Wednesday, January 30, 2008

A Snow Job In Jerusalem?

It snows in Jerusalem and the world stops. Or almost.
Schools and most places of business close.
Drivers are warned to stay in the house.
The television is filled with clips of Mayor Luplianski sitting on a snowplow
ready for the white powder to attempt to disable his city.

Weather reports began the hype two days earlier. To many snow in Jerusalem is more exciting than the visit of U.S. President Bush.

When it snows in Jerusalem some Tel Aviv residents pile their kids in the cars and drive up the hill about thirty miles to let them toss snowballs at each other. Years later these children will remember driving up from the Mediterranean and the snowfall in Jerusalem and the ‘dangerous’ drive up the mountain to reach the 800 meter high city.

The snow however, was slow in coming. TV ratings may have soared as concerned parents tuned in to see if their children would be in school the next day, and employees to find out if they were going to work, but in the end it was all ratings oriented hype.
As Mark Twain has often been quoted as saying, “Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.”

Truth is the first day the snow was really slush, no more serious than a wimpy spring storm in Minneapolis. Besides the splashing of water beneath the tires, driving wasn’t impaired. Those who were raised in harsh winter climates shook their heads at the fuss. One was warned that if the temperature dropped further, ice would make driving difficult to impossible. Fortunately, snow and ice in Jerusalem rarely lasted more than a few hours, maybe a day. One extremely rare occasion, two days, but according to the weather reports that two-day period only came around once every seven years.

As luck would have it, those poor souls who were forced to the U.S. Consulate in East Jerusalem during this cold snap were in for a tortuous experience. For understandable and justifiable security reasons the U.S. Consulate is essentially a fortress. Armed guards patrol the perimeter around Salahadin Street. The high walls are topped with barbed wire. Guards sit in bulletproof huts behind cement anti-car bomb barriers, suspiciously watching anyone who approaches.

The newest security precaution is appointments. In order to come to the Embassy in Tel Aviv or Consulate in Jerusalem for a visa, a social security question, or a passport issue, one must sign up on-line, make an appointment weeks in advance, then present oneself promptly at the Consulate at the designated hour.

Two days ago, as the temperatures plunged to allow snow to form from the rain and make the weathermen seem more like professionals, those arriving at the U.S. Consulate were in for a bitter surprise. First they had to sign in with a guard inside a bullet-proof cage, who checked to make certain the name was listed. Then the visitor was given a number, and shown to a bullet-proof glass door, which needed to be locked and unlocked after each visitor entered, then through a metal detector, afterwards depositing anything potentially dangerous, including a mobile phone; finally one was allowed into an open courtyard covered by thin sheets of opaque plastic, held up by light aluminum. On a nice spring day the courtyard was undoubtedly pleasant; but with the temperatures in the high thirties or low forties (about 7 degrees C) the courtyard was like a refrigerator.

On the day of our visit the courtyard held about thirty people, some ultra-Orthodox Jews, some Arabs, some secular Israelis. One was a journalist seeking a visa to the US to cover the primary elections, the famed Super-Tuesday.

All were sitting down waiting for their number to be called. One couple, a Hassid and his New York born wife, had a six-month old baby girl in a pink snowsuit with them. Another ultra-Orthodox family had a cute little two-year old girl in a skirt and long stockings. It was ten thirty when we sat down beside an American woman from Florida who had come to apply for a new passport since hers was lost and she was scheduled to leave the country in two weeks.

One of the things about waiting for extended periods of time is that boredom sets in. People begin to talk to each other. This woman was a Christian Missionary who was doing Good Works in the Palestinian Refugee Camps, passing out milk, raising money for hospital beds, teaching the Lord’s word of Peace. In our opinion her message was certainly needed. Any help that could be given to the poor was good work, and any influence to allow people to be exposed to the message of Peace was a good influence.

The other thing that happens with waiting is the cold. As the numbers slowly were called, the frigid air bit deeper into the clothing reaching all the way to the skin, eventually to the bone.

One of the women waiting with her elderly father, an ultra-Orthodox Jewish man with a long beard, wearing the traditional ‘beged Yerusalmi’ the long black satin coat and black hat, said she’d been there in the summer and the sun beat down as mercilessly as the cold ate through clothing. Now the cold was chilling her father in his thin coat.

So why, one asks, are people, visitors to the USA and citizens, required to wait out in the cold, or the boiling heat, for their number to be called? The courtyard had a wall around it, supporting the aluminum and the plastic ceiling but a few feet of space existed between the top of the wall and the roof, space open to the elements. One wonders why couldn’t the US Government have built a proper waiting room; put in heat? (Fans in the summer?)

When the question was asked of the guards, they said, “Ask the Consul once you’re inside.” As if a visitor every saw the Consul, unless the visitor was a VIP. When the guards were asked to call a representative of the agency to explain why visitors and US citizens were forced to sit out in the cold, the guard said, “People ask that every day. No one ever comes.” At least let the baby inside, the guard was told. That, eventually happened.

An hour and a half after the scheduled appointment, by which time noses were running, and coughs developing, our number was finally called. Inside we found a different world. The space was small, but warm.

The clerks behind the bullet-proof glass in the room were quite pleasant, helpful, and efficient. But getting to that point was like the search for Shangra-La. One assumes that budget and a massive bureaucracy would have to be overcome before the conditions were made more amenable to the common man (one can’t imagine the nephew of U.S. Sec Rice, VP Cheeney, or Pres. Bush’s nephew, or a Congressman’s favorite donor, waiting out in the cold. But that’s another matter.)

One of the clerks behind the window clucked when told how long the wait had been, and said the suggestion had been made to put a message on the website to prepare for an outdoor wait, but the suggestion was vetoed by those managing the Consulate. Too bad. Watching the Vikings play San Fransciso in an outdoor Minnesota game would have warranted thermal underwear, hats, gloves, down jackets and wool pants. Who ever imagined the same was needed in Jerusalem just to visit the Consulate.

Two days later the snow began. One wonders what those poor souls sitting out in the courtyard did for warmth until their number was called.

Meanwhile Jerusalem’s main roads to Benei HaUmah were clear. Three hundred journalists were expected to descend on the Conference Center to hear the results of the Winnograd Commission read out to the public. By tomorrow the snow may be gone, but the echoes of the Commission’s findings will be bouncing around the media for weeks to come. There’s even talk of another commission to investigate the findings of the Winnograd Commission. The new commission would have teeth, pundits say.

By all accounts, the IDF will be blamed for the loss of life, injury, and disappointment, of the War in Lebanon II, with PM Olmert excused from major blame. The question is, though, will the public sit still for the results, or demand some punishment of the government’s leaders beyond the criticism aimed at the IDF? Most Israelis think PM Olmert will survive the report, crediting him with being one of the most polished and wily politicians ever to sit in the PM’s chair.

Maybe the Winnograd Commission will turn out to be just a snow job, but meanwhile its going to be interesting to watch if PM Olmert manages to keep his footing on the icy paths of Jerusalem once the Winnograd Commission’s findings are made public.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

A Wall Of Swiss Cheese

According to Israeli press reports, the Moslem Brotherhood sent a delegation to Gaza to speak with Hamas leaders in the wake of the breach of the Gaza/Egypt border. The coalition of these two groups has Israeli security officials on edge.

This development dovetails with media reports of a convergence of militant groups, including Islamic Jihad, Hamas, and Al-Quada, in the Sinai desert. This meeting follows the holes punched in the border wall by Hamas explosives. Israeli defense officials are reportedly deeply concerned about this conclave of militants.

In a related development, because of the “massive passage of Palestinians in the past few days from the Gaza Strip to Sinai, the IDF spokesman’s office stated in a Jan 26th communiqué, that Israel has closed some roads in the Negev to tourist traffic, as well as some tourist attractions. Some reports speculate that the militant groups are planning to use the porous border to infiltrate suicide bombers into the south of Israel.

Meanwhile Egypt has made a so far unsuccessful effort to reseal the border, sending troops to keep the Gaza residents from spilling out of the immediate area of the hole in the wall and into Egypt proper. Some Gazans have already reached the Sinai. Others are trying to make their way deeper into Egypt.

The Egyptian government is reportedly concerned that Hamas militants will tie up with the Moslem Brotherhood inside Egypt, and along with other extremist organizations, wreck havoc through terrorist attacks aimed at unseating Egyptian president Hosnei Mubarak.

Egypt also ordered all the stores in Al Arish to close. The Gazans have been pouring into nearby Al Arish, just across the Egyptian border, in order to buy everything from goats to cigarettes. The news is filled with photographs of Gazans moving small herds of sheep, wheeling boxes of cigarettes on trollys, or carrying cartons with space heaters, back into Gaza. The price of goods in Al Arish is significantly cheaper than Gaza.

With the removal of Al Arish as a shopping point, Egypt hopes to keep the Gazans within the confines of the Gaza Strip.

This was the fifth day in a row that Gazans flowed across the holes in the border into Egypt.

Meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority has asked Egypt for permission to take charge of the Rafiah border crossing, replacing the Egyptians. Egypt took over the border crossing when Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip over two years ago. Egypt then gave Israel guarantees that no smuggling would take place from Egypt into Gaza, but the promises were never kept.

Egypt has agreed in principal to the PA request, according to the Haaretz newspaper. Hamas reportedly has also asked to be in charge of the border crossing. Egypt has never recognized the legitimacy of Hamas control over Gaza. The PA president Mohammed Abbas has so far said he refuses to talk with Hamas. Pundits believe that Hamas will ultimately act as the spoiler and prevent the PA from taking over control.

Israeli security sources say that money, guns, and ammunition, have been smuggled back into Gaza through the holes in the fence, effectively canceling any gains Israel made by cutting off the supply of some goods to Gaza. Hamas reportedly had been working for months on a plan to blow up this border fence.

Some Israeli sources say that the holes in the fence proves that Egypt could alleviate the problems of housing, medicine, and food, all in short supply in Gaza, by simply allowing the Gazans to move into Egypt. But Egypt reportedly wants no part of the Gazans, who would bring with them the Hamas style of Islamic fundamentalism, further threatening Mubarak’s regime.

The last time Jerusalem Magazine even mentioned the words Moslem Brotherhood, we received e-mails from that organization reminding us that they were aware of any mention to their cause made in our magazine or on the internet.

Spooky. But that’s life in the Middle East.

Nazareth and Upper Nazareth were declared International cities by the CEO of Cisco, John Chambers. Cisco is donating over $2.5 million to install advanced internet and communications systems providing the two towns with internet services for schools, hospitals, and even churches.

The Galilee is also not immune from terrorist incidents. According to the Prime Minister’s Media Adviser’s office, about20 Israeli Arabs from Jisr A-Zarka and the Wadi Ara region were recently arrested on illegal weapons trafficking. Six of those arrested were indicted today (Sunday), 27.1.08.

Hamza Masri, 24, from Kafr Kara, is accused of trafficking in weapons and munitions with Shahar Hanina, 41, the head of the Fatah backed Tanzim in the West Bank town of Qalkilya. The police allege that Masri acquired a pistol for Hanina in 2005,, as well as a 15-kilogram bag of potassium for use in preparing explosives, Allegedly Masri was fully aware of the intended use of the potassium.

Masri was arrested in 2005 and warned about his ties with Hanina, whom he knew headed the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades in Kalkilya. According to the indictment upon his release later in 2005, Masri continued his links with Hanina. Masri allegedly purchased tens of thousands of dollars' worth of weapons and munitions for Hanina, including an M-16, a hunting rifle and a laser sight for an M-16.

The rash of terrorist incidents in Israel have continued. Over the weekend another border guard was stabbed at the entrance to Jerusalem near the Shuafat refugee camp. Last week a border guard was stabbed to death near the same area.

Israel is expected to be hit with its first major storm of the season. While the Mekorot water authority has been complaining about the falling level of the water supplies in Israel, the meteorological society predicts heavy rains starting on Tuesday night, turning to snow in the hilly areas on Wednesday.

As a rule, when snow falls in Israel, work in the hilly regions, like Jerusalem, and Safed and the Galilee, stops, and tourists load the children into cars and drive to the area to allow their children a rare chance to see snow.

Mekorot, which had offered a walking tour of the water lines in the Galilee, cancelled their offer due to the impending storms.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Superficial, Banal, Trivial

The closure of Gaza has elicited reactions on the left and right in Israel and around the world.
Israeli Knesset members showed up at the Gaza checkpoint to protest either the resumption of supplies
into Gaza, or to demand that the shipping of the supplies be resumed.

One analyst told Israel radio that the Arab Knesset members were quick to show up to protest the closure of
Gaza, but were nowhere to be seen when the Jews of Sderot were attacked. Another analyst said that it is the
Arabs who vote for the Arab Knesset members, not the Jews, and politics was politics.

What was clear, however, was that the closure of the Gaza supply lines from Israel had an immediate effect on the Hamas and Islamic Jihad militants. Before the closure fifty rockets a day fell on the Western Negev, during the closure only two. As a columnist wrote in the Jerusalem Post, you don't have to be a rocket scientist to figure out the cause and effect of the closure.

Humanitarian considerations for the Palestinians in Gaza aside, the closure was the most effective weapon Israel has yet deployed in the seven-year fight to stop the rockets falling on Israel.

The PA government in Gaza lead by Hamas employed all the public relations tricks learned in decades of struggle. Bare-chested pre-teenaged boys marched through the streets of Gaza protesting the closure. Photos and footage of women, covered head to foot in fabric, cooking over a Primus stove in a primitive kitchen were plastered around the globe. Reports of severe shortages of fuel, food, water, were plentiful, even though former British Prime Minister, now the EU envoy to the Middle East, said his agency was assured no shortages existed.

Twenty years ago then Defense Minister Ezer Weizman deported four hundred Hamas men from Israel to Lebanon. Rather than take their suitcases and continue on their way, these men pitched tents and held public relations side-shows every day. When the winter set in TV crews were happy to film these men hunkered down around a fire in front of their tents protesting Israeli inhumanity. Eventually they were allowed back into Israel. This victory was just one of many Hamas has successfully run in the media.

Israel isn't a heartless brutal dictatorship, no matter what her enemies say. Israel is, according to most reports, a vibrant democracy. Bleeding heart liberals abound in Israel. Thus it was only a matter of time until the closure weapon was put back in the holster.

The Hamas criticism of Israel was superficial, banal, and trivial. It did not cut to the heart of the matter, which is that, as Israeli President Shimon Peres said, if Hamas wants to stop the closure they should simply stop firing rockets into Israel.
But according to pundits Hamas won't stop firing rockets into Israel. The goal is to force Israel into a cease-fire. Israel will concede Hamas has brought the Israelis to the negotiating table, and agree to stop firing if Israel stops attacks into Gaza, and forbids another closure.

No mention is made of the fact that Israel expended tremendous energy and expense in withdrawing Isaeli settlements from Gaza a few years ago in order to bring peace to the region. But Hamas ignored this withdrawl and kept on with their attacks. The PR of Hamas manages to eclipse any concessions Israel makes. They are brilliant at manipulating the media. Israel, with all the resources at her disposal runs a poor second.

Some say that PM Ehud Olmert is now seeking the right strategy to avoid the wave of criticism which will befall him after the dreaded Winograd commission makes its findings known at the end of the month. Some believe that by making a fuss at the Gaza border, Olmert can appear to be the tough leader, fighting for the well being of the country. Time will tell if that strategy works.

However, an old article by Nachum Barnea which appeared in the Yideot Achranot newspaper is worth re-reading. It was written during the height of the last war in Lebanon.,7340,L-3287515,00.html

Whatever happens now, will only be an explanation of what happened then.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

The Seams

The seams around the coalition sewn together by PM Ehud Olmert are coming undone. Minister of Transportation Shaul Mofaz of the Kadmah party, who is both a former Defense Minister and Chief-of-Staff, came out against PM Olmert’s decision to enter the war in Lebanon II only a few days before the cease-fire.

One of the Kadima stalwarts criticized Mofaz, telling Israel Radio that it was unethical for a member of the party to criticize the leader of the party in public. Mofaz was urged to resign his cabinet post if he was unhappy with Olmert, who is also the leader of the Kadmiah party.

At the end of last week Mofaz also said that Israel should start thinking about a virtual two-state solution with the Palestinians. The same party official also reminded the listeners that it was Mofaz who scaled back the IDF and opened it up to the vulnerabilities which Hezbollah exploited.

Avigdor Leiberman, of the right-wing Israel Beitenu party, and is also a Minister in Olmert’s cabinet, has said he would pull his party out of the coalition if PM Olmert made any core concessions to the Palestinian Authority in the wake of President George W. Bush’s visit to Israel.

Members of the labor party are also calling for Minister of Defense Ehud Barak to keep to his word and withdraw from the coalition if the Winnograd commission’s report harshly criticizes PM Olmert’s behavior in the last war in Lebanon. The commission's report is due out in two weeks. Some analysts think that the sharks smell Olmert’s blood, and want to be in position to be out of range when the critics start to tear Olmert apart following the publication of the report.

The mood in Israel changed slightly during the visit of U.S. President George W. Bush. President Bush told the press that he was the first US president to ever come out publicly for a two-state solution, and push to have talks proceed to implement this objective.

Analysts have said that Bush is probably the best chance the two sides have if they ever want to reach a peace settlement. President Bush is deeply committed to a two-state solution and said he would work tirelessly to see it come to fruition. Pundits say that none of the Presidential candidates on the horizon would be as committed. Slowly the Israeli public is beginning to see that President Bush may just be their best hope for peace with the Palestinians.

This type of radical thinking has caused a few jaws to drop. Up until and even during the beginning of his visit, most analysts discounted any positive conclusion from the Bush visit, just as they shook their heads in dismay at the Annapolis Summit’s lack of progress. However the US President made it clear he was the best opportunity, and that if the Palestinians and the Israelis wanted to start making some progress, now is the time.

Some observers believe that even if PM Olmert is tossed out of office over the Winnograd Commission’s report, whoever takes his place will be able to seize the reins of the same bandwagon that US President Bush has placed on the parade grounds. President Bush has until Dec 31, 2008 to implement his goals. Some people believe that the Israeli establishment might just begin to move in the direction Bush outlined.

Should U.S. Sec of State Condoleeza Rice begin to put pressure on both Israel and the Palestinians, and couple the pressure with some type of shuttle diplomacy, it is possible that some sort of agreement can be hammered out by the time Israel’s 60th birthday party rolls around. President Bush has said he would return for the celebrations, and has accepted an invitation to speak at the Knesset, Israel’s Parliament.

As far as the U.S. Presidential race goes, a recent poll shows that most Israelis favor Hilary Clinton over Barak Obama for the Democratic nomination. While observers are convinced that Obama would continue the strong support of the US for Israel should he be elected, they are skeptical of Obama’s commitment to furthering the peace process, and concerned he may be more sympathetic to the Palestinian cause than the Israeli.

The New England Patriots defeated the Tennessee Titans in the playoffs for the NFL division championships. Israelis are rooting for New England since the owners, the Kraft family, are generous supporters of Jewish and Israeli causes. Among other charitable pursuits, the Krafts donated a small football and baseball field a stone’s throw from Israel’s Knesset.

The 16-0 Patriots are expected to go to the Super Bowl. Robert Kraft, the patriarch of the family, has said that since donating the football field, and made some other gifts in Israel, the Patriots have had winning seasons.

Maybe he should donate a new conference hall for the various sides to the Arab-Israeli conflict to have their discussions, sort of a mini-UN. If peace is achieved, he may well be guaranteed not only an NFL championship, but a box seat in the world to come.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Possible or Probable?

Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran are all sending messages to the USA on the eve of President Bush’s visit to Israel.

Hamas fired a relatively long-range 122mm Grad missile out of Gaza, landing the other side of the Israeli sea-side city of Ashkelon, the first time Hamas has fired past the nearby Negev desert and the familiar target of Sderot.

Terrorists fired two 107mm Katyusha rockets into the western Galilee. Both landed in Shlomi, one near a residence the other in a street. There was no damage or injuries.It is not clear if the missiles were fired by Hezbollah, a militant faction of Fatah, or Al-Qaida. Observers say that little takes place in S. Lebanon without Hezbollah's knowledge or approval.

UNIFIL, The UN Peace-Keeping force in Lebanon, responsible along with the Lebanese government, for preventing Hezbollah from firing rockets into Israel, said they were investigating the event.

Israeli politicians pointed the finger of blame at the Lebanese government, whose army was supposed to be controlling Southern Lebanon. Israel’s Minister of Defense Ehud Barak called the Hezbollah missile attack ‘grave,’ but reportedly isn’t going to do anything in retaliation. At least until President Bush leaves the region.

According to Israel Radio, Hezbollah began a series of attacks that lead to the last War in Lebanon because Lebanese politicians wanted to disarm that terrorist group. The radio analysts said that by bringing heat on the region, Hezbollah showed that it could destroy Lebanon internally if it wanted to, and invite Israel to help from outside by baiting her into military retaliations.

Iran attacked from a different front, sending warships close to the American fleet sailing near the Straits of Hormuz, even sending out a message saying they were about to attack. The US ships prepared to blow the Iranians out of the water but at the last minute, just 200 yards from the US ships, the Iranians turned back.

Israeli analysts say that Bush is coming to Israel to not only reassure Israel that they consider the Iranian nuclear threat real, but also to discuss an American plan to put a neutral military force in the West Bank, to fill the vacuum once Israel withdraws, and the Palestinian Authority declares a state.

Analysts say the US has raised the idea of Jordanian or Egyptian troops to fill this role. However, U.S. Sec. Of State Condoleeza Rice blasted Egypt Monday for not doing enough to seal up the tunnels along the Philadelphi route, which Israel turned over to Egypt for safe-keeping, after the Israelis pulled out of Gaza.

Should the peacekeepers that U.S. President Bush has in mind for the West Bank do as lousy a job as the Egyptians are doing, then the peace will be very brief. Both Egypt and Jordan have vested interests in keeping up good relations with the Palestinians, including Hamas. Just as Egypt has been reticent to impede Hamas’ activities in Gaza, pundits believe Egypt will be just as reticent to impede Palestinian militants, including Hamas, who might attack Israel from the West Bank once a Palestinian State is established there.

Jordan is a weak monarchy with the Palestinians making up a majority of the population. While the young king is definitely pro-American, he is also not anti-Arab. Analysts think that placing him in the position of protecting Israel would only backfire. Historians remind observers that Jordan officially rid itself of the West Bank shortly before making peace with Israel, turning the land over to the Palestinian Authority. Jordan returning to the West Bank with a military force seems highly unlikely, and undesirable.

Any “Peace Keeping” force that moves into the West Bank will have to be prepared to fight the Palestinian militants, from Hamas to Islamic Jihad, to the Tanzim, or the Fatah Martyrs Brigade. These peacekeepers will not be a group on a picnic in Iceland’s beautiful fiords. The peacekeepers must be pro-active, adopting a role much different from the UNIFIL or Lebanese soldiers, who try as much as possible to just stay out of Hezbollah’s way.

According to one report the Palestinians claim that the West Bank settlers are the main obstacles to peace. US representatives have reportedly assured the Arabs that a process is in place as part of the Road Map to deal with the settlers.

Some report that the US has proposed a “Trilateral Commission” made up of the US, Israel and the PA, to deal with the issues of implementing the Roadmap. According to an Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs press release, “one of the first principles of the Roadmap is the obligation of the Palestinian leadership to stop terrorism and dismantle the terrorist infrastructure.”

One analyst wrote that President Bush expects a lot from a Palestinian Authority that can barely keep itself in office, let alone run a state. By turning over a state to President Abbas, Mr. Bush is ignoring the reality that Mr. Abbas has no ability to enforce any decisions made by the Trilateral Commission.

This analyst thinks that perhaps Mr. Bush hopes that just by waving the magic wand of US acceptance over Abbas power will follow, sort of a take on Field of Dreams, if you build it they will come, philosophy. By making believe Abbas is in control, and giving him a “State,” that the Palestinian Population will abandon Hamas and Islamic Jihad and follow him down the yellow brick road.

Another says that this approach, not new in American politics, is sort of like supporting Batista in Cuba while ignoring that Castro was leading his troops to victory.

But then, this is the Middle East, and while as Israel’s first President Chaim Weizman said, everything is possible, but not everything is probable. In the current US push for peace only time will tell what is possible and what is probable.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

The First Missile

The Grad 122mm rocket that hit north of Ashkelon on Thursday Jan 3 marks a new page in the struggle against terrorism, Israel’s Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told his cabinet on Sunday. Olmert said he would increase the army’s response to attacks in the Gaza Strip.

Israeli soldiers continued to operate in the Gaza strip on Sunday; one soldier was moderately injured and four others lightly injured in clashes with the Palestinians. Meanwhile Kassam rockets continue to fall in the Negev. Nine rockets fell on Saturday, and five more on Sunday. One Israeli was treated for shock.

The Israelis are still talking about a massive ground offensive in Gaza to halt the missile attacks, however veteran military men like former admiral and one time leader of the Labor Party as well as past Haifa Mayor Avraham Mitzna told an Israel radio interviewer that an invasion of Gaza would be a mistake.

Some Israelis take a very harsh stand. In a discussion with Israelis, Jerusalem Magazine was told the best solution was to warn the Palestinians in Gaza that should the missile attacks continue then a clearly designated row of buildings in Gaza would be destroyed. Should the attacks continue another row of buildings would be destroyed, with more buildings to follow as the attacks continued. These two men, both veterans of Israel’s wars, thought this solution was the only one which would work.

One man, a successful businessman, thought an all out invasion into Gaza a mistake, agreeing with Haifa’s former mayor. “We’ve been there, occupied Gaza. What did we gain from it?”

Some pundits see this latest rocket launch by the Palestinians as a message to U.S. President George W. Bush, who is scheduled to visit the region on Tuesday through Thursday. Analysts say the Palestinians have many more of these Grad long-range missiles, which reportedly were supplied by the Iranians, and shipped by sea to Gaza.

The only reason the Palestinians have not used the missiles up until now is because they know that Israel will respond with either a massive invasion or an increase in the renewed targeted assassinations. Israel has successfully eliminated a number of leading bomb-makers and missile builders since Defense Minister Ehud Barak replaced political rival Amir Peretz in the defense post. Arab affairs analysts believe the Palestinians are worried that an increase in the missiles will mean risking the lives of Palestinian leaders. To many this implied threat of assassination is an effective deterrent against the increased use of Grad missiles.

U.S. President Bush has a goal in coming to the Middle East, it is just not clear what that goal is. The President gave interviews to Israel’s leading newspaper Yideot Achranot, and the popular Channel 10 TV network. In both interviews he extolled the virtues of Pm Olmert. Some analysts see this as Bush adding his support to Olmert on the eve of the Winnograd Commission’s findings, which are expected to harshly judge Olmert’s behavior during the War in Lebanon II. Calling Olmert a” man of vision” and “a strong man,” and “a good friend” Bush was lending the power of the presidency to keeping Olmert in office.

Others see Bush’s trip as a way to pressure Israel into some concessions when the Olmert-Bush-Abbas summit take place. Buttering up Olmert with praise before the meeting might just get Olmert to overrule right-wing objections and make some painful concessions. It is also a way for Bush to bolster the Republican candidates. Political analysts say that should any significant movement be made in the Middle East Bush can point to those gains and boast that Republicans get things done in the region.

Still others see the trip as a way for President Bush to try to underline the statements that Iran is a major threat to the region, in spite of the recent US intelligence agencies reports that erode the urgency of that belief. Israel’s difficulties with getting Egypt to enforce their promise to seal the border and prevent Hamas from bringing in weapons is not expected to be discussed openly, although pundits believe this issue will be made clear to President Bush.

Israel’s raid of the West Bank town of Nablus, under Palestinian Authority control, was an embarrassment to the PA leader Abbas. Israel busted a bomb-making factory, confiscated weapons, ammunition, and bomb-making implements, including one explosive laden belt ready to be used. Israel also arrested twenty militants, including ten veterans long wanted by Israel. All were connected to the militant wing of Fatah, Abbas’ party. Some speculate that it was Abbas who led Israeli forces to these men, others say that Abbas has long avoided sending his troops after Fatah men who were committing crimes against Israel.

This will be President Bush’s first trip to Israel since he took office. He visited Israel once before, but as Governor of Texas. Major arteries of Jerusalem will be closed to traffic during the three-day visit, from Wednesday Jan 9 - Friday Jan 11. Yaacov Assoulin, a beauty shop operator with a parlor on King David Street said he had to take off three-days of work during the President’s visit. Yaacov said that no cars could be parked on the streets during the visit and none allowed into the area. He said that none of his clients would be able to get to his shop.

Worse, he said that the government offered no compensation to him, or the fifty odd other shops in the area affected by the visit, claiming that the closure of the area was due to an existential threat on the President’s life and as such no compensation was due the shopkeepers. He further said that any visit by an American president to the region placed that US leader in danger, and as a consequence there was always an existential threat. Yaacov was considering taking the three days and “going down to Eilat.”

A small bruha took place over the proposed release of Marwan Barghoutti, jailed leader of the Fatah Party’s (now the Palestinian Authority) Tanzim movement. Barghoutti is serving multiple prison terms for murder. Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilanai has suggested that Barghoutti be exchanged for kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. But according to Yideot Achranot Internal Security Minister Avi Dichter said that “Israel views Marwan Barghoutti as an extremely bold-blooded killer that should be in prison the rest of his days.” Reportedly, PM Olmert strongly rejected Vilnai’s suggestion.

PM Olmert has also reinstated the Ministry of Religion, after it was closed four years ago, and turned its control over to the Shas party. Political analysts see this as just one more of Olmert’s maneuver’s to strengthen the coalition before the Winnograd commission’s findings are released on Jan 30th.

Olmert has also reportedly made overtures to the right-wing Israel Beitenu party by allowing construction on the disputed Har Homa site in what the Palestinians consider East Jerusalem.

Labor Party leader Ehud Barak has threatened to bolt the coalition if the Winnograd Commission finds PM Olmert responsible for the errors of the War in Lebanon II. These moves by Olmert, according to political analysts, are meant to shore up the coalition in case Barak makes good on his promise.

However, the analysts say that Barak will first take note of how the US politicians decide on a stand on any issue: check the polls. If after the Winnograd commission’s report the public is calling for Olmert’s scalp, the analysts believe Barak will resign, and call for new elections. If however it appears the Olmert will weather the storm, Barak will side-step the statements he made earlier promising he’d resign if Olmert was found culpable of gross misconduct, and stay in the government.

The perpetual optimism of the Israeli people seems to be fading a bit as the Israeli stock exchange fell again, this time by two and a half percent on worries that the US sub-prime mortgage fiasco will further impact Israel.

With the U.S. President making his final push for a peace agreement in the Middle East, and the U.S. presidential race gathering momentum, some analysts think that the Bush visit may force Israel to make concessions. However, according to one businessman, Bush was here four times, and Rice many more than that and so far nothing has changed.

Some analysts wonder if that was good or bad.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

The Sharpest Survive

U.S. President George W. Bush is scheduled to make a swing through the Middle East next week. According to Israel’s newspapers, he is to meet with Israel’s Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, and Palestinian Authority President Mohammed Abbas. The Israeli press is describing this as a “Summit.”

During their last meeting at Annapolis no common statement was issued by the parties, reportedly because the Palestinians objected to Israel’s continued settlement activity. But on the eve of the US President’s visit, Israel’s Prime Minister said that Maale Adumim, a town of about 20,000 Israelis fifteen kilometers from Jerusalem on the road down to the Dead Sea, is an integral part of Jerusalem.

Of course this statement set the keyboards clicking. Israel has long decided that the corridor leading down to the Dead Sea from Jerusalem be kept in Israeli hands. This road, analysts say, is part of Israel’s strategic defense in moving troops and equipment to the Eastern border with Jordan, up the Bekah Valley to the North, or down through the Arava Desert to the South and the port of Eilat.

Maale Adumim is called in Hebrew the “Hills of Red Ascent.” During the New Testament period legend has it that Jesus was administered to by a Good Samaritan in that area. Political historians say that since this was pre-Christian, it means that Jews populated the area even then. These analysts point out that however inconvenient this truth to the Palestinians, it has nothing to do with the fact that today, besides the Jewish towns and settlements, the area is sparsely populated, with no Arab villages within kilometers of Maale Adumim.

The climate is also much more arid in Maale Adumim, even though it is quite near Jerusalem, which gets at least three times the rainfall during winter. The area has less trees, more sand and hilly desert. So why, the pundits ask, would Ehud Olmert make an issue of Maale Adumim on the eve of the President’s visit?

Some pundits speculate this is an opening move in the negotiations over Jerusalem. By Olmert stating he wants Maale Adumim within Jerusalem, that means the other side, in this case the PA, will have to demand something else, perhaps the Arab sections of East Jerusalem. Eventually a compromise will be reached. But now there is something to talk about when President Bush comes to town.

In another development Tamir Nevoani, the first Druze General Staff Reconnaissance Unit commando, also known in Hebrew as “Sayerit HaMatkal,” fell from a cliff during a navigation exercise. Israel radio reported that this was the second accident of its type, the first one happened years ago. The IDF was told not to run exercises in stormy conditions on slippery craggy slopes, but according to the report, did anyway. Israel’s Minister of Defense, Ehud Barak, expressed his deep regret for the tragic accident, but said that in the army training accidents will happen no matter what you try to do to prevent them.

A recent article in the Jerusalem Post criticized Haaretz editor David Landau for crass behavior at a dinner party for U.S. Sec of State Condoleeza Rice when she was last in Israel. According to the Post, where Landau once worked as a reporter and editor, Landau told Rice that Israel needed “to be raped.” By this he meant Israel needed to be forced to accept terms in order to make peace, and that the US had to be the one making the terms. Landau also reportedly told Rice that it was his “wet-dream” to meet her and voice his opinions. The Jerusalem Post opined that the normally prim and proper Rice had to be made uncomfortable by such language.

However, some political analysts now believe it is just possible that Landau’s advice may have been ingested by Rice, and is now about to come back to haunt Prime Minister Olmert. It might be that President Bush, facing the last year of his term, may put undue pressure on Israel to make concessions, or arms and American aid would be withheld. Bush, some analysts believe, is anxious to make a mark in the Middle East akin to that made by Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.

But the Arab side is in no position to make concessions or reach agreements, since the PA, as everyone realizes, has a very small power base, and couldn’t enforce any agreements without the consent of Hamas, who have sworn to destroy Israel.

Hamas is reportedly on the ropes in Gaza, with food and supplies scarce, and growing discontent among the population over Hamas’ dictatorial regime. There is also talk in the Israeli media of an impending resolution to the Gilad Shalit imprisonment by Hamas. Israel’s Minister of Defense Ehud Barak told Yoram Dekel on the morning ‘All Talk’ show on Israel Radio’s channel 2 that he recently had a meeting with Noam Shalit, Gilad’s father, and Barak imparted to the elder Shalit relevant information which will not be released to the press.

In the past leaks of an imminent deal to free Shalit have turned out to be media speculation. Some even commented that the leaks scotched a deal which would have embarrassed Hamas. According to the Israeli press, the issue at hand is how many prisoners Israel will release in exchange for Shalit, and if they will or won’t have ‘blood on their hands,’ meaning prisoners convicted of carrying out terrorist attacks and/or murder.

It is possible that this issue will also be resolved at a summit meeting between the three leaders, with a dramatic prisoner exchange completed following Bush’s visit to the region
It is not clear what pressure the US can put on Hamas to evince this exchange, other than to open the faucets and allow some money into Gaza. Even this compromise must be effected with the PA leader, since the US has refused to openly speak with Hamas.

On another topic, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who is also the head of the Labor Party, sidestepped a question by Dekel on the radio show. Dekel first played a recording of an interview with Barak when he was campaigning for leadership of the Labor party in which Barak said unequivocally that he would pull the Labor Party out of the coalition with Olmert’s Kadima Party, causing the government to fall, if the Winnograd Committee, investigating the War in Lebanon II, placed the blame for the war’s dismal outcome on Olmert. In today’s interview Barak said first he’d have to see the report, study it quietly, and only then reach a conclusion.

Casting sever criticism on Barak was his Labor Party rival, former Minister of Defense Amir Peretz, who said that Barak would only withdraw from the government if the polls showed that by doing so he would win a general election and become prime minister. Peretz was scathing in his criticism of Barak, who replaced him as head of the Labor Party, saying that Barak’s word was not to be trusted. However, Peretz did admit Barak was a good Defense Minister.

Then comes Mao Zedong, the former chairman of China. In a new book “Mao: The Unknown story” by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, the authors paint a picture not only of a monster, but of an egocentric politician who would do anything, including sacrificing half of his own army, in order to outmaneuver a political rival. The authors make no bones about Mao’s lack of idealism or loyalty to anyone except himself and his own burning ambition to rule. One reads this thick book in wonder how politicians and political leaders can be so cold and calculating just to keep their power. The good of the people takes a distant back seat to the goals of the leader. Mao, according to this work, would starve an entire population if it suited him, denounce his loyal supporters, abandon his own children, then lie about everything, turning every narrative to his own glorification with no consideration for the truth.

The fact that Red China was sponsored by Stalin, and Mao kept in power by Stalin, who saw the bloodthirsty ambitious intellectual as an effective tool in Stalin’s own goal at world domination, only proves that some men can trample humanity if they get in the way of the Boss.

How does this fit the present situation in the Middle East?
The region is replete with despots and ego-freaks. From Iran to Syria, Egypt to Afghanistan, men are out there who want to rule just because they want to rule. The good of their people or the world takes a back seat to their ambition, and sometimes greed.

And they get away with it. Politicians like Mao who know how to manipulate the system, the media (Mao according to this book fed well-placed lies to Western journalists and biographers, from Salisbury to Snow) terrorize their opponents, to the extent that the normal rules of governance and behavior don’t apply to them. By having a majority in a crucial vote of a committee, Mao could determine which way his army would march, even if it were in the wrong direction. Blackmail, and murder were two of his favorite tactics, according to the book.

We in Israel don’t have men as mercenary and ruthless, however, when one takes a good look at the political spectrum and how those ruling have manipulated the system only to stay in power, one wonders how far the country will go before even Mao would be accepted.

Then there’s the new film “Valley of Elah” with Tommy Lee Jones, directed by Paul Haggis. According to a review in the Jerusalem Post, Tommy Lee Jones tells a youngster that the Valley of Elah was in “Palestine.” When Haggis was confronted with this obvious error, since Palestine was never a country at any time in history, Haggis apologized for his error. Haggis, the article pointed out, is a far left-wing activist. It is possible he didn’t know that the Valley of Elah was in ancient Israel, controlled by the Jews, but some observers speculate that the facts didn’t fit his political narrative. It is also more than possible that he truly didn’t know. Like many other people around the world, the fact that it was the Jews who were tossed out of Israel by the Babylonians and the Romans, and there never was a Palestinian state, is unknown. Just another example of how public relations and spin, mixed with terror similar to that employed by Mao, can rewrite history.