Thursday, January 16, 2003
Jews... in ... Space

As of 17:39 Israel time (10:39 Florida time), Ilan Ramon became the first Israeli in space, taking off on a 16-day mission aboard the space shuttle Columbia.

Ramon is a colonel in the Israeli Air Force, who piloted one of the planes on the mission that destroyed the Iraqi nuclear reactor at Osirak in 1981. His space shuttle mission has been postponed numerous times since he was chosen to be Israel's first astronaut in 1997.

The shuttle launch and the lead-up to it have dominated the news in the last couple of days, which is impressive given that we are 12 days away from elections. It once again proves that no matter how much Israelis travel abroad, no matter how world-wise and sophisticated we see ourselves, at heart this country is charmingly provincial. We get very excited about things like the Eurovision song contest or the local football team playing Manchester United. Now we can go space-crazy as well.

Anyway, let me just say "Congratulations, Ilan!" We bumpkins are mighty proud of you.

Wednesday, January 15, 2003
Labor's Gamble

In what seems like a desperation manouver, Labor Party chairman Amram Mitzna announced yesterday that he would not join a national unity government after the elections. Labor has been stagnant in the polls for months with an expected 20-22 seats. Although voters have been running away from the Likud in droves, Mitzna has been unable to bring them over to his side. Instead Labor has watched helplessly as Shinui's position has strengthened daily.

By announcing that Labor will not join a unity government, Mitzna --backed, at least with lip service, by the entire hierarchy of the Labor Party -- wants to do two things. One is to burst the idea of a "secular unity government" made up of Likud, Labor and Shinui (this is one of Shinui's main campaign planks). The second is to ensure that Sharon has no choice after the elections but to set up a narrow right-wing government made up of the hardline settlers, the supporters of "transferring" the Arabs out of Israel, and those screaming for Israel to assassinate or at least exile Arafat. This type of coalition would be inherently unstable and could lead once again to early elections.

In effect, Labor is playing a game of political chicken, saying "vote for us or you'll end up with an unstable government made up mostly of extremists" and "a vote for Shinui won't help you".

Personally, I think Mitzna has just signed his own political death warrant. Polls show that a majority of voters -- and a vast majority of the centrist voters Labor wants to woo-- want a national unity government. Mitzna is perceived to be too left-wing for a lot of people, and in any case lacks the necessary charisma to attract voters. His movement plays well to Labor's dovish constituency. He declares that doesn't want to repeat the mistake Ben Eliezer and Peres made of serving as a fig leaf for a right-wing government. And from the standpoint of pure ideology, he is right.

However, as the saying goes, sometimes it's better to act smart than be right. If despite everything Labor still finds itself with 20 or 22 seats come Jan. 29, you can count on the long knives being drawn. Mitzna's position in the party is not particularly strong as it is. He has plenty of rivals just waiting to tear him apart.

Yesterday's hail mary pass may work, but my guess is that it will lead to Mitzna soon having the title of shortest-serving party chairman in Israeli political history.

Tuesday, January 14, 2003
Mr. Mitzna, Meet Reality

The Labor Party's hapless head goes to meet poor people and is shocked by what he finds. Not just the rampant poverty in some parts of the country, but the fact that rampant poverty seems to go hand in hand with voting Likud, no matter how badly the Likud screws over the poor people:
Local residents spoke about how the years of Yitzhak Rabin's government has made a dramatic impact on the neighborhood. "After Bibi [Benjamin Netanyahu] came, everything was ruined," Kouja complained. "It's rare that we have Ma'arach people here," Shlomo's neighbor Avi explains. "Everyone here is Likud, even though the Likud screws us."

Apropos yesterday's post, this is one of those strange but immutable laws of Israeli politics and I'm surprised that Mitzna is so suprised by it.

The Palestinians, Redux

The international conference on Palestinian reforms opened in London today, with representatives from the US, UN, EU, Russia, Jordan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. Everyone, that is, save for Palestinians and Israelis. The Israelis weren't invited and the Palestinians are grounded since the terror attack last week. (Representatives of the Palestinian Authority are participating via videoconferencing.)

It's a sad little spectacle really, which started predictably enough with one of Arafat's cronies complaining that Israel is preventing the Palestinian Authority from reforming itself. The Palestinian Authority has been in power for going on 10 years now. In that decade, Arafat and his gang have done little for their people other than smuggle arms, funnel aid money to their personal Swiss bank accounts, and play a little game where they encourage and help arm terrorists on the one hand and then complain that Israel won't let them do anything about the terrorism on the other . (Don't laugh, this fools the Europeans 99 time out of 100).

To quote Martin Peretz, who has a withering analysis of the Palestinian political immaturity in this week's New Republic: "Terrorism, truth be told, is about the sum total of what the Palestinians have bestowed on our civilization during the last five decades."

In short, the Palestinian Authority and especially the nasty little man who heads it are the problem, not the solution no matter what Yasser Abed Rabbo, Saeb Erekat, or any of their other mendacious PR flacks will tell you.

Preventing the Palestinian delegates from travelling to London has cost Sharon a few PR points overseas, but it makes for good internal politics, and there is probably some logic to it.

In other news from the PA, the ra'is has graciously deigned to accept an Egyptian formula for a temporary cease fire against Israeli civilians, at least until the elections. Killing settlers -- women, children, old people, whichever Jews happen to be on the wrong side of the Green Line -- is still hunky dory. I suppose Arafat wants a cookie for this. The man is the king of a day late and a dollar short, coming around to accepting offers he rejected months before, long after they are off the table. No wonder we keep saying the man is irrelevant.

In any case, we can probably expect some more denunciations of Israel along with some mealy-mouthed declarations that the Palestinians need to do more to prevent terror in the days ahead.

Monday, January 13, 2003
Victimization as Good Politics

And just as it looked as though the Likud was about to spiral out of control in this election, their drop in the polls seems to have reversed itself. This weekend's opinion surveys suggest that Sharon will end up with 32 seats (up from 28 or so last week). This despite the ongoing brouhaha over the party's corruption scandals in general and the Prime Minister's in particular.

The reason for the sudden reversal in the party's fortunes is probably Sharon's ill-fated speech Thursday night about his loan scandal. As you may recall, the head of the Central Election Committee ordered the local news media to stop broadcasting the speech in the middle, saying it constituted an unauthorized campaign broadcast. Sharon and his advisors made quick political hay and began screaming that the Prime Minister was being persecuted by the media, the Labor party, and the CEC head.

This was sweet music to many Likud voters. Much of the party's hard core is made up of Mizrahim, those Sepharadic Jews who came from Arab countries and who still have a beef with Labor for discrimination and other ills real or imagined that they (or their parents, or their grandparents) suffered when they came to Israel in the early to mid-1950s. These voters strongly identify with politicians that they see as victims of the establishment (both Begin and Bibi played this part masterfully) and have thus begun to flock back to Sharon.

Watching the election campaigns the last couple of nights, I've begun to realize that victimization has turned into a major theme in Israeli politics. Shas, of course, are the kings of this game. The party's ads pander shamelessly to the Mizrahi sense of victimization, saying (and I'm more or less quoting here) "You are Sepharadim and the Ashkenazi establishment will always screw you over. This is why you must vote Shas." This is voiced over pictures from the '50s of transit camps and kids getting sprayed with DDT. Because when it comes to sectarian politics, nothing works better than nursing 50-year-old grievances.

Shinui, which stands as the major opposition to Shas, has ironically turned into Shas's reverse image. Here the victims are the middle-class Ashkenazim who have to pay the highest taxes in the Western world and do most of the reserve duty in the IDF, all the while paying for the upkeep of hundreds of thousands of ultra-orthodox who neither work nor serve in the military.

But the "poor me" game is now open to parties from all over the political spectrum. Various commercials complain that the major parties have no (or very few) new immigrants/women/religious Jews/whatever on their list of candidates. The worker's parties play the classic class warfare game. Even Meretz is bitching that no matter how much they do for the lower-class (mostly Mizrahi) residents of the development towns, these same people turn around and vote Likud almost by reflex.

The key thing in election 2003 is to portray yourself as a victim and point an accusatory finger at someone else: the ultra-orthodox, the Ashkenazi establishment, the non-Jewish immigrants.

Oddly enough, the campaign which has most impressed me comes from the ultra-orthodox United Torah Judaism. UTJ's commercials used to be very low-cost affairs featuring an elderly rabbi telling the faithful to vote in a heavy Galician accent. This time around they've gone for very slick ads, with high production values, and a low-key, positive message about the need to maintain the country's Jewish identity.

Shas and the National Religious Party talk about this as well, but their rhetoric is much more doom and gloom ("If you don't vote for us, you'll wake up one morning and find a church and a pork butcher on every corner.") UTJ takes a sunnier approach, saying -- while a little klezmer music plays in the background -- "Yes, we have a great country. Now, how about a little Judaism to go with it?"

The election campaigns never used to be this whiny. I suppose a lot of it has to do with The Situation. With all the crap going on around us, I guess people take comfort in being a victim. Still, I'd never have guessed that alongside the security situation, the crumbling economy, and the corruption, that the election would be influenced so strongly by a sense of "poor me."

North Korea vs. Iraq

We seek to take down Iraq because it is trying to acquire nukes. Meanwhile, North Korea has already announced openly that it has already acquired nukes. So (I can hear the Not In Our Name twits braying in the background) why aren't we going after Pyongyang?

Victor Davis Hanson spells it out for ya.

Sunday, January 12, 2003
The (Palestinian) Youth of Today

Two Palestinian kids, brothers aged 8 and 13, attempted to infiltrate the Netzarim settlement in the Gaza Strip last night. After attempting to stab some of the inhabitants, the kids were driven off from one house to another. During the incident, a settler took one of the children into his house, thinking the youngster was a Thai worker. The pair of them were eventually arrested by the security forces.

Two thoughts here:

1. Luckilly this incident ended without loss of life. One of the Palestinian kids fractured his hip and the other one was shot in the butt. Had they succeeded in stabbing someone to death, the headlines would have read "Palestinians stab settler in Gaza." Had the security forces killed the two junior terrorists the headlines would have read "Israeli soldiers kill two Palestinian children in Gaza".

2. This once again highlights the involvement of Palestinian children in attacks on Israeli targets, which is probably the biggest difference between the Palestinians and the Israelis. Say what you will about the settlers and their occasional violence against the Palestinian population, I don't know of any Jewish mother encouraging her 8-year-olds to go out and kill. I certainly haven't heard Israeli radio stations or the Israeli education system extolling the virtues of martyrdom to elementary school children.

These little kids have been brainwashed not only by the terrorist groups that actually send them out on suicide missions, but also by the unending hatred which drips from the official Palestinian media and the Palestinian educational system. For the Palestinians, this is a no-lose proposition: If the kids manage to kill Jews, then that's the idea. If they don't manage to kill Jews, they still get counted as minors when the casualty figures are tallied up.

And this has been going on from day one of the current intifada when the little stone-throwers were sent out to be caught in the crossfire between Palestinian "policemen" and Israeli soldiers. If you ask me, this is one of the most cynical abuses of children around.

Oddly enough, of all the campaigns the one which has most surprised me comes from United Torah Judaism, the Ashkenazi ultra-orthodox party.