Thursday, February 27, 2003
All Hail the New Government

I've got to say that I'm a bit surprised at the makeup of the new coalition. I was willing to put bet money on Arik setting up a straightforward religious coalition with the National Religious Party and the two haredi parties (Shas and UTJ). The NRP is in, but Sharon did two things I'd never have expected of him:

1. He broke the traditional alliance between the Likud and the haredi parties, choosing Shinui over them.

2. He brought in the ultra-right wing National Union, headed by Avigdor Lieberman, a man whom Sharon hates like poison.

In effect, Sharon opted for a hard-right coalition. Shinui, despite their promises to the contrary, will serve as the coalition's left-wing flank.

The makeup of the coalition seems to indicated that, at least in the short run, Sharon has abandoned any plans to move forward on the diplomatic front with the neighbors. There is no way he can expect to pass, for instance, a resolution recognizing a Palestinian state when two of his coalition partners object to it, and one of them (National Union) is actively calling for the destruction of the Palestinian Authority and the formal re-annexation of the territories.

Instead, it looks like Sharon will look to implicate some fairly radical economic measures. Shinui and the National Union are both economically conservative. By choosing them over the haredim and the worker's rights One Nation party (all of whom demand huge government handouts to their voters), Sharon seems to be signalling that the government will follow a fiscally conservative economic line.

So far, the people are none too thrilled as recent polls show.

Me, I'm more curious what happens when Unca George comes a-knocking?

Hold onto your hats, folks, it's going to be a bumpy ride.

And we Have a Government

Ooh, what a fun couple of days around here for political junkies. After a week of serious political wrangling, Sharon finally unveiled his new government today with a coalition made up of the Likud, the National Religious Party, Shinui, and the right-wing National Union.

What was much more interesting was the game of ministerial musical chairs the Prime Minister set up for the top spots in the government. This game quickly turned into an extended fight between Sharon, Finance Minister Silvan Shalom, and Foreign Minister Bibi Netanyahu.

Finance Ministers in this country usually come with a limited shelf life. However, even by these low standards Silvan Shalom has been a failure. As such, the PM decided it would be best to replace him.

Silvan, however, has a lot of standing inside the Likud and an ego the size of Western Europe to boot. He made it very clear that he would not leave the Finance Ministry gladly and his supporters promised that they would wage an "internal intifada" within the Likud if their man was snubbed.

Sharon found a nifty solution to his problem: have the Foreign Minister and the Finance Minister trade places. Silvan immediately agreed to become Foreign Minister; Netanyahu hemmed and hawed and finally tentatively accepted the Finance Ministry.

The move accomplishes three things:

1. It placates Silvan Shalom and his crew, and gives Shalom a job which is hard to screw up.

2. It screws Netanyahu, whom Sharon hates personally and who is the Prime Minister's major headache within the party. Sharon expected Bibi to refuse, in which case he would become just another back-bencher. Bibi surprised everyone by agreeing, but now he gets the most thankless job in the government (the Foreign Minister is the national bad guy, the one everyone blames when the economy is in the toilet).

3. It also helps counter the race card waved by many within the Likud. They claimed that the new government was too white, and that it discriminated against Sepharadim. Now, Sharon can point out that two of the three top jobs (Foreign Minister and Defense Minister, which will continue to be held by Shaul Mofaz) in the government are being held by Sepharadim.

Sharon even managed to partially placate Ehud Olmert, who left his job as mayor of Jerusalem on the strength of a promise that he would get a top government post. Olmert was initially slated to be the new Finance Minister, but now must make do with an expanded Industry Minister position.

You can criticize Sharon's actions as being the result of his own self-imposed coalition constraints. However, given the limitations he was working with, Sharon proved once again that he is a brilliant tactician.

Wednesday, February 26, 2003
More Celebs Against the War

Still on the subject of celebrities and their (usually asinine) statements against the war, we find this critique of Janeane Garofalo, who has recently lent her support as a spokesperson for Win Without War.

Garofalo is a particularly poignant case of celebrity politicitus, since she seems to realize that celebrities spouting off on things they don't know much about tend to do more damage than good for their cause. In fact, she complained as much to The Washington Post not too long ago.

Unfortunately, Garofalo doesn't seem to reach the logical conclusion of her statements, namely that she should stay away from the media. Instead, she goes on the Sunday morning talk shows armed but with off-the-shelf slogans, a decidedly fuzzy grasp of actual facts, and a lot of tortured mumbo-jumbo about the Anglo-American thirst for world hegemony.

Even reading the transcript, you get the sense that Tony Snow is doing all he can not to unload the shotgun at the trout swimming in the barrel in front of him.

It's a shame really. I used to really like Garofalo during her days the Ben Stiller Show, and later as a ballsy comedienne. Back in the early '90s she carved out a little niche for herself by taking bit parts in bad movies (Reality Bites, Maybe Baby) and being the only memorable thing about them.

But then she started working with noxious gasbag Michael Moore and her politics started taking center stage. From there it's just a short slide to Fox News Sunday and getting tangled up in your own arguments.

War for Peace

A wonderful editorial in the NY Times yesterday by José Ramos-Horta, the Foreign Minister for East Timor and 1996 Nobel Peace Prize laureate. He lays out, very clearly, the case for using war to achieve peace in Iraq.

If anyone has the bona fides to be arguing this case, Ramos-Horta does. East Timor suffered under the brutal occupation of Indonesia for 25 years and gained its independence under the auspices of a global peacekeeping force.

Just about every paragraph is a gem. His bottom line:
So I follow with some consternation the debate on Iraq in the United Nations Security Council and in NATO. I am unimpressed by the grandstanding of certain European leaders. Their actions undermine the only truly effective means of pressure on the Iraqi dictator: the threat of the use of force.
Ramos-Horta's article is all the more interesting given the fact that the East Timorian cause was once the darling of the same lefties who are now screaming about blood and oil. In fact, the highest-profile activist for East Timor freedom was none other than Noam Chomsky, the same feller who screams and yells about American hegemony.

Oh, to get Chomsky's reactions on this article.

Tuesday, February 25, 2003
Fisking DeBray

The NY Times ran an editorial by Regis DeBray the other day which distills the current French worldview. The bottom line of the piece: America is simplistic and puritanical, Europe is sophisticated and free.

The Times rather disingenuously described DeBray as "a former adviser to President Francois Mitterrand of France". I would say that he is much better known as a Communist radical who participated in Che Guevara's botched attempt to initiate a revolution in Bolivia.

(DeBray was caught by the Bolivian army along with Guevara, but --unlike Che-- lived to tell the tale.)

The editorial is one of those smarmy bits of Franco-smugness which screams for a line-by-line rebuttal. Luckilly, the great James Lileks is on hand to provide just such a service.

Saddam Sez 'No Way'

I'm curious to see this interview that Dan Rather did with Saddam, which will be broadcast tomorrow night.

I'm less interested in what Saddam has to say -- which will undoubtably be a three-hour stream of lies -- than in how Rather dealt with the dictator. Tony Benn's fawning interview with Saddam, broadcast last month on British TV, was a craven spectacle and I sincerely hope that Rather has enough professional sack to avoid it.

From the snippets CBS has released, it seems that Saddam won't give in to even the most basic demands of the UN. In his last report, Hans Blix called on Saddam to begin destroying the Iraqi Al-Samoud 2 missiles which are forbidden under the terms of the 1991 Gulf War treaty.

Saddam, of course, is defiant. And why not? He knows that even this blatant violation of international treaty will not be enough to goad the French into action. You'd think that the Frogs could use this as an excuse to climb down out of their tree.

After all, how do they expect anyone to take the "give the inspectors time to do their job" argument seriously when it becomes obvious that even if they find something, Saddam has no intention of getting rid of it?

This should be an interesting development as the new UN resolution comes down the bend.

Sheen Update

Slate's Rob Walker tackles the Win Without War ads in his ad report card feature this week:
If I'm going to hear, say, Martin Sheen talk about foreign policy, I'd rather hear him in an actual debate (where we could judge whether he knows what he's talking about) than listen to him airily declare that an offensive on Iraq won't work and tell me I should write my congressman because he says so. This is how old-school celebrity endorsements were thought to work—viewers soaked in the famous person's aura and bought whatever he or she said. But there's a reason you don't see many ads like that anymore.

Monday, February 24, 2003
I'm not the President, but I Play one on TV

Back during the first Gulf War I worked at the university's student newspaper. On the eve of the fighting, we received a fax at the office from Woody Harrelson urging us to do whatever we could to prevent the war. Apparently Woody decided to fax universities in the hopes that his pleas would resonate with us idealistic kids.

I remember being amused at the fax. Woody hadn't fully entered his stoner phase, but even so the idea that we should listen to a film star when it came to matters of war and peace seemed silly.

Fast forward 12 years. Suddenly it seems like you just can't get away from the celebrities and their moralizing against the war. There was that wonderful incident a few months ago when Barbra Streisand quoted a Shakespearean monologue at a Democratic fundraiser warning people against leaders who bang the drums of war. Of course, it turned out that the quote wasn't written by Shakespeare or anyone else we know about. Babs found it floating around on the Internet. Damn that Internet!

In the leadup to the Grammies, I saw Art Garfunkel on Sky News the other day expressing his opinion that America is the world's bully.

And now you have Martin Sheen adding his $0.02, with an ad for the organization Win Without War. The ad (which you can seehere) has Sheen promoting a "virtual" march on Washington. Dramatic, presidential"West Wing"-type music plays in the background while TV's virtual president encourages people to email or fax their local representatives come Feb. 26.

(Ah, what a wonderful movement for our couch potato age! Now you too can fulfill your Sixties protest fantasies without having to get up off your arse to do it.)

I've said this before, but it bears reiterating: in my experience, a good many actors and musicians are self-involved flakes and not necessarily particularly intelligent ones at that. These character traits, combined with a need to do Something Meaningful leads to all manner of asinine behavior.

In the best-case scenario you get Fred Durst at the Grammies ("Um, I hope we're all in agreement that war is, like, bad.") This is the best-case scenario. In the worst-case scenario you get Hanoi Jane scolding the POWs tortured by the same brutal regime she naively venerates.

Win Without War, whose other spokescelebrities include Janeane Garafolo, pushes the slogan "Inspections work. War won't." I'd say that inspections have amply proven that they don't work, but that's my opinion. Martin Sheen is entitled to his. (I certainly don't equate Sheen's actions to those of John Walker Lindh, unlike the author of this article.)

What I don't understand, though, is why Art Garfunkel's opinion of the situation should be of any more interest or value than those of the cranky guy who lives downstairs from me.

Anti-War Protest Follies

In a recent round of corespondence with a friend about the situation, I was called to task for complaining that Iraq is being turned into the victim in the current global game. I accept this criticism and realize that by making this statement, I haven't made a sufficient distinction between the hapless Iraqi people (who are caught between the hammer of America's military might and the anvil of the dictatorship they live under) and the brutal thug and his cronies who run the show.

My only rebuttal to this charge is that from what we've seen of the anti-war movement, a lot of people on that side similarly fail to make this distinction. My fear is that before too long Saddam will be remade into a Che Guevara for the 21st century, suitable for dorm-room posters the world over.

I get this feeling every time I hear the anti-war opposition claiming that Bush (or Blair) is the real thug, the real menace to world peace and the Iraqis. It also struck me when I came across a couple of articles recently.

Mark Steyn (a one-man editorial industry) identifies what he calls a Universal Theory blaming America for all the world's ill as the dominant paradigm at work with the anti-war crowd. I hesitate a bit on this, not because I think Steyn's mistaken, but rather that he ties it in with Hitler's Universal Theory of world Jewry. (The whole Saddam situation is ripe for easy -- and completely mistaken -- parallels with Hitler that you really need to watch out.)

Rather more enlightening (and utterly infuriating) is this eye-witness account of the anti-war rallies in London by Amir Taheri, an Iranian journalist. Taheri tagged along with a group of Iraqi exiles who felt that -- given the subject of the day is Iraq -- they should be allowed to put in their two cents worth.

One of them, a 78-year-old grandmother whose three sons were executed by Saddam, approached the Rev. Jesse Jackson and asked if she might speak. The results:
Today is not about Saddam Hussein," he snapped. "Today is about Bush and Blair and the massacre they plan in Iraq." Salima had to beat a retreat, with all of us following, as the reverend's gorillas closed in to protect his holiness.
Like the picture of the protester in Hyde Park holding a sign reading "Peace in our Time", this just makes you want to smack your palm to your forehead.

Sunday, February 23, 2003
Meet the New Government (Ours)

After a few weeks of coalition negotiations, the new government is finally beginning to take shape. Last night the PM signed an agreement with the National Religious Party who are the first to join the government. According to reports, a deal with Shinui is also close to fuition, now that Shinui and the NRP managed to hammer out an agreement for a united front.

This agreement seems to consist mainly of Shinui backing down on almost all its campaign promises -- drafting yeshiva students, instating civil marriage, having public transportation on Shabat -- in almost record speed. The only tangible achievement therefore that Tommy Lapid can show his voters is the fact that Shinui have managed to block Shas from entering the government.

(Throughout the campaign, Lapid declared that Shinui would not sit in a coalition with either of the ultra-orthodox parties. However, when it came to coalition talks he decided that he had no problem sitting with United Torah Judaism, the Ashkenazi ultra-orthodox party, but that he wouldn't sit with Shas. He claimed that UTJ was a lot less pernicious and a lot less corrupting than Shas. This claim has some merit, but Shinui's sudden turnabout can also be read as the opposition by a bunch of middle-class, secular Ashkenazim to the lower-class Sepharadic community. I am so glad I didn't vote Shinui.)

Honestly, the agreement between Shinui and the NRP surprises me. I was fully expecting Sharon to go for a wall-to-wall religious coalition with the NRP, Shas, and UTJ. It turns out that the leaders of the national orthodox community hate Shas just as much as their secular counterparts.

The only question left is whether or not Labor honcho Mitzna will give in and go for a unity government. I'd say no. There was some movement in this direction last week, but now I'd say it's over. The NRP has consistently declared their opposition to a Palestinian state. The coalition agreement they signed allows them to campaign against a Palestinian state even though the government officially backs the idea.

Mitzna can say (probably with some merit) that the inclusion of the NRP in the government shows that Sharon has no intention of ever dismantling the settlements and will refuse to join.

So, we're looking at a narrow, but possibly quite stable government. At least until the Bush team decides to turn its attention to this part of the neighborhood.

Meet the New Government (Theirs)

Our neighbors are also looking at a new government coming into place. According to a plan backed by the US, the EU, the UN, Russia, Egypt, Jordan, and Israel, the Palestinian Authority will soon undergo some major structural changes. The Palestinians will elect a Prime Minister who, along with two deputies and a security chief, will take over the running of the Palestinian Authority from the virtual dictatorship of the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate/arch-terrorist currently running the show. Arafat will become the President of the PA, a mainly symbolic position.

Salam Fayad, currently serving as the PA's finance minister, is tipped to be the first Prime Minister. Fayad is considered acceptable by all sides, having spent most of his time in the US. He is not linked to Palestinian terrorism, unlike most other PA officials.

The idea behind the plan is this: By creating an alternative leadership in the PA, you create a new partner for negotiations with Israel. Arafat has clearly made himself completely unacceptable to all but the most extreme-Left Israeli politicians.

The new regime will also function in a transparent way with regards to disbursement of funds. This is supposed to prevent the situation which has been rampant in the PA over the last decade, namely that a large chunk of the aid money to the Palestinians gets channeled for buying weapons or else ends up in various Zurich bank accounts belonging to Arafat and his cronies.

In short, a constructive, thinking-out-of-the box solution to the current quagmire.

I, however, am skeptical. There are just too many things that can go badly wrong here. First off, there's no indication that the ra'is will go gently into that good night. Arafat has been the undisputed ruler of the Palestinians for going on 40 years; I doubt he's going to give that up for a symbolic position.

And even if he does relent, he can still do a lot of damage to Fayad behind the scenes.

Secondly, there's no reason to believe that the Palestinians will accept Fayad (assuming that someone doesn't assassinate him outright). They are a stubborn lot, and will gladly cut off their noses to spite their faces assuming that they feel their honor has been spared.

As Uzi Benziman puts it in his article:
srael is aware of this possibility, but believes that Arafat will buckle under international pressure. If this belief proves illusory, the result will be no more than a virtual reform, and Israel will not agree to any quid pro quos from its side, thus blasting the hope of a new dawn. Similarly, terrorist activity by Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and the intervention of Iran, could disrupt the plan or completely wreck it.
There's also a chance that the new Israeli government -- especially the NRP and the Likud's hawkish wing -- will cause Sharon no end of grief.

In short, it's a wonderful idea and I hope it works. I'm just not counting on it.