Saturday, February 01, 2003

Increasingly these days I feel as though the world is in a state of falling apart. Where we go from one crisis, tragedy, or farce to the next.

We were all geared up to celebrate the return of the Columbia today, and of Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon. Instead, we get tragedy. Tragedy for the families of the 7 astronauts, but also to a certain level a personal tragedy for a lot of us on this side of the world.

The latest shuttle mission was one of the few bits of happy news here recently. Ramon's mission made us proud and helped us forget, even for a little while, that we're up to our shoulders in shit and continuing to sink. And so it goes.

Weirdly, there was a discussion on the Metafilter site a few days ago about the Challenger tragedy. (Actually, not so weirdly, since the Challenger disaster happened 17 years ago almost to the day). And it reminded of that morning in 1986 sitting in my 10th grade algebra class when the principal came over the PA to announce that the space shuttle had just exploded. A lot of us realized that this was our first real "Where were you when...?" moment.

I'm very sad to add another one to the list.

Thursday, January 30, 2003
Election Roundup

I'm still recovering from this virus that's going around. Nothing better to put a person into a productive frame of mind.

Anyway, the final results are in. The Likud came out the big winners with 38 seats, trailed by Labor with 19, Shinui 15, Shas 11, National Union 7, Meretz and the National Religious Party (NRP) 6 each, and a half dozen or so other parties with 2-5 seats each.

The mellow, dope-smoking folks over at Green Leaf failed to make the cut, although they did garner more than 1% of the vote. Which doesn't sound like much until you realize that it only takes 1.5% of the vote to get into the Knesset. More interestingly, the extreme-right Herut party also failed to garner the necessary votes. This means that although the Israeli voting public has moved to the right, they haven't gone completely overboard.

Now comes the interesting part -- building a coalition. And here Sharon, despite winning bigger than anyone would have predicted, now faces a real headache.

A little electoral math: The Knesset has 120 seats. In order to be the ruling party, you need to command 61 seats. Since no party has ever gotten 61 seats on their own, coalition building is the order of the day. However, due to the ridiculously low election threshold, you get something like 15 parties elected to the Knesset each time, most of them with a small number of seats. You need to build a coalition wherein each one of these parties comes with its own list of demands.

So, Sharon now has to solve a tricky SAT problem. Optimally, he wants to go back to the situation that we had in the last two years, namely a national unity government with Labor as its senior partner along with Shinui and possibly the NRP.

However, Labor chairman Mitzna has already ruled out joining a national unity government. Shinui wants to join the coalition, but wants to do so with the Labor party, since it doesn't want to be the left wing of a right-wing coalition. Shinui also won't sit in a coalition with either of the two ultra-orthodox parties, Shas and UTJ.

Meanwhile, the NRP (which is religious but not ultra-orthodox) has declared that it won't sit in a coalition with Shinui because of the latter's anti-religious stance.

Confused yet?

Anyway, Sharon now faces a couple of options. The easiest coalition to put together is the so-called "narrow right-wing government": Likud, National Unity, NRP, Shas, UTJ, and the imigrant party, Yisrael B'Aliyah. This would give him 69 seats with no sweat. However, this coalition would be at the mercy of the extreme right wing, the guys clamoring for us to assassinate Arafat and expel all the Arabs from the territories. There will come a day in the not-too-distant future when Unca George finally settles his business in Iraq and decides to turn his attention right back this way. When that day comes, Sharon will be forced to make diplomatic concessions. This type of coalition won't let him do any such thing and the government will fall.

He could try to put together a government with NRP, Shinui, Am Ehad (the worker's party), and Yisrael B'Aliyah. However, as mentioned before, neither Shinui nor the NRP are too happy about this type of arrangement. Also, Shinui's conservative economic policies won't sit well with the working class heroes over at Am Ehad. On top of everything else, if Sharon chooses Shinui over Shas he stands to alienate a good chunk of the Likud's electorate which identifies with the Sepharadic religious party over the Ashkenazi anti-religious party.

I expect Sharon to go for the third option: try to woo the Labor rank and file and hope they force Mitzna into a national unity government.

Personally, I hope he fails. I ended up voting for Mitzna partly out of pity, partly out of a feeling that Labor needed saving, and partly out of an admiration for his resolve. Declaring ahead of time that he wouldn't join a national unity government probably cost Mitzna several seats in the Knesset. It may have been bad tactics, but it might just yet be good strategy in the long term.

National unity governments give people a warm feeling, but historically they mean political inertia. Without a real opposition, the government can easily get away with not doing anything about anything. We're coming up on a period of rapid change and in my opinion it would be best to have a coalition which will be forced to face the changes one way or the other. The people have given Sharon an almost unprecedented level of support. I think it's time he rose and fell on his own actions.

Wednesday, January 29, 2003
Post-Election Bedridden

I got the mother of all stomach viruses this morning and have been subsequently laid-up all day. I hope to get back to analyzing the situation by tomorrow.

In the meantime, you can read about the election results here, here, here, here and here

Tuesday, January 28, 2003
And the Winner Is...

The three television stations have just released their projections for the elections (numbers are based on the three different surveys):
  • The Likud, as expected, is the winner with 33-36 seats
  • Labor: 17-19 seats
  • Shinui: 14-17 seats
  • Shas: 9-13 seats
  • Meretz: 5-8 seats
  • National Union: 7-10 seats
Tomorrow we should know a bit more clearly how the next Knesset will break down.

Monday, January 27, 2003
The Politics of the Irrational

So here we are with about 12 hours to go before the polls open. Yesterday was the final evening of campaign ads (the weird vagaries of Israeli law forbid any politicking in the electronic media 24 hours before the elections) and we got a full 75 minutes' worth. I watched for about 40 minutes before it all got tiresome.

According to the cliche, elections are a "festival of democracy". From what I saw yesterday, I'd be more inclined to describe it as a circus. There are about 30 parties running. This means that besides the two mainstream parties (Likud and Labor) you get every kind of political movement imaginable: religious parties, anti-religious parties, bleeding-heart liberals, commies, cryptofascists, racist thugs, Arab nationalists, Islamic fundamentalists, and more workers' parties than you can shake a stick at.

The election campaign has offered us, amongst its many treats, dueling cabbalists (Shas' Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef vs. Ahavat Israel's Rabbi Yitzhak Kadourie), dope reformers (Green Leaf), and a group of dweeby twentysomethings who want to rid Israeli politics of politicians (Yisrael Aheret). We even had a surprise appearance from nutty Russian politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who showed up to promote his party's Israel branch.

What we haven't heard is any rational discussion of the Palestinian issue.

To the extent that the two major parties have addressed solving our Palestinian problem, they float vague promises and unrealistic ideas. Mitzna promises to jump-start negotiations whether or not he has a partner on the other side (or, failing that, simply retreat behind a fence). Meahwhile Sharon mumbles about being prepared to make "painful concessions" (but in the meantime we'll just continue doing more of what we've been doing the last two years).

But the voters don't seem to care. In fact, they don't even seem to care about the lack of any rational discussion about the rotten economic situation. After nearly two and a half years of bloody war, Israel appears to be in a state of shell shock. Voters are apathetic. The undecided rate is close to 20 percent. People are voting out of anger and voting for anyone who feeds their sense of victimization.

Tom Segev's article in yesterday's Ha'aretz captures the spirit of the times fairly well. The Palestinians and their suicide bombers have reduced the majority of Israeli voters to the state of voting solely with their guts. Sure, Sharon has failed by almost all objective measurements. However, he knows how to stick it to Arafat and the Arabs and at the moment that's good enough for most.

Not that my own decision is entirely rational. After much deliberation I've decided to give Mitzna a pity vote. I don't much care for the man's policies, but he seems to be a straight arrow. Plus, I believe in the principle of large mainstream parties and think it would be a shame to see Labor completely fall apart.

We're not expecting much from tomorrow's elections. All signs point to the next government being tremendously unstable and not lasting very long. In that case, chances are we'll have this same discussion again in a few months.

Updates tomorrow as they happen.

Sunday, January 26, 2003
Europeans, Inspectors, Etc.

Continuing where we left off discussing European spinelessness, hypocrisy, double-dealing, and completely unmerited self-righteousness, it looks as though the little deal that France and Germany cut last week to try and derail efforts to get rid of Saddam have at least had the salutory effect of bringing Colin Powell in line with his boss. Meanwhile, in Iraq, Bumblin' Blix and his crew are still playing hide-and-go-seek with the great moustachioed one. This, to the Frogs, constitutes an effective, long-term strategy.

Jonah Goldberg's piece this week in NRO had me laughing all over the place:
Consider for a moment the current French position — and, no, I don't mean prone. This week they announced that containment works. The French foreign minister, Dominique de Villepin, declared, "Already we know for a fact that Iraq's weapons of mass destruction programs are being largely blocked, even frozen. We must do everything possible to strengthen this process."

Well, if France knows for "a fact," then France also knows for a fact that Iraq has such weapons programs. After all, you can't block or freeze what doesn't exist (if you don't find this logic compelling, go right now and tell your wife that your longstanding efforts to bed Filipino hookers have been "largely blocked, even frozen" by her constant inspections into your bank account and that she therefore has no reason to take a more aggressive posture towards you. Then, see what happens).

Six months or a year from now, after the US has succeeded in re-making Iraq into a better place, you just know that the odious Chirac and the even-more-odious Schroeder will suddenly emerge as big boosters of forcibly evicting Saddam. I hope history judges them harshly.

Ron Huldai, Cineaste

The Tel Aviv Cinematheque has been hosting its annual British Film Season. Tel Aviv mayor Ron Huldai showed up for a screening of Ken Loach's Sweet 16. As mayors are wont to do, Huldai used the opportunity to speechify about the importance of culture in these troubled times. Ha'aretz's Anglo File reports:
The British film season offers locals a break from the "horror films of daily life in Israel," said Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai at the same event.

Huldai was apparently unfamiliar with the social-realist work of British director Ken Loach, whose film was about to be screened. After two hours of watching teenagers get attacked on the streets of Glasgow, sell heroin, start fires and stab people, it seemed most of the audience had never felt better about living in Israel.

Now, I don't expect the name "Ken Loach" to set off a warning signal with anyone in the Tel Aviv municipality. (The screening at the Cinematheque was accompanied by a Loach marathon on TV; I'm still wondering what crime we all committed to warrant eight hours of dour films about unemployed train workers, single mothers, and other working class heroes persecuted by The System).

However, you'd expect someone in Huldai's office to check up on the film before the boss pontificated on it.