Wednesday, July 31, 2013

"Earthquake" over, EU boasts of aiding Israeli boffins

A few weeks ago the European Union was accused of causing an "earthquake" for Israel. This may, however, have been the shortest seismic event recorded in history. For EU officials have already resumed their habitual activity of humoring an apartheid state.

Friday 19 July was an especially busy day for the Union's officials. They attracted a great deal of attention for issuing new guidelines declaring that Israeli firms and institutions based in the occupied West Bank (including East Jerusalem) were not eligible for EU grants. The controversy overshadowed another announcement they made that same day about how they were lending a helping hand to young scientists.

Hoping to prove that it could withstand earthquakes, the EU's embassy in Tel Aviv tried to publicize how 32 of these clever researchers were Israeli.

Interestingly, eight of these boffins were attached to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the main campus of which is in the Mount Scopus area of East Jerusalem.

When news of the "earthquake" guidelines leaked, some commentators predicted that the Hebrew University would be barred from receiving EU science grants. An advice sheet prepared by the Union's diplomats told Israelis not to fret.


Unlike other parts of East Jerusalem, Mount Scopus is not considered to be under Israeli occupation by the EU. This quite pedantic point reflects how Mount Scopus was placed under Israeli control in 1948, whereas Israel occupied the remainder of East Jerusalem in 1967. It overlooks the fact that the university has encroached into the Palestinian village of Issawiyeh.

According to the advice sheet, the Hebrew University will still be able to receive EU subsidies provided they are for activities carried out within what the EU regards as Israel (and that includes Mount Scopus). Nonetheless, the sheet hints that some activities undertaken elsewhere in East Jerusalem and the wider West Bank may be funded if they aim "to promote the Middle East peace process in line with EU policy."

That caveat provides for a huge amount of leeway.

Privately, Brussels officials brag of how some research projects they support foster cooperation between Arabs and Jews. Many Palestinians view such excuses as quite pathetic because they "normalize" a fundamentally unjust situation. But the EU is so determined to support John Kerry's latest charade of "peace" talks that it may well start approving more normalization schemes.

Not surprisingly, the EU's diplomats also glossed over how the beneficiaries of their munificence enjoy strong links to Israel's military industry. Ten of the 32 Israeli researchers recently awarded EU grants work with the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot. Michael Federmann, chairperson of the leading Israeli weapons company Elbit, has sat on the boards of both the Weizmann Institute and the Hebrew University.

According to freshly published data, Israel has now drawn down almost €637 million ($845 million) from the EU's current multi-annual program for scientific research (running from 2007 until the end of this year). This figure relates to the amount that Israeli firms and institutions have directly received, not to the total value of joint EU-Israel research. The European Commission has previously stated that the amount spent on EU-Israel research under its current program exceeds €4 billion ($5.3 billion).

Servicing apartheid

As that program is drawing to a close, the Commission has been trying lately to highlight some of its success stories. During May, it held a conference in Madrid focused on the largest scheme it is funding under the heading "security research."

Known by the acronym SECUR-ED, this transport safety project has several Israeli participants. One of them is called MTRS3, which claims to have an "expert knowledge of explosive materials."

After digging a little, I found out that the firm's point man for that project is Gilad Rafaeli, its vice-president. Rafaeli has posted his resumé on LinkedIn; it says that he worked on the "Jerusalem light rail" project between 2006 and 2011.

The entire purpose of that tramway is to provide a link between Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem and the city's center. It was always intended as an important part of the infrastructure of the Israeli occupation. And because it serves exclusively Jewish colonies, it can clearly be viewed as an apartheid service.

If the EU really wished to halt the expansion of Israeli settlements, it would not give one cent to people like Rafaeli. Yet the Union has had no problem with lavishing subsidies on such profiteers of apartheid in the past. And, if the messages from its diplomats in Tel Aviv are anything to go by, it will have no problem continuing to do so.

•First published by The Electronic Intifada, 31 July 2013.

Friday, July 26, 2013

A trade deal that allows corporations to sue governments is not about "recovery"

An antidote to austerity has finally been discovered. It involves breaking down the "barriers" between two of the world's economic powerhouses: Europe and the United States.

That is the spin being put on a planned trans-Atlantic "trade and investment partnership" (TTIP, for short). Supporters of the proposed deal contend it will help usher in a recovery.

Months before talks between the EU and US got underway in July, the European commissioner for trade Karel de Gucht said they would lead to "the cheapest stimulus package you can imagine". The delightfully-named Myron Brilliant from the US Chamber of Commerce dreams of a "more robust" commercial relationship because neither side will "emerge from the financial crisis through austerity alone". BusinessEurope, an alliance of employers' groups, believes TTIP will provide a "fantastic opportunity" to "generate the jobs and growth we need to turn our economies around".

Funnily, nobody has a clear idea of just how beneficial the "partnership" will be. The Washington Post recently carried a blog post forecasting that it would boost EU-US trade by $180 billion each year. Yet that figure did not appear in the source cited by The Post - a 2010 study partly financed by the aforementioned US Chamber of Commerce.

Hyping up TTIP as a rescue remedy is, no doubt, a deliberate ploy to divert attention from its real objective of binning regulations that are essential for protecting health and the environment.

The goal of a trans-Atlantic trade pact was first mooted by Leon Brittan, then the EU's trade commissioner, in 1995. Though the goal hasn't captured the public imagination for the past 18 years, representatives of some of the world's top companies have been working quietly towards realising it.

The Transatlantic Business Council (TABC), for example, brings together British American Tobacco, IBM, BP, Pfizer, Deutsche Bank and Nasdaq. Under the "partnership", it wants new laws to undergo mandatory assessments of their likely impact on trans-Atlantic trade. At first glance, this may appear technical and innocuous. Yet the idea of mandatory impact assessment was pioneered by cigarette-makers during the 1990s in a bid to stave off anti-smoking measures.

Big Tobacco's fingerprints smudge quite a few of the initiatives that paved the way for the trans-Atlantic talks. From 2007 until 2012, the Brussels office of the Trans Atlantic Business Dialogue (as the TABC was then known) was headed by Jeffries Briginshaw, who had previously spent 14 years with British American Tobacco. Briginshaw is now the managing director of BritishAmerican Business, a London-based outfit that has threatened to subject a "road show" promoting the trade deal on the public.

It is not hard to see the attraction of the planned deal for the cigarette industry. The European Commission is committed to having a clause in it that will allow corporations to sue governments over laws that constitute a "barrier" to their activities in a specialised court. The history of arbitration panels resulting from trade liberalisation agreements is that they are headed by pro-corporate lawyers, not impartial judges. Last year, the World Trade Organisation ruled that the US would have to lift its ban on clove-flavoured cigarettes, which have been designed to entice teenagers. Shielding the young from sweetened carcinogens is not permissible, according to the zealots of the "free market".

Culture is the only significant topic that has been removed from the scope of the negotiations so far. France has rightly been adamant that it be allowed maintain quotas to prevent its film-makers being buried under an avalanche of Hollywood dross.

Otherwise, the European negotiators seem to be eager that this continent be transformed into a carbon copy of America. Brussels officials have committed themselves to revisiting - code for "weakening" - their food safety standards. This will, no doubt, cheer up Monsanto, which has become increasingly frustrated with hippy parents like me, who would prefer not to feed genetically modified vegetables to our kids.

In some respects, the EU side may be even more eager to please big business than the Americans. Michel Barnier, Europe's commissioner for the single market, has insisted that financial services should be up for discussion, despite signals that the US administration wants them excluded.

Rules on banks have been relaxed in the not so distant past. And we know what the consequences were: a global crisis. We are still living with the effects of that crisis, so why does the EU elite want history to repeat itself?

Far from prescribing an antidote to austerity, a trade deal could perpetuate the shock therapy now being administered.

•First published by New Statesman, 26 July 2013.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Britain admits selling $12 billion in weapons to Israel

Journalists love rows. We love them so much that we often let them distract us.

Last week was no exception. Fascinated by an apparent bust-up between Israel and the European Union, most Middle East analysts (myself included) missed a very important story: Britain's arms sales to Israel are far higher than David Cameron's government has previously confessed.

Data published in a new report from the House of Commons in London states the value of all British military exports to Israel currently being processed comes to £7.9 billion ($12.1 billion).

This data was supplied by Vince Cable, Britain's business secretary, who oversees the weapons trade.

I had to do a double-take when reading this information as until now Britain has indicated that the value of its arms sales to Israel are measured in millions, rather than billions.

Each year, the EU issues a report on weapons exports for the entire Union, based on information provided by its individual governments. These reports stated that Britain approved military export licenses for Israel worth €5.7 million in 2011 and €7.2 million in 2010.

Taken at face value, the annual reports suggest that Britain has reduced its weapons exports to Israel since Operation Cast Lead, the murderous three-week attack on Gaza in late 2008 and early 2009. During 2008, Britain authorized weapons sales of €31.5 million to Israel, according to its official data.


Because I was puzzled by the huge discrepancy between all these statistics, I asked Vince Cable's department to help me out. I didn't get a clear answer. But a spokesperson speculated that the gap could be explained by how the yearly figures may not cover equipment that "hasn't been shipped out yet."

The latest data, on the other hand, could relate to licenses that have been "granted but not fully executed," the spokesperson added.

A more plausible explanation, in my view, is that the British government -- both under Cameron and his Labour Party predecessors, Gordon Brown and Tony Blair -- has been dishonest about the full scale of its weapons sales to Israel. Pressure from some diligent members of Parliament might have finally led Cable to provide them with more comprehensive figures.

The Commons' report doesn't go into much detail about the type of military equipment involved. It is telling, nonetheless, that the largest single deal itemized for Israel involved more than £7.7 billion worth of cryptographic technology.


As far as I can see, there is no accompanying information about this contract -- not even a date for when it was rubber-stamped. But anyone familiar with the nature of the Israeli economy should be able to make an educated guess about what is going on.

Israel has exploited the opportunities afforded by occupying the land of another people in order to develop a world-class "homeland security" sector. Israel's drones are the best-known example of innovations routinely "battle-tested" -- a term favored by arms traders -- on Palestinian civilians.

Britain, it seems, is providing cartloads of sophisticated material to Israeli entrepreneurs intent on perpetuating the crimes of apartheid and occupation. If I'm wide of the mark, then I challenge Cable to spell out what exactly he and his predecessors have approved.

Despite the large sums involved, this new data does not give the full picture about military cooperation with Israel. Exports of components from Britain to America's weapons industry are excluded, as far as I can tell, even though there's a strong chance they will end up in Israeli hands.

Nor does the new data deal with how Britain is an important customer for Israeli weapons. Elbit, a leading Israeli warplane manufacturer, is assembling a series of drones for use by the British Army under the £700 million Watchkeeper program. Elbit is among the Israeli companies scheduled to take part in the world's largest weapons fair in London this September.

There can be no excuse for any military cooperation with Israel. An EU law on arms exports makes it clear that weapons should not be sold if they are likely to facilitate repression or aggravate tensions in a particular region.


Britain's foreign ministry has named Israel as one of 27 "countries of concern" for human rights abuses. Of those 27, Israel is the largest destination for British arms exports. Saudi Arabia -- long thought to be the biggest client for Britain's weapons industry -- is actually in second place.

The brazen effrontery of the British establishment was on display again today, when it convinced other EU governments to blacklist Hizballah as a "terrorist" organization. The move was taken at the behest of Israel, which alleges that Hizballah was behind a bombing in Bulgaria last year.

The EU has been willing to swallow Israel's version of events -- even though the Union's own police agency Europol has acknowledged there is no proof of Hizballah's involvement. Reports of a major rift between the EU and Israel -- as many a headline indicated last week -- are, therefore, exaggerated.

Without question, Hizballah has done things that can be considered criminal -- especially in Syria. Yet there would be no Hizballah if it wasn't for Israeli aggression towards Lebanon.

Hizballah is a symptom of the problems in the Middle East. Britain, on the other hand, is the cause.

It was Britain's political establishment which "gifted" Palestine to the Zionist movement in 1917. All these years later, Britain is arming Israel to the teeth.

•First published by The Electronic Intifada, 22 July 2013.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Has the EU really caused an "earthquake" for Israel?

Israel has been plunged into a new existential crisis, if newspaper headlines are to be taken seriously. A new set of European Union guidelines on barring firms based in illegal settlements from receiving subsidies has hit Israel like an "earthquake," according to an unnamed official quoted in Haaretz.

Having read the new guidelines, I'm not sure what all the fuss is about. For the most part, they do little more than restate the EU's policy that it does not regard the occupied West Bank (including East Jerusalem), Gaza and the Golan Heights as part of Israel.

Perhaps the clause that has upset Israeli officials most is one requiring Israeli institutions or firms to submit a declaration saying they are not active in illegal settlements when they apply for EU grants or loans.


If this is a signal that the Union is going to take a firmer line towards firms profiting from Israeli war crimes, then it is certainly a positive step. But the language in the guidelines is so wishy-washy that it is hard to draw this conclusion.

Submitting a declaration with incorrect details "may be considered as a case of misrepresentation or as a serious irregularity" and "may" lead to punishment, the guidelines state. "May" does not mean the same thing as "must" or "will."

The EU's track regard in this regard does not inspire confidence.

Scientific research is a particularly lucrative area of cooperation between Israel and the EU. Israel is the most active non-European participant in the EU's multi-annual scientific research program. The total value of EU-financed research schemes involving Israeli firms, authorities or universities between 2007 and 2013 exceeds €4 billion ($5.3 billion).

For most of the past decade, the European Commission -- which oversees the allocation of science grants -- has known that some of the beneficiaries are active in Israeli settlements. A 2004 report by the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network drew attention to how firms headquartered in the West Bank and Golan Heights were among these recipients.

This shocking revelation did not stop the Commission from allowing Ahava, a cosmetics-maker headquartered in the illegal settlement of Mitzpe Shalem, from taking part in the current multi-annual program.

There is nothing in the new guidelines which deals explicitly with the arguably bigger issue of EU-financed military cooperation with Israel.

Squalid precedent

Elbit and Israel Aerospace Industries have both profited from the occupation. They (and their subsidiaries) have provided surveillance equipment installed in Israel's wall in the West Bank and drones used to attack civilians in Gaza.

In 2011, the European Commission held a "public consultation" exercise on the future direction of its scientific activities. A number of Palestine solidarity campaigners availed of this opportunity to demand that Israeli arms companies be declared ineligible for research grants. Yet when the Commission published an analysis of contributions to this exercise, it completely ignored all comments on this matter.

Could the EU be following a squalid precedent set by the like-minded Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)? In 2010, Israel was admitted to the OECD, following a request that it exclude statistics concerning East Jerusalem and the Golan from official documents it transmits to the Paris-based capitalist club. You are probably not surprised to read that Israel hasn't been subject to any sanctions for failing to comply with this request.

Similarly, I wouldn't put money on the likelihood of the EU taking robust action against Israel if it flouts these new guidelines.

Substitute for boycott?

The EU's paper does not give details of what steps, if any, will be taken to monitor Israel's behavior. From speaking to Brussels officials, I know that some of them have been asked previously by the EU hierarchy to be on the look-out for settlement-based firms cooperating with the Union.

Yet there was no incentive provided for them to be vigilant. One of the main preoccupations of civil servants is being promoted. I have yet to meet a civil servant who felt that kicking up a stink about Israel would be an astute career move.

My main objection to the EU's attempts to get tough with Israel on settlements are that they being presented as an alternative to a boycott of Israeli goods and institutions. The Union's envoy in Tel Aviv, Andrew Standley, stated categorically last month that a related move on labeling fruit and vegetables from Israeli settlements was not a boycott.

Not for the first time, the EU being out of sync with its citizens. Campaigns to shun Israel entirely -- not just its settlements -- are flourishing in many parts of Europe. Yet the best that the Brussels elite can come up with is an indication it "may" do something.

Is this really an earthquake?

•First published by The Electronic Intifada, 17 July 2013.

Monday, July 1, 2013

The West plays with fire in Syria

Propaganda is easy. Use touchy-feely words like "human rights" to sell wars. Claim to cherish "values". Demonise your enemies; ignore the crimes of your allies. Don't be afraid to lie.

The greatest innovation that William Hague has brought to the dark art of spin is that he has mastered it in a Yorkshire accent. The West must "be prepared to do more to save lives" in Syria, Britain's foreign secretary said recently. Hague's preferred method of saving lives is to arm one side in a civil war.

Why should be we sceptical of the erudite statesman? In 1916, Britain and France negotiated a secret deal on carving up the Middle East between them. Splotches of blue and red were applied to a map, designating which territories should "belong" to each power. "In the blue area France, and in the red area Great Britain, shall be allowed to establish such direct or indirect administration or control as they desire," stated the Sykes-Picot accord - as the deal became known.

Almost a century later Hague and his French counterpart Laurent Fabius appear determined to oust Bashar al-Assad. There can be little doubt that Assad is responsible for atrocities. But is that really why strategists in London, Paris and Washington want him removed?

One year after Sykes-Picot, the US President Woodrow Wilson declared that a war was necessary for the world to be "made safe for democracy".

"Likeable rogue"

Ordinary Syrians know a thing or two about the West's commitment to democracy. Syria achieved independence in 1946; it was supposed to be a parliamentary republic. In 1949, the CIA orchestrated a coup in order to put Husni al-Zaim in power. Declassified documents indicate that the US regarded the colonel as a "likeable rogue".

Bashar al-Assad was also viewed as a likeable rogue by some Western elitists. In February 2011, Vogue magazine published a feature eulogising Bashar and his wife Asma. As well as leading the "safest country in the Middle East", the couple wanted Syria to be treated as a brand, the feature informed us.

Assad had spent much of the preceding decade undergoing a makeover to woo foreign multinationals. His Baath party had been in favour of central planning but in 2005 it decided to move towards a "social market economy", a euphemism for letting major corporations run the show. To stress its approval for this neoliberal shift, most EU governments were prepared to overlook Assad's penchant for imprisoning opponents and conclude a "free trade" deal with him. (The accord didn't come into effect, mainly because of opposition from the Netherlands).

The EU was more favourably disposed towards Assad than the US. While George W Bush was initially able to co-opt Assad for the "war on terror", the White House eventually succumbed to pressure from Congress and signed a bill imposing economic sanctions on Syria in 2003.

The editors at Vogue may have forgotten to consult their in-house astrologers before publishing that inauspicious article. Soon after it hit the shelves, Assad's forces were suppressing popular protests against him. Brand Syria had turned toxic.

Assad is now clearly perceived as a liability by Britain, France and the US. So much so that they are preparing to arm groups which we are enjoined to call "rebels". Under different circumstances, the "rebels" would be labelled "terrorists".

The Free Syrian Army has reportedly opened fire inside a hospital serving Yarmouk, a camp for Palestinian refugees in Damascus. These "rebels" are the most probable recipients of Western weapons. Indeed, they are already well-armed, thanks largely to Saudi Arabia. The Saudi royal family is a client state of the US and a prized customer of Britain's war industry. Could that explain why the West is happy to tacitly applaud the Saudis for abetting war crimes?

Israel's lapdog

Susan Rice, the outgoing American ambassador to the UN, described the Security Council's "inaction" on Syria as "a moral and strategic disgrace". Her attempt to put a moral gloss on American foreign policy was risible. The same Susan Rice acted as Israel's lapdog. Among those attacked by Israel in November last year were Palestinian refugees who had fled from Syria to Gaza. Rice supported that patently immoral attack.

As it happens, the permanent members of the Security Council have not been guilty of inaction. One of them, Russia, has shamefully kept on sending arms to Assad. Three others, Britain, France and the US, have been training Syrian "rebels" in Jordan.

NATO, for its part, has provocatively placed a number of missile interceptors near Turkey's border with Syria. These are in addition to the military bases that America, the dominant country in NATO, has established in Turkey.

For all their talk about wanting to protect lives, the imperial powers' only real objective in Syria is protecting their interests. Not for the first time, they are determined to ensure that Damascus is ruled by someone who answers to Western orders.

There is a nasty sectarian aspect to Syria's civil war. Like the invasion of Iraq, it has exacerbated tensions between Sunni and Shia Muslims.

Moreover, the conflict has not stayed within Syria; it has spilled over into Lebanon. Israel has got involved, perhaps as a test run for an attack on Iran.

Shovelling fresh weapons into this civil war is flagrantly irresponsible. In their arrogance, the West's imperialists are prepared to play with fire, if it means that they can keep the Middle East under their control.

•First published by New Europe, 30 June-6 July 2013.