Monday, January 31, 2011

The trip

When we first arrived in CA for the Dec holidays it was cold and rainy. So we went to several movies, including "True Grit" and "The King's Speech," both of which were excellent. I also spent a lot of time with my son bonding and buying electronic equipment. For the first Shabbat dinner we were invited to the home/shool of the local Tri-Valley area Chabad Rabbi Rayleigh Resnick, who is an extremely warm, larger than life, charismatic personality who is friendly with Simon. He is so different from the usual haredi people one meets in Israel, who are cold to Jews of any persuasion other than their own and do not regard Reform Jews as genuine Jews. Rayleigh follows the Chabad dictum that is inclusive of all Jews. We greatly enjoyed the genuine hospitality and ample food that they provided and it was a special Shabbat to remember.
As we were arriving at the dock in LA port (San Pedro) to take the cruise, I saw a tall American guy standing in the middle with rolled up sleeves and a blue tie and he looked like an official, so I asked him for directions, where to take our luggage? He turned out not to be an official, but he asked us where we were from, and when we said Israel, he started burbling about how great Israel was. Then he asked me if I would help him, see he wanted to send a floral bouquet to his girl friend on board the ship, but he was not allowed to, so could he send it to us, if we gave him our cabin number, and then we could transfer it to her. Sounded very suspicious to me, so I said "sorry, but no." Naomi was surprised that I wouldn't do a favor for such an obviously nice, friendly guy. But, the whole thing seemed strange, and I didn't want to get involved in drug smuggling.

When we got to Mazatlan, as we were leaving the ship another friendly laid-back American appeared next to us, who I thought had come off the ship, but maybe not, and he offered to share a taxi ride into the old part of town, which he said he knew very well. We agreed and soon we were speeding into the old town. When we got there we got off by the big covered market, and although I paid, it seemed to me that he didn't pay, but pretended to. Then he said, 'wait here a minute I have to do an errand, but I'll be back.' Once he had gone I said to Naomi "there's no way we are waiting for him, let's go" and we walked straight thru the market and out the other side. Nearby was the Cathedral so we went in there and then walked a while to the coast and then took a taxi to the "Golden zone" which was a tourist trap. I have no idea if this second guy was for real but I didn't trust him. Mazatlan is notorious for drug smuggling, as the largest city in the State of Sonora, which is run by gangs of "Sonora cowboys." Unlike other Mexicans they don't wear sombreros, but cowboy hats, and they are currently waging a war against other drug gangs for control of the Mexican-US border area. I heard that cruise ships have stopped going there recently because of shootings.
Of course, the main reason we went to California in the winter was for the batmitzvah of our grand-daughter Shoshana. After the cruise and a stay with friends in LA, we went back to Livermore in the Bay area for the festive weekend. We had a great time, the whole affair was so well organized, mainly by our daughter-in-law Sharon (Simon helped and paid the bills). On Shabbat, Shoshana read the whole Torah portion in Beth Emek Synagogue, and she was perfect, as you might expect since her mother is an expert in teaching the trope. I should note that in Reform Judaism no distinction is made beween boys and girls and so she did her Torah reading at age 13. In the Orthodox Jewish tradition girls are batmitzvah at age 12, and are not allowed to read the Torah, but read a short piece from the women's gallery and then have a small party. Quite a difference. After the ceremony there was a wonderful luncheon, and then in the evening an amazing party. There will be postings of the photos from these events, so I will pass them on later. All I can say is that it was a privilege to be there and to share this unique event with family and friends.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Egypt in turmoil

Egypt is in turmoil, in a moment of revolutionary change with a popular uprising similar to that which took place in Tunisia last month. But, while things are superficially similar, in that Pres Ben Ali had been in power there for 23 years and Hosni Mubarak has been in power in Egypt for 30 years, that's where the similarity ends. Tunisia is a small Francophile Arab country, with little influence on world events, while Egypt is the largest Arab country with 80 million people. What happens in Egypt can affect not only the whole Middle East but the whole world. Second, while Tunisia is more westernized, Egypt is the origin and center of the Muslim Brotherhood, that has spawned Al Qaeda, Hamas and numerous other Islamist groups. What happens in Egypt could potentially affect the future of the whole Arab world as well as potentially affecting peace with Israel.

There is no doubt that the chief reason for the expression of frustration in the Arab world has been the lack of development and progress over the past 50 years, that has largely resulted from reactionary repressive regimes that have kept the lid on the ferment below for too long and now it is blowing off. While westerners support the kind of reform that comes with the fall of dictators, we must also look to our own interests. All revolutions usually overshoot their mark and instead of ending up with more democracy they end up with less. Yes, the Czars were autocratic and imprisoned hundreds without trial, but Stalin, the outcome of the Russian revolution, was more repressive and imprisoned and killed hundreds of thousands. The Kaiser was no liberal democrat, but then there was Hitler!

More relevant is the case of the Shah of Iran, a Western puppet dictator who repressed all opposition. But, when there was a popular uprising against him, the US, led by that great humanitarian Pres. Jimmy Carter, gave him no support and he was overthrown by the Ayatollah Khomeini. So where there were hundreds of prisoners in the jails under the Shah, under the Islamist regime there were once again thousands murdered and imprisoned. So it is not difficult to predict what may happen, or is the most likely outcome in Egypt. The Egyptian Army will refuse to shoot protesters, the position of Pres Mubarak will quickly become untenable and he will retire alive from the scene if he is lucky. The democrats such a Mohammed El Baradei, former head of the IAEA, will appear to come to the fore. But, they command little support of at most a few thousand intellectuals. Then the masses of uneducated Egyptians who support the Muslim Brotherhood will take over, the leadership of the Brotherhood will start to control things behind the scenes. There will be a deal between the Brotherhood and the Army and Egypt will gradually become another Islamist State. That's the most likely and most pessimistic outcome. If that happens, any new Islamist Government will first dispense with US aid (Egypt gets several billion dollars a year) and will repeal the Israel-Egypt peace treaty, and declare a state of war with Israel. Pro-Western Middle class people will be arrested, tortured, imprisoned and murdered. It is a well defined process.

There are three other possibilities, the Generals will take power and eventually devolve a transfer to a democratic system. But, this is only if they are prepared to suppress the Muslim Brotherhood. Alternatively, and less likely, the so-called "popular forces" that include leftists and pro-western democrats will be able to hold the line against the Brotherhood and will prevail. The least likely possibility is that Mubarak will somehow retain his control, but aging dictators know they have few friends. The appointment of Intelligence Chief Omar |Suleiman as VP and potential successor will not satisfy the the mob. Miracles have been known to happen, but, if things go as predicted expect at least the threat of a war with Israel in a few years time. Pres. Obama is trying to tread a thin line between opposing the reactionary regime of Mubarak that the US has been supporting all along, while trying to avoid a Brotherhood takeover. But, he should note two important things, Israel and the Palestinian cause has nothing to do with this Arab violence, and as usual, Israel is a western island of peace and tranquility in a sea of Arab turmoil.

Friday, January 28, 2011

The cruise

As we approached our first stop, Acapulco, the Captain got on the public address system and announced that the police had found 12 decapitated bodies in one of the main squares that morning, but he had decided to dock anyway. He said that these were drug-related killings and that as long as we kept to the main tourist areas we were not in any danger!

This was after he had announced that he had slowed our progress so as to arrive two hours later than scheduled in Acapulco because there was a major political demonstration taking place in the main square close to where we were due to dock. In fact as we approached the harbor we could hear the loud sounds of political speakers shouting into microphones and a large crowd had assembled. Also, a helicopter circled around the downtown area dragging a poster for the particular candidate who organized the rally, a candidate for Governor of Guerrero State.

Naomi and I chose not to go on any of the organized tours, but went walking by ourselves. We went across the main road next to the harbor right into the fortress (actually there were a thousand steps, but we didn't realize that there was a footbridge straight from the dock). The fortress of San Diego has been made into a museum, that tells the history of Acapulco, how it had for several centuries been the main port of New Spain for goods from China shipped thru the Philippines and then to Acapulco across the Pacific and from there to Spain. But, it became less important because of British pirates and when Mexico revolted in 1830 and became independent, the trade stopped and Acapulco became a small village until the American tourist boom started in the 1950's.

From the Fort we walked to the nearby main square, the Zocalo. But, it was small and dirty and the Cathedral was ugly. We walked thru the crowds dispersing from the political rally, but they were good-natured and we had no problem. We stopped to have a meal at a restaurant named "!00% pure" and then took a cab the whole length of the magnificent bay. But, it was so commercialized, it could have been Miami, although not as nice. .

Our next stop was Zihuatanejo (try saying that fast), that was the complete opposite to Acapulco. It was a small town, with mostly two story buildings all in a dark brown color. We walked around the whole of it in a few hours. It had a lovely small bay with palm trees down to the shore, and we had lunch in a seaside cafe. Of course we could have returned to the ship to eat a huge meal, but that lacked the local color.

The next day we stopped at Puerto Vallarta, which was another large city, but much cleaner and nicer than Acapulco, that reminded us of a French-style resort. Here we trolled the shops and bought a few things. We also found a small Naval Museum right by the front and had tea served by ensigns in white uniforms.

Mazatlan was another large city with a huge bay, but once again was very commercialized. We took a cab along the whole front to the "Gold Zone." Everything here was about buying and shopping, mostly in gold and silver. So after a snack at a seaside restaurant we took a cab back to the ship.

Our final port-of-call was Cabo St. Lucas, on the tip of the Baja peninsula. It was a nice Mediterranean-style seaside resort, but had nothing much to distinguish it. The weather was hot here (in the 80's F) and we enjoyed that. When we had arrived in California it had been cold and rainy, and I caught a cold.

After our five stops in 10 days we sailed back to Los Angeles, and luckily the weather had improved by then. The ship itself, the Sapphire Princess, was enormous (2,700 passengers and 1,100 crew). I understand that due to the violence in Mexico, Princess lines is currently not stopping at some of the above ports. Of course we greatly enjoyed the well-prepared and plentiful food, probably eating twice our normal diet. In the evenings we dined formally and enjoyed the smaller meals and the company of two nice couples. We also went to various entertainments, danced, swam and sun-bathed. Altogether a great trip.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Falling apart

I go away for a month and look what happens, everything falls apart. There were:
riots in Tunisia, Algeria and now Egypt
suicide bombings in Moscow
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak resigned from the Labor Party and established his own Party
the Stuxnet virus continues to wreak havoc on the Iranian nuclear program
Hizbollah takes over the Lebanese Government
a Congresswoman is shot in Arizona
the secret "Palgate" papers were released by Al Jazeera, that threaten to destroy the PA

It's clear that I can't go away again for such a long time and leave the world and Israel in your hands. If I don't pay attention to what's going on things rapidly deteriorate. Or is that perhaps over-estimating my reach.

What of these developments are the most important? In my view it is the demonstrations in Tunisia and elsewhere, that for the first time have people in the Arab world demonstrating for improved conditions and democratic reforms. Of course, the results of these riots are not yet known and it is entirely possible that one or more of the extremist Islamist organizations will try to help to bring down the current reactionary Arab regimes and take over themselves. This is something that the West cannot allow to happen. But, it does seem that these are the first popular uprisings in the Arab world that are not motivated by Islamic forces or controlled by extremist elements. If these riots are successful it could transform the Arab world from a relative backwater to a more progressive European style area. But, that seems unlikely, and the outcome in Egypt could itself revolutionize the situation relative to Israel for better or more likely for worse.

The Stuxnet worm (by the way a worm is an undetectable computer malware that infiltrates and takes over a systems program, while a virus simply destroys it) was the focus of several detailed articles, including one in the NY Times on Jan 15 that concluded that it was probably concocted by Israeli agents with American support. It was reported that the US acquired Libyan nuclear centrifuges supplied by Pakistan of the same type installed by North Korea in Iran. This allowed the Israelis to test the effectiveness of the Stuxnet worm and be sure that it really worked as intended. The operators in Iran have no idea what their centrifuges are actually doing, even though they think they are acting normally. Thus, centrifuges can be destroyed, making a bombing campaign unnecessary. This is the first real action in the new area of cyberwarfare.

Finally, the release of the secret papers detailing that the Palestinian leadership was prepared in 2008 to compromise with Israel over such basic topics as land swaps and refugees, indicates that they are much more flexible in private than in public, something that has shocked the Arab world and might lead to another split in the Palestine movement and could result in the downfall of the Palestine Authority. This might give more power to Hamas, although another of the revelations was that the PA and the Israeli secret services have cooperated in decimating Hamas in the West Bank. However, these papers appear suspiciously like "wikileaks" leading some, including the PA, to label them a hoax. But, today PA spokesman Saeb Erekat acknowledged that some of the leaks are true.

But, don't worry now that I'm back things will come under control.