Wednesday, June 3, 2009


I apologize to those of you who have been checking in for not posting in a while. I've been devoting all my writing energies to a new project, a book I'm writing about Bible sites in Israel. I'm very excited about it and am hoping to complete it by early 2010. Until then my blog will be in hibernation. Please check in every now and again for updates.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Bibi's Comeback

When Benjamin Netanyahu was elected prime minister in May, 1996 I walked around with a sick feeling in my stomach for weeks, if not months. Those were the halcyon days of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, when it looked as if we really were going to cobble together an agreement that would officially put an end to the conflict. I believed then that even Yitzhak Rabin's assassination by a right-wing religious fanatic could not stop the tremendous momentum of progress and optimism that was in the air everywhere, despite a number of horrendous terror attacks. When Bibi came to power on a wave of cynically manipulated fear politics everything grew dark. He was inexperienced, confrontational, sleazy, divisive and arrogant. He froze whatever remained of the chances to conclude an agreement, sowed animosity amongst Israelis and angered our closest allies. It was three years of frustration and cringing embarrassment; his humiliation at the polls by Ehud Barak in 1999 sent him packing in so much disgrace that he abandoned the leadership of his party and disappeared from politics. Good riddance.

Unfortunately, he's back in the driver's seat, claiming to be a better leader in light of his experience. Just the image of his puffy face and slightly sneering smile makes my stomach turn but I can't say I'm as upset this time as I was thirteen years ago. Not because he has redeemed himself in any way or has promised anything significant, but because I no longer feel optimistic about the peace process. What can he screw up? The Palestinians are so divided amongst themselves that they are incapable of even sitting down to negotiate with us because there is no leader in their camp who commands the respect and the mandate of the entire Palestinian people. Bibi's shenanigans were peanuts compared to the damage done by George Bush, who insisted that our neighbors hold democratic elections, bringing Hamas legally into power when so many moderate Palestinians voted for them after being fed up with the corruption and inefficacy of Fatah. There's a civil war going on over there - there's no one to talk to at the moment.

So I'm somewhat apathetic this time around. It looks like Bibi will ultimately form a narrow, right wing/religious coalition. From past experience, these kinds of partnerships do not usually last very long so hopefully they will eat each other alive. Add to that combination the imminent pressure that will come from Washington. Obama, Hillary Clinton and George Mitchell have no doubt read up on what a pain-in-the-ass Bibi was the last time around and will not tolerate being given the run around. I am personally willing to suffer a little international pressure on Israel to get things moving, providing the Palestinians deliver the goods. It is generally acknowledged that as radical Islam gets stronger in the region, the window on the two-state solution is growing smaller and smaller. There's a dire imperative to move ahead with the only really viable solution for us and them - two states for two people. This is the consensus today in Israel, yet Bibi is not even willing to articulate those words. The sooner he's out, the better.

But what's the alternative? Tzipi Livni and the Israeli left are going to have to work very hard to prove, from the opposition, that they can do it better. They are going to have to resurrect the very dead idea that a Palestinian state is good for Israel and find some very creative ways to convince us that they can make it happen. They will need to be pounding Bibi and his policies relentlessly amid all the hysteria about the Iranian threat. It is a near-impossible task.

In truth, though, I think that if the Palestinians could unify their ranks and present a sane, forward-looking face to the future then the citizens of Israel would send Bibi to the gulag. The fact is that when Israelis were feeling hopeful about peace in the 1990s they elected Yitzhak Rabin, and then later Ehud Barak to negotiate an agreement, fully aware that painful comromises would have to be made. As long as there's no viable partner on the other side, Bibi can't do all that much damage to our peace aspirations. Instead, he can devote his energies to denigrating the justice system, selling our national soul to the religious parties, destroying what's left of the economy and, in general, nurturing the slow breakdown of Israeli democracy.

Please, let it be over soon.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

After Elections

I'm considering cancelling my subscription to the newspaper I read so religiously every morning because I forsee lots of bad news for Israel in the immediate future. A little tzimtzum might be in order - a period of withdrawal, surrounded by texts and fully occupied by writing about things that have absolutely nothing to do with modern Israel.

The right wing was undeniably victorious in these elections, confirming a strong trend in Israeli society whose flames were fanned by the recent war in Gaza. Just like in 2001 when Ariel Sharon came to power after the outbreak of the second intifada, Israelis in 2009 are in need of a big, bad tough guy who's going to twirl his six shooters and make the Arabs quake in their boots. The surprise with big, bad Arik was his recognition that the view looks different from the driver's seat and his subsequent transformation from the father of the settlement movement to the disengager from Gaza. Sadly, there is no chance that Bibi Netanyahu will surprise us if and when he becomes the next prime minister, which appears imminent. Apart from the fact that he is insincere, sleazy and lacking an ounce of integrity, his party platform still stubbornly refuses to recognize the Israeli interest in the establishment of a Palestinian state despite years of opinion polls indicating this is now the consensus. The right, including Likud, Yisrael Beiteinu and the religious parties, wants its pound of flesh from the Palestinians in the form of a humiliating, long-term agreement that will lead nowhere - except to more hostilities.

Obama is not going to like this and will no doubt put the clamps on Netanyahu, possibly creating a severe crisis between Israel and our staunchest ally (if Obama has read what Bill Clinton and Dennis Ross had to say about Bibi he cannot be optimistic about working with him). The situation will only be exacerbated if Yvet Lieberman and his ilk are brought into the coalition, flying the flag of racism and facism under the flimsy disguise of nationalism. His party Yisrael Beitenu formerly appealed mostly to immigrants from the former Soviet Union, who are not known for their deep understanding of the importance of democracy. The most frightening trend of this election was the meteoric rise of Leiberman, thanks to the support of many veteran Israelis who are drawn to his no-nonsense approach, even though it flagrantly violates the basic principles of any democratic society. This man is extremely dangerous and the only way to eradicate the phenomenon that he represents is to keep him out of the coalition - to boycott his party as if it were a leper poised to infect all of Israeli society. With a staggering fifteen seats, fat chance of that ever happening.

The left, including Tzipi Livni, has crashed and burned. We are wounded and bewildered, wandering around in a daze. There is only one option for Kadima, Labor and Meretz and that is to categorically refuse to sit in a government headed by Bibi Netanyahu. If these parties respect themselves they will wait patiently in the opposition and use the time to rehabilitate themselves. We are going to need them because a heavily right-wing coalition including Likud, Leiberman, Shas, HaBayit Hayehudi and the other ultra-orthodox parties will consume itself within one to two years and we will see another chapter of the same cycle that brought us Bibi in 1996 and booted him out in 1999. Like big, bad Arik once said, politics in Israel is like a wheel: sometimes you're up, and sometimes you're down.

The left is lying on the floor on the verge of unconsciousness right now, a hard visual image to stomach when I think of where we were in 1999. Ehud Barak was prime minister, determined to reach an agreement with the Palestinians and the coalition was comprised of the brightest, most progressive Israeli politicians on the spectrum. It was the peace process dream team and one like it will probably never be elected in Israel again. The breakdown of negotiations at Camp David in August, 2000 was the quintessential example of the Palestinians never missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity, despite all the negative things that have been said about Barak in the wake of his abysmal failure. Would they turn the clock back if it was possible? I wish I could say 'yes' unwaveringly but I'm not sure that would be the case. Our rivals in this conflict operate according to a different set of rules than we do and part of the problem has been our inability to convince them to speak our language. Now they will have an Israeli government that speaks in a language they will understand very clearly. If I thought that could be a step in the process bringing us nearer to an agreement I could perhaps tolerate another round of Bibi, but I am completely and utterly without cause for optimism.

Friday, January 23, 2009

After the War

Now that the war seems to be over ('seems' being the operative word) we can freely continue to soul search about the results, the casualties and the long-term implications. Although the consensus in Israel was that, having exhausted all other possible channels, invading Gaza was our only choice to stop the rocket fire on civilians, there were not a few voices that urged restraint and retreat all throughout the military campaign. Most notable among them are Gideon Levy, a journalist for Haaaretz who's life mission has been to bring Palestinian suffering to Israeli public attention, and David Grossman, a well-known Israeli writer whose voice carries extra weight as the bereaved father of a soldier killed in the second Lebanon War of 2006. I believe that the strength of our democracy lies in enabling these very often unpopular voices to be heard in the most prominent of public forums and to generate constant discussion on the nature and values of the Jewish state. I use them to check myself by always keeping an ear open to the anti-consensus. Sometimes I find myself agreeing with them, but not this time.

Try this metaphor: a child from a liberal, well-educated, humanistic family that eats organic food, recyles and donates regularly to charity gets beaten up on a regular basis by a gang of thugs at school. Together with his parents, the kid devises strategies to convince them to leave him alone: hanging out with cool kids on the playground, organizing school-wide soccer competitions and talking to the principal, but nothing works. Day after day the kid is cornered by the gang and knocked around, until he's had enough. They next time they surround him, he puts up his dukes just like they taught him in kung fu class and beats the shit out of every one of them. They never bother him again. The moral of the story? Sometimes you have to play by their rules.

But we're still agonizing. Shoot and weep. Here are a few facts to ease the conscience:

-Haaretz reported: " a doctor at Gaza'a Shifa Hospital told an Italian journalist that the number of Palestinians killed in Gaza during Operation Cast Lead might have been 500 or 600, mostly young men between the ages of 17 and 23...The doctor said he was surprised that aid groups reported the numbers without confirming them...It is enough to visit a few hospitals to understand that the numbers don't jive." Previous reports were of over 1300 Palestinians killed, many women and children among them. It is important to note that the IDF chose to ban journalists from Gaza during the fighting, ostensibly for fear of their safety, more likely because they didn't want them in the way. Hopefully the lesson has been learned.
-A young Israeli woman has organized a charity drive for Palestinian families in Gaza and has collected several truckloads of clothing, children's toys and various other necessities donated by other Israelis who wish to help.
-A French documentary aired on Israel's Channel One on Wednesday showed an interview with a Palestinian Fatah supporter in Gaza whose legs were amputated after he was shot and left for dead by Hamas militants. He noted that when he was injured by Israelis,a soldier saved him but that his own people had shot him six times. A few minutes after the interview was aired the man was arrested and tortured by Hamas. Channel One, feeling responsible for his safety, managed to pull strings with the army and sneak him out of Gaza, effectively saving his life. Is there another people on earth who would do that?
-Ari Folman's anti-war movie "Waltz With Bashir" was nominated yesterday for an Oscar in the category of best foreign film. If you have not yet seen it run out and do so. By combining animation and documentary Folman has created a new genre in film and yet another way for Israelis to examine our identity, our values and the very problematic reality in which we live. It is extraordinary that while we were fighting yet another war this film has been recognized as a powerful medium for deglorifying armed conflict.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Some Thoughts on the Gaza Situation

Today is the fourteenth day of the war in Gaza. Most bloggers around here have been posting furiously about the day-to-day events but I have been hesitant to write, mostly out of a sense that there is nothing new to be said. It's the same, old broken record about terrorist rockets on Israeli civilians, the straw that broke the camel's back, the national consensus behind the decision to go to war, the inevitable accidental bomb on innocent Palestinian non-combatants, the international pressure to end it and the scramble to find an exit strategy. It's hard to come up with something new, but here are a few of my thoughts:

On the positive side, the Israeli professionals running the war are the Jewish people's finest. The measured, well-thought out direction of the war by Ehud Barak and Gabi Ashkenazi is in striking contrast to the fiasco of the second Lebanon war in 2006. At this stage of the game it's still too early to know if we will achieve our objectives in the end but it's clear that the mistakes of 2006 were carefully studied and the recommendations of the commission of inquiry have been internalized by the army. The dedication and motivation of the soldiers is inspiring. The families who have lost soldiers have displayed extraordinary strength and stoicism. It's been a while since we were this united.

On the other hand, it's hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel. A Palestinian friend of mine asked me, "did you have to go in there with F16s?" I find this simple, ostensibly legitimate question to be indicative of the Arab perspective in general vis a vis the Palestinian quandry. Beneath it lies the acknowledgement of Israeli military superiority and the inevitable conclusion that a war against Israel can never be won. Western logic would say, then let's cut our losses and take the best deal we can get. Establish a state. Give our children normal lives. Move on. The whole world is waiting with open arms to welcome the state of Palestine to the family of nations. Whatever resources they need to develop economic infrastructure, educational institutions, mass transit, leadership training, etc. will be donated with love from any number of countries standing on line to help, including Israel. These are the best possible conditions in which to be the loser.

But no one on their side is capable of admitting defeat. Their lost honor must be restored, the injustice must be rectified. The most charismatic Palestinian leaders rise to the top of the heap spouting nationalist rhetoric about marching to Al Aktsa but none has ever spoken the truth: that it's not going to happen. The emperor has no clothes on but the Palestinians refuse to acknowledge his nakedness. The other Arab countries are willing partners to the deception. None of them is happy about the establishment of an Islamic republic by Hamas in Gaza, perhaps the most ominous threat to regional stability at the moment. However, while they have all privately given Israel the go-ahead to smash Hamas none of them will publicly admit it. Hamas is a menace and the suffering of Palestinian civilians furthers their cause.

The Palestinians who live in Israel express outrage over what is happening but none of them is willing to relinquish what they are entitled to as citizens of the the State of Israel. The right to protest publicly, health care, education, the rule of law and order, good roads and welfare benefits are not available in the West Bank and Gaza. Palestinian Israelis hate us with a passion but none of them has any plans to leave for the kingdom of Abu Mazen and Ismail Haniyeh. Their vociferous protests (to which they are legally and morally entitled) are a fig leaf for the real truth: self-interest, the engine that powers Palestinian politics. The main thing is to take care of my family, my clan, my organization, my ideology. It's hard to believe that anyone in the Palestinian leadership truly represents the interests of the Palestinian people.

Hamas' choice to wage war means Palestinian suffering will continue and any semblance of normalcy will remain beyond their reach. In Israel we will continue to shoot and weep. How tragic to see, over and over again, miserable families in Gaza who've lost their homes and loved ones used as cannon fodder for the "greater Palestinian cause." Would those families really choose the option of provocation and belligerence over a viable independent entity and a chance to live in dignity? A telling anecdote in an article by the Israeli journalist Amira Hass writing in Haaretz noted that despite the terrible tension, a group of Gazan businessmen she met recently had been gathering weekly to learn Hebrew. To me, that says it all: that somewhere in the future these men envision themselves living in peace alongside Israel.

So why keep fighting? Let's put down the guns and talk, work it out. We can do great things for everybody here. Is anyone on that side listening?

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Circle Game

Now that Obama and Barkat are safely esconsed in their new offices we can direct all of our political angst toward the upcoming Israeli elections for the Knesset on February 10, 2009. The current surveys are predicting a major comeback for the Likud, which is expected to catapult from its current eight seats to more than thirty, soundly defeating Labor as it crashes and burns with under ten seats, and overtaking its current rival Kadima, with Tzipi Livni at the helm, with around twenty-six. With eight weeks to go, anything can happen to upset these predictions but the way things are looking now, our next prime minister will be Benjamin Netanyahu.

After being defeated, Israeli politicians don't trudge home with their tails between their legs and retire quietly from public life. Instead, they wait patiently for the disgrace to dissipate, and then rise miraculously, like a phoenix from the ashes, to return to the political arena and save the country from imminent disaster. The magic words seem to be, "I've changed. I've learned from my experience." The Israeli voter, who has a notoriously short memory, buys into the whole cycle - or recycle, as it were - no matter how bitter the disappointment was in the first round.

(Let it be noted that succesful paradigms for the reformed leader do exist, the best case-in-point being Yitzhak Rabin, who fell from grace thanks to his wife's illegal American bank account in his first round as prime minister in the early 80s. Like the idolotrous people of Israel sent back into the wilderness as a punishment, Rabin waited patiently in the political desert for close to ten years but ultimately returned to the prime minister's office, big-time, to initiate negotiations with the Palestinians with the blessing of an overwhelming majority of the electorate. In a theoretical mode, I can't help thinking what Hillary could have done with health care reform second time around, with the wealth of bitter experience she has accumulated. Wouldn't we all be better parents if we had to start over again when our children reached eighteen?)

Yet, the expected return of the Likud is not a simple case of Israeli amnesia. Instead, it signifies a deep flaw in the Israeli electorate's perception of the conflict with the Palestinians since the signing of the Oslo Accords. The cycle goes like this: the Palestinians initiate a wave of violence that claims a critical mass of Israeli casualties. A right-wing leader who, in the campaign claims to be a tough guy, is elected to put the Arabs in their place. He sends the peace process to the deep freeze, incurs the wrath of the family of nations and the security situation deteriorates. He is ultimately forced to make conciliatory gestures to the enemy, proving that there is no possiblity of maintaining any kind of status quo. The Israeli electorate realizes that the right cannot make the giant steps necessary to bring about significant change. The leader is booted out of office and the left is back in the driver's seat.

An earlier example of this pattern is Yitzhak Shamir's defeat by Rabin in 1992. The next round in the cycle was Netanyahu's election in May 1996, following Rabin's assasination and three major suicide bombings not long afterwards. Many who had voted for Rabin now questioned the remaining Labor leadership's ability to navigate the process and the Palestinian's committment to it. Bibi rode in on a campaign of 'full gas in neutral,' and attempted to halt the significant concessions Israel had planned to make to the Palestinians. In addition to isolating Israel from the international community, he was not able to stop the suicide bombings and was ultimately forced to rejoin the Palestinians at the negotiating table at the Wye plantation, even shaking hands with Arafat. Bibi was not able to fulfill the promise of improved security by putting the process on hold and suffered a humiliating defeat by Ehud Barak and the Labor party in 1999, one year before the expiration of his term of office.

Barak suffered his own fall from grace when he bankrupted the left's account by failing to negotiate a final agreement with Arafat in August, 2000 at Camp David. The 'true face' of the Palestinians was revealed when the second intifada broke out in September, 2000. In the face of Palestinian violence the people cried out for an iron fist and Barak was sent home by Ariel Sharon, the consummate Israeli tough guy. Sharon was not able to stop the waves of suicide bombers and the drive-by shootings with a hard line, hawkish approach. However, in one of the most brilliant maneuvers of Israeli politics, instead of allowing the left to unseat him, he chose to become the left by adopting two far-reaching strategies that were vehemently condemned by his own party, the Likud: the building of the separation wall and the disengagement from the Gaza strip. In fact, in order to implement these strategies he had to break away from the Likud and form Kadima, a new, centrist party, together with many of his political comrades who had come to the same conclusion - that the Likud was not capable of making the painful concessions demanded of Israel to put an end to the conflict.

And now we see the latest version of the cycle: the new wave of Palestinian violence is of course the constant rocket fire from the evacuated Gaza strip on Israeli civilian settlements. Everyone consciously understands that, given the current Palestinian political constellation, the only way to stop the rockets is the complete recapture of the Gaza strip, an undertaking that will no doubt result in many casualties and will have far-reaching implications for Israel and should therefore be considered very carefully. However, Bibi's meteoric rise in popularity indicates that the people want a tough guy in charge. Just as a leapoard cannot change his spots, Bibi is the same Bibi. The people clamoring for his reelection do not hear him speaking from two sides of his mouth - the belligerent, "they give, they get; they don't give, they don't get" side and the "Yes, Obama, I will work with you to bring peace to the Middle East" side. Irrelevant is the fact that Bibi's plan for 'economic peace' has been proven many times over to be a sham. The Israeli public wants to punish the Palestinians by electing someone who will give them nothing. The Likud, riddled with incompetent leadership and corruption and nearly erased from the political map just a few years ago, is once again poised to take the helm of the government of Israel. (It goes without saying that this scenario makes me sick.)

Ehud Olmert as prime minister was crucified for rushing into war with Lebanon. Ehud Barak as defense minister is roundly criticized for not launching a military operation into Gaza. Political leadership should be sent home when they fail but our reality is so complex that in many cases success and failure can only be measured in retrospect. The Israeli public wants instant results; the repetition of these voting patterns can perhaps be understood as a refusal to acknowledge that change is a slow process. Heaven help us.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

We Won

The long-awaited election day for the mayor of Jerusalem finally arrived last Tuesday. For several years I have been volunteering for Meretz, my party of choice, on election day. Usually I serve at a polling station registering voters as they come in, together with a board of two other party representatives and an official from the board of elections. The remaining parties often have observers present, so everyone can ensure that the voting is done according to the rules. This year I asked for the vice secretary position because the head has to accompany the official to city hall to turn over the ballot box. This is done after all the votes have been counted, late at night, and I had to get up early for work the next morning. I had the last shift, from 6-10 pm, including the count after the polls closed.

I was assigned to a poll at a school in Givat Massua, a largely secular new nightborhood on the southwestern edge of the city. When I arrived at 6, many parents with young children were waiting on line to vote, a good sign. I presented my credentials to the board of elections official, a stunningly beautiful young woman named Natalie who had just recently finished her army service and was earning a handsome salary for this one-day stint. Turned out that Natalie was not the sharpest tool in the shed. The other two party reps at the table, also very young, were more interested in keeping records for their own parties than running the show according to the rules and Natalie wasn't laying down the law. When a twelfth grader with short hair presented his ID, where he had long hair, Natalie assured him, "You look much better now." While she went out for a smoke, a man came in, presented his ID and almost voted when I realized he was not on our list, because he was at the wrong polling station. When Natalie came back I asked her to call out the voters' names in order to ensure we had the right person but she ignored me (the end result was a descrepancy of ten voters between the lists because of the chaos).

The seventeen-year old from the right-wing National Union seemed to think he was at a student council meeting, suggesting frequently that we discard the protocol and just do things the quick way. Another young man with strawberry blonde pais, from the ultras, replaced him for a while and seemed to take things a bit more seriously. Watching from the side were two observers: the Shas guy, a tall, gangly university student who wasn't even wearing a kippa, with whom I enjoyed a surprisingly enlightened discussion on the Jewish roots of democracy during a lull; and Arcady Gaydamak's rep, a kid named Shlomi right out of central casting. Dressed in tight jeans with a wide leather belt, a gold earring and sporting longish hair, he was the classic image of what we used to call a chach chach, better known in my kids' generation as an arse. (I caught him and Natalie about to light up their cigarettes in the room after we closed the poll and sent them you-know-where.)

A crisis erupted when Edna, the woman in charge of all the polling stations in the school, came around to ask who was going with Natalie to city hall after we finished counting. "I can't, my brother's in the hospital," said the third member of the board, a ditzy law student from Nir Barkat's party. "I'm not going," declared Matan the 17 year-old, "I have to be at school at 7:30 tomorrow." I'd be damned if they stuck me with that job. "You're the head," I told Matan. "It's your job to go." He proceeded to throw a tantrum. I tried to explain to him that he had been given a responsibility with his position but it was like a teacher trying to convince a ninth-grader to stay after school - the kid couldn't have cared less about the responsibility. Since there was no one else, I reluctantly volunteered to go.

When it came time to count the votes, Natalie fell apart. Despite clearly-written instuctions from the board of elections about what to do, she was helpless. Luckily, Edna read the situation and showed up to run the show. We had to open and count 580 envelopes for the mayor and 580 envelopes for the city council. Everyone pitched in to get the job done with a surprising esprit de corps, considering what a bunch of jerks most of them had been earlier in the evening. Even Shlomi helped open envelopes, although after a while he got bored and put on his sunglasses. "Where did they find you?" I asked him.

Not surprisingly, Nir Barkat took this station by a landslide. My party, Meretz, did very well too, so well that 17 and blond pais began making cracks about the friggin' liberals (smolanim maniakim) every time a Meretz vote was registered. (Later on blond pais smiled at me and apologized if he had hurt my feelings.) In the end, the ditzy law student whose brother was in the hospital discovered her boyfriend was going to city hall with another polling station, so she volunteered to go and I was off the hook. I still got home at 2 am.

I'm thrilled to report that the ultra-orthodox candidate for mayor of Jerusalem was defeated by Nir Barkat, thanks to the fact that secular Jerusalemites took the time and trouble to vote, which typically hasn't been the case in the past. I think that many people realized the dire situation ahead if the city remained in religious hands for another five years. Barkat is still a question mark but hopefully he will not disappoint - I will be keeping tabs on him.