Thursday, May 31, 2007


What are the chances that, in two completely unrelated activities, I would run across two people named "Somogyi" in the space of half an hour? One was the latest "space tourist," while the other was Joseph de Simogyi, a student of Ignaz Goldziher.

While seeking the space tourist's first name on wikipedia, I found Michael Somogyi, a Hungarian biochemist.


Ayalon's Strength

Daniel Levy thinks Ayalon would actually be a stronger candidate than Barak in a general election:
"In the bigger electoral picture, according to the polls, Ayalon poses a great threat to Likud leader Netanyahu. This was largely born out by yesterday’s primary first round results. Barak’s main support came from vote contractors and the support he received amongst the old guard of the party machine, as well as amongst the Arab and Druze communities – all of which are largely irrelevant to the Labour Party when it comes to general elections. Ayalon, by contrast, polled well where the election was genuine and genuinely competitive and where Labour needs to grow its strength in the general elections, notably in the large cities (Ayalon won Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and Haifa)."

Of course this analysis presumes Labor primary voters are an indicator for the general Israeli public, which I question.


Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Who's Condemned What?

Greetings from the French Hill, a right-wing blog I've been reading lately, has posted criticizing The UN Security Council's failure to criticize Lebanese tactics against the Nahr al-Barid camp in Lebanon and the failure of human rights organizations to criticize the Qassam fire from Gaza. That appears true, though at the same time the UN Security Council called for an end to the Qassam fire while Lebanon's military tactics have been condemned by both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. HRW's last press release on a military aspect of the Arab-Israeli conflict was in March, when they criticizes Hamas for targeting civilians. Before that, they criticized Israel for using human shields in Nablus. Amnesty International's was calling on the PA to protect civilians from its security forces.

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Nahr al-Barid and Iraq

Andrew Exum notes the connections between Iraq and the violence in Lebanon:
"Second, the return of jihadis who fought in Iraq since 2003 has exacerbated the spread of violent radicalism in the camps. The jihadis who have returned, whether Lebanese, Palestinian or from elsewhere, come with stories from Iraq and also a militarism that had been largely missing in the heavily Sunni Muslim community of Lebanon prior to 2003.

"Third, the fighting that has taken place during the past two weeks is also related to the internal domestic strife in Lebanon. In their efforts to counter the massive popular mobilization of the Hezbollah-led Shiite community, the Sunni leaders of the Saad Hariri-led March 14 coalition have not been above stoking the sectarian fires of Lebanon's Sunni community. Indeed, at a recent rally to mark the anniversary of the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri, the largely Sunni crowd broke out into chants of 'Wahad, itnayn! Wahad, itnayn! Rafiq al-Hariri wa Saddam Hussein!' ('One, two! One, two! Rafiq al-Hariri and Saddam Hussein!'). In the largely Sunni port cities of Tripoli and Sidon, tributes to what they consider the Sunni martyr Saddam Hussein—executed by the 'Shiite government' in Baghdad—are disturbingly common (al-Akhbar, February 15)."

Lebanon already has significant cleavages resulting from its governing system and exacerbated by the years of civil war, so its no wonder that Iraq is providing a convenient symbolism for its own conflicts.

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Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Optimism, Yet Again, on Nagorno-Karabakh

Presidents Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan and Robert Kocharian of Armenia will meet around June 9 in an attempt to hammer out the remaining differences regarding the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process:
"The highly confidential discussions center on the Minsk Group’s existing peace plan that essentially boils down to holding a referendum on self-determination in Karabakh years after the liberation of Armenian-occupied Azerbaijani districts surrounding the disputed enclave. Disagreements on the date and other practical modalities of the proposed referendum are believed to have been one of the reasons for the collapse of the Rambouillet and Bucharest talks. Armenian officials say Karabakh’s predominantly Armenian population would thus be able to legitimize its secession from Azerbaijan. Aliyev has claimed, however, that the Karabakh Armenians would only vote on the degree of their self-rule within Azerbaijan. According to Armenian diplomatic sources privy to the negotiating process, the would-be peace deal may not set any dates for such a vote. In that case, Karabakh will indefinitely remain under Armenian control without Azerbaijan having to renounce its sovereignty over the territory.

"Another key stumbling block is Armenian withdrawal from Kelbajar and Lachin, two of the seven Azerbaijani districts that are sandwiched between Karabakh and Armenia proper. The Armenian side has been ready, at least until last summer, to liberate Kelbajar only after the referendum, something that was deemed unacceptable by Baku. It has also rejected Azerbaijani demands for the return of Lachin, which serves as the shortest overland link between Karabakh and Armenia."

Aliyev is calculating correctly that Azerbaijan's negotiating position is gradually strenghthening vis-a-vis Armenia's, so the question is really whether the Armenians are willing to get the best deal they can now, or whether nationalist politics will see the stalemate continue into next year and perhaps beyond.

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Barak vs. Ayalon

Ehud Barak and Ami Ayalon will compete in a June 12 run-off election to decide who will lead the Labor Party. In yesterday's results, Barak got 35.6% while Ayalon had 30.6%. This suggests to me that voters are looking ahead to the possibility of general elections, with Barak having far more experience in politics than Ayalon, who has just a little over a year in the Knesset. Interestingly, Barak won in Akko and Kiryat Shmona, two of the three cities from the listed results I recognized as being close to the Lebanon border, and hence threatened by Hizbullah rockets based in southern Lebanon. This may indicate that Labor voters still think that withdrawal was the right move.


Monday, May 28, 2007

The Sexy Blogger

Ezra Klein discovers that Seventeen is now recommending dating bloggers:
"You don't agree with all his posts, but they make you think about new issues -- and whether he's as cute as his pics!

"Find him at: A friend of a friend's Top 8

"Your first move: Bloggers love having an audience almost as much as they like a battle of wits, so stir up some controversy by telling him when you disagree with a post.

"Hidden payoff: An outspoken guy can stir up passions you never knew what you had -- and help you figure out what you really stand for."


Sunday, May 27, 2007

Monastery of Temptation

Near the upper right of this picture is the Eastern Orthodox Monastery of Temptation, built on the mountain outside Jericho traditionally associated with the Three Temptations of Christ. The caves near it were where monks lived before the monastery building was built in Ottoman times.


Overtime Formats

I fully agree with what Dan Wetzel says here:
"Every single game ends in true, ultimate sudden death (or victory if you're an optimist). At any moment, a bounce of the puck, a quick break, a slap shot with eyes, a turnover, or anything at all can win or lose the game. Nothing is safe, nothing is routine, nothing can let you breath easy.

"There is never a quarterback taking a knee to set up a field goal. There is never the relief of knowing when your team is at bat, it can't be scored upon.

"In hockey, teams are almost always on both offense and defense at the exact same time. Momentum means nothing. You can have five minutes of sustained pressure on offense and lose in the blink of an eye at the other end of the ice.

"Fans literally scream in horror, like they are watching a car wreck, when play gets too close to the net of their team.

"It's unique and special and spectacular.

"And yet, the NHL might want to tinker with it, gimmick it up and get it over with sooner?"

The sudden death overtime is one of the most thrilling aspects of play-off hockey, and the fact is only a few games have more than one. In any given year, chances are overwhelming no such game will even be on a national network that doesn't specialize in sports. The one change I might support is going to a four-on-four system at a given point, as the wear on the players and declining skills as they grow increasingly tired is a legitimate point.


Friday, May 25, 2007

Jerusalem: Liberation Day

One seldom finds a balanced account of the Six Day War. Israelis remember the days and weeks leading up to it as a time of uncertainty, with bellicose public statements coming out of Nasser's Egypt and the memory of the 1948-9 War of Independence still as fresh in people's minds as Operation Desert Storm is for Americans. Arabs prefer to dwell on the fact that, contrary to popular belief in the U.S. and elsewhere, the Arab states did not invade Israel, and Israel chose to launch a pre-emptive invasion of its own on the eve of an important meeting in Washington aimed at resolving the tensions. In reality, the war didn't just come out of nowhere. The years leading up to it had seen shelling and guerrilla warfare against Israel, which responded with occasional incursions and bombing raids against neighboring Jordan and Syria, as well as a major incident over water rights around the Sea of Galilee. As a result of these, some Israeli statesmen warned of waging a war of regime change against Syria much as Arab leaders were threatening them; Arab partisans, on the other hand, might do well to consider that Israel had sound security reasons for wanting to strike first and without warning if they believed war was inevitable. An additional dimension to all this is the larger Cold War context. Much recent scholarship has used Soviet archives to illuminate the role the USSR played in instigating the conflict, mainly by providing false intelligence to Syria and Egypt claiming that an Israeli attack was imminent, and egging them on toward "defending" themselves. Their motive is unclear; the most recent suggestion is that their ultimate goal was the elimination of the Israeli nuclear program.

It would take a specialist to understand all of that, and I most assuredly am not one. I was, however, around for Israel's official holiday associated with the conflict. This is not, as one might expect, based on Israel surviving a threat to its security or some such thing, but on its conquests during the conflict, mainly that of eastern Jerusalem, though some on the far right extend that to the West Bank and presumably the Gaza Strip, as well. Its official name seems to be "Liberation of Jerusalem Day," though that appears mainly in far right publications and official communications. Most people perhaps find it a bit too orwellian, and so use the shorthand "Jerusalem Day" or sometimes "Unification Day." "Liberation" seems applicable mainly to what people find sacred, and is used most regularly for the Western Wall and Temple Mount area, sometimes for Jerusalem as a whole, and very rarely for the Occupied Territories. Prior to the war, Jordan controlled the entire Old City, but for some reason did not follow their cease-fire obligations of allowing open access to holy sites, and in fact built over parts of the Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives. In gaining this territory, therefore, Israelis also regained the right to visit their most sacred ground, which they proceeded to spruce up by demolishing the nearby Moorish Quarter, inhabited as the name would indicated by Arabs from the Maghreb, and replacing it with a wide plaza and some Jewish religious centers.

Signs of the 40th anniversary of these events are everywhere. The Independence Day celebrations in late April used it as a theme, and signs with the official "40 years" logo are all over the place, including one large one posted on the side of the Old City near Jaffa Gate. In the days before and immediately after May 16, the actual "Jerusalem Day," the city was flooded with Jewish groups here for the occasion. On May 15 I wandered into the Liberty Bell Gardens, normally fairly quiet, and found myself drowning in middle and elementary school children, many running around with flags and with blue and white hats which included the "40 years" symbol. There were also a lot of foreigners. Later that day I wandered up toward the municipality building (city hall), where there were three separate stages for cultural acts and speeches. Many of the people standing around there were part of foreign groups, such as the "Messianic Jewish Society of New York" and such, though there were also plenty of Israelis.

The big event of May 15 was a parade through downtown. It began with a police marching band, but otherwise the "soundtrack" was provided by speakers which had been set up all around downtown so that everyone could hear the "festivities." Thereafter came some groups of "friends of Israel" from overseas, such as the United States and Japan, as well as representatives of community organizations from around the country, floats, and emergency personnel such as firefighters. Most of the floats had an agricultural theme, and there were also people dressed up like Middle Eastern crops; I presume this relates to the theme of land and the holiness of working it as explained to me by a very orthodox elderly woman I met when I first got here. Others focused on representations of the military, depicting the IDF assault on the Old City, with a couple apparently built by people who visualized them marching into battle carrying Torahs and led by the sound of a shofar.

I read afterward that every regional council in Israel was represented. At the Knesset ceremony the day before, every Jewish Knesseteer attended except one, Meretz party leader Yossi Beilin, whose exact statement I forget but who implied he found the whole event bizarre and kind of creepy. This shows a public unanimity belied by polls surrounding the holiday, which indicated that 65% of Israeli Jews don't celebrate it at all. Even some Israelis I know who seemed fairly conservative found a lot of it a bit overdone, and overheard conversations on the bus and around Hebrew University suggested many Israelis saw the occupation as a national problem to be eventually solved rather than something to commemorate. More surprising to me was a poll from the centrist Ynet on Israeli attitudes toward Jerusalem saying that 58% of Israelis favored returning Arab neighborhoods of the city to Arab control as part of a peace settlement, and that this figure was actually lower than in previous years. Based on the political rhetoric and a consistent national policy of trying to isolate its Arab residents both culturally and geographically from other Palestinians, I'd assumed maintaining the city as an undivided capital commanded some sort of supermajority.

A friend in Tel Aviv told me that there, May 16 was just a day like any other. This was not the case in Jerusalem. That afternoon was furious thunderstorms, with flash flooding and hail all around the area. Some joked that it was God's way of saying "cease and desist." Some events were cancelled or cut short, such as tours of facilities built by small Jewish groups who have moved into traditionally Arab neighborhoods as part of "reclaiming" the city. Many of these neighborhoods were not part of the city until 1967 when Israel added them. (What kind of people go on such tours, I wonder?) After the skies cleared, however, the day's main event went forward belatedly, as I discovered when I stepped outside to run an errand. This was the "flag dance," when people waving Israeli flags dance their way through the city to the Western Wall.

The crowd was huge, probably bigger than that which had gathered to celebrate Independence Day three weeks previously. As they marched down Jaffa Road, I had no choice but to be part of it - once you had entered it the sheer force of people's movement and the barriers erected to for crowd control ensured you marched with them. Thinking I'm probably one of the few people who has marched as part of an Ashura mourning procession and a Jerusalem Day flag dance in the same year, I continued as far as Zahal Square, a key junction between the old and new cities and between eastern and western Jerusalem, where I was able to separate myself and continue down toward the Damascus Gate area to see what was happening there. At Zahal Square, the crowd divided, with some marching toward Jaffa Gate and the others toward Arab East Jerusalem. I read somewhere that the tradition is to have people entering through all the city's gates and through all four quarters (Jewish, Muslim, Christian, and Armenian) to symbolize the city's unity before meeting at the Western Wall for religious services.

Security on the East Jerusalem/Damascus Gate path was heavy, with armed soldiers standing at some of the Old City's ramparts and others lining the street for as far as I followed it, facing not inward to control the crowd, but outward to protect it from any Palestinian threats. The Palestinians mostly walked about minding their own business, some pointedly, with angry or offended looks on their faces, others more casually. I vividly remember the faces of the first two I saw, young men sitting outside a cafe drinking either tea of coffee. They were not angry, but defeated, forced to sit and watch a jubiliant crowd celebrating their military victory of forty years before. Some old men were the same, probably those who had lived there when it was part of Jordan and had now become somewhat stateless. Later on I saw a bunch more young people gathering by the police line; they seemed to enjoy making fun of the marchers. Most of the marchers, for their part, ignored the Palestinians, though an occasional minority took to jeering at them and calling what I suspect of being unflattering names or taunts as they proceeded by. These the soldiers did turn to and shout down.

Altogether the procession took about two hours, though I didn't stay for the whole time. Because it's a small world, I had totally randomly encountered my roommate from my 2004 trip to Morocco, who was watching while waiting for it to end so security would let him get to his apartment in the Old City's Muslim Quarter. We went to grab a bite to eat, then went to the Old City ourselves to see what was happening. By then it was dark, but the crowds were still thick, and people dressed in white carrying Israeli flags formed a continuous moving stream between Jaffa Gate and the Western Wall, where the entire plaza was packed. My friend looks like an Arab in the dark, and I suspect that's why as we approached the entrance to the wall plaza one of the guards reached out to block him at the chest denying him entry until he said he was an American, at which point we were welcomed and allowed onward. Yet Jerusalem is insane enough that even in this tense atmosphere there was some coexistence. We made our way out through the Damascus Gate, and by one of the streets in the Muslim Quarter, which at that time of night were deserted, two Israeli soldiers were chatting and laughing with a Palestinian who had stepped outside a pharmacy where he was apparently working a late shift. Since I mandatory military service probably mirrors most soldiers as well as most Israelis don't think much of the holiday, they probably had some common ground to commiserate over.

Most Israelis may not pay much mind to "Jerusalem Day," but when it actually took place it was very much their public face, regardless of the internal debates that are such an important part of understanding this part of the world. That face skirted the line between patriotism and nationalism, and at times entered wholeheartedly into the latter, celebrating a military expansion of their cultural heartland into areas where the population was now subjugated against their will. I have trouble communicating adequately the impression the "flag dance" in particular made on me, with just the sheer volume of people carried away by excited celebration with their dancing and singing, seemingly oblivious to the live powderkeg of complex issues centered on the very thing they were commemorating. Is it good that Jews can now visit the Western Wall? Yes, and that's certainly worth commemorating, but in the events of last week there was far more in play. During the Six Day War, Moshe Dayan, Israel's Minister of Defense watched the capture of the Old City from Mt. Scopus, and reportedly asked someone nearby, "What do we need it for?" Upon learning that enthusiastic troops had run the Israeli flag up over al-Aqsa Mosque, he immediately and angrily ordered it taken down, and in general foresaw nothing but trouble from Israel's military gains, a perspective shared from retirement by Israel's first Prime Minsiter, David Ben Gurion. They have not, thus far, been proven wrong.


Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Explaining Gaza

Noah Pollak assembles several arguments about the causes of the situation in Gaza I've been meaning to address. First is his list of the factors leading to the rise of Hamas:
"First, Israel defeated the intifada; second, Arafat died; third, Mahmoud Abbas was elected the new PA president; and fourth, Israel removed itself from Gaza. The latter three in particular served to strengthen Hamas -- not Fatah. The reality of the fractiousness of the Palestinian cause was already coming into view in 2005, before Hamas was elected, when more Palestinians were killed in internecine fighting than in battle against Israel. It might be gratifying to make a post facto declaration that in 2005, the old hands among the Palestinians had their territory under control until the Bush administration, which can’t do anything right, forced inadvisable changes on them. But that idea is simply a flight of fancy."

All of this has more to do with Hamas's rise in the Gaza Strip than the 2006 Parliamentary elections. I still think the Hamas victory in those was a fluke caused by a strong protest vote against Fatah corruption and splits within Fatah which made it possible for Hamas to win seats on a plurality basis. Pushing for elections was still the right thing to do, as it was the only way to produce a government with the legitimacy to pursue a peace process. The fact Hamas won does not change that dynamic, but merely shows how problematic Palestinian leadership issues can be.

These two paragraphs, however, are pathetically racist:
"Among the Arab countries today in which there is a modicum of internal stability, each is controlled by an Arafat-type figure -- an anti-democratic strongman who is able to crush all challenges to his authority. Likewise, among those Arab countries that aren't ruled by a despot, the political dynamic is also consistent: In Lebanon, Iraq, and now Gaza, sectarian violence is the dominant form of political expression. It’s true that Arafat’s authority was weaker in Gaza than in the West Bank, but in Gaza there was always another strongman present to keep a lid on things: the Israeli occupation. When Israel disengaged in the summer of 2005, suddenly Gaza was without any master at all, and that’s exactly when the territory started going full-tilt toward the Hobbesian state of nature it now finds itself in.

"And so to blame recent Bush administration choices for this lawlessness -- or more precisely, to invent stories about administration choices -- is more than a bit much. Even if the PA elections in 2006 hadn't occurred, I doubt the battle we are seeing today wouldn’t have happened. The fight is foreordained by Gaza's demography, its political and religious extremism, Arafat's death, and Israel's unwillingness to police the territory. The Bush administration is simply along for the ride -- as is Israel. And the reason why Abbas has never been able to emerge as a leader of the Palestinians is because his weakness is similarly foreordained. Consensus-based political leadership is anathema to the Arab world. We're seeing that rather starkly today in Gaza."

The frame story here is that the Arab world is culturally unsuited for what Pollak calls "consensus-based political leadership." Within this, he situates Gaza as an example of a place doomed to anarchy by, "demography, its political and religious extremism, Arafat's death, and Israel's unwillingness to police the territory." However, I'm pretty sure those factors have nothing to do with Arab culture in is manifestations from the Gulf to Morocco.

Stability in most of the Arabian Peninsula is maintained precisely by "consensus-based political leadership" lubricated by oil wealth. That's the essence of the tribal model which is still prominent in many of those areas. Beyond that, Pollak doesn't mention Kuwait, which has developed a rather vibrant democratic culture which frequently challenges and beats the royal family. The sectarian violence of Lebanon and Iraq was not foreordained, but arose from specific conditions in each country. In Lebanon, the governing system allocated power by religious group, which ultimately led to discrimination when the demographic balance shifted. In Iraq, there was a concerted effort by radical Sunnis to provoke a civil war with the Shi'ite majority which finally took hold during 2006, with the destruction of the Askariyya Shrine in Samarra as a major turning point.

Pollak concludes by saying that the problem was "attempting to drag the Arabs of Palestine, against their will, into western political modernity." The Palestinians have for some time had one of the most politically sophisticated cultures in the Arab world. That's why people actually voted, and a party out of power won and took office. The violence sense then has been caused by the weakness of institutions, with security services loyal to factions rather than the quasi-state, a situation which more closely resembles the late Roman Republic than most of the Arab world. There's also been a division in power between the Presidency and Prime Minister's office dating from American and Israeli attempts to sideline Arafat, together with manipulation from a Damascus-based exile leadership whose authority has proven stronger than that of those elected by the actual Palestinians. Foreign powers do play games with weak governments in areas where they have interests, and there's also nothing new about that.

(Crossposted to American Footprints)


Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Hamas, Fatah Cooperate

Here's an interesting note:
"One of the interesting things that has happened in Lebanon in the past two days is that the Palestinian factions – Fatah and Hamas – that are busy killing each other in Gaza are actually cooperating in Lebanon, with each other and with the local authorities, to isolate the al Qaedist threat. The Hamas representative in Lebanon, Usamah Hamdan, has condemned the Fatah Al-Islam group and pledged to work to dissolve their activities."

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Monday, May 21, 2007

Who Understands You?

Since for most voters a sense of personal identification with candidates counts for as much or more than their actual issue positions, items such as this and the demographics of the Democratic primary electorate could ultimately guarantee a Clinton nomination, even though as is often pointed out, the polls which have her ahead mean squat.


Bahraini Case Dropped, but Clashes Ensue

Three days ago, King Hamad b. Isa of Bahrain ordered an end to the legal case against the three pro-democracy activists arrested after last Ashura, Hassan Mushaim’i, Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja and Shaker Abdulhussain. This move, however, was almost certainly due to fears of violence on the streets on their behalf, and a crackdown on what they represent continues. Chan'ad Bahraini reports on riot police attacking seminars in their support here and here.


Iranian Anti-Sufism

In the past, I've noted both increased interest in Sufism in Iran and efforts by the Shi'ite government to crack down on it. Today saw another example of the latter with the arrest of one of Iran's most prominent Sufi leaders:
"High-profile cases like Tabandeh's suggest that pressure on minority religious groups, like Sufis and dervishes, has increased in Iran.

"Last year, a Sufi house of worship was destroyed in Qom, and hundreds of Sufis were detained.

"The U.S. Commission On International Religious Freedom said in a May 2 statement that an already 'poor' government record on religious freedom had deteriorated in the past year -- particularly for religious groups like Sufi Muslims and Evangelical Christians.

"Critics are likely to claim that Iranian authorities' latest move against the leader of the Nematollahi order is another sign of intolerance toward those who do not practice Islam as it is promoted by the political and religious establishment.

"Several conservative clerics have in recent months described Sufism as a danger to Islam.

"Tabandeh's Nematollahi Gonabadi order is reportedly among the largest Sufi groups in Iran."

His followers are considering various ways to respond. You haven't heard the last of this story.


Women's Equality

As Chairman of the Expediency Council, Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani is pushing for greater equality for women:
"Expediency Council Chairman Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani told female politicians in Tehran on May 20 that it is necessary to 'amend areas of the civil law that create certain problems for Iranian women,' Mehr reported. He told a gathering of members of 'fundamentalist' or conservative women's groups that 'there is a sense that certain laws are not in keeping with the conditions of our time.' He expressed support for the mobilization of more women in public life through political parties, and said no society could grow adequately if deprived of the presence of half its population in public, business, or social life. Mariam Behruzi, a conservative politician who attended the meeting, told ILNA on May 20 that the groups discussed equalizing blood money for men and women. Blood money is the compensation paid to the relatives of a murder victim, but currently the fine paid for a dead man is twice that for a woman."

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Sunday, May 20, 2007

Best Books, 2006-07

For those trying to find something to read over the summer, here's a sampling of the best books I read for the first time during the past year.

Literary Fiction

My Name is Red (Orhan Pamuk)

My top pick on the year is this novel by 2006 Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk. This work invites comparison to Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose in that it's a murder mystery tied up with tension between change and tradition in a specific time and place, in this case the miniaturists' workshop at the Ottoman court in the 1590's. However, whereas Eco put a lot of his themes into dense philosophical monologues, Pamuk couches them in simple language and weaves them into the plot in digestable doses. A love story adds to the excitement, and Pamuk's evocations of the city of Istanbul left me wishing I were reading it in a Beyoglu cafe.

Soul Mountain (Gao Xingjian)

This book, on the other hand, is extremely complicated. There are four main personalities - I, You, He, and She - but we are led to believe each is really a projection of the narrator as he explores different facets of life, and hence of the self. This exploration takes place during a voyage through remote regions of China, where the history is not the official, main stream of Chinese history, and where culture and the environment have suffered at the hands of the Maoist regime. Insofar as there is an over-arching framework, it is the quest for meaning and order in a world where even the order of the self is unnatural.

The Beautiful and Damned (F. Scott Fitzgerald)

One of Fitzgerald's main literary interests is the corrosive effects of wealth on human relationships, and money is definitely a source of tension in the lives of Anthony and Gloria Patch, two do-nothing socialites waiting to inherit Anthony's grandfather's fortune. On another level, however, the novel can be read as a well-drawn portrait of one particular marriage and the factors which undermine it, of which greed and vanity is only one. The main rap against it is that the characters are unlikeable, though I at least found some thread to care about in that I felt sorry for Gloria being stuck the with definitely more horrible Anthony. This was clearly a step up from Fitzgerald's first novel, This Side of Paradise, and foretold the great things to come.

A Farewell to Arms (Ernest Hemingway)

This is a novel of lost idealism, as Frederick Henry, who volunteered to be an ambulance driver in World War I, is driven by the senselessness of the conflict to desert so as to be with a nurse he met when recuperating from an injury. I've actually forgotten a lot of this book since reading it, but what stays with me is the hard-boiled writing style and various scenes from the war in which Hemingway himself drove an ambulance and which were among his fortes as a writer. The ending is almost gratuitously depressing.

Brainiac (Ken Jennings)

This probably isn't literary fiction strictly speaking, but a lot of what I've read this year was pretty uninspiring, so I'm wedging it in here with this as a justification. I mean, that deck scene was truly Shakespearian! Seriously, though, since I participated in the high school and college quiz bowl circuits he includes, write and edit for NAQT, and know some of the people he talks about in those parts of the book, this would have been a fun read even if it weren't for the interesting portrayals of the different forms triviaphilia takes around the country and the historical look at its rise. Whether you're interested in trivia yourself or are on the lookout for interesting aspects of americana, this book is for you.

Popular Fiction

Farewell, My Lovely (Raymond Chandler)

The best "popcorn books" I read all year were Raymond Chandler's novels last summer, though I'm not entirely sure what to say about them. This one was my favorite, as the plot held up fairly well and the intensity and suspense stayed at the right level, with a nod to social criticism of the way people then and now see crimes differently based on the race of those involved. What kept me going, though, was the seedy atmosphere made interesting through Philip Marlowe's hard-boiled personality. If you like either the genre or the era, give this a read.


American Capitalism: The Concept of Countervailing Power (John Kenneth Galbraith)

Back in January, I took a day or two off from my dissertation to read this book, one of the foundational texts for contemporary American liberals. In it, Galbraith argues convincingly that the models of classical economics are unsuitable for the American economic system, with its large corporations held in check by what he calls "countervailing power," seen in such things as organized labor and public pressure for government regulation. Galbraith writes very well, and some of what he says is prophetic toward our own times, though I don't recall what came from this and what from The Affluent Society, which I didn't like quite as much. I recommend this book for anyone who wants to be informed at the level of ideology, and not just specific issues.

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The Front Line

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is vowing to grant Sderot "frontline" status. The fact this hasn't already been done is another indication that the current Israeli government is full of idiots.

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Friday, May 18, 2007

Office of Antiboycott Compliance

I just discovered that the U.S. government has an Office of Antiboycott Compliance. It's main objective:
"The antiboycott laws were adopted to encourage, and in specified cases, require U.S. firms to refuse to participate in foreign boycotts that the United States does not sanction. They have the effect of preventing U.S. firms from being used to implement foreign policies of other nations which run counter to U.S. policy.

"The Arab League boycott of Israel is the principal foreign economic boycott that U.S. companies must be concerned with today. The antiboycott laws, however, apply to all boycotts imposed by foreign countries that are unsanctioned by the United States.

"The antiboycott provisions of the Export Administration Regulations (EAR) apply to all "U.S. persons," defined to include individuals and companies located in the United States and their foreign affiliates. These persons are subject to the law when their activities relate to the sale, purchase, or transfer of goods or services (including information) within the United States or between the U.S. and a foreign country. This covers U.S. exports and imports, financing, forwarding and shipping, and certain other transactions that may take place wholly offshore.

"Generally, the TRA applies to all U.S. taxpayers (and their related companies). The TRA's reporting requirements apply to taxpayers' 'operations' in, with, or related to boycotting countries or their nationals. Its penalties apply to those taxpayers with foreign tax credit, foreign subsidiary deferral, FSC (Foreign Sales Corporation), and IC-DISC (Interest Charge-Domestic International Sales Corporation) benefits."

I guess it's good that our businesses have some cover if they don't want to participate in a boycott, but if I'm reading this right, a U.S. business cannot voluntarily choose to boycott Israel if it so desires.


Thursday, May 17, 2007

Israel: The King Who Led Them to It

A few years ago, The Onion had a story about how the TV series Israel was being cancelled because of its increasingly implausible plotlines. These, of course, were based on real news events of the time. Today, one could make the same joke about just the Israeli government itself, without going into the conflict with the Palestinians. So far in 2007, the president has been suspended for alleged rape, while the attorney general has resigned over allegations of sexual harassment. The Knesset leader of the Labor party was arrested after getting into a barfight. A recent nominee for the post of Minister of Tourism had to withdraw after it was revealed she had never graduated from high school. Even at lower levels of government service, there is the now-former ambassador to El Salvador, who was recalled after police found him lying on the street naked and tied up while wearing bondage gear. It's really a fascinating crew they have running this place.

By the far the most popular venom, however, is reserved for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. He actually lives not to far from me, in an upscale district called Rehavia filled with narrow streets winding along the side of a hill, streets lined with densely packed trees and fenced-off multi-story residential buildings mixed with the occasional small grocery/newsstand. His exact block is sealed off by barricades and policed by armed guards, though you can walk down it, except I think when he is actually coming and going. I read somewhere that his neighbors were really annoyed when he became prime minister because of all the disruption it entails. They must be even more ticked now that he is almost universally considered the worst prime minister in the nation's history. Polls usually show his approval rating in the low single digits; there aren't any Olmert dead-enders of the sort that seem willing to prop up American politicians so that they seldom fall below 30%.

As with any political leader, some of the issues he gets criticized over are, in the larger scheme of things, fairly minor. The current most salient "minor issue" is university reform. Students have officially been on strike since early April over plans to reduce the heavily government subsidies at the public universities while implementing a system of grants and low-interest loans to enable students to pay. I have no strong opinions on the matter, mainly because the numbers involved don't mean anything to me given how little I know about incomes and the cost of living in different areas of the country, as well as Israel's overall budget situation. Several protests have bene held in downtown Jerusalem where I live. One was a series of displays and musical acts set up around noon on a small square by the intersection of Ben Yehuda and King George. The strikers were clearly having fun with it; at one point a group of about a dozen female fresh army recruits wandered past in their green uniforms and a girl playing the clarinet and a guy on a snare drum immediately launched into what sounded like an Israeli version of "When Johnny Comes Marching Home," to the intimindation of the suddenly spotlighted soldiers.

Much larger was a group that gathered to block Jaffa Road, one of Jerusalem's main arteries, last Thursday night, the start of the Israeli weekend and the busiest night downtown. Traffic came to a standstill as a few hundred students wearing the red T-shirts of Israel's student unions sat or stood chanting slogans around amidst their fellows waving red flags, some of them with the hammer and sickle of Marxist movements the world over, and a couple with Israeli flags meant to lend the demonstration an air of patriotism and acknowledgement of Israel's socialist heritage. Because the event was apparently done without coordination with the authorities, they were surrounded by a line of police followed by a line of some other security service, with riot police standing by and several mounted police officers waiting some distance away in case things got out of hand. Traffic was snarled, and emergency vehicles were not spared. A fire engine came down the street with sirens blaring, but the students did not budget, and after a minute or so it retreated to a side street. Later an ambulance came from a different angle; thankfully the students there made way for it to pass.

These protests, however, are blending into far more serious ones which unite all Israel around a call for Olmert to resign as Prime Minister in the wake of the interim Winograd Report on what went wrong during last summer war, which two different government committees spent several months deciding should be officially called the "Second Lebanon War." Lebanon, it would seem, has a way of bringing out protestors. In 1982, in the largest protest in Israeli history, 400,000 people turned out in what was then called Kings of Israel Square against the invasion of Lebanon in the First Lebanon War. The Thursday after the interim report was released, something less than 200,000 came out to call for Olmert's resignation. The crowd seemed to run most of the gamut of Israeli political spectrum, though I didn't see any hijabis, suggesting an absence of the Arab sector. The most striking thing, however, was the sheer diversity of the crowd. In the United States, a protest such as this would most likely attract a bunch of experienced activists and college students. They were there, but the mosaic was so varied no single group stood out. As I passed through the crowd, I saw Meretz activists in light green T-shirts, beer-bellied men in wife-beater shirts, kippah-wearing men dressed nicely and carring briefcases, old ladies pushing themselves around in wheelchairs, a bunch of guys who looked like Hell's Angels wannabees, women seemingly in their 50's eager to point me toward good pictures of what they predicted would be a historic occasion, a sprinking of Haredi in their black hats and suits, some guys carrying a purple banner, families with children and young couples holding each other while they listed to the speeches, and even a few dogs whose owners were possessed to bring them to the rally, too. There were also some Knesseteers, though no one whose picture I've seen enough to recognize.

The signs were varied, and often creative. The most common were white-on-blue signs, stickers, and banners that said simply, "Elections now." Some people had made their own and printed them out on their computers, though sadly without Hebrew I couldn't read them. Several were carrying signs in the shape and style of the Ten Commandments tablets, while one creative guy had a bread theme going, though again I don't know Hebrew and didn't get the chance to ask him about it. I did talk to one person advertising the memory of the three IDF soldiers who are currently prisoners of Hamas and Hizbullah, and there was at least one sign in English about Olmert going to sleep, probably a reference to this Daily Show clip which many in Israel have seen.

While the one song I recognized was Peter, Paul, and Mary's "Blowin' in the Wind," this was not a peace rally. Incompetence was really the only unifying complaint, and when one speaker criticized the occupation, many began booing. Although the report did strongly suggest going to war was a mistake in the first place, I've been told that Israeli TV is only focusing on the parts related to things Olmert did wrong in executing it. Some might be skeptical and say many people came for the free performances by the musical acts who performed before and in between speeches. When circulating among the crowd, I didn't get much of that at all, except from a few people near the very back. Even if that was what tipped people into going, they seemed clearly to support the rally's aims. Among those I talked to was a group of middle school-aged kids in matching white T-shirts from Sderot, a town near the Gaza Strip which is routinely struck by barrages and seen as a symbol of the government's inability to protect the country. I also ran into several people carrying signs related to the three Israeli soldiers currently held by Hamas and Hizbullah, with some also including Jonathan Pollard, who was convicted of spying on the U.S. for Israel during the Cold War.

If I might show some political bias, as an American liberal, I was riding a sort of vicarious thrill since even though IMHO Bush has done far worse than screw up a war, such as trying to install a (lack of) civil liberties regime on some issues comparable to what Israel does only in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, he still has that 30% or so of solid support that doesn't seem likely to go away unless he is caught in an extramarital affair. Trying to think strictly from the Israeli perspective, however, I think it's a valid question of whether people aren't turning on him for failing to resolve in his policies issues Israelis as a whole haven't dealt with in their conception of the state, though they have as blocks of that state. Olmert came into office wanting to withdraw from parts of the West Bank as Sharon had from Gaza; his incursion into Gaza and assault on Lebanon were meant in part to establish that Israel could protect itself from attacks based in areas after it left them. It's worth exploring the degree to which the whole "Olmert mess" is really an "Israel mess" laid bare.


Saturday, May 12, 2007

Of Strawmen

Ha'aretz reports on a poll, one finding of which is that 96% of Israelis are opposed to giving up the Western Wall in a peace deal. Has anyone actually suggested Israel give up control of the wall? I guess that's implied by the, "Jerusalem should become an international city" theme one occasionally hears in foreign coffeehouses, but I don't think that's been seriously proposed for decades.

The most interesting thing I found in the survey was that 43% of Israelis are opposed to any concessions on Jerusalem. Based on the rhetoric, I'd expected that to be a strong majority, yet the article indicates that number is actually up from previous years.


Friday, May 11, 2007

Historical Narratives

Amiram Barkat has a contemporary take on Herod the Great:
"It is hard to come up with the name of a Jewish figure whose life story is more relevant today than King Herod, whose tomb was discovered this week at Herodium. Herod was a vassal of a world power, the Roman Empire. He pursued a complex relationship with the Roman emperors and the neighboring rulers: the Egyptians, the Nabateans and the Arabs. He was unpopular among his own people because he was perceived as a puppet of the Romans, he murdered three of his own children as well as many of the Hasmonean elite because of his Edomite origins. He had to deal with strong opposition, from the Hasmoneans and later from the Pharisees.

"Herod's political talents, however, enabled him to remain on the throne for 33 years, until the day he died. In addition to insuring his political survival, Herod found time to fill the country with impressive construction projects. Herod's genius as a builder is proven by the fact that some of these projects, such as Caesarea amphitheater and the Western Wall, are part of Israeli life today.

"Israeli politicians could perhaps have learned from Herod how it is possible to survive, to rule and to build all at once. It is possible that had they learned from his rich experience, they would have spared themselves the need to appoint an investigative commission or two."

Soon I'll have more to say about how certain Biblical figures play into Israeli historical memory, probably in my next travel post, when I also plan to talk about contemporary politics. Incidentally, as you may have noticed, I haven't been motivated to comment on any news developments the past few days. I'm still keeping up with things, I just don't have the motivation to actually think about them. This will probably pass.


Monday, May 07, 2007

Herod's Tomb

Look what someone at my adopted university did:
"The Hebrew University of Jerusalem announced Monday night that it has uncovered the grave and tomb of King Herod, who ruled Judea for the Roman empire from circa 37 BCE...

"The tomb was discovered by Hebrew University Professor Ehud Netzer, who is considered one of the leading experts on King Herod. Netzer has conducted archeological digs at Herodium since 1972 in an attempt to locate the grave and tomb.

"The discovery solves one of Israel's greatest archeological mysteries. Additional details will be made available at the Tuesday press conference.

"The majority of researchers had believed that Herod was in fact buried at Herodium, based on the writings of the ancient Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, but multiple excavations at the site failed to locate the grave."


Sunday, May 06, 2007

AHA Travel

I just bought my ticket for the January 2008 AHA meeting in Washington, DC. It is really early, but when you are planning to come in from the Middle East you are conscious of how good prices are harder to find the longer you wait. As it is, I feel like I should be arrested for the ticket I purchased. It was a multi-city trip, as I combined it with a holiday visit to my family, so I'm going Tel Aviv-Chicago-Washington-Madrid-Tel Aviv for $1090. (I'll admit that two days in Madrid weren't in my original plans, but they added only $14 to the total cost. I assume there are things to do in Madrid.)


Saturday, May 05, 2007

Firefly Episode 5: "Safe"

Right after the Mal/Inara relationship episode comes an important installment exploring Simon's bond with River, with their relationship with the Serenity crew in the background. I definitely liked this better than "Shindig," as the characters were strong and consistent with several underlying points tastefully understated in the context that Joss Whedon would probably characterize as being about family.

I can say the latter with some confidence, as Whedon has said that everything he does is ultimately about family. This is quite literal in the case of Simon and River, the brother who has given up everything to save his sister. Through flashbacks throughout this episode, we found out just how much that was, but also why a dedicated and sincere person such as Simon felt no other options. It's striking how he is more attuned to his sister than their parents are, picking up on clues in the letters that they simply cannot bring themselves to see.

It was also good to see the contrast between their lives in Alliance territory and their current situation on Serenity. A minor lead-in to this was River playing war on the side of the Alliance rather than the Independents favored by their crewmates, but it's also visible in the different levels of technology and general infrastructure and security we see on the inner planets, which I'm pretty sure are presented here for the first time. Simon's stress quite naturally focuses on that when he boils over and rants to Kaylee about his situation, alienating her by demeaning the life she chose and loves.

Simon, however, isn't the only one who gets to show some stress, and Mal is clearly frayed by hauling a herd of cattle and worried about River's effects on them. With characteristic bluntness he orders Simon to keep her quiet, and then to take her away from the area during the sale to their contacts on Jinyiang. That the latter decision leads directly to their kidnapping is a nice touch, one that the show addresses by showing a brief look of self-recrimination on Mal's part before he decisively moves forward, intent on finding a medical facility to save Book's life.

Summer Glau does some of her best work of the series in this episode, shifting between the highly disturbed girl she usually is and the happy teenager of the village dance, as well as the caring and anguished younger sister when she tells Simon she understands what his concern for her has cost him. When Simon tried to stop the hill folk from burning her, his attempts are true to his character and perfectly ineffective, for this is no more his world than Serenity. He is a brilliant doctor, but cannot communicate in the local fashion. Finally, we get yet another sign, this one very clear, that Book is more than just a Shepherd, though sadly that thread was never developed.

The ending undoubtedly merits some comparison with that in "Objects in Space," the final episode. Whedon said in the commentary track for the pilot that the acceptance of River by the crew allowed the series to become an arc of sorts, with that as its denouement. It was this episode, however, when Mal fully acted as if they were part of his crew - even calling Simon that at the end - and not just refugees whom he was sheltering, as in "Bushwhacked." This is a thread to watch in the rest of the show's run.

Altogether, this was a solid character outing which probably made for one of the show's best installments. I'm giving it 8/10.
Zoe: "You sanguine about the kind of reception we're apt to receive on an Alliance ship, captain?"
Mal: "Absolutely. What's 'sanguine' mean?"
Zoe: "Sanguine. Hopeful. Plus, point of interest, it also means 'bloody'."
Mal: "Well, that pretty much covers all the options, don't it?"


Making It Fail

For some reason, President Bush has decided that this is the right period to be pushing for progress on the Israeli-Palestinian peace track. The latest foray into these waters is a proposed timeline of steps each side can take, with the goal of ending Qassam rocket fire at Israel and lifting some of the burden of Israeli occupation in the West Bank. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has already said parts are unacceptable to Israel, but he needn't worry because Hamas is planning to, "work to make it fail by any means and by all means."

The driving force behind Hamas's hard-line stance seems to be Khaled Meshaal, the Hamas leader based in Damascus who has been using Hamas's Parliamentary majority to exert a commanding influence over the policies which will affect those who actually live in the Palestinian territories. His excuse is that not firing rockets at Israel or important weapons to Gaza would constitute "giving up resistance." I freely grant that the Palestinians have the right to resist the Israeli occupation, but this fetishizes it to a ridiculous, though not entirely surprising, extent.

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Friday, May 04, 2007

Winograd Perceptions

Lisa Goldman has some notes on how the Winograd report is being perceived by Israelis:
"On Thursday night, between 100,000 (police estimate) and 200,000 (organizers' estimate) Israelis gathered in Tel Aviv's Rabin Square to call for Olmert's resignation. Rinat observed that she hadn't seen so many foreign reporters covering an event since Sharon's stroke in January 2006. Neither had I. But most of the demonstrators - and most of the speakers - seemed to think that if we had had a different prime minister during the war, we could have "won." I'm not so sure that's accurate. I'm sure that few people read the whole report, but the bits that were excerpted in the media focused more on the committee's conclusion that Olmert didn't have a good plan to win the war, and much less on the part about him not having explored diplomatic options - in other words, that it might have been possible to avoid war altogether.

"Also, most people seem to be ignoring the rather plentiful evidence pointing to the fact that the ground was laid for the failure of that war long before Olmert took office. For example, Aharon Ze'evi Farkash, who headed military intelligence until January 2006, told Yedioth on Monday that he warned former PM Ariel Sharon of a high risk of kidnappings on the northern border six months before the war, and that Sharon - who certainly had plenty of military experience - brushed his concerns aside. When I tagged along with Michael Totten on his April 2006 trip to the northern border, a young IDF captain told us very soberly that we really shouldn't be there, because 'everything could explode at any moment.' It's worth going back to read Michael's report to see that there's no way the army could have been unaware that Hezbollah was preparing to attack. And it's simply not credible to contend that the army didn't report what it saw in front of its eyes - a massive buildup of Hezbollah military force on the border - to the prime minister."

(Crossposted to American Footprints)


Thursday, May 03, 2007

Rabin Square Rally

I've just returned from Rabin Square in Tel Aviv, where Israelis put on a demonstration of what can happen when a leader manages to convince his entire population that he is dangerously incompetent. A crowd said to be almost 200,000 strong turned out with a single message: Prime Minister Ehud Olmert must resign.

The crowd seemed to run most of the gamut of Israeli political spectrum, though I didn't see any hijabis, suggesting an absence of the Arab sector. The most striking thing, however, was the sheer diversity of the crowd. In the United States, a protest such as this would most likely attract a bunch of experienced activists and college students. They were there, but the mosaic was so varied no single group stood out. As I passed through the crowd, I saw a sprinking of Haredi, Meretz activists in light green T-shirts, a group of middle school-aged kids from Sderot, beer-bellied men in wife-beater shirts, kippah-wearing men dressed nicely and carring briefcases, old ladies pushing themselves around in wheelchairs, a bunch of guys who looked like Hell's Angels wannabees, women seemingly in their 50's eager to point me toward good pictures of what they predicted would be a historic occasion, a sprinking of Haredi in their black hats and suits, some guys carrying a purple banner, families with children and young couples holding each other while they listed to the speeches, and even a few dogs whose owners were possessed to bring them to the rally, too. There were also some Knesseteers, though no one whose picture I've seen enough to recognize.

The signs were varied, and often creative. The most common were white-on-blue signs, stickers, and banners that said simply, "Elections now." Some people had made their own and printed them out on their computers, though sadly without Hebrew I couldn't read them. Several were carrying signs in the shape and style of the Ten Commandments tablets, while one creative guy had a bread theme going, though again I don't know Hebrew and didn't get the chance to ask him about it. I did talk to one person advertising the memory of the three IDF soldiers who are currently prisoners of Hamas and Hizbullah, and there was at least one sign in English about Olmert going to sleep, probably a reference to this Daily Show clip which as far as I can tell has been seen by the entire population of Israel.

While the one song I recognized was Peter, Paul, and Mary's "Blowin' in the Wind," this was not a peace rally. Incompetence was really the only unifying complaint. Some might be skeptical and say many people came for the free performances by the musical acts who performed before and in between speeches. When circulating among the crowd, I didn't get much of that at all, except from a few people near the very back. Even if that was what tipped people into going, they seemed clearly to support the rally's aims. Enough of me, however: What will really tell the story of the rally is my pictures, once I get them uploaded over my still-weak connection. The Israel-savvy will probably see plenty that I missed, and be able to fill me in on the Hebrew.

UPDATE: Here's one note about the picture above: Later in the rally, someone stuck a paper airplane in Halutz's hand. If I'd realized it wasn't there before, I would have retaken it.

UPDATE: That didn't take long. The Flickr set is here.

(Crossposted to American Footprints)

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Bishara Details

With the gag order lifted, we're getting more details on the charges against Azmi Bishara:
"With the removal of the gag order on the investigation of former MK Azmi Bishara on Wednesday the severity of the allegations against him is now becoming evident. The case was built using wiretappings conducted by the Shin Bet during the Second Lebanon War.

"The wiretaps were authorized by the High Court of Justice, which is the only body capable of sanctioning the surveillance of a Knesset member and that authorization must be renewed every three months...

"In one of the conversations Bishara was asked an unusually direct question by his Hizbullah contact who wanted to know how Israel would respond if it were hit by long range missiles which would reach beyond the city of Haifa. Bishara mumbled and admonished his contact, hinting that the conversation may be monitored, but after a short while his aspirations got the best of him and he told the Hizbullah man that such an action would serve Hizbullah's goals. Several days later rockets began hitting targets south of Haifa."

The quality of the evidence may mean that Palestinian-Israelis won't be that skeptical of the charges, though it will drive more Jewish Israelis into the arms of the far right.


Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Crises Everywhere

My apartment building is under construction, and they appear to have deactivated my internet connection, though hopefully not for long. (I haven't been able to reach my landlord to confirm that this is the problem.) Otherwise, in addition to the ongoing fracas here in Israel, I'd get around to blogging about the massive protests in Turkey, and presumably other stuff, too. As it is, assuming Olmert is still in denial and blaming Tzipi Livni for his political fate, I'll go down to Tel Aviv tomorrow night to take in the action.

Incidentally, is this really a possibility?
"In the near future, he may be required to order the IDF to embark on a major military operation - for instance, in the Gaza Strip - that will claim lives. He is not taking into account the possibility that some soldiers might refuse to obey orders originating with the prime minister whom the Winograd Committee concluded was responsible, personally and ministerially, for the failures in last summer's war."


Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Student Strike

Here in Israel, going on strike is one of the national pastimes, and the country's college and university students have been at is since Passover. Those in this picture were part of a protest around noon today between Ben Yehuda and Bezalel here in Jerusalem. At issue is the government's plans to increase tuition while at the same time implementing a system of scholarships and loans as financial aid. Student leaders demand an actual cut in tuition. However, I get the impression the majority of students aren't wholeheartedly behind the leadership. That said, this might briefly blend into the larger nationwide protest movement to demand the resignation of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert

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The Wrong Choice

Yesterday's interim "Winograd Report," from the Israeli commission looking into the Second Lebanon War, said something I wanted them to say but doubted they would:
"The decision to respond with an immediate, intensive military strike was not based on a detailed, comprehensive and authorized military plan, based on careful study of the complex characteristics of the Lebanon arena. A meticulous examination of these characteristics would have revealed the following: the ability to achieve military gains having significant political-international weight was limited..

"Consequently, in making the decision to go to war, the government did not consider the whole range of options, including that of continuing the policy of ‘containment’, or combining political and diplomatic moves with military strikes below the ‘escalation level’, or military preparations without immediate military action -- so as to maintain for Israel the full range of responses to the abduction. This failure reflects weakness in strategic thinking, which derives the response to the event from a more comprehensive and encompassing picture...

"Some of the declared goals of the war were not clear and could not be achieved, and in part were not achievable by the authorized modes of military action."

In other words, the blunder wasn't in the conduct of the war, but in the decision to go to war in the first place and seek to root out an entrenched social and guerrilla movement with air power. This is exactly what many of us said at the time.

The primary blame for this fiasco is laid at the feet of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, whom the report accuses of, "a serious failure in exercising judgment, responsibility and prudence." The assessment of Defense Minister Amir Peretz is slightly more oblique in that the commission sees the problem in the fact that he was holding that post in the first place.

Most important for Israel's future policy may be this paragraph:
"The ability of Hezbollah to sit ‘on the border’, its ability to dictate the moment of escalation, and the growth of its military abilities and missile arsenal increased significantly as a result of Israel’s unilateral withdrawal in May 2000 (which was not followed, as had been hoped, by The Lebanese Army deploying on the border with Israel."

In immediate political terms, this may push Ami Ayalon ahead of former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, the one who withdrew from Lebanon, in this month's Labor primaries. While the commission itself may not change many minds on such a clear issue, the last time I checked things were close and any little bit could make a difference. From the standpoint of long-term strategy, however, I'm not sure unilateralism has a future. What the new strategic direction will be is up in the air.

(Crossposted to American Footprints)