In praise of Israel

Critics should admit their double standard.

Critics should admit their double standard.

It is often said, when Israel is criticised, that it is judged by a different standard from its neighbours. That we hear relatively little in general about the lack of free speech in, say, Egypt or Syria, nor about the thousands of political prisoners in the region (except when it comes to Iran), but that Israel's every move is scrutinised, its motives doubted, and every firing of a shot by one of its armed forces deemed an aggressive act.

This is undoubtedly true – although the "Zionist entity", as presenters used to call it on Saudi television when my family lived in the Gulf in the Eighties, often appears to want as bad a press as it could possibly have. Why else, if you have to build a "security wall" at all, would you build most of it on Palestinian land – an outrageous grab for extra territory that divides and disrupts communities, and which naturally reduces Israel's standing in the eyes of the world?

But are we more vocal about misdeeds such as the above than we were about the quotidian repression and torture practised by Saddam Hussein, for instance, or the status of the Shia minority in Saudi Arabia? Yes, we were and we are. For, however much we may squirm away from saying so bluntly, we in Britain have long regarded Israel as much more like "us" than "them". A country composed to a great extent of people of recent European origin. Consistently, unshakeably, western-orientated (so much so, that it even joined Britain and France in the ill-fated Suez venture). And, above all, a democracy in a sea of dictatorships and absolute monarchies.

If one thinks back to the Sixties and Seventies, there was even more reason for us to feel kinship with Israel. While Europe, whether Social or Christian Democrat, embraced corporatism, dirigisme and various shades of étatisme, Israel elected Labor government after Labor government. This was the Israel that figures such as Daniel Barenboim still recall – one that was secular, socialist, cultured, humane and, I remember from my childhood in the Seventies, greatly admired.

But it is that feeling of similarity, in my view, not an unstoppable tide of resurgent anti-Semitism, that is the main reason why Israel has been portrayed so negatively for so long. The excesses of "others" we judge differently, often more leniently. Those of a friend and relative we view harshly indeed. With Israel, it is as though a continental democracy were to have been complicit in the massacres at Sabra and Shatila in 1982, to have crushed to death in 2003 the American peace activist Rachel Corrie, who was trying to stop a Palestinian home being demolished, to have put into a fatal coma the British photographer Tom Hurndall, shot in the head the same year while he helped Palestinian children cross the street in Rafah, and a voluminous catalogue of other incidents and fatalities in between and since.

All of which makes recent news from Israel at once grave and quite outstandingly impressive. The conviction last week of the country's eighth president, Moshe Katsav, of rape, is described in today's Jerusalem Post as "staining the reputation of Israel and its citizens". But once one passes the initial reaction – of horror that so high and venerated an official could commit such a crime – I would say quite the opposite. As David Harris writes on the Huffington Post: "How many other countries in the Middle East – or beyond – would have tried and convicted an ex-president? This was the case, just last week, with Moshe Katsav, sending the message that no one is above the law – in a process, it should be noted, presided over by an Israeli Arab justice."

It is an astonishing case: terrible for those involved, yes, but one that conveys belief in a quite exceptional level of accountability. Could you imagine such a charge ever being allowed near the courts in America or France? Wouldn't there be some behind-the-scenes fix to spare the establishment's blushes?

Let us not enter an argument about orientalism or relativism here. We do hold Israel to a different standard, and we ought to admit it. So when Israel meets and exceeds that standard, we owe our applause. However dreadful the circumstances of this case, it is an example to the world when a country can state so clearly that no one, not even the highest, is protected from being brought low by justice. Would that there be many more, and many happier, occasions when Israel can fill us once again with such admiration.

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.