Monday, September 29, 2008

A Pivotal Year?

Will the Hebrew calendar year5768, which ends when three stars shine in the sky Monday evening, go down as a pivotal year in the world’s history?

This was the year when Iran scoffed at the world and continued the unhindered headlong rush towards a nuclear bomb.

This was the year when the duplicitous leader of Pakistan was forced to resign, giving way to the widower of his harshest political opponent, all the while taking money and kudos from the USA while allowing the Taliban to strengthen it’s hold on the rugged Pashtun regions that border Afghanistan.

This was the year that an African-American man won the Democratic nomination for President of the United States for the first time in US history.

This was the year when a financial meltdown in the USA shook the world in the worst disaster of it’s kind since the 1930’s.

This was the year when nine Israeli ministers were under investigation. The year that an Israeli Prime Minister was indicted for the first time in Israel’s history. The same year that the President of Israel was indicted and convicted of rape. The same year that the Finance Minister was forced to resign for embezzling money from a public fund. The year when another minister was convicted of sexual harassment..

But it was the same year when an Israeli entrepreneur announced he was building an electric car in partnership with the French firm Renault, and would soon establish “electric” refueling stations all across Israel, as a pilot project for the world. That an Israeli drug company announced a new drug to fight Parkinson’s disease.

It was also a year of nationalism rearing it’s head, sometimes magnificently, sometimes as ugly as death. The year that China hosted the Olympics in an attempt at joining the league of developed nations; the Olympics a spectacle that impressed the entire world with both design and execution. And the year China put a man in space.

It was the year that Russia showed the world that a new cold war was on the horizon. That Russia was seeking once again to become a world power, selling arms to enemies of the West in a bid to influence world events; invading a neighboring country mainly because that country was about to allow the positioning of NATO missiles pointed at Russia.

It was the year that Lebanon-based Hezbollah joined Iran in claiming they would wipe Israel off the map. That Hezbollah now had more missiles in its stockpile than before the last war in Lebanon. That Iran now had long-range missiles that could hit Israel, or Europe.

It was the year that marked the third anniversary of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit’s captivity. The year his parents celebrated the Jewish New Year with a meal on a folding table while camped outside the Prime Minister’s residence in Jerusalem.

It was the year that a top Hezbollah operative was left headless in a Damascus street. A year when an alleged Syrian nuclear facility, managed by the North Koreans and funded by Iran, was destroyed by mysterious airplanes. A year when a top Al-Qaida leader was killed in Iraq.

It was also a year of mayhem and murder of another sort. Almost daily car-bombings in Iraq, so frequent as to become pedestrian to all but those directly affected, like the victims and their families.A year of mounting US causalities. But also a year when some reports stated that Iraq was more stable than it had been since the end of Saddam Hussein.

It was a year when a convicted felon declared paradoxically that he wanted to be mayor of Jerusalem to help the city back on its feet.

A year when global warming became an issue around the world, resulting in a Nobel Prize for one of the champions of that cause.

A year when oil prices spiked to historic highs, causing people to think twice about driving across country, or even across town.

A year when Apple released a new telephone that wasn’t that much different from the old one, but was still so sophisticated that had someone told Einstein such a device were available, back in the 1920’s, he would have laughed at the absurdity.

A year when technology began yet another cycle, speeding up history, creating more information faster and in more detail than ever before. A year that brought the world closer to understanding all there was to understand about the physical world, as we know it. A year when computers helped map more genes, and the particle accelerator identify more bits of matter.

But most of all it was a year that pointed to scaling back in natural resources, in the power of the USA to police the errant nations, of a financial meltdown that would mean a scaling back of consumption and growth, perhaps the harbinger of the long slow slide of the US from superpower status.

The gloomy German philosopher Oswald Spengler wrote back in the 1920’s that the West is in decline.’ And then the Great Depression came, following a ten-year bull market, then a meltdown in housing prices. Sound familiar? The philosopher/historian George Santana wrote “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” What then can be learned from this last year that can help in the next?

Greed has to be curtailed. Resources have to be developed. Vested interests have to be subdued by other vested interests that are more humanitarian in outlook and application. Evil has to be defined, and deleted, wherever it is, by whatever means.

Extremists must be soothed into moderation,

Was this a pivotal year? In truth, maybe all years are pivotal, some just pivot on different crucial issues. When Wilbur Wright went up in the first airplane, that year was pivotal. When the 9/11 bombers flew into the twin towers, that year was pivotal. When Ben Franklin flew a kite in a storm with a key attached to the end, that year was pivotal? When Adolph Hitler was born, that year was pivotal.

When World War II ended, it made that a pivotal year. Likewise the detonation of the first atomic bomb. As a philosopher once said, all things are equal, except some more equal than others.

Do we even know when we’re in a pivotal year?

A pivotal decade? A pivotal generation?

Will all those financial stocks the US government just bought with US taxpayers money, betting that those stocks would go up, make next year pivotal? It might if the stocks become worthless, followed by the dissolving US economy.

Will the resignation of Israel’s PM Olmert in favor of Tzipi Livni make this a pivotal year? It might if she becomes Prime Minister of Israel and makes a few dastardly mistakes, as Olmert did launching the War in Lebanon II. Will the election of Barak Obama as President of the USA be pivotal? It might since he’ll be the first African-American, or rather half African-American in history to be President of the USA. But what if John McCain wins? He’ll bring with him the first female vice-President in US history.

Should circumstances take a nasty turn, Obama, if elected President, might turn out to be as lousy a choice for the US and the world as Olmert was for Israel. And imagine that McCain is elected and has a heart attack. The US and the world might then be stuck with a woman whose main claim to management skills was as mayor of a minuscule rural town and governor of a sparsely populated wildness state.

Hope from the gloom and trepidation comes, however, from the Hebrew prayers said on the High Holidays. “Chuva, Tzdeka, Tifila” repentance, charity and prayer, can change a horrendous decree, making it positive. Chuva, Tzdeka, Tifila. Remember those three. Pray hard. Looks like in 5769 the world’s going to need them to head off what seems to be in store. And pivotal may be a cruel understatement.

Shana Tova, Tichatem vTichatevu; may you be written in the Book of Life for a Healthy, Happy and Successful New Year..

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

One At A Time

The front page of the daily Ha’aretz newspaper had two lead stories above the fold. One was the police recommendation for an indictment of PM Ehud Olmert for money laundering, with an accompanying picture of the Prime Minister. The other was about the attempted assassination of a Netanya underworld figure, with five photographs of five of his gang, including his son, and his late brother, gunned down outside the family’s Prague casino..

One observer commented that the criminals who gun down each other in public places, taking with them innocent bystanders should be the focus of the Israeli police department’s activities, not spending hundreds perhaps thousands of man hours seeking to imprison political figures.

Olmert backers say the police have been accused of seeking headlines rather than solving crimes. They say that the leaks of proceedings, including closed-door testimony, can only come from the police. In today’s age of trial by media, they say, the police are using the press as a tool to prejudice the public well in advance of due process of law.

Some analysts point to the on-going 10-year long criminal investigation into former minister Avigdor Lieberman.. Others point to the media frenzy that accompanied the accusations, indictment and trial of minister Haim Ramon for inappropriately kissing one of his secretaries.

It seems, wrote one pundit, that the police are more interested in the high profile cases because they deflect the police’s inability, or lack of desire, in pursuing gangsters who shoot each other in the streets as if they were in Al Capone’s Chicago.

Elected officials have a higher responsibility to the law, wrote one commentator, since their decisions influence not just a gang of criminals but a much broader public. The stink in Israeli politics, the commentator said, starts at the top and filters all the way down to the bottom of the ladder.

The media points out that the mafia bosses, the hit men, the gangsters, are the ones who are a threat to the normal lives of Israel’s citizens. One housewife thought the police in Netanya are probably on the take. She said it may be easier, and perhaps more profitable, for the Police, to go after politicians, than to tackle the hard nosed mafia of the Abirgils and Abutbuls. By keeping the headlines focused on the politicians the police can continue letting the mafia go on with business as usual.

Ahraon Zaliki, former Finance Ministry Accountant-General, sometimes called the “whistle-blower” for his role in bringing PM Olmert’s transgressions to light, told Israel Radio today that PM Olmert is a “Criminal” and had to be prosecuted.

According to Zalliki, Olmert is only one of many politicians who are corrupting the government, creating a situation that puts Israel as a nation at risk. Zalliki also cited former Finance Minister Avraham Hirschson, indicted for fraud and embezzlement, former Knesset Member Omri Sharon, son of Ariel Sharon, who served nearly a year in jail for illegal campaign contributions.. Zalliki also mentioned other recently convicted officials, including former Minister of the Interior Aryeh Deri, who served a three-year prison term for receiving a bribe, fraud and violation of trust.

Deri today announced that he is willing to run for Mayor of Jerusalem as an ultra-orthodox Shas Party candidate. According to the law Deri has to wait nine-years from his conviction to run for public office. The nine-years is up in a few months.

The race for mayor of Jerusalem is now between secular Nir Barakat, a hi-tech millionaire, and Meir Porush of the ultra-orthodox United Torah Judaism party. Recent polls have shown that Barakat would defeat Porush in the next election.

A poll published in the Jerusalem Post on Tuesday showed that while Jerusalemites may consider the city is becoming increasingly ultra-orthodox, in fact the ultra-orthodox population has only grown by a few percentage points from 2000 and now stands at 32 per cent of the total population. Some neighborhoods, like Jerusalem northern Ramot and Ramat Eshkol quarters, are nearly 75 per cent ultra-orthodox.

Op-Ed writers had a field day with the Deri announcement. It was as if corruption and conviction, rather than being an impediment to a successful political campaign, were actually advantages, showing how experienced the candidate was in the Byzantine ways of Israeli politics.

Zelliki’s warnings become even more poignant in view of threats by Lebanon’s Islamic fundamentalist Hezbollah group who warns they are now in possession of longer-range missiles, some with chemical weapons, that could hit anywhere in Israel,.The Hamas terrorist organization in Gaza has made similar threats. The Iranian hatemonger Mahmoud Ahmadinejad continues to threaten Israel with total annihilation.
at ever juncture

Knesset Member Rafi Eitan, of the Pensioner’s Party, who was the agent in charge of the kidnapping of Nazi war criminal Adolph Eichman, and reportedly the agent who ran Jonathan Pollard, the U.S. Navy intelligence analyst currently serving a life sentence for spying for Israel, suggests that Ahmadinejad should be kidnapped and put on trial in the Hague.

Pundits point out that with these existential threats to Israel, corrupt politicians, and police, should be rooted out, put on trial in order to keep some balance in the business of running the country.

A politician like Aryeh Deri, irregardless of his intelligence, political acumen, or charisma, should not be allowed to have a hand in the running of government on any level, according to one observer. The stakes are simply too high. The example to the public too jaded.

PM Olmert has yet to be formally indicted by Attorney-General Manny Mazuz, but his trial in the media is already over. His political career is finished. Still he goes on making public appearances, meeting with visiting heads of state, and talking about finalizing a peace agreement as if he is still in complete control of his party, and the country.

A recent report in the press quoted a leading Israeli general’s assessment that the army and the home front were horribly ill prepared for another war like the one Israel lost in Lebanon. There are also reports that PM Olmert is planning a strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Some say Olmert plans this as a way to deflect attention from his foibles, and keep him in power due to an war brought on by the attack. One critic questioned if Olmert was so firmly committed to staying in power that he’d even start a war to do it. Another critic answered that Ariel Sharon was suspected of evacuating the Gaza settlements just to deflect media attention from the accusations of corruption and illegal campaign contributions.

But there is hope. This week Israel’s supreme court stopped one case of run-away corruption in government. A 500 dunham (about 100 acres) of the Jerusalem Forest had been approved for a housing development by the municipality without the proper committee hearings and approvals. The high court heard the case twice. Once asking why this piece of forest, laden with deer and horticulture, was not part of the Safdi plan, designed by famous architect Moshe Safdi, for the expansion of Jerusalem that the high court had already ruled was illegal.

The second trial, brought by a group of concerned residents, including the “deer in the forest” as plaintiffs, won the case in a final decision. The court found that the land had to stay agricultural, and as grazing land. The herd of fifty-odd deer in the forest could live freely for a while longer.

In discussions with the Residents Committee To Save The Ramot Forest, Jerusalem Magazine was told that the parties involved in asking the land be rezoned were the Jerusalem Municipality, and an unnamed building contractor. “Millions of shekels were spent drawing up plans and blueprints for a housing development that would replace the forest. We never found out who the builder was. The name is not mentioned.”

According to the source, that plan is now trashed, and it will take years for another developer to get permissions to build, if at all. This victory came because some concerned citizens stood up to the political machine, which in it’s “arrogance”, according to our sources, “thought they could just push it through with no objections.”

In this case, the rot of government was excised from the healthy body politic. Analysts believe that if more surgery isn’t performed, the State of Israel will suffer first a moral, then a physical collapse. Perhaps a concerned citizen, a group at a time, is the answer.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Keep It Simple Stupid

Proof that Israelis are just like anyone else came with the bizarre announcement that a grandfather was suspected of killing his granddaughter, who was also his step-daughter, the child of his wife, who was also his son’s ex-wife. A story with twists and turns like the LeMans speedway.

Like the stories of lost and murdered children in America and England and around the world, Israel is now buzzing with the tragic story of 4-year-old Rose Pizem, whom her grandfather Ronny Ron claims he accidentally killed and then dumped the body, packed in a suitcase, in the Yarkon river that runs from Tel Aviv nearly to Netanya. Today the press reported that Ronny Ron seems to be lying about the whereabouts of his granddaughter’s body. He failed a lie-detector test concerning the girl’s remains.

The police and the press speculate that Ron is hesitant to admit the location of the body since a CSI type examination might reveal the child was killed with premeditation not spontaneously and accidentally as Ron claims.

The story of Rose Pizaem is familiar to anyone who reads the Israeli press. Rose’s mother, Marie-Charlotte Renault, a French Jew, married an Israeli, Benjamin Pizem, in France. Benjamin was estranged from his father Ronny Ron. When Rose was a year old Benjamin brought her to Israel with his wife Marie-Charlotte to meet the family for the first time.

For Marie-Charlotte it was apparently love at first sight. She fell for her father-in-law Ronny Ron, and allowed Benjamin to return to Paris with Rose after three-months. But Benjamin was not able to raise Rose on his own. She was under the guidance of the French Welfare authorities shortly after Benjamin returned to France.

Benjamin could never get his act together, and Rose wound up hospitalized in France, suffering from either neglect or abuse. The French police weren’t sure. When Marie found out, she sued for custody of the child and after a yearlong battle, won her fight.

What Marie didn’t know was that the little girl was suffering from severe emotional problems, reportedly due to the abuse and neglect she’d suffered at the hands of her father.

Marie brought Rose back to Israel where Ronny and Marie, still unmarried, had two daughters of their own, one 10-months old, the other two years old. Rose was difficult to handle, didn’t speak Hebrew, and was alienated from her half-sisters, and other children her age. Reportedly both her mother and Ronny Ron were strangers to her.

The couple sought to find an institution that would take the little girl, but no one would accept her. Ronny and Marie weren’t interested in keeping Rose and ultimately turned her over to Ronny’s mother, Vivien Yaacov, in Netanya.

Vivien took the job hesitantly, and ultimately demanded Ronny take the child back. He showed up in a rage and took Rose away, and that was the last anyone saw her. Vivien contacted the authorities after a few months, and the police found their way to Ronny Ron’s door. Investigators were shocked to see that Rose had no toys or personal items except a shirt and pants.

Since the story broke the press has been in a frenzy, and created unwanted results. Yesterday a second woman was arrested for the murder of her four-year-old son. As he was laying on his bed, she called Magen Dovid Adom claiming she’d smothered him. More copycat killings are feared by the police.

Bizarre behavior isn’t limited to humans. Just look at New Orleans and Hurricane Gustav. Thankfully the storm blew past New Orleans, without causing Katrina-like havoc. According to one meteorologist speaking on Israel radio, the whole issue of the storm was blown out of proportion because of battles for ratings between the various news organizations.

The same is probably true of the horrible story of Rose Pizem.

Then of course there’s the other natural disaster that struck the Republican Party. VP nominee Sarah Palin’s 17-year old pregnant daughter. The media reported the girl was going to marry her boyfriend. But the shock of a Pat Buchanan supporter, a born-again Christian tainted by her daughter’s sexual foibles were, according to some analysts, the mix that sent the McCain Pizem Presidential ticket slipping in the polls, giving Democratic Presidential hopeful Barak Obama a poll result that reached over 50 per cent the first time since he began running for President.

Israeli newspapers today ran the story of Sarah Palin talking to the AIPAC gathering, promising her firm support for Israel. But most analysts question the wisdom of McCain’s choice, wondering if the 72-year-old thought hard about the 44-year-old Governor of Alaska taking over the helm of the United States should anything happen to him. Pollsters indicate the choice wasn’t popular around the country. Even former New York Mayor Rudi Guiliani, a Republican, said he didn’t think Sarah Palin would do well as President if another 9/11 transpired during her watch.

Then there’s Manny Mazuz, Israel’s State’s Attorney, who warned that Israel’s PM Ehud Olmert might not have the legal power to sign any peace agreements, or other binding legislation, since in effect this is a caretaker government. This government is now so low on the news radar that hardly anything it does is taken seriously.

Olmert has been meeting with various diplomats in efforts to seal a deal with the Palestinians and the Syrians before he leaves office. Some analysts claim that Olmert, U.S.Sec of State Rice, and U.S. President George W. Bush are all making a last-minute push to seal some sort of agreement between both the Palestinians and the Syrians before their terms of office end.

Olmert is scheduled to finish his term officially later this month when his Kadima party holds elections. Then he truly will be a caretaker until either a member of his party takes over the reigns, or new elections are held.

The situation is similar to that in the US. As in the past, the choice of a leader isn’t so much who is better, but who isn’t worse. Often political commentators bemoan the fact that the best and the brightest no longer go into politics, but rather seek their fortunes and their fame in other venues. One name mentioned as a qualified manager of the U.S. government is Michael Bloomberg, mayor of New York. But Bloomberg himself makes light of the suggestion: “Who want’s a little old Jew running America?” he reportedly said.

Israel has even fewer choices for qualified leaders. Tzipi Livni is making a strong showing, but she has been unexceptional when put to the test both as a Kadima party leader who backed down after a mild run at Olmert, and as Foreign Minister. Her chief rival in Kadima, Shaul Mofaz, ex-Defense Minister, ex-Chief of Staff, isn’t well liked or well-respected by the public. Like Barak Obama, he seems too measured in each move he makes, and step he takes.

Labor Party’s Ehud Barak has slipped in the polls so low there’s talk of replacing him as Labor’s candidate should new elections be held. His autocratic patronizing style has made him more enemies than friends. This leaves the strangely silent Benjamin ‘Bibi’ Netanyahu to make his bid for the Prime Minister’s job, again. Rather than shooting from the hip, and running from the lip, as he usually does, Bibi has been as silent as Ariel Sharon, the forgotten but not gone former Prime Minister. The difference is that Bibi will be able to speak again without a miracle, once he decides the time is right.

The conclusion one draws is that from the tragic story of Rose Pizem, a neglected, battered, damaged child, through a weak winded hurricane, to the national conventions or primaries choosing a nations leaders, all seem just like more of the same. Another tragedy, perhaps the cause of too much violence on TV, or simply meanness and evil; a race for lasting fame in making a lasting diplomatic breakthrough; or the race for leadership of a country, any country, all seem to be a rehash of something that appeared time and time again.

The big test is can the nations survive, the citizens make the right choices, the leaders steer the right course? Some pundits suggest to ‘Keep It Simple Stupid,’ not try to figure out how the string theory intersects with quantum physics to produce the black holes in which one passes through to a parallel universe. Rather just try to enforce the rules of the road as they are. No white (or African American) knights are going to appear on proud steeds. No Messiah is striding purposefully towards Jerusalem. It would be nice, though, wouldn’t it?