Thursday, July 10, 2003
Worst... Excuse... Ever

Forehead-slapping moment of the day: When police questioned Likud MK Michael Goralovsky as to why he voted twice during the voting on the recent austerity plan, he gave the following excuse: "I saw other Knesset members doing it and thought it was OK."

What, you mean you're not allowed to vote as many times as you want? Who knew?

This whole Goralovsky incident would be comical were he the only Knesset member under investigation. In that event we could grumble about the candidate-selection system in certain parties which results in amateurs and utter nimrods being elected to the country's governing body. Unfortunately, the police will be grilling a half-dozen other parliamentarians, including a cabinet minister, for their own role in the double-voting follies.

Hopefully, the other suspects will come up with better excuses.

And Live to Fight Another Day?

The mullahs succeeded in pretty much crushing the planned massive protests in Iran yesterday. With the exception of some sporadic fighting in the streets between the students and the regime's thugs (including a contingent of Hizbullah ringers flown in from Lebanon), Teheran and other places were quiet yesterday. The mullahs shut down part of the country's cellular network, destroyed satellite dishes, and did whatever else they had to in order to block the students from demonstrating. In short, it's over for now.

Now we wait and see what happens next. It's pretty clear that the toothpaste won't go back into the tube. The demand for freedom is still there, and the current situation is unstable and untenable for the Iranian regime. As this article points out, it appears that we are on the verge of one of two scenarios: November 1989 or June 1989. In other words, either the regime will decide to liberalize things, in which case we could end up with a Berlin Wall scenario or else they'll choose to clamp down even harder, which could lead to an Iranian version of Tianamen Square.

Wednesday, July 09, 2003
Our Wonderful Educational System

The country got a shock last week when a survey of some 40 countries around the world showed that Israel's students were down near the bottom in terms of reading comprehension. The news media harped on the stories for days, while the government, the local school districts, and the schools all pointed fingers at each other. Israel's poor showing was remarkable, when you consider that it invests one of the highest percentages of GDP into education. In terms of the national budget, education here is second only to defense spending.

And yet, none of that seems to translate into results. What's worse, by all indications the educational system is actually worse than what it was in the '50s and '60s when there was significantly less money to go around. In response to the survey, Education Minister Limor Livnat announced that she was taking action in typical Israeli style by setting up an investigative committee to look into the problem.

Amnon Rubinstein, a former education minister, makes a number of good suggestions about how to reform the lagging educational system here. Among his key points are decentralizing the highly rigid structure of education and instituting some measure of performance-based pay to help encourage good teachers and discourage bad ones.

I have yet to send children through the Israeli educational system, but being that my wife is an elementary school teacher here, I have had the chance to view it from an insider's perspective. I second everything Rubinstein writes, but I want to add/emphasize a few points:
  • Bureaucracy. Israel dumps an huge amount of money into the educational system. However, once you get to the level of the classrooms you find grossly underpaid teachers teaching large numbers of children in the classroom. Clearly the money disappears somewhere between point A and point B. The culprit is an incredibly bloated system of administrators and inspectors whose purpose -- other than perpetuating the educational bureaucracy -- is unclear.

    There has been some talk of de-centralizing the system and turning it over to the local city councils, which might work. However, I fear the moment this comes up for discussions we'll hear a lot of screaming about unfairness from the social welfare lobby (since richer local councils will be able to spend more than poorer local councils, which is unacceptable; much better that everyone's level of education be crap). My other fear is that the proposed solution will be adding yet another layer or two of inspection committee to administrate the inspectors.

  • The parents. Parents can be a teacher's worst nightmare. Don't get me wrong. I'm all in favor of parents taking an active interest in what their children learn. However, quite a few parents take this to the extreme. My wife gets calls from parents at all sorts of strange hours, second-guessing her, grilling her on why the children are studying in textbook A instead of textbook B, etc. etc. This, of course, does wonders for her stature with the students.

    Parental meddling is a scourge in a lot of places. I've read that in the States, it's the number one cause of teacher burnout. I don't actually have a concrete solution, but it would help if school principals were more empowered to take some of the flack from people who regard teachers as nothing more than glorified babysitters for their Ritalin-needing spawn.

  • Quack educational theories. Israel's educational administrators love to think of themselves as cutting-edge. Unfortunately, this means that they use the classrooms as laboratories for all sorts of stupid, airy fairy theories about teaching, only to abandon them a few years down the road when they've proven their ineffectiveness. I have a cousin who went through elementary school in the mid-'90s and still has trouble with simple multiplication because at the time they attempted to teach the subject through intuition instead of drilling the kids on the multiplication tables. Then there was the fad for the "whole language" approach to teaching reading, which has led to the low level of reading comprehension.

    The worst part about these questionable educational theories is the fact that Israeli educators usually discover them after other countries have already abandoned them.
The educational system is one of the last throwbacks to the glory days of Israeli bolshevism: statist, rigid, and open to all kinds of pseudoscientific claptrap. In its noble quest to treat all teachers equally, it has effectively lowered salaries for all teachers to a laughable level. This ensures that a large number of talented people who could make wonderful teachers either never go near teaching or else leave the educational system after a few years. This, in turn, helps feed a general conception that teachers are people who aren't qualified to do anything else, which then fuels the disrespect of the students.

It desperately needs an overhaul.

Iranian Protests

Today, July 9th, was supposed to be a day of protest in Teheran. Student leaders were organizing massive protests at universities around the country. The hope was that a critical mass of Iranians would join in a general strike which might signal the beginning of the end for the reign of the mullahs.

Most of the major news outlets relegated the protests to their back sections, but it became a rallying cause around the blogsphere, with calls for us weblogging monkeys to mark the day on our sites.

Sadly, despite the more optimistic predictions it looks like the mullahs will be able to chalk up another one in the win column. They sicced the full arsenal of army, police, mukhabarrat, and Hizbullah irregulars on the students in an effort to squash the protesters. There's not much news to be found, but according to Reuters, student leaders announced that they were cancelling the protests. Three of the leaders were later kidnapped by vigilantes loyal to Iranian spirtual leader Ayatollah Khameini.

If this is accurate, it's very, very sad news.

While we wait for more information to surface, here's a small list of Iranian weblogs and news services:

Tuesday, July 08, 2003
The Badolina Debates, continued

The summer's most surprising literary-political debate continues in the pages of Ha'aretz's weekend magazine. As I noted two weeks ago, Gabi Nitzan's lightweight novel Badolina has come under fire by not once, but twice, by two separate journalists who claimed it was a primer for solipsism and apathy in a world of Darwinian capitalism.

This week, Nitzan fires back. In effect he argues that it's ridiculous to try and read any type of political message into his book, a hippy-dippy parable that can easily serve as a blank screen for whatever social-political outlook you want to project onto it.

His points are mostly well made, but the real joy of the piece is Nitzan's between-the-lines evisceration of Shelly Yehimovich -- the author of the second article attacking his book -- whom he paints, subtly, as a joyless harridan. There's nothing like a good pissing match between intellectuals to serve as summer amusement. I'm waiting for the next entry.

Totten on Seale

Michael J. Totten handily fisks a long and ridiculous article by Patrick Seale in The Nation. In the article in question, Seale lays out an elaborate conspiracy wherein the real reason for removing Saddam from power was to help Israel expand its regional hegemony . (This is only the latest in an example of The Nation's inexorable slide into raving-moonbat land.)

The Nation article drily notes that Seale is an author, without explaining that he was in fact the official biographer of Syria's Hafez al-Assad and a VIP in Papa Assad's court. I'm not sure if Totten is aware of this fact either, but it goes a long way to explaining the tone of Seale's piece in which he disparages the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty while subtly praising Saddam for scudding Tel Aviv. Seale's closeness to Assad is probably the reason for his tremendous hostility to Israel, not to mention his fondness for other totalitarian dictators.

Here We Go Again...

I know I'm running the risk of getting tiresome by commenting on the minutiae of the comings and goings of the cease-fire, but it's kind of like picking scabs. Last night, we had the first suicide bombing since the hudna was declared. It was also one of the weirdest bombings on record: a Palestinian snuck into a home in a village near Netanya and detonated himself in the living room. The roof of the house caved in, killing Mazal Afari, 65, and injuring her 3 grandchildren. The attack was so atypical that initially the police thought it had been a gas explosion. Only after further investigation did it become clear that it was a bombing.

An Islamic Jihad cell in the West Bank took responsibility for the attack (without explaining why they chose to bomb somebody's living room). The only good news to be found is that the Jihad leadership in Gaza have washed their hands of the thing, saying that it was a rogue operation and that they are still sticking to the cease-fire. And giving the amateurish quality of last night's attack, I tend to believe them.

On the whole, however, it seems that the Islamofascists aren't the main problem. That honor is reserved for Abu Mazen's own people. Yes, the PA PM is feuding once again with his Fatah cronies. Members of Fatah's Central Committee have criticized him for his negotiations with Sharon. According to reports, Abu Mazen offered to tender his resignation. It's probably a lot of bluster, but who knows.

All this points once again to the main troublemaker in the region: the ghoul of Ramallah. Arafat calls the shots in Fatah. The members of the Central Committee who attack the new boss basically serve as Arafat's mouthpieces, in the same way that the Al Aqsa Brigade lunatics who continue to shoot at Israelis act as his trigger finger. And Arafat is just dying to see Abu Mazen fail.

The American ambassador to Israel, Dan Kurtzer, had a number of choice things to say about the nominal Palestinian head honcho. According to Kurtzer, Abu Mazen is a "relatively weak" man who has a tendency to run away from problems.

Finally, this little tidbit: researchers in Israel and the Palestinian areas recently conducted opinion polls (scroll down a bit in the story) to gauge the reaction of the Palestinian and Israeli populations about the cease fire. Interestingly, the results from the two sides were mirror images of each other: a majority on both sides supports the peace process as well as supporting the right of the other side to have a state. And the same majority on each side doubts the other is interested in peace.

Monday, July 07, 2003
Deri Speaks

Over the last two weeks, a familiar figure from the past has returned. The figure in question is Aryeh Deri, the former chairman of the Shas party, who has returned to the media limelight after a few years' absence, giving major interviews to the Channel 2 TV as well as Ha'aretz.

Next to Yitzhak Rabin and Ariel Sharon, Deri is probably the most important Israeli politician of the last 15 years. And if you focus on the country's internal politics, Deri is arguably numero uno. A world-class political manipulator, Deri turned Shas from a small ultra-orthodox party into the most potent political force in the Knesset. At the same time, he helped Shas build up an alternative social-welfare state and turned the party into a political address for large numbers of Israel's mizrahi community, Jews whose roots lie in the Arab countries. During the Rabin and Netanyahu years, he was one of the country's most visible politicians but in the last four years he has practically disappeared from public life.

The reason for this disappearance? Jail.

Deri was convicted of bribery and embezzlement after an extremely drawn-out police investigation (which he blocked and hindered in every way imaginable) and a highly publicized trial which ended up with the judges reading out his sentence live on the radio. Sentenced to three years in prison, he served two. Since his release last year, the man has kept a low public profile until now.

It's still unclear what's behind the sudden publicity blitz. You won't find it in the interview he gave to Ha'aretz's Ari Shavit. In the interview, Deri repeatedly denies that he has any political plans. His relationship with Shas, and especially its spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, has been strained since his release from prison and it's unlikely that he'll return to head the party. In addition, his conviction carries the "stain of moral turpitude" in Israeli legal terms, meaning the man is barred from holding a cabinet position for the next 10 years.

If anything, it appears that Deri's re-emergence is an attempt to settle his score with the country's judicial establishment. And the Ha'aretz article is a potent reminder that Deri is one of the country's most dangerous politicians.

In an attempt to dodge the charges against him, Deri not only obstructed the police, but actually tried to pervert the entire legal system. He attempted to get then-PM Netanyahu to appoint Roni Bar-On -- one of Deri's political cronies -- as Attorney General in the hopes that Bar-On would drop the charges against him. The ploy didn't work, but did lead to Netanyahu and Bar-On getting investigated by the police.

And now, a year after being released from prison, it appears that Deri wants to get his revenge on the country's legal system by trying to undermine its legitimacy. In the Ha'aretz article, he repeatedly paints himself as a victim of the Ashkenazi establishment which he claims wanted to destroy him and the movement he represented.
The feeling was that the traditional Mizrahi culture, which had been successfully repressed since the establishment of the state, was beginning to reawaken. And because of the large number of Mizrahim and because of the fusion with the Ashkenazi Haredim, there was a feeling that the secular European Ashkenazi culture was under threat. Therefore, when they decided that Deri posed a danger, they decided to get rid of him. They decided to delegitimize me. That's what happened. That is the Deri affair.
On television, the man is a magnetic performer. He is blessed with bountiful charisma and charm, and a soft-spoken style that makes even his most extreme statements sound reasonable. Stripped of all this -- and, on the printed page, he is -- Deri reveals his true self: a cynical race-baiter stirring up ethnic strife to suit his own ends.
People like to talk about the rule of law. In my opinion, the concept of the rule of law is very grating to every democratic person. There is no rule of law. There is rule of the legislature, of people. What is a law? It is not something sacred. It is something that people enacted and that people can change. But in this country the concept of the rule of law has been created.

What is this rule of law? The more I observe it, the more I see that this rule of law is not the dry letter of the law in the legal code. This rule of law is the Western culture of the elites who believe that they have to decide what direction the state will take and what its character will be. This rule of law is the rule of those who have no possibility to rule by democratic means, because they are a very small minority, who live in a few ghettos in Ramat Hasharon and North Tel Aviv and Rehavia in Jerusalem. So how do they rule the country? Through the rule of law.
In American terms, Deri is somewhere between Al Sharpton and Marion Barry, but a lot more successful. This wouldn't be so problematic if the actual concept of rule of law was more firmy established here. (And by "rule of law" I mean, among other things, that cabinet ministers don't line their own pockets or try to get their buddies appointed Attorney General).

Sadly, among many segments of Israeli society -- including the segment represented by Shas -- the concept is alien. And Deri would like to keep it that way. In general, it increasingly seems that Shas' entire raison d'etre is to keep its constituents poor, uneducated, and seething with resentment against the country's insitutions (except, of course Shas).

I shudder to think what he has planned for us next.

Hudna Update

Much to everyone's surprise, the cease-fire is more or less holding up. Mind you, no one is arguing that the underlying conflict is anywhere close to beginning to be sorted out. Or even that the current state is anything more than a highly flawed version of what it should be.

Hamas is still manufacturing rockets completely unhindered by the PA's security apparatus. Earlier today, the PA announced that it had arrested a would-be suicide bombstress, an 18-year-old Gaza girl who was on her way to blow herself up at an Israeli bus stop. This would be good, except that they then turned right around and released her. But, just so you don't get the impression that the Palestinian police are doing nothing, they are working overtime to arrest suspected collaborators with Israel, then standing around doing nothing as vigilantes execute the suspects during the course of their trial.

(To be fair, I should point out that Israel has only cleared out a few settlement outposts and some of those were re-inhabited the day later.)

On the whole, the cease-fire sucks but it's still better than the alternative. And the general level of violence has dropped; the army reports that it only has around 25 terror alerts, as opposed to 60 a week ago.

The The prisoner issue is quickly becoming the bone of contention. Sharon presented his government a proposal for releasing around 350 Palestinian prisoners based on guidelines drawn up by the General Security Service. According to the guidelines, Israel would release administrative detainees, old men, and women. Prisoners "with blood on their hands" -- i.e. those who took an active part in the murder of Israelis -- as well as members of Hamas and Islamic Jihad are not to be released.

The proposal passed, but only barely, and even then only on a second vote (after the first one ended in a tie). A lot of government ministers -- the more hawkish members of Likud, as well as the National Religious Party, and the National Union -- oppose the prisoner release on prisoners. (The National Union's thuggish chairman, Avigdor Lieberman, was quoted as saying he'd be happy to drown them all in the Dead Sea.) Opponents of the plan argue that it disgraces the memory of the victims of terror. They also point to the 1985 Jibril agreement, where Israel traded 1500 hard-core Palestinian terrorists for three IDF POWs. (Many of the released prisoners then became leaders during the first intifada.)

The PA, on the other hand is not happy with the prisoner release program either and has begun to complain loudly. Abu Mazen has put a lot of his prestige on the line with the prisoner exchange. He hopes that the release of a large number of prisoners will buy him brownie points with his own Fatah faction, the group which has caused the most problems lately. Expect to hear a whole lot more on this issue in the near future.

Hopefully, a way will be found to get out of the mess. Ehud Ya'ari, one of the most prominent experts on the Palestinians, said yesterday that he doesn't think the PA's threats to back down from the road map over the prisoners are serious. In his opinion, the protests from the Palestinian side will serve as background noise throughout the process.

On the Israeli side, I suspect that the government will eventually end up being forced to release some prisoners with blood on their hands, as well as members of Hamas and Jihad. The country has been forced to swallow worse in the past, and will hopefully be more careful than it was during the Jibril agreement. The families of terror victims. have already started to protest, and this will probably also serve as background noise. Justice Minister Tommy Lapid said yesterday that their feelings must be taken into account but that you cannot give them veto power over political negotiations. Lapid pointed out that families of soldiers killed in Israel's wars with Egypt protested the Camp David accords in the 1970s as well.

That being said, I'm glad I'm not the one who will have to explain to the parents of a teenager murdered by a Palestinian suicide bomber why the vile creep who dispatched the bomber is being released.

Sunday, July 06, 2003
Q&A with Ze'ev Schiff

Ha'aretz's senior defense editor, Ze'ev Schiff, answers questions from readers. He gives a good overview of the strategic challenges facing Israel at the moment.

Farewell to the Voice

Barry White left us over the weekend at the all-too-young age of 58. A real original, he will be missed.