Friday, March 30, 2007

Iranian hostages

Could it be purely coincidence that the Iranians snatched 15 British servicemen in Iraqi waters on the very same day that the UN Security Council unanimously passed a resolution imposing heavier sanctions on Iran for the continuing development of nuclear weapons? Could it be coincidental that after Hamas and Hizbollah kidnapped Israeli soldiers that Iran did the same thing with British soldiers? Since Iran sponsors both Hamas and Hizbollah, they are well aware of the aims of those terrorist organizations in kidnapping enemy soldiers. They get PR value, they can use them for propaganda purposes, and as hostages for potential exchange for political purposes. Kidnapping enemy soldiers is a hallmark of terrorist organizations and States. Iran did it before with the US Embassy hostages, and Iran is a terrorist State.
There are several reasons why Iran, or a particular sub-group in Iran such as the Revolutionary Guards under Pres. Ahmedinejad, might want to deliberately kidnap British soldiers:
1. They find it very irritating that British forces are constantly patrolling close to their borders in the Shatt-al-Arab waterway; 2. It seems less dangerous to them than capturing US servicemen; 3. They want to take attention away from their nuclear program and the UN sanctions; 4. They want to gain domestic support within Iran for their aggressive anti-Western policies. 5. They seek to be the leading anti-Western force within the Muslim (including Arab world).
It was incredible that while Iran is a major threat to the Sunni Arab countries, there was an official Iranian Govt. representative at the just concluded Arab League meeting in Riyadh. These meetings are so constricted due to the need to pass any resolution unanimously among 22 Arab countries, that nothing can be agreed except the most generally accepted topics, such as their opposition to Israel. That is why they unanimoulsy reaffirmed the 2002 resolution of the Saudi Plan without change, because they could not agree on any changes. Since this version of the Plan was rejected by Israel 5 years ago, in effect on the surface nothing has changed. Yet, the taking of the British military hostages puts Iran at odds with most of the Arab countries, but this was not publicly discussed at Riyadh, and neither was the terrible Sudan-Darfur situation.
Meanwhile British PM Blair is gradually upping the ante, promising consequences if Iran does not immediately release the 15 servicemen (including one woman who the Iranians seem to have fastened onto to use for PR purposes). It is not clear what can be done, since just as in the case of the Israeli captives, one false move and their lives become forfeit. This is another hostage crisis that will drag on, and a legal case may be brought by the Iranians against the hostages. But since the British were operating as part of the Coalition forces under UN auspices, neither the British nor the US can accept this illegal Iranian act of aggression.

The Arab Plan

The Saudi/Arab Plan that was discussed in Riyadh by the Arab League on Wednesday is not so much a "Peace Plan" as an Arab Plan for Israeli capitulation. If Israel were defeated completely in a major war, they could not come up with a more perfect plan for Israeli surrender to Arab interests. According to their Plan, as presented by the Head of the Arab League Amr Mussa, Israel must first withdraw to the pre-1967 borders, then allow the hundreds of thousands of Palestinian "refugees" to "return to their homes", and then the Arab countries will negotiate recognition of Israel's right to exist. But, by then it will be moot, Israel will no longer exist!
This is nonsense, and Israel rejected this Plan five years ago. So now why does PM Olmert find "some positive features" in it? Because times have changed and he is a weak and inept PM. What positive features could Olmert find in this plan, only two as far as I can tell, first, that all of the Arab States offer "peace and recognition" to Israel, but at what cost? Second, that the current fuss about this Plan is a means to outflank Iran from trying to hijack the Palestinian cause from the Arabs.
The Palestinian cause has been perhaps the one subject on which all Arab States could agree. Whatever their other major differences, this was the glue that kept them together thru thick and thin. But, the Iranization of the Palestinian conflict, thru the Iranian funding for Hizbollah, Islamic Jihad and Hamas, has taken the wind out of the Sunni Arab sails. They cannot outflank Iran by being more extreme than it is on this issue, so they must try to undercut it by taking back the initiative, particularly with the US as the peace broker.
Within the Arab world there has always been competition between the major capitals, Cairo, Damascus and Baghdad, for primacy. But, at the moment none of them has a clear edge. So the Saudis are making a play for once again being the leader of the Arab world, and doing so on the one issue that unites them, and with the support of its major sponsor, the US. So Olmert almost has to find something positive about this Plan.
The whole 22 member Arab League did not agree to a revised Arab Plan that would accomodate Israeli interests, by compromising on the "right of return" or the lines for Israeli withdrawal. But, as long as they are talking about this, and as long as Israel stands firm in the face of Arab and international pressure, then eventually this Arab initiative, totally one-sided though it is, might result in some progress.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Casualty figures

There is now further disagreement and confusion about the actual casualty figures in Iraq. A Report in the British medical journal Lancet, that has been released by the British Foreign Ministry, estimates that there were ca. 600,000 Iraqi civilian casualties (i.e deaths) since the beginning of the Second Gulf War. These were supposedly calculated by using algorithms that provide accurate figures (?) By contrast, the Iraqi Govt. have estimated that there were ca. 100,000 casualties and US President Bush repeated this figure in a statement on Monday.
I had some experience with the estimation of war casualties when I was the Chairman of the Israel and Middle East Committee of the Jewish Community Council of Washington during the First Lebanon War of 1982. The casualty figures that were thrown around then were unbelievable. All the media, including theWashington Post, were publishing exaggerated and even ridiculous figures, for example that 350,000 people had been injured and/or killed in South Lebanon. I did some research on this and discovered that there were less than 200,000 people then living in the whole of S. Lebanon (mostly small villages with two coastal towns, Tyre and Sidon). I published an article on the front page of the Washington Jewish week correcting these stories. It turned out that the figures that were being published originated from the Lebanese Govt, that in turn was quoting the Palestinian Red Crescent, that was run by none other than Yasir Arafat's brother! So such figures were nothing more than pure propaganda.
I remember being in a discussion on Georgetown University radio station with an Arab and a left-wing moderator. The whole thing was stacked, but I was able to demolish their argument that the IDF was deliberately targeting the Arab population, when they quoted those ridiculous figures I was ready with my answers. Eventually the numbers came down, first to around 10,000 dead and then when it was clear that this was grossly inflated it levelled out at ca. 600 dead, which was also an imaginary figure.
So it was with the recent Second Lebanon War, the figure that most people now quote for dead is 1,200, as reported by the Lebanese Govt. But there is no basis for this figure except the imagination of the Hizbollah spokesmen. If buildings were flattened in S. Beirut, there was no way whatsoever of knowing how many people had left, how many had stayed and how many of those were crushed inside or had escaped. You can't tell from hospital deaths either because many had been killed "in the field" and many had moved to North Lebanon. And some dead were counted twice or more times. So we can safely be sure that 1,200 was an exaggerated number and it may have been (say) half of this, ie. 600 killed. But that is also a guess, so it was probably between 100-600, and that's about all one can say.
As for Iraq, whatever algorithms they used, 600,000 is a ludicrous figure, especially as it does not claim to include military casualties, and at that time Iraqi soldiers were throwing off their uniforms and merging into the lcoal population. So while 100,000 may be the lower limit, all we can say is that the actual number is probably between 100-300,000.
Now why does it matter? Only to try to be honest about the actual casualties, and to avoid the propagandistic implication that the IDF or the US forces deliberately target and kill civilians.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Outflanking Hamas

The current flurry of international activity in relation to Israel and the Palestinians by UN Secty. Gen. Ban-ky Moon and US Secty. of State Rice can be understood as an attempt to outflank or sidestep Hamas and its sponsor Iran.
Pres Bush has made public utterances about the need to make progress on the Israel-Palestine front. He has committed the US to a two-state solution. But, this formula of two democratic states living side-by-side in peace is as elusive as ever with the terrorist Hamas in control of the PA, and with Iran supporting them and thumbing its nose at the international community by continuing to develop nuclear weapons. This means that even if there are "moderate" Palestinians to talk to, such as Pres. Abbas, they are impotent to change this terrible new situation.
There are two reasons for the US to want to make progress on the Israel-Palestine front, first to take some of the focus away from the mess that the US has gotten into in Iraq. And second to placate the other moderate Arab clients of the US, notably Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan. The fact that they are the major Sunni Arab countries and that two of them already have peace treaties with Israel, means that some accomodation is not impossible. Note that while the Palestinians cannot make concessions to Israel, seen from their intransigent position, the other Arab countries, although they pretend to support the Palestinians, are not so constrained.
For a long time, over 25 years, the existence of the Kingdom of Jordan has been intimately tied to Israel. If it were not for Israel "protecting" Jordan, with US support, then Jordan would long ago have been swallowed up by its ruthless neighbors, Syria and Iraq. Similarly the US spreads its protective umbrella over Saudi Arabia. If Iran could indeed develop nuclear weapons then the first potential target for blackmail, after or at least in line with Israel, would be Saudi Arabia and its oil fields. This would be like having Saddam Hussein all over again.
So even though the Mecca agreement between Hamas and Fatah was made in Saudi Arabia, it was a failure for the Sunni Arabs, from King Abullah IV to Pres. Abbas. And even though the IDF destroyed most of Shia South Beirut, the war as a whole was a loss, by not being a convincing win, for Israel. This has emboldened the anti-Israel Arab "street." Both Israel and the Sunni regimes see the Iranian danger looming on the horizon. Condoleeza Rice's plan is to use US hegemony to outflank this common enemy, Hamas and its Iranian sponsors.
The problem however, is getting the Saudis to modify their Plan so that it might at least be palatable to Israel. Rice has been working on this problem, but Israel will not be persuaded to join an enlarged Middle East peace conference on the basis of the current (2004) version of the Saudi Plan, that calls for Israeli withdrawal to the pre-1967 borders and acceptance of the Palestinain refugee's "right of return." Such a conference with the international Quartet and several Arab countries would grossly outnumber Israel, and Israeli Governments are wary of being caught in such an ambush. A statement by the Saudi FM, prior to the upcoming Arab League meeting in Mecca next week, that modifications to update their Plan are possible, indicates some flexibility. After all, if former implacable enemies such as Ian Paisley of the UDP and Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein can sit together in Northern Ireland, anything in the world is possible.

Monday, March 26, 2007

The danger in the Saudi Plan

The main danger to Israel as the American "Road Map" plan tends to segue into the Saudi/Arab plan is that basic principles will be set aside for quick results. In the Road Map plan there are specific built-in safeguards that protect Israel at each stage, such as the need for the PA to renounce terrorism at the beginning of the process. But, in the Saudi/Arab plan this is ignored, and the emphasis is of course on Israel making concessions, such as withdrawing to the pre-June 1967 borders and accepting the "right of return" of all the Palestinian refugees.
It will be difficult for Israel to withstand pressure to give up these safeguards, if the US is drawn into an agreement as a result of the up-coming Arab League meeting in Saudi Arabia, to accept the principles of the Saudi/Arab plan as opposed to its own Road Map plan. By accepting that there are "positive features" in the Saudi Plan, PM Olmert is setting himself and Israel up for at least a tacit negotiation based on that plan.
Secty. of State Rice spoke well and constructively at the press conference with Pres. Abbas in Ramallah Sunday, but she mis-spoke when after she gave a list of accomplishments (peace between Israel and Egypt and Jordan, discussions on the basis of Oslo and the Road Map, etc.) she then said effectively that noone disagrees with these accomplishments. She is wrong on that count, Hamas disagrees, and Hamas controls the present PA Govt. Also, Iran and its satellite Hizbollah disagree. They are trying to do everything they can to reverse any and all progress. So the idea that there is universal approval of these steps in the right direction, and that all such steps will be in Israel's as well as the Palestinian's favor are deceptive.
What can Israel gain from the Saudi plan, what are these "positive features." The most prominent is that the Arab States guarantee to recognize Israel if she makes these major concessions. But, this requires an enormous step of faith. Would they indeed recognize Israel, would they indeed remain peaceful towards Israel? It is clear that Israel cannot afford to take the steps they demand as first steps in order to gain this acceptance. Better that the Arab States should accept the Road Map plan than Israel should accept their Plan.
Nevertheless, perhaps on the basis of negotiations with them a compromise can be achieved, but not one that requires Israel to withdraw to the pre-1967 borders or to accept the "right of return." For Israel that can only be the starting position. However, it is not beyond human ingenuity to craft compromises that could be acceptable to both sides.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Responses to the PA and Iran

There are three responses manifested to the new National Unity Government in the PA. Israel's response is that this is a Hamas-controlled Government and that the Fatah and independent members of it have compromised themselves in joining in it. Therefore, Israel will have no dealings with any members of this Govt.
The opposite approach is that this Govt. represents a new chance for relations between Israel and the PA, with a Unity Govt. consisting of both Hamas and Fatah, and therefore some countries, notably Norway, have given the Government full recognition (although not as a sovereign country!). Belgium is also leaning this way, with the current visit of the Belgian FM, and others likely to follow suit are Ireland, Sweden and France. Nevertheless in following this route Norway and Belgium have called for the release of Cpl. Shalit, and the Govt.'s recognition of Israel's right to exist.
An intermediate "compromise" position is that the Govt. represents a move in the right direction, but that since Hamas is a terrorist organization, no official dealings with it are possible. This is the route followed by the US and UN. Today both Secty. Gen. Ban-ky Moon and Secty. of State Rice are in the PA meeting with Pres. Abbas, and two Ministers of the Unity Govt. Cabinet who are considered "safe", particularly independent Finance Minister Salem Fayyed, who has some credibility for transparency from his previous stint at Finance. The question is will this compromise position either give the Hamas-Unity Govt. credibility as a whole or will it suffice to emphasise its lack of committment to the Quartet's three conditions for recognition.
There is also the question that using Pres. Abbas, who is separate from the actual Government of the PA, as a conduit for funds etc., may be fooling oneself. As the Israeli Govt. pointed out today, Abbas has made many committments to Israel and the US, including the release of Cpl. Shalit before the formation of a Unity Govt., the stopping of terrorism before the formation of a Unity Govt., etc. but has kept none of these. It's always convenient to give him an excuse, he can't control the situation, but if he is indeed that weak, why deal with him at all?
Currently in the Gulf, Iranian forces have kidnapped 15 British servicemen from two small boats carrying out anti-smuggling duties in the Shatt-al-Arab waterway. Hands up those who believe this happened by coincidence with the meeting of the Security Council that imposed stiffer sanctions on Iran (if you think it was coincidental go to the back of the line). Hamas and Hizbollah, both subsidiaries of Iran, both kidnapped Israeli soldiers and have been getting a lot of leverage out of this, why shouldn't their sponsor do the same thing. If anyone thinks that Iran will release these servicemen any time soon, think again, they are covenient "hostages." Exactly where they were, in Iraqi or Iranian waters at the time they were snatiched, is immaterial.
But, Iran may have given the Coalition forces (UK and US) a useful excuse for future military action. Its always good to have an excuse for inevitable clashes. The war in Vietnam was triggered by the "Gulf of Tonkin" incident, when North Vietnamese boats attacked a US ship in international waters. It turned out that in reality this was a minor incident that Pres. Johnson managed to magnify into a full-fledged act of war to justify his intention of attacking N. Vietnam. It's true that the lives of the 15 servicemen may be in the balance, just as are those of the Israeli hostages (2 in Lebanon, one in the PA), but they might be used as pawns in a larger game that is "afoot."

Friday, March 23, 2007

More corruption and incompetence

In yet another case of corruption in our Government, the Minister of Finance Avraham Hirschson is accused of embezzlement! He is now in the Kadima party, but this charge arises from his activities when he was in Likud. It is alleged that he took ca. m$1.2 from the National Labor Federation when he was in charge of it. A former employee of that organization came forward and testified that he saw Hirschson receiving envelopes full of money. He allegedly used some of the money to pay off his son’s gambling debts. He also once arrive in Poland carrying k$250 in his bag! Since he is so far only accused of this crime he does not yet have to step down, but the idea that the Finance Minister is accused of embezzlement just doesn’t inspire confidence, and he is likely to be asked to step down soon by the Atty. General.
At present there are 6 cases of corruption of high members of the Govt., these include: 1. President Katsav, who is charged with sexual harassment and rape as well as giving favors for payment; 2. Justice Minister Ramon, who was found guilty of sexual harassment (forcibly French kissing a young female soldier); 3. Prime Minister Olmert, who is accused of illegally giving ca. 100 jobs to Likud party members before he joined Kadima, although the case is still pending; 4. Chief Inspector of Police Moshe Karadi, who was forced to resign with several of his top aides, due to the Perinian gang scandal; 5. Esterina Tartman, the candidate of Yisrael Beiteinu for the position of Tourism Minister was forced to step down when it was found that she had lied about her qualifications (no actual degrees); 6. Now we have Finance Minister Hirschson. Also, MK Yoram Marciano has been accused of violent behavior at a club in Tel Avviv, caught on camera, when he hit two bouncers.
What a list! But, there are two ways of looking at this, either Israeli politicians are extremely corrupt, and this is endemic here, or the system works because it is catching them, and the AG is not afraid to proceed with cases against them. But, why so many now? One theory is that when former PM Sharon established the Kadima Party many opportunists and hangers-on saw their opportunity and left Likud and Labor to join him. That way some of them achieved high office much sooner than they would have done if they had remained in the opposition.
Apart from this Defense Minister Peretz is an embarrassment. A few weeks ago he was photographed looking thru binoculors several times with the caps still on the lenses. So although he couldn't see anything he looked thru the binoculors for abut 30 mins. What an idiot! Because his English is so bad, last week he took his favorite female translator with him on his tour of the US. She had difficulty translating his speech to AIPAC, so another aide had to step in to save the moment. He was largely ignored by the US Defense Establishment because he has no credibility. He should resign.
Today the Winograd Committee investigating the Second Lebanon War (now its official name) published the first of its interviews with Govt. leaders, following an order from the Supreme Court to do so. They had decided to hold thier interim report until April, but the Court ruled this was agaisnt the public interest. The first revelation was that Vice PM Shimon Peres told the Committee that he opposed going to war against Hizbollah. However, now he has issued a clarification saying that he supported going to war at the time to support PM Olmert. What a prevaricator.
Thursday it was announced that Naomi Blumenthal, former Likud leader, who was found guilty of having paid for the hotel rooms of Likud Central Committee members as a form of bribery for votes, and she tried to cover it up with threats to her employees, will go to jail for 8 months. Benjamin Netanyahu now claims that he has cleared out all the corrupt members from the Likud, some are going to jail and others are in Kadima. I wish I could believe him.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Traffic toll

One thing that Israel is known for is its bad drivers. Drivers seem to obey no rules, they speed, cut in and out, and cross red lights as if they are immune. All the time people walk about on the roads, especially in town, as if they are somehow protected by God, without even deigning to look at the traffic. They do this with children too, that really makes me mad, because not only are they risking the lives of their children, but they are teaching the next generation to ignore all traffic danger.
In the past three weeks there has been an unbelievable carnage on our roads. Terrorism pales in comparison. Three weeks ago 18 were killed in one week, then 12, and this week so far 10. Two of the worst accidents, two weeks ago a truck ploughed into the back of a car that apparently wasn't going fast enough for the driver, killing a Rabbi and wife and injuring one of their children, leaving 8 orphans. Last week a driver under the influence of drugs and drink, that is happening more frequently here (with the immigration of 1 million Russians), ran a red light and smashed into a car killing 6, including his twin brother who was in the passenger seat.
The Government has convened a special Committee to urgently see what can be done. But, there is no simple answer. Yes, it needs money and the improvement of the roads, but the roads are incomparably better than they were. There are many improvement projects on the roads, they just opened the crossover at the Gelilot junction north of Tel Aviv that allows traffic to turn east towards Jerusalem without stopping. Also they are building a bridge over the railway line outside Netanya where a train crashed into a truck at a level crossing some months ago. But, these improvements don't seem to affect the traffic toll. Yes, it needs education, to make the young realize that they must obey traffic rules. But, all this is being done and nothing seems to work. Last year over 400 people were killed, that's more than one a day!
The basic problem is that many Israelis drive as they live, cutting corners and as fast as they can. There is the attitude that the rules are advisory only, and there is a lack of consideration that is truly frightening. If cars are behind you in a line, you can expect them to immediately try to overtake, even where there is no room. If you leave a gap between you and the car in front, someone pops into it. Yes, it is dangerous driving on our roads.
What are the reasons for this situation. One reason is that many of the drivers have been in wars, have been in great danger, and have even driven tanks, and so ignore the danger on the road. Another reason is that the police in Israel simply don't do their jobs. They take the same attitude as the drivers. There are plenty of laws, but they are not properly enforced. There are speed cameras, but not enough and apparently they are not being used. Another reason I'm sad to say is the general Jewish attitude, that it doesn't matter. As long as my family is OK, who cares about anyone else. I know this is the opposite to what we have come to expect of Jewish compassion and human concern, but my friends, that's the reality! I wish it weren't so, but on our roads it is.
[By the way, in the past some people have criticized me for presenting only the positive side of Israel. That is certainly not the case, as this and several recent articles about corruption in politics and bureaucracy here show.]
PS. The national strike lasted only half a day, a resolution was negotiated, and the England fans will be able to land!

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Aid to the PA

To those who feel that the poor Palestinians are suffering, it was announced today that last year the PA received b$1.2 in foreign aid. Yes, that's billion! In addition to this was the uncounted aid that was smuggled into Gaza by both Hamas and Fatah leaders, that comes to a minimum of ca. m$100, mostly from Iran, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States. Note that this aid was received during a period when there was an official boycott of international payments to the Hamas Government, so most of the official foreign aid went through the office of Pres. Abbas.
Much of this aid does not reach the ordinary people. It is skimmed off by layers of corrupt officials, supposedly more in Fatah than in Hamas, and is used by both groups for military and arms payments. Many Palestinian men who are supposedly "unemployed" are in fact members of militias, bomb and missile makers and tunnelers. A few days ago there was an explosion in a house near Gaza City in which a member of Fatah was killed and about 20 were wounded. They are making bombs in their homes all the time.
Now that Norway has established diplomatic relations with the new Unity Government, they are planning on providing direct aid to the Hamas-led Government. At least 4 other countries are considering following a similar path, including Ireland, France, Britain and Russia. Although so far the Israeli Government has proclaimed itself satisfied that only a few countries have broken the international agreement not to recognize any PA Government that is Hamas-dominated and does not accept the three basic conditions set by the Quartet of recognizing Israel's right to exist (how can you negotiatite if you don't), stopping the use of terrorism (how can you have a peace process when one side uses terrorism), and accepting all previous PA-Israel agreements (otherwise its starting at square one again). Both the UN and the US have kept to this internationally-recognized position.
Even Norway says that it expects the Unity Government to release Cpl. Shalit (for a large number of Palestinian prisoners), and to accept previous agreements (Oslo, Road Map, etc.). However, there is little likelihood that Hamas will change its policies, since it has managed to obtain at least a measure of acceptance just by following the Mecca Agreement, in which it adhered to its hardline positions.
Many newspapers and opinion pieces in the media are critical of Israel for refusing to negotiate directly with the "new, improved" PA Unity Government. But, actually there is no difference in the crucial policies between this Govt. and the previous Hamas Government, even though there are some Fatah and independents within the Cabinet. They are there for a purpose, to give the Govt. credibility without actually changing its policies. After all, how dumb do you have to be not to see this, Hamas has a majority of Ministers in the Cabinet and controls the Government! Remember that both the UN and US have Hamas on their lists of terrorist organizations.
An independent announcement was made that Hamas is receiving much more military aid and training from Iran for its security forces (nascent army) than is Fatah for its security forces. So while Hamas pretends to be commited to the Unity Govt. and while it talks about possible ceasefires with Israel, not only is it organizing a stronger military, but it shows no signs whatsoever of preparing for peace. Just to prove the point, on Monday, just two days after the formation of the Unity Govt., Hamas gunmen shot and wounded an Israeli electricity worker at the Karni crossing, the main transfer point for both commercial goods and humanitarian aid into the Gaza Strip. As a result the crossing was closed. Egyptian authorities also captured a Hamas suicide bomber trying to infiltrate Israel across the Egyptian border (the bomber who killed three people in Eilat last month used this route). This is what PM Haniyeh meant when he said that "all means of resistance are legitimate."
The latest new 12th grade books produced by the PA and introduced last month into PA schools hardly refers to Israel, and when it does it says that Palestine was stolen from the Palestinian people by "Zionist gangs." Further they show maps without Israel and say that Palestine has ports both on the Mediterranean and on the Red Sea (which the PA certainly doesn't, but Israel does). Its true that these books were produced by the Fatah-dominated Education Ministry, but they certainly conform to both Hamas and Fatah policies. So with this kind of "teaching"/indoctrination going on, how can Israel expect any kind of peace with the new Unity Government or any other.
In Gaza, the BBC correspondent, Alan Johnson, referred to by both his father and the BBC spokesman as a "friend of the Palestinian people" has been missing for over a week, abducted by masked gunmen. If this is how they treat their friends you can imagine how they treat their enemies!

Tuesday, March 20, 2007


Tomorrow we are expecting a general strike in Israel. This is of course bad news. Not only will many things come to a stand-still, including Ben Gurion airport, but the 3,500 English fans expected for the Israel-England soccer match on Saturday won't even be able to land! What a mess.
The strike is being called by the Histadrut trade union because the salaries of over 3,000 municipal government workers have not been paid for months. This is entirely a result of mismanagement since the Government established a Committee and a fund to pay the workers some months ago. But, even though many of them have in fact now been paid, about 650 so far have not, and the Histadrut is finally calling a strike over this.
Incidentally, most of the municipalities that are in breach of the law and are bankrupt are Arab municipalities (about 75%) and this is partly because the Arab citizens generally do not pay their taxes, as a consequence of which these municipalities do not have the funds to pay their workers. In addition there is a fair amount of corruption.
Because of the mismanagement that happened during the "second war in Lebanon," today there is a full national emergency drill, and the sirens went off at 2 pm (an eerie sound that I remember from WWII). The Israeli Govt. was so neglectful of its responsibilities during the war, that the Report on the Home Front from the Comptroller General Micha Lindestrauss is expected to be very critical of the Govt. leaders, including PM Olmert and Defense Minister Peretz. Now a full scale re-evaluation of the Govt. role and the IDF's readiness is underway (we are told). The new Chief of Staff Ashkenazi had his first meeting with all the top military brass last week. At least we hope that if/when there is a next time, things will be managed better.
In order for the graves of soldiers killed in the "war" to be labelled as such the Govt. has to declare it an actual formal war. This a special Committee of the Knesset has just done. So it really was a war, but so far they have not decided what the name should be. Perhaps the "last Lebanon war", unfortunately probably not.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Life in Israel

Last night police stopped traffic in the center of Netanya and exploded a bomb found in a car with Arab license plates. Not only was this not on the news, but few people in Netanya heard about it. Today I saw a car driven by an Arab woman with a female passenger stopped by police near the center of town. The police car was following them with flashing lights and telling them to stop on the loudspeaker, but she ignored them for quite some time, strange. I have no idea if this lead to anything. These are the trivia of living here.
Meanwhile the fuss over the new Unity Government in the PA continues, with a few countries apparently breaking the international conditions for recognition and economic support for the Government. By making the Minister of Finance a member of Fatah, it makes it easier for countries to deal with him, but its still a Hamas-dominated Government. Norway, chief amongst the EU countries that has had a pro-Palestinian policy for many years, in justifying this policy said that they support the Palestinians since they are the underdogs. Not a very intelligent basis for a policy. Nevertheless, even the Norwegian Government called on the PA to stop rocket attacks on Israel and to release the Israeli hostage Cpl. Shalit. Of course, even if they give money to the PA it will not influence them one bit. Other countries considering improving relations with the "new" PA are France (of course) and Britain.
It may surprise you that the good relations between EU countries and the Arab world is not a matter of chance, but has been fostered by a specific organization for over 30 years. I am reading the book "Eurabia" by Bat Ye'or, an Egyptian Jew living in France. I assumed she had made up the title of the book for the specific purpose of the publication. But, that is not the case. "Eurabia" is the name of the journal of the Parliamentary Association of Euro-Arab Cooperation (PAEAC), founded not in 2005, nor 1995, nor 1985, but in 1975! The basis for this Association is set out quite clearly in the proceedings of annual meetings of the Association, it is for improved economic relations of the European countries with the Arab world in exchange for political support for Arab causes, principally the Palestinian-Israel conflict. One would hardly believe how direct this relationship has been, with specific economic dividends in exchange for specific anti-Israel policies, such as opposing Israeli actions on the Tenple Mount, supporting the "refugee's right of return," etc. If Israel was buying European votes as openly as this there would be such a surge of anti-Semitism.
Some might think that all I do is worry about politics, but actually not. Last night we went to a St. Patrick's day celebration at Murphy's Irish pub in the Herzliya marina. It was put on by the Irish-Israel Friendship League and even the Irish Ambassador came. The Irish music and dancing was authentic. Last week we went to a jazz concert put on by our favorite Stanley Ross (from Glasgow) and "The Stompers." So life in Israel is an endless round of fun, no wonder we love living here.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Conflict resolution

Sitting across from each other in my daughter's living room in Beersheva are reminders of a different conflict.
On one side, on top of her bookcase, is a transparent box containing a set of Japanese house gods, that are worshipped in Japanese homes, consisting of dolls of a man and a woman dressed in traditional Japanese costume. These were given to us by my former Japanese post-doc who worked for me for 5 years in the US, and they were a sincere measure of his and his wife's gratitude when they returned to Japan.
On the top of the window ledge opposite is a delicate Chinese carving of two beautiful white storks, male and female, sitting in typical pine trees made of cork, encased in a transparent oval laquered case. This was given to her as a wedding present by a Chinese man who worked for my wife as the caretaker of the shool where she worked as Executive Director. He had escaped from Vietnam where there was an anti-Chinese pogrom, had been a "boat person" in a camp in Malaysia and had been allowed to enter the US. However, with poor English at his age of 50s it was almost impossible for him to get a job. He found a haven in the shool and he was very grateful.
The traditional dislike/hatred between the Chinese and Japanese occasionally manifests itself in poor relations between the two countries, but also between individuals. Many years ago when the Japanese fellow was working for me, a Chinese student joined my group. They were both living in the same neighborhood, and since the Chinese did not yet have a car I suggested that they drive to work together. The Chinese guy refused and he quoted the massacres of Chinese by the Japanese during WWII as the reason. I talked to both of them and managed to persuade them to drive together. Within a year or so they became good friends, and when the Japanese fellow left the Chinese fellow bought his car.
The new Palestine Authority Unity Government was installed today amidst great celebrations. Notably the President Mahmud Abbas in his speech stated that "The Palestinian people reject the use of violence in all its forms," but the Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh stated the exact opposite and "affirms that resistance in all its means, including the popular resistance against occupation" is a Palestinian right. There can be no resolution of the conflict until Hamas and the PA Government change their intransigent course. The resolution of the Chinese-Japanese conflict gives us hope that conflict resolution can take place even in the most extreme cases. But, we have to grapple with the fact that the Palestinians generally do not support Abbas, but by a large majority support Haniyeh. That is the unfortunate reality.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Right of return?

It is axiomatic to any liberal that the Palestinians have a right of return to a State in Palestine because "they were there first." The liberals, including many Jews, residing in London, New York and San Francisco are very adamant about this. But, this attitude flies in the face of reality. If it is a matter of principle then lets apply it to them.
Once Londinium was a Celtic area, that was conquered by the Roman imperialists and then the Anglo-Saxons. So by rights, since the Celts were there first, the current inhabitants of London should leave and give up their land to the Celts, who were pushed into the periphery of the British Isles, to Cornwall, Wales, and Scotland.
The Americans were of course imperialists who conquered (and massacred) the Indians (the "first peoples") and any self-respecting liberal should give up his land to them and move back to where he came from! After all, its a matter of principle! But, I don't expect any of them to do that, principle only applies to others when it means losing tangible rights. In fact there are no guarantees adhering to national rights, no "right of return." Ask the Kurds, the Maoris, the Aborigines, the Celts and the American Indians.
Actually the Muslims were among the most imperialistic groups in history. They started out in the Arabian desert and managed in a few hundred years to conquer an enormous Empire from India to Morocco. A small part of their conquest was the land that subsequently became part of the Turkish Empire known as South Syria, then under the British as Palestine.
Its not surprising that it was a rude awakening to the Arabs that the Jews wanted their land back, and took it back, and now intend to stay here. Too bad the Arabs lost and they don't like it, poor losers. They are the only people since WWII who still maintain their rights to their land, after having been repeatedly defeated, after over 60 years. When will they succumb to reality. The Jews displaced from Arab lands (mostly by force) don't try to exercise their "right of return" they have accepted that they can't go back.
There is no such thing as a "right of return" in international law. There is only the right of a refugee for one generation to be treated humanely by the host country where they reside. After that according to international law their offsping become permanent inhabitants of the host country. So it goes for everyone else, so it will go for the Palestinians. Eventually, that is the only solution, all else is posturing and pretense, no matter how many of them commit suicide.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Egypt's mistake

Here is a press release from "Press TV":
Egypt summoned the Israeli ambassador on Sunday to protest against Israeli television airing a documentary of Israeli killing of Egyptian prisoners during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.
The Egyptian foreign ministry said in a statement that Israeli Ambassador Shalom Cohen was summoned to make "clarification on the conditions surrounding this event." Egypt demanded an investigation into the matter on the basis of the information and witness statements exposed in the documentary, stressing the necessity of bringing the accused into trial.Israeli public television broadcast last week a documentary which indicated 250 Egyptian prisoners of war were killed by Israeli Shaked commando units led by the current Israeli minister of national infrastructure Benjamin Ben-Eliezer. The film, aired on Israel's channel 1, shows Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, the current Infrastructure Minister who was Israel's War Minister at the time, ordering the killing of 250 unarmed Egyptian soldiers in the Sinai Desert while they retreated from the frontline after the 1967 ceasefire between Israel and Egypt.

But, then the truth came out, the director of the documentary had made a huge mistake, he said that the 250 men who were killed were Egyptians and that they were killed while unarmed. Ben Eliezer and his officers denied that any such event ever took place. After rechecking it seems the director was wrong, the 250 men were NOT Egyptian and they were NOT unarmed, but were actually Palestinian terrorists (fedayeen) killed in combat. Even though this has now been established as the facts of the case, there have been demonstrations against Israel in Egypt and the Egyptian Foreign Ministry is reconsidering the peace treaty with Israel.
If a Government can ignore the facts after it calls for an investigation and if the treaty is so tenuous that it can be reconsidered on the basis of an error by a TV director, how good is any treaty with any Arab Government.
According to the Saudi Plan for Arab-Israel peace, the Arab countries will make peace with Israel and recognize it after Israeli forces withdraw to the pre-1967 lines (let's pretend the war never happened, the Arabs didn't start it and Israel didn't win!) and after Israel accepts the Palestinian's "right of return" (then they might not all want to return, but they might). And after Israel commits suicide then they can decide to cancel their peace treaties, there's always an easy excuse. Instead let's have an "Israeli Plan" in place of the Saudi Plan, and let them accept it!

Monday, March 12, 2007

Olmert's gambit

PM Olmert is in deep trouble, two recent polls show that he is extremely unpopular. In one poll he obtained a mere 3% of public support compared to 30% for Benjamin Netanyahu, Head of Likud, and 1% for Amir Peretz, Head of Labor. If an election were to be held today, Likud would win easily with at least 40 seats. However, Olmert has a majority in his coalition with Labor in the Knesset, and so he is likely to remain PM for another year or so, at least until the Winograd Committee reports and criticizes his conduct in the past Lebanon War. In order to retain power he is playing a dangerous game.
Tonight (Sunday) Olmert met with Pres. Abbas of the PA in Jerusalem. Noone expected anything to come from this meeting, it is mainly as PM Olmert's spokeman said to keep talking. Abbas' spokeman also said nothing is expected from the meeting. So why meet? Olmert is trying to give the impression that something is going on, that he is indeed pushing for peace now that the Mecca agreement between Hamas and Fatah has almost resulted in a unity Government in the PA. This is what the EU and the Americans want, some sign of progress. But, to show how tenuous this agreement is, today there was heavy fighting between the two sides in Gaza, and several gunmen were killed. Also, the two sides cannot agree over who to appoint as minister of the interior in the new Government, and this has prevented formation of the Government, and left the PA without any legal Administration.
So if there is no movement with the PA, even the release of Cpl. Shalit is not under Abbas' control. How can Olmert show he is making progress. Today for the first time the PM praised the so-called Saudi Plan, that was rejected out-of-hand by his predecessor Ariel Sharon when it was first presented in 2002. This Plan not only side-steps the much more diplomatically even-handed American Road Map Plan, but as currently constituted it also requires Israel to withdraw to the pre-1967 ceasefire lines and to accept the "right of return" of the Palestinian refugees (in other words it is an Arab plan). Although Israel, through its FM Tzipi Livni, has said that these conditions are unacceptable, nevertheless Olmert has now reversed track a bit, and has praised this Saudi initiative. Livni has also warned the EU that dropping the three Quartet conditions for recognizing the PA Unity Government would adversely affect all contacts.
There are two reasons why Olmert may be doing this now, first because his popularity is so low that he is clutching at straws, he wants to show he is actually doing something. And second this may be the first move in a new situation in which Saudi Arabia and other Sunni countries realize that they need to have some progress in talks with Israel before Iran gets too powerful and develops a nuclear capability that also threatens them. Either way, Olmert is playing with fire, let's hope he doesn't burn his hands, or ours in the process.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Who wrote the Bible?

I am reading "Who wrote the Bible?" by RE Friedman. I am finding it fascinating. It was recommended to me as the best short account by my friend Stuart West, who is writing his own book about mistakes and errors in the Bible.
The first thing one can say is that there is no doubt the Bible was written down by a series of individuals and was neither written by God nor dictated by God to Moses, as many people once thought (and some still do). It is most likely that oral history was passed down through generations about the ancient history of our people and was finally written down many centuries after the presumed events. For example, if the Exodus from Egypt occurred historically it was probably around 1200 bce, while the Biblical account of it was probably written down around 900-700 bce. This can be affirmed from many examples of textual analysis, for example how Moses is referred to (in the third person) and how in several cases it is said that things are the same "unto this day" which could not have been known by Moses himself.
Also, by analysis of the way God is referred to and many examples of duplication in the five books of Moses (the Torah) it can be inferred that there were 5 main authors of these works. This type of textual exegesis is known as the "Documentary hypothesis." Since God is referred to as Yahweh (Jehovah in English) and Elohim in almost two mutually exclusively sets of writings in the first three books of Moses, it can be inferred that there were two main authors, referred to as "J" and "E". In fact, these were probably two complete and separate versions, very similar in content but different in style and emphasis. But later at some time point they were apparently edited together into one version "JE" (with many duplications). Then another contributor wrote a version that was mainly concerned about priestly (Levite) matters, he wrote most of Leviticus, and so is referred to as "P." Also later this was combined with JE to make the current edited version "JEP" of the first four books.
Comparison of texts and style show clearly that the last of the five books of Moses, Deuteronomy, was written by someone other than J, E or P, so this author is known as "D." And in fact this writer can also be identified as a priest, since the main concerns of Deuteronomy are priestly concerns, particularly the statement of the laws that govern the practice of religion in the Temple. This same author also probably wrote most of the next 6 books of the Bible, including Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings.
Now what is fascinating is that for a period of 200 years, the Jewish people were divided into 2 kingdoms, Israel and Judah. After the conquest by King David, there was one unified and powerful Kingdom until King Solomon died in 922 bce. Then there was the split and the Kingdom of Israel consisting of the 10 northerly tribes broke away and established its own priesthood (of Levites), while the Kingdom of Judah consisted of Judah (the largest tribe) and Benjamin (the smallest) in the South, including Jerusalem with its original priesthood (Levites descended from Aaron). It is quite clear that the two versions of the first 3 books of Moses were written at this time after the separation of the two kingdoms in 922 bce and before the Kingdom of Israel was destroyed by the Assyrians in 722 bce, with J writing in Judah and E in Israel. The combination of the two "JE" was then probably accomplished in Judah in the era following the destruction of Israel. "P" was probably a priest in later Judah who disagreed with the JE version and wrote his own shortened version, that was later combined with them. The Prophet Jeremiah lived in the time of King Josiah, who was killed in 622 bce. "D" venerated and wrote about Josiah extensively as a great and faithful King. Friedman identifies Jeremiah as "D." So then we have "JEPD," which is nearly the final version of the five books.
The Kingdom of Judah was destroyed by the Babylonians in 587 bce, and many of the survivors were taken into exile in Babylon. There were differences in the policies of the major power in that time, the Assyrians destroyed who they conquered, the Babylonians transferred who they conquered, and the Persians, who then defeated the Babylonians, allowed their defeated nations to live undisturbed. So the exiles in Babylon who had kept the culture of the Jews intact were allowed to return to Judah in 538 bce. Those who returned completed the building of the Second Temple in 516 bce. It was probably Ezra who returned in 458 bce who was the person known as the Editor or Redactor "R" who revised the editing of the whole Bible, seen from his post-exilic perspective after the return, into the form that we have today.
This is a complex story, covering many centuries, but it is a tribute to the insight of these writers that they not only combined some stories seamlessly, but their writings have stood the test of time for more than 2500 years.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

United flight 93

We saw the movie "United 93" about the flight that crashed into a field in Pennsylvania on 9/11/01. Much of the film is based on fact, what actually happened at the various flight centers around the US and phone conversations that were made by passengers from the flight. Unfortunately, there were no survivors to give a detailed description, but it was a very plausible and dramatic account and we know basically what happened there.
Four Muslim men hijacked the plane after it had been airborne for about an hour en route from Boston to San Fransisco and headed it towards Washington DC. They murdered the two pilots and had a bomb that they had smuggled aboard. Given that two planes had already crashed into the World Trade Center and one into the Pentagon, one would think that the US military would have been ready to intercept this clearly dangerous attempt to crash a plane into another building in Washington, probably the White House or the Capitol.
This is one of the frightening things about the situation then, the US military had at the time only 6 fighter planes available to protect the whole of the East Coast, two of them were unarmed and two were sent in the wrong direction out to sea. That left two actually! When UA93 crashed it was about 15 mins from its target in Washington, and there was no US plane anywhere nearby to intercept it! It was only the brave and heroic fight by the passengers that prevented a further tragedy of national proportions!
Since UA93 was the last of the four planes to be hijacked, partly due to delay in take-off, the two planes had already crashed into the WTC and the passengers already knew about the attacks on the WTC and the Pentagon, and realized that they were on another suicide mission. So their reaction was one of desperation. Although it didn't save their own lives it did save the lives of others on the ground and averted a major catastrophe.
In the altercation as shown in the film one thing struck me, namely that the other three hijackers did all they could to delay the passengers from reaching the pilot. While a group of passengers were fighting with them it left the plane in the hands of the hijacker. At least some of the passengers should have bypassed the three other hijackers and should have ruthlessly killed/stabbed the hijacking pilot (they had a passenger who had been a pilot). But, as shown this was not done, he was not immediately killed, but was fought with over control of the steering column and he proceeded to deliberately crash the plane into the ground. Its easy being critical not having to face the terrible chaos of the situation, but under the circumstances these men did an incredibly brave and heroic act. They redeemed the US in its hour of tragedy.
At that moment there were ca. 4,200 planes in the air over the Eastern US and the number of hijackings was unclear, at one point they thought that 8 had been hijacked. Now the US has the Home Front command, and lets' hope they have the availability of more fighter planes on any day should another such act be perpetrated. Also, the rules of engagement were not clearly spelled out, not only was getting permission to shoot down a commercial airliner delayed because the President was unavailable for some time, but when that permission was given (just after 10 am) the military leaders chose not to pass the permission on to the pilots. Thus, if UA 93 had not been brought down and had reached Washington and there had been a US fighter plane available to intercept it, it would not have done so! This shows how unready for the threat the US was at the time, the degree of naievete and ignorance was perhaps similar to that shown by the US at Pearl Harbor in 1940 vis-a-vis the Japanese.
Maybe that is always how it will be, democracies are not geared up to fight all the time, they have more peaceful agendas. But, now because of the Iraq war the US is in danger of forgetting the reason why all this started in the first place. We must not lose faith with the heroes of Flight 93.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Abba Eban

Recently we saw part I of the series "Israel, A Nation Is Born" (1992), narrated by Abba Eban, the famous Israeli politician and writer. Although this was a well-told story seen through his eyes, it contained no surprises.
Born as Aubrey Solomon Meir in Cape Town, South Africa, Eban moved to England at an early age. He studied Classics and Oriental languages at Cambridge University. After graduating with a "Triple-Starred First", he researched Arabic and Hebrew from 1938–1939. At the outbreak of WWII, Eban went to work for Chaim Weizmann at the World Zionist Organization in London. A few months later he joined the British Army as an intelligence officer, where he rose to the rank of major. He served as a liaison officer for the Allies to the Jewish Yishuv of Palestine.
Eban moved back to London briefly to work in the Jewish Agency's Information Department, from where he was posted to New York, where the General Assembly of the United Nations was considering the "Palestine Question". In 1947, he was appointed as a liaison officer to the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine, where he was successful in attaining approval for the partition of Palestine into Jewish and Arab segments—Resolution 181. At this stage, he changed his name to the Hebrew word Abba meaning "Father". Eban spent a decade at the United Nations, and also served as his country's ambassador to the United States at the same time. He was renowned for his oratorical skills. His polished presentation, grasp of history, and powerful speeches gave him authority in a United Nations that was generally skeptical of Israel or even hostile to it. In 1952, Eban was elected Vice President of the UN General Assembly.
Eban left the United States in 1959 and returned to Israel, where he was elected to the Knesset (the Israeli parliament) as a member of the Mapai party. He served under David Ben-Gurion as Minister of Education and Culture from 1960 to 1963, then as deputy to Prime Minister Levi Eshkol until 1966. Through this entire period (1959–1966), he also served as president of the Weizmann Institute at Rehovot, where I met him a few times.
From 1966 to 1974, Eban served as Israel's Foreign Minister, defending the country in the Six-Day War. Nonetheless, he was a strong supporter of returning the territories occupied in the war in exchange for peace. He played an important part in the shaping of UN Security Council Resolution 242 in 1967 (as well as UN Security Council Resolution 338 in 1973). Although he was undoubtedly gifted he failed to gain resonance with the Israeli electorate.
In 1988, after three decades in the Knesset, he lost his seat over internal splits in the Israeli Labour Party. He devoted the rest of his life to writing and teaching, including serving as a visiting academic at Princeton University and Columbia University. In 2001, Eban received the Israel Prize, his country's highest honor. He died in 2002 and was buried in Kfar Shmaryahu, north of Tel Aviv.

Thursday, March 08, 2007


King Abdullah II of Jordan addressed the Joint US Houses of Congress and delivered one of the most platitudinous speeches ever given. He mentioned the word "peace" a zillion times, as if he wants peace more than the rest of us. His main theme was calling on the US to increase its actrivity in teh MIddle East peace process. Unfortunately, he was addressing the wrong assembly, because those who are preventing the attainment of peace is not the US, but are Iran, Hizbollah and Hamas in Palestine and the insurgents in Iraq. He never mentioned any one of them.
By calling the Palestine conflict the "core" issue, he implied that solving this problem would result in a solution to the other violent Middle East conflicts, but there is no logical reason why that is so. If the Palestine conflict was solved tomorrow would that cause the Shia and Sunnis in Iraq to stop fighting?
One must remember that King Abdullah's monarchy is not the most stable in the world, and that the majority of his citizens are Palestinians who are not necessarily loyal to his Hashemite regime. In fact, by giving this speech and implying that Israel is the cause of Palestinian suffering, it takes the pressure both off himself and off the Palestinains, as if they aren't responsible for their own plight. Abdullah's chief supporter is in fact Israel, without Israel's active support he would soon be overthrown.
He has previously stated that America should be more "even-handed" in the Israel-Palestinian conflict, but in fact the USA should be biased towards Israel, as it is, since Israel is a stable pro-US democracy, while the Palestine Authority is an unstable anti-US nest of terrorists.
The only actual "solution" he mentioned in order to achieve peace in the "Middle East" is the Saudi plan adopted by the Arab League in 2004. This includes Israel withdrawing to the pre-1967 (or 1948) borders, includes the "right of return" of Palestinian refugees and the recognition of a State of Palestine. What does Israel get for doing this - recognition from the Arab States. Whoopee! He didn't even mention the Bush Administration's Road Map that is a lot more acceptable to Israel, but he did indicate that the Saudi Plan could be modified, particularly the "right of return" to accomodate Israel.
So here is a weak and marginal Arab leader at least talking about making peace with Israel. But, he has no influence on Hamas who control the Government of the PA, or on Pres. Abbas who has "unified" with them (although fighting between Hamas and Fatah has broken out again in Gaza), and he is considered an enemy by the Islamists (al Qaeda) and the Shia (Iran) for being a fully supported puppet of the US. His platitudes sounded nice but will have no influence whatsoever on the actual situation.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Government disarray

Extraordinary events are happening in this country that almost defy understanding. In the wake of the Second Lebanon War, that many agree was a disaster for Israel, several committees were established to investigate aspects of the war. However, no official Government Commission was established, since its findings would have been binding on the Government. Instead, among the several Committees, there was a division of labor, so that they would not overlap and cover the same topics. Committees of the Knesset and IDF covered specific military matters, the Winograd Committee was given the main task of covering the strategic and operational aspects of the war, and the Comptroller General was tasked with covering the home front during the war. This was no small matter since you will remember that the north of the country was hit by 1400 missiles during the war and was brought to a virtual standstill with a million inhabitants either fleeing or inside shelters.
Apparently, the Comptroller General Micha Lindenstrauss received cooperation from all authorities that he contacted, except for the Prime Minister and the IDF Chiefs. PM Olmert gave testimony before the Winograd Committee, but ignored requests for information and appearance before Lindenstrauss. After several requests and waiting 14 weeks, the CG decided to issue his report. However, this is illegal without allowing those named in the report to have time to see it and respond.
A group of interested people brought a case before the Supreme Court to prevent the CG issuing his Report that was heard Tuesday morning, and the SC found that he could not reveal names and lay blame. So he backed off, but issued a preliminary description of the report in a manner in which nobody was named and no specific blame was placed. However, he confirmed that the report concludes that the Government was essentially frozen and did almost nothing to help the inhibitants of the north. They were mostly aided by local municipalities and private organizations and groups. Apparently the Report is damning to Olmert, or alternatively according to Kadima and Olmert supporters, Lindenstrauss is using the Report to attack and undermine the PM. Lindenstrasuss of course proclaims that he is politically neutral.
Today Lindenstrauss appeared before the Committee of the Knesset that he reports to, and issued his preliminary findings. When those who have not yet responded, including the PM, have had time to respond, if they want to, he will then issue his final report, naming names and placing blame. This could lead to the fall of the Olmert Government.
Meanwhile, the Cabinet met on Tuesday, but an extrordinary scene ensued over a discussion of an unrelated matter, the non-payment of workers salaries by some municipalities (mostly Arab). PM Olmert, who of course chairs the Cabinet meeting, told Defense Minister Peretz that he could not speak. Peretz apparently became incensed and lost control and started shouting and cursing the PM. Olmert then lost his cool and started shouting back. The meeting was adjourned for 10 mins while they regained their composure. This altercation may be because both of them are feeling the heat. According to internal Labor Party Polls, Peretz would come last with maybe single digit figures in the upcoming Labor Party leadership elections. Olmert is under great pressure not only from Lindenstruass, but because his own support figures are also very low. What a mess!

Sunday, March 04, 2007


The outcome of wars often depend on small technical innovations. It was announced this week that the Russians are planning to sell thousands of advanced armor-piercing anti-tank missiles to Syria, and many of these are expected to reach the hands of Hizbollah. This could make any future conflict with Hizbollah in Lebanon more dangerous for the IDF. It reminds us that the IDF nearly lost the 1973 Yom Kippur war due to the arming of the Egyptian forces with shoulder held and larger strategic missiles by the Soviets.
The surrounding of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) of ca. 400,000 men at Dunkirk by the German Army in 1940 was the closest the British came to being defeated by the Nazis in WWII. The main reason for the outcome at Dunkirk was that the German Panther tanks were superior to those of the British and French and was the reason why the thrust of the German armies to the Channel coast was so fast and successful.
One reason why the German tanks were so superior was the installation of independent supensions on all wheels of the tracks. This allowed them to move faster and be more maneuverable over rough terrain. The idea of independent suspension on all tank wheels was in fact the idea of an American auto engineer named Christie. But, it was not taken up by the Americans, but by the Germans. Although Hitler took credit for the succesful use of massed tanks to rapidly break through the enemy lines (blitzkrieg) this was actually planned and implemented by Gen. Guderian, and was based on the concepts of the British WWI strategist Fuller.
Miraculously the British Navy managed to spirit most of their forces across the Channel to England in a matter of days, from May 26-June 4, 1940. It was very close, if the Nazis had pressed forward their massive advantage they could have destroyed most of the BEF there on the beaches. Luckily the German High Command misread British intentions. They were sure the British would capitulate, which some of the Cabinet wanted to do, for example Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax, but PM Winston Churchill stood firm, what nerve. Another reason why the evacuation worked was that the Panzer Divisions of tanks stopped outside Dunkirk to allow repairs and refitting and to give the Luftwaffe the opportunity to attack the surrounded British-French forces. While 68,000 British and French troops were either killed or captured at Dunkirk, 750,000 were returned to Britain and lived to fight another day.
Fortunately for us, the Germans went too far in their tank development. They increased the size and range of the turret-mounted gun, until it became so powerful that the fearsome Tiger tank used at the end of the war had to stop to shoot, otherwise it would damage the turret mechanism. This became a major disadvantage of these massive tanks, and made them vulnerable. In addition, they required huge amounts of gasoline to run them, and the Third Reich simply ran out of gasoline by 1945.
Such small things as tank suspensions, radar (in the "Battle of Britain") and decoding of ciphers (as in the Enigma machines) had major impacts on the history of warfare. The British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper suggested that the most important invention in history was the development of the stirrup, because it allowed large numbers of men on horseback to ride for long distances, and so led to the formation of large mobile armies. The later development of the flintlock rifle also allowed these armies to become more effective. Subsequently the development of the tank and its independent suspension allowed armies to smash through defences. This was shown to deadly effect when the US Army broke through the Iraqi defences with the Abrams M1 tank in the first Gulf War. The Israeli Merkava tank is considered to be one of the finest in the world, but now it will have to be fitted with active anti-missile defences.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Jesus' tomb?

There has been much international fuss over the claim made in a recent documentary by Simcha Jacobovici and James Cameron (the director of "Titanic") that a tomb discovered in the 1980's in the Talpiot neighborhood of Jerusalem is that of Jesus Christ. They base their claim on the finding in this family tomb of several ossuaries, boxes in which the bones of the dead were kept. Among these ossuaries are several with written inscriptions on them in ancient Hebrew that say "Jesus son of Joseph," "Mariamne" and "Judah son of Jesus." The assumption is that these inscriptions are all genuine, having been seen and examined by several experts. Although the BBC made a movie about the tomb in the 1980's when it was first discovered, the significance of this find now seems to have been exaggerated.
Criticism of the claims of the "tomb raiders" is as follows: (i) all the names found in the tomb were extremely common in that period, so they could have been anybody, not necessarily the famous Jesus and family; (ii) as well as "Mariamne" being possibly "Mary," she could also have been the wife, cousin or aunt of any of the other men, so the lack of any clear relationships makes the claim that this is the family portrayed in the New Testament very remote; (iii) the tomb is in Jerusalem, not in Nazareth or anywhere near the domicile of Jesus' family, and since travel was very difficult in those days a family living in Nazareth was very unlikely to have had a family tomb near Jerusalem. So this may be the tomb of a Jerusalem Jewish family that contained someone named "Jesus," but so what?
Possibly because of the influence of the "Da Vinci Code" by Dan Brown, the desire to find a "son" of Jesus and Mary is quite strong now. However, there is no evidence that this particular son has anything whatsoever to do with the famous Jesus of Nazareth. If it did then it would be an explosive find indeed! Because Christianity as it developed laid a great emphasis on two points: (i) belief, one had to believe and have faith that Jesus was crucified, and arose from the dead, which seems unlikely for the bones of a seemingly ordinary Jesus buried in an ordinary tomb; (ii) if Jesus indeed did have a son named Judah this would be totally inconsistent with the story so elaborately learnt by generations of Christians.
On the other hand, one could say that religions are irrational, and the belief system of Christianity doesn't need to be validated by proving that the actual Jesus acted as protrayed in the Gospels. It could all have been a made up fantasy, but as long of there are believers in the story that is all that matters. I don't subscribe to this view, because the fathers of the Church decided on the "true" interpretation of the Gospels and anyone who didn't accept their interpretation was a heretic. It was decided (by majority vote at the Council of Niceae) that Jesus was the "son of God" and that he arose on the third day, etc. Now if this was not true then the Church fathers had a lot of people killed for nothing. If the historical Jesus was not consistent with the canonical Gospels that were written between 100-400 ce, then Christianity has a lot to answer for.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Appeasing Hamas?

Dents are appearing in the solidarity of the international Quartet of the US, UN, EU and Russia, to stand by the three conditions that it adopted for a PA Government to receive direct financial aid. Namely the PA Government must (i) recognise Israel's right to exist, (ii) stop terrorist violence and (iii) accept all previous PA agreements with Israel. The last condition is one that is expected of any newly installed Government in any country in the world to ensure international continuity and legitimacy.
The Mecca agreement, that was arrived at after significant fighting between Fatah and Hamas had killed at least 50 people, was supposed to overcome these conditions. The installation of a Unity Government for the PA, expected soon, that consists of both organizations, was supposed to enable the international community to re-establish financial support for the poor, suffering Palestinians. But, the agreement represents a victory for Hamas for --- surprise, surprise, under the agreement the new Unity Government will not adopt any of the three conditions!
Nevertheless the dents in the armor of the Quartet comprise two main streams, first the EU wants very much to continue its funding of the PA, that basically keeps it from going bankrupt. Billions of dollars have been squandered and stolen from this European largesse, but the donors, the tax payers of the European countries are so pro-Palestinian that they apparently don't mind having their hard earned money stolen and misused. Having the stream, nay river, of Euros dammed seems unnatural to the EU politicians. So when Benita Ferraro-Waldner, the EU Commissioner for External Relations, was visiting with PM Olmert yesterday she was all smiles, but still could hardly disguise her disdain for the very idea that money should not be given to the poor suffering Palestinians. Then she is visited Ramallah and conferred with Pres. Abbas to find out how the EU can find a way to keep paying the money to him. This is laughable since he has made an agreement with Hamas that makes him an accessory to their anti-Quartet policies. But, that makes no difference to the EU.
Meanwhile, Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal is visiting Moscow and met with Russian FM Sergey Lavrov, who stated after the meeting that Mashaal will work towards accepting the conditions of the Quartet. But, very soon after that statement Mashaal gave his own press conference and let the cat out of the bag. Hamas, and the Unity Government it will dominate, will never recognize Israel's right to exist and will not accept the Quartet's conditions! So this made Lavrov look like a fool, and as a consequence Mashaal did not get his anticipated meeting with Pres. Putin.
But, these EU and Russian initiatives show how shallow is the commitment of half of the Quartet to maintain solidarity in the face of the so-called advance of the formation of the PA Unity Government. One suspects that one way or another they will manage to find a way to wriggle out of these conditions. So far, only the US has maintained the strict policy and who knows what tomorrow will bring.