Sunday, May 25, 2008

Seeing is Believing

When touring China, the Chinese media were all over "Western bias" when depicting the events in Tibet.

According to the Chinese, CNN chose a portion of a frame showing Chinese police beating Tibetian demonstrators. The Chinese then showed a longer shot of the frame that showed a line of demonstrators hurling stones and rocks at the police.

This is brought up to demonstrate that the "bias" doesn't only exist when it comes to Israel.

The nature of the journalistic industry has always been fraught with those looking to distort the "news." William Randolph Hearst comes to mind in reporting on events in the Cuba in such an agitating way that the US started the Spanish-American war based on the press’ distorted version of events.

Bernard Goldberg, in his book "Bias" claims that in the twenty-years he worked at CBS, mostly on 60-minutes, he was often told what to report and how to reflect the "liberal bias" of the editors of that program. He related that once he was assigned to do a story on homeless, with the brief to find a white guy because, he was told, the demographics of CBS showed they didn't have many black viewers. So he went to a homeless shelter and amid the hundred odd homeless folks at a soup kitchen, he indeed found one white guy who became the focus of the story. The impression left with the viewer was that many white folks were homeless. The issue of the homeless black people, the vast majority, was ignored. Later in the book Goldberg talks about Dan Rather's liberal bias and how when Goldberg mentioned the liberal bias at CBS in an interview he was gave to a radio station, he was ultimately fired after twenty-odd years on the job.

Independent analysts don't much care about liberal or conservative bias, but bristle at the concept of "journalistic integrity" They say that "If it ever existed, died with Edward R. Murrow." Some point out that in the sixties the radical dissenters went in for "new journalism" which was admittedly biased, and subjective.

A communications scholar pointed out that When Walter Cronkite was the father of American journalism, he admitted in a documentary he slanted the news at the outset of the war in Vietnam the way the White House wanted.

Once Yossie Olmert, brother of Ehud, reportedly threatened the producer at the IBA English News with a termination of his contract if the producer ever allowed again harsh criticism of then PM Yitzchak Shamir. So while the public should hope for 'honest reporting' it is doubtful such a thing exists.

One reported recalled that years ago when she was just starting out she recalled a colleague who said when he needed a quote he invented a guy with a green suit to said the appropriate words.. When the cub reporter brought this up with her desk editor at AP in Tel Aviv during the Yom Kippur war, he told her, "if I ever find a guy inventing someone with a green suit, I'll fire him," but according to the cub reporter, the editor knew that the green suit guy was not the exception but the rule.

Then there was a respected young journalist caught plagiarizing an article by another respected journalist. And we're not talking about the New York Times reporter fired for making up stories to further his career.

On and on it goes.

So, then, is the coverage of Israel anti-Semitic, or just opportunistic?

Take the al-Dura incident. On September 30, 2000 about twenty foreign journalists, TV and radio crews covered a gun battle between Palestinians and Israeli troops at the Netzarim border crossing near Gaza. The France 2 TV channel, a government channel, had cameraman Talal Abu Rahma covering the scene for his station. The story filed by just about everyone that day centered on Jamal al-Dura and his twelve-year old son Mohammed huddled behind a thick concrete barrel, gunshots hitting the wall behind them.

That evening, only a small portion (55 seconds) of Abu Rahma's footage was broadcast on the French evening news. Abu Rahma was the only one to present footage he claimed was the child dying. Strangely, none of the other journalists had those pictures or footage.

The horrific pictures of the terrified father and son hiding behind the oil drum while a gunfight took place were broadcast around the world. This footage was used by the Palestinians and others as proof that Israel was killing innocent children. The picture of Mohammed, dead, ostensibly by Israeli gunfire, became a symbol of Palestinian resistance.

Then some people began to look into the facts. Nahum Shahaf, an Israeli physicist and a reservist with the optical intelligence unit of the IDF originally investigated the claims that Al Dura was killed by IDF soldiers. He concluded that the physical evidence indicated the fatal shots that killed Al Dura could not have come from the Israeli position. Shahaf eventually said that the Al Dura shooting was staged and that the boy was shot by a Palestinian.

But who remembers the events? Like the photo of the unknown lone student protester standing in front of a column of four tanks in Tienanmen Square, or the Palestinian kid tossing a rock at a tank, the image is burned into the memory, and the facts of the event are blurred.

In June 2003, Atlantic Monthly correspondent James Fallows wrote an investigative article for the magazine that summarized evidence indicating Mohamed Al Dura could not have been shot dead by Israeli soldiers.

The story, as we know, was a big deal back then. Those cruel bloodthirsty Israelis killing little kids. In France Phillipe Karsenty – head of the French media watchdog agency called Media Ratings. examined raw footage of the clip broadcast on France 2 and claimed it was a hoax. Karsenty questioned the validity of the report, claimed the station was blaming the Israelis and Jews when in fact the Palestinians had killed the hapless boy. He too also claimed the entire event was staged.

France 2 successfully sued Karsenty who then appealed against the verdict. At the appeal trial, some of the raw footage taken during that fateful day in Gaza was aired to a packed courtroom. Reportedly France 2, only made available some 18 out of 27 minutes of footage that apparently exists.

According to reports these missing scenes and the questionable reliability of France 2's cameraman Talal Abu Rahma convinced the French appeals judge that Philippe Karsenty did not commit libel, and overturned the lower court decision.
This ostensibly exhonerated the Israelis from the murder of Mohamed al-Dura. But the new outcome was barely reported. In the public's mind, the father and son behind the barrell and the boy dead on the ground, are linked with Israelis killing innocents.

And just to prove how biased some newsmen can be, Olivier Mazerolle – news director of France 2 at the time of the Al Dura broadcast, was later found guilty by the Conseil supĂ©rieur de l'audiovisuel (CSA) – an administrative authority over audiovisual media whose councilors are appointed by the French government – of journalistic breaches of ethics over another story. He resigned his post on February 11, 2004 after having approved a false news report that Alain Juppe was leaving politics after his conviction for corruption. (In fact, on a rival station, Mr Juppe had just announced he would stay on and appeal his conviction.)

The voice-over for the al-Dura piece was done by Charles Enderlin – France 2's Jerusalem-based Middle East bureau chief since 1990, who was not on the scene at the time of the shooting.. Enderlin broadcast as fact the claim that Al Dura was shot by Israeli soldiers. …”3 pm... everything has turned over near the Netzarim settlement in the Gaza Jamal and his son Mohammed are the targets of gunshots that have come from the Israeli position.... A new burst of gunfire, Mohammed is dead and his father seriously wounded..,”

Enderlin has been living in Israel for twenty-odd years, and is probably himself Jewish. Did the station make up this story, or get it wrong? The court found they got it wrong. Who knows, maybe it was simply they needed a scoop and didn't check too deeply into the facts, or a hot story to get a raise, or show they were on top of the heap and thus keep their jobs, and they invented the man in the green suit. As one reporter in a green suit said recently, 'it's not as if innocent bystanders don't get killed in a gunfight. They do, on both sides of the fence.'

This doesn't excuse the dishonest reporting.

Larry R- once worked as a reporter for CBS news. At the time he related that he was in Gaza covering the first Intifada and the story of a dead child brought in to the hospital. The doctor claimed he was shot. R- managed to speak to the father, who said the kid had been ill and died of natural causes. The doctor was using the child for his own political purposes, playing the press like a fiddle. When R- told CBS in New York this fact, they went with the shooting story, not the natural death. Eventually R- quit CBS, and went into PR where at least distortion was expected.

And finally, here's what some pundits believe is the bottom line: CBS News, once the pinnacle of honest reporting, stopped being an independent division of CBS about a decade ago, or perhaps more. The news division itself was dissolved, and the department moved into the "Entertainment" division. News as entertainment. Selling newspapers to pass out documents that essentially sell furniture, shoes, dresses, computers, and pillowcases. TV that provides something to watch between commercials.

And let's not get started analyzing that report of a burning bush.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Israel Today

On Friday, the police will again question Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Meanwhile the Israeli police have said they’ll allow Olmert’s friend Moshe Talansky to leave Israel this week, shortly after he finishes his last round of questioning. However the prosecutor’s office has petitioned the court to prevent Talansky from leaving the country.

Police sources leaked the latest results of Talansky interrogation and revealed that Olmert received envelopes of money long after he was out of the race to become Jerusalem’s Mayor. Olmert had claimed the money was campaign contributions for his mayoral candidacy. Talansky’s testimony apparently revealed that the money was transferred even while Olmert was the Minister of Trade and Commerce. Olmert reportedly also wrote letters of recommendation on official stationary to help Talansky, and others, in their business dealings.

Press reports state that Talansky is the key witness against Olmert, although another witness, Olmert’s driver in New York, also reportedly testified that on a number of occasions over the years he personally picked up envelopes of cash from Talansky and delivered them to Olmert in a New York hotel.

Olmert has denied any wrong-doing, and said the money was for his election campaigns, either as mayor, or the run-up to a primary to chose the party’s Prime Minister’s candidate. Given his track record of slipping out of the noose, Olmert might just slip out of this one, too.

Olmert’s views on the peace process and the Palestinian question came out in an article in the press. Reportedly Olmert stated some time ago that both he and former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon realized that if Israel doesn’t cut itself off from the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, Israel would ultimately wind up swallowed whole by the Palestinian population, forcing Jews to live in a Palestinian run state, or move abroad.

Speaking to Atlantic Magazine reporter Jeffery Goldberg, Olmert was quoted as saying that Israel had no alternative but to stop the settlements and allow the Palestinians a state. Goldberg wrote that any well-meaning American who thinks otherwise doesn’t understand the realities on the ground. According to Goldberg Olmert agrees that the continued existence of the settlements is only going to prevent Israel from drawing realistic borders containing a Jewish majority.

There are those who think that Talansky was incensed when he realized this was Olmert’s view on the `settlements, and began to leak information that found its way to the police. Talansky was a long-time Likud supporter, and reportedly a right-winger. Olmert’s new outlook was more akin to left-wing Meretz than the nationalist Likud world-view. Olmert took supporters from Likud and brought them to Sharon’s Kadima party. Not all of them, apparently, agree with Kadima’s current direction.

The latest diplomatic development deals with Syria. A “Jerusalem Post Online” headline announced today that “Israel and Syria officially announce peace talks.” Reportedly Turkish diplomats are functioning as go-betweens in attempts to broker a peace agreement with Syria. Some Israeli media analysts consider this a new spin by Olmert’s public relations specialists to deflect attention from the latest sinkhole he’s stuck in.
One analyst wrote that even if Olmert is sincere in his desire to hold formal peace talks with Syria, he could never get an approval to sign an agreement from the Israeli political system and public

Another analyst wrote that Olmert’s trouble were a boon to U.S. President Bush, who could point to Olmert’s internal problems as an excuse why the grand White House plan for Middle East peace begun at Annapolis will not take place before Bush’s term in office ends.

On another front Israel has finally decided to test Rayethon’s C-RAM, “Counter-Rocket, Artillery, Mortar” initiative. According to Wikipedia, the sea-born version is called the Phalanx short-range missile defense system. The Phalanx consists of a sophisticated 20 mm M61 Vulcan Gatling-type rotary cannon spewing out a cloud of up to 6,000 tungsten armor-piercing bullets a minute at an incoming rocket. The gun is linked to a radar system for acquiring and tracking targets. The Phalanx’s bullets travel three times faster than the current rockets Hamas is firing into Israel. Variations on the system, originally developed as an anti-ship missile system, have been in use since 1978.

The heart of the Phalanx is the CIWS which can detect missiles from 1 to five nautical miles away. The gun mount swivels rapidly, and is fully automated. The CIWS has two radar systems that work together to engage targets. One analyzes the threat; the other acquires the target if it is deemed a threat. The kinetic projectiles are designed to pierce and explode an incoming missile warhead. More explosive shells might destroy the body of the missile but allow the enemy warhead to continue. The tungsten shells are fed into the gun using a two conveyor belt systems, one belt brings in the fresh rounds, the other removes the spent cartridges.

The C-Ram was deployed in Iraq in the summer of 2005. This system protects the forward operating bases and other high-value sites in and around Baghdad and is deployed by the British in the south of the country. The C-Ram fires HEIT-SD (High-Explosive Incendiary Tracer, Sel-Destruct) ammunition that explodes on impact with the target, or upon tracer burnout.

The Haaretz newspaper’s print edition ran a story on page two this morning. In the ariticle it was written that an individual system using only one gun costs approximately $8 million, and fires 3,000 rounds a minute. The use of two synched up guns fire 6,000 rounds a minute and costs $20 million. According to Haaretz, both Defense Minister Barak and vice-Defense Minister Vilnai are against the use of these systems, saying they won’t do the job necessary. Both men prefer the Iron Dome and other systems still in development.

However, one Defense Ministry official managed to convince his bosses to bring in a model of the C-RAM for trial in Israel, after seeing the gun in action in a USA test. Experts say the guns could stop 80 per cent of the missiles coming out of Gaza. Should this gun work, even at 80 per cent effectiveness, it would severely cripple the Hamas threat from the south, and perhaps the Hezbollah threat from the north.

Should the Hamas threat of rocket attacks be removed, Hamas would essentially be a toothless dog locked behind a tall fence. But pundits speculate how long it would take Hamas to find another weapon to replace the simple but effective Kassam and Grad missiles.

On a brighter note, Steven Ballimer, CEO of Microsoft, was in Israel setting up a new R&D facility in Herzliya. Ballimer was quoted as saying that Microsoft is more Israeli than American, and called Tel Aviv a second Silicon Valley.

What with Ehud Olmert dodging political missiles of his own, and the world’s economy trying to decide to leap forward or melt down, one wonders how important silicon valley is in the scheme of things, unless of course some genius figures out a way to stop terrorism quickly, cheaply, and efficiently, without loss of innocent lives.

As we’ve seen in China, acts of nature can kill and maim as well. 40,000 dead, who knows how many injured, and an estimated 5,000,000 homeless. Touring China one was struck by the shoddy building methods in all but the newest urban high-rise buildings. Brick buildings without reinforced concrete frames were the rule not the exception in the Chinese countryside. The town of Lijiang was nearly destroyed in an earthquake over a decade ago, and rebuilt to resemble what was, using the same methods.

Repeating mistakes can only cause a repetition of tragedies. Looking left when traffic is coming from the right is a recipe for disaster. With industrial giants like Ballimer and Warren Buffet investing in Israel, the economic future is bright. As President Shimon Peres said years ago when he was trying to convince Israel to export software made from brainpower, which he considered Israel’s natural resource, rather than hardware made from brawn, not Israel’s strongpoint, that Israel can become a world-leader in technology and finance if only allowed to flourish. Eliminating the threats from Hamas and Hezbollah and even Iran are only temporary. Another anti-Semitic, anti-Jewish, anti-Israeli enemy will always be there, coming out of the wood work. There always were, and there probably always will be.

Still, Israel deserves a chance to contribute to the world’s progress. And while some parts of Israel, like some parts of China, hum along smoothly, others, are fraught with dangers and disappointments. Good government is needed to keep Israel from getting blasted out of existence. One wonders where that will come from, and when.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Best Of Friends

Grad rockets raced the ten miles from Gaza to Ashkelon and ploughed into a shopping center Wednesday night. Fifteen people were wounded, ten remain hospitalized. This just as U.S. President George W. Bush began a four-day visit to Israel.

According to Israel Defense officials Hamas now has the ability to hit almost anywhere in a radius from Gaza out about 20 or thirty miles. The official said that within two years they expect Hamas to be able to send rockets anywhere they wanted in Israel.

In Jerusalem, meanwhile, the big machers were meeting to discuss the state of the world and Israel. The first President’s Conference, an idea of Israel’s president Shimon Peres, brought all the big-shots to the Jerusalem Conference Center. Mogul Sheldon Adelson of Las Vegas rubs elbows with Daniel Abrams, Yaacov Frankel, formally Bank of Israel governor, now vice-chairman of A.I.G. insurance, rubs shoulders with former U.S. Sec of State Henry Kissinger. Media mogul Rupert Murrdoch gets to chat with former German Prime Minister Gerhard Schroeder.

Today U.S. President Bush spoke to a special session of the Israeli Knesset, saying that the U.S. stands by Israel in the war on terror. Bush criticized the deadly attacks by extremist groups, and anti-Semitic statements, “especially by those who want to wipe Israel off the map.”

Israel’s Prime Minister Ehud Olmert watched from his place in the plenum, listening as Bush described how Israel worked tirelessly for peace and freedom. Saying that when Americans looked at Israel they saw a pioneering spirit, the “talent and determination of a free people refusing to let any obstacle stand in the way of their destiny.”

But as one observer said, “It’s too bad that what might be the worst President in U.S. history is Israel’s best friend. What does that say about Israel?”

What indeed. Back in the good old days the U.S. was famous for making friends with the worst dictators, backing the wrong horses in the race for democracy and freedom, and in general showing ineptitude in international relations. Eisenhower backed Batista in Cuba, and the U.S. wound up with Fidel Castro and the Russian bear 90 miles from U.S. soil.

Ike was also at the helm when Iraq fell, despite repeated warnings. The mistakes in South America are also numerous. The Sandinistas in Nicaragua are an example. In the extreme, the U.S. chose to allow special interests, like Anaconda Copper and United Fruit, to make policy in South America. Are such interests at stake now in the Middle East? No, of course not. Oil, even at $126 a barrel has no effect on foreign policy.

African countries came and went, so did their despotic leaders. Both Israel and the US were responsible for some of the mess. Israel sold arms and trained African despots like Idi Amin of Uganda. Some of the countries changed their name to obfuscate the past. What happened to Rhodesia? Burma? Sri Lanka? It’s like the American Football teams that changed their names and cities so often no one can recall who they really were, who the stars were, or the record-breakers; or in the case of countries, the mass murderers or biggest thieves.

U.S. President Bush believes that “religious liberty is fundamental to civilized society, so we condemn anti-Semitism in all forms, whether by those who openly question Israel’s right to exist, or by others who quietly excuse them.”

This noble-minded rhetoric is then applied to the Palestinians. In a recent book review of Israeli Benny Morris’ new book on Israel’s history, “Blood And Sand, a revisionist Israeli historian revisits his country’s origins,” a New Yorker reviewer named David Remnick informs the readers that Palestine was a name originally plastered on the spit of land by the Romans two thousand years ago when they occupied the land, destroyed the Second Temple, and essentially drove the Jews out. Then Remnick fast-forwards to the war in 1948 and talks about the Palestinian Arabs as if they were still some residue left over from the Roman occupation.

He goes into detail about the expulsion of the Palestinians from their land after Israel’s war of Independence, and then goes into some detail about Palestinian transit camps and other problems, adding legitimacy to the Palestinian claim to the land as if there was once a State of Palestine owned and operated by Arabs, when in fact there never was. By design or accident Mr. Remnick of the New Yorker adds credibility to the spurious claims of Arab leaders that the Palestinians are the root of the Israeli-Arab crises. But then, Mr. Remnick does after all works for a liberal magazine that may just fret that its readership would cancel their subscriptions if the magazine were to do anything other than apologize for the Palestinians.

Now comes Mr. Bush with his peace plan, saying, “in 60 years Israel will be celebrating its 120th Independence Day, the Palestinians will have their own state…Iran and Syria will be peaceful nations, Hamas al-Qaeda and Hezbollah will be defeated, the Middle East will be a peaceful region and Israel and its neighbors ill be best friends.”

After listening to these Quixotic quotations one wonders if Mr. Bush’s critics weren’t in fact completely accurate, because if he believes these predictions can come true the man’s an idiot. Or drunk. Or both.

So while rockets splatter Ashkelon and Sderot and kill farmers and innocent grandmothers visiting their families in the Negev, Mr. Bush looks forward to a rosy future.

Even now there is American pressure on Israel to give the Palestinians better weapons and intelligence equipment. Israel refuses saying these arms will only fall into the hands of her enemies. But as if the emperor does indeed have clothes on, the U.S. continues to tout Abu Mazen as the real leader of the Palestinian people, much as the Eisenhower administration told the world that Batista was in charge of Cuba.

Across town a writer’s conference took place at Mishkanot Shananiem, in the shadow of Montefiore’s windmill, only a few hundred meters away from the King David hotel where U.S. President Bush and many of the invited dignitaries are staying.

At that conference writers like prize-winning author Nadine Gordimer, an avowed atheist and left-wing activist, called on Israel to allow the Palestinians to have their own state. Nothing new in that. But no one at the conference really takes U.S. President Bush’s utopian dreams seriously, even if they paradoxically agree with him in principle. Everyone knows Mr. Bush is on his way out of the White House, and is now leisurely coasting along on his yacht until he makes the final port called Former President.

President Bush referred to Israel’s PM Ehud Olmert an “honest man,” and a “man of vision.” This at a time when the Prime Minister is under three separate investigations for taking bribes, and other transgressions. Even some of his esteemed guests, like Daniel Abrams, and Sheldon Adelson, were called in by the police for questioning over alleged bribes offered to the Prime Minister. Both men denied any involvement in bribes.

One bright-eyed pundit asked, “What ever happened to that anti-missile shield, the defense bubble over Israel that would neutralize Hamas’ rocket threat? How far away is that from implementation, or is it caught up in committee?”

Defense Minister Ehud Barak, touring the damaged Ashkelon mall on Thursday said, “We will not allow this situation to continue; we will do everything needed to make sure it doesn’t.” No reference to the missile shield. He did say, “The rocket attacks won’t last much longer.”

There is talk of a concentrated strike in Gaza to stop the attacks, but so far analysts say that only pin-point attacks will be launched. A full-scale invasion is still not in the cards. Other defense officials say that such an invasion is inevitable.

In the North, Hezbollah has toned down its attacks on the Sinora government, backing away from a continued civil war. Hezbollah showed Sinora and the world who is really in charge of Lebanon. Israel, for her part, reportedly wishes Hezbollah could take charge officially, so Israel could invade a legitimate country making war on Israeli civilians, not a appear to be attacking a terrorist group hiding in plain sight.

Years ago President Bush was a hell-raiser, a drinker and pot-smoker. Now he and PM Olmert are spending time together touring Israel between sessions at the President’s Conference. Maybe both are imbibing a bit on the side, Olmert to forget his troubles, and Bush to try and forget what history will say about him. Israel’s best friend. Makes one wonder.

A prestigious President’s Conference, a less prestigious “Writer’s Conference,’ police investigations, rockets falling on civilian centers, and talk of peace. Not a bad start for Israel’s 60th year.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Yom Hazicharon & 60 Years

In Israel Yom Hazikaron, Memorial Day for Israel's Fallen Soldiers and Victims of Terrorism. has a special meaning. In Israel nearly everyone has someone or knows someone or knows a family who has lost someone in battle, or through a terrorist attack.

Unlike some other countries, who treat Memorial Day as a chance for a picnic, in Israel radio and TV stations are devoted solely to Memorial Day. The usual reality shows and MTV and movies are replaced by still frames announcing the return to normal broadcasts once the 24-hour memorial to the fallen has ended.

The public stations, Israel Broadcasting Authority (channel 1), and Israel’s Second Television Authority (Channels 10 & 22) show documentaries about families who have lost sons in battle, interviews with fighters who have survived. but lost their comrades.

No Hustler, or Playboy or VOD; no AXN, or Classic Movies, or Comedies. Just memorials to the fallen. The only other time Israel applies these restrictions is on Holocaust Memorial Day. Restaurants and places of entertainment are also all closed.

At 8:00 PM, just around sunset, sirens blast across the country. Traffic stops, druvers exit their cars and join pedestrians standing at attention, heads down, out of respect. When the sirens stop wailing the TV starts playing the depressing stories of loss, injury, death, disaster, mayhem.

What other country is as besieged as Israel? Sixty-years down the road and not much has changed. The BBC advertised a special report on Israel’s sixtieth birthday. “In 1948 Israel declared independence, and five Arab countries attacked,” said the BBC reporter plugging his program. “In the course of that war hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were displaced.” Then came the ad to watch the program at a certain time.

Even celebrating sixty years of independence Israel has the albatross of the Palestinians tossed around her neck, as if the Palestinians weren’t part of the armies fighting against the new Israeli state. And would not mourn if Israel ceased to exist as long as they didn’t go down with her.

Memorial Day is filled with ceremonies and speeches. Memorial day in the evening, since in the Jewish calendar a day goes from sundown to sundown. After the siren sounds to mark the start of the memorial ceremonies, the President speaks at the Western Wall to an assembly of notables, the remains of the Second Temple golden in the background. This year it was Shimon Peres, one of the architects of Israel’s present incarnation, both in political and military structures..

During the day, the beleaguered Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, spoke at Mt. Herzl’s military cemetery. This time the criminal charges the media claim are about to be lodged against him date back to his time as Jerusalem Mayor. Rumor has it he used a foreign businessman to launder payoffs and kickbacks.

Even on the solemn memorial day the specter of political scandal haunts the ceremonies.

Around Olmert lay the graves of Israeli men and women who fell defending the Jewish State. Israel has officially fought five wars, but in practice other actions also qualify, like the War of Attrition in 1970, and the First Lebanon War in 1981, the Gulf War in 1991 and the two was in Lebanon II. This leaves out the Intifada I and II. Wars without end. Lives sacrificed to keep a Jewish homeland.

Just beyond Mt. Herzl is Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem. A memorial to six-million victims of the Nazi horrors. A military cemetery and a museum honoring the righteous who died at the hands of murderous criminals within a stones-throw of each other. How fitting, said one observer.

PM Olmert said there was a moral difference between the Israelis and the Arabs. Israeli mothers won’t send their little children out to become suicide bombers, he said at the ceremony. But pundits claim that is only a matter of degree. Mothers send their sons to the army. The cemetery around Olmert proved not all of them came home. The real quest, said one analyst, would be that neither Israeli nor Arab mothers sent their sons to battle, suicide or not.

One of the bereaved fathers, interviewed for a Channel 22 documentary, claimed he wanted peace with the Arabs. That Israel had to withdraw from occupied territory to make peace. This was his son’s wish. His son had died in battle, in a firefight in Gaza. The father wanted to carry on his son’s beliefs. And the father was religious, with a knit skullcap on his head, sitting beside another of his sons, this one in an army uniform.

All kinds of people on both sides of the battlefront. Some seeking war. Some Peace.

When Shimon Peres said that he never expected the Palestinians in Gaza to use the Gaza strip as a launching pad for Qassam rockets and motors against Israel, the public gasped. Peres, the penultimate striver for Peace, admitting that the Peace he sought backfired on him. Nearly admitting that the withdrawal of Israeli troops from the Gaza `strip had been a mistake. True, observers said, the troops were safer out of Gaza, but the civilians of the Negev, and even Ashkelon, and if one believed Hamas’ threats, soon Ashdod and Tel Aviv, would soon be within rocket range.

One analyst said that sometimes like it or not one has to fight and fight back. Or get picked on like the weakling in the schoolyard. Another said it is no fun getting picked on. The first rejoined, fighting isn’t fun either, and best to be avoided. But sometimes the only option is to run. Israel was founded so the Jewish people wouldn’t have to run any more.

Another analyst said that one can’t fault PM Olmert for his performance during the War in Lebanon II. He wanted to save the lives of the young men who were going to be forced to fight Hezbbollah. He thought he could win the war with the air force, but he was wrong. The heroes around him in the cemetery were proof that soldiers had to get their feet in the mud and their bellies on the ground if a war was going to be successful. One pundit said that Olmert knew some of the men laying in the ground around him were there because he ordered them into battle. The pundit said it was a tough call. A tougher position.

And for what, the pundit asked? Hezbollah is still in Lebanon, threatening another war. Hamas is still in Gaza threatening bigger more powerful missiles. What would it take to rock Israel on her heels? And then how friendly would the Arab states be who today claim friendship? Once Israel is perceived to be weak, there would be a feeding frenzy. All bets would be off. All treaties up for renegotiation, or cancellation.

The pundit added that Memorial Day isn’t only for the fallen, but a reminder to the living that the threats aren’t going away. That even when Israel wins a war the defeated states aren’t ready to shake hands and be friends. They’re only ready to shake hands and wait to see what happens next.

One analyst said that the memorial is also to the victims of terror. The truly innocent who were guilty of only being in the wrong place at the wrong time; walking past a bicycle on the way to shop in Machane Yehuda when the C-4 packed in the bicycle’s frame explodes; riding a bus to work when a suicide bomber pushes a button and his explosive belt takes him to hell and the rest of the passengers to the cemetery of the hospital.

A political observer asked, ‘Who is the enemy that Israel fights today?’ Is this another question asked on Memorial Day? How to fight this enemy? How to figure out the way to prevent the next attack, and the one after that, and the one after that. How to find a formula that will bring peace without taking chances that backfire into yet more deaths?

A new immigrant from Britain was extremely proud of his son last night. His son was in the military parade at the Western Wall marking the beginning of Memorial Day. Immigrants from a peaceful country come to Israel and watch their sons carrying guns, ready to use them. One bystander asked, ‘Weren’t the kids safer growing up in Britain? Why come to Israel at all?’

Another analyst said, ‘That’s the question asked, and answered.’ He added that when the siren goes off at 8:00 on May 7, 2008, Israel’s Independence Day celebrations begin. Sixty years of struggle against insurmountable odds. Sixty years of nearly miraculous success and survival. Beset by terrorism and armed enemies Israel has managed to show what happens when the Jewish people are allowed to flourish.

In fact, Israel is a leader in high-tech start-ups, Israel has a GNP greater than many old-line European countries: Israel is a country with the ‘big idea.’ In academic terms, Israel publishes more academic papers than anyone else, ten times more (about 6,000) than number two on the list, Britain at about 600.

Israel’s accomplishments cold fill a book. After only sixty years Israel has established itself as a world leader in a number of specialty fields, like drip irrigation, disk-on-key technology, and now Shai Agassi has raised $200 million for an electric car, using special new electricity gas stations, and even recruiting Renault and Nissan to join the experiment.

Who knows what the world would look like if Israel lasts another sixty years. That’s if Israel’s neighbors don’t join the maniacs who want to destroy progress and modern society, using Israel’s 7.5 million citizens as their first gambit. A few nuclear bombs and the dream evaporates; the combined intelligence of the future Einsteins and Freuds and
Marxes, and Agnons and Bellows, and Ozs get vaporized.

Israel may last, live a long and healthy land productive life and continue contributing to the good of society whenever possible. Or not.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Israel Almost 60

“There is no solution,” said Chaim (not his real name), the manager of a huge charitable foundation representing substantial American’s interests in Israel. “The Arabs don’t want peace, only time to catch their breath and get ready for the next attack. They won’t be happy until Israel is destroyed.”

Sixteen Israeli citizens have been killed this year in terror attacks. That makes 1,634 since Israel was established in May 1948. Over 130 were wounded in 2007, mostly by Qassam rocket attacks, but eight were killed. This sort of underlines what Chaim the foundation director said. “There’s no solution.”

Not a happy thought on the eve of Israel’s sixtieth anniversary. Some years back David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first Prime Minister, predicted that the Arab-Israeli conflict would last one hundred and fifty years. According to Ben-Gurion, Israel has only ninety years to go.

But ninety years may never come. Iran is a serious threat, unless President Ahmadinejad is simply making noise to get attention; or the Israeli military and defense establishment isn’t raising the specter of annihilation just to keep money flowing into the defense budget; or if the Prime Minister isn’t using the existential threat from Iran, rumored impending strikes from Lebanon by Hezbollah, and 200,000 “human bombs” sent to Israel from Gaza by the friendly people in Hamas, to deflect public criticism from his dubious actions. More about that below.

When Israel’s President Shimon Peres says he’s not in favor of a military strike against Iran, he is in essence saying Iran is a serious threat to Israel but he doesn’t agree with the tactic of launching a pre-emptive strike. He’s keeping the tension level high, without offering any solution or relief. It doesn’t help when President Peres calls Ahmadinejad “deranged.” Or when he says that nuclear weapons in the crazed Iranian leader’s hands “would be a nightmare for the world.”

Iran, for her part, keeps saying they’re as serious as cancer about developing nuclear weapons. The Iranian foreign minister said yesterday that Iran intends to keep on enriching uranium, and resents foreigners, like the USA and the EU, from offering deals denying them their rights.

But what about the rights of the two people seriously injured by razor-sharp Qassam rocket shrapnel scurrying above the ground at the speed of sound? No one asked Iran to ask Hamas to launch seven rockets at Israel’s western Negev. People were wounded running from the site of the strike. Another resident of the Negev was lightly injured.

Then of course there’s the internal threats. The democracy in action pounding away at sense and sensibility, like the new allegations against Israel’s Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert. This time the newspapers call the charges “very serious.” As expected the opposition is calling for Olmert to resign. So far the police have not released the details of the ‘very serious; crime. The courts have put a gag order on the investigation. The public was informed though that Olmert had been called into the police station (actually they probably came to him) and questioned for an hour. One analyst speculates that Olmert was merely warned about the impending indictment. Olmert isn’t about to get the Guantanamo Bay prisoner’s treatment. He will be indicted in a refined respected manner, and then vilified by one and all, skinned alive, forced to drink poison potions to prove his innocence. Or guilt. According to the media this is the third serious charge against the Prime Minister. The others are still under investigation.

One charge leaked out was that Olmert had used his good offices in 2005, when he was Minister of Trade and Commerce, to promote his wife’s art career. Reportedly, he accepted a huge discount on his hotel room at the Peninsula Hotel in Manhattan, owned by Michael Kadoorie, an Olmert supporter. According the Haaretz Newspaper, Olmert paid only $500 a night for a $2,500 a night room at the luxury hotel. Olmert is also accused of using government stationary to invite people to a showing of his wife’s work. Previously Olmert had been accused of finagling the sale of some land so that he received several hundred thousand dollars above the market value of the home.

None of these are charges that would drive the average politician to seek comfort in a dark corner. It’s all white-collar crime stuff. It’s not like the bureaucrat in China who approved a tainted Heparin Solution for export, resulting in the death of several people, and the loss of ‘face” for the Chinese Government. (The bureaucrat was executed by the Chinese `government.) But the charges against Olmert keep coming. True he’s managing the economy, going ahead with peace talks, and preparing to defend Israel against its enemies, but common consensus is that he’s a crook. The charges against him are seen as only the things he was caught doing, the big toe sticking up in a soapy bathtub.

Olmert’s ex-Finance Minister and Kadima Party stalwart Avraham Hirschson has already been indicted. Among other things Hirschson is accused of stealing over 2.5 million shekels, (about $750,000) from state coffers. But where did the money go? A big chunk for election expenses, to put PM Olmert in power. The old crony network works, but then when it unravels, all sorts of things happen to people, like Olmert and Hirschson. One pundit speculated that perhaps Hirschson cut his own deal with the cops to lighten his own sentence.

Now, on the eve of Israel’s celebrations, the PM has announced he isn’t going on the air to hold a interview. Usually this is the norm. The PM hits the airwaves and holds forth on Israel’s rosy future. The press is always allowed to ask a few questions. But not this time. No interview means no questions. Olmert is heading into that dark corner, hiding out until he can see what forces are aligned against him.

Will Olmert’s Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni heed the clarion call and step up, say it’s time for Olmert to take a hike, let her take over? The media hints that would be a good solution. Mrs. Livni is referred to as honest. Politics and honesty, however, go together only as long as the powers that be, including the press, want to look the other way. Analysts believe that an investigation into Mrs. Livni would uncover a few unpleasant truths, just as they would for any adult her age.

Some say the Israelis are holding their leaders to too high a standard. This is the Middle East, after all, and wheeling and dealing, payoffs and sweetheart arrangements are the way things are done in this part of the world. In most of the world, when you come to think of it. Since Israel is in real trouble, (so what’s new) threatened on a variety of fronts, isn’t it better, they ask, to just look the other way, keep the government intact, let the peace process continue dragging along as if something may happen? Keep Olmert in place just to allow the wheels of government to continue grinding?

Something like this happened with former PM Ariel Sharon (who is still in a coma, if anyone is interested. His son Omri was out on home leave from his nine-month prison sentence, for illegal campaign contributions to keep his Dad in power.) No one wanted to bring Sharon to trial. He was doing too good battering at Hamas and Hezbollah, giving up the Gaza strip and making believe that peace was on the near horizon. Somehow e charges were never filed against PM Sharon.

Olmert is a different story. He’s dirty, or so Joe Public believes, and Joe think Ehud’s gonna get his due. Joe thinks Hughie Long is a pussy cat compared to Olmert. That corrupt Louisiana politician may have been responsible for death and injury through sweetheart building contracts for public institutions that collapsed due to below standard cement, but Olmert is responsible for losing the war in Lebanon, a war fought against a dinky Iranian proxy like Hezbollah.

Soldiers died. Soldiers were injured. Olmert rushed to war, and lost. Israel can’t afford to lose a war. The pundits say it was Lucky for Olmert the war was only against Hezbollah. Lucky for Israel it was only against Hezbollah. Had Olmert made the same mistake facing Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and even Libya (as in the ’48 and ’67 wars, Israel wouldn’t be celebrating a 60th birthday. So while some people want to keep the status quo, others want to see Olmert’s taillights leaving the PM’s parking lot for good. They’re scared he’ll screw up again, big time.

Is this all political hype? Is it all maneuvering by Olmert’s enemies to get him out of power, and put them in? Is it some machination by the Defense establishment to dump Olmert in favor of a guy who will leave them alone to make their plans, buy their weapons, give themselves promotions? Maybe.

What is clear is that on the eve of Israel’s sixtieth anniversary nothing is clear. Nothing is certain. Israel has enemies. The Jewish people have enemies. Just look at those three Brazilian Jewish teens captured in Warsaw while on a visit to Auschwitz as part of the March of the Living. Luckily they were rescued, unharmed, by German police. Their captors were, of course, Arab men. The new Nazis, Israelis believe.

So fireworks and ceremonies, parades and air shows, barbeques and wine bottles, all will be on display as the celebrations take place.And most people hope that the threats will evaporate, honest government will take the helm in Israel, and everyone will live happily ever after. Let’s hope so.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Beijing and the Farmer

Beijing is not a city one takes lightly. The boundaries of the city were drawn seemingly arbitrarily. One can drive for hours, be in the middle of farmland, and still be in Beijing. But at the epicenter is the Forbidden City which houses the Imperial Palace, and other buildings of the ancient empires. Anyone who has seen “The Last Emperor” has seen the Forbidden City.

City ordinance during the time of the emperors prohibited anyone from constructing a building higher than the two-story palace. The buildings in neighborhoods around the palace kept to that plan for generations. The quaint ‘houtongs’ that dot the city are a reminder of the way the Chinese lived during those times.

Now what is more important than past glory is the Great Hall Of The People, built in 1959. This is the People’s National Council building, a massive structure that spreads out across a city block that appears to put the Forbidden City in its shadow. Guards patrol the perimeter. Cameras peer out at the pedestrians gathered across the street in Tianamen Square.

Inside the PNC building the 4,000 members of the committee, when they meet, decide on the way the government is run, the way the land is ruled. Ostensibly, the opulence and splendor of the emperors has gone. Left in its place are the technocrats and bureaucrats who administer the affairs of state.

Tianamen square is the size of the PNC building, but without a building. A seemingly endless courtyard, once occupied by imperial offices, now flanked on the east side by the China National Museum a drab government building opened in 2003, flying the red flag with the yellow star. This museum holds a combination of the Chinese History Museum and the Chinese revolutionary Museum. According to the government’s webiste, “The Chinese History Museum shows a large number of cultural relics illustrating the long history and glorious culture of China from 1,700,000 years ago to 1921 when the last emperor left the throne.”

At the north end of the Square is Tiananmen Tower. Initially built in 1417 during the Ming Dynasty (1368 A.D.- 1644 A.D.), the Square was the front door of the Forbidden City. The most important use of it in the past was to declare in a big ceremony to the common people who became the emperor and who became the empress. Until 1911 when the last feudal kingdom was over, no one could enter the Tower except for the royal family and aristocrats. Today tourists from all classes stroll through the gates taking pictures which no one will probably ever look at.

A mausoleum building haunts the square. It is in the stolid gray granite building that Mao Zedong is entombed. While the majority of Chinese cities forbid burial and legislate cremation, Mao decreed he would be an exception. What’s power for if you don’t use it.

According to the website “Mao Zedong Memorial Hall is at the south side of the Square. This Hall is divided into three halls and our dear Chairman Mao's body lies in a crystal coffin in one of the halls surrounded by fresh bouquets of various famous flowers and grasses.”

While the countryside is littered with graves planted by the relatives like patches of willows on hillocks in the midst of a family’s field, the larger cities have crematoriums set so discreetly one never sees them.

Tianamen Square is heavily guarded. Soldiers patrol, weapons on their shoulders. Cameras scan the area from pillars and high towers. Plain-clothes policemen move about or linger like tourists. A demonstration of any type is quickly quashed.

The much-anticipated Beijing Olympics has a solid presence. On a stage beneath the Monument to the People’s Heroes, a small group of teenaged Chinese athletes held a vigil, standing at attention in their white gym clothes, others sitting on the steps of the monument awaiting their turn. Should anyone get the wrong idea and decide to spring a protest on those gathered, the police jeeps nearby would surely be called in to scoot them away. A huge electronic stopwatch counts the days hours and minutes until the Olympics, clicking off seconds until the big day. For the Chinese, the Olympics are huge.

As the morning wore on more and more tourists arrived until the square was teeming with people, all sorts of people, mostly oriental. Some European groups were evident, but few. By and large it was people from the hinterlands, some in ethnic costumes, in town to see the sights.

The crown Jewels are on display at the Imperial Treasury, solid gold bowls and ruby embedded goblets, elaborate crowns filled with precious jewels and golden ritual objects laden with emeralds. It was quite a display. That and the palaces and the Buddhist temple, and other buildings making up the compound that held approximately 40,000 administrators and servants, created an impression of vast wealth and power.

Of course the peasants starved, and paid for the largesse with what little they could scrape together. It was no wonder there was a revolution. But have things improved? Mao was once told that the people revered him like a God. “They need a God,” he reportedly answered them. Is it true? Do they? With 56 ethnic minorities, each vying for recognition and power, some even for independence, like the Yugars and the Tibetians, it is no wonder the guards are on a nervous vigil in Tianamen Square.

One wonders about Mao, and Stalin, and Tito, and Saddam, and other despotic dictators who ruled by fear and terror. One wonders if Democracy isn’t something like an acquired taste, like good whiskey, or beer, or even Tequila with a dead worm in it. One wonders if people have to grow accustomed to the idea of Democracy before it is thrust upon them in a sink or swim style. Toss a youngster in the water and he’ll learn to swim, one is told. But if you’ve ever done it you’ll discover the trick only works with infants. Toss a six-month old in the water and you’ll have to jump in and pull them out. Democracy is like that, too. You can’t toss a population accustomed to being ruled by a strong hand into the sea of Democracy and expect anything other than what’s happening in Iraq. First the soil must be prepared, then the seeds planted, nurtured, coaxed, protected, pruned, spayed for bugs, and even then it may take seasons before a crop is ready.

China is like that too. Democracy in dollops, carefully administered. The NPC has credibility and respect. The Chinese admire the leaders who can keep a country of 1.3 billion people from going hungry, on roads, on trains, on buses, in jobs, building spectacular dams, and now the Olympics: The pinnacle of recognition. No longer a third world but a country of the first order. Ah, respectability, like a call girl married to a millionaire living in the suburbs hoping to erase her past.

But then, as the bard said, comes the rub. In today’s China it is hard to separate the phony from the real, the knock-offs from the original. One can imagine the hard-line communists smirking in their tea at the thought of a woman in a two-thousand dollar designer dress running into a secretary in an identical garment and hearing the cost was barely twenty-dollars. The proud successful businessman shows off his ten-thousand Rolex only to see some street-urchin selling one that looks just like it for six-dollars. This is the equality one sees in China, the rich showing off, the poor showing them that, at least from a distance, success is superficial.

A two-floor supermarket in Xian, replete with shopping carts and scales to weigh the produce, and computerized check-out is a far cry from the crowded dingy food markets with slabs of beef hanging from hooks in the open air one finds across China. But one section of shiny clean glass countertops holds another reality. Watches of every design and shape and color, from Rolex to Piaget, all for less than $40 each. Blatant fakes in the open in a respectable store in the center of town.

Every town has things like this. From supermarkets to tourist-oriented streets lined on either side with shops selling Timberland, Gortex, Burberry, Hillfinger, at legitimate asking prices that quickly plummet once the sales person realizes the buyer knows the stuff is a fake.

In Beijing an entire building called the Silk Market is five or six floors of merchandise; pearls, jade, diamonds, watches, Ipods, Iphones, designer jeans, name-brand shirts and suits and luggage, almost all fake. Some of the merchandise is strong, built to last, perhaps as long as a real Samsonite, but it ain’t Samsonite, and costs a fraction of an original bag.

This blatant fakery leads one to wonder about all those lawmen who make sure protests don’t occur on Tianamen Square, but do little or nothing to stop the big business in knock-offs. A huge business, judging from the plethora of merchandise available.

Then one wonders what is the government thinking? Is it that graft is so pervasive that no one is willing to stop the production of the knock-offs? Or is it that the entire country finds knock-offs a sort of way to spoof the capitalists, show them that the good old name brand merchandise is more durable, but that the cheap stuff with a counterfeit label sewn on it covers the body just as well Is it some joke by the socialists, spoofing wealth and materialism? Or is it just the way China is, today. Face?. Image?. Pride on display? Is everything an illusion of superiority with a phony label on it?

The Chinese are superb at copying, one is told, but lack the ‘big idea’. Communism, after all, was thought up by Marx, improved by Engel, honed by Lenin imposed and exported by Stalin, even to China.

One wonders if once China feels comfortable in its own skin that the big ideas won’t come out. They are a very intelligent people. For the most part, friendly, helpful, and kind to strangers. What happens when these folks have enough expendable cash, or material comfort to fund leisure time aimed at creating something new? Remember Newton wasn’t working on an assembly line when he discovered gravity, he was sitting under a tree probably snoozing.

Art and ideas are functions of leisure time, and one can only imagine the wonders the Chinese will think up once they have a chance to do more than just survive. And of course the last question is, once the Chinese have reached parity with the developed nations, have achieved everything they set out to achieve, if they’ll be satisfied with their success or want to see how far they can really go? If parity itself isn’t just a way station. If talk of coexistence isn’t just one more fake concept sold to the public?

Oh, and when one goes shopping in China, the tour guides recommend one shops at the government stores, to ensure that one gets the real thing; real silk, real jade, real leather. But what if the administrator of the store is on the take?. Not unheard of. Recently two bureaucrats were sentenced to death for taking bribes. One okayed tainted heparin solutions that killed people. He was executed. The other guy is still awaiting trial.

What happens if one day someone decides to go into that fabled imperial treasury room, and check out the merchandise? A creative clerk might have swapped it for a fake. Maybe that’s how all those folks driving the Land Rovers and Jaguars, and Buicks got their money. Or maybe they made it the hard way, working the angles.

If matter can be neither created nor destroyed, according to Einstein (who by the way is much respected in China. ‘Ah, you’re Jewish? Very clever, like Einstein! Very clever!) than if China is getting richer, giving jobs to the poor Chinese farmers who migrate to the city, then someone is getting poorer. That somebody is the schlub in the West. The saps. Someone is outsourcing their jobs so the manufacturers can make higher profits, providing cheaper goods to the consumer. But guess what? The consumers don’t have jobs anymore. All the jobs were “outsourced.” The consumers don’t have money anymore, it all wound up in the hands of the manufacturers and the government officials, and the Chinese (or Indian, or Malaysian, or Mexican, etc.) workers. So the matter is shifting, from the West to the East. And unless someone figures out how to stop this flow, the consumer better figure out how to plant crops, because sooner or later, the citizens in the West will sink back into the mud of their fields, and they’ll be the ones walking behind the water buffalo plowing for the spring planting.