Friday 27 February 2009

27 February 2009

I may need a bit of help from you this week, because I really want to try to get this right.

As I understand it, there’s a hugely important, privately-owned industry that’s run into trouble and is in danger of complete collapse. The answer, apparently, is to pump in billions of pounds of tax-payers’ money, in other words to take great chunks of it into public ownership. Because, apparently, only the government has enough money to make a real difference. So that’s the banks taken care of.

And then, if I’ve got this right, there’s also a hugely important, state-owned industry that’s run into trouble and which is also in danger of complete collapse. This time, the answer, apparently, is to pump in billions of pounds of private sector money, in other words to take great chunks of it into private ownership. Because, apparently, only the private sector has enough money to make a real difference. And that’s the Royal Mail taken care of.

So here’s a thought: given how controversial all this is, why not use the government money that’s going to the banks to bail out the Royal Mail – and then ask the private companies that are sniffing around the Royal Mail to turn their attention to the banks instead?

That way, everyone would be happy. Wouldn’t they? (All right, I admit it, I’m not being entirely serious. But it is all a bit topsy-turvy, isn’t it?)

And here’s another thing that’s got me scratching my head this week. We have a Freedom of Information Act (good thing too, say all us journalists, because information is our lifeblood). It set up an Information Commissioner, and Information Tribunals, as independent arbiters of what official information should be published and what shouldn’t.

It also contains a provision (section 53, if you’re interested) to enable a Minister to certify
“that they have formed a reasonable opinion that, contrary to the view of the Information Commissioner, the balance of the public interest … comes down in favour of withholding information.” In other words, the Minister has a veto.

And this week, the Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jack Straw) used that veto to prevent publication of the minutes of Cabinet meetings in 2003 which discussed the legality or otherwise of going to war in Iraq.

Now, the minister responsible for the drafting of the Freedom of Information Act in 2000 was the then Home Secretary (Mr Jack Straw). And one of the ministers most closely involved in the discussions leading up to the Iraq war in 2003 was the then Foreign Secretary (Mr Jack Straw). I draw no conclusions, m’Lud, I merely draw these matters to your attention.

But here’s yet another thing. I’ve come across a minute written by the Defence Secretary just before the Cabinet decided to go to war in the Middle East. Here’s what he said (and yes, it has been published):

“Events are moving fast and I am anxious lest I should be carried along with the stream without taking an opportunity of expressing my misgivings … it would be dangerous to assume that the military operation would be quickly over. It would certainly involve bombing and bombardment with loss of civilian lives which would attract criticism. Military opinion suggests that the operation is likely to be successful but not necessarily short. It is easy to see how we get in, but not so easy to see how we get out quickly.”

Oh, sorry, didn’t I mention? That was Sir Walter Monckton, who was defence secretary in 1956, as Britain, together with France and Israel, was preparing to invade Egypt over the Suez Canal. The minute was published 30 years later, in 1986.

So if you really want to know what Jack Straw and his colleagues were discussing in 2003, it looks as if you’ll have to stick around till 2033.

Friday 13 February 2009

13 February 2009

JERUSALEM/LONDON: Call me old-fashioned if you like, but I do think that after an election you should be able to tell who won.

So it was just a tad frustrating this week in Israel when both the foreign minister Tzipi Livni and the former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu claimed that they had won the general election – and the figures seemed to bear them out.

So let me try to be helpful: all you need to know is that the right-wing won. In the last election three years ago, Mr Netanyahu’s Likud party had 12 parliamentary seats (there are 120 seats in total); now it has 27. Ms Livni’s centrist Kadima party had 29; now it has 28. The hardline nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu had 11 seats; now it has 15.

And the Labour party, which dominated every Israeli government for the first 30 years of the country’s existence, is now languishing in fourth place with just 13 seats.

So who’ll be the next Israeli prime minister? Sorry, don’t know (but if I had to bet on it, I’d put my money on Bibi Netanyahu). What’s more, as far as making progress on negotiating with the Palestinians is concerned, it probably doesn’t much matter.

Here’s why. Whoever is prime minister, the next government will be either right of centre or a broad-based centrist coalition consisting of Likud, Kadima and Labour (which is the option being much discussed in this morning’s Israeli papers.)

Whichever it is, it’ll be in no mood to start making concessions to the Palestinians – for the simple reason that Israeli voters are in no mood either. Ever since the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising, began in September 2000, many Israelis have given up on the idea of negotiating a peace deal with the Palestinians.

They just don’t believe it can be done. Look what happened when we withdrew from Southern Lebanon, they say. We got Hizbollah and Katyusha rockets. Look what happened when we withdrew from Gaza. We got Hamas and Qassam rockets. So now you want us to withdraw from the West Bank? No, thanks.

(Critics argue that in both Lebanon and Gaza, the Israeli withdrawals were carried out unilaterally, which could be why they ended in tears.)

A word about Yisrael Beiteinu and its controversial leader Avigdor Lieberman. Its main election promise was to make all Israeli citizens, whether Jewish or non-Jewish (about one-fifth of Israelis are Christian or Muslim Arab Palestinians), swear an oath of loyalty to Israel as a Jewish state. If they refused, they would be denied the right to vote, stripped of their citizenship, but not expelled from the country.

In addition, the party argued that Israel should be prepared to give up large chunks of land where Arab Palestinian Israelis live, in return for large chunks of the West Bank where Israeli settlers live. In a nut-shell: don’t move the people, just move the borders.

And there’s more: Yisrael Beiteinu wants to legalise civil marriages (at present, marriages between Jews are recognised only if they are carried out by a rabbi), and liberalise the laws on selling non-kosher food. (A lot of Israel’s Russian immigrants, from whom the party derives most of its support, don’t observe traditional Jewish dietary laws.)

Not all of that fits into the conventional notion of what is right-wing in Israel. Sometimes labels don’t help much. I’m told that Mr Lieberman and Ms Livni are closer than you might think, especially on the marriage and kosher issues – so don’t discount the possibility that if Kadima do get the chance to try to put together a coalition, they’ll start by talking to Mr Lieberman.

Confused? So are Israelis. Confused, disillusioned, depressed and pessimistic. When Barack Obama was campaigning for the US presidency, he said voters should choose hope rather than fear. Many of the Israelis I’ve been talking to over the past few days seem to have done exactly the opposite.

Friday 6 February 2009

6 February 2009

I have some questions for you:

If a man who has been granted the legal right to live in Britain – but who isn’t a British citizen – is tortured while in US custody, do we have a right to know that?

If the US government says that publishing details of his treatment “is likely to result in serious damage to US national security and could harm existing intelligence information-sharing arrangements between our two governments”, is the British government right to pass that warning to the High Court?

And is the High Court right to complain that what the US warning amounts to is one democracy expecting a court in another democracy to suppress evidence “relevant to allegations of torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment”?

Here’s the background: Binyam Mohamed, an Ethiopian national resident in Britain, was arrested in Pakistan in 2002. He was then transferred to Morocco where he says he was repeatedly tortured. In 2004, he was taken to Guantanamo Bay, where he has been ever since. He was originally charged with having been involved in a plot to launch an attack in the US using a “dirty bomb”; that charge has been dropped, and he currently faces no further charges.

The problem with secrets is that, by definition, we don’t know what they are. Why is the US so keen to prevent this information being made public? Is it because it confirms that Mohamed was tortured, or is it because to release it could jeopardise US intelligence-gathering? Is someone in Washington merely trying to avoid political embarrassment, or are they justifiably worried about compromising sensitive intelligence sources?

It is, like all stories involving anti-terrorism operations, a murky business. But to add to the murk, we need to consider that President Obama has already announced that he intends to close Guantanamo within a year, and has signed an order ending the use of torture by US personnel and the practice of “extraordinary rendition” of suspects to countries that do use torture.

Just last night, the man chosen by Mr Obama to head the CIA, Leon Panetta, said in unambiguous terms: “I believe that water-boarding is torture and it's wrong.” (Water-boarding is an interrogation technique – it simulates the sensation of drowning -- which the Bush administration acknowledged it authorised but which it insisted was not torture.)

So does the Obama administration stand by the previous administration’s warning about the damage to US national security that would be caused by the publication of the Mohamed dossier? All the White House will say is that the administration wants to thank the UK government “for its continued commitment to protect sensitive national security information", which, it says, will “preserve the long-standing intelligence sharing relationship that enables both countries to protect their citizens.”

I’m sorry about all the unanswered questions this week, but you rarely get answers in stories of this kind. A man who may, or may not, be a dangerous terrorist may, or may not, have been tortured. The Obama administration may, or may not, instruct its intelligence people to drop their objections to the publication of the evidence. It’s been that sort of week.

I’m off to Israel this weekend, not merely to escape the snow, but to prepare to report on the elections on Tuesday. I’ll be on air on Monday, looking ahead to the vote, and we should have exit poll predictions of the result by the time we go on air on Tuesday evening. I hope you’ll be able to tune in.