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Friday, September 5, 2014

Revealed: Europe's "discreet" cooperation with Israel's nuclear industry

The European Union has been cooperating furtively with Israel's nuclear industry for at least six years.

An internal document that I recently obtained states that an accord on "joint and cooperative initiatives relevant for the peaceful use of nuclear energy" was signed between the EU and Israel in 2008. "This is a discreet agreement that has not been given publicity," the paper adds.

The document was drawn up ahead of an October 2013 visit to Israel by Antonio Tajani, then Italy's member of the European Commission.

It is not hard to understand why the Union wishes to keep this cooperation "discreet." The agreement was reached with Israel's Atomic Energy Commission -- the body that runs the Dimona reactor, where Israel's nuclear weapons were developed.

Israel introduced nuclear weapons to the Middle East and has refused to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). It has refused to permit international inspection of all its nuclear activities.

In 2006, Ehud Olmert, then Israel's prime minister, acknowledged that Israel possessed nuclear weapons. The US Defence Intelligence Agency estimated in 1999 that Israel had between 60 and 80 nuclear warheads.

Hypocrisy

These facts put Israel in a very different category to Iran, supposedly a major threat to world peace.

Unlike Israel, Iran has no nuclear weapons. The National Intelligence Council -- a group advising the US president -- expressed "high confidence" in 2007 that Iran had halted its weapons development program a few years earlier.

Despite that explicit statement, both the EU and the US have slapped punitive sanctions on Iran (after some sanctions had been relaxed, America imposed new restrictions on business with Iran last week). The official narrative behind these sanctions is that everything must be done to stop Iran acquiring the bomb.

Yet the European Union is happy to cooperate, with Israel, a nation that actually has the bomb. Is it any wonder that Brussels officials don't want attention drawn to this hypocrisy?

Military links

I asked the EU's Joint Research Centre (JRC) - which is tasked with implementing the "discreet" agreement, why it is cooperating with Israel, a known threat to world peace. A JRC spokesperson tried to present the "scientific collaboration" involved here as benign.

The research with Israel concerns the "medical application of radionuclides, radiation protection, as well as nuclear security related to the detection and identification of nuclear and radioactive materials," according to the spokesperson. "It does not cover any activities related to reprocessing and enrichment."

I asked the spokesperson if any guarantees have been provided that Israel will not use the fruits of its research with the Union for military purposes. Not surprisingly, I didn't receive a reply to that question.

When I asked how much had been spent on nuclear cooperation with Israel, the JRC would only say that the research in question is "not jointly funded as each institution covers its related activities."

As well as overseeing the development of nuclear weapons, Israel's Atomic Energy Commission has strong links to the conventional arms industry.

Apart from Dimona, the commission also runs the Soreq research center. Soreq's own website says that it develops equipment with "homeland security" applications -- a euphemism for surveillance technology and weaponry. When journalists have been given guided tours of that center, its scientists have bragged of inventing lasers to assist snipers.

The JRC -- the European Commission's in-house science service -- has been cooperating more directly with Israel's weapons industry, too.

In December 2010, it teamed up with Elbit, the Israeli arms company, for what it called a "small boat detection campaign" in Haifa. The purpose of this exercise was to see how drones can be used for maritime surveillance, principally to stop asylum-seekers from entering Europe.

Elbit is one of the leading suppliers of warplanes to the Israeli military. This means that it is providing some of the key tools that Israel used to inflict death and destruction on Gaza this summer (and in previous attacks). By hosting the "boat detection" exercise, the EU indicated its eagerness to deploy Israel's tools of mass murder against refugees.

Greenwashing

Although the EU has tried to keep the nuclear research "discreet", it has openly celebrated more palatable forms of engagement with Israel.

José Manuel Barroso, the outgoing European Commission chief, posed for photos with Benjamin Netanyahu, when the two men approved an energy and water cooperation agreement in 2012. The JRC tried to sell that accord as ecologically sound by stressing that it concerned renewable energy and resource conversation.

Environmental campaigners have a name for tactics designed to rebrand a villain as a tree-hugger: "greenwashing."

Cooperation on "clean" energy provides scant comfort to Gaza's people, whose only power plant was bombed by Israel this summer. Nor should it be forgotten that Israel attacked a center for autistic children that had solar panels on its roof. So much for Israel's commitment to renewable energy.

Israel is a nuclear-armed rogue state. I'm sure that many decent people would be horrified to learn that the EU is liaising with the very agencies that developed Israel's nuclear weapons -- even if this cooperation is "discreet."

•First published by The Electronic Intifada, 5 September 2014.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Why Europe won't impose an arms embargo on Israel

In Greek mythology, Hermes was both a thief of cattle and a protector of sheep. Israel's weapons industry is promoting the Hermes drone as similarly versatile to the god after which it is named.

A new version of this pilotless warplane - the Hermes-900 - made its combat debut when Israel attacked Gaza during the summer. It might take some time before we have an idea how many deaths can be attributed to this particular killing machine (or, more accurately, its operators).  Israel has forbidden Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch from entering Gaza to investigate how the offensive was conducted.

We can nonetheless be certain that it helped to inflict immense suffering and destruction. Able to carry twice the bomb-load as the model of drone it will replace, the Hermes-900 was introduced during the first week of the attack, which began on 8 July. At the end of that month, the Israeli Air Force exulted in how it had been flown "non-stop".

Israel has been eager to emphasise its less lethal applications, too. Brazil bought a Hermes-900 drone for surveillance during the World Cup. The deal enabled Elbit, the plane's manufacturer, to boast of how it was contributing to "safety" at sporting events.

At least, the mass surveillance of football fans was widely reported. Discussions about the potential use of Israeli drones to track refugees destined for Europe's shores have, by contrast, gone largely unnoticed.

Last year, Elbit contacted Frontex, the EU's border management agency, seeking to show off its drones. Elbit suggested that the agency would have a "special interest" in the "search and rescue variant" of the Hermes-900.

In response, Frontex arranged an appointment in its Warsaw headquarters for a "senior director" with the weapons company. Elbit followed up by offering a "live demo" of its technology, according to internal Frontex documents that I obtained under EU freedom of information rules.

Another key supplier of warplanes used to flatten Gaza, Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), gave such a demonstration to Frontex in October 2011. IAI was paid more than $260,000 for that privilege, although it could have charged more. In an exchange of email messages, IAI assured the agency that it had the "best suitable" drones for catching asylum-seekers. To underscore its altruistic side, the firm offered to exhibit its wares at a "greatly reduced price".

These low-key discussions provide some clues about why the EU has refused to impose an arms embargo on Israel. Three years ago, Frontex acquired the power to buy or lease its own equipment (until then, it had borrowed from EU governments).

It is acutely aware that Israel is a leading innovator of the drones that it covets. It is equally aware that Israel Aerospace Industries has taken part in EU-funded research projects on how drones can hunt down asylum-seekers. Nobody should be fooled by touchy-feely terms like "search and rescue" or "safety". Frontex is pursuing an essentially racist agenda of trying to prevent foreigners from entering Europe.

There is an obscene logic behind why the EU's border management officials would wish to cooperate with Israel. Both Frontex and Israel have violated the rights of Palestinian refugees.

As part of its activities, Frontex works with the Greek authorities to "screen" asylum-seekers. A report by several human rights organisations published in May documented how Frontex was recording that Palestinian refugees who had lived in Syria were "stateless", without recognising that they were fleeing a vicious civil war.

These refugees were ordered to leave Greek territory within 30 days. A principle enshrined in international law - that nobody should be expelled to a country where his or her life will be at risk - has been blithely ignored by an agency of the European Union.

Israel is a state founded as a result of large-scale dispossession. Around 750,000 Palestinians were uprooted in the Nakba (Arabic for catastrophe), the ethnic cleansing at the time of Israel's establishment in 1948. A large number fled to Gaza. Over the past six years, these refugees have been subject to three all-out attacks.

Eyewitness accounts from doctors working in Gaza's hospitals indicate that Israel dropped experimental weapons during this summer's attack. The weapons are believed to include DIME (dense inert metal explosives), which causes horrific injuries by burning at high temperatures. Al-Haq, the Palestinian rights group, has stated that DIME was carried in Hellfire missiles that were dropped from Israeli drones.

The only proper and compassionate response to such horrors is to cease doing business with Israel's arms industry. That step would require ripping up a commitment to invest more in the development of drones made by the EU's presidents and prime ministers in December 2013. While Israel was not explicitly mentioned in that pledge, Europe's key drone projects have involved a significant level of input from Israel.

The British Army's planned Watchkeeper drones, for example, are based on Elbit's Hermes-450. Due to be replaced by the Hermes-900, it has been marketed as the "primary platform" for Israel's "counter-terror operations" and as "a mature and combat-proven" aircraft. The likely customers of these products understand exactly what those euphemisms mean: drone-makers are twisting their contribution to Israel's crimes against humanity into selling points.

Even before Gaza was bombed, Israel Aerospace Industries had a backlog of orders worth $9.7 billion. Elbit had a backlog worth $6.2 billion. Don't be surprised if their weapons will be in greater demand now.

Gaza was turned into a laboratory for the arms industry this summer. By forging close links with Israel's arms industry, Europe has accorded Palestinians the same status as animals used in cruel experiments. With their indomitable spirit, the people of Gaza have shown that they will never accept that status.

•First published by Middle East Eye, 4 September 2014.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Merkel stands by Israel even when it kills Germans

Earlier this year Angela Merkel was awarded Israel's "presidential medal of distinction." The German chancellor merited this honor, some journalists dutifully reported, because of her "unwavering commitment to Israel's security."

That "unwavering commitment" might help explain why Merkel does not appear perturbed by what happened to Ibrahim al-Kilani. He had spent twenty years in Germany, qualifying there as a civil engineer, before returning to Gaza in 2001, where he had married and started raising a family. On Monday, Ibrahim, his wife Taghreed and their five children were wiped out in an Israeli attack.

Ilias, the youngest of the children, was only four. His sister Yasmin was six. The other siblings -- Yassir, Sawsan, and Rim -- were aged between eight and twelve. It should not be necessary to spell out that they were entirely innocent of any crime.

One day after this family was wiped out, Germany and all European Union governments issued a statement on the events in Gaza. As the Union's foreign ministers were meeting that day, they had every opportunity to demand an explanation from Israel as to why it had just killed a family of EU citizens.

Yet the EU's statement did not even mention the al-Kilanis. Rather, the foreign ministers stressed that they recognized "Israel's legitimate right to defend itself against any attacks."

Israel was politely asked to make sure its military action was "proportionate and in line with international humanitarian law."

Cowardice

It is hard to remain calm when reading those carefully chosen words -- of abject cowardice. Not for the first time, the EU was blaming Palestinians for the atrocities visited upon them by a brutal occupation. The truth was turned upside down.

Many of us have long suspected that the European Union doesn't really care when Palestinians are killed by Israel. Now we can say for certain it doesn't care even when Israel bombs EU citizens.

Ahmad al-Kilani, Ibrahim's cousin, made this point in an interview with a Turkish news agency: “No German or American nationality stops Israel from murdering us. Israel is like a monster that destroys everything it encounters. This is genocide.”

Eventually, the German foreign ministry announced yesterday that it was seeking "clarification" from Israel about why it killed the al-Kilani family.

That is a hollow gesture, when you recall that Merkel explicitly stated last week that "we stand by the side of Israel, when it comes to self-defense." She has not withdrawn that remark, despite the abundant evidence that the al-Kilani family and the people of Gaza more generally have not been bombed for reasons of "self-defense" but in grotesque acts of aggression.

The al-Kilani family had already suffered enormously from Israel's latest attack on Gaza. They had fled their home in Beit Lahia, an area in northern Gaza that Israel has shelled continuously.

Stand by Palestine

They had sought shelter in Shujaiya, a neighborhood in Gaza City. On Sunday, they witnessed a horrific massacre in that neighborhood.

They tried to escape once more, finding an apartment in Rimal, supposedly a safer part of Gaza City. It has been reported that Taghreed al-Kilani was preparing an iftar, the meal that ends a day of fasting during the holy month of Ramadan, when Israel shelled them.

More than 700 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza in the current Israeli offensive.

Insipid requests from the European Union for Israel to behave in a "proportionate" manner won't stop the slaughter. It, therefore, falls to ordinary people of conscience around the world to take action.

We know what we have to do: intensify our campaign for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel. If Angela Merkel and other Western leaders are so determined to side with Israel, the rest of us must stand by the Palestinians.

Thanks to Shahd Abusalama for help with research and translation.

•First published by The Electronic Intifada, 24 July 2014.

Friday, July 11, 2014

EU regurgitates Israeli propaganda

The daily press briefing at the European Commission seldom fails to illustrate the cozy relationship between journalists and the powerful. So harmonious is this rapport that many of its attendees "graduate" from being spoonfed stories by official EU spokespersons to eventually becoming spokespersons themselves.

Michael Mann offers a case in point. He used to be on the staff of The Financial Times. Today, he commands a higher salary as a mouthpiece for Catherine Ashton, the Union's foreign policy chief. Part of his job involves regurgitating Israeli propaganda.

This week he issued a statement which claimed that Israel's latest bombardment of Gaza constituted "retaliatory fire." Everything was in response to rockets launched by Palestinians, he suggested.

There was no acknowledgement that Israel has been subjecting Palestinian civilians to collective punishment -- in clear violation of international law. There was no mention of the seven-year siege that Israel has imposed on Gaza. There was no recognition that Benjamin Netanyahu's government has used the murder of three Israeli teenagers as a pretext to kill much higher numbers of Palestinian children in recent days (more than twenty children have been killed in Gaza over the past few days; a death toll that is likely to rise).

Instead, there was an anodyne call for "restraint."

Bubble

Like most of the Brussels elite, Mann lives in something of a bubble. For the past few months, the main topic of conversation within this cocoon has been which dodgy politician will become the European Commission's new president. The harm inflicted by the EU's austerity policies and by its "strategic" partners (as Catherine Ashton has categorized Israel) has been largely ignored.

Diplomats based in Israel live in a bubble, too. The EU's embassy in Israel is located in a skyscraper in the business district of Ramat Gan, a city beside Tel Aviv. The convivial coffee shops and restaurants which the embassy's staff frequent provide no clues of the immense human suffering in Gaza, around seventy kilometers away.

Lars Faaborg-Andersen, the EU's ambassador to Israel, ventured a little bit outside the bubble on Monday. He didn't go to Gaza, however, but to Ashkelon in southern Israel. There, he expressed solidarity with Israelis facing the "unacceptable threat" of rockets from Gaza.

The ambassador elaborated on this gesture of solidarity in a softball interview with the Tel Aviv daily Haaretz. "I wanted to underline that shooting rockets indiscriminately at civilians cannot be a legitimate or an acceptable response to any kind of grievance that you have," he said.

Listeners to the video of the interview posted on the Haaretz website were spared any explanation of what kind of grievances Palestinians may have.

Awkward fact

The awkward fact that they have long been treated as laboratory rats for the Israeli arms industry was omitted. That's hardly surprising, if you delve a bit deeper.

In June, Israel signed an agreement that enables its weapons manufacturers -- the very people profiting from the current attack on Gaza -- take part in the EU's scientific research programme. Known as Horizon 2020, that programme has been allocated a colossal €80 billion ($109 billion) between now and the end of the decade.

Faaborg-Andersen was so keen to stress his empathy with Zionists that he effectively gave an "up yours" salute to the main Palestinian plea for justice: the 2005 call for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel. He was at pains to stress that Israel is welcome to continue exporting goods from its settlements in the occupied West Bank, even though some EU governments have recently advised firms against doing business with the settlements.

"The EU is not banning anyone," he said. "We are against boycotts. We are against BDS. We are against the isolation of Israel."

Embracing Israel

Far from isolating Israel, some of the EU's leading representatives appear intent on embracing it tighter. Last month, Daniel Calleja, head of the European Commission's enterprise department, lead the Union's second "mission for growth" to Israel in as many years.

Among the Israeli firms which have been involved in this "mission" to increase business with Europe are Elbit, a supplier of the drones now being used to bomb Gaza and of surveillance equipment installed in the apartheid wall declared illegal by the International Court of Justice almost exactly ten years ago.

Ahava, a firm making cosmetics in an Israeli settlement in the West Bank, has been taking part, too.

There is, of course, an important caveat that should be added when the EU claims to oppose boycotts. It is only against boycotts of Israel.

Under US pressure, the Union decided to boycott the Palestinian government formed after the 2006 election. EU representatives, who constantly harp on about democracy, didn't like the result of that exercise in democracy because the wrong party -- Hamas -- won.

Those of us who try as best we can to live in the real world detect a heady stench of double standards from EU representatives. The representatives, however, seem oblivious to that stench. I guess that's what happens when you live in a bubble.

•First published by The Electronic Intifada, 10 July 2014.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Diplomat who used sex to sell Israel advises top EU lobby group

Two markedly different images of the Israeli military have emerged: the grainy and the glossy.

The grainy image is epitomized by the new video of soldiers murdering two teenage boys. This image is often captured by amateurs. It is authentic.

The glossy image is of a caring force that does everything to avoid civilian harm -- the most moral in the world, according to some politicians. This image is constructed professionally. It is fraudulent.

Spindoctors occasionally try to add a new layer of gloss, hoping that it will conceal the cruelty with which Israel has become synonymous. One such effort was a photo-shoot for Maxim, a magazine popular among certain types of men. It featured a number of scantily-clad women, all of whom had apparently served in the Israeli military.

Rebranding

The 2007 feature was reportedly the brainchild of David Saranga, a "rebranding" specialist then working for Israel's consulate in New York.

During an investigation for Spinwatch, an organization monitoring the "public relations" industry, I learned that Saranga has now brought his "makeapartheid sexy" campaign to Brussels (needless to say, the campaign is not actually called that).

Saranga can often be seen hanging out with the main figures in European Friends of Israel (EFI). That group was formed by members of Britain's Conservative Party, who felt that there should be a strong Zionist lobby within the European Parliament.

EFI has arranged for Saranga to train its staff and supporters about how to "sell" Israel on "social media" websites. The group appears to have paid close attention. Its Facebook page brims with hasbara as Israeli "public diplomacy" is called. A particular emphasis is placed on Israel's technology industry, which is busy inventing things that "could save your life," as one post claimed.

"Protecting lives"

EFI applies Israeli gloss liberally. Earlier this year, I heard Marek Siwiec, a Polish member of the European Parliament (MEP) who chairs the group's political board, praise Israel for the "humanitarian aid" it was providing to victims of Syria's civil war. "Israel is protecting hundreds of thousands of lives," he said. "I think this phenomenon should be more presented for the European public."

Siwiec airbrushed an inconvenient truth out of this "phenomenon." Many victims of the appalling situation in Syria had been previously dispossessed by Israel. I'm referring here to those Palestinians who sought refuge in Damascus after they were forcibly displaced in the Nakba -- the ethnic cleansing at the time of Israel's establishment.

Transparent?

When I later asked Siwiec a few basic questions about EFI, he boasted of how it was a "transparent organization." Yet he refused to divulge any details about its finances.

After some further digging, I found out that EFI has received backing from some very wealthy entrepreneurs. One of the them was Yaron (Ronny) Bruckner, who died last year. His Luxembourg-registered property and consumer goods firm Eastbridge has been stepping up its business activities in the US. In 2011, it bought the New York skyscraper that previously housed the insurance giant AIG.

Another man to sit on EFI's administrative board was Marc Grosman. He owns Celio, a clothing retailer with more than one thousand stores in sixty different countries.

Almost certainly, these two men have helped fund EFI. At the same time that Bruckner became one of the EFI's administrators in 2011, a new rule was added to the group's statutes. It set the maximum annual donation which EFI board members can make to the group at a cool €5 million ($6.8 million). Before then, the yearly limit had been a mere €1,000 ($1,400).

Trade triumph

Unfortunately, EFI has enjoyed some success during its eight year history. It was instrumental in ensuring that the European Parliament approved a trade deal between the EU and Israel in 2012.

Despite its technical name -- the Agreement on Conformity Assessment and Acceptance of Industrial Products (ACAA) -- that deal was of huge political importance. It has meant that Israeli pharmaceutical companies -- and potentially the manufacturers of other Israeli goods -- can ship their products to the European Union without having to undergo costly quality controls. In effect, this means that Israel is being accorded commercial preferences usually reserved for businesses inside the EU.

The EFI's success on that dossier can be at least partly attributed to how the current European Parliament veers more towards the right than the left. The group seems to be nervous, however, about the prospect of encountering greater difficulties in the assembly that will be formed as a result of this week's election.

It has asked budding MEPs to sign a pledge that they will work against boycotts of Israel. More than likely, it would not have done so if it did not feel under pressure. Some EFI stalwarts have admitted to me that they regard the Palestine solidarity movement as too strong for their liking.

This is a testament to people power. The Palestine solidarity movement is not backed by profit-hungry corporations. It does not hire "rebranding" specialists to place photo shoots in mass circulation magazines. And yet by patiently and diligently building public awareness, it is striking fear into the hearts of Israel's elite and its "friends."

Israel is losing its propaganda war. No amount of gloss can save it.

•First published by The Electronic Intifada, 21 May 2014.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Turkey's fickle support for Palestinian struggle

On a flight from Istanbul to Brussels last night, I learned something that I had not previously known. Armenians have used the term aghed -- catastrophe -- to describe the massacres inflicted on them by the Ottoman Empire in 1915. Palestinians, of course, also refer to the vicious ethnic cleansing undertaken by Zionist forces in 1948 as a catastrophe -- or nakba in Arabic.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, this week offered his condolences to the grandchildren of Armenians killed 99 years ago. He also promised to respect those who voice "different opinions." Could this mean that a taboo is finally being broken?

Under the Turkish penal code, those who argue that the slaughter of 1.5 million Armenians constituted a genocide are liable for prosecution. Hrant Dink, a Turkish-Armenian journalist, was convicted of denigrating Turkishness for expressing such views in 2005; two years later he was murdered.

Political football

Victims of injustice -- and their descendants -- deserve acknowledgement that horrific crimes were perpetrated against them. They should never be used in a game of political or diplomatic football.

In the recent past, Israel's parliament, the Knesset, has toyed with the idea of formally recognizing that Armenians suffered a genocide. This same institution has approved a law designed to punish Palestinians who commemorate the establishment of Israel as a catastrophe.

More than likely, Israel will not recognise the Armenian genocide any time soon. Doing so would aggravate tensions with Turkey at a time when both sides want to boost their economic ties -- at the Palestinians' expense, needless to say.

Attending the Palestine International Forum for Media and Communication in Istanbul, I listened to a representative of Erdogan's Justice and Development (AK) Party proclaim his country's support for the Palestinian struggle.

That support is fickle.

Trade rises

If Turkey really supports the Palestinians, it would be imposing tough economic sanctions on Israel. Instead, the value of annual trade between Turkey and Israel has increased: from $3.4 billion in 2008 to $4 billion in 2012.

Turkey introduced an arms embargo on Israel in 2011. Yet it has continued to take delivery of military products ordered before then. And despite the embargo, Israel's defense ministry is reportedly examining how to arrange fresh weapons sales to Turkey.

It's not hard to understand why Israel is eager to resume business. Turkey has long been a loyal customer for the Israeli arms industry. It is second only to the US in having the largest army in NATO. Turkey splurges around 1.8 percent of its gross domestic product on the military - higher than the average for European countries.

Erdogan had a public row with Shimon Peres when Israel was bombing Gaza in 2009. Though his stance was commendable, it does not erase the fact that Erdogan's government had been willing to buy Israeli weapons until then.

In 2005, Israeli Aircraft Industries (IAI) and Elbit won a contract to supply Turkey with drones. These two firms were the main manufacturers of the warplanes that Israel has used to attack Gaza. (IAI is now called Israel Aerospace Industries).

The aforementioned arms embargo, it should be recalled, was only imposed after Israel murdered nine Turkish human rights activists while they were sailing towards Gaza. In 2010 - the year that attack occurred - Turkey was the second largest importer of Israeli weapons.

Dash for gas

Another news story this week related to Turkey's potential investment in the Leviathan natural gas field off present-day Israel. Energy firm Turcas confirmed that it is in discussions with another Turkish company Enerjisa to buy gas from this field. It had previously been reported that Turkas was exploring the development of a pipeline to bring gas from Israel to Turkey.

This news offers a reminder as to how it was energy issues that made the imperial powers so interested in Palestine in the first place. In the early twentieth-century, Haifa hosted a pipeline transporting oil from the Persian Gulf.

The Turkish Petroleum Company had a virtual monopoly on this oil from 1925 to 1961. The firm's name (later changed to the Iraq Petroleum Company) was misleading. It was controlled by British and German banks and Royal Dutch Shell.

I suspect we will hear much more about Israel's reputedly abundant energy reserves. By some estimates, Israel's shale deposits could supply 250 billion barrels of oil.

Shale oil has become synonymous with an ecologically destructive extraction process known as fracking. But a firm called Israel Energy Initiatives claims that new technologies can allow this oil to be produced with "low environmental impact."

The claim lacks credibility. The only way that fossil fuels can have a low environmental impact is if they are left in the ground.

If there is a rush to exploit the energy resources under Israel's control, then we can be sure that those who stand to benefit won't care a fig about human rights.

Turkey's professions of solidarity with the Palestinians will ultimately remain hollow, then, so long as the Ankara authorities continue to eye business deals with Israel.

•First published by The Electronic Intifada, 25 April 2014.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Shining Big Tobacco's shoes

Two very powerful Americans - let's call them VPAs - have been welcomed to Brussels by the EU's grovelling grandees over the past month.

The first of these visitors was Barack Obama. Displaying his usual charm, the president received a lot of attention when he declared his love for Belgian beer and chocolate.

By contrast, the second visit of a VPA went largely unreported. It was by Tom Donohoe, head of the US Chamber of Commerce. Last week, he met top-level representatives of the European Commission.

The low profile nature of his trip belies Donohoe's influence.

The US Chamber of Commerce boasts of being the world's largest business association. It has spent more than $1 billion on lobbying since 1998.

Donohoe, who commands a $5 million annual salary, was in town to discuss the planned trans-Atlantic trade and investment agreement.

Nothing to hide?

While Donohoe was chatting with Karel de Gucht, the EU's trade commissioner, their meeting took place behind closed doors. De Gucht's spokesman refused to give me any details about what was discussed, replying with a bland comment about how it was a "stakeholder meeting", rather than a formal negotiation. That was despite how de Gucht claimed not long ago that he has "nothing to hide".

As it happens, de Gucht has many things to hide. And he has good reason not to be transparent. Because if de Gucht was really candid about what he and his colleagues are doing, they would probably face mass public resistance.

The truth is that de Gucht is conniving with big business to destroy or dramatically weaken health, environmental and labour standards and democracy itself.

The US Chamber of Commerce was the American pressure group most consulted by officials working for de Gucht in 2012 and 2013. The proposals which the EU side has put on the table for the trans-Atlantic trade talks closely resemble the chamber's wish-list.

Aggressive

Tom Donohoe is an ideological extremist. Under his leadership, the US Chamber of Commerce has vigorously opposed all attempts to make health insurance more affordable. Any regulation that puts the interests of ordinary people before corporate profits will be fought "with every resource at our disposal," he has said.

Even though he has been at odds with Obama on medical care, Donohoe has pledged his support for what he recently described as the "aggressive trade policy" now being pursued by the Obama administration. Both the US and the European Union have the potential to set the "gold standard" for twenty-first century agreements on trade and investment, he said last week.

Karel de Gucht has been saying pretty much the same thing, while trying to give the impression that he is standing up for the interests of ordinary people.

Towards the end of March, de Gucht launched a "public consultation exercise" on one particularly controversial idea. This idea involves setting up a specialised court system that corporations could use to sue governments and demand financial compensation for laws and policies that harm their bottom line. In trade jargon, the idea is known as "investor-to-state dispute settlement".

The public consultation exercise is a sham.

De Gucht remains committed to having the specialised court system introduced. He has done nothing more than to promise that the idea will be handled a little differently than it was in the 3,000 other international trade agreements in which it has been included.

Until now, for example, the judges - or arbitrators as they are called - who assess cases brought under such systems have often been corporate lawyers. De Gucht has made a commitment to introducing a code of conduct designed to guarantee the impartiality of these judges.

The questionnaire which de Gucht has invited members of the public to fill in as part of the "consultation" exercise does not grapple with the most problematic aspects of the proposed system.

It does not address how the system would help perpetuate inequality. Only corporations would have access to this system. The rest of us would have none. The system has been designed almost exclusively for the 1%, to use a term made popular by the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Earlier this year, de Gucht stated that he understood why there was much concern about how the tobacco industry had availed of the "dispute settlement" provision in previous investment accords to challenge anti-smoking initiatives.

Philip Morris, the cigarette-maker, is exploiting an agreement between Uruguay and Switzerland to seek a $2 billion payment over losses it allegedly incurred after Uruguay became the first Latin American country to ban smoking in public places.

More recently, the same Philip Morris has begun proceedings against Australia over a law requiring that cigarettes be sold in plain packages, with graphic images of suffering and disease.

Intimately involved

What de Gucht neglects to mention is that the whole concept of having these specialised investment courts set up through a trans-Atlantic agreement can be traced to the tobacco industry.

The tobacco industry has quite literally drafted some of the key proposals for the planned accord.

Back in 1995, both the EU and US authorities formally tasked a corporate club called the Trans-Atlantic Business Dialogue with providing advice on how trade between the two sides could be increased. British American Tobacco and Philip Morris have been intimately involved in this lobby group, which has since been renamed the Trans Atlantic Business Council. For much of its history, the group's Brussels office was run by Jeffries Briginshaw, a former representative of British American Tobacco.

Not surprisingly, this group wants the kind of "robust mechanisms" included in the trans-Atlantic deal that have enabled Big Tobacco to challenge health legislation in other parts of the world.

The US Chamber of Commerce has close connections with Big Tobacco, too. It has tried to thwart an American government effort to have a clause inserted in another planned trade agreement, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which would recognise that tobacco is a special product requiring stringent regulation to protect human health.

Given the secret nature of their conversation, we don't know if Karel de Gucht upbraided Donohoe last week for supporting an industry that deliberately aims to get children and adolescents hooked on its lethal products. But I very much doubt that he did.

For all his promises to defend the public interest, de Gucht has been happy to shine Big Tobacco's shoes.

•First published by EUobserver, 14 April 2014.