Saturday, February 07, 2015

The Fashla - הפשלה

Today I'd like to start with a bit of Hebrew slang. Like much Hebrew slang, the etymology of the term under consideration comes from Arabic. I'm talking about the slang word fashla, which I best translate as "a complete disaster" or "an unanticipated (and probably predictable) fuck-up." It comes from the Arabic verb fashala, "to lose courage, to become cowardly, to despair, to fail, to become unsuccessful."

You are fortunate enough to be living in an age in which you can witness a perfectly executed Israeli fashla.

Sometime before the State of the Union speech, when President Obama declared he would veto any bill that proposed tougher sanctions on Iran, House Speaker John Boehner was approached with an idea - some published reports argue it was casino mogul and Republican mega-donor Sheldon Adelson who presented the idea - invite Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to speak before a joint session of Congress. Netanyahu would lay out the threat of "radical Islam" to the civilized world, and would specifically address the menacing nuclear threat of a fanatic and viciously anti-Semitic Shi'ite theocracy.

Boehner liked the idea. He contacted the Israeli Ambassador to Washington Ron Dermer. Ron Dermer is known, Karl Rove-like, to be "Bibi's brains." He has been a close political confidant and speechwriter for Netanyahu since 2008 until his appointment to the plum ambassadorship of Israel's closest ally in 2013. Before immigrating to Israel in 1997 he had worked for a time with Republican political consultant Frank Luntz. If either Dermer or Netanyahu had stayed in America, they would today be Republicans in heart and soul. Boehner knew he'd find a sympathetic ear and direct access to the Boss.

The three together planned a stunning Republican congressional protest, all within Constitutional bounds, against a threatened Presidential veto of a bipartisan call for more stringent sanctions on Iran. Bibi Netanyahu was a master of the Speaker's rostrum. Back in 2011 Boehner, then in grudging cooperation with the White House, had extended a similar invitation to Netanyahu, and Bibi was treated to energetic support from those seated in the House chamber. In fact, this would be the third time Bibi addressed Congress, an honor granted only Winston Churchill, one of Netanyahu's heroes.

For Netanyahu, the added benefit of appearing on domestic wall-to-wall media coverage of his "historic mission" to Washington just 2 weeks before an Israeli election was irresistible. Bibi has portrayed his principal political adversary Yizhak (Buji) Herzog as a weak-on-security neophyte and a bumbling amateur. On the other hand, Netanyahu imagines himself a cunningly wise leader, the absolutely right man for these dangerous times.

For creating a fashla, this was a perfect storm.

The too clever by half masterstroke, once it was finally revealed to the unsuspecting White House and the Democratic leadership less than 48 hours after the State of the Union speech, quickly turned into a classic fashla. No amount of spin or fudging the facts of the invitation would turn it around. Within a week of the announcement, bipartisan support for tougher sanctions against Iran - the very mission which Netanyahu had intended to reinforce - crumbled apart. Democrats had to choose between their President and the Prime Minister of Israel. It was an easy call.

Two weeks after the announcement, Democratic Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi was hinting at a wholesale defection of dozens of Democratic congressman from the audience. Vice President Joe Biden, who has missed only one joint session designed to host an invited foreign leader, announced suddenly he would be out of town that day. The image of a half-filled chamber, with Republican Senator and President pro tempore Orrin Hatch sitting in the left chair, will not make for a rousing moment reminiscent of Bibi's prior appearances.

In classic fashla fashion, the masterstroke has completely backfired. Iran has disappeared from the discussion, and instead the only discussion is the worsening relations between Netanyahu, Obama, the Democrats, and even American Jews, who view the entire matter with growing concern.

So there you go - a first-class, high-drama fashla.

And thus concludes today's lesson in Israeli slang.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Benjamin Netanyahu, the next PM of Israel

Crunch the polling numbers any way you want - the inevitable outcome, barring a seismic shift in Israeli voter sentiment over the course of the next 50 days, will be a government headed by current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Two days remain before final party lists are published, and I can imagine yet another "surprise" joining together of currently separated lists. But barring that, we have the broad contours of the Israeli electorate in the winter of 2015. I think we're looking at a variation of the 2009 Israeli elections, in which Netanyahu's Likud came in second place, but still formed the government.

The best poll averaging web site is Project 61. Seven weeks out, the renamed Labor party - now calling itself "the Zionist Camp" - leads with a projected 25 seats. Netanyahu's Likud party comes in a close second, at 23. The remaining 60% of legislative seats are divided, in descending order, between right-wing, religious, centrist, Arab, and left-wing parties.

As in 2009, the winning party will not be called on to form a government. That task will fall to the leader who can convince Israel's President Ruvi Rivlin that he has the best shot to form a government. And that leader will be Netanyahu.

Take the long view. I've gone back 7 Knesset elections back to 1992, and broken down the political parties into 4 blocs: 1) secular-right-national; 2) secular-center-left; 3) religious-ultra-Orthodox; and 4) Arab. When the secular-center-left bloc gets above 49, it forms a government. It takes 43 seats for the secular-right-national bloc to form the government. According to Project 61, we're at 37 for the secular-right-national and 38 for the secular-center-left. No one has crossed the threshold for a certainty.

The newly united Arab parties' list is not a factor in coalition politics, because all Zionist players consider the Arab parties treyf. So in fact a leader must get to 61 from the remaining 107 seats.

The growing religious-ultra-Orthodox bloc will hold the key. It might surprise you, but various components of this bloc could go either way - it all depends on what is offered party leaders in the inevitable coalition negotiations that will ensue after elections.

One caveat - I think the polling numbers for Bennett's Bayit Yehudi party are too high.

Netanyahu will have two different paths to the required 61 seat majority in the Knesset. Most likely, he will attempt a so-called "national unity government." Despite the acrimony of the current election campaign (oftentimes quite personal), never underestimate the desire of Israeli politicians to have delivered to them control of massive governmental bureaucracies. I could easily imagine a secular center-right coalition made up of Likud, Zionist Camp, Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beytenu, and Moshe Kahalon's new Kulanu party, for a total of 64 seats. Some of these parties could be dismissed for religious parties and still maintain a semblance of "national unity."  And if the "unity" fever becomes strong, one could imagine a not particularly stable government of over 75 seats. This unwieldy scenario would be the best outcome for hopes of holding in abeyance any military misadventure with Iran because of serious disagreements within the unity umbrella. But it would mean continued stalemate with the Palestinians, with a government of Israel torn internally on how to best move forward. One governmental crisis and the whole thing would collapse.

Or Bibi can go the "hard-right" route. Here he works with right-wing, religious, and ultra-Orthodox parties, with Avigdor Lieberman's dwindling Yisrael Beytenu vanity party. He would have 62-69 seats this way.  Then the chances of a military attack on Iran go way up, and re-energized opposition to any American-brokered diplomatic path to resolving Palestinian claims becomes the norm.

Another good web site is They try to "Nate Silver" the election polling, and they come up with similar results. While they don't break up the parties into the same blocs that I do, they argue that the current numbers give a very high chance for the formation of a national unity government, either secular or with some ultra-Orthodox components. Next would come a not too impossible center-left government, with some ultra-Orthodox. Least likely would be a hard-right religious ultra-Orthodox government. Impossible would be a center-left secular government.

What is abundantly clear is that these elections are a waste of everyone's time - and that just may be the point. It may have seemed to Netanyahu in December that a rearrangement of the political deck-chairs on the Titanic was in order. Or it may have seemed a convenient way to take a pause from dealing with Israel's security and domestic problems. Either way, the systemic and incapacitating divisions of the Israeli electorate remain. Nothing has changed: the Israeli electorate is as divided as ever, creeping to the right and towards God.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

King Bibi, Messiah Bibi

The furor over Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's shock-and-awe campaign for stricter sanctions against Iran took a new turn this week when US Speaker of the House John Boehner dropped a diplomatic bombshell: Netanyahu would be invited to deliver a speech to a joint session of Congress on March 3, in defiance of the Obama White House. Truth be told, the invitation had been negotiated in a closely-held round of talks between Boehner's office and the Israeli ambassador to Washington, Ron Dermer. On the day of the announcement, Dermer had held a two hour meeting with US Secretary of State John Kerry, and uttered not a word about the pending trip.
In Israel, the surprise announcement has been roundly criticized in the media and amongst Netanyahu's political opponents, but it remains to be seen how the ploy will play with Netanyahu's base and with undecided voters in national elections to be held exactly two weeks after the speech. Even Dan Margalit, columnist for Israel Hayom - the Sheldon Adelson-financed free newspaper which many identify as an organ for Netanyahu's amen corner - criticized the timing and stylistics of what otherwise Margalit regards as a just cause.
In the United States, the Republicans are crowing over the poke-in-the-eye delivered to a President they believe coddles the dithering and duplicitous Iranians. Democrats are furious with Netanyahu, and the White House can hardly contain its anger. American Jews are collectively wringing their hands, No less an Israel supporter than Abe Foxman has called the invitation "ill-advised."
Time Magazine once proclaimed Netanyahu "King Bibi." But I think he is going for something more. When, I asked myself, was the last time a Jew has traveled to the Emperor's doorstep to admonish the Emperor? It's been nearly 750 years since a Jew challenged the reigning hegemon of his day. In 1280 the Jewish mystic Abraham Abulafia travelled to Rome to convert Pope Nicholas III to Judaism. The Pope was at his palace in Soriano, and defying a threat to be burned at the stake, Abulafia traveled to the castle, and was immediately placed under arrest for his insolence, and was ordered to be put to death for his outrage. Only when learning that the Pope himself died was Abulafia released, and from there he went on to Sicily to pronounce himself Messiah. Abulafia, who has left us dozens of books, some of an autobiographical nature, soon disappeared from the historical record. To this day we do not know the precise date of his death. As with all false messiahs, he didn't deliver.
Is that the new role that Netanyahu is taking on for himself? Netanyahu's father was a medieval historian, his brother a lionized martyr from the 1976 Entebbe raid. Netanyahu sees himself on an historic mission to deliver his nation from an Iranian nuclear armageddon. He is a Prime Minister soon to be reelected and to thereby become the longest-serving Prime Minister in Israeli history, even outdistancing the historic founder David Ben-Gurion.
Is Bibi maneuvering to something more than King of the Jewish state? Is he going for the ultimate crown?
This won't end well.

Friday, July 11, 2014

How to Follow Events in Israel/Palestine (Live Stream)

Israel Channel 1 HD
Sure, you can download the iPhone app Red Alert. Yes, you can follow whomever you want on Facebook and Twitter. But do you want to take it up a notch?
How about live TV from multiple Israeli and Arab-language news channels, all in one place? Don't have a DishTV satellite package that provides the Israel Channel or Arabic language channels?
All you need is an internet connection, and then install an amazing open source media control center package called xbmc.

Proper installation is a multi-part process. It doesn't matter if you are installing to Windows, OS X, Linux, Android, or jailbroken iOS. This video

IDF Arabic spokesman on al-Jazeera
walks you through the necessary first few steps. It doesn’t explain how to get specifically Israel or Arabic-language channels, but it will allow you to install the repositories and add-ons that will get you there. Once you have done everything in
this video, and have installed the appropriate international add-ons (for Israel you want Israelive; for Arabic there are numerous add-ons; all can be installed by going to Programs -> World Repos), you are ready to specifically add Israelive or any of the Arab channels to your mix.

Essentially, to get Israelive, you can follow the Hebrew instructions on this page, beginning with 2.2.1 (this will allow Hebrew fonts) and then skipping to 3.4 (this will install Israelive):

The channels come and go with each update of the add-on service. Right now I am getting Channel 1 in HD and channel 10 in SD, for some reason no Channel 2 (Update July 24: now Channel 2 is available). Also, I’ve been able to look in on al-Quds, the channel of Hamas, but without sound. Israelive also gives you all the Israeli radio stations. From other addons you can get live streams of hundreds of world channels (CNN International, SkyNews, BBC World, to name a few) by poking around a bit after everything is installed. With the proper add-on, you can watch whole seasons of Israeli TV shows.

Actually, xbmc is a far more powerful platform designed to provide you with much more than live TV streams from around the world. It also serves as a media server for a home theater. That's the principal way I use it on a dedicated PC connected to my home theater. But you can use it in this limited way on any computer.

As we say in Kabbalah: ha-mevin yavin.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

The Luxury of Iron Dome

Most of the Israeli tweeps I follow on Twitter are leftists. I follow them because I tend to agree with them. The occupation is morally indefensible and nationally suicidal, Bibi and his comrades are compass-less vile warmongers, yada, yada, yada. The whole 9 yards. This Operation Protective Edge is as stupid and morally indefensible as Cast Lead and Defensive Shield before it.
What in God's name is a government and army supposed to do when 100 missiles a day are fired willy-nilly into your territory? Every single former interlocutor with Hamas reports that Hamas had ample time amidst unambiguous signals of restraint from the dithering Israeli security cabinet to try to ramp down this confrontation, and the universal and consistent message from Hamas, from the Islamic Jihad, and from the Popular Resistance Committees of Gaza was a defiant "NO!"
So I read someone like Noam Sheizaf, who so often I find myself in agreement, writing a piece under the completely accurate headline "Why I object to this military campaign, even as missiles fall on my city". But I have to ask Mr. Sheizaf, and all the others who hold the same opinion - yes, this bloodshed is the direct result of the blind & idiotic 47-year long occupation, but if there were no Iron Dome missile defense, and that M75 rocket that was intercepted over the Azrieli Towers had reached its target, would you still be able to pen such a piece? 
You see, Mr. Sheizaf, the missile hasn't actually fallen on your city. You have the luxury that your counterparts in Gaza don't - an army and a civilian government which protects you when you are under attack. It's true that this is the same government that has spurned peace overtures, that exacerbates the conflict, that defies international law. But today, having placed you in such grave danger, it is saving your life. 
Can't say the same for Hamas.