Walls, walls, walls: the spirit of the day

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Building legal walls: In some places the outer image of politics is physical walls, in others it is the law. South Africa’s Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng is increasingly called upon to rein in errant politicians such as President Zuma (above), while US President Donald Trump poses similar challenges to the law in his country

TWO presidents who excel in shamelessness loom over South Africans’ minds today: the United States’ Donald Trump and South Africa’s Jacob Zuma. Both are unpredictable, of questionable ethics, arrogant and cannot admit they are wrong; neither are very intelligent and both are damaging their countries.

When Trump arrives in Israel on Monday after visiting Saudi Arabia and before going to the Vatican – his trip encompasses key centres of Islam, Judaism and Christianity – he enters a minefield that has stymied the dreams of previous US presidents who wanted to go down historically as having ended the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Trump touts himself as the ultimate deal-maker. Does he have a policy or is he winging it? Does he favour a two state solution, or will he give West Bank settlers the carte blanche he implied during his campaign which led far-right Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett – who opposes a Palestinian state – to proclaim “The Palestinian flag has been lowered from the flagpole” and Culture Minister Miri Regev to declare jubilantly, “Obama is history, now we have Trump!”

They may be disappointed. Last week a senior member of the US delegation making preparations for Trump’s visit outraged Israelis by saying Jerusalem’s western wall – the kotel – is “not your territory, it’s part of the West Bank.” Although the White House said it was unauthorised, tempers ran high. Trump after all believes in walls: he wants to build them around America to keep Mexicans and other “undesirables” – such as Muslims – out.

His arrival coincides with the 50-year anniversary of Israel’s Six Day War victory over invading Arab armies and dismantling of the wall which split Jerusalem for 19 years. The war’s consequences have divided Jews worldwide ever since. Many on the right believe the victory was God-inspired; others on the left, while celebrating Israel’s survival, see it as the beginning of the bitter Palestinian occupation, which has even resulted in Israel building a long wall separating it from the West Bank to prevent terrorism. Israel won the war but has yet to win the peace, in contrast to the Berlin wall’s falling in 1989 which re-united Germany.

Trump seems an unlikely person to bring resolution. But with such a maverick, no-one knows what may emerge.

At home, South Africans are trying to build a different kind of wall – a legal one – to hold off Zuma’s bizarre behaviour and prevent the country’s decline into another African kleptocracy like Zimbabwe. Clearly the president has gone rogue and no longer cares what citizens or ANC members think of him. Meanwhile, a South African equivalent of the Arab Spring threatens to erupt as extreme poverty and inequality become too much for the masses to bear while political leaders luxuriate in expensive mansions at state expense.

There are spots of hope. Such as Monday’s fascinating constitutional court debate over whether the coming no-confidence motion against Zuma in Parliament should be conducted by secret ballot, as opposition parties are demanding. This would allow ANC members who oppose him to vote freely without fear of recrimination.

The concourt remains a fiercely independent bastion of democracy – a legal wall against Zuma’s abuse of his position. Will it hold? Last year the court ruled that Zuma had failed to uphold the constitution when he ignored a report of the public protector that he should pay back public money spent upgrading his private homestead, Nkandla. When Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng delivered the judgement, loud cheers permeated the nation which is sick and tired of the president’s thievery.

Zuma was eventually forced to repay some of the money. Yet shamelessly, he did not resign, nor did his party, the ANC, force him to do so. He continued on his path, thinking the fallout from the affair would blow over. Since then the courts have been increasingly inundated with petitions from political parties and NGOs such as the Helen Suzman Foundation aimed at curbing the corruption and maladministration of Zuma’s regime.

Both Trump and Zuma see their countries’ constitutions as an inconvenience rather than a jewel to be cherished. Both recently fired – literally overnight – very senior public figures for what seems like selfish reasons. Trump fired FBI head James Comey apparently for pursuing an investigation of Trump’s links to the Russians; Zuma fired respected South African finance minister Pravin Gordhan, who was holding the fort against the economy’s collapse but was blocking Zuma’s personal ambitions. Opposition to both men is rising and may eventually bring them down.

What comes after them, of course, is anyone’s guess.

(GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email:  geoffs@icon.co.za )

Titan clash: Judges go head to head with corruptors, ideologues

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Can the law hold up against power? Israel’s Supreme Court will decide on the legality of a controversial Knesset bill passed by the powerful settler lobby to legalise illegal settlements. Courts elsewhere face similar confrontations with politicians.

IN THREE countries close to South African Jews – Israel, South Africa and the United States – a monumental fight is raging between defenders of the law and powerful politicians attempting to subvert it. Protagonists are public figures holding high office including presidents, judges and political leaders. The effects will ultimately be felt by ordinary people.

South Africans cheered last year when the constitutional court’s Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng ruled in a landmark case that President Jacob Zuma failed to uphold the constitution of the republic. He had refused to implement the public protector’s instructions to compensate for benefits he received from state money spent upgrading his private homestead Nkandla. The chief justice’s finding affirmed that the law applied equally to all, despite the president’s contempt for it, and Zuma had to pay back some R7m to the state. In parliament last week the Economic Freedom Fighters party aptly labelled him a constitutional “delinquent”.

In the United States in the last two months, judges stood firm against the new president, Donald Trump, ruling that his executive order signed immediately after taking office barring entry to people from seven Muslim-majority countries be put on hold until its constitutionality was properly tested. Trump’s response – consistent with his narcissistic temperament – was outrage towards the judges, who were doggedly teaching him the limits of his power. He had to abide by their rulings.

In Israel, a battle is raging between proponents of constitutional legality and the settler movement, which succeeded last week in passing in the Knesset the Regularisation Law, driven by Education Minister Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home party. Dubbed the Land-Grab Law by its detractors, it would allow private Palestinian land in the West Bank to be expropriated by Israel to retroactively legalise settlements which were built there illegally. The settlers will not gain ownership of the land but will be allowed to remain.

The Law’s illegality is so blatant that Israeli President Reuven Rivlin publically condemned it, since Israel has not established sovereignty over the West Bank. This principled stand by Rivlin, who actually supports settlements and reportedly believes in a binational state with equal citizenship among Arabs and Jews as the solution to the conflict, echoed that of Israeli attorney-general Avichai Mandelblit, who said he would not defend it before the Supreme Court, which is where it will inevitably land up.

Rivlin said: “Israel has adopted international law [and cannot] apply and enforce its laws on territories that are not under its sovereignty. [Doing so] will cause Israel to be seen as an apartheid state, which it is not.”

The word apartheid is usually applied to Israel by rabid Israel-haters such as the BDS movement and similar groups. South African Jews who lived through apartheid are highly sensitive to its use, claiming it is totally inappropriate for Israel. Now, alarmingly, Israel’s president has himself warned the country by reference to this word. The extremists among the settlers don’t seem to care, however.

Legally, the case against the Regularisation Law is clear and the Supreme Court will almost certainly declare it unconstitutional. But extreme rightwing political forces will not buckle so easily, and the settler lobby is threatening to undercut the Supreme Court’s authority by passing a law enabling the Knesset to override the Court in certain cases. Fortunately, other eminent rightwing figures in the government have said they would oppose this, such as Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon: “We have no other Supreme Court and it must not be harmed.”

What’s in a name? The law’s proponents call it the Regularisation Law; but those who call it the Land-Grab law have a point. Hopefully, the principled Israelis in positions of power who are defending the country’s commitment to legality will prevail.

(GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email:  geoffs@icon.co.za )

Risky politics as Netanyahu flatters pit bull Trump

bibi-and-trump-4THE WARM congratulatory message Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu sent US President Donald Trump after his inauguration last Friday – “Congratulations to my friend, President Trump” – highlighted the schism between Netanyahu and a major portion of world Jewry disgusted by the new president; for them, his message was cringeworthy. He was definitely not speaking for the whole of Jewry, nor the whole of Israel.

Trump expresses admiration for Israel, bemoaning its “unfair” treatment in the conflict with the Palestinians. He will discover the conflict is infinitely more complex than he imagines, and cannot be solved with his famous simplistic bombast. He is referred to as the great deal-maker in entertainment and hotels, without political experience. But he resembles an unpredictable pit bull begging the question: Will the real Donald Trump please stand up?

How will he react if the parties refuse his deal-making? The Middle East is not a hotel. When he comes up against the unceasing incitements from both sides – Palestinian terrorism and Israel’s settlement construction on Palestinian land – will he remain Netanyahu’s “friend”?

Trump’s election typifies the rise of nationalistic right wing leaders worldwide with xenophobic and anti-Semitic attitudes – although Trump has a Jewish son-in-law and would be outraged to be called anti-Semitic. His bellicose use of the “America first” slogan evokes memories of other populist leaders in history who pounded the table with such refrains while leading their countries to ruin.

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL), an organisation dedicated to combatting anti-Semitism which often speaks out on other forms of discrimination, pressed Trump last year to drop the slogan because of its tainted legacy from the America First Committee, the isolationist movement created in 1940 after Hitler invaded Poland. The America First Committee urged neutrality towards Nazi Germany, and even doing business with it because it didn’t threaten America directly. One openly anti-Semitic leader, aviator Charles Lindbergh, said Jews were a threat because of their control of the media, and that he was backed by a silent majority of Americans denied a voice by a hostile press. Trump, however, ignored the ADL plea.

At the over 500 000-strong anti-Trump women’s march in Washington on Saturday – part of two million demonstrators countrywide reported by AFP and CNN – a keynote speaker was Gloria Steinem, a founder of the 1960s feminist movement and daughter of a Jewish man whose family were immigrants from Germany and Poland. She challenged Trump’s assertion that he represents “the people” of America, saying: “I have met the people and you are not them!”

Trump supporters have mentioned a possible master registry of Muslim immigrants in America in response to radical Islamic terrorism. But the ADL’s head, Jonathan Greenblatt, said Americans must reject all forms of discrimination regardless of which minority group it targets. He pledged that “if one day Muslim-Americans are forced to register their identities, that is the day this proud Jew will register as Muslim… As Jews we know what it means to be forced to register.”

The Jewish world – as with broader society – is deeply split on Trump. Many conservative Jews in the United States and Israel back him, particularly in the Orthodox segment, hoping he will strengthen the Israeli right. His ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, is an Orthodox Jew on the far right of Israel’s political spectrum who opposes the two-state solution and strongly supports the settlement movement.

How will Trump react if anti-Semitism continues rising in the United States? Will he censure its perpetrators when many – the nationalists who hail “America first!” – will probably be people who voted for him? Will his recent nasty comments on the media’s negative coverage of him eventually translate into the old slogan that “the Jews control the media”?

Netanyahu did nothing diplomatically incorrect in congratulating Trump on his inauguration. It is normal diplomatic protocol. But his message’s obvious warmth was jarring to millions who believe Trump is a potential fascist.

Some argue Netanyahu is simply playing realpolitik and sees in Trump the opportunity to strengthen Israel. But many Jews are asking: Does Israel not endorse the humanistic values which two million women marched for on Saturday in defiance of Trump?

Nobody knows if Netanyahu’s warm words towards Trump will help the Israeli PM’s cause. They may return to haunt him when the pit bull turns vicious.

(Geoff Sifrin is a journalist based in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email: geoffs@icon.co.za)