22 january 2013, no longer

There was a time when I would stay up all night for the results of israeli elections. They were so much more exciting than in britain. It wasn't just a matter of whether prices would go up a bit or some mines would close; it was war or peace, nirvana or total destruction. I even named my never-finished novel after the 1996 election: went to bed in a dream, woke in a nightmare (read a bit in ...and here's how it ended). Then, I was heavily invested, partying all night on the news that shimon peres had won: the forces of good and reason, a sane world, the closing of the circle of peace, not just with the palestinians, but with the jordanians, the saudis, the syrians, the moon ! Then, in the morning, we discovered that actually netanyahu had won, the epilogue to the assassination of rabin incited nine months earlier, the twisting of the knife that finally killed the years of what could have been. So went the hopes of a generation, the left never really getting over losing first that election and then the bitterness of the second intifada. We failed (29 september 2009) - and here we are, a generation later, still voting for bibi, and in bigger numbers than ever. I'm not staying up tonight - oh well, not too late anyway, there's always hope...

12 january 2013, the emerald isle

I am off to dublin on monday, on an oecd mission. I have been to almost every european country: fleetingly in finland, lots in lithuania, robbed in romania and barbed in bosnia (25-6 may 2011; see 31 august 2010 too), but I've never been to the subject of this week's charlemagne, ireland. It's a good article that touches on the massive success of what was once a backwater region most of whose gifted sons and daughters left. Antagonism with the old british enemy led them to tightly embrace a european alternative, and consistent policy paid off with a couple of roaring decades that shifted ireland into the ranks of established well-to-do economies. Against the mightiest odds they have retained their signature policy of rock-bottom corporate tax rates that still today drives investment and sustainability in an economy that has suffered the worst but bounced back the strongest. The contrast with greece is made and is stark and today everyone wants Ireland to pull through, as a posterchild of european policy. Though success, maturity and a tilt towards the nasty end of the british press tempered ireland's euro enthusiasm some years ago, leading to the infamous "no" votes, that does seem to have rather subsided to what could, hopefully without sarcasm, be called an all in this together attitude. Ireland needs europe to succeed as much as the other way around. They seem to be managing the politics in a very sophisticated way, and broadly to be coming through the worst well, and so it will be an interesting time to be there and take the country's temperature.

8 january 2013, time

It's not just women that mature. I'm listening to leonard, cohen of course (11 september 2012). Unusually though, I am listening to him on my computer, having downloaded the album (live from london as you ask). It was amazingly cheap, exceptionally easy and very convenient, so I don't know why I haven't done this before. It's partly because like my mum (now tragically ageing) and a video recorder, there came a point when I just can't effortlessly keep up. After months of me and my wife thinking about it, my 11-year old fixed up the i-player on the wii the other day (which would all have been gibberish to me just a couple of years ago), and the day before that he solved the skype conference call conundrum. Today, for some reason, my 8-year old (birthday week after next) was watching madness and adam ant videos - and (says the altecacker) - goodness me they are so young; and yet I clearly remember them being so adult. The new force in israeli politics was in an elite army unit, founded a business and made a fortune, served 4 years as the prime minister's chief of staff - and is now 40. My aches and pains don't disappear in a day, and the other day I caught myself thinking my kids rather reckless jumping off a wall twice their height. A great man once told me you get where you're going by 40, and then do your best 5 year's work. It's hard to avoid the idea that I'm there.

5 january 2013, morocco

Probably the most interesting stop on our cruise was morocco, where we learned casblanca has over 5 million people, and visited agadir and taroudant, a genuinely non-tourist walled market town. I was complimented when told I could be a moroccan, which quickly got us on to the topic of moroccan jews, which all the guides mentioned in passing. There was a big community there once, around 250,000, but they all emigrated after the war, leaving perhaps 5,000. Most went to israel in a noted "aliyah" of zionist yore immediately before moroccan independence, as that part of the politics of that part of the world were fundamentally altered by the creation of the state of israel in 1948. Our host made much of a bargain with france to "let the jews go" in return for independence, though the facts don't seem to bear that out. The population faced intimidation and fear before leaving, and now-famous prejudice on arrival, as the ashkenazi establishment treated them as poor and ignorant and used them to populate new development towns in the south. There seems disagreement where the next wave went, which is some combination of mainly france, canada and again israel, where with around a million descendants, morocco is the most common lineage after russian. Our host also talked about emigres still owning property and coming and going, which is certainly common in the russian experience. This is a part of the world I know far too little about and this fleeting glance was enough to spur me on to learn more before I become an argaze awassare. Salam !

1 january 2013, ...and a happy new year

After a week cruising the sunny islands of madeira and the canaries, as well as a packed stop off in morocco, we spend new year, as we almost always do, in budapest, with my other half's family. My eldest was on a quest to stay up all night, having been confounded last year when in an exception that proved the rule we stayed home and I pretty much made him and his friend give up the ghost at 4am when they woke me up. This year he had a bad night on the eve, an afternoon nap on the day, and woke up with a headache, so the two of us trekked a few blocks down to where we were staying (her father's flat) where he had a pill, brought his lunch back to celebrate too, and promptly fell asleep. I agonised about waking him or not, but he was so peaceful I decided against it. After all, new year will come again. For the first time in as long as I can remember therefore, I was marooned alone at midnight, unless you count a sleeping son and bill bryson, who kept me wonderfully entertained until somewhere near 1am when my wife escaped hungarian trivial pursuits and pizza with the other 9 kids to bid me, as I bid you, a happy 2013.

15 december 2012, scotland the knave

Whilst english politicians race towards the extreme of who can get the country out the european union quickest, the scots head the opposite way. Hence its government's hostile reaction to the european commission president's restatement that an independent scotland would have to apply to join the eu. To some, this shows the snp's political immaturity, as they are found out for not doing their homework. I'm not so sure. Yes, it is clear in the treaties that it is a union of defined member states, and if a new one comes along, from within or without, there is an established process they need to go through to join. And yes there is a precedent, of greenland leaving when it won independence from denmark in 1974. However, this is the institutional view, which is also that of the current member states, and of course madrid and brussels, to mention but two, have the very strongest reasons to avoid a precedent. They want any change to be as painful as possible, and of course have a veto on anything in this area at all. There are though grounds to consider "internal enlargement" differently. Also, the one institution that has consistently not always taken the institutional view, and also the most important one, the european court of justice (see court in the act), has yet to opine. It has strong form for actually looking at the law, when it would find that exactly who the member state is ("the united kingdom of great britain and northern ireland", article 52(1)) would be rather murky should scotland leave, there being some weight to that act effectively dissolving that particular member state or at least the "great britain" part of it. The ecj does not always side with the big member states, and if things ever actually got there, I suspect the threat of its deliberations would be enough to enforce a pragmatic solution, along the lines of accession talks taking place in parallel to independence, such that the transition was seamless to scotland joining as the 28th member the day it left its british union. Those years would of course see fun discussions on schengen, regional funds and the euro amongst other matters, but once independence was an established fact, there are pragmatic answers to those questions. Having said all that, I don't expect scotland to vote yes, although the whole process will help them gain more local powers from whitehall, which shows they have a rather better strategy than the rest of us.

6 december 2012, block d

Sometimes the obscure is interesting, or so I'll take just a few words to convince that this applies to one of my more important lesser priority issues: data sharing. The good folk at the guardian were convinced, so I can finally add them to my mild-mannered national me-dia appearances, alongside radio 4 (30 april 2012), channel 4 (12 april 2011), the economist and of course the budapest sun. Sharing information is one of those behind the scenes things, like water pipes in a house, that enable water to flow uphill, or in this case not really flow, as these days there are so many rules and regulations around different organisations sharing intelligence on people that even where there's a will the way is tough. More usually the will is about protecting vulnerability and avoiding embarrassing publicity around lost data sticks, which doesn't help much when you're trying to get a health worker to do a little of the job of a probation officer checking the same person is alright, and perhaps throwing in a bit of what is done by other people in the realms of social work, police, benefits, skills and employment or housing. Yes having less people call round would be much cheaper and better for the individual, but dear me moving from theory to practice on this one is like moving mountains. But we'll keep trying I'm sure.

1 december 2012, (yet) another (small) step to parastine

It is more than a year and a half (16 april 2011) since we almost had the culmination of years of international consensus-building and the legal declaration, kosovo-style, of a nascient palestinian state. Browbeaten yet again, the west-bank-based palestinian authority pressed the pause button, to try and find a different way to restart serious negotiations as an alternative route to statehood. Yesterday, they finally followed through, with the un general assembly in new york enthusiasically welcoming the state of parastine into their ranks as a non-member observer state. Just nine countries of 193 voted against: the us, canada, panama and the czech republic being the only ones with a population of more than the london borough of camden. Netanyahu responded in typically ebullient style, with the highly-incendiary announcement of a slug of new settlements in the west bank and east jerusalem which couldn't be better designed to ignite violence that in the ensuing fog can be blamed on the palestinian's diplomatic move. Though, lest we forget, netanyahu is not out on a limb but rather the second longest-serving prime minister in israel's history. It is very difficult to rationalise the stated desire of the israeli body politic for a two state solution (one state of which is palestine) with its absolute hysteria when a palestinian flag is unfurled at the un. You need to make peace not with your friends but with your enemies, and the sad, sad fact is that frustrating and refusing to engage with the moderates of the palestinians simply strengthens the extremists and makes the hamas claim of victory in gaza through force of arms that much more credible. In this case saying there is no partner for peace is a self-fulfilling prophecy, and it is so hard not to see that as the desired outcome in jerusalem rather than two states. The message to that massive and passive israel is be careful what you wish for.

24 november 2012, did we miss something ?

Whilst being enormously relieved about the gaza ceasefire, and optimistic it will hold, I also think something happened we don't yet know about. For hamas it was a clear victory. Reaching tel aviv and flaunting much-improved rocketry buoyed their reputation and won concessions easing the blockade; surely the first step to israel actually negotiating with hamas. For abbas and the palestinian authority, equally clear defeat, as they show themselves and their engage-israel strategy impotent. But what about israel ? Though the usual suspects rush to fill the pro-israel mass media vacuum, there was a distinct lack of israel's own usual bravado. Rarely have I heard israeli spokespeople, least of all in the netanyahu era, sound so uncertain. And this with an israeli election just weeks away. In a first precedent-setting round in the brave new world of a muslim brotherhood-led egypt, how was a hard right israeli prime minister persuaded to accept the status quo ante as an outcome, a clear hamas victory ? Convincing netanyahu of this would surely have taken the great persuader himself. And funnily enough, who was actually skipping around when the ceasefire was brokered and agreed - hilary. And it is she who surely deserves the real credit for this, as it was she who was the only party in the room who had anything to offer israel wanted. That is the missing ingredient: a classic rumsfeldian known unknown. We can only speculate what she actually gave, but logic points strongly to the one thing that is a real existential threat to israel. Not gaza, which is ultimately a manageable irritant, but iran, on which israel has been desperately trying to bring the americans round for years. My guess is they finally did, and I'm also guessing we'll know something about it before january 22 2013, as netanyahu has an election to win.

21 november 2012, crystal balling

I thought that prediction is very difficult, especially about the future, was a great woody allen quote, but of course there is nothing new under the sun, as evidenced in my latest newspaper blog, on forecasting. I'm also not sure exactly who successfully predicted nine out of the last five recessions or if it's forecasters or economists who know tomorrow why the things they predicted yesterday didn't happen today, and so on. Nate silver perhaps shows that some forecasters have their ignorance better organised than others. But the best quote is one I firmly believe to be true and which advises the strongest caution when working the magic of alchemy that transforms data and information into research and intelligence, "governments love statistics. They collect them, add them, raise them to the nth power, take the cube root and prepare wonderful diagrams. But what you must never forget is that every one of these figures comes in the first instance from the village watchman, who just puts down what he damn well pleases." The last word though belongs to the poetical logic of voltaire, that the present is pregnant with the future.

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