Saturday, October 04, 2003
Belated Justice

Word just came in that a police unit just rid the world of a blot on humanity. The anti-terror Yamam unit managed to nail Sirhan Sirhan, not the guy who shot Bobby Kennedy, but the vile scum who carried out the attack on Kibbutz Metzer last year.

Last November, Sirhan murdered 5 people at Metzer, including two small children whom he shot point blank in their beds after murdering their mother. Security forces have been looking for Sirhan, who was being hidden by some scumbags from Fatah. The Yamam guys caught up to him while he was riding around Tul Karm. A gunfight broke out and the security guys shot him.

Especially good riddance to especially bad garbage. I sincerely hope they have a special place in Hell reserved for this guy.

Life, Death

At around 2 o'clock this afternoon, a Palestinian woman walked into the Maxim restaurant in Haifa and detonated a bomb. She murdered 17 people (at last count). At least 5 of the dead were children.

The restaurant was packed, filled with families taking advantage of a nice early October afternoon to have a peaceful lunch and look out on the Mediterranean. We're in the middle of the High Holidays here. And while the holidays this year tend to fall mainly on the weekends (which means few vacation days), there's still a bit of that peaceful sense of the new year coming in. Tomorrow night is Yom Kippur, when the country shuts down almost entirely for 24 hours.

And we haven't had an attack in about a month. In short, things had been fairly quiet until this afternoon.

We heard the news when we were coming back from lunch. Up until then, it had been a day filled with glad tidings. My cousin's wife had a baby last night and everybody in the family was excited that the family tree had sprung a new branch. A bit later in the afternoon we went and visited the newborn and its parents at the hospital.

The childbirth wing at Ichilov hospital is vaguely circular in shape. The rooms ring around a common area where guests can come and sit with the new mothers. The common area also has a couple of TVs, in case you get bored. The TVs this afternoon broadcast scenes from the attrocity in Haifa. Half the guests cooed over the baby, the rest sat watching the news.

My cousin's wife is doing fine. The baby is gorgeous and slept peacefully, oblivious to everyone and everything around her. The cognitive dissonance of the situation got to me a bit. This is our life around here: happiness leavened with horror.

Thursday, October 02, 2003
The Writing was on the Wall

Channel 2 broadcast a fairly interesting drama last night called Shtikat Hatzofrim ("The Silence of the Sirens"). It deals with the military and political failures in the days leading up to the 1973 Yom Kippur War. With the 30th anniversary of the war coming up next week, we've been inundated with documentaries and specials about it lately.

"Silence of the Sirens" is interesting for being a dramatization instead of a documentary. It also featured an interesting bit of stunt casting by having actor Assi Dayan portray his father Moshe Dayan, the Defense Minister in Golda Meir's government at that time.

Dayan and Golda are secondary characters, however. The real core of the movie revolves around the conflict between the IDF's head of Military Intelligence, Gen. Eli Zeira, and one of his analysts, Maj. Gabai.

Yom Kippur is the most painful of Israel's wars, not only due to the large number of casualties, but also because we were taken unawares. On Oct. 6, 1973, Egypt and Syria launched a joint surprise attack on Israel's northern and southern borders. But, for weeks before, the intelligence community received warnings that an attack was imminent. The Egyptians and Syrians had been amassing their armies on Israel's borders, but even this did not faze Military Intelligence. MI discounted the warnings as unreliable and believed the Arab military manoueverings were merely part of a training exercise.

In the drama, Gabai constantly tries to sound the alarms, pointing out mounting evidence that the Egyptians and Syrians are about to attack. Zeira overrules him each time and continues to report to the government that the probability of war is low.

Zeira (wonderfully -- and accurately -- played by Natan Datner as an unpleasant, self-important know-it-all) embodies what has come to be known as The Concept: the IDF's arrogant assumption after the Six Day War that the Arabs were too incompetent to pull off any bold military operations and that the IDF could beat them even if they did. In one scene from the film, Gabai confronts his commander who chooses to ignore evidence of an attack based on IAF assurances that it's nothing. "We've received unusual intelligence reports that contradict your basic assumptions and you're dismissing them based on the word of sources who share the same assumption!"

In his
glowing review this morning (Hebrew link), Yediot Aharonot's TV critic Ra'anan Shaked writes that the best feature about "Silence of the Sirens" is how it takes a jumbled mass of information about the intelligence failure and turns it into a smooth and understandable narrative. This is its main strength, but also its main weakness.

The failure of the system in 1973 belonged not only to IDF Military Intelligence but also the political echelon.
As Amir Oren pointed out in an analysis last week, Golda and Dayan heard analyses from other military commanders as well as from the Mossad that contradicted Zeira's assessment of the situation. They chose to ignore these and so at least part of the blame for the war lies with them.

But "Silence of the Sirens" dumps everything on Zeira, who comes off as almost willfully blockheaded. If Dayan deserves any blame, the film basically says, it is that he was overly in thrall to Zeira. And Golda was in thrall to Dayan. (Assi Dayan only does an OK job of portraying his dad. There is, interestingly, little physical resemblence between the two men and the younger Dayan doesn't convey his daddy's legendary charisma.)

Weaknesses aside, it's a powerful drama and more heartbreakingly effective than a lot of the documentaries about the war. At one point, a day or two before the attacks, Gabai sits dejectedly. His secretary asks him what's wrong. "There are hundreds of our guys on the Suez Canal right now," he says in a tone of voice that is both sad and resigned. "They're going to die tomorrow. They're all going to die."

Fisking Friedman

Tom Friedman wants us to give the Palis yet another chance.

In his column today he discovers that Israelis and Palestinians both believe that there is no one to talk to on the other side. The Israelis see the Palestinians as a bunch of murderers and the Palis see the Israelis as insatiable land-grabbers. There is hope, but the onus is on Israel to achieve it.

Friedman can occasionally be a brilliant writer, but more often than not he's a lazy one. And today he deserves a good fisking. Oh, where to begin?

Let's start with Friedman's standard boilerplate about settlements, a feature of every one of his columns about the crisis here:
You see, there has always been a certain lack of understanding between the two sides, but they have often overcome that to strike minideals and even Oslo. But the last three years of the Palestinian uprising, suicide bombs and Israeli settlement expansion have blown away any remnants of that.
Friedman usually throws some general criticism about the settlements in his columns about Israel in order to make things appear "balanced". Here, however, he has finally crossed the moral equivalence line. Settlements=suicide bombings. Thanks, dude.

So, we're all hopelessly mad at each other. But we also want better lives for ourselves. Hmmm.... what a corker. But fear not, for the answer is simple:
It is time for Israel to use its overwhelming strength to take some initiative. The only people who can stop the suicide bombers are the Palestinians. They won't do it overnight and can't do it with a decimated Palestinian Authority. It can happen, though, if Israel works with a new Palestinian prime minister, makes tough demands but doesn't expect perfection overnight, doesn't let itself be goaded by Hamas into freezing everything, takes its own initiative to dismantle settlements and taps what is still there
This is also called "unilateral withdrawal". We tried this three years ago when we pulled out of southern Lebanon after years of fighting Hizbullah. The Palestinians -- and especially the wicked ghoul who leads them -- saw Israel's retreat and thought to themselves "Aha! The Jews can be driven out by force. Why should we sully our noble Palestinian honor by negotiating with the yahud when we can bomb them into submission?" And thus was born the latest intifada.

Now, the new Palestinian Prime Minister is essentially a sock puppet operated by the man that Friedman himself labels a "terrorist bum" in this very column. Arafat has spent the last 10 years making false promises, breaking signed agreements, and encouraging Palestinian violence against terrorism. But we should forget all that and try to make nice with him again anyway.

But it'll be worth it, you see:
If the Palestinians are going to miss another opportunity to miss an opportunity, let it be a real opportunity — one that any fair-minded person would deem fair.
There was already an opportunity like this. It was offered to the Palestinians at Camp David and they turned it down in favor of jihad.

The main problem with Friedman's column is that you could just as easily turn it on its head: If the Palestinians took the initiative and made an honest offer to live in peace (which would, among other things, entail a renunciation of violence and of the right of return) then the majority of Israelis would jump at the offer and give up the settlements despite whatever wishes Ariel Sharon might have.

Fact is that this conflict won't end until the Palestinians finally come to terms with the reality that they won't go back to the homes they left in 1948 and no amount of violence is going to change that. The problem is that they -- and especially the wicked ghoul -- still haven't conclusively given up their dreams of glorious victory.

Friedman's thesis would have made more sense when Abu Mazen was Prime Minister. But now that Arafat has gleefully and openly retaken complete control of the PA, it's idiotic to demand that Israel reward him.

Try a little harder next time, Tom.

Wednesday, October 01, 2003
Anglos that do us all proud

Over at the Jpost today (whose web site is sporting another nifty makeover, BTW) we find a discussion/celebration of the most ignored/maligned Israeli tribe (and the one I belong to): the Anglos.

The article makes a couple of good observations that we've heard before (that the Anglos are one of the few groups of Israeli immigrants who generally face a drop in their standard of living here, that the Anglos have never established themselves as a cohesive ethnic bloc) and a couple that are news to me (that Anglos have not made a significant contribution to Israeli culinary tastes, which is true only when you ignore the country's numerous hamburger and bagel establishments).

It also features a list of the most prominent Anglos in Israeli history, everyone from Golda and Aba Eban to basketball player Tal Brody and singer Ahinoam Nini (whom I wasn't aware was raised in America).

I found the inclusion of Rabbi Meir Kahane objectionable, and certainly the Post's bland description of the man. Kahane was a violent fanatic and racist demagogue, who managed to garner a small political following on the fringe of Israel's right wing. His party was actually banned from running for Knesset a few years before Kahane was assassinated by an Egyptian fundamentalist in New York. The man was, and continues to be, the inspiration for domestic terrorists and the embodiment of an ugly streak present in the Israeli psyche. He doesn't deserve to be on the same list as Judah Magnes and Haim Herzog.

Other than that, the list is great. Personally, I would have also added Robert Olinsky, a forecaster at the Beit Dagan Meteorological Center who occasionally presents the weather report on the IDF Radio morning show. It's always a kick to hear Olinsky sign off his reports with his signature "Let's have a good and quiet day. Good morning, Israel" in his very pronounced Anglo accent. I'm sure that a lot of other native English speakers feel the same.


In today's "What were they thinking?" department:
A Texas high school has apologized after the school band waved a Nazi flag during a performance on Friday, the start of the Jewish New Year holiday of Rosh Hashana. “We had an error in judgment,” band director Charles Grissom told the Dallas Morning News.

During a half-time show, a student from Paris High School went running across the field waving a Nazi flag.

At the time, the Blue Blazes band was playing the composition by Franz Joseph Haydn that eventually became known as ”Deutschland Uber Alles.”

Grissom said it was part of a show entitled “Visions of World War Two,” in which the flags and music were intended to represent the warring nations.

The director said the musicians didn’t anticipate the reaction of the crowd at Hillcrest High School. “We were booed,” he told the newspaper on Monday. “We had things thrown at us. We were cursed.”

Breaking the Port Strike

At Israel's three ports, the dockworkers are still sitting on their asses in support of their managers and the bloated bureaucracy that provides them with a healthy paycheck at the expense of the rest of us. Meanwhile, produce is rotting on the docks and exporters and farmers are getting an economic smackdown.

So, the government has decided to get creative.

The plan is to utilize our neighbors' ports, importing and exporting things through Port Said in Egypt and Aqabah in Jordan. And, as icing on the cake, the government plans to bill the Ports Authority with the extra costs for shipping.

As Bibi said yesterday, "It's ridiculous that 2,000 workers have the entire country by the..." and then pausing for a second to think of an appropriate body part other than the one he wanted to say before coming up with "throats".

It's a funky plan (although no one has said how they plan to get stuff over the border with the Customs department also on strike) which, ironically, evokes memories of Peres' much maligned "New Middle East".

Tuesday, September 30, 2003
Our Own Hamas

Yes, there is a Jewish counterpart to Hamas. It's small and marginal, but it exists. And today, three of its members were sentenced to prison terms.

The three, fanatics from the settlement of Bat Ayin in the West Bank, were apprehended by the police while attempting to plant a bomb near a Palestinian girls' school in East Jerusalem. They were tried, convicted, and today sentenced to prison terms of between 12 and 15 years.

A banal point, but one worth making again: In Israel, we work hard to apprehend our terrorists before they can strike. We put them on trial. We send them to jail. We sentence them to prison terms at least as long as the Palestinian terrorists we manage to apprehend.

If these guys had been Palestinians, the worst they could expect from the Palestinian Authority would be a six-month stay in a prison-cum-hotel where they would "accidentally" be released after two months. They could also expect lavish praise from Arafat and rest assured that if anything happened to them that their families would be greatly rewarded.

Compare and contrast.

The Ports Join the Strike

While travellers and customs agents duke it out over at the airport, the general strike has now widened to include the Ports Authority in Israel.

There are a couple of public bodies around here that piss me off to no end. One is the electric company, which raises its rates in direct proportion to the inflated salaries of its employees. The other is the ports system. Israel's ports are inefficient, overmanned, and slow. The ports and the Histadrut have successfully fought off any attempt to introduce competition into the system for years.

This means that it costs a lot more to ship things in and out of Israel. This cost is reflected in the high price of consumer goods. And the Ports Authority wants to keep it that way, thankyouverymuch.

Their reasoning for going out on strike is particularly thin this time around. The Histadrut claims that the government is trying to renege on an agreement it signed limiting the number of public sector employees which will be reduced. They claim that the government's efficiency plan will cause more layoffs, even if this isn't spelled out in the plan. The government denies this claim and counters that if the Histadrut really believed it, they would have taken the government to Labor Court instead of striking.

As always, then, this comes down to a battle of wills. The Ports Authority is flexing its muscles and the government -- specifically Finance Minister Netanyahu and Transport Minister Avigdor Leiberman, both staunch free marketeers -- are trying to introduce at least a measure of competition and cut back on the bloat.

Personally, every time I see one of these representatives from the union of one public sector body or another I start rooting for Netanyahu to break the back of the labor federation. However, both sides are stubborn which means that the strike could go on for a while.

The losers, as always, are the rest of us: the manufacturers whose supplies of raw materials shrink by the day, and the exporters who are losing customers because they can't ship their products.

Another Year Passes

In addition to marking the New Year, yesterday marked the third anniversary of the current war with the neighbors. The media has been fairly quiet about the anniversary this year compared with the first and second anniversaries of the intifada. There were no special reports or recaps on the TV or radio, and only cursory pieces in the newspapers to remind us that we're more or less where we were a year ago.

Granted, there was a brief moment of vague hope earlier this year when Abu Mazen took over. That lasted about a month before the buses started exploding again and Abu Mazen fell prey to the Palestinian terror king. Arafat was irrelevant for a while. Now he's relevant again, at least among his own foolish people. We've managed to dispatch a fair number of Hamas creeps back to Allah, but missed out on the biggest fish there.

The only real change is the mounting public pressure to complete the security fence around the West Bank. If Sharon hadn't been so in thrall to the settlment movement (which opposes the fence because it rightly fears that the settlements will be cut off from Israel proper), the fence would have been built a long time ago and Israel would not be arguing with the Bush administration about it. Also, many lives would probably have been saved. But I suppose better late than never.

I wrote a little summing up last year at this time. Add another 200 Israelis to the death toll and the rest is still pertinent today. Except that after another year of bloodshed, I find that most days I don't even have the energy to hate anymore. My feelings about the conflict are like a dried corn husk. No real anger, no real hope.

The roots of the current conflict lie in the Six Day War of 1967. Somewhere along the way, some military figure dubbed the latest conflict the Six Year War. Half way through, I'm beginning to fear that this is an overly optimistic estimate.

Monday, September 29, 2003
Here We Go Again

It's strike time again.

The Histadrut -- angry over the government's economic reforms, desperate to maintain bloated public sector bureaucracy and block the introduction of competition into the ports system -- has called a full-on civil service strike. If you desperately need to renew your passport or driver's license, or if you need anything from the government today, you're S.O.L.

In addition, the ports are on strike which means that importers and exporters are going to get screwed with late shipments. This is probably the most despicable aspect of the Histadrut's recent strike-making as it directly hurts a large segment of the economy and contributes directly to more unemployment.

If that wasn't enough, expect serious balagan at the airport. Customs officials have already started making travellers' lives miserable by insisting on checking each and every piece of baggage -- slowly. This has led to airport congestion and even
fisticuffs between a customs agent and an irate traveller.

Sadly, things are going to get worse in the next couple of days.

My Run-in With Elia Kazan

Hell of a weekend for celebrity deaths. In fact, hell of a month for celebrity deaths. Along with Johnny Cash and John Ritter (and the aforementioned Edward Said), this weekend saw the passing of George Plimpton, Robert Palmer, and now Elia Kazan.

Kazan was one of the guests of honor at the Jerusalem Film Festival about 10 years ago. He was awarded a lifetime achievement award, which he deserved on artistic grounds despite what you may think about his actions during the 1950s. I don't remember the details of his speech other than I'd heard he was famously grouchy and I think the speech reflected that.

A couple of days after the ceremonies, I attended a screening of Bandit Queen at the Smadar theater in Jerusalem. It's a lovely old movie theater which doesn't have much of a lobby. So, we were all standing outside in the courtyard waiting to go in. The doors opened and the crowd from the previous screening started leaving. Suddenly, somebody smacked into me from behind I spun around and saw a very short old man marching away determinedly. Elia Kazan.

I didn't get so much as a "pardon me".

Yes, he was a grouchy old bastard but he will still be missed.

While I was Away, 2

So, I'm probably the last person in the blogosphere to put in my $0.02 about Edward Said, who passed away on Thursday.

I find myself somewhere in between the critical-but-respectful analyses of Oliver Kamm and Jonathan Edelstein and the distasteful grave-dancing going on over at LGF. I don't like speaking ill of the dead, even when it comes to people I disliked as heartily as I did Edward Said. On the other hand, I don't have much of anything nice to say about the guy either.

Said had two legacies, both of them negative. He was probably the most visible spokesman for the Palestinian cause in the West, but he did the cause a tremendous disservice by peddling a very hard-line approach to Palestinian-Israeli negotiations. Said spent much of the '90s actively opposing the Oslo process as a sell-out, and undermining the moderates working for a negotiated settlement with Israel. Thus, he helped set back the establishment of an actual Palestinian state (which would entail compromises) in favor of an idealized one which is unattainable.

He also had a tremendously pernicious influence on the field of Middle Eastern studies through his grand opus Orientalism. He helped establish the idea -- which has become the accepted mainstream in MES -- that any attempt by Europeans to understand the Arab world was hopelessly tainted by patronizing racism. Thus, you can only understand the Middle East on the Arabs' terms. (I know I'm simplifying it, but this is the gist).

As a result, MES researchers studying the rise of radical Islam in the '80s and '90s were attacked by their peers for being Orientalists and told, in effect, that radical Islam was nothing but a European invention. While Said himself -- a Protestant Christian -- probably had no intention of doing this, the effect of his scholarship was to turn an entire academic discipline into a sinecure for Islamic fanatics.

So, while I'm not celebrating Said's death, I'm not going to pretend to be sad, either.

While I Was Away, 1

The best thing about the weekend was cutting myself off from current events. Save for a brief glance here and there at Sky News, and the snippets of other peoples' conversations overheard at mealtimes, I spent three days blissfully unaware of the usual problems and conflicts.

Probably the biggest news story over the weekend came from a group of IAF pilots who delivered a letter to the head of the IAF saying that they refuse to serve in targeted assassinations. The pilots say these operations immoral and that they did not want to have a hand in operations that are part of the Occupation and might involve innocent civilians getting hurt.

A few years ago, a small group of army reservists signed a similar petition stating that they would not serve in the Territories. Then, as now, the "refusenik" movement sparked a lot of debate within Israeli society about personal morals, the involvement of the IDF in politics, and the place of both of these during wartime.

The overall idea of consciencous objection has never found a place in Israeli society. This country has been at war on and off (mostly on) since its founding and the IDF still serves as one of the few common experiences that helps bind society. As a result, the vast majority of the population views those who choose not to serve on the basis of moral beliefs as either hippy weirdos (in the best case) or traitors to the cause (in the worst case). The Air Force is one of the few sacred cows left in Israeli society. In other words, the struggle of the IAF officers would have been difficult regardless. But then they opened themselves up to a lot of criticism.

For one thing, the majority of the signatories are reservists who don't participate in targeted assassinations in the first place. They signed the petition in order to boost the number of names on it, but, in the words of one cynic, they have about as much chance of participating in one of these operations as my mom. This fact makes the whole refusenik enterprise look more like theatrics than genuine wrangling with moral dilemmas.

Also, the pilots did themselves an enormous disservice running to the media, and dressed in combat fatigues at that. If the petition is part of the pilots' personal struggles with their individual consciencenesses, they could have quietly delivered their letter and had the whole issue played out within the confines of the Air Force. Instead, they chose to do it all publicly, which leads to suspicions that the petition is a purely political exercise.

And herein lies their biggest problem. Israelis don't like it when the army gets involved in political matters. Granted, it's often difficult to disentangle the two, but the army is supposed to take its orders from the political establishment and not vice versa. And so, when a group of army officers gets involved in a highly political act, the backlash is sure to come.

Which it has. The public criticism of the officers has been huge, leading at least one of the signatories to rescind his support for the petition. The IAF is now trying to get the rest of the officers to recant or face suspension.

It's an ugly incident in which neither side comes out looking good. And it doesn't really do much for the discussion about the morality of targeted assassinations, since the focus is on the IAF officers and their actions rather than on the policy they are protesting. Personally, I support the assassination policy and I disagree both with the actions of the officers and the manner it was carried out. If they really have moral problems with these operations, they should have quietly offered to resign their commissions and step down.

As with the refusenik movement two years ago (which got an inordinate amount of coverage in the world press, far out of proportion with the actual size of the movement), expect this latest protest to go nowhere.

Sunday, September 28, 2003
How I Spent My Holiday

We drove up north for the Rosh Hashana weekend to the Mitzpe Hayamin hotel/spa near Rosh Pina (the picture above is of Rosh Pina taken from the balcony of the hotel). It's an interesting place, which combines an organic farm with a hotel. You can sit in the natural splendor of the Upper Galilee and enjoy organic meals and treatments. With a little imagination, you can even forget that you're in Israel and pretend you're in Tuscany. If you're looking for a nice relaxing vacation, you could do a lot worse.

The weekend was a family gathering to celebrate not only the new year, but also my grandmother's 90th birthday. My parents along with my brother and his fiancee flew in from the States. It's actually the first time our nuclear family unit has all been together in Israel since my brother's bar mitzvah some 16 years ago.

It was all very relaxing, save for the drive back when we ran smack dab into the hellish post-Rosh Hashana national traffic jam on the coastal highway.

Happy New Year