Saturday, December 31, 2005

Quick impression of the "new" LBG terminal

Having just arrived 36 hours earlier, I am now getting my bearings in Tel Aviv. As someone who imagines himself a bit of an air traveller, I must take the time to comment on what was for me the "new" passenger terminal at LBG, or Ben Gurion Airport. Since it has been more than 18 months since my last visit to Israel, I've been looking forward to experiencing the terminal, which was supposed to be ready for the year 2000 pilgrims and travellers -- and in fact opened in November, 2004. As an avid Flight Simulator user, I've flown into LBG many times, and with one of the latest public domain scenery packs, I have even pulled up to the new terminal in virtual space. Now I would get to match up my virtual experience with reality.
We were vectored onto the classic Runway 12 landing pattern, which took us over early morning Tel Aviv (always a welcome sight), and instead of making our way to a parking spot on the tarmac as in the old days, we transited in our Continental triple-7 (a wondeful plane -- even when packed full, even in coach) over to Gate 6 at Terminal 3. Gone are the buses that bring you to the old reception hall -- at the new terminal there are jetways, moving walkways, and an interminable walk to the passport station. The terminal, which was designed to handle a fantastic amount of passengers, is quite open and monumental. The baggage area is fantastically large and clean. I'll miss good old Terminal 1, which became as familiar to me as the MSP airport, but I cannot deny the sense of modernity and convenience which the new terminal projects, almost as if it came out of a recent movie. Parking and ground transportation is state-of-the-art, now including commuter train service to Gush Dan and beyond. All-in-all, the new terminal at LBG gets high marks from this self-styled international traveller.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Sharon's Health and the Upcoming Elections

Not even a week has gone by since my first post on the upcoming Israeli elections, and already the playing field has been transformed. Word has come from Jerusalem this evening that Kadima’s standard-bearer, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, has suffered what is being described by Israeli media as a “minor brain incident” (a stroke) and has been transported to the Hadassah-Ein Kerem hospital. Channel 10 reported that he lost consciousness for a brief time, but the latest reports on Israel’s state-run television claim he is conscious. The fact that Sharon’s two sons have been reported to have rushed to the hospital might possibly belie the current upbeat reporting from Ein Kerem.

I described Kadima as a “vanity party,” somewhat akin to Ben Gurion’s Rafi party, and even more so the short-lived La-Am party of 1969. The corpulent 77 year-old Prime Minister was running a “one-man show,” and the raison d’ĂȘtre for the new party was to provide the Prime Minister a political venue to continue on his personal political path of “painful decisions” that are called for in the roadmap timetable which Sharon promised to pursue.

If this indeed is a minor health incident, then it is possible that nothing has changed in the political calculations leading up to the March 28, 2006 elections. This may be akin to the looming health problems which plague US Vice President Dick Cheney – but such looming questions concerning the number one man (not the number two) in what essentially is a one-man party can easily upset the battle plan for the upcoming political campaign. Now there is the issue of Sharon’s health to contend with. Even if Sharon experiences a full and immediate recovery from this cerebral vascular accident, there can be no pushing the genie of questioning Sharon’s physical stamina back into the bottle.

If this reported “slight stroke” in any way diminishes Sharon’s ability to function as Prime Minister and to campaign as Kadima’s standard-bearer, then obviously all bets are off. With Israeli domestic politics in such a tumultuous state, and the ballot clock relentlessly ticking, there seems nothing to do but for all the political players to press ahead. One man to pay close attention to in both the short term and the long term is Finance Minister Ehud Olmert, former mayor of Jerusalem. Under Israeli law, Olmert would serve as Sharon’s stand-in if Sharon is incapacitated as Prime Minister. And as one of the most prominent defenders of Sharon’s pragmatic approach to advancing a deal with the Palestinians, Olmert would emerge as a leading voice in a Kadima bereft of Sharon.

Will recent defectors from Likud to Kadima come back to the fold, now that the leader has broken stride? Can the strange bedfellows who make up the new-found Kadima alliance remain docile these trying next few days? I have no answer, but it will be interesting to see what happens next.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Am I a Neo-con?

At the end of the First Gulf War, on March 1, 1991, I published an op-ed piece in The Hartford Courant entitled “Harsh Lessons of the Persian Gulf War.” Towards the end of that piece, I wrote:

…the United States must promote among the Middle Eastern regimes the simple values of liberty, regional cooperation and democracy. The Gulf states have emerged from their petroleum-induced hibernation; they must now be encouraged to become members of the enlightened political community. Having seen socialism, militant nationalism and Islamic fundamentalism fail to heal the regimes of their sickness, the only option left to the Arabs is the stability that comes with freedom.

I concluded that piece with the following punch line:

Palestine is not the driving issue lurking behind every Middle Eastern ailment. The sickness is Arab despotism and freedom is the cure.

And now I sit, nearly 15 years later, and have begun to ask myself: am I a neo-con? Before the term ever existed, there I was in 1991 spouting the exact prescription that now is the hallmark of the Bush administration Vulcans. In those strained days of 2002 when a regime-change war was being contemplated in American politics, I know where I stood – an outcast within my profession – in favor of “taking out Saddam.” I also remember telling my students that the same men who had so horribly botched the 1991 war were the soon-to-be masters of this next Middle Eastern adventure. “Anyone who thinks they can fix the Middle East,” I said back in 2002, “will get fixed by the Middle East.” Anyone who knows a smattering of modern Middle Eastern history would know that foreign occupiers often have great plans for the Oriental natives, and yet the natives have a remarkable ability to reassert their will and confound the colonial masters. Just ask Britain. The audaciousness of occupying Baghdad, the great historic city of the once far-flung Abbasid caliphate, was in my mind even then an act of over-reaching. So while voting for Kerry (and let us not forget – Kerry campaigned on a Iraq platform that called for sending at least 100,000 more US troops to Iraq), I was a liberal hawk throughout 2002-2005. I cannot deny that among the reasons I supported removing Saddam was the salutary effect such a regime change would have on the military balance in the Arab-Israeli conflict.

But the main reason I was in favor of taking out Saddam was an instinctive conviction – also trumpeted by the Darth Vader of the Bush regime, Vice President Dick Cheney – that there was some kind of connection between Saddam and the 9/11 attack, a view that once was held by over 60% of all Americans. To this day, I still reject the James Bondian theory that one rich Saudi businessman boogeyman (Usama Bin Laden) would be able to run a series of terror sleeper cells in the United States for over 18 months under the radar screen. If we were still in the Cold War, we would attribute such an organized effort to nothing less than the KGB. Even given all the documented failures of the US intelligence community between 1999-2001, it still seems to me that a state-sponsored intelligence entity must have been involved in the funding, security, and forged documentation of the sleeper cells.

I even developed an elaborate narrative to explain Saddam’s motivation for providing spycraft assistance to al-Qa’ida: on February 13, 1991, two US stealth fighters dropped 2,000-pound laser-guided bombs on the al-Firdos bunker in the Amariyah section of Baghdad – which turned out not to be a military facility, but a shelter for senior Ba’ath party family members, killing hundreds (read Rick Atkinson’s account of the attack in chapter 10 his definitive history Crusade: The Untold Story of the Persian Gulf War [1993]). The alleged assassination attempt against ex-President George H.W. Bush in Kuwait in April, 1993 (a plot since called into some question by Seymour Hersh) was in my mind the first effort by Saddam to extract revenge for this slaughter of senior Ba’ath family members – there is a vicious personal aspect (on the part of both sides) to the entire confrontation. I then drew a convoluted link between al-Qa’ida and Iraqi intelligence – even as I was aware that ideologically these two groups of operatives shared very little in common. As I put it in 2002 in explaining the 9/11 attack, “al-Qa’ida was the manpower division, but Iraq provided the spycraft.” Naturally, I tended to believe the now-discredited reports – propagated we know by Cheney’s office – of a meeting between Muhammad Atta and Iraqi intelligence in the Czech Republic in April, 2000, a meeting deemed by the 9/11 Commission to be of dubious character. But back then, I had my theory for Saddam’s motivation to be part of the 9/11 adventure. And even today, despite all the reporting to the contrary, I still stubbornly believe that Saddam was involved.

I never really believed in the WMD argument, which I always thought was a diplomatic pretext for public consumption. But I did subscribe to a position first enunciated by Tom Friedman in June, 2003, to wit that the US needed to take out Saddam simply “because we could.” In other words, it would not be enough to convince the Arab world that America would go to great lengths to defend itself against future 9/11’s by simply removing the Taliban from Afghanistan – we needed to demonstrate greater resolve and force projection. Removing Saddam through a war would send the appropriate message. Or so I thought…and the truth of Tom’s pronouncement still lingers with me today.

And then there is the issue of Leo Strauss. From the moment 25 years ago when I read Strauss’s Persecution and the Art of Writing, one of the most brilliant studies of medieval Jewish theology I have ever encountered, Strauss has been on my intellectual radar screen. Only in the last 12 months have I come to know Strauss as the godfather of intellectual neo-conservatism. To this day, I do not understand the dotted line which connects this essay on medieval Judeo-Arabic philosophy to the neo-con enterprise. I suspect that there simply is no connection. But this is a second plane in which I ask myself: am I a neo-con if I have been exposed to some of Leo Strauss’s writings and found them admirable, intelligent, and eminently constructive?

I’ve now come to a new realization – with the much-ballyhooed Iraqi legislative elections now complete – that I have more misgivings about how this American occupation in Iraq is going than I have hope. Let me put it as crudely as possible: I can “forgive” George Bush those first 138 dead American soldiers (that is where the number stood on May 1, 2003, when President Bush stood on the deck of the USS Lincoln and announced that major operations in Iraq were completed). I’ll even grant him the further casualties in the subsequent months. But now the situation is beyond lost, and more than 2,000 young men on the US side have died since “mission accomplished” – and I am now asking myself “why?”

Maybe the idea from its inception was flawed, as so many of my leftist colleagues have said; but I now think that it was the foolish hubris of the Vulcans in their preposterous post-war planning that have placed us in such a dire situation. By imposing upon Iraq such a god-awful democracy in such a clumsy way, the Bush neo-cons have created a potentially disastrous situation in which even the very idea of liberty will be discredited within the Arab world for a long time to come.

In the end, maybe it is simply that neo-cons are awesome idea men, but positively awful as managers. Mostly men better suited to Beltway think-tanks, put them in charge of a military system and they are lost.

I take ideas seriously – they take ideas seriously. I am an American Jew – and many of them are American Jews. I believe I have learned important things from the writings of Leo Strauss, Kanan Makkiya, Bernard Lewis, and Fouad Ajami – and so have they.

Am I a neo-con?

A Review of Steven Spielberg's "Munich"

After attending an advance screening:

In his last release, “War of the Worlds,” director Steven Spielberg bombarded us with images of horror derived from the 9/11 trauma. The imagery was remarkable – after the film’s opening alien attack, hero Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise) returns home to find himself incredulously covered in gray soot. Later, as Ray’s family flees the first attack region, daughter Rachel (Dakota Fanning) screams repeatedly, “is it terrorists?” This sci-fi remake, which in its first iteration was an expression of the Cold War, became in Spielberg’s hands Hollywood’s first major artistic statement on 9/11.

In “Munich,” the second of his post-9/11 cinematic explorations, Steven Spielberg has taken on the war on terrorism itself. It is a commonplace recited by many Israelis that since 9/11 Americans are learning to live in a vicious world which Israelis have lived in for over 50 years. Spielberg and playwright Tony Kushner apparently agree – for this dramatization of today’s war on terror is seen through the prism of the more “ancient” Arab-Israeli terror war, when methods and practices were first being developed. They have taken us to a time when Middle Eastern terrorists were just beginning to bring their campaign to regions beyond the hot Middle East, and Israel was struggling – all by itself – to learn how to respond in kind. This movie takes us back to the first great international terror event, the 1972 Munich Olympics hostage attack on the Israeli athletic team by Black September. And then it follows the first “war on terrorism,” as we witness a clandestine Israeli assassination team kill off each of the architects of that attack.

But this is no heroic shoot-em-up with a lovable Indiana Jones. “Munich” after all bears a screenplay by Tony Kushner. Our conflicted hero in “Munich” is Avner Kauffman (convincingly rendered by Eric Bana), and Avner is a man working deep, deep undercover. He becomes a valiant state-sponsored assassin, conflicted within and yet honored by mother and country. By the end of the movie, Avner abandons his homeland and is a shadow of his former self. The road to this transformation is what takes up most of this 2½ hour movie.

“Munich” is an ambivalent and flawed movie, lacking most of the special cinematographic techniques which distinguish the Spielberg look. It is visually a fairly pedestrian, by-the-book European travelogue-cum-spy story. So wedded to Europe is our story, that all the scenes representing to be taking place in Israel were shot in Europe – a surprising lack of location shooting in a movie that strives for authentic look-and-feel.

To be sure, this movie is first-and-foremost concerned with Israelis – their humanity, their thoughtfulness, and their murderous efficiency. But it is the implied message of the narrative that terrorism cannot be defeated through a policy of targeted reprisal killings as the Israelis continue to employ, and the Americans toy with – there are often innocents in such attacks; and more practically, with every dead terrorist there are 6 more enraged and willing volunteers to replace the “martyr.”

In the clandestine world of state-sponsored hit teams, Avner himself becomes a target – by whom he does not know – and struggles to keep his team and family intact. Avner begins to doubt his controller and his convictions. By the end, he is a lost man.

Israeli director Eitan Fox covered similar territory – the Mossad killer who loses his professional edge to doubts – in his 2004 film “Walk on Water” and did so in a far more palpable way. “Munich” lacks the richness of character Fox’s “Water” so convincingly evokes.

This new movie is no magisterial “Schindler’s List” or “Saving Private Ryan.” It is too much like the plodding “The Bourne Identity” to be taken as a work of genius. “Munich” is a serious Spielberg movie (was this the man who gave us “1941”?), and attempts to pose serious questions about the United States’ current “war on terror.” For those who doubt its currency, the final shot of the movie reveals all of Spielberg’s true intentions. The accusation that Spielberg and Kushner are trumpeting some diatribe against Israel cannot be entertained by anyone who sees the movie for its larger political message. It is a movie that is neither too sympathetic to the Israeli cause, nor too wrapped up in Palestinian victimization. It is a cinematic argument that violence begets violence, and that a war on terror corrodes all who come near it. Though the movie is an admirable effort at political relevancy, it is not a defining piece in the Spielberg oeuvre.

Monday, December 12, 2005

An early read of the Israeli elections

My goodness. Is there anyone else left in Likud? Now that Tzachi Hanegbi and Shaul Mofaz have both belatedly jumped ship to Ariel Sharon's vanity party Kadima, it looks ever more likely that a Kadima-Labor coalition of significantly more than 60 MKs will greet the world on March 29, 2006. And now that the Sunday Times of London reports that Sharon has given the green light to the IDF to prepare for a late March attack on Iran's nuclear enrichment sites, the scene is set for a repeat of Menahem Begin's 1981 pre-election sabre rattling attack on Osirak, Saddam's nuclear facility, which iced a close election for Likud. Sharon, then part of Begin's inner circle, has learned a lesson or two about how to look strong on election eve. All that is left of Likud are the "rebels" and a struggle between Silvan Shalom and Binyamin Netanyahu for the right to lead Likud to crushing irrelevancy, reducing Likud to a numerical force in the Kenesset not seen since Begin's Herut party of the 1950's.

But all is not clear-sailing for an uneventful election campaign. The terrorist attacks and short-range missile launches (and the requsite Israeli response of targeted killings and air attacks in Gaza) of the last few days futher enhances Kadima's chances with the Israeli electorate. Even Labor leader Amir Peretz, whose career and platform rest on a social agenda, has been forced to sound a hawkish, security-first, tone. The key issue of the March 2006 election will thus be security and foreign policy, not Sheli Yachimovitch's economic agenda.

The question is: if a pragmatic centrist coalition of Kadima and Labor wins handily, will there be a concommitant outcome in the Palestinian Authority's legislative elections scheduled for January 25 (though a delay is possible, given the problems at the Palestinian election polls last week). Zeev Schiff of Haaretz (who often represents the "wisdom" of the Israeli defense establishment) has recently declared Abu Mazen a failure, or to use Ehud Barak's old phrase, "not a partner." If Abu Mazen's correct effort to co-opt Hamas and other Islamists into the civic process results in a victory for Hamas in January, this too will work in Sharon's favor, but it would mean that the "road map" approach endorsed by Sharon is dead. Then expect more unilateral moves in the West Bank, akin to the Gaza disengagement of the summer of 2005. Either way, a Sharon-led coalition can stand up to the settler movement, but a Peretz-led coalition will lack the backbone and credibility to make the hard play.

Personally -- and I can't believe I am writing these words -- as of this moment I would (if I could) pull the lever for Sharon.

I met SRK!

I am not kidding. On my way over to the Cleo faculty cocktail party last Thursday night, I stopped for a pack of cigs, and I found out from my friendly gas station attendant that Shahrukh Khan and Rani Mukherjee were shooting scenes at the New Haven Amtrak station, so to hell with Cleo -- I and my daughter jumped in the car and ran down to NH. Sure enough, there were about 100 Hindustanis standing outside one end of the station peering through the windows. We went into the station by the door at the other end of the station, pretending to be simple commuters, and innocently took a seat on a bench near the filming. Apparently, they were throwing out all the South Asians because they wanted only Americans in the background. I ended up sitting next to a very nice person who was the extras coordinator, and she said we could stay if we didn't stare. And so we sat for 2 hours watching Shahrukh and Rani in a scene. They've been shooting for 3 days, and this was the last night. We may even appear in a shot. By 10 pm, work was done, and I noticed Shahrukh go off to the public bathroom with a group of security men. After about a 30 second delay, I went into the bathroom, and found him washing the makeup off his face. I did my business, and then signalled to one of the security men that I needed to wash my hands. So there I was, standing at the sink directly beside THE MAN!!! What to do? If I opened my mouth, the security people would have pounced on me. (I should've started humming Kal Ho Na Ho.) So now I move over to the hand dryer, and just stare, with the biggest grin on my face. By now, security is suspicious, so I just leave. The name of the upcoming movie is Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna, due to be released in May, and has Amitabh and Preity in it. Amitabh is apparently ill, and has already flown home. They were shooting in New Haven for the past 3 days, with the dance sequence (just Shahrukh and Rani) shot on day one. And get this! There will be more location shooting in Connecticut! So keep your eyes open, fans - you just may meet one of the greatest film stars of all time!