Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Signs & Wonders

As opposed to the US and other countries, rain in Israel is considered a blessing. Up until the elections Israel had dry weather and the forecasters on TV were making much of a drought. No sooner had the election results come in then it started to rain. As the coalition talks went on the rain drifted in and out of the region. Today, while Bibi Netanayhu exercises his two-week extension to form a coalition the rains came back again in force, even with hail. Rain is predicted off and on for he rest of the week. Israel has now gone from a drought to having reached the normal average rainfall. Still after several years of lighter than normal rain the underground aquifers are quite low and the weather guys say Israel'd need more years like this to get even. Some analysts’ say even that is impossible since the population has now grown beyond seven million and water in this region is scarce. Pundits even say that future conflicts in this region will be fought over water.

If one believes in signs and wonders the rain coinciding with Bibi's election is a good omen. How to tally that with Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beitanu's right-wing nationalist party, and other right wingers lining up to serve in Bibi's government, against the world’s negative opinion of Lieberman, is hard.

Coalition talks are still dragging on. The stalwart Labor party that began with the first Prime Minister David Ben Gurion, and went right up through Ehud Barak in the late 90's is now splintering and bickering. Having gained only 13 seats in the last Knesset election, the underlings in the party are looking to unseat Ehud Barak as party leader. Barak for his part is anxious to stay in the government as Defense Minister, even though he didn't do a great job in the last war. He is so anxious that he'd even split what remains of the Labor party, taking willing Labor Knesset members with him into the coalition, securing them all cabinet portfolios, leaving the others behind. In effect this would be forming a new party without forming a new party. Moshe Dayan did something similar when he was brought into Menachem Begin's Likud party as Defense Minister, leaving his Labor party colleagues to serve in the opposition.

Bibi Netanyahu wants Labor in order to expand his narrow right-wing coalition, give him some leverage against the Liebermans and others who may want to do things Bibi doesn't want, threatening to bolt the coalition if they don't get their way. Ehud Barak's few votes would offset those right-wing moves, and Bibi knows it. Today, for example, some of the right-wingers are marching on the Israeli Arab town of Um Al Fahm. Knesset Michael Ben Dvir,of the Beit Yehudi party said on Israel Radio that he would march to protest the town’s refusal to fly an Israeli flag. More than 2,500 Israeli police are going to protect the marchers. Ben Dvir's party is expected to serve in Bibi's coalition.

The Likud is angry at Tzipi Livni for not taking her Kadima party into a coalition with the Likud. This would have given Bibi the type of government he wants without having to bend to the will of the ultra-right wingers. But Livni, whose Kadima party gained 28 Knesset seats to Bibi's 27, was unable to form a coalition of her own when given the chance. She now insists on a "rotation" agreement with Likud. At first she wanted to split the four-year term down the middle. Then she compromised on 18-months, but Bibi rejected any rotation. Kadmia thus stays out of the coalition and Bibi is stuck with the right-wingers, and Barak if he's lucky.

Most analysts give any Bibi lead government no more than two-years before new elections are called. There is a possibility that Kadima will ultimately join the coalition, thus bolstering Bibi’s government and lengthening its life.

So how does this all augur well for Israel? Avigdor Lierberman's Israel Beitanu party received 17 Knesset seats. While he has strong support in the Russian-speaking community, he tapped an underlying anger at the Israeli Arab population, and Arabs in general. He benefited greatly from the War in Lebanon II, and the Operation Cast Lead engagement in Gaza. The Israeli Arabs in both instances came out in support of their Arab brethren first in Lebanon and then in Gaza. This infuriated many Israelis. One of the Israeli Arab Knesset Members (Bashara) even went to Lebanon to talk with Hezbollah, an act that was against the law. He was indicted for treason and has yet to return to Israel. His pension was frozen and a warrant is out for his arrest.

Lieberman's party has thrown a bolt of fear into the Israeli Arabs, and this encourages some Israelis who feel that a more aggressive policy must be adopted in dealing with the Arab population, both in Israel and abroad. This group believes talking has achieved nothing. They also resist the old Clinton Road Map plan for a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli problem. Most Israelis agree with Lieberman that no partner exists on the other side. Thus no two-state solution is possible. Hamas is not a viable partner. The PA under Abbas is barely hanging onto the West Bank, and would be long gone if the IDF wasn't rounding up Hamas activists as soon as they show their heads there.

A large number of Israelis are infuriated by the U.S. State Department's harangue over a two-state solution. Israelis, except perhaps the ultra-right, would love a two-state solution, and be done with the Palestinians. But it's like trying to sell a piece of property when the only people who show up to buy it are homeless bums looking for a place to squat. You give them the house and the first gangster that passes by will steal it from them.

And, given the violence exhibited by Hezbollah and Hamas, tacitly supported by Israeli Arabs, it is no wonder that Lieberman has gained support, and that Bibi is comfortable having him at his side. There's also the Iranian Prime Minister who threatens Israel with annihilation seemingly once a week. This is the same Iran that even before Achminijad sent squads of assassins to blow up buildings in Buenos Aires, killing scores of Jews. The Iranian nuclear threat is very real, and Israel is considering a unilateral attack in opposition to the Obama plan to talk Iran down from the tree. Israelis don't believe Iran wants to come down from the tree, but rather take over the entire forest.

What emerges from the coalition talks is not really as important as the threats Israel faces. No matter who is in power those threats will be there, sometimes closer, sometimes farther away. The only question is, do the Israeli wait for the opponent to swing, or like some old high school street fighters, swing first. Avigdor Leiberman was a nightclub bouncer and thug. No wild imagination is needed to conjure up the advice he'd give to Bibi when the time comes. One only hopes that Bibi will be more successful than his predecessor Ehud Olmert. And only time will tell if the heavy rains were good for Israel, or just another example of how relying on signs and wonders only works in the movies.

Monday, March 16, 2009


Gilad Shalit’s parents pitched a tent near the Prime Minister’s office in Jerusalem, holding a vigil they hope will motivate Israel’s powers that be to close a deal with Hamas that will result in the return of their imprisoned son Gilad, now in his 994th day in a cell somewhere in Gaza.

The new Netanyahu-led Likud government is soon to take over the government, and the Shalit family is concerned that new faces will appear around the negotiating table, each with new ideas and new terms resulting in an extension, perhaps an endless one, of Gilad Shalit’s incarceration.

The outgoing Olmert government is anxious to make a deal. Olmert wants to leave office having secured the release of Shalit. But according to some military sources Olmert has already screwed up the negotiations beyond repair when he linked the release of Shalit to the disengagement of Israeli and Hamas forces in Gaza, and appointing Egypt as the mediator.

An informed military source told Israel Army Radio that negotiations of this type are mediated by a neutral third-party with no interest in siding with either party. The negotiations are also independent of other issues, with no linkage, stressing the “humanitarian” issues, not military or political. Lastly, the negotiations are held quietly, far from the press, with no reports appearing in the media about terms, success of failure of different stages.

These talks have been conducted by Egypt in the full light of the press and lately linked to military and political issues. The informed source said this was a sure formula for failure.

Negotiations are taking place in Cairo, since the Egyptians are the mediators. Israel has let it be known that the clock is ticking on a prisoner swap agreement. Hamas presented Israel with 450 names, Israel responded with 250. Latest reports state that Hamas is willing to accept 300 of the prisoners on the list. Chalid Mashal, the head of Hamas, based in Damascus, flew into Cairo for the meeting.

Pundits say that Mashal didn’t fly in to discuss the Hamas-Israel disengagement in Gaza, but rather the Shalit deal. Some see this as an encouraging sigh. Israel Broadcasting Authority’s reporter Avi Sacharof told Army radio this morning that Hamas is as befuddled by what Israel has in mind as the Israeli press.

Olmert is essentially conducting the negotiations through his emissaries Ofer Dekel and Minister of Security Diskin. Diskin has let it be known he is against the release of so many prisoners in exchange for Shalit. Other voices in the military have let it be known that prisoners are expected in a conflict and some never come home. Of course, the Shalit family isn’t happy with this message.

The negotiators have agreed to keep talking for another 24-hours, in hopes of reaching some agreement. In the past Israel has always given up prisoners in exchange for Israelis captured by the enemy. Col Ehud Tannenbaum was released from a Hezbollah jail after three years on ‘humanitarian’ grounds, since he was suffering from a heart condition, in exchange for Hezbollah prisoners. The bodies of Goldwasser and Regev were exchanged for a Hezbollah terrorist. Back in 1981 then Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin exchanged 1,000 Palestinian prisoners for six Israelis captured during the War in Lebanon I.

The reason Gilad Shalit is still in jail, analysts say, is that PM Ehud Olmert refused to agree to negotiate with Hamas, and certainly not exchange prisoners for Shalit. It has taken Olmert three years and the waning moments of his term in office to change his mind. Some critics say the deal could have been done much sooner and at less a price, shortly after Shalit was captured.

Will this chapter in Israel’s history help or hurt Olmert’s image? If Shalit is returned, it will help, if not, it will hurt. But even a little help isn’t going to do wonders for Olmert. Analysts say he is looking forward to the day when he has defeated his enemies in court and can stage a comeback in the political arena, pointing to the Shalit deal as a positive accomplishment.

The new Likud-Israel Beitanu government should take over within a week. The two parties initialed agreements yesterday, giving Israel Beitanu 5 ministerial portfolios, and appointing party leader Avigdor Lieberman as Foreign Minister. Part of Lieberman’s platform is civil marriages, recognition of conversions performed by Reform and Conservative institutions, and other liberalizing measures. On the other hand Lieberman is pushing for a loyalty oath, aimed mainly at the Arab Knesset members.

The rainy season returned to Israel that was experiencing a drought. Last week the northern regions received enough water that they didn’t have to uproot their apple and pear trees, this week more rain brought the north’s annual rainfall to nearly 90 per cent. The water authority is quick to remind people the aquifers are still very low, and the Sea of Galilee is short about four meters from the red line level. But still Israelis see the water as a blessing, and some mystics see it as a reaffirmation of Netanyahu and Leiberman as the right parties at the right time.

New words: “Madoffed” as in “I’ve been madoffed.” Meaning, scammed.
New Phrases: “Forward-Send” for thoughtless use of e-mail messages that clog up an in-box. “He hits forward-send without thinking.”

You could combine this by “He was madoffed by hitting forward-send without thinking.”
This would apply to some people who naively respond to a Nigerian e-mail offering prize money for a lottery you never entered, or to the Shalit family who may very well have been madoffed by outgoing PM Olmert.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Justice Israeli Style

The coalition talks are nearly finished. An Israeli government is expected by next week. Avigdor Lieberman has by common consent among journalist come out of the talks the clear winner. His Israel Beiteinu party may have only won sixteen seats, but he has maneuvered himself into position to approve the appointment of the Minister of Justice, Foreign Minister, Finance Minister and Minister of Transport, as well as Minister of Housing.

How many of these portfolios will go to his party remains an open question which is not expected to be solved until Wednesday of next week.

Most pundits expect that the Likud’s Moshe ‘Bugi” Ayalon will be the next Minister of Defense, replacing Labor’s Ehud Barak, who is expected to go into the opposition with his 13 Labor Knesset seats. The Mininstry of Justice may go to Lieberman’s choice, Prof. Daniel Friedman, the current minister.

Many commentators question the wisdom of allowing Lieberman, who has been under investigation for fraud and corruption for ten years, to choose the next Minister of Justice. He is also allowed to choose the Public Security Minister that oversees the police. This job has apparently fallen to former police chief Aranovitch.

When questioned on Israel radio this morning Aranovitch claimed that he would be completely impartial, and not be influenced by Lieberman should his case come up before him. Other pundits wonder how Aranovitch could remain impartial over a case involving the head of his own party.

Another line of thought in the media is that Lieberman will not be in any position very long since the Police are soon to bring down an indictment against him, that will force him to resign. In that case some think.having friends in high places, like Friedman and Aranovitch, might prove very helpful,

Whatever happens, it is clear that Lieberman, at least now, has shown himself to be a skilled negotiator. And will probably keep the Finance Mininstry for himself.

The Kadima party seems bent on going into the opposition, to the dismay of Prime Minister designate Netanyahu. The incoming Prime Minister has expressed his displeasure over Kadima’s refusal to join the coalition. His supporters’ say that Netanyahu has done everything he could to form a broad coalition. Others maintain that he is deeply uncomfortable with a narrow right-wing government, especially one that relies on the whims of the ultra-Orthodox Sephardi Shas party.

Shas, according to press reports, had been promised 2 billion shekels from the national budget if they would support Netanyahu when Tzipi Livni was trying to form a coalition. However, Shas has been known to jump sides in political maneuvering and is not considered a reliable partner.

Most analysts say that the Netanyahu government will be so weak that both Labor and Kadima will join within a year under very favorable terms. Others wonder at the fireworks in the Knesset when his party takes on the Israeli Arabs, whom Lieberman has called traitors for supporting Hezbollah and Hamas during recent conflicts.

Former President Moshe Katzav will probably be indicted soon for the rape of a former employee of the Ministry of Tourism and another at the President’s bureau. However, by most accounts, the Attorney General’s office doesn’t really have enough evidence to convict Katzav but is rather tossing the decision at the court. A conviction is not a sure thing. The case has already taken three years to come to court.

Former Supreme Court head Judge Aaron Barak has said that when he was the Attorney General his office would not bring a case to trial unless they were certain they would win. Barak castigated the current Attorney General’s office, run by Manny Mazuz, for trying cases in the press long before they reached court. This was not the way to protect citizens’ rights, nor pursue justice, Barak reportedly said.

A local Jerusalem attorney said that neither the police nor the State’s Attorney’s office was strongly in favor of the indictment, citing the weak case against Katzav.This attorney said that Attorney General Mazuz was new to the job with no criminal trial background when the Katzav case was brought before him.

The Katzav case rests essentially on the evidence of one woman, a former employee, who reportedly first tried to blackmail Katzav, threatening to go public with his unwanted sexual advances, including him forcing her to have sex with him in his office. The woman demanded money to keep quiet.

It was Katzav, the local attorney pointed out, who went to the police with the blackmail threat. The result was that Katzav was indicted and the woman is now the primary witness against him.

The local attorney also criticized Justice Minister Daniel Friedman for carrying out vendettas rather than implanting a fair policy and just policy for the Justice Ministry to follow. Friedman, sources report, had been livid over not receiving an appointment to the Supreme Court, and has been out for revenge on the judges ever since. He has gone on a campaign to restructure the way judges are appointed, saying it should be left to politicians, not the Supreme Court as it is now.

Friedman, said the local attorney, has a reputation of being brilliant, but unstable. Under Aaron Barak’s leadership at the Supreme Court right wing groups were constantly bemoaning Barak’s imposing what they saw as his left-wing ideology on the Israeli public. Friedman swore to reverse most of Barak’s policies. Incoming right-wing powerhouse Avigdor Lieberman wants Friedman to stay in his position. Barak frequently came out against the settlement movement in favor of Palestinians, claim the right-wingers.

Analysts say that Likud prince Dan Meridor had his eye on the Justice Ministry, and that it was promised him if he returned from the political wilderness and took an active part in the Likud’s run at the Knesset. Former Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom was reportedly promised the Foreign Ministry in exchange for support of Bibi Netanyahu. Both men are apparently going to be disappointed.

However, one pundit said that it is possible Lieberman may still not appoint Friedman to the Justice Ministry, since Friedman may appear to be a toady of Lieberman’s. In that case Meridor would get the job. The same may be true of the Foreign Mininstry, with Lieberman allowing Likud prince Silvan Shalom the job. Lieberman would then get other senior cabinet Ministries for Israel Beitenu’s Knesset members.

The bickeringt between out-going PM Ehud Olmert and outgoing Defense Minister Ehud Barak is still raging. Olmert reportedly blames Barak for fouling the deal for a release of Gilad Shalit, while Barak blames Olmert for scotching the deal he had made through Egypt for a Hamas cease-fire. Both men appear to be headed off the political stage in a sulk.

Meanwhile Gilad Shalit has been in a Hamas cell for 988 days, with no end in sight.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Ego And The Public Good

Egos at play. Has it ever been any different? Isn’t that the name of politics? Perhaps
even of leadership, in any field?

In the Middle East today egos have gathered in Sharm El Shek for a meeting on how best to rebuild Gaza. Leaders from all the major countries of the world came to pledge money for the embattled Palestinians living under the thumb of Israel.

The US showed up in the form of U.S.Sec of State Hilary Clinton, who pledged $300 million and spoke about breaking the cycle of violence. She was seen shaking hands with French Prime Minister Sarkozy, no stranger to ego enhancement. The same man who married the super model and made sure that when a photograph of him in a bathing suit appeared in the French newspaper the paper used Photoshop to correct the inner tube of fat around his stomach.

Israel’s incoming Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu suggested that perhaps the gathering should first concentrate on stopping the Hamas rockets from landing in Israel before rewarding Hamas for their years of attacks.

Over the past weekend Hamas launched no less than a dozen rockets into Israel. One Grad rocket struck dangerously close to an Ashkelon school, that was closed, luckily, and last night another fell in a courtyard in Sderot. In view of these attacks Netanyahu’s modest request was anything but outlandish.

Still, they gathered, and pledged support. The Gulf Arab states plan to pledge $1.65 billion in aid over a five year period. The EU will pledge $552.6 million, both for Gaza’s reconstruction and to help pay for the reforms of the Palestinian Authority. Britain pledged $43 million to rebuild Gaza’s economy. The PA is reportedly seeking up to $2.7 billion from donor nations for the Gaza recovery. What will they do with it? So far the egos at play in the PA have siphoned off most of the aid given to the Palestinians into their own pockets. Why would this be any different?

Hamas complained they were not invited to the party. They should complain. They are the 800 pound gorilla in the play. Hamas’ popularity is high. They are considered a winner in the war against the aggressive Israelis. Hamas still has kidnapped Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, and still lobs rockets at Israel at will.

Last night Israel TV showed a clip from the Arab Al Jazeera TV networks report from Gaza. A reporter, in flak jacket for no obvious reason, squatted beside a masked Hamas fighter who first proudly showed the Grad warhead, about the size of a pointed steel tennis ball, to the reporter, then inserted it into the slender rocket and shoved both down the tube hidden in the sand with only a few inches of rim visible to the naked eye. A long fuse snaked out of the tube. The fighter lit the fuse and by the time the rocket took flight both reporter and fighter were far away.

No robotic predator drone nor IDF helicopter would spot this rocket until it was airborne. Israel, with all its might and sophistication, was being toyed with by an under funded under armed militia. Each rocket was an embarrassment to Israel. Each day they fired another Grad was another day that the achievements of the Cast Lead operation diminished into near invisibility.

The ego of Ehud Barak, current Defense Minister is still obvious. He would sorely love to be the Defense Minister in the Netanyahu-lead government, even though the two men have been bitter rivals for a decade and a half. Barak wants to be in the limelight, not in the back benches.

However former Chief-of-Staff Shaul Mofaz, of the Kadima party, also wants that job. He is maneuvering to get Kadima to join Netanyahu in the coalition, but so far has only run into Kadima party leader’s Tzipi Livni’s obdurate behavior in the face of compromise. Either Kadima gets a rotation agreement, where Livni and Netanyahu will take turns being Prime Minister, or she goes into the opposition. Kadima party members like Mofaz, and current Finance Minister Bar On aren’t so happy about sitting on the sidelines if they can help it. One pundit even postulated that Mofaz would abandon Kadima and jump back to the Likud at first opportunity.

One wonders where the public good comes in all of these considerations? Or if it comes up at all? More egos, and more egos.

Perhaps someone has the good of the people in mind. But who?