Tom Arms’ World Review 14 February 2021

One of the current international ironies is that Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are on trial at the same time. The two men have one of the closest personal relationships on the world stage—dating back to the 1980s when Netanyahu was in New York as Israel’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations. Now he is on trial at the same time as his American buddy for bribery, fraud and breach of trust. In true Trumpian style, Netanyahu claims that the trial is a “coup to oust a sitting Israeli Prime Minister.” The trial takes place in the middle of Israel’s fourth general election campaign in four years and is expected to be in full swing when voters troop to the polls on 23 March. It will have an impact. But possibly a more important factor will be the role of Israel’s Orthodox Jewish parties who have been a mainstay of successive Netanyahu coalitions. Orthodox Jews are making themselves unpopular by defying the government’s lockdown restrictions. Many are also refusing to participate in Israel’s world beating vaccination programme. This is creating a backlash against Orthodox Jewish parties. Coupled with his trial, this could bring an end to Netanyahu’s long stranglehold on Israel’s premiership at the same time as his American friend’s career is heading towards the toilet bowl.

Joe Biden also has a long and generally friendly connection with Netanyahu. The difference is that it is linked to his years as a senator and vice-president and is based more on national interests than personal ties. Those national interests are likely to mean that the US embassy remains in Jerusalem and that the US continues to recognise Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. Biden will also build on the diplomatic recognition of Israel by key Arab states. However, there will be differences. Israel was a prime mover behind Trump’s decision to pull out of the Iran Nuclear Accord. Biden is trying to revive it. Trump cut off US aid to the Palestinians. Biden restored it. Biden has said he supports the “two-state solution”. The Kushner Plan attempted to kill it. On top of that, President Biden has served notice on Saudi Arabia that it will take a closer look at its human rights policies and withdraw support for its genocidal wall against the Yemeni Houthis. Saudi Arabia is Israel’s closest secret ally in the Arab world. However, there may be military-oriented economic constraints on Biden’s human rights-focused policy towards the Saudis. The US is the world’s largest exporter of weapons with sales totalling $47.2 billion in 2020. Their biggest customer by far is Saudi Arabia. Despite overwhelming evidence, Trump refused to accept that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi because, he said, it would jeopardise arms sales to Riyadh.

President Biden’s foreign policy focus shifted to China this week with this first presidential phone call with Xi Jinping. He spent three hours haranguing the Chinese leader about Hong Kong, Taiwan, the South China Sea and the Uighurs in Xinjiang. His emphasis was on human rights violations. Xi was unhappy. The issue of human rights, he maintained, was an internal Chinese matter, and the US had no right to interfere in China’s domestic affairs. The plight of the Muslim Uighurs is receiving increasing international attention. Britain’s Liberal Democratic Party has called for a boycott of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics because of what they call a genocide in Xinjiang. The Johnson government has so far rejected the proposal. But it might find more fertile ground in Washington. It would be ironic if it went ahead. The 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics heralded the return of China to world affairs. A boycott in 2022 could mark the falling of a new bamboo curtain.

When I was in Cuba a few years ago there were only 127 different type of businesses allowed to operate as private enterprises. Most of these were involved in the tourist industry and designed to draw in much-needed hard currency. This week it was announced the government would allow more than 2,000 different types of businesses to enter the private sector. The change is due to several factors: The utter failure of Cuban socialism and the need to repair relations with post-Trump America. One of many policies Trump reversed was the restoration of relations with Cuba. And then in the dying days of his presidency, Trump went one step further by re-designated Cuba a terrorist state. It was a clever move, because it will take Biden almost a year to untangle the legislative knots involved in such a designation. Cuba’s government hopes that their latest move will encourage him to their island county up the priority list.

The received wisdom following the recent military coup in Myanmar/Burma was that the Burmese people would quietly—albeit reluctantly—accept the end of the country’s experiment with limited democracy. This proved to be wrong. This week tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets. Water cannon, rubber bullets and even live ammunition failed to deter them. At least one protester has died. Thousands have been arrested. The reason that many observers thought the response would be more quiescent is the Burmese military’s well-known reputation for violence. In 1988 an estimated 30,000 were killed when protesters turned against the military government. In recent times, the army’s virtual crackdown against the Rohingya Muslims has reinforced the belief of a hard-nosed military. But that is not to say that all the generals are vicious thugs. There is a faction of political pragmatists who know that the Army’s long-term interests are badly served by screwing down the lid of Burma’s pressure cooker politics. At the moment they appear to be in the minority. But if the demonstrations and the international outcry continue their star is likely to rise.

There are disturbing reports from India of a government crackdown on press freedom in the world’s largest democracy. Sixty-seven journalists were arrested in 2020 and more than 200 were physically attacked. The World Press Freedom Index has moved India to 142nd place out of 180 monitored countries. One news website was told that its offices would be burned down if an article critical of Prime Minister Narendra Modi was not removed within 15 minutes. Possibly the most vocal of the government’s media critics has been the news magazine Caravan. The government has brought 10 sedition cases against the magazine’s publisher, editor and executive editor. In 2014, Modi said: “democracy will not sustain if we don’t guarantee freedom of speech and expression.” How true.

Ducks like water. But at Gold Beach in Queensland, Australia there is one duck that has taken this truism to a new level. The pet of a local surfing family is appropriately named “Duck” and he has followed the family tradition by mastering the art of body surfing. The locals love him and have no qualms about being “all out for a duck.”

* Tom Arms is foreign editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and author of “The Encyclopedia of the War” and the recently published “America Made in Britain". He has a weekly podcast, Transatlantic Riff.

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  • Steve Trevethan 14th Feb '21 - 12:24pm

    Thank you for an interesting article.
    Is the Cuban Health Care System an utter failure?
    How does U.S. healthcare compare with that of Cuba?

  • Helen Dudden 14th Feb '21 - 2:37pm

    I understand, there are some from other ethnic groups, uncomfortable with the injection.
    I had a serious reaction to a medication and was told, I should have read the side effects. But, not a lot I can do now, only think and learn.
    It does seem a little drastic, stating all Orthodox Jews. That covers several sector’s as some Liberal Jews can be more Orthodox than others.
    What ever happens next, in Israel or the USA will pan out.
    I believe in holding my ground, I used to feel very upset when my beliefs were turned against me.
    I believe there is room for us all, relationships need working at, what ever the level.

  • The Cuban health care system is sort of Cuba’s greatest success story. Fidel Castro set out to create a first class health service almost as soon as he came to power, possibly because Che Guevara was a medical doctor. The result is that Cuba has three times as many doctors per capita as the US. It also has an excellent medical research industry which makes outsized contributions to pharmaceuticals and world public health research despite American efforts to hamper it. There is such a surplus of doctors in Cuba that they have become a government aid currency. An estimated 50,000 Cuban doctors are operating in 68 developing countries around the world. Cuban doctors have played a major role in combating a cholera outbreak in Haiti, Ebola in West Africa and are now playing a leading role in Africa and South America in treating coronavirus patients. In Venezuela, Havana has established an oil for doctors exchange. The only problem is that the doctors have little or no say in what they do or where they go. They are completely controlled by the state. And they are paid peanuts–$50 a month. I met one of the country’s leading paediatricians who was forced to run a bed and breakfast (called casas particulares in Cuba) in order to make ends meet.

  • Humphrey Hawksley 15th Feb '21 - 8:05am

    An excellent upsum. With Biden emphasising human rights in China, the India-US relationship will be interesting. The U.S. needs India as a pillar of its multilateral front to balance China. But steady violations of Indian press and other freedoms, the repression in Kashmir and the Northeast and the continuing blind eye turned to bonded-forced labour effecting ten million or more may well erupt to reveal India as one of the world’s worst violators of human rights. At some stage Biden (and Liberal Democrats) need to get their heads around this.

  • @Humphrey Hawksley. I couldn’t agree with you more and your expert knowledge in Asian affairs makes you a person to whom we should listen. I think the big question for both the US and British governments is just what balance they are prepared to strike between geopolitics and human rights. It is an age old problem which will never be completely resolved. I think the Liberal Democrats have a role to play in stressing human rights. The party has called for a boycott of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics. I think they should also question the democratic credentials of Narendra Modi.

  • Peter Hirst 15th Feb '21 - 3:10pm

    We need to distinguish the treatment of the Palestinian people from a solution to the issue. Whatever is decided their treatment must be improved so they receive fundamental human rights including free movement, access to health care and more freedom around their own culture.

  • Dennis Wake 15th Feb '21 - 4:43pm

    Tom Arms: In the 1950s Cuba had more doctors per 1000 people than Britain, France or the Netherlands although to be fair they tended not to be in the poorer areas although the mortality rate was the third lowest in the world and the lowest in Latin America. After the 1959 Revolution there was a great deal of illness and the new Government set about improving the system to provide medical care for all the people. What is admirable about the system is that doctors concentrate on prevention of sickness. Puts our Government in a poor light with all its economies and penny pinching. Interestingly the Cuban Government has recently embarked on a programme where almost all jobs will be in the private sector in future apart from some particular ones reserved to the state sector.

  • Steve Trevethan 15th Feb '21 - 5:07pm

    Thanks for the information on the remuneration and employment conditions of Cuban doctors.
    Might it be a contrast to U.S. practices which, according to Dean Baker in his book “Rigged”, obstruct the employment of non national doctors to artificially raise the pay and relative scarcity of U.S. doctors?
    Might the “surplus” of Cuban doctors suggest that the Cuban educational system might be outstanding?
    Can you have a surplus of doctors?

  • Pamela Manning 15th Feb '21 - 5:10pm

    Further to Peter Hirst’s comment. As Liberals for whom human rights are a core value we should be speaking up more strongly not only about China and Myanmar but also about the treatment of the Palestinians. Just last week a Bedouin village was bulldozed again, using a JCB. The tents and aid donated by UK and EU were also destroyed wasting tax payers money. Of course the Conservatives who receive millions in donations from Lord Bamford, Chair of JCB , are unlikely to take action so it is up to us to highlight it.

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