in my blog posting “Self-Inflicted Wound” on  March 16).

Since there was a Coalition agreement with the Likud Party of PM Netanyahu and since Netanyahu wished to avoid a Coalition crisis early in his term, he acquiesced in this stupidity.  But, as time has gone on Netanyahu has gradually moved away from support of this political act.  In fact, finally he has come out and stated that he will no longer honor  his earlier agreement to allow Kahlon to go ahead with this plan.  He has stated that he is even prepared to allow the Government to fall and go to new elections over this.  

One might accept his argument that it is because he has discovered that in fact such a plan will be more expensive for the Government than less, or because this plan is widely unpopular.  But, possibly the real reason for his about-turn is that it will embarrass Kahlon, a potential rival whose political career might be damaged by causing  a major political crisis in Israel.   Whether either men will risk this outcome or whether both or one of them is bluffing remains to be seen.  But, it is an indication of the nature of politics in Israel that a Government crisis can have such trivial origins.  

Self-Inflicted Wound

Members of the Israel Broadcasting Authority (IBA) are demonstrating in Jerusalem against the closing down of their organization and the formation of a successor organization, to be called Kan (here in Hebrew).   This has been a Government policy for some years.  The ostensible reason was that the IBA had grown too big and was costing too much.  So why not make cost-cutting measures, fire some staff, surely that would cost less than closing the whole organization and starting a whole new one.  By doing this, about 1000 trained professionals will be out of work and new ones will have to be found and retrained.  Also the ongoing programming will be totally disrupted.

For example, Kan has no plans to continue the English-language news broadcasts which have been going on for years.  Every day at 4 pm there is a 15-20 min News summary in English on IBA News TV.  It is good, short and very useful, especially to English-speakers like me and also foreign diplomats working in Israel and the many English-speaking tourists who visit Israel.  Why on earth when Israel’s image is so bad would the Government decide as a short-sighted cost-cutting measure to shut down the one English-language news broadcast in Israel.  There is in fact a private TV news program in English at 10 pm, but it’s not the same.   

Yesterday PM Netanyahu held a press conference with the Heads of the Israeli start-up called Mobileye, that specializes in software for driverless cars, and Intel, the large US computer company, that is buying Mobileye for ten billion dollars (yes, that’s billion!).  Of course, Netanyahu was saying how this represents a step up for Israel into the top technology countries in the world, and how this is making Israel affluent.  So if Israel is so affluent why is there this asinine plan to close down the IBA, it makes no sense.  It was spawned during an earlier political dispute, probably a personal one, between two now forgotten politicians. Netanyahu has pledged to stop the plan, but so far there is no sign of that.  This whole stupid self-inflicted wound is typical of Israeli politics.

Troubling Revelations

The Israeli Comptroller General Joseph Shapira has finally issued his report on IDF Operation Protective Edge of 2014 against Hamas in the Gaza Strip.  It contains troubling revelations that bring into question several basic aspects of Israeli Government functioning in time of war.

Here are the most important points:

  1. The Tunnels:  PM Netanyahu was briefed on  the attack tunnels that Hamas had dug under the Gaza border into Israel to facilitate its attacks.  However, he failed to give this subject enough priority and failed to pass the information on to the military echelon, thus putting Israel in grave danger.  During the conflict a single soldier detected the infliltration of a group of Hamas terrorists from a tunnel entrance within Israel and raised the alarm.  If it had not been for this Israeli civilian casualties would have been much higher.  The IDF then destroyed this group of infiltrators and had to adapt during the war to the serious danger posed by these tunnels.  Of the 32 tunnels that were detected by the IDF, only about half were actually blown up, leaving a significant threat to the state.  Since then Hamas has dug more tunnels and the IDF is finally taking this threat seriously and developing an anti-tunnel strategy.
  2. Coordination of civilian and military leadership:  The civilian and military echelons failed to coordinate their intentions and actions in a formal way, leading to misunderstandings and in some cases lack of action when immediate action was necessary.  This could have lead to loss of life.
  3. Whether the war was necessary at all:  The dcision-making processes that lead to the Government declaring war through Operation Protective Edge were faulty.  The decision to go to war was ad hoc and needs in future to have a serious basis.

Some other details of the war were questioned, for instance, why was it necessary for the IDF to directly attack Shujaiya, a heavily defended Hamas stronghold in the center of the Strip.  This led to loss of IDF soldiers lives.  Altogether there were 74 dead and two soldiers remains were captured and are held by Hamas.

Overall, Operation Defensive Edge was considered a success by the Israeli side, in that the backbone of Hamas military control of the Gaza Strip was largely destroyed and they were dealt a severe blow, thus re-establishing Israeli deterrence.  But, even though there has mainly been quiet on that front since the end of that war, nevertheless it is widely agreed that Hamas are preparing for another war in the not too distant future.  There are two main trains of thought on the Israeli side about this.  On the right, it is questioned why an “operation” was used instead of an all-out war to totally destroy Hamas.  On the left, it is considered necessary to come to terms with Hamas (even though have no intention of coming to terms with Israel).

There are currently calls within the political establishment for a full State Commission to reinvestigate that war.  Such an action would be self-destructive for Israel.  The political establishment, including the PM are under pressure to admit mistakes, while the PM denies any.  And the military, the IDF leadership, also have counter-attacked the Report.  How this will work itself out remains to be seen.  Let’s hope lessons were learned so that such mistakes do not happen in the future.

IDF Soldier Sentenced

IDF soldier Sgt. Elor Azaria was tried on charges of shooting a Palestinian terrorist who had already been “neutralized.”   As he approached the scene in Hebron he saw the terrorist lying on the ground move his head, and he said he heard someone shout, “he moved,” and instinctively he shot the terrorist in the head and killed him.  However, there were senior officers present who saw no danger from this terrorist who had already been shot and since Azaria had not been given orders to shoot, which is usually required, Azaria was arrested and charged with manslaughter.  I challenge anyone to say in which other countries in the world such a charge would happen, maybe in the US and Britain, but not many other countries.

Israel is a country of laws and the IDF takes its code of conduct very seriously.  Azaria broke two regulations, he shot when no-one was in immediate danger, and he shot without receiving orders to do so.  You might say, well soldiers have to be able to react to what they perceive as a direct threat to themselves or their comrades.  The court had to struggle with these conflicting considerations.  Last Tuesday the Jaffa Military Court announced its verdict.  Azaria was found guilty of manslaughter and was given an 18 month’s sentence.

This was lenient compared to the prosecution’s request of 5 years, but this sentence also included time off for the 6 months or so he has been held since his arrest. Both sides stated they were unhappy with the sentence, the defense wanted him to be exonerated and the prosecution wanted a longer sentence.  The judges took an intermediate path, they had to find him guilty of carrying out an unnecessary shooting, but they indicated his lack of intent by giving him a lenient sentence.  The defense immediately announced that they will appeal the sentence and his right-wing supporters called for a pardon to be granted by the political leadership.  Even without a reduction of his sentence on appeal or a pardon, Azaria will likely only serve about one year behind bars.

This case had split the country along political lines.  The right believed he acted correctly and wanted him released and the left believed he acted improperly and should be behind bars for a long time.   The verdict in a way defuses this situation by giving neither side exactly what it wanted, but giving a sentence that can satisfy both sides.  Anyway, next time you hear that IDF soldiers are “killers” or “immoral,” remember that is purely Palestinian propaganda.  The IDF is one of the most, if not the most, moral armed forces in the world!

Netanyahu in Singapore and Australia

Israeli PM Bibi Netanyahu recently visited Singapore and met with PM Lee Hsien Loong and they had a very friendly interaction.  He is now in Australia soaking up the good vibes that come from that far-away yet very friendly country. He had an excellent welcome from PM Malcolm Turnball and visited the main synagogue in Sydney.  Australia is one of the most supportive countries towards Israel.  Like Israel and the US, Australia is a country of immigrants and they have many features in common.

But, on the surface Singapore and Australia are totally different.  Singapore is very small and Australia is very large.  Singapore is densely populated and Australia is sparsely populated.  Singapore is mainly Chinese while Australia is mainly British.  What they have in common as far as Israel is concerned is that they are both strongly against Muslim immigration and both fear the Muslims.  Singapore is surrounded by Malaysia and Indonesia, while Australia has Indonesia as its northern neighbor. And many Middle Eastern Muslim immigrants seek to enter Australia, from Syria, Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

What makes Singapore and Australia friendly towards Israel is that they depend on Israeli know-how in the security and anti-terrorism area.  Singapore and Australia are excellent export markets for Israel’s thriving and advanced military and avionics systems as well as intelligence information about terrorist threats.  One reason that Netanyahu is visiting these countries now is a delayed response to the  animosity of former Pres. Obama  of the US, who basically was responsible for Israel seeking friends and markets elsewhere. Hence Bibi’s recent visit to Africa, and his current visit to friends in Asia.  As time goes by Israel will expand its ties to other countries, including Japan, S. Korea, China, Philippines, and so on.  Israel as a small, but technologically advanced and western country, has a lot to offer them.

Above and Beyond

Above and Beyond” is a documentary directed by Sarah Spielberg about the founding of the Israel Airforce.  What has become perhaps the premier airforce in the world, according to its victories and successes in combat, was founded in very modest circumstances.  In 1947 war was imminent between the Jewish population of British Mandatory Palestine, numbering only ca. 650,000, and the Arab populations of Palestine and the surrounding Arab States, Egypt, Transjordan, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, with populations numbering ca. 35 million.  At that time the Jews had no airplanes that could be used in combat.  David Ben Gurion, the leader of the Jewish settlement (the Yishuv) sent out emissaries, mainly to America, to try to find donors and to buy post-war munitions, tanks and planes, that were being sold-off by the US Government at junk metal prices, and to have them smuggled into Palestine (to do so was illegal both for the US and the UK).

The first two small planes that were purchased were flown in May 1948 from Brindisi in Italy to Palestine by two American former combat pilots.  They flew for 11 hours, without radio contact, because what they were doing was strictly illegal.   When the planes arrived the Haganah put our flares as a runway, and as soon as they landed the planes were hidden in hangars.  The next day the planes took off for action against the invading armies of Egypt, Syria and Iraq.  This was the beginning of the vaunted IAF.

The film gives details of the around 50 or so foreign volunteers that made up the nascent IAF with only two native Israelis, Moti Alon, who was the commander and died later in a crash, and Ezer Weizmann, who had flown Spitfires for the RAF during WWII and later became President of Israel.  The film tells how an American Al Schwimmer set up a fake airline based in Panama, and then flew planes there illegally that he had purchased in the US.  From there they flew on to Brazil, then Africa and from N. Africa to Europe.

In Europe after WWII most countries would not help the new Jewish State, but surprisingly Czechoslovakia did.  The reasons for this are complex, but mainly it was because the Communist bloc was very short of real money, and so the hard cash the Jews were prepared to spend on armaments and planes was needed.  Also, the Czechs had a heavy industry that the Germans had taken over to make their armaments.  Now after the end of the War the Messerschmitt planes that the Czechs had stockpiled were worthless, except to the Jewish State.  So ironically the mostly American Jewish pilots found themselves training in Me-109s that they had been fighting against only a few months before.  Of course, behind it all was the Soviets and Stalin undoubtedly hoped that the Jews would make life difficult for the British in Palestine, that they did.

These volunteers were part of a group of ca. 4,500 known by the Hebrew acronym of Machal (meaning foreign volunteers in Israel) consisting mainly of Jewish former combatants in WWII, plus a smattering of non-Jews.  Some Machalniks died in the Israeli War of Independence, but most of those that survived left after the war to go home, to America, Canada, S. Africa and Australia.  But, some also stayed and became part of the new State.  One of those was Murray Greenfield, who after serving in the US Navy during WWII volunteered to man ships that were taking the Jewish DPs from Europe to Palestine and then Israel.  He spoke briefly at the AACI about his experiences and mentioned that there are very few of his former Machal friends still living.

How did the tiny State of Israel not only manage to survive, but also to defeat the professional armies of 6 Arab States?  One of the reasons was that soon after its formation the IAF started to receive planes such as the Spitfire and the Arab airforces were no match for the few but experienced WWII veterans and Israel has always had control of the air. The Arab armies invading Israel quickly realized that they were vulnerable to aerial attack.  The Egyptian Army was stopped only ca. 30 km south of Tel Aviv.  It was the battle of the few against the many and the Machal volunteers definitely swung the balance.  You must see this film “Above and Beyond.”