Sunday, August 17, 2008

The Zen Master

Israel disappointed the Government of Georgia, according to press reports. At least two ex-Israelis serve in the Georgian cabinet. Both are former Georgians who immigrated to Israel during difficult times in Georgia and then returned to their homelands.

Not only have the Georgians expressed disappointment, but also the Russian Jewish community, for different reasons. The leader of the Russian Jewish community complained that Georgia was committing atrocities against the separatist South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Some see this move as an example of a worried Russian Jewish community trying to stay on the good side of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

Georgia also expressed her disappointment with the U.S.A. for not backing up promises of support with anything more than humanitarian aid. Many political commentators see parallels between August in Georgia in 2008 and August in Prague in 1968 when Russian troops poured in to suppress an incipient independence movement.

According to the daily Haaretz newspaper, “Jews are fighting on both sides of this conflict - on the Georgian side, as part of that country's military. The Jewish military presence here is best personified by Davit Kezerashvili, a former Israeli who speaks fluent Hebrew. Kezerashvili recently told the (American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee) Joint about Jewish youths joining Ossetian militias loyal to Moscow.”

The precise number of Georgia's Jewish community is vague, but is estimated at somewhere between 8,000 and 12,000. According to local legend, this is the remnant of what was once a large and thriving society that came to the region with the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem 2,600 years ago.

Analysts are busy dissecting the juiciest political event to hit the screens since Barak Obama declared his candidacy. Prof. Barbara Sheffer of Haifa University was interviewed on Israel Televisions Channel 2 and said that the issue wasn’t about oil as much as about natural gas.

Others have pointed out that Georgia is easy pickin’s for the Russians. It is in the panhandle where the natural gas pipelines runs, carrying the precious matter across countries that need to all be on the same page. By cutting off Georgia from the pipeline Russia insures her dominance in the energy sphere.

Other’s point to a reemergence of Russian power in the world, and that Putin has been planning this move for a while. Most commentators pint out that Putin is very different from his predecessors. He doesn’t smoke, stays away from vodka, and prefers to skip lunch and work out in the gym practicing his Judo. Indeed, Putin looks more trim and ready than any of his predecessors. He fits in with the new image of a world leader, in the physical mould at least of Tony Blair and George Bush.

Some of the commentators say that Georgian President Saakashvili went too far too fast. This conflict has been simmering since 1996, when South Ossatia and Assebka declared independence. Russia handed out passports and citizenship to the break away regions.

But it was the Georgians who rolled across the border into the breakaway regions, not the Russians who rolled into Georgia. According to press reports the Georgians didn’t heed a US warning not to invade these regions. That the Russians slapped them down hard was a lesson the Georgians and other countries aligning themselves with the USA and NATO have to take seriously.

The Israeli Government has been working feverishly to extract Israeli citizens from Georgia. Hundreds were stuck there when the fighting broke out ten days ago. A Yideot Achranot reporter on the ground near Gori was shot in the chest and flown back to Israel in serious condition. Some journalists claim that Russian snipers targeted him.

These journalists point to the fact that a few years ago Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya who was critical of Putin was assassinated. And as one media commentator said, the Russians only had to kill one Journalist for the others to get the message. These observers say that shooting at the foreign journalists covering the conflict gets across the same message. Some journalist reportedly had their cars hijacked, and were robbed by ‘bandits,’ all part of a Russian plan at intimidation.

Media reports appeared that Israelis have been in Georgia for some time training the Georgian army. Retired Israeli general Gal Hirsch, who resigned from the Israeli army after the War in Lebanon II, reportedly ran a security company training Georgian troops. Hezbollah leaders in Lebanon crowed that the Israelis were no longer a military threat, pointing to the Israeli defeat in Lebanon and now the Israeli trained Georgian army’s defeat.

Of course, fighting Russia isn’t the same as fighting Hezbollah. A flea can’t do more than be a nuisance to an elephant, and isn’t noticed at all by a young tiger. Russia looks more than a young tiger than an elephant or even a grumbling bear.

Is Putin going to put Russia back on the map as a superpower? Most analysts think so. He’s nationalized the oil, and turned that wealth, once held briefly by some now jailed Jewish oligarchs, into a substantive cash cow to finance Russia’s reemergence. Using that income Russia can afford to supply Syria, Iran and N. Korea with arms. Some analysts see a shift in power in the region, with Iran, Lebanon and even Iraq seeking shelter under Russia’s wing.

But one is reminded of the phrase Phillip Seymour Hoffman kept tossing at Tom Hanks in the now timely film “Charlie Wilson’s War.” Hoffman’s character, an irreverent CIA agent, was like Yoda, in Star Wars. Hoffman quoted a Zen master, who was told a boy had broken his leg and couldn’t be drafted into the army. “Isn’t that lucky?” he was asked. “We’ll see,” said the Zen master. Of course it turned out the boy’s fate was far from rosy after he had the horse.

Charlie Wilson, an unimportant drunken profligate U.S. Congressman representing a small Texas constituency engineered the arming of the Taliban to defeat the Russians. He took a $5 million budget for insurgency and managed to build it into a $1 billion balloon. He used the Israelis as a cover, since the Israelis possessed captured Russian weapons that could be used against the Soviet Union without the appearance of an obvious USA hand.. The Russians were defeated, driven out of Afghanistan, but then the Taliban took over, and created havoc that has still not abated.

Congressman Wilson’s good intentions were ultimately a disaster. The slow State Department path, draining the Soviet budget by constant badgering without providing huge arms supplies, was ignored in the rush to save the poor Afghan refugees stuck on the Pakistani/Afghani border. These good intentions created a CIA trained Taliban which reared up and bit the world in the neck.

Are there parallels to today’s conflict in Georgia? Should the world jump in and arm Georgia? Clearly President Saakashvili, educated at Columbia University, a staunch supporter of the Western ideals, isn’t anywhere near the Taliban in outlook or ambition. He’s basically a good nerdy flabby guy who pushed the Russian Judo champ too hard.

An article in the International Herald Tribune ( )fits into these new realities. Prof. Nouriel Roubini, an economist at New York University predicted the sub-prime disaster, and said it isn’t over. He also said that the US would never fully recover; never find itself back in the catbird seat as the undisputed economic leader of the world. He even goes so far as to say that the US is on a downward spiral. Of course, former Sec. Of State Henry Kissinger said the same thing back in the 1970’s, and the US is still doing pretty good.

But with the Russians on the rise, again, and the US floundering, locked into battles in Afhanistan and Iraq, perhaps the US is on the descent. Perhaps the peak has been reach. Perhaps U.S. President George Bush is everything his critics have been saying, an Alfred E. Newman right out of Mad Magazine, leading the US into a fateful abyss.

Then again, people said the same thing about Ronald Regan; but in the end strategies implemented under Regan spurred the collapse of the Soviet Union. Now Russia is knocking at the door again, threatening the Ukraine and Poland, worried that NATO will have missiles pointed at Moscow.

Some analysts say that it is more than reasonable for Putin to be worried by this development, and question if perhaps the Neo-Con strategy hasn’t simply unleashed a new genii from the bottle, much as did Charlie Wilson.

As the Zen master would say, “We’ll see.”

Friday, August 08, 2008

Israel and China

Israel’s Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was questioned again on Friday. This is the fifth time police have questioned him over a variety of suspected misdeeds, ranging from fraud, to breach of public trust, to possible tax evasion.

Israel Army radio’s Friday morning talk show hosted Moshe Shlonsky was the venue for a discussion on Olmert’s charges. “If the police had something on him, he’d have already been charged,” one of the speakers said.

The discussion then turned to former minister Avigdor (Yvette) Liberman who has been under investigation by the police for various wrongdoings for the last ten years. This week Liberman went on the attack, telling the press that either the police should charge him, or drop the investigation.

Some critics of the police question their tactics, claiming that the police have begun to use the press to sway public opinion, and keep a case open well beyond its natural life. Police accusations in the past have ruined lives, like that of former Jewish Agency head Simcha Dinitz, and later the charges proved groundless.

Some claim a similar tactic is being used against PM Olmert. “They (the police) wanted him out of office,” said one of Shlonsky’s speakers. “And they got that,” said another. “He’s leaving. He’s out.”

The Israeli populace has had enough of the politicians and their alleged crimes. A recent poll published in the Jerusalem Post stated “Internal corruption is seen as just as great a threat to Israel as the danger posed by Arab nations and Iran.”

60% of the Israelis polled believed that Israel was headed in the wrong direction. Mitchell Bark, of the Keevoon Research, Strategy & Communications, which conducted the poll said ”a country where 60% of its citizens feel it is headed in the wrong direction is not in a good situation."

The poll also found that 24% of the population ranked corruption and the Arab threat as equally dangerous. According to Mitchell Barak, “"Israel's leaders have been spending a lot of time speaking about the threat of Iran and about security issues like terror, but they seem to be missing a large part of the population.

“Many Israelis are concerned with social issues like poverty and corruption - two internal issues which are not being addressed by our leadership.”"

Israel has also begun to beef up its defenses in case of an Iranian strike. New weapons systems are now on line which are geared to fighting a war on three fronts, attacks from Hamas in the South, Hezbollah and Syria in the North and Iran in the East.

The Russians have reportedly sold an advanced S-300 anti-aircraft system to the Iranians. The Israelis have protested this sale. The Defense ministry has boasted “The Russians should know that if the Iranians receive this system, we’ll destroy it.”
One pundit questioned the logic of this boast, since once sold, bought and paid for, why should the Russians care what happens to the product.

Unless of course Russia is seeking to become a global player once again. Russia’s president Putin has made no secret of the fact he is looking to put Russia back on the map as a super-power.

Another threat is crime. A few weeks ago a young mother was killed while frolicking on a Bat Yam beach with her two young children. The bullet was meant for an underworld figure having lunch at a near-by beachfront cafĂ©. Police claim the shooting was part of a dispute between criminals. The head of one of Israel’s largest crime families, Itzik Aberjil, is suspected of ordering the hit. The police has arrested him.

Crime comes in all forms, in Israel and around the world. Last week an ultra-Orthodox man was arrested for beating a divorced Orthodox woman in a religious neighborhood of Jerusalem. The woman was suspected by the ultra-Orthodox “Modesty Police” of meeting with men in public, something the community apparently disliked.

Many complaints have been lodged against the ‘Modesty Police” who enforce ultra-Orthodox regulations on the Orthodox community. The most famous case was of an American-born religious woman riding the bus to the Western Wall plaza. She was ordered by ultra-Orthodox men to sit in the back of the bus with the other women. When she refused she claims she was pulled from the seat, beaten and kicked.

Two female Israeli soldiers riding home for the weekend from their assignments in Netivot were denied passage on an Egged public bus because they were wearing Army uniforms, and slacks rather than skirts.

The rise in ultra-Orthodox fanaticism may have a backlash in Jerusalem. The latest polls show that Nir Baraket, a secular high-tech millionaire whiz who sits on the city counsel, would easily beat the ultra-Orthodox candidate Meir Porusch, hand-picked by his party to succeed the present ultra-Orthodox Mayor Uri Luplianski.

Polls show that the smiling Lublianski is viewed as a failure as Jerusalem’s mayor. The recently dedicated Calatrava Bridge at the entrance to Jerusalem is cited as one of his most obvious mistakes. The $20 million bridge is considered by some to be completely superfluous in a city in need of simple social services.

The opening celebration for the bridge was a disaster. Women and men were separated by the orders of the Mayor, and women were forced to wear shawls and skirts, as if they were attending prayers at the Western Wall.

The city has steadily been losing its secular population, and with it the tax base. Industry is fleeing Jerusalem. If the polls re correct, the public hopes Baraket can revive the city, and save it from becoming another ultra-Orthodox enclave.

The 2008 Olympics kicked off in Beijing on Friday. Israel’s President Shimon Peres told Israel radio that the Chinese authorities had been putting a lot of pressure on Israel to send the President to the Olympic opening ceremony.
President Peres finally agreed. A special security detail will cordon off an area 300 meters around when the President walks from his hotel to the Olympic stadium on Shabat. Peres has also requested, and been provided, kosher food for the Sabbath.

One of the duties of the President is to kept he Sabbath, and require kosher food at all state functions.

Peres has also said he is taking this opportunity to bring up the issue of Iran with the Chinese authorities, telling them that China can influence Iran to curtail her nuclear ambitions.

Also in the Olympic parade was a small contingent from ‘Palestine.’ “I didn’t know there was a state called Palestine, yet,” said one of the viewers. Politics create realities. To the world watching, a Palestinian state has already been established.

The Olympic opening ceremony was an amazing display of technology, preparation and art. The Israeli commentators compared the current Olympics to those of Berlin in 1936 when the Nazi regime was anxious to show off its abilities to the outside world.

The sheer numbers of people on the massive arena grounds, performing in a variety of ways, was intimidating. “A bit scary,” said Uri Levy, the Israel Broadcasting Authority’s commentator. One wondered at the outcome if the Chinese, with their two billion people, decided to organize a military campaign with the same precision as they carried off the Olympics.

Most Chinese have never heard of Israel. They have no Christian tradition so are not anti-Semitic. With barely 4,000 Jews in the huge country it is no wonder anti-Semitism doesn’t exit. The leadership, of course, knows about Israel. The Chinese have been a trading partner with Israel for years, mainly in military and hi-tech goods.

One of course is reminded of the Olympics in 1972 where Palestinian terrorists scaled the walls of the Olympic village and massacred eleven Israelis. The Germans ultimately released those captured. No matter where the Israelis are, the fear of an attack is always present.

When an Israeli thinks of where in the world to travel safely China comes to mind. Their three hundred million Moslems are well behaved, and keep to themselves in the far West of China. Given the astounding achievements of China in the last twenty years, Israel would be well served to stay on her good side.

The fast of the ninth of Av begins Saturday night, commemorating the destruction of both the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem. A likely reminder that no matter how large the castle, how gaudy the pomp and pomposity, the enemy is always there, making plans. Ready to spring a nasty surprise.