Thursday, July 31, 2003
It should be said however...

I have to admit that I sometimes have misgivings whether to post items about the corruption and dirty politics that you find around here sometimes. Sure, it's all out there in the papers, but why provide additional ammo for the people who already view Israel as the embodiment of evil? Or, on the other hand, tarnish the ideal for the ardent zionists overseas.

This country has its problems, like all others. What can you do? Sure, the whole rule-of-law, clean-government thing is not as well-established here as in Western Europe or the northern two-thirds of North America. On the other hand, just take a gander at the neighbors. If you want to have a gander at how farked up a country can get without falling into anarchy, I suggest you take your next vacation in Egypt.

Yes, we have our problems. But at least we're aware of them. You can write about them in the papers and criticize those in charge without having to worry about the mukhabarat knocking on your door in the middle of the night.

And, with some luck, as this country matures (remember, we're still relatively young), I can only hope that things will get better. We may not get to the level of Switzerland, but I'm pretty sure that Italy is doable.

Jobs for the Boys (especially if they're related to you)

It hasn't been a great week for advocates of clean government around here. Besides the shenaningans of our elected representatives, we also got a very critical annual report by State Comptroller Eliezer Goldberg.

Among other things, Goldberg highlighted an alarming level of nepotism in the public sector. The worst culprit -- shock! horror! -- is the Israel Electric Company. Apparently, the surest way to get a job at the IEC is to be related to someone in authority there.

Why doesn't this surprise me at all? Over the years, the Electric Company has turned into the symbol of wasteful public monopolies. The IEC's union has a lot of political backing and have used it to flex its muscles to halt competition, minimize layoffs, and consistently raise prices. And, when anyone dares complain, they threaten to turn off the juice to the country. What's worse, IEC employees get all the free electricity they can use (some -- illegally -- also hook up their neighbors) and God help the politician who questions this sacred benefit.

In short, why not add rampant nepotism to your list of misdeeds?

Knesset Break

Israel's lawmakers will be taking off for a well-deserved two-and-a-half month vacation today as the Knesset goes into recess. I'll bet those 3-day weeks really get to you after a while.

Even by the low behavioral standards of Israeli politics, the recently ended plenum was a terrible embarrassment. Among the lowlights of the last few months:

  • A scandal involving numerous MKs voting more than once on the same bill, a scandal so bad the police were called in to investigate

  • Knesset members protecting their own by repeatedly refusing to revoke the parliamentary immunity of lawmakers accused of financial hanky panky

  • The same lawmakers then making sure that they would continue to decide on immunity by voting down a proposal to have an outside committee decide

  • A shameful decision -- for purely political reasons -- not to merge dozens of superfluous and wasteful local councils
On the other hand, the MKs did provide us with numerous delightful soundbites. There was Nissim Ze'ev from Shas accusing a staffer at the Interior Ministry of being a "homo-ist", for instance.

And then there was the following display of Churchillian wit and rhetorical prowess in an exchange between Finance co-Minister Meir Sheetrit (Likud) and Labor MK Dalia Itzik:
Sheetrit (yelling at Itzik from the podium): "Shut your trap or I'll shut it for you!"

Itzik (yelling back ): "You shut your trap, idiot. The person who can make me shut my mouth hasn't been born yet and you won't be the first!"
On one of the radio shows this morning, Roni Bar-On -- a Likud macher who was voted into office in the last elections -- was asked whether, given all this, he is proud to be a Knesset member. "I wouldn't go so far as to say 'proud'," he answered. "I'd say I'm more happy to be a Knesset member."

Oh, what will we do without these clowns for the rest of the summer?

Goodbye, Sam

Another music legend has departed for the other side. Sam Phillips, founder of Sun Records and a man who helped provide the world a lot of good tunes, died yesterday at age 80. Phillips was one of those clear-headed visionary types who heard an emerging mixture of blues and country and saw it was the future. Sun launched the careers of Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, and Carl Perkins among others.

It's a fairly safe bet to say that popular music wouldn't have been the same without him.

Wednesday, July 30, 2003
A Case Against the Case Against the War

A relatively new blogger, Norman Geras, is getting big-time exposure in the blogsphere with a lengthy, but (in my opinion) very well-reasoned critique of the anti-war Left and its complete moral abdication since 9/11. Geras' bottom line is this: by opposing US intervention in Iraq in the manner they did and using the arguments they did, the anti-war Left in effect voiced its support for Saddam and his regime of murder.
opposition to the war - the marching, the petition-signing, the oh-so-knowing derision of George Bush and so forth - meant one thing very clearly. Had this campaign succeeded in its goal and actually prevented the war it was opposed to, the life of the Baathist regime would have been prolonged, with all that that entailed: years more (how many years more?) of the rape rooms, the torture chambers, the children's jails, and the mass graves recently uncovered.

This was the result which hundreds of thousands of people marched to secure.

Okay, you say, neo-cons have been making this critique for ages. What makes this guy so special? Geras' shtick, as it were, is the fact that he still identifies himself as a Marxist/socialist. The critique comes from the inside. Geras points an accusatory finger at the anti-war crowd and says that this is exactly like the fellow-travelers who continued to defend Stalin long after his crimes were well-known.

Definitely worth reading the whole thing.

Tom Friedman's back from vacation...

... and gives us yet another column which reads like he simply cut and pasted bits of his previous ones.

Sebag vs. Knafo

Dissension has finally hit the ranks of the Single Mothers' protest movement. A month ago, Vikki Knafo set out from her home in Mitzpe Ramon and marched to Jerusalem to protest the cuts in her government allotment as a result of Netanyahu's economic reforms. Since then, dozens of other single mothers have joined Knafo and have set up a little tent city outside the offices of the Finance Ministry. The mothers enjoy a lot of public support and have been the darlings of the news media as well as the social-welfare political organizations who want to use them as a battering ram against the economic reforms.

But now it looks like a schism is forming within the organization. A faction calling itself the "Jerusalem branch" is threatening to split with Knafo's "Southern branch," as it has become known, over an argument about tactics. The Jerusalem branch, led by Ayala Sebag, are agitating to take more extreme measure measures such as burning tires and blocking roads. Knafo, on the other hand, maintains that the mothers have gotten the support of the public because they have stuck to peaceful protests and that if they start making a mess they will lose much of this support.

A pretty simple argument, on the face of it. If you look beneath the surface, however, other factors seem to be in play here.

Sebag was interviewed on one of the morning shows today. She's a strident, animated woman who clearly has her own view of how to wage the battle. But judging from her appearance this morning, I found it hard to shake the impression that a big part of this spat is personal. Throughout the interview, it looked like Sebag was constantly on the verge of screaming "Who does Vikki Knafo think she is? Who made her queen?"

Now the media -- which had previously wrapped Knafo in a big fuzzy blanket of love -- now seems to have found a new fun game: playing the mothers against each other. Not long after her TV interview, Sebag was on the radio, this time in a head-to-head with Knafo. Originally, Knafo struck me as fairly level-headed and reasonable, especially when compared to the loudmouthed Sebag. The radio debate disabused me of that notion real quick. Knafo and Sebag got into a screaming match, neither allowing the other to finish a sentence, or -- for that matter -- letting the moderator get two words in. Sebag took a condescending tone, repeatedly calling Knafo hamuda ("sweetie") and talking to her like she was a three-year-old. Knafo screamed at Sebag that she had no right trying to divert the struggle into different directions, for instance by calling on other parts of the needy population to join in the struggle.

This kind of infighting usually strikes populist movements at some point in the game. Without a clear, accepted leader, and lacking in any political experience, the mothers are more than succeptible to it.

I have to admit that, viewing this conflict from the sidelines, it's fairly entertaining political theater. (Although I must admit that -- for all my sympathy with Knafo, Sebag, and the other single mothers -- I'm rooting for Bibi to come out on top here, since I believe the economic reforms are necessary to keep the Israeli economy from going under). The real question is whether the mothers will manage to overcome the split and, if not, whether this will end up sinking the movement.

Tuesday, July 29, 2003
Not Bothered About the Road Map

Sharon's in Washington, meeting with GWB a week after Abu Mazen was there with his laundry list of complaints. There's a feeling that Bush will pressure Sharon on several issues, among them the fence and the prisoners. At the same time, despite the fact that the Palestinian PM still hasn't done thing one about dismantling the terror organizations he gets showered with praise and money. And all over the blogosphere, people are righteously angry. Not just Charles Johnson, probably the most focused writer in the blogsphere when it comes to chronicling the misdeeds of the Palestinians and Islamofascists, but also self-described liberals like Michael Totten, who has a real downer of an article about the possible consequences of a Palestinian state.

I consider myself hawkish and right-of-center, but for the moment I'm finding it extremely difficult to muster a real sense of indignation and anger about the road map and its implementation. Does it piss me off to see America pressuring Israel about issues, like the prisoner release, that aren't even a part of the road map? Yes it does. Does that lead me to the conclusion that we need to rip the document up? No it doesn't.

I've been making the rounds of the Israeli neighborhood of the blogosphere and I've noticed that I'm not alone. On the whole, there does seem to be a real split between those looking on the situation on the outside (i.e. from overseas) and those of us on the inside.

I can't speak for the other Israbloggers, but for me personally it's a matter -- to quote an old Israeli song -- that "things you see from here you can't see from there." On the level of principle, the critics overseas are 100% correct: the handling of the road map issue, at least at the moment, is bullshit. The Palis are clearly not living up to their obligations. Arafat is still riling up the population. The terror groups have not been disarmed and may in fact be rearming. There's been no movement on the highly contentious issue of the right of return. In short, a right fiasco.

On the other hand, things are relatively quiet for the first time in years. Not completely quiet, I'll concede. Last week a soldier was kidnapped and murdered and the security forces still apprehend Palestinians planning attacks. However, the number of active security alerts has dropped from 60-70 in the days before the hudna to about a dozen in recent days. As Allison Kaplan Sommer noted we're beginning to relax a bit, not even noticing when there isn't a guard at the entrance to the restaurant.

I was discussing the issue with a guest from London the other night. He laid out the skeptical position: The Palestinians aren't interested in peace. The road map is nothing but a trap which will let the Palis rearm until they decide attack again.

This is all very possible, I said, but what's your next best option? I'm sure a great deal of force might could do the trick, but the world (and, more importantly, the Uncle from America) won't let us go that far. However, if the Palestinians decide to start up the violence again, we'll strike back and this time we won't be so nice. Rantisi and Yassin know that they're the next ones to be targeted and that the IAF won't have any compunction leveling entire streets in Gaza to get them. I wouldn't be surprised if Arafat also finds himself on the list.

I'm hoping (very cautiously) that it won't come to that. I sincerely hope that the majority of Palestinians also feel a sense of relief that the day-to-day conflict has stepped down and that they won't be in any hurry to start it up again. Also, if after three years of non-stop attacks against Israel the Palis haven't figured out that they won't crack us by using violence then they're even more profoundly stupid than I think they are.

For now, I have faith that Sharon will handle the situation while preserving Israel's interests. I don't feel the need to be more of a bitkhonist, a security guy, than the PM. From all reports, Sharon seems to feel that Abu Mazen is acting in good faith and at the moment that's good enough for me.

Christopher Reeves Comes to Visit

We have another celebrity visitor to these parts. Christopher Reeves is here for a 5-day visit to check out the state of Israeli medical research and to visit Israelis suffering from injuries like his.

Israel is on the cutting edge of research about spinal cord and nerve damage. This is a result of a few factors. On the plus side, you have the seemingly unlimited and innovative brainpower in this country. This is coupled with the fact that the government -- unlike in the States -- has not limited stem cell research, which looks like a promising avenue for resarch.

On the minus side, the number of vicious bombing attacks over the years has forced us to become experts in emergency medicine and the treatment of violent injuries. Reeves is using his trip to appeal to the medical establishment to push research on spinal cord damage, but he is taking time to visit injured Israelis -- including a pen-pal of his who was paralyzed in a suicide bombing, and to try to give them hope.

Chevy Chase's Anatolian Vacation

Once upon a time, back in my teenage years, Chevy Chase was a big, A-list, name-above-the-title film star. Somewhere along the way, whoever is in charge of distributing celebrity decided to cut Chevy off. It was probably about the time that his talk show tanked. And, just like that, the star of "Caddyshack", "Fletch", and the "Vacation" films ended up in the "where are they now?" file.

I probably haven't given a second thought to Chevy Chase in the last decade. I would have probably continued not thinking about him had I not run across an Ad Age piece about what he's been doing for a living lately. It turns out that Chase is trading on his enduring fame in Turkey, of all places, and is serving as a pitchman for Cola Turka, an Anatolian competitor to Coke and Pepsi.

The Ad Age story features clips of two Cola Turka spots. One of them features Chevy walking around Times Square, then sitting at a diner where a cowboy type takes a sip of Cola Turka and starts talking Turkish. In the second spot, Chevy arrives home where his wife is fixing dinner for the family and her parents. Everyone starts singing "Take me out to the Ballgame". Then they sip the Turkish cola and start singing a rousing Turkish tune (and, I suspect, butchering the language in such a way as to make your average Turk cringe). At the end of the clip, Chevy -- now sporting a big Turkish moustache -- waves goodbye to his in-laws.

The bit with the moustache made me chuckle. Other than that, the ads are pretty weak. Besides how fat and bald Mr. Chase has become, the most striking thing about the ads is their clunky pacing. Compare these two clips with much slicker ones that you find big Hollywood celebrities doing for the Japanese market. I'm not sure if this is the fault of a clumsy director or one who is merely suiting the pieces to the standards of Turkish television. Having encountered Turk TV occasionally while channel zapping, I'll give the guy the benefit of the doubt.

Much less clear to me is the tone of the Ad Age piece. It notes that Chase has decided to do these ads during a time of anti-American feeling in Turkey. Okay, but what does that have to do with cola? Are we hoping that Chevy's Clark Griswold shtick will be the key to mending Turko-American relations or are we pointing an accusatory finger at the actor for siding with the enemy? Or is it just a pointless dig to remind everyone that They Still Hate Us?

Monday, July 28, 2003
Terrorist-Enabler Summer Camp

They've landed upon us again. It's summer, which means that misguided volunteers have landed in the West Bank and Gaza for the purpose of clashing with the IDF. Yes, the fun folks from the International Solidarity Movement are here again. The situation in the territories has cooled down a lot and the IDF has begun dismantling roadblocks. So, what better time to come in and start stirring up shit?

A number of ISM volunteers got rubber-bulleted this afternoon while trying to tear down parts of the separation fence currently under construction in the West Bank. The purpose of the fence is to make it much more difficult for Palestinian terrorists to sneak into Israel and kill civilians. Granted, the fence is controversial, and is currently the subject of a lot of discussion between Israeli, Palestinian, and American authorities.

None of this seems to make any difference to the screaming jackasses from the States and Europe for whom the fence is an "apartheid wall" that must be torn down with their bare hands. And so they come, getting the Palestinians all het up again, which is the last thing you need in a situation of tense quiet.

It turns out the ISMers aren't happy with the press they've been getting around here. They're irked by the stories pointing out the various ways they abet terrorist movements (by providing foreign terrorists with a handy cover to sneak into the country or by helping prevent the IDF from destroying weapons-smuggling tunnels, for instance). In response, two ISMers wrote in to the Jerusalem Post with a letter entitled "Occupied peoples have the right to resist" wherein they try to justify their activities. I generally don't go in for in-depth fisking, but I have a particular thing for the ISM and so I couldn't resist.

"We are unwavering in our commitment to nonviolence," the letter begins.

ISM believes in the dignity of every human being. Consequently, we strongly oppose violence against all civilians. This includes all acts of terrorism, whether perpetrated by a state, group or individual. We have all thoroughly committed ourselves to the practice of nonviolence and do not assist anyone in committing acts of violence.

Not actively, maybe, but tacitly definitely. While the ISM's rhetoric is filled with vague, mushy condemnations of violence, the group only makes specific demands of Israel. As far as the Palestinians, you never hear the ISM telling them to adopt nonviolent tactics or even condemn suicide bombings by name. On the contrary, they implicitly justify Palestinian terrorism by referring to Palestinian bombers as martyrs and peddling the line that "Occupied peoples have the right to resist".

We are Christian, Muslim, Jewish and Hindu. We are grandparents, students, professionals, nuns, and ministers. We are also Israelis.

OK, so we have deluded idiots here as well. What's your point?
OPPONENTS OF ISM claim that the movement's goal is to impede the army's job in stopping terrorism and even act as an accomplice to terrorist activities.

ISM volunteers attempt to keep tunnels open for smuggling weapons. In other cases, volunteers have actually physically jumped in front of soldiers who were trying to apprehend a Palestinian who had just tried to knife them. The group shelters wanted terrorists in its offices. Call it what you want to.
Does anyone honestly believe that thousands of volunteers from Tel Aviv to New York City, many Jewish, would spend their vacations to come and spread terrorism?

Not when you put it that way. On the other hand, when you paint it as a romantic Third World anti-colonial struggle then no wonder the dupes arrive in droves. The end result, however, is exactly the same.
Many of us have paid a price for our commitment. James Deleplain, 74, sustained a broken rib and punctured lung after settlers beat him during the olive harvest. Tom Hurndall, 21, was shot in the head while moving children out of harm's way from an Israeli sniper. Brian Avery, 24, had his face blown off by an Israeli armored personnel carrier. And, of course, Rachel Corrie, 23, was run over by a bulldozer driven by an Israeli soldier while attempting to protect the home of a Palestinian physician from illegal demolition.

No one was held accountable for these violent attacks on civilians.

They never seem to mention that the volunteers who got shot were in the middle of a crossfire between the IDF and Palestinians resisting nonviolently with AK-47s. "Violent attacks on civilians," of course, implies that the ISMers and the Palestinians were sitting around having a quiet little picnic when the IDF rolled in and started shooting. Saint Rachel, it should be mentioned, again, died because she failed to heed the first rule of construction sites, i.e. don't stand in front of moving heavy machinery; the driver's visibility is limited.
Instead, we get lies and distortions.

Actually, the IDF investigated these issues in depth and issued clear findings that Corrie's death was unintentional. Unfortunately, these reports aren't what the ISM wants to hear so they call it "lies and distortions". On the other hand, if you want real lies and distortions, have a look at the wildly conflicting tales, the obfuscation, and faked photographic evidence the ISM and its groupies put forward following the Corrie incident.
The growing international nonviolent movement offers one of the best hopes for achieving an end to the Israeli military occupation and a just peace for Palestinians and Israelis. If the Israeli government is successful in its attempt to eliminate the nonviolent resistance to its illegal policies, what alternative does that leave for those justifiably opposed to its military occupation?

I would say that negotiation and compromise offers the best hope for achieving an end to the conflict as well as a good alternative for people opposed to the occupation. The ISM, on the other hand, only prolongs and complicate the situation by playing up to the Palestinians' historical grievances.

Note that their goal is the achievement of a "just" peace. A just peace according to the Palestinians involves the Jews swimming towards Europe en masse. By reinforcing the Palestinians' sense of wronged honor, all the ISM does is help harden the Palestinian line, make them less open to compromises and makes the peace negotiations all the more difficult.

Let me say this again: You people aren't helping.

You're only putting yourselves at risk and mucking up everything for the rest of us. If you really want to help out the Palestinians, go to the Muqata'a and tell Arafat to stop undermining Abu Mazen and the hudna. Go to Gaza and tell Rantisi and Yassin to cool down their rhetoric and start looking for ways to work within the system.

Hell, if you really want to do some good, how about some volunteer work helping rebuild Baghdad?

Sunday, July 27, 2003
A Mezuzah Story

The other day, Julia, our cleaning lady, accidentally knocked open the mezuzah cover on the front doorframe. (Note to my non-Jewish readers: the mezuzah is a small casing containing a scroll with the shema yisrael prayer; according to Jewish law, you have to attache one to every doorframe in the house leading to a room.).

The mezuzah we had up was a basic plastic thing, with a base that was stuck to the door frame and a top which attached to it, keeping the scroll in place. To Julia's (and my wife's) surprise, it turned out that the mezuzah casing was empty. When I put it up three years ago, there was definitely a scroll inside. At some point since then, somebody had come by, opened up the casing, taken the scroll, and put the top back on leaving us blissfully unaware.

In other words, we've been living with an un-kosher mezuzah for Lord only knows how long. Julia -- who is very religious -- got very worked up by the whole incident. According to Jewish law, by discovering the empty mezuzah, she had done a great mitzvah and preserved our home. Julia exclaimed that God's hand caused her to knock the top open, and promptly started telephoning her friends to tell them of the miracle. My wife was less moved by the miracle and more miffed that someone had stolen the scroll, which was hand-written by her family's rabbi in London, and would be a hassle to replace.

The next day she went to a religious supplies store in downtown Tel Aviv to purchase a new mezuzah. The proprietor of the store was not surprised to hear her story. He says that every couple of months he comes in to work and sees that the mezuzahs have been ripped off all the stores on his block. In other countries, this could be seen as an act of anti-Semitism. Here it's just a matter of petty theft.

All of this leaves me a bit puzzled. Yes, I know the times are tough here and that property crimes are way up. My car was broken into not 6 months ago. Still, who the hell goes around stealing mezuzot? I don't think it's people who can't afford one. After all, I'm fairly sure that from the halakhic point of view stealing a mezuzah cancels out any benefit of affixing one to the door.

Which leads you to the conclusion that we're dealing with an esoteric variety of theft. Even then, you have to wonder how much profit there is in it. Mezuzah scrolls aren't cheap they're not that expensive, either (although I'm told that hand-written ones like ours do go for a few hundred sheckels). And how do you find the market for hot scrolls?

Jews all over the world have mezuzot on their doors. Only in Israel do they get nicked.

Michael Moore, Fictitionalist

Few things give me more (or should I say Moore) glee than an intelligent critique of the fat sack of horseshit behind "Stupid White Men" and "Bowling for Columbine." Michael Moore may be the left's favorite clown prince, but he's a truly dubious character who opens himself up to withering attack. Unfortunately, I have a hard time critiquing the man intelligently, because every time I see Moore's greasy leering mug I have to restrain myself from spitting or throwing things at the screen.

Luckily, calmer heads are there to do the job.

City Journal gives the man a good fisking: how his "average schlub telling the truth that corporations want to hide from you" persona is heavily at odds with his champagne lifestyle and penchant for mendacious editing techniques and shaky facts. It also details his general detachment from the real world.

Definitely worth reading.

Sherard Checks Out

The country bids adieu to Her Majesty's representative here, Sherard Cowper-Coles, who will be departing shortly to serve as Britain's ambassador to Saudi Arabia. Cowper-Coles' tenure here has been brief, two years in all, but in that period he has managed to connect with Israel and Israelis in a way that very few ambassadors do.

Before taking the job, he immersed himself in Hebrew studies, living for a month and a half with an Israeli family in London. Subsequently, he speaks the language as well as most of the English-speaking olim I know. Cowper-Coles has also made a point of appearing in Israeli media, giving interviews in Hebrew and even appearing in a comedy sketch on Eli Yatzpan's popular late-night talk show.

This kind of behavior, the article notes, opens Cowper-Coles to charges of having "gone native" by the rest of the diplomatic corps. If so, it's a shame that other countries' representatives here don't follow suit.

Israelis are prickly and suspicious of diplomats in general, and European diplomats specifically. In addition, the country has a complicated history with Britain, who ran show over here before we got independence. In his too-few appearances in the media, he charmed interviewers and viewers by casually using Israeli slang terms like "sababa" ("copacetic").

As he points out, Israel is a complex country with a, shall we say, unique outlook on the rest of the world. If other countries got to know it and it them, perhaps the international image would be better. At any case, Cowper-Coles is off to Riyadh and he will surely be missed around here.