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Dec 31, 2013

A Recipe for Stalling Peace Talks

It has been only a year after Operation Pillar of Defense and war clouds have already started to gather over Israel and the West Bank. There is growing chatter of another upheaval - a potential third Intifada. The spine-tingling accounts of violence and bloodshed that were manifest in the previous two uprisings are scattered throughout the internet for all to read. No one in their right senses would want to see another disaster yet recent events in the region compel us to envisage otherwise.

Last November, Israel launched Operation Pillar of Defense in retaliation to the ceaseless rocket attacks from Gaza. Hamas and the notorious al-Qassam brigade were mainly held responsible for initiating the conflict. After over 100 rockets were launched at Israel the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) responded by killing Ahmed Jabari, chief of Gaza military wing of Hamas in a precision airstrike on his vehicle. The clashes continued for a month and there were civilian casualties on both sides. The Gazans took a heavy toll with more than a 100 civilian deaths. The damage incurred by Israel was not substantial but that was because of the IDF's stunning ability to thwart terror attacks and partly due to the Iron Dome air defense system that had a 90% success rate in stopping rockets.
But Israel cannot expect to escape lightly if there is to be an outpouring of violence. The US Secretary of State John Kerry has warned Israel of a third Intifada if the peace talks fail. There were rumblings of resentment in the West Bank, especially in the refugee camps of the Nablus, over Binyamin Netanyahu's announcement that Israel will continue to build new settlements. The refugee camps are extremely volatile regions and were the rallying points for the last two Intifadas. The rising ferment in the region is as a result of a widespread phobia that the peace talks are a US-Israeli conspiracy aimed at annihilating the Palestinians and protracting Israel's imperialist ambitions. Even though this a completely deranged notion the Palestinian people cannot be entirely blamed for this.
Their leaders play a huge role in instigating such fears. They give unwanted and unnecessary importance to Israeli settlement plans and perpetuate horrible lies about Israel's so called 'sinister designs'. During the late 1990s, Suha Arafat (wife of the late Yasser Arafat) made dubious claims that Israel was poisoning Palestinian wells and spreading cancer and AIDS by dumping truckloads of chemicals. It has been almost 15 years since she made those accusations and the world has still not heard of, god forbid, an AIDS or cancer pandemic that gripped the West Bank or Gaza.
While there is a lot of kerfuffle over Israeli settlements not one word of appreciation has been uttered, in the Palestinian territories, about Israel's intention of releasing a third and probably a fourth round of Palestinian convicts. Of course, the revered 'freedom fighters' will receive a grand welcome and many of them will look forward to reenact their violent pasts, but not one word of praise will be said about Israel. Neither will anything be said about the menacing rocket attacks or the recent deaths of two members of the IDF who were killed by Palestinian snipers or for that matter the horrific bombing of a bus in Tel Aviv. Rather, all these events were met with cheer. These events have already soured the prospects of achieving a major peace deal and yet it will be Israel that has to face the ire of the world if a peace deal is not reached.
The settlement plans are not an immediate necessity and they will surely hamper the peace process but the fact is that these plans are not the only obstacles to peace. To a large extent many outside forces are also responsible for initiating regional tensions. As seen last month, when the supreme leader of Iran viciously called Israel "the rabid dog of the region" and bullishly said that, "Israel was doomed to destruction". Such provocative statements from a person widely respected among the Palestinian people is bound to create trouble. Iranian leaders have also labelled the current peace dialogue as a "farce" and a ploy by the US and Israel to perpetuate their dominance of the region.
Israel is also under great pressure from the US to release the next round of prisoners and put a halt to their settlement plans. But where is the pressure on Mahmoud Abbas and company? The Palestinian Authority (PA) is on a rejecting spree. Almost everything the US and Israel put forward are spurned outright by the Palestinian leadership. There is a need for compromise on both sides. After all, we do not want the Camp David disaster of 2000 to be repeated.
The Americans are doing everything possible in order to achieve a lasting peace deal. John Kerry has made nine trips to the Middle East in 2013 and is all set to make a tenth one. He is determined to ink a deal between the two adversaries. He has also promised to free Jonathan Pollard if Israel agrees to release Israeli Arab prisoners. The Kerry plan includes a clause which provides for a US peace-force to monitor the region for specified number of years if a deal is reached.

But all the efforts could come to absolutely nothing if the PA and other regional actors continue with their blame game. This is a great opportunity for both sides to put aside all their differences and aim for a final deal. A Palestinian state is the need of the hour. All other differences could be sorted out after the Palestinians achieve statehood. This might be quite an obnoxious statement to make but there is no harm in giving it a try. Failure to achieve a deal will most certainly light the touchpaper and revert the region back to its darkest days. The region looks ripe for another bout of violence and one act of stupidity from either side will be enough to engulf the region in flames. A third Intifada would mean an end to any hopes of peace for a long time to come.

First published in The Times of Israel on 31 December, 2013.

Dec 29, 2013

Neymar: Can He Live Up to the Hype?

Located near the bottom-right corner of Sao Paulo, Mogi das Cruzes is a beautiful place surrounded by a breathtaking coastline. The beaches are stunning and so is the love for football. It is also the birth-place of one of its most noteworthy residents - Neymar da Silva Santos Junior.

The Brazilian had a talent for the beautiful game at a very tender age and this was noticed by his father, Neymar da Silva who was a local footballer. Neymar Junior's rise to fame was sudden and as a result of his steadfast determination to achieve something. He joined Santos F.C. at the age of 11 (a grand achievement at that age!) in 2003 and the rest is history.
His achievements with Santos are manifold. He single-handedly brought the club glory as he propelled it to its first Copa Libertadores (Brazilian equivalent of the Champions League) victory since 1963 when Pele had done something similar for the club. Pele himself mentioned that Neymar's style of play was eerily similar to his.
In 2013, Neymar signed a contract with F.C. Barcelona for five years. After about 20 games with the club one can say that the youngster is doing extraordinarily well. He scored five goals coupled with an assist in his last two matches and that too in the absence of the clubs super-star Lionel Messi!
Of all the notable performances, his role in Brazil's successful outing in the Confederations Cup was the most noteworthy one. Having scored four breathtaking goals and providing a few assists, he spearheaded the SelecaƵ vanguard to a third consecutive title. His performance brought him extremely positive reviews and won him both the Bronze Boot and Golden Ball awards respectively.
Will he be able to emulate his Confederations Cup showing at the greatest stage of football? Can he propel his team to the pinnacle of footballing glory? Absolutely! His current record for Brazil is just spellbinding. Having played 47 matches he has scored 27 goals; this is amazing when we compare it with a player like Robinho who has scored 26 goals after playing 91 matches for his country. The stats say it all- Neymar is the one to watch at next year's World Cup.
A few doubts hang over his finishing but he has time to improve. But that is about the only thing which seems to be lacking in him. He has an amazing ability to dribble past five or six players (a rarity nowadays), his skills with the ball are a treat to the eyes (watching him perform one of his outlandish skills makes one go crazy) and finally, he has an ability to pull off amazing assists out of nowhere (he once threaded the ball through the legs of two defenders for Alexis Sanchez to score).
Legends never become legends overnight. It is their ability to overcome obstacles through sheer hard work and endurance that make them stars. Neymar is, no doubt, a rising star and he has tasted both success and defeat.
The Brazilian is under a lot of pressure, at such a young age, to win the World Cup for a sixth time for his country., labels Neymar as Brazil's biggest "X-Factor" at next year's World Cup. So, will he be able to live up to the overwhelming hype surrounding him and does he have the ability to rise up to his country's expectations? Of course he does! But it will come down to whether he can keep his cool and focus only on one objective. No one would like to see him be the Ronaldo of 1998. One important thing he has to keep in mind is that, the team is always greater than the individual. Play for the team and your chances of achieving glory increase two-fold - this is the secret mantra for winning World Cups!

First published: Yahoo voices, 23 December, 2013.