Thursday, February 12, 2004
Behind the Scenes in Baghdad

Interrogations of former high-ranking Iraqi military personnel have revealed an interesting state of affairs in Saddam-land before the war. During the recent conflict, the Iraqi army behaved in the grand manner of Arab fighting forces: officers kept information from each other and delivered fantasy estimates and reports to the maximum leader.

Based on these reports, Saddam thought that the American attacks would be limited to aerial bombardments and that he would be able to ride out the war.

The paranoia rampant in Saddam's Iraq had some unexpected effects when American military intelligence tried to mount a campaign to get Saddam's officers to defect.
When a wave of calls went out to the private telephone numbers of selected officials inside Iraq, asking them to turn against Mr. Hussein and avoid war, the Arabic speakers making the calls were so fluent that the recipients did not believe the calls were from Americans.

Instead, the Iraqis believed the calls were part of a "loyalty test" mounted by Mr. Hussein's secret services, the officials said during questioning. Afraid of arrest, incarceration, torture and even death, they refused to cooperate.

But as a result, the officers limited their calls or stopped using those telephones altogether, hampering their ability to communicate in the critical days before war.


Wednesday, February 11, 2004

There was an earthquake this morning which was felt all over the country.

I didn't feel it. Now I feel left out.

Apparently the school system went all higgledy-piggledy. The Ministry of Education regulations about what to do in an earthquake aren't entirely clear, so many schools just emptied and the kids ran around in the playgrounds. Add to that the fact that the cellular network here collapsed under the weight of a million parents calling to see if their kids were okay.

More on Preserving the Knesset's Honor

Ha'aretz joins in praising Knesset chairman Reuven Rivlin for standing up to the goons of the Likud's Central Committee, who see the Knesset as their birthright and have no qualms trying to intimidate legislators:
The Knesset Guard did its work when it physically blocked the Likud Central Committee members from entering the committee room. The guard was following the orders of Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin, who prohibited the participation of party central committee members at committee hearings. The instructions were given after two committee members from Shinui, MKs Ronni Brizon and Reshef Chayne, complained about "pressure and threats that central committee members display toward MKs." Such an atmosphere of intimidation in the halls of the Knesset has lately become common, and noted by various key members of the Likud. Evidence of the atmosphere can be found in the words of Uzi Cohen, the Likud Central Committee member who declared yesterday that Rivlin had "issued himself a death certificate," politically...

The speaker, who according to the rules of the House is responsible for preserving its dignity, acted properly and courageously when he blocked a threatening presence in the Knesset Finance Committee. His orders should apply to the work of all the committees, which should only be attended by those whose presence can make a real contribution to making decisions without fear or threats.
Rivlin is quickly growing in stature. He used to be seen as a clownish figure and Sharon's poodle. But lately he has shown some real fortitude against a particularly insiduous group of political thugs (check out Uzi Cohen's colorful turn of phrase, "death certificate"). He's a good man; let's hope he keeps standing firm.

A Concrete Scandal in the PA

And, back in the PA, a scandal is a-brewing. It concerns Palestinian "Prime Minister" Abu Ala and a cement company. It turns out Abu Sock Puppet's family owns the Al-Quds cement factory in Ramallah; actually the PA PM used to own it outright, but recently signed it over to his brother-in-law.

Yesterday, Channel 10 here broadcast a report which showed footage of trucks leaving the Al-Quds factory and headed to Ma'aleh Adumim. Ma'aleh Adumim is an Israeli settlement in the West Bank, not far from Jerusalem. Moreover, the Egyptian press has reported that the same cement factory has also provided material for the construction of the West Bank separation fence.

This story is all kinds of funny. If this is true, then it's a real bombshell: Abu Ala helping build the same settlements and fence he rails about as examples of Israeli war crimes. Expect a whole lotta uproar on the Palestinian street.

UPDATE: His Sock Puppet-ness has denied the allegations and called for an immediate investigation about Palestinian companies selling cement to Israel.

The PA is also making sure to hide the news from the Palestinian people:
On Wednesday, journalists who went to the Al-Quds factory mentioned in the TV report were told by workers that the company belongs to the Qureia family. But the managers at the factory refused to talk to reporters, and demanded that a TV crew stop filming the factory immediately.

Palestinian media have not been reporting on this story and only the few people who have access to the Internet are aware of the report.

Knesset Dress Code

Nissim Ze'ev is fast becoming one of the more reliable clowns in the Knesset. The last time we heard from Ze'ev, an MK from the orthodox Shas party, he was complaining about a "homo-ist" staffer working as an assistant to the Interior Minister. The alleged homo-ist, according to Ze'ev, would wear tight pants and make people uncomfortable. (The assistant in question, it turns out, is straight and denies owning any tight trousers).

Now Ze'ev is back with a new sartorial complaint (link above, scroll down to second item). He thinks that some female MKs and Knesset personnel are showing up to work dressed in a way that does not show respect for the institution. This has caused a minor controversy. On the radio this morning Labor MK Yuli Tamir said Ze'ev needs to stop spending his days gazing at the ladies and focus his attention on making laws.

She's right of course. If Ze'ev thinks there should be a general dress code for the Knesset (like you find in almost every other Western legislative body) then that's one thing, and certainly worthy of applause. The Knesset tends to mirror Israeli society, which has almost no sense of formality. One example springs to mind: Bill Clinton made his first presidential visit here in 1994 and addressed the Knesset. The news reports at the time were filled with stories of MKs who ran out to buy their first suit and tie for the occasion. And even then some MKs stubbornly stuck to their usual dress code; Rafael Eitan, a gruff ex-general and farmer, showed up for Clinton's speech wearing an overall and rubber boots.

But this isn't what Ze'ev has in mind. His concern is with the female staffers. He'd like all women at the Knesset to dress modestly according to his own religious sensibility, but so far he's been pretty coy about stating this outright.

Shas styles itself as the protectors of the poor and downtrodden in Israel. With everything else going on these days (municipal strikes, the specter of bread riots) it's good to know that some of the party's MKs have their priorities straight.

Tuesday, February 10, 2004
Striking a Blow for Cleaner Government

The Knesset has been plagued lately by members of the Likud Central Committee. The LCC, as you may recall, is a group of about 3,000 small-time power brokers (building contractors, local machine politicians, and in some cases people who operate on the outskirts of the underworld) who, among other things, determine the Likud's list of candidates for a general election. A politician's placement on the list is everything. If you are number 34 on the list, for instance, and the party only wins 33 seats in the elections you don't get in.

On the other hand, the Central Committee can also make your career. If you are, say, the dim-bulb twentysomething niece of a local gambling
king, your uncle's LCC buddies can make sure that you appear on the list at a nice electable spot in the mid-20s.

In other words, these guys have the Likud MKs by the short curlies and they're not afraid to pull. Recently, we've heard reports about LCC members showing up at the Knesset to attend Knesset subcommittee meetings. They attend the meetings in order to lobby MKs for their own individual interests and that of their friends. And by "lobby" I mean "intimidate".

(Sopranos fans can get a visual image by imagining Tony, Paulie, and Pussy showing up at some Congressional meeting to glower at the congressmen they put into office).

They don't have to threaten MKs outright; their very presence helps remind the politicians who butters their bread. The whole thing reeks of cronyism and disrupts the proper running of government affairs.

Now, someone finally had the courage to say "enough." That someone was Knesset Chairman Reuven Rivlin who, coincidentally or not, was one of those politicos the Central Committee tried to eliminate in the last elections. (The LCC got Rivlin placed something like 36th when it looked like the Likud would only get 31 or 32 seats). Rivlin recently helped pass a law barring members of any party's Central Committee from sitting in on Knesset meetings.

Yesterday a delegation of the LCC boys showed up for a meeting of the Finance Committee. However, at the entrance to the meeting room they encountered a velvet rope and a pair of armed Knesset stewards who barred them from coming in. A scuffle ensued, during which one of the Central Committee members collapsed. The subcommittee met without them. And now they're pissed.

Uzi Cohen was interviewed yesterday on this issue. Cohen is the gorilla-like deputy mayor of Ra'anana and a poster boy for everything that's wrong with the Likud Central Committee.

"Who are they to keep us out of sucommittee meetings?" Cohen demanded to know before threatening revenge on Rivlin. The interviewer pointed out that Knesset Committee meetings are supposed to be reserved for elected public officials.

"But we are elected public officials," Cohen said. "We were elected to the Likud Central Committee. Not on the Internet. By ballots"

The interviewer then suggested Cohen go look for committee meetings at Likud HQ instead of at the Knesset, and this really set the guy off.

"Who do they think they are? They are there to serve us!" And by "us" he didn't mean the citizens who voted them into office.

The sense of entitlement Uzi Cohen and thugs like him have is incredible. They get to waltz into the Knesset while normal citizens have to go through a bureaucratic hassle to get a pass. Likud MKs fall over backwards trying to appease them. I applaud Rivlin for standing up to them. I just hope his resolve holds.

The Night the Lights Went Out in Acre, Sderot, and Bat Yam

The country has been on strike intermittently for what seems like the last 6 months. No sooner does one major strike -- say, the ports and the hospitals -- finish than another one gets underway. Recently, the local authorities have decided it's their turn. In all but the 15 largest cities in the country, municipal services have come to various states of standstill.

The thing is that most of the people with influence in the country live in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and other unaffected places and thus haven't paid much attention to the strikes. So, yesterday, the local councils came up with a new gimmick: turning off all the street lights in their own cities. Last night, there was darkness all over the land, from Sderot to Acre.

As a media stunt, I suppose it worked. It got the strike a bit more prominent press coverage than it would have otherwise. Unfortunately, there was also a human cost, as two pedestrians were hit by cars because of the darkness.

This particular strike came about because a number of these small towns and local councils ran out of money to pay their municipal workers. This is a result of recent government budget cuts, but also of inept management at the local level and in some cases rampant corruption. The local councils demand that the government bail them out. The government has offered partial relief, but only if the councils start streamlining and running their own affairs more efficiently. The councils don't want to do that.

Personally, I'm with the government on this one. The local councils are sumps of waste and petty corruption. The poor shmuck who cleans city hall and hasn't been paid in five months is paying for the mistakes of the local mayor (and the half dozen deputy mayors the mayor managed to employ). That the mayor then demands money from the government, then rejects the offer because he has to clean up his act (and in some cases also blames the government for letting him get to the state he's in) is an act of supreme gall.

The strike is supposed to spread to the big cities today. I personally don't feel it as much as parents with kindergarten- and school-age children who have to arrange for their own transportation to the school and security there. The last big strike lasted 100 days. We'll see how long this one goes on for, and when the one after that will start.

Monday, February 09, 2004
Getting Back to Business

By now, the notion that Israel cleans up and gets on with life quickly after a suicide attack has almost become a cliche. But it's a fact of life here. Within hours of an attack, the bomb site is cleared; by the next day you wouldn't know that anything had happened.

Bruce Hoffman has a short article in The Atlantic which details the grizzly operation involved in dealing with the aftermath of suicide attacks. Jerusalem has become the world capitol of these things, and Hoffman talks to the emergency rescue teams, the police, and the members of ZAKA (an organization of orthodox Jews who volunteer for the gruesome job of locating and cleaning every bit of human flesh from the bomb site), all of whom leap into action in the minutes after an attack.

This quick cleanup is a method of coping with the attacks but as Hoffman points out, it also robs the terrorists of some of the images of death and destruction that they seek to disseminate. On the downside, it also puts Israel at a bit of a disadvantage in the duel of agonized pictures waged with the Palestinians on CNN.

Fifth Column Fears

Two Israeli Arabs, brothers Ghassan and Sirhan Atmallah, were brought before the court at Nazareth yesterday charged with trying to set up a Hizbullah cell in Israel and recruiting other Israeli Arabs and Palestinians in the plot.

Hizbullah has been actively trying to set up shop in Israel for years. This isn't the first time that Israeli Arabs have been arrested on suspicion of working for the Lebanese terrorist organization; there have been five others since Israel withdrew from Lebanon. But in all those cases the accused were drug smugglers who chose to work with Hizbullah in exchange for drugs.

This time around, the motivation seems to be entirely ideological. Ghassan Atmallah is an activist with Balad, an Israeli-Arab political party which closely allies itself with the Palestinians. Balad's chair, Azmi Bishara, is also under indictment -- albeit a much flimsier one -- for praising Hizbullah at a memorial service for Hafez al-Assad in Syria.

Balad says that it believes the Atmallah brothers are being persecuted for their political views and in any case the party has no connection to their activities.

The Atmallah case brings up one of the touchiest issues in Israeli society, that being the relationship of Israel's Arab minority to the state. A sizeable portion of the Jewish Israeli populace regards the Arab minority as having no loyalty to the state at best, and representing a potential fifth column at worst. Something like this only reinforces these fears.

The vast majority of Israeli Arabs, whatever their feelings towards the state, would not actively collude with terrorist organizations. Granted, many Palestinian suicide bombers are aided by Israeli Arabs, but this shouldn't reflect on the population as a whole.

Not that the Arab parites are helping much. In the last decade, Israel's Arab parties have increasingly identified themselves with the Palestinian cause. Azmi Bishara never misses an opportunity to rail against the government in the harshest terms imaginable. This is partially understandable, and in any case completely legal, except that it also feeds directly into the Jewish mistrust of Israeli Arabs

The Atmallah story isn't getting as much play here as I expected. This is probably because everyone is focused on the recent wave of municipal strikes, but there's another dimension here. Either the media is playing it down for reasons of political correctness, or else the public is less inclined to get hysterical about the subject than you might fear.

Sunday, February 08, 2004
Bank Closure Case Closure

Ofer Maximov was found guilty this morning of helping steal more than 250 million NIS ($56 million) from the Trade Bank. And thus comes to an end the story of the largest embezzlement scandal in Israeli history, not to mention one of the weirdest.

Maximov is the brother of Etti Alon, who was a deputy director at the bank. Maximov, a chronic gambler and high-flyer, got into some gambling debts and persuaded his sister to help him out. She began embezzling money from the bank and funneling it to him. He, in turn, lived the good life until the scheme began to unravel.

Alon turned herself in. She claimed she did it because her brother said his life was in danger. Maximov, she said, persuaded her that the thugs he was in debt to would kill him or his children.

The Trade Bank, meanwhile, collapsed. Alon's embezzlement wiped out the savings of a couple hundred people, quite a few of whom still haven't been properly reimbursed. The scheme also pumped tremendous amounts of money into the Israeli underworld. The recent gang wars seem to be connected to the fact that this money dried up.

All this time, Maximov claimed that he knew nothing of the embezzlement. He says he asked his sister for help, she gave him money, and he returned it. The Tel Aviv District Court this morning begged to differ and ruled that Maximov was the brains behind the operation, manipulating his emotionally dependent sister.

Now comes the sentencing part. I hope they throw the book at the scumbag. His sister showed remorse for her actions and said she only did it to try and save her brother. He then turned around and tried to pin the whole thing on her. Etti Alon got 17 years for her embezzlement, the harshest sentence ever meted out here for a white collar criminal. The very least the courts could do is send Maximov to jail for a similar period.

I suppose justice is served, yet if you look at the human dimension of this case it's all sadness. Alon's children will effectively grow up without a mother. Their grandfather, Alon and Maximov's father Avigdor Maximov, is also serving six years for his role in the embezzlement. Maximov's children will be also seeing their father mainly during visiting hours at Ayalon Prison. And there are still dozens of people whose satisfaction at seeing these creeps behind bars is weighted against their lost savings.