ISRAEL: The Knesset, Chagall, and the endless election cycle

As part of my trip, we were given a tour of the Israeli Knesset. Our group were all political nerds, so we had a blast getting into the details of the political system and the functioning of the legislature.

One of the highlights was the stunning Chagall triptych in the main hall – setting out Jewish past, future, religion, and stories. Chagall’s work pops up all around Israel, but these massive tapestries are some of the most stunning, just overwhelmingly full of small details.

The Knesset was very quiet, as both it was summer break, and there was an election on. However, there will still a few MPs around, as there is a live board that shows which ones are in the building. It seems like it would be really useful for political staffers to find their MPs, but weirdly, this live board is also viewable online. It seems like a major security loophole in a country very focused on security, though our guide explained that in this case, transparency was more important.

While this was quite rosy and straightforward, Israel’s political system is anything but. They’re currently in the middle of their fifth election in three years. Israel has one of the most extreme forms of proportional representation, which ends up with messy coalitions of many parties, with minor party leaders becoming the “kingmakers”. There’s political parties along the left-right spectrum, like in any country, but there’s also identity-based parties, including Haredi and Arab ones. Religious vs. secular and Zionist vs. non-Zionist adds an extra dimension as well.

Here’s a really good primer on the Israeli political spectrum – it’s a few years old, but touches on a lot of deeper divides, voting patterns, and political priorities.

The time between elections in Israel is often spent forming and maintaining coalitions. The previous coalition was between eight parties, including leftist, centrist, right-wing, and Arab ones, and was notable for actually passing a budget. The coalition has since fallen apart, and this election this fall is once more a question of “Yes Bibi / No Bibi” – yes or no to a return of Netanyahu and his coalitions of right-wing and Haredi parties.

Somehow, voter turnout remains high (and higher than turnout in Canada), but most Israelis I spoke with expressed frustration at the constant cycle of elections, dealmaking, and coalitions – there seems to be very little time for actual governance.

ISRAEL: The Western Wall and the Dome of the Rock

I posted about my trip to the Temple Mount in Israel last month, but I also found these two great explainer videos from Religion for Breakfast that give a lot of good additional background on both the Western Wall and the Dome of the Rock, and why the situation is all so … prickly.

He also got to go on an extremely rare visit inside the Dome, normally banned for non-Muslims.

ISRAEL: How small it all is

One of the things that I stunned me on my trip to Israel was just how small and close everything is in the Levant. I think it’s particularly hard to vision for Canadians – we’re so used to having huge, empty spaces.

The whole of Israel and Palestine put together is only half the area of Nova Scotia, one of Canada’s smallest provinces. At it’s narrowest, Israel is only 10km wide. From north to south, the country is just 400km long, not much more than the drive from Ottawa to Toronto – a drive I’ve done just to go shopping.

And yet, Israel has 9 million people, plus another 4 mil in Palestine. And about half of all this territory in uninhabitable desert. You can see it in the crammed housing in the Old City of Jerusalem, in the sky-high property prices in Tel Aviv, and from Israelis who don’t support the settlements into East Jerusalem and the West Bank but live there anyways, since it’s the only affordable housing around Jerusalem.

Not just holy sites in Jerusalem

It’s also why the conflicts are so difficult and intractable, including with neighbouring countries. There is very little room to maneuver. One evening, we went ATVing out into the desert in the West Bank (which was very fun and also very dusty).

We stopped at one point to take in the view. From where we stood, we could simultaneously see the individual towers of Jerusalem, the Palestinian city of Jericho, Jordan’s capital Amman, and the north end of the Dead Sea.

Jericho, in the valley, and Amman, up on the far hills

Our trip also brought us up to the Golan Heights. We stayed overnight at a nice little winery kibbutz that happened to be only 3km from the Syrian border. In the morning we went up to a lookout that gave a view into Syria.

Israel and Syira. The white buildings in the upper right are a UN camp.

We weren’t alone, as two UN officers were also using the lookout. They have a camp right on the Israeli side of the border – likely originally to monitor the ceasefire between Israel and Syria (the vineyards below were the site of tank battles in the Yom Kippur War) but now used to track the horrors of the Syrian Civil War.

We heard from several people that from the start of Syria’s civil war in 2011 to about 2018, you could hear the explosions and fighting in Syria from the kibbutz, and even see puffs of smoke from the lookout down in the valley. It seemed like a shocking contrast between the peaceful mountain resort feel on the Israeli side.

Interestingly, this is also why Israel has been much more restrained in condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine than other western countries. Russia has been supporting the Assad government in Syria and has little desire to see the Syrian Civil War spill over into Israel, which could turn into a much larger war and destabilize the whole region. Right now, Russia also (usually) turns a blind eye to Israeli strikes on Iranian / Hezbollah-linked targets in Syria. So, while Israel is no supporter of the invasion of Ukraine, the home front is taking priority.

A few kilometres away is another lookout, this time into Lebanon, and a different flashpoint. This border is just as heavily armed, and was the site of a much more recent war in 2006 – one between Israel and Hezbollah, which is backed by Iran, but deeply entrenched in Lebanon. While there is a ceasefire, it is no peace, and Lebanon is currently facing serious internal instability that could see things spiral out of control again.

The fortified wall is the border between Lebanon and Israel

Even with more stable neighbours like Egypt and Jordan, who recognize Israel and have diplomatic relations (unlike Lebanon and Syria), the proximity and conflicts in the region create from very weird international situations.

On the vacation part of my trip, I took a day trip to Petra, in Jordan. Our tour bus picked us up in Tel Aviv at an absolutely unholy hour (2am) so we could be at the Jordanian border by morning. But then, if the country is so small, why was it such a long drive?

We stopped for gas near the Allenby Bridge, a border crossing about 30km from Jerusalem and about an hour’s drive from Tel Aviv. If we crossed there, it likely could have shaved many hours off our drive (and let us sleep in!). But Allenby is meant to be the main crossing for Palestinians into Jordan and until recently, the only way for both Palestinians and Israeli Muslims to go on the Hajj. Non-Muslim Israelis cannot cross at Allenby, and there are limits on visas and entry for foreign tourists.

So, as we were on an Israeli tour bus, we instead drove 250 km south, all the way down to the Red Sea, where there is a border crossing that Israelis and foreign tourists can cross into Jordan normally. We then backtracked back north, just on the Jordanian side, to get to Petra.

At our crossing by the Red Sea

It was one more interesting real-life experience of the complexities of the geopolitics here. And as for the long drive, it was totally worth it. Petra is stunning.

ISRAEL: The Western Wall and Temple Mount

The day we flew in to Israel, our group poured off the 11 hour flight from Toronto to Tel Aviv, got into a bus, and took a short drive up into the hills of Jerusalem. We were stupid with jetlag, but as the bus came around a turn, we all gasped – we could see the golden Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount.

Metre for metre, the Old City of Jerusalem is probably the most contested and controversial piece of land in the world, and the Temple Mount is quite literally at the centre of it. This is where wars have been fought, both historic and modern, and the competing religious and political forces pulling on this one place continue to make it a flashpoint.

The Temple Mount has the distinction of being the holiest site in Judaism, the location of the Second Temple, the very heart of Jewish life, religion, and identity, before it was destroyed by the Romans in 70CE as part of crushing Jewish revolts against their rule. To massively oversimplify history, Jews were later banned from visiting Jerusalem in 132CE, and Roman persecution through that time period led to Jewish communities fleeing in all directions, starting the diaspora. Unsurprisingly, this spot underpins the modern State of Israel and the idea of a return to rebuild their homeland.

The outline of where the Second Temple stood over the current Dome of the Rock.

At the same time, the Temple Mount is also the third holiest site in Islam (after Mecca and Medina), and what most of the complex is currently being used for. On the same site where the Second Temple stood is the Dome of the Rock. This beautiful golden dome is the site of Muhammad’s Night Journey, where he ascended to heaven to receive instruction on prayer from God.

The Dome of the Rock, right in the heart of it all

The religious importance of this spot is amplified by the tradition in the three Abrahamic religions that this is also the spot where Abraham almost sacrificed his son (Isaac in Judaism/Christianity and Ishmael in Islam), and even some traditions that this was the site of the creation of Adam.

The Western Wall (aka the Wailing Wall) is the remaining piece of the Second Temple, and is a spot for Jews to pray and mourn the temple’s destruction. The wall itself isn’t holy, but for most of the time since the destruction of the Temple, this is as close as Jews were allowed to come – at times fully banned from the Old City.

After the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, Jordan annexed the West Bank and the Old City of Jerusalem. After the Six Day War in 1967, Israel took control of Jerusalem and Jordan’s Palestinian territories. Jordan gave up claims to sovereignty over the West Bank in 1988, though they kept control of the Muslim sites on top of the Temple Mount as part of the 1967 “Status Quo” agreement with Israel, a renewing of older Ottoman religious authority agreements. The Jordanian Waqf continues of manage and control access to the top of the Temple Mount, while the rest of the Old City is under Israeli control and management.

The covered walkway for non-Muslim access to the Temple Mount

Non-Muslims are allowed up onto the Temple Mount at certain times, and both Israel and Jordan enforce a ban on prayer, particularly by Jews. Up until 2000, non-Muslims could enter the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque, though no more. There’s also contested opinions among Jews if they should even walk on the Temple Mount for risk of standing on the site of the Holy of Holies, though it’s not a universal belief – there were several Haredi boys that went up with us.

While the Western Wall is busy, the Temple Mount is quiet and peaceful, with families picnicking. I went up on a tour given by my friend Pauline, a professional Israeli tour guide, and we had no issue accessing it in the non-Muslim hours. A couple of elderly Palestinian women from the West Bank came over to chat, and after learning I was Canadian, had a sympathetic joke at me braving the heat. It was a peaceful, friendly moment, and a change from the animosity and violence that frequently makes the news over this site.

ISRAEL: The Dead Sea is dying

The Dead Sea is dying – it’s going the way of the Aral Sea, and is dropping by about a metre a year. If this continues, it’ll likely be gone in 30 years. The video below sets out why, but the tl;dr is that both Israel and Jordan are using evaporation pools to extract the potash and other valuable minerals, and are also drawing deep on the Jordan River for hydroelectricity and fresh water. Essentially, not enough new water is flowing into the Dead Sea to replace what evaporates. (Climate change is not helping either, with hotter weather and less rain in the winter.)

This video talks hopefully about the Red-Dead Sea pipeline, a plan to bring salt water from the Red Sea by pipe to the Dead Sea, providing hydroelectricity and desalinated water along the way – something Jordan needs badly. Israel used to be as desperate for water, until it discovered huge natural gas reserves and invested that into fuelling its own desalination from the Mediterranean.

However, the Red-Dead Sea pipeline was cancelled last year due to lack of cooperation between the two countries, who have a “cold peace”, plus financing issues, environmental concerns, and the ever-changing Israeli government. Jordan instead will continue to buy water from Israel, but that does nothing for the Dead Sea.

The exposed lakebed of the Dead Sea – that used to be all underwater just a few decades ago.

On our trip, as we drove down to a resort on the Israeli side, I could see the exposed lakebed, stretching many metres from the old shore. We also saw the sinkholes that have taken out resorts, and even took a stretch of new highway that detoured around the old one, collapsed into the ground.

A section of highway closed off due to sinkholes from the dropping water level

While it was extremely fun to float in the Dead Sea (the buoyancy is really surreal), the drive down really gives you a sinking feeling, pun intended. The Aral Sea has shown us that we’re fully capable of destroying bodies of water on this scale in a single human lifetime, and Israel, Jordan, and the international community seem fully prepared to let the Dead Sea die too.

Fun while it lasts

ISRAEL: My First Rocket Scare

Tel Aviv from Jaffa

I’m just back from three weeks in Israel – the first week was on a work trip, and then two weeks of vacation (first time out of Canada since the pandemic started!) I covered a lot of ground – Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa, Nazareth and Caesarea, down to the Dead Sea and Masada, up to the Golan Heights, plus trips into the East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Jordan.

I met lots of interesting people – both Jewish and Arab Israelis, Palestinians, Canadian diplomats, UN peacekeepers, and more. I got a glimpse at the diversity and complexity of Israel itself, including the massive range of politics and viewpoints. There’s the secular vs the religious, the political left vs the right, the Jewish communities who came at different times and for different reasons – not just Ashkenazi vs Sephardic Jews, but Yemeni, Algerian, Russian, Iraqi, French, Ethiopian, Bukharan, Canadian, Ukrainian, Argentinian, American, and more, plus all those born and raised in Israel.

There’s a huge non-Jewish population too – 20% of Israeli citizens are Arab, both Muslim and Christian, plus there are religious minorities like the Druze and Baha’i. There’s deep debate in Israeli society not just on the ever-changing conflict with the Palestinian territories, but also domestic matters like the place of religion in society, the size of government, cost of living, the economy, relations with other countries, and much more. Bonus for a political nerd like me, they’re in an election – their fifth in three years.

But last week, an Israeli friend warned me that I was about to get “the real Israel experience” – rocket attacks. Things had started to spin up in Gaza – warnings grew about a threatened terrorist attack in Israel, highways in the south were closed, then news broke that the IDF had taken out a leader of Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Gaza.

The PIJ is different from Hamas, which de-facto governs Gaza. Both are widely considered terrorist groups worldwide (they’re both on Canada’s terrorist group list), and are deep enemies of the Palestinian Authority, who govern the West Bank. With control of the Palestinian territories split, the PA unable to do anything in Gaza, and with both Israel and Egypt tightly controlling their border access to Gaza (as opposed to the more open West Bank), it’s a pressure cooker.

As the news broke, my friends advised me to download a Red Alert app – it gives you alerts for incoming missiles for any part of Israel, including how long you have to get to shelter. In Tel Aviv, it’s about a minute and a half, but in places further south, it’s only a few seconds. My hotel also gave us the rundown and showed where the bomb shelter was, and what to do if you’re caught outside when the sirens go off, and that even if the Iron Dome successfully stops an incoming missile, you should wait at least ten minutes to leave shelter in case of falling debris.

Over last weekend, there were two big rocket alerts for Tel Aviv. I was staying there at the time, but thankfully, I missed both – I had gone on a day trip to Petra over in Jordan one day, and the next day I had just left on the train to Haifa. It was surreal to look at video of people running for shelter on the same beach I had hung out on a few days before.

Petra is super neat, by the way

It was even more surreal, as my tour bus back from Petra dropped people off in Jerusalem, to see what looked like an orange firework far to the south – the telltale spark of the Iron Dome shooting down a missile.

Over the weekend, over 800 rockets were fired from Gaza by the PIJ – it felt truly indiscriminate, especially as the most targeted part of Tel Aviv was Jaffa, a majority Arab Muslim neighbourhood on the south side of the city.

Jaffa

Many PIJ missiles also fell short into Gaza, killing Palestinian civilians, on top of Israel targeting PIJ missile launch sites. The situation seemed even more confusing and messy (though less likely to lead to a full war) since Hamas, despite having it’s own history of similar rocket attacks, didn’t join in. A weird ceasefire was eventually agreed to, moderated by Egypt. The rockets stopped, and people picked up their beach volleyball games and went back to election speculation.

The Israelis have a kind of sangfroid about all this – they speak about the threat of rockets the way we Canadians speak about bad winter storms: be prepared, be careful on the roads, but it’s not the end of the world. But under that bravado, you could feel a taut coil of anxiety. It was truly surreal.

CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC: Making Sense of the Central African Republic

Making Sense of the Central African Republic is a collection, edited by Tatiana Carayannis and Louisa Lombard, of shorlarly articles on CAR. It’s probably the most comprehensive book you’ll get on the country, though it was published in 2015 and so misses out more recent developments. There’s articles from a mix of experts, including Central African academics.

It captures both the macro an micro, with articles looking at the broad sweep of CAR’s history and it’s identity – how it is caught between the politics and identities of Sahel countries like Chad and Sudan in the north and the Congo Basin in the south. It also gets into the micro, examining the Pk5 neighbourhood, which has both flourished as a trade hub and been fought over.

The works also build up a larger picture of how a state like CAR ends up so fragile or even failed – the ineffectiveness of peacekeepers, rent-seeking from elites and outsiders, and how natural resources underpin most of the chaos.

CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC: Wagner Group and Russia

I keep on touching on France’s involvement in CAR – military, political, economic – but other countries are also competing for influence in the country and over its resources. Russia has a growing presence, as officially they’ve been invited by the Central African government to train troops to combat rebels and insurgents. This is some bold reporting from Al-Jazeera in 2019, including meeting with Russian military representatives in the same place where Russian journalists were killed investigating the same:

However, it’s not just military trainers. Russian mercenaries, particularly the Wagner Group, have been in active combat in CAR. There have been reports of violence and killing of civilians, and Russian mercenaries been taking hold of Central African resources, ostensibly to protect them from insurgents. Again, more bold journalism, this time Vice in 2021, including an interview with the insurgents themselves:

CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC: Prosper Mayélé and Centrafrican Jazz

There’s some cool West African funk from the 70s and 80s, but before that, there was Centrafrican Jazz – kind of a “relaxed rumba” from the Central African Republic.

One of the biggest artists in CAR through the 50s and 60s was Prosper Mayélé and his Orchestre Centrafrican Jazz. Not only did Mayélé become one of the biggest stars in the country, but he founded the Groupement Orchestral de la République Centrafricaine, a musicians’ organization to support Central African artists, help them grow their careers, and get Central Africa a platform for its own music.

Continuing in the tradition of Central African musicians being “non-political” but still deeply tied to politics as a matter of survival, there are many songs that boost whoever the current government was – this one a paean to Bokassa, shortly after he took power in a coup in 1966.

Prosper Mayélé was successful enough in his career that, while he was favoured by the regime, he still came up as a threat to President Bokassa’s ego, and was conscripted in his late 30s into a military orchestra. He outlasted Bokassa’s government, and lived to a ripe old age, passing away in 1997.

There is an absolute wealth of Centafrican jazz and rumba from the 60s and 70s on a Youtube channel run by Jean-Claude Mayélé Gérard (I think a family member), and it’s truly a historic musical treasure trove.

CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC: Bokassa 1er, empereur de Françafrique (2011)

I keep on coming back to la Françafrique, France’s direct selection of African leaders post-independence and ongoing involvement to this day in the politics and economies of former French African countries, but Bokassa 1er, empereur de Françafrique is a great study of it.

It’s a short documentary in French, using archival footage and interviews, on France’s support for Bokassa, the context of his much-mocked coronation, and France pulling the plug and removing him in Operation Barracuda.