Friday, August 30, 2013

Leaving Dublin with a sense of despair

One hundred years ago this month, an inspiring revolt kicked off in Dublin.

After tram workers in the city centre demanded a pay rise, the dominant industrialist William Martin Murphy locked out trade union members from their jobs. The bitter dispute which ensued caught the attention of socialists in many countries. Vladimir Lenin praised the "seething Irish energy" of union leader Jim Larkin.

On a recent trip home (I'm a Dubliner, living in Belgium), I heard several radio interviews with representatives of Ireland's Labour Party. Though Larkin was a founder of that party, its present-day grandees dance to Murphy's tune. One of them, Ruairi Quinn, is now the country's education minister; he has been boasting lately about how the school curriculum has been revamped at the behest of major companies.

The Irish Business and Employers Confederation (IBEC) wants science and mathematics to be given greater priority at secondary level and more courses with an "explicit focus on enterprise" at third level. IBEC's key objective is to achieve a "well-skilled and flexible labour force". Part of the "flexibility" being championed is that companies don't have to recognise unions. The industrialists of 2013 insist they should still be able to lock out recalcitrant workers.

Labour is the junior partner in a coalition government with the centre-right Fine Gael. Known colloquially as the Blueshirts - because of the party's historical ties to fascists who aided Francisco Franco during the Spanish Civil War - Fine Gael fought a February 2011 election on a pledge to "burn the bondholders".

Lenders to Anglo Irish Bank, a feckless institution that almost capsized the economy, would not be repaid, according to the party's manifesto. The promised incineration has not materialised. Ireland's real masters - officials in the European Commission - told Fine Gael and Labour before the election that satisfying such creditors as Deutsche Asset Management and BNP Paribas was non-negotiable.

Making hospitals pay

Hospitals have been forced to pay Anglo's gambling debts. Ireland is second only to Greece in terms of the scale and rapidity of health cutbacks undertaken by "developed" countries. The Health Service Executive (HSE) - which runs the Ireland's medical services - has seen its budget shrink by €3 billion since 2008. Citing an unpublished HSE document, The Irish Times has reported that the reductions are making it difficult to comply with rules and standards applying to childcare and to attain targets for treating cancer patients swiftly.

A bizarre twist to this sorry saga is that the Dublin government is committed to introducing a universal health insurance scheme. How on earth can this be achieved during a time of austerity? The details at this stage are fuzzy but the overriding goal is clear: the private insurance industry will be put in charge of the scheme. A "consultative forum" tasked with planning how it should operate is mainly comprised of insurance lobbyists. In other words, those who stand to benefit from the scheme are setting it up.

James Reilly, the country's health minister, has few, if any qualms, about handing over medical services to for-profit firms. Himself a GP, Reilly has personally invested in private nursing homes.

His predecessor Mary Harney once claimed that Ireland was "closer to Boston than Berlin". Reilly's "reforms" appear to reflect that spirit. It is instructive that Alain Enthoven, an American "free market" economist, is also an advocate of "universal health insurance", with private firms in the driving seat.

Enthoven influenced Margaret Thatcher's tentative efforts to destroy the NHS: a 1989 policy paper from the then Tory government echoed Enthoven's complaints about how British patients lacked the "competition" and "consumer choice" enjoyed by their US counterparts. In Enthoven's view, medical care is "a kind of luxury good".

So there we have it. The Irish government is toying with ideas from a man who compares life-saving operations to Fabergé eggs.

I love going home to Ireland. But when I think about the regressive measures being implemented in my country, it is impossible not to leave with a sense of despair.

•First published by New Statesman, 28 August 2013.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Express delivery for Israel's war diamonds

Antwerp is a favorite location for those who are in a hurry to help Israeli apartheid.

A few minutes' stroll from the central train station in Belgium's second city, I found posters for a new express delivery service run by the Israeli firm Malca-Amit. "Simply hand over your shipments to Malca-Amit offices in Tel Aviv by the end of working day and the next morning, they'll already be at Antwerp's diamond office by 9.30am at the latest," they read.

To show that the firm means business, an armored truck was parked right outside its Antwerp office. "Delivering peace of mind," a sign above it declared. The motto is particularly inappropriate, when you consider that diamonds are of critical importance to Israel, a state addicted to war.

Israel is the third largest exporter of polished diamonds in the world. According to Israel's trade ministry, these sales were worth $5.6 billion in 2012.

Malca-Amit started its accelerated delivery service over the past few months. It is one of several private security firms involved in the gem trade between Belgium and Israel.

Around the corner from its Antwerp office, I noticed the unmistakable logo of G4S, a company that has become infamous for providing equipment to Israeli jails in the occupied West Bank.

When I phoned G4S' office, I asked a man identifying himself as Rob if his firm undertook diamond deliveries between Tel Aviv and Antwerp. "Yeah, we do," he replied. "Every day."

Rob added that the service on this route began in November last year, so it was "too early" to say how profitable it had been.


Another company, the Ferrari Group (which appears to be separate from the car-maker of the same name) was also advertising rapid delivery. I called its office to ask if it delivered diamonds between Tel Aviv and Antwerp. "Yes, that's correct," a man replied.

When I put another question to him, he said: "I don't have time for an interview. I am just an employee. All the managers are on holiday. They will be back in two or three weeks."

Eight out of every ten mined diamonds in the world pass through Antwerp, where they undergo quality assessments. Although Israel has no raw diamond deposits of its own, its industrialists habitually describe diamonds as being a "cornerstone" of the Israeli economy.

Most of the big players in Israel's diamond business have a presence in Antwerp. Despite selling a product that is synonymous with romance and razzmatazz, these big players behave in a low-key and secretive manner.

A small name-plate on a letter-box is the only thing that notifies you that one of Israel's leading diamond firms, AA Rachminov, has an office in Antwerp's Diamond Center Building. As soon as I took a photograph of the building's entrance, a security guard rushed out. To ensure he would have no excuse to confiscate my camera, I walked away slowly, trying to convey the impression that I was a tourist.

"Zero tolerance"

On an adjoining street -- neighboring the aforementioned G4S office -- sits the Diamond Exchange Building. A number of Israeli exporters are represented here. MID House of Diamonds and Yoshfe Diamonds International are on the first floor; Rosy Blue is on the twelfth.

Later, when I checked MID's website, I was intrigued about how it had a section trumpeting its "zero tolerance policy toward conflict diamonds."

So I phoned its Antwerp office to ask how it could claim to have such a policy when it deals in diamonds from Israel. The man who took my call first insisted that MID was a Belgian, rather than an Israeli firm (a patent lie; it was established by two Israeli brothers Benny and Yossi Meirov).

"But you bring diamonds from Israel to Belgium," I said.

"I'm sorry this is confidential information," the man replied.

"Why is it confidential?" I asked.

"I'm not interested in answering the question," he said, hanging up.

Shir Hever, an Israeli left-wing economist, has calculated that Israel's diamond trade brings about $1 billion per year to Israel's war and occupation industry.

Yet the Kimberley Process, an international body nominally dedicated to stopping the diamond trade from fuelling wars, has refused to accept that Israeli diamond exports should fall into the category of "conflict" or "blood" diamonds. The Kimberley Process has been almost exclusively focused on Africa.

The close connections between Israel and Antwerp might explain -- at least partly -- why the Belgian political elite will not call out Israel as an apartheid state.

To a large extent, the diamond district in Tel Aviv is an offshoot of the one in Antwerp. During the World Zionist Congress in 1905, some Belgian delegates offered to teach the tricks of the diamond trade to Zionists settling in Palestine. And many of the Zionists who founded a diamond center in Palestine during the 1930s started off by polishing half-finished diamonds they had imported from Antwerp.

The Antwerp World Diamond Centre -- the body representing the city's diamond sector -- also signals that it abhors conflict diamonds. Yet it is willing to make an exception for Israel.

I asked Caroline De Wolf, the AWDC's spokesperson, if her organization had ever held discussions about the ethics of trading with Israel, given its systematic abuse of Palestinian human rights. "We don't take a position on these topics," she said.

The only time that Antwerp's diamond quarter receives unwelcome publicity is when there is a major heist or allegations of fraud.

My research indicates that there is a far worse scandal.

Antwerp provides vital support to a sector which generates important revenue to the apartheid state of Israel. Until this support ceases, Belgium will be complicit in Israel's crimes against humanity.

•First published by The Electronic Intifada, 23 August 2013.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

EU enterprise chief seeks stronger ties with Israel's war industry

Every time there has been tension between Israel and the European Union over the past few years a suave, silver-haired Italian has come to the rescue.

Antonio Tajani, the superhero in question, is up to his old tricks once more. In his capacity as the EU's enterprise commissioner, Tajani is planning to visit Tel Aviv during October, accompanied by numerous high-flying businesspeople. The official purpose of his "mission for growth" -- as it is being billed -- is to stress that the EU and Israel are happy to trade with each other.

There is almost certainly a tacit purpose, too. Judging by his track record, Tajani will be hoping to distract from the controversy that arose over recently-published EU guidelines on preventing the allocation of subsidies to firms and researchers based in Israel's settlements in the occupied West Bank.

Best buddy

On at least two previous occasions, Tajani has acted as Israel's best buddy in the EU hierarchy. In January 2009, Tajani attended a conference on Space exploration in Tel Aviv. The speech which he delivered made no reference to the slaughter carried out by Israel in Gaza earlier that month. Rather, he underscored that Israel was a "valued partner" for the Union's satellite navigation activities.

In March 2010, Tajani again put himself at Israel's disposal. A formal meeting between Avigdor Lieberman, Israel's then foreign minister, and senior EU representatives was cancelled at short notice after Israel voiced its displeasure over delays in implementing a new trade accord with the Union. Lieberman nonetheless went ahead with his planned visit to Brussels, where he met Tajani for lunch.

And even before he was nominated in 2008 to serve in the European Commission by Silvio Berlusconi, Italy's prime minister at the time, Tajani was helping to bolster the Zionist lobby. During a stint as a member of the European Parliament, Tajani was a board member of European Friends of Israel, a cross-party alliance partly modelled on the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) in Washington.

Tajani has asked entrepreneurs wishing to join his entourage for the October trip to contact his staff by the end of this month. There is a high probability that arms merchants will sign up: a scene-setter prepared by the European Commission says that it will organize "business to business" meetings relating to "homeland security."

In layperson's terms, this means that Tajani wants to strengthen the ties between Israel and Europe's war industries.

Greenwashing apartheid

Similarly problematic, Tajani will attend a major conference on "water technology and environmental control." Briefing papers drafted for this event indicate it will involve a lot of "greenwashing" -- an attempt to divert attention from Israeli apartheid by presenting Israel as ecologically-sound.

One brochure, for example, pats Israel on the back for its apparently sparing use of "scarce resources."

A closer look at some of the conference's sponsors reveals Israel that Israel is really an environmental villain. Mekorot, the firm administering the West Bank's water resources, has been accused by the UN Human Rights Council of exploiting Palestinian springs so rapaciously that they dry up.

Mekorot is an important player in Israel's apartheid system. It engages in deep water drillings in the occupied Jordan Valley for the benefit of Israelis colonizing the West Bank. Whereas Israeli settlers have access to swimming pools and can marvel at irrigated floral displays all year round, Palestinians indigenous to that territory face chronic shortages of water.

Tajani is no stranger to the hospitality offered by corporations profiting from the occupation. In October 2011, he opened a "Go4Europe" business powwow in Tel Aviv. Veolia was a "platinum" sponsor for that event -- the same Veolia which has built a tramway linking together Israel's illegal settlements in East Jerusalem.

It is also important to highlight that Tajani is in charge of the EU's program for "security research," which was set up to boost the arms industry. Israel is the most active non-European participant in that scheme, which is part of the EU's broader program for scientific research.

Despite the recent friction over the EU's guidelines, both sides are now holding discussions about involving Israel in the Union's next multi-annual program, running from 2014 and 2020. The issue of making sure that researchers headquartered in the settlements don't receive subsidies is on the agenda for next month.

With hundreds of millions of euros in funding for Israeli universities and private firms at stake, I somehow doubt that Benjamin Netanyahu's government will withdraw from scientific cooperation with the EU. My hunch is that a grubby compromise will be found that allows the EU to continue supporting the agents of Israeli apartheid.

The EU unfortunately appears to have no desire at the moment to end its cooperation with Israel. This makes the task of intensifying the campaign for a full boycott of Israel all the more important.

•First published by The Electronic Intifada, 20 August 2013.