Thursday, December 28, 2006

Four Months Later

Back in June, 2006, I referred to Tom Friedman's famous adage -- I am paraphrasing here, because I can't recall the exact quote -- that one only need check in on the Arab-Israel story about once every 6 months, because nothing ever changes in the story. Two weeks ago there was a much ballyhooed US-brokered ceasefire announced for Gaza; and just 2 days ago Prime Minister Ehud Olmert hosted PA President Mahmoud Abbas in Jerusalem for talks. Hmm, maybe things are getting better?

Since the ceasefire was announced, 55 Qaasem ground-to-ground missiles have been launched at Israel (12 striking Israeli territory - what a dud rate!). So much for the misguided notion that anyone belonging to the Fatah establishment would be able to deliver a total ceasefire on behalf of Palestinian society. No one "controls" Palestine - neither the Hamas government and its semi-official militant groups; nor the Fatah president and its discredited and corrupt security force.

The Israelis for their part negotiated a cease fire with an exception designed to assure the ceasefire's failure - they and the Palestinians agreed to a continuation of the low simmer on the West Bank. Then the Israeli Defense Minister - a former founder of Peace Now, nachmol - announces the provocative authorization for a renewed Israeli settlement in the West Bank, a move immediately criticized by the Americans.

No wonder the whole thing is falling apart.

That's the Arab-Israeli conflict in a nutshell: an abduction one week, a war the next; a visit from the US Secretary of State one week, a non-ceasefire ceasefire the next; and then back we go - a broken ceasefire the week after that.

It just doesn't end. No wonder people find it so fascinating: it is a story with riveting human drama and politics - the very stuff of history. But it seems to have no resolution. Eventually, observers grow bored with the unending sturm und drang. But the players on the ground - the poor souls who act out this endless tragedy - keep playing the same scene over and over.

Look, I'm all for learning about the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict. If for no other reason, Americans should be more educated and informed about the A-I conflict because of the potential for a wider terror struggle which the conflict helps fuel. For people like me "who have a dog in this fight" it remains compelling in all its details. But let's not got lost in the gripping daily journalism to lose sight of the long-view perspective: 4 months since I last blogged on Israel/Palestine, and nothing has changed.

Ah, but out in another part of the Middle East - surprise! - things are palpably changing, and changing for the worse for everyone involved. Iraq has become a festering cyst, a dysfunctional state of anarchy on a massive scale. Palestine seems puny when compared to Iraq. Palestine doesn't have sectarian or ethnic strife - it's internal struggle is between secular nationalists and Islamists, all ethnically homogenous with barely a mention of the Islamic-Christian divide within Palestine. Iraq is ethnically divided and religiously torn. Iraq is Palestine on steroids. How the United States could knowingly inject itself into this mess is hard to imagine - and yet here it is, squatting in the Green Zone of central Baghdad. Unlike the Israelis, who have to live next door to a real enemy, the United States - planetary villain to some, shining beacon to itself - had to travel an appropriately imperial 8000 miles to find an enemy. The United States grasps at imperial order, so why should it not have imperial pretensions and imperial follies? If you're gonna screw up and you're a superpower, you might as well not hold back.

Being an empire means never having to say you're sorry. Until it is too late...

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

How to restart?

Forgive me, all 3 readers of my blog. I've been working the past 3 months. You know, the professor thing comes in waves, and during the semester blogging just doesn't have the same therapeutic value as when the pressure is off.

Now it is Finals week, and the blue books are piling on, so I will still need about a week to get myself back into the mindset for blogging. So much ahs happened these past 3 months that almost prompted me to re-ignite this thing, but I simply said to myself: "Nope, not big enough." But taken all together - midterm elections, Rummy's departure, the Iraq Study Group, the Holocaust conference in Tehran, Ehud Olmert's potty mouth, and there is plenty grist for the mill. Give me another week and I'll be back. Promise.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

The BINGO in BingoProf

Why such a ridiculous moniker? It almost sounds like a CB-radio call sign - "Breaker, breaker....this is Bingoprof...there's a bear at mile marker 78...what's your twenty?" But that's not where "bingoprof" comes from.

You see, aside from being a tenured full professor at an elite East Coast liberal arts college (with an international reputation in my completely obscure field), I also run a BINGO hall. For more than a decade I have been deeply involved in what I am told is the fourth or fifth largest BINGO game in the state of Connecticut. As a volunteer for my Orthodox synagogue's fundraiser, I've moved up through the ranks from floor caller to paper seller to BINGO caller to the ultimate position of Member-In-Charge. As MIC, I am the sole responsible figurehead to liaison with the state's Division of Special Revenue. I am the one who assures that the game is run cleanly. I am the one who engages in customer relations. I count the money, or supervise the person who does so, and I fill out and submit all the paperwork required by the state for a non-profit BINGO fundraiser. I am in charge.
And last night, I hit rock bottom. I got bitch-slapped by an irate customer (the bitch-slapper in question is the woman in yellow). Not once, but twice. And had her lucky BINGO charm thrown at me. If I knew the customer's name, I'd be swearing out an assault charge this morning with the West Hartford police.
Every week my synagogue runs a state-sanctioned BINGO session. Every Wednesday a minimum of 120 people (none of them congregation members) walk through our doors and come into our banquet hall to play the most mind-numbingly stupid form of gambling I have ever encountered. The numbers are rather impressive: on an average night we will give away approximately $3500 over the course of about 25 games. That ain't Foxwoods money, but it is not an insignificant amount, either. The key here is that we will take in about $4500, all cash, leaving us with a gross profit of about $1000. 52 times a year. You do the math. For a synagogue with an approximate annual operating budget of a quarter of a million dollars, you can see that without weekly BINGO, the synagogue would be in dire straits.
Last night wasn't an average night. It was the end of the month, so there were fewer of our typically urban patrons from all walks of life. Without that paycheck, the end of the month means fewer people have expendable income to fritter away on 2-1/2 hours of BINGO. And for the first hour, everything was running smoothly - the paper counts and cash registers were right on the money, everyone seemed happy. And then the drama began.
One of our games is a progressive jackpot. Beginning at $125, each week that fails to produce a winner (a cover-all game in 53 balls called or less) adds another $125 to the jackpot. After ball 53, we give out a $100 consolation prize to the first cover-all winner. If no one wins the game in 16 weeks (and for some obscure mathematical reason, covering a 24-space BINGO card made up of 75 random numbers in 53 called balls is quite difficult), we have what we call "a $2000 night," for when the progressive reaches $2000, the state requires us to give it away to the first person who gets a cover-all, no matter how many balls it takes. On a $2000 night, we will usually have at least 250 players, because the word gets out and the customers come out of the woodwork, and that taxes our staff of volunteers. $2000 nights are crazy.
But last night was only Week 3 in the cycle. A measely $375. I was talking to my friend and fellow volunteer (she calls the second half of the session) at the back of the hall when a customer started screaming at the floor caller who came to verify her win. I looked up. The screen said 54 balls had been called. And on the floor, there was a customer screaming that she had BINGOed on the 53rd number.
Now this has happened before. One time a guy called BINGO too late, and lost out on $875. He had gotten BINGO on the 53rd number, but didn't see it until the 54th ball was called. I had to give him the consolation prize only. Once the caller calls that 54th ball, it is all over. He took the consolation prize like a man. I felt sorry for him.
But this time we had a screaming woman. I went over to her table. I looked around. She screamed she had BINGOed in 53 numbers. I took a second to size up the situation. Usually, the customers will tell me if there is a problem. No one around her would back up her story. I raised my voice to overwhelm her screaming. "If you don't quit screaming, I will throw you out. If you let me verify your card, I will pay you $100." She continued to scream even more vociferously with the lamest threat available to a disgruntled customer: "I'll call the state." So I trumped her. "Here's a phone, lady. Call them right now. You got BINGO in 54 numbers." Of course by now the entire soap opera has transfixed every other player. They live for these little dramas. (One time an elderly congregant was driving out of our parking lot after evening services and lost control of his automobile and slammed into 3 patrons' cars. That was a 45-minute saga, and the entire crowd came out to witness the carnage. Another time a customer went into an epileptic seizure. You can imagine.)
Seething, she finally calms down just enough for me to verify her winning card. The room is out of control with discussions. She is a winner, and it is clear that she won on the 54th ball, because the computer verifier shows that the 54th ball was her winning number. She is still screaming she won on a different number. Essentially, she is trying to cheat us (not uncommon - people try all sorts of tricks). I go get her $100 and place the 5 $20 bills on the table beside her play sheets. "Congratulations." She is still fuming loudly. "You are cheating me." Like I care. All I want to do is run a clean game.
Now I try to calm down the crowd so we can move on. She won't shut up. By this time (probably a 10-minute delay), I have given her 2 warnings that if she doesn't shut up, I will eject her from the game. We try to resume. She still is fulminating loudly. So I walk up to her table, grab her paper and crumple it up, and tell her she is thrown out. Now her daughter intervenes. "Please let us stay, she is my mother." "Will you calm her down?" The daughter seems nice, they both swear to calm down, mommy is crying, the crowd is another hubub, so I return her paper, and after another 2 minutes of calming the crowd, we finally resume.
But I have made a decision - this woman will be banned from returning. As MIC, I have the authority at my discretion to eject or ban anyone from the game. She tried to cheat, and she disrupted the game for 15 minutes. So at the end of the session, I do what any casino floor person would do - I pull out my camera phone and take her picture. I need a picture to make sure that my sellers never let her back into the hall. So when the last game ends, I stand up to inform her that she has been barred from ever returning. She stands up and comes toward me.
"Why did you take my picture?" she snarls with a fevered look in her eyes.
"My name is RK and I am the member-in-charge." She knows what is coming.
"My name is Carmen [garbled]" she yells at me, fury written in her face.
I repeat in a louder voice: "My name is RK and I am member-in-charge. You are banned from this BINGO hall. You can never-"
At that point, I get bitch-slapped. It wasn't much. It was just her way of letting me know she disagreed with my call.
Of course, I never saw it coming. Without raising my hand, I am now even more vociferous: "You are out of here; you can never come back."
Slap number two - more a half-punch. I reach for her arm to try to restrain another hit, and then the nice daughter comes between us. Apparently, daughter knows mommy's style. And the departing crowd of customers are mesmerized.
Separated now by a table, I repeat myself against her objections: "You are outta here. Don't ever come back." Now she throws her BINGO lucky charm at me, easily deflected by my arm. "I'll be back, with the state." "Whatever...goodbye."
So there it is. I've got 100 witnesses to my Jerry Springer moment. I can hardly wait for the next phase of this saga - a call from the state after the customer in yellow complains that I cheated her. Maybe then I will have her name and can swear out an assault charge.
And now, off to my elite East Coast liberal arts college to teach my classes...
Just call me BingoProf.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

The Happiest Day

I am back to Hartford from a glorious end to a wonderful summer: a trip to Minnesota where I danced the night away at my son's and daughter-in-law's wedding (thanks Rita for the great photo), and deposited my youngest daughter at Carleton College. I also got to see Johan Santana pitch, attended the Minnesota State Fair, and went to a 90th birthday party for my beloved aunt in Duluth. It was a tremendous time.

At the wedding, I gave the following talk to the newlyweds:

Tonight, with the pride of an ecstatic father, I want to tell you my version of how this joyous and blessed marriage all came about. Sam and Jill may think that they found each other by chance and mutual attraction, but I am here to tell you tonight that there was a greater power at work. From my perspective, the story begins long before either of these two wonderful souls ever met, and the die was cast even before they were gleams in Mike’s or my eyes. For the story begins with the fact that all the parents of this wonderful couple are Minnesotans. For me, this is a story of keeping it all in the family, the chosen people….not the Jews, but the Chosen Frozen.

My firstborn son Sam was born in Philadelphia. Sam lived his early years in New Hampshire, but then spent the rest of his formative years in Connecticut. Like his siblings, his entire life was spent on the East Coast and specifically the strange puritanical environment of New England.

But there was no rooting for the Boston Red Sox, The New York Giants, or any of the other teams of the East Coast in our house. Our house was a virtual Minnesota, a shrine to the Promised Land of 10,000 Lakes. We taught our children that we could be a light unto the nations, and bring a little bit of Upper Midwestern warmth and civility to a neurotic East Coast world. Seperated by thousands of miles, the Kiener family has lived all its life with two Holy Lands, and as a family we have lived together for short periods of time in both of them. Yes, we all lived in Jerusalem for a glorious 8-month period, and we have also lived here in the Twin Cities. We’ve lived through terrorist bombings and Middle Eastern crises, and through blizzards and tornado warnings. The Kieners are a family which knows its heritage.

As a family, we were living in a New England double-diaspora, but in our home we preserved the cherished love for all things Minnesota. With reverence I would show my children a 1987 Homer Hanky, with precisely the same reverence as I would show them a Talmudic volume. To this day in my house is a partially repaired wall in Sam’s room from a dark day in history – January 17, 1999 – when Sam kicked a hole in the wall with his humongous foot as he suffered through the overtime loss of the Vikings to the Atlanta Falcons for the NFC Championship.

Every summer family vacation was to one place and one place only. For the East Coast Kieners, the Twin Cities was Zion and the Metrodome was our Temple. My children are just as familiar with the Migdal Shalom skyscraper in Tel Aviv as they are with the Foshay Tower. Three of my 4 children have gone or will soon go to college in Minnesota, and even Isaac, who is now a senior at Trinity College where I work, knows that sweetened carbonated beverage is called…pop.

Sam was the first to make the pilgrimage back to Minnesota, having chosen from a myriad of options to attend Macalester College. And it was at Macalester that the next part of the plan came to fruition. After a few abortive college relationships, Sam and Jill found each other. I first met Jill on one of my frequent visits to Minnesota – the joke around my brother’s neighborhood is that I always seem to be freeloading at his house in Eden Prairie. And from the first moment I met Jill, I knew that Sam had found what we Ashkenazi Jews call in Yiddish his beshert – his intended one. I stand before you all tonight and salute my parental counterparts Pam and Mike for the values they have implanted in their daughter Jill. She is an absolutely awesome human being who is singularly warm and easy-going, whose compassion and integrity knows no bounds. I am ecstatic with pride and delight to welcome her into my family and tribe, and I am equally honored to embrace and be embraced by her wonderful family. Jill, I now have to tell you that you are my favorite Kiener kid and I love you the most, and the other kids are pond scum. Welcome to the nuthouse.

Tonight is the fulfillment of a great dream that every parent has for every one of his or her children. According to the Talmud, that great repository of ancient Jewish wisdom, no Jew is complete without a marital partner. My eldest son, now a complete Jew and a complete Minnesotan, was married not long ago in a synagogue in Minneapolis under a beautiful Huppah made by Jill’s mother Pam. What Jewish father would not break down in tears over the enormity of this beautiful shared simcha – this overwhelming joyous event?

In Bollywood movies, which I have come to love and which Jill and I have shared in viewing, there is no more joyous moment than the wedding scene. Dancing and music are the key to celebrating the joining of families and traditions. Tonight, I am overwhelmed with joy to behold this gathering of family and friends to celebrate this momentous occasion. To Jill and Sam I have only this to say, from the book of Numbers, the blessing of Aaron to the children of Israel, which has now become the parental blessing upon their children:

ישמך אלהים כאפרים וכמנשה
ישמך אלהים כשרה רבקה רחל ולאה
יברכך ה' וישמרך
יאר ה' פניו אליך ויחנך
ישא ה' פניו אליך, וישם לך שלום

May God make you like Efraim and Menasseh
May God make you like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah
May the Lord bless you and keep you
May the Lord shine his countenance upon you be gracious to you
May the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and grant you peace

And to our shared dual heritage, I paraphrase the ancient wish of all those who remember their lost home: “Next Year in Jerusalem…Next year in Minnesota!”

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Returning to Normal - Scandals Rock Israel

The Israeli media is beside itself with Monday-morning analyses and calls for this one and that one to resign in the wake of the less than decisive outcome of the 34-day operation in southern Lebanon. But with the flimsy ceasefire still holding (despite a false alarm sounding of air raid sirens this morning in northern Israel), the attention of the country has turned to two new ethical/political scandals which certainly can be seen as the first salvoes in the bitter internal struggle over the aftermath of Lebanon 2006.

The first scandal involves IDF Chief-of-Staff Dan Halutz. The newspaper Ma'ariv published a story - apparently accurate in its details - that on July 12, the first day of the Lebanon crisis, during the first hours as word was reaching the General Staff of the abduction of soldiers and the deaths of 8 others, Halutz took time off from what must have been feverish deliberations in the Kiryah (the Israeli Pentagon in Tel Aviv) to call his stockbroker and order him to sell off his entire (and not particularly significant) portfolio. With news of this scandal, it is now a foregone conclusion that Halutz's days are numbered. But in today's Haaretz, Yisrael Harel delineates between this shocking stock scandal and the real reason that Halutz ought to resign or be dismissed. Watch as Halutz resigns over the stock scandal, not over his incompetent managment of the military operation.

The second scandal, unrelated to the Lebanon fiasco, but emerging at this moment, involves PM Ehud Olmert. I've already posted information about Olmert's long history of corruption and scandal which clearly contributed to the poor showing of his party Kadima in the March, 2006 elections. One of the most glaring aspects of Olmert's financial misconduct has been over his family's personal real estate transactions. Today Israel's State Comptroller has informed Ehud and Eliza Olmert that they will be summoned for an investigation over their recent purchase of a home on 8 Cremieux Street in Jerusalem's fashionable German Colony. Apparently, they paid a price which is at least $500,000 less than the fair market price of the home. It is significant enough of a scandal for Ari Shavit of Haaretz to declare Olmert a "dead man walking."

I've called long ago for the resignations of Halutz, Olmert, and Amir Peretz, so there can be no doubt why I am choosing to hilight these two stories. Given the bitter mood of the country, it seems hard to see how either man can last for very long. So unless I am engaging in wishful thinking, expect a major devolution of the current Israeli government in the not so distant future. Leadership turmoil in Israel is just another way that Hizbollah, Syria, and Iran will be able to claim victory over the defeated "Zionist entity."

It looks like there will be no silver lining in the black cloud of Lebanon 2006.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

KANK: The Review

The most anticipated Bollywood release of 2006 hit the screens on Friday, and I got to see Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna (Never Say Goodbye) Sunday evening, along with about 300 other filmgoers (!) at the Showcase Cinema East Hartford. Once again, I and my companion were the only white people in the house, again creating the impression that I am privy to a little cinematic secret which I get to share with about a billion other people. The movie, which cost a record reported $15 million to produce, and which was shot in New York City, Connecticut, and Philadelphia (along with soundstages in Mumbai), clocks in at 200 minutes - typical for a Bollywood film. It stars a virtual pantheon of Bollywood stars, including Amitabh Bachchan, his son Abishek, Shahrukh Khan, Rani Mukherjee, Preity Zinta, and Kiron Kher. As is usual in these Karan Johar directed extravaganzas, there are some "special appearances" in a couple of song sequences: no less than Kajol and John Abraham.

First, the sad became apparent to me as the movie progressed that the scenes I personally witnessed at the New Haven Amtrak station would constitute the dramatic final act of the movie. Sadly, neither I nor my daughter can be seen in the film presentation. But I swear we were there.

I haven't seen all of Johar's films, but I have fallen in love with Kal Ho Naa Ho (2003), his previous work in New York and Connecticut. And in many ways, this new movie is a continuation of themes and styles apparent in KHNH. The knowing playful use of music and set scenes from earlier popular films, which allow the audience to wink at each other, continues in KANK (here it is a hilarious 10-second send-up from DDLJ). The first half of KANK has some infantile humor, often at the expense of bumbling Americans, just as in KHNH. But the second half of the movie (for some strange reason we were deprived the obvious intermission, and were forced to sit straight through) is all serious. And the "controversial" and serious point of this new movie is marital infidelity and divorce, which will certainly disturb some traditionalists.

The good news: the music is fantastic, and the visualizations are every bit as good as the songs. From the haunting theme song to the boisterous "Where's the Party Tonight?", each are moving in different ways. Just to see these fantastic scenes, I will have no problem whatsoever going back for a second viewing.

All the stars are in top form. SRK is called upon to temper his usually playful screen persona with a strain of bitterness and self-loathing, and he does so with great aplomb, primarily by injecting a gravelly tone into his delivery. Amitabh plays a grandfatherly playboy (aka "Sexy Sam"), but rises above the stereoptype in one incredible dinner scene. Abishek, who I have not been a great fan of, is impressively emotive in his own right. Preity and Rani are wonderful - Preity as a successful career wife, Rani as a distanced sophisticate. Anytime they are on the screen their beauty only adds to the first-class cinematography.

If I have any complaint, it is that this time Johar has not used the outdoor and indoor sets of the East Coast as masterfully as he did the first time out. Johar seems to return to certain locations he used so well in KHNH. But there are many other beautiful locales in the city to be plumbed. For those of us in America, there are ridiculous misappropriations of exterior shots. Grand Central Station becomes New Haven's Amtrak station; trains supposedly in New York City carry the SEPTA markings of Philadelphia; there is an exterior staircase to GCS that we would all be hard-pressed to find. But that is all artistic license, and matters not the slightest for the story.

The story is somewhat linear, and is missing the kind of surprising twists in plot we sometimes marvel at in Bollywood scripts. The central story is the love between two married people, each trying to save their failing marriages while drawn inexorably to another. What happens when (as at the end of KHNH) you marry your best friend - but then love appears somewhere else? What do you do with - as one of the characters puts it - "an incomplete relationship"? It is an adult story, and it asks questions that can be real for anyone who is married and yet remains open to the possibility of further romance.

All in all, this film is highly recommended. It may not be up there with my all-time favorite, Veer-Zaara, but it is certainly the best Bollywood film of 2006.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

A new number - 1701

Yesterday the UN Security Council passed its ceasefire resolution, Resolution 1701 (requires Adobe Reader), and Sunday the Israeli cabinet meets to endorse the ceasefire. It is unclear whether the formula adopted will prove to be another toothless resolution, like its predecessor 1559, or a true rearranging of the deck chairs in favor of stability. Relying on the Lebanese Army and an expanded UNIFIL force swollen with French troops does not sound particularly promising for the long haul. In the meantime (probably until Monday morning, 0700 local time), the IDF is making one last push to the Litani River, having tripled in the last 24 hours its ground forces (now somewhere between 30,000-45,000 troops) into southern Lebanon. And of course, the Katyushas keep falling. This confrontation will wind down, possibly not on a perfect timetable, but it will soon stop. Then the fallout of this damnable misadventure will reverberate for years in both Lebanon and Israel. Some (like Haaretz columnist Ari Shavit) are predicting that this confrontation, having revealed the Achilles heel of the daunting Israeli military, will embolden the Arab rejectionists to wage a greater war in some not so distant future. Others are predicting the beginning of a diplomatic push to settle the Israeli-Syrian problem of the Golan Heights.

The big winner? It would have to be one of the non-players, Bashar al-Assad, leader of Syria. Without sending a single soldier into the fray, he becomes the lynchpin for any true stability on the Lebanese border.

The big loser? That would have to be Ehud Olmert. What's happened to him is approximately equivalent to what has happened to George W. Bush. Two executive lightweights, propelled into positions of power, suddenly confronted a "surprising" terrorist threat. Each in their own way - and at very different paces - endorsed ad hoc and grandiose military solutions to the problems they faced, and both military campaigns proved a disaster. As a result, each has become unpopular with their respective electorates. The undoing of Dubya took 4 years in the US; the undoing of Udi (slang for Ehud) happened far faster.

Shavit, one of the more mercurial op-ed writers for Haaretz, wrote a front-page article in Friday's print edition calling for the resignation of Ehud Olmert. It's a mish-mash of right-wing and left-wing musings all brought together, and it indicates the frustration that many Israelis are experiencing with this operation and how it seems to be ending. Another writer I have enjoyed reading throughout has been the Israeli-Arab Sayed Kashua (we were supposed to meet him on our Tel Aviv University Workshop some weeks ago, but his session was cancelled) - his piece in the Friday paper is worth the read.

Monday, August 07, 2006

The media at work

I am a subscriber to a News Alert feature of The New York Times. This morning I received such an alert: "Lebanon's Leader Says 40 Killed in Israel Strike." Hours later, when it became clear that Lebanese PM Fouad Siniora misstated the facts of the air attack on Houla (1 death and scores of injuries), no similar News Alert correcting the story.

The ongoing claim that Israel is killing Lebanese at a 10-to-1 ratio to Israeli casualties is another myth of this operation. As of yesterday, the ratio was more like 8-to-1: 95 Israelis; 720 Lebanese. Like this is something worth arguing over - but some people do so...But in order to keep the casualty count question in perspective, remember that in the first week of the 1982 invasion there were claims of 50,000 dead Lebanese; that number was revised by historians to 6,000-10,000. That number by the way proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that this particular confrontation has so far been extremely limited in scope and lethality, whether by design or by folly.

I went to a wedding yesterday of a daughter of a colleague. It was a very beautiful affair; and the newly-wed young couple are planning to go to Haifa for the groom's medical studies. It didn't cast a pall over the wedding one iota - but it sure was a topic of conversation at the tables.

Meanwhile my buddy back in Tel Aviv - a lifelong leftist academic who voted for Meretz numerous times, and who supported Lova Eliav's failed bid for an independent parliamentary seat years ago - is reporting to me his "turn to the right." It's hard for me to quibble with him. Apparently this 4 week-long assault on the Israeli hinterland - the longest threat to the general population since the 1948 War of Independence - is taking its toll with the peace camp. Still he agreed with me that Ehud Barak's inexplicable stubbornness over relenquishing the last 10-meters of the Golan Heights back in 1999-2000 would have defused the entire northern front; and today we would all be enjoying a peaceful summer. Maybe....or as us gamblers say to each other: woulda, coulda, shoulda....

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

World of Warcraft

I'm running out of energy to maintain this semi-private analytical blog of events taking place 6000 miles away. I need to find some other interests, because this blog is becoming a one trick pony, and I am sick and tired of making dire predictions and watching them come true. Today was an awful day, probably not a turning point, but an awful day nonetheless. As Israeli spokesmen talked of advances in diminishing the threat of Hizbollah (destruction of a C&C center in Tyre, daring assaults deep into the Bekaa Valley, the near-completion of a "security belt" 6-7 kilometers deep along the entire border), Shaykh Nasrallah's rocketeers gave answer to the empty Israeli claims with a new record of over 220 rocket launches, including long-range missiles never before employed.

So let me sum up my views, and then please let me take a break. Maybe I'll write another movie review; maybe you'd like to read my musings on the difference between slow-paced charitable BINGO and the professional monstrosity that takes place twice a day at Foxwoods (I finally got a chance to witness what professional BINGO really feels like, and it is far different than the game I run). Maybe you'd like me to vent on my crazy family and its day-to-day soap opera (naw, too much information). But unless there is a dramatic change, I've got to take a break.

This war is a disaster for all concerned. I've concentrated on the Israeli side of the equation, because I am an avid consumer of Israeli media, and my Hebrew is much more serviceable than my Arabic. It doesn't mean I am unfeeling towards the human tragedy in Lebanon. But it is clear to me that much of what is said about the devastation in Lebanon is exaggerated by drama-prone newscasters. Where Israel has attacked by air, the results have been sometimes shocking; but I also know that there are gigantic swaths of this beautiful country that have gone untouched. A foolish American-Jewish professor wrote the other day in the local paper with great emotion that Israel has turned Lebanon into a "free-fire zone" and that Israel is "burning children to death." It must look that way to many when the cameras turn their gaze on Qana and Dahiya, two very different targets (but even here the bombing is far from indiscriminate - take a look at the two before-and-after satellite images of Dahiya in the Wikipedia article on the conflict). The death has been awful, and it pains me no end, but I do not lose concentration on the larger picture by thinking only of the poor Lebanese. There are other victims in this tragedy.

In essence, this was a war that need not have been waged. It is a war of choice for Israel. It may be a war that needed to be fought, but it should not have started on Shaykh Nasrallah's timetable, while the IDF was already deeply engaged in a similarly foolish operation in Gaza. I am of the opinion that Ehud Olmert, Amir Peretz, and Dan Halutz should all be deposed through the democratic process of a commission of inquiry. But it won't happen - I am bitterly disappointed with the Israeli Labor Party, which has been a full partner in this folly. This war has been fought all wrong, its tactics have been premised on a completely bogus conception of the region and the efficacy of air power, and in the end there is only one harsh judgment: many young men and women are dying because of a pathetic jihadist in Lebanon and so that Ehud Olmert can prove to the Israeli electorate that he has big balls. It's that simple.

Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon -- two of Israel's most experienced military minds -- were of the opinion that ippuq zeh koach ("restraint is strength"). There were numerous deadly provocations with Hizbollah between 2000-2006 and they had the good sense to hold off. This former mayor of Jerusalem and Minister of Industry; this former Chairman of the Israeli Labor Federation; and this former commander of the Israeli Air Force have each proved the Peter Principle in triplet - in a perfect storm of incompetence these small-minded "leaders" are now running this failing war. Shame on them.

You can tell by the tone of this that I have reached the end of my rope. I think I'll finish an article, play some Sit & Gos, and try to get to lvl 40 in a much more inviting World of Warcraft before the end of the summer. Then I'll get good and shitfaced at my children's wedding on Labor Day weekend. To life!

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Lightning Strikes Twice in the Same Place

In a previous post, I referred to an incident that occurred during the 1996 air and artillery assault on southern Lebanon which the Israelis called Operation Grapes of Wrath. The artillery barrage on a UN refugee camp in Qana in 1996 killed 100 civilians, and resulted in international condemnation of the Israeli operartion, and led to a US-brokered cease fire (which took nearly 3 further weeks to achieve). In that blog entry, posted 13 days ago, I wrote:

But with each passing day, the potential for a Qana-like event grows stronger. There are two trend lines in play here which have not yet intersected: one trend line is the effective degradation of Hizbollah C3 (command, control & communications) capabilities; the other trend line is domestic and US governmental sympathy for the operation. The calculated bet in applying air power against Lebanon and its infrastructure is that the trend line for support of the operation may deteriorate before the strategic goal is realized. And then instead of "new rules," Olmert & Co. will be faced with a slightly degraded Hizbollah, another meaningless cease fire agreement, and no change in the regional equation.

And today, on the 19th day of the war, and in precisely the same place, an Israeli air attack struck a site in Qana at 1 am local time in which 28 people were killed (16 of whom were children - as often happens, original reports on these numbers were inflated by a factor of two). While the exact details of the attack are unclear (a Lebanese Red Cross worker reports that the site was attacked twice, once at 1 am, once at 7 am -- while the Israeli Air commander reports a single attack, and then a 7 hour delay before reports of the deaths became public), the results are disastrous for the Israeli leadership. As the day progressed, over 150 Hizbollah rockets fell on northern Israel, a new single-day record (over 70 fell on the abandoned town of Kiryat Shemona). The world media has been broadcasting images from Qana all day long, and it now looks like the two trend lines I referred to have crossed. What may have been a long-term "window of opportunity" for the IDF in Lebanon has now been shortened.

Word of the bombing in Qana came to the Israeli government as it was in session in the company of Condoleezza Rice. Earlier in the day the Israelis were absolutely convinced that the American "green light" was still in effect; at the cabinet meeting Condi was reported to be stunned, and the Israeli Defense Minister found himself explaining the incident to a shocked guest -- we warned the residents to leave, Hizbollah hides amongst civilians, rockets were fired within 30 yards of the struck building, and the launch crew ran into the building. Possibly unsaid in the meeting is that the American forces in Iraq have done things just as horrific. But it is clear that such claims will fall on deaf ears.

With the door now closing on open American support for the Israeli operation, and the IDF in a state of multi-divisional mobilization, a decision will soon be made whether to continue the current operation at its present pace, or to use the approximately 14 days which remain to expand the ground campaign. The public stance of the Israeli government is still projecting determination to achieve a military win on the battlefield. But all spin aside, this operation has got to be judged a failure so far. While certainly the operation has weakened Hizbollah -- rather than breaking Hizbollah, Hizbollah emerges in the Arab world the heroic victor. Hizbollah claims for itself the bragging rights for driving the Israelis out of Lebanon in 2000; now it can claim it withstood the Israeli army and stood its ground for 3 weeks. Now Olmert & Co. are subject to debilitating internal second-guessing, and it is quite likely their careers (or at least their legacies) are in jeopardy. In my judgment, Olmert, Peretz and Halutz have stumbled from one bad decision to the next throughout this campaign -- now comes the toughest decision of all. Based on their past performance under pressure, expect them to make another ruinous choice.

Friday, July 28, 2006

"Bogged Down"

In the annals of the Arab-Israeli conflict, two battles are remembered well by both sides, though neither was particularly decisive for the military equation. One battle occurred in March 1968 in Karameh, Jordan; the other took place in 1982 at Beaufort Castle in southern Lebanon. In 1968 Israel launched a reprisal raid against a Fatah stronghold in the Karameh camp after an Israeli bus had been blown up, killing a doctor and nurse. Fatah forces were tipped off to the reprisal and put up a defense which took a high toll from the Israeli forces. In levelling the town and killing 120 Fatah fighters, the Israelis lost 28 men. But the memory within the Palestinian community was of valiant resistance against the "great" Israeli military machine, and forever since Karameh has become taken on mythic status within Palestinian circles. Indeed, the Palestinian narrative of this battle is credited with the growth in popularity of Fatah and Yasser Arafat in the 1970s.

When the IDF invaded Lebanon in June 1982 it encountered a number of difficult battles, including the so-called "Masada" of the Palestinian movement, the battle of Ein al-Hilwe. But it was early on, at Beaufort Castle (a crusdaer ruin on the border with Israel), which first gave Israelis pause in their ultimately successful dash for Beirut. The PFLP fighters defended the observation post at Beaufort to the last man, and the elements of the Golani brigade which attacked it suffered 25% casualties. The IDF and PM Menahem Begin were shocked by the effort encountered at Beaufort. Beaufort Castle became another mythic symbol to Palestinians and the Arab world that the IDF can be met with strong confrontation.

Bint Jubayl will likely go down in the annals of Hizbollah narrative as their own mythic struggle. While one Israeli minister is reported to have preferred levelling the town with air attacks, the IDF is struggling to gain the upper ground with casualties that are generating criticism in the Israeli media. Having rhetorically prepared the Israeli hinterland for a grandiose war which will "change the rules" of the Hizbollah-Israel equation, the Israeli press is now reporting that its generals are "surprised" and confounded by the defenders of this Hizbollah stronghold. One Pentagon source was quoted today as describing the IDF as "bogged down" in Bint Jubayl. It has been said that in 1982, Israel found its Vietnam. In 2006, the makings for another slog through the hills of southern Lebanon seems quite the possibility. Neiher Ehud Olmert nor Amir Peretz could survive another Vietnam-like experience in Lebanon. And having launched this war of choice, engaging Syria now militarily would likely constitute political suicide, even if the outcome preserved Israeli control over the Golan Heights. With Condoleezza Rice returning to the area this evening, armed now with a Joint British-American call for a cease fire, it looks like only the most minimal of the IDF strategic goals -- "the diminishing of the Hizbollah threat" -- is in hand. No 12-mile buffer; no 1-mile buffer; no dead Hizbollah leadership; no breaking of Hizbollah command and control. If the fighting ends soon, the Israeli warriors and their newly tested civilian leaders will be judged rather harshly as having failed to effect a decisive military result in anticipation of a political arrangement.

As Tom Friedman pointed out earlier this week, Israel will have to diplomatically reengage Syria if it hopes to achieve protection from the Hizbollah missile threat, exactly as the IDF war gamers in 2004 envisioned. The battle of Bint Jubayl, carried out by Israel and Syrian surrogates, may very well become the battle which led to Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights.

Neither side has bet "all in" just yet. But the stakes are being raised, and no one is bluffing.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Is Bint Jubayl the Only Battle?

Condoleezza Rice has come and gone, due back in the region later this week. In the meantime, the warfare on the northern front continues primarily as an air campaign, but with a visible ground element in a single concentrated area.

If published reports are to be believed, it has taken the IDF a week to overrun Marun ar-Ras and surround the Hizbollah fighters of Bint Jubayl and its satellite villages, a single penetration of about 2.5 miles into Hizbollah territory inside Lebanon. It has been for the Israeli army a (purposely?/frustratingly?) slow and costly battle, and sometimes the fighting was hand-to-hand. If Bint Jubayl was one of the primary launching grounds of Hizbollah, it is certainly not the only one, as today's salvo of over 90 Katyushas prove. One sometimes reliable, sometimes crazy, web site claims that there are 11 other Bint Jubayl-level centers of Hizbollah concentration along the Lebanon-Israeli border, though I assume that a good number of these run along the border with the disputed Golan Heights. It is hard to imagine that this single kill zone between Avivim and Bint Jubayl will be the only battleground.

The IDF is not engaging in a mad dash to the Litani River. Instead it is working on a single Hizbollah pocket, probably because it has not been instructed to re-create a sterile buffer zone, but possibly because it wants to learn and study from this battle as to what exactly Hizbollah forces are capable of. Will the battle of Bint Jubayl be recorded as the first of many such ground actions, or will it be the single battle of the ground war in 2006? It is hard for me to imagine that the IDF (and the tough-talking Israeli government) will be satisfied for all its effort with this single hard-won victory. Thus, as the battle of Bint Jubayl ends, expect the ground war to widen.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

First Israeli Protest

Saturday night anywhere between 2,000-2,500 protesters against the wars on the Lebanese border and in Gaza gathered in Tel Aviv. For the first time in history, official Israeli Jewish and Israeli Arab political movements organized the event. This coalition of organizations included Meretz and Balad, Gush Shalom and Hadash, and there was an anti-American theme voiced along with calls for Olmert and Peretz to resign. One of the slogans used at the protest was: "We will not die and we will not kill for the USA" (trust me, it works as a chant in Hebrew).

There is of course an interesting parallel, to the 1982 protest movement which arose over Israel's major invasion of Lebanon, and changed the public perception of the war. While there are substantial differences between this confrontation with Hizbollah and the 1982 invasion (it would be better to compare it to Operation Accountability of 1993), this first public crack in the Israeli "consensus" may be significant. What is missing this time is the Labor party as an opposition party, as it was in 1982. This time Labor is up to its neck in Lebanon and cannot serve as the galvanizing force of a protest movment. It is clear for the moment that the majority of Israelis supported the air campaign which has been waged for the first 8 days of the northern war. But either the air campaign failed to achieve its objective (despite a drop of 23 tons of armament on Burj al-Barajneh - an Israeli version of the failed "head shot" of Shaykh Nasrallah on Wednesday); or the plan all along in "binder 2" was to continue on with a ground campaign. Now there are a new string of significant ground casualties, young men in their 20s. Is a domestic protest movement shaping up?

While Haaretz and Maariv both report that the protest was peopled by "Arabs and Jews" (note which group comes first in both formulations), right-wing Maariv goes one degree further in marginalizing the protest with the internet headline: "The Tel Aviv 'Bubble' is also against the war," a reference to the new Eitan Fox movie I reveiwed in a previous post. Maariv you might remember is the same paper that earlier this week that referred to Shaykh Nasrallah as "Satan." It is the Fox News of Israel.

(Technical note: I've added "word verfication" to the comment feature for this blog because the blog is being spammed with useless comments, which I have erased)

Friday, July 21, 2006


As predicted, "you ain't seen nothin' yet." Reports come in today Friday of a far greater call-up of Israeli reservists. As best I can tell, until today there were 3 battalions, approximately 3,000, called up to duty. Israeli media sources are now reporting that 2 more divisions (that is at least 20,000 soldiers) are going to be added to the Galil Division in the north for the ground fight. In order to make it possible for more of the standing army to move to the north, at least a brigade's worth of soldiers were called up this morning. This translates into a potentially massive call-up, and now even the internet is being used to issue general instructions for Order 8 (Hebrew site of the IDF), as I explained in yesterday's post. Having squeezed out one more week of diminished economic output from the domestic workforce, this weekend's widespread call-up (the Israeli weekend is Friday/Saturday) marks the beginning of what the Israeli leadership hopes is the endgame. It will probably take 24 hours for reservists to marry up with their equipment. By Sunday the ground war will be in full gear.

The ground battles are fierce, particularly around Avivim/Marun Ar-Ras (click on picture for more ground detail), with significant casualties on both sides. Hizbollah is a very formidable ground force, but this is no surprise. Of course, this begs a simple question: if the powerful IDF cannot easily subdue Hizbollah ground forces, what point is there to the stated strategy (and debatable tactics which are being employed) of pressing the Lebanese government and army into "controlling" Hizbollah? There seems to me to be a conceptual disconnect here. Israeli military censorship, and the inability of western journalists to venture into the battlefield from Lebanon, means that there is no clear picture of what is taking place in these ground battles.

Simultaneously, after a slight dimunition of rocket salvos yesterday, the tempo of firings has picked up Friday to at least 90 launches by late afternoon.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

And Now, A Ground War

Focusing exclusively on the Lebanese front, as the major media outlets have tended to do, is to give only a partial picture of the regional situation. On both the southern PA-Israel front, and the northern Hizbollah-Israel front, the clear indication is that Israeli ground troops are now being added to what has been primarily an air campaign. It is as if the Israeli Army is taking a direct lesson from the American playbook.

Given the military censorship and spin control that is part of any modern military plan, it is hard to know just how big the current Israeli mobilization effort has become. Today's Haaretz reports a call-up of 1,000 soldiers. The mobilization command, also known as "Order 8," can be delivered by private phone directly to the soldier, or by mass media. To the best of my knowledge, there has not been a broadcast message of "Order 8" and so it seems that the Israeli mobilization has been rather selective and relatively limited - but a mobilization extending beyond the Air Corps has certainly been happening. As an indication of the steady ramp-up, yesterday marked the beginnings of notable ground campaigns in both Gaza and South Lebanon, which are continuing today.

In Wednesday's Haaretz Uzi Benziman wrote of a war game conducted in 2004 by the IDF which played out a confrontation with Hizbollah: "The way the war is being run now is a precise implementation of the scenario played out in that simulation: the escalation intensifies and spreads over all Lebanese territory and Israel's home front. A catch emerged at the end of the exercise: Israel was not victorious, despite its military superiority. In order to bring an end to the violent confrontation with real diplomatic gains, it had to utilize Syria's services by coming to terms with it, and making the necessary territorial concessions."

So added to Condoleezza Rice's plate will be much more than exchanging abductees for prisoners, establishing missile-free zones, extending Lebanese sovereignty into places the Lebanese Army hasn't seen for years, concocting an international policing force -- there will now be two added issues: withdrawal of Israeli ground forces from Gaza and Lebanon, and brokering an agreement between Israel and Syria. This overflow of interrelated issues is a daunting agenda, certainly far beyond anything Condi has dealt with heretofore, and may make the cessation of fighting an elusive target. I've seen it before: high expectations for the imminent arrival of an American SecState, and then once all the players meet her in person on their playground, the formerly all-powerful, all-knowing SecState begins to look like just another bit player. Just ask Madeleine Albright and Warren Chrisptopher.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Week Two: A Ferocious Endgame

As we enter week two of the "War in the North" (so says the opening graphic on the prime time news program of Israeli state-run television), there is simply no let up in the terror and carnage across the Israeli-Lebanese border. Over 100 rockets fired on Israel today, hitting as far south as Tiberias; another day of punishing air attacks (and short-lived ground incursions) into Lebanon.

While Israeli politicians and generals talk tough concerning a battle that could take "weeks or months," and Hizbollah spokesmen speak of "the death of [UN Security Council Resolution] 1559," I think it would be a good bet to assume that there is now an end in sight, to be counted in days (maybe double digits). There are numerous press reports worldwide that time is running out: see this widely quoted report from The Guardian and this report from Hebrew Haaretz (I could not find an exact parallel on the English site - this article quotes sources in Jerusalem as saying the warfare may be shut down by Thursday or Friday). I am assuming that Hizbollah's arsenal has been degraded through either succesful launches or through succesful Israeli detrition by 25%. Another week at this tempo will see Hizbollah's missile arsenal halved. For that matter, Israel's equipment stores are not unlimited. At that point (or somewhere near it), with an appropriate international diplomatic effort, Israel and Hizbollah will stop. As we get closer to the end point, expect the tempo to in fact pick up, as everyone tries to get in their final licks. So to a certain degree, the end of this conflict is in sight; but on the other hand - "you ain't seen nothin' yet." That is always the problem in stopping a live war where both sides have plenty left to throw at each other. I think this is the reason that the pace of evacuation of foreign nationals is picking up. Of course, as a further complication, the possibility of Syrian injection remains high (I am guessing an aerial dogfight over the Bekaa valley - something we have seen before).

Expect a ferocious endgame.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Ten Years Ago

There is one man in the current Israeli government who cannot help but feel pangs of "what if" as the current shoot-out with Hizbollah enters its 6th day. That man is Shimon Peres, who ten years ago watched his entire political career slide into oblivion over Lebanon. There is a further back story to Peres' demise, but I'll get to that later...

Shimon Peres was PM of Israel in 1996, the inheritor of that job after his nemesis Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated on November 4, 1995. Peres at the time had his country's and the world's sympathy, and after a bit of hesitation he called for a snap election in May, 1996, to seal his tenure as PM. In those days Israel occupied a "security zone" in south Lebanon and propped up a Christian proxy army to help in the struggle against Hizbollah, and Syria occupied eastern Lebanon.

In March and April of 1996 Hizbollah carried out a number of suicide bomb attacks on Israeli and South Lebanese Army emplacements, killing a number of soldiers. It then followed up with a number of short range Katyusha firings into northern Israel, wounding 36. On April 11 Peres ordered a series of air-based "surgical strikes" against Hizbollah launching sites and infrastructure targets throughout Lebanon, including Beirut for the first time since the 1982 invasion. At the time, there was much speculation in the Israeli press that Peres wanted to appear stronger than his historic reputation. Peres endorsed his generals' plan for effecting a strategic change in Lebanon. Over 400,000 Lebanese became temproary refugees as they tried to flee the battle zone. The Clinton administration gave support to Israel in its battle against Hizbollah.

And then one week into Operation Grapes of Wrath, at least a dozen Israeli howitzer shells fell on a UN outpost at Qana, Lebanon, killing more than 100 refugees. Israel maintained it was an operational error, and of course there were accusations in the Arab world that the artillery salvos were a deliberate effort to terrorize the population. After the shelling of Qana, American support for the operation dried up, and Secretary of State Warren Christopher hammered out a murky cease-fire which left Hizbollah in southern Lebanon to fight another day.

But the anger of the Arab world over the carnage of Qana poured over into the Israeli Arab community, and many traditional Labor supporters within the Israeli Arab community refused to vote for Peres in protest. In the May 29, 1996 parliamentary elections, the once certain shoo-in candidate Peres went to bed at midnight with Israeli television predicting a close win, but by morning Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu was the clear winner.

That was the end for Peres, the perennial Adlai Stevenson of Israeli politics. And now to the back story...Four years later an opening occurred in the largely ceremonial but symbolic position of President of Israel. Peres, the elder statesman and Nobel Peace Prize winner, ran hard for the position tailor-made for his aspirations. But Likud wanted someone else, and selected the completely insignificant Moshe Katzav, a minor Likud politician, to the job. Just 3 weeks ago, a sex scandal erupted in the President's office, and Katzav has now been accused of sexual harrassment by a number of former female employees. Katzav's slight reputation has now been permanently tarnished. For the 83 year-old Peres, this is yet another tragic irony in a long and checkered career. In 2005 Peres ran to lead Labor and was rejected by primary voters in favor of rising star Amir Peretz; Peres bolted from Labor and joined Sharon's Kadima party, and even held the lofty slot of #2 on the Kadima list, with hopes of serving as foreign minister in Sharon's government. But that was not meant to be. Now Vice PM Shimon Peres (also Minister for Development of the Negev and Galilee) looks on, and must be suffering from a strong sense of "deja vu" and frustration that yet again, the country has turned another way.

But there is another point to the this trip down memory lane. For the moment, PM Ehud Olmert enjoys near-complete domestic support for endorsing his generals' plan to "change the rules" of Lebanon and take on the Hizbollah arsenal, and he also has American cover against a growing chorus of international efforts to arrange a cease-fire. But with each passing day, the potential for a Qana-like event grows stronger. There are two trend lines in play here which have not yet intersected: one trend line is the effective degradation of Hizbollah C3 (command, control & communications) capabilities; the other trend line is domestic and US governmental sympathy for the operation. The calculated bet in applying air power against Lebanon and its infrastructure is that the trend line for support of the operation may deteriorate before the strategic goal is realized. And then instead of "new rules," Olmert & Co. will be faced with a slightly degraded Hizbollah, another meaningless cease fire agreement, and no change in the regional equation.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

The Anti-Missile Defense

I'm now venturing off into a topic for which I do not have reliable information. But I have a deep interest in technology, and to a lesser degree military technolgy, so here goes: what does Israel have in its arsenal to defend the civilian homefront from short-range missiles like the various Katyusha and Fajr models now being fired its way? I ask this because of the much ballyhooed reports on Saturday of the deployment of Patriot missile batteries in Haifa and Safed, and the successful strikes of Fajr-3 missiles on Haifa's lower city this morning. With 8 dead in this morning's hit on a Haifa train depot, why didn't the Patriots do their job?

From what I can gather from public sources, Israel is equipped with PAC-2 Patriot batteries (PAC = Patriot Advanced Capability). Remember that the original purpose of the Patriot was to defend against ballistic, not intermediate- and short-range missiles. After the failure of Raytheon's Patriot systems in the 1991 Gulf War, numerous redesigns and enhancements of the software and hardware of Patriot led to significant improvements, and an expanded mission for Patriot. US forces use PAC-3 equipment, which is significantly different from the earlier systems, and supposedly has a short-range missile defense component. But I do not believe the PAC-2 has such a capability. And in any event, what is claimed for the Patriot is not necessarily what the Patriot can do in battlefield situations.

Simultaneously, Israel (in conjunction with the United States) developed a seperate Theater Missile Defense system known as the Arrow, but the Arrow is designed to defend against long-range ballistic missiles.

Thus, as best as I can tell, the Israelis have no technological answer for the short- and intermediate-range arsenal of Hizbollah. Hence, the public deployment of Patriot batteries in Haifa and Safed is merely a public relations move designed to quell Israeli domestic jitters - the fact that this morning a salvo of Fajr-3 missiles struck Haifa without a shot fired from the Patriot batteries positioned in the Stella Maris region of Haifa is proof that the Patriot does not work in this situation.

Had today's missiles landed just a kilometer to the north of the train depot, they could have hit the gigantic petrochemical facility on the north edge of Haifa Bay. This is a conceivable point of escalation should Nasrallah so choose, and potentially has the effect of a WMD scenario. (Pictured left: a look out at Haifa's lower city and port facilty, taken June 26)

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Mayhem with Rules

Over 85 dead in Lebanon (militants and civilians), and 16 dead on the Israeli side (IDF and civilians), and the almost-war in Lebanon continues to escalate. Yesterday the Israeli Air Force flattened Shaykh Hassan Nasrallah's home and headquarters in the Dahiya suburb of Beirut; within an hour Nasrallah was speaking on al-Manar television, vowing an "open (unrestrained) war" against targets including "Haifa and beyond" and promising a surprise at sea. At about that moment, in a technological marvel, either a Hizbollah drone or a radar-guided Silkworm-style missile hit an Israeli naval vessel, killing 4 seamen and puncturing for the third time in as many weeks the image of Israeli military invincibility. Clearly Israeli efforts to disrupt Hizbollah command and control have not succeeded. This afternoon (regional time) another salvo of missiles were sent off at the Galilee, hitting for the first time the resort town of Tiberias, 35 km from the Lebanese border (a touch further than Haifa and possibly the first use of the Fajr-3 missile). Israel has ordered all resort sites on the Sea of Galilee shut down.

It looks as if the Israeli military is engaged in a two-pronged strategy. Terrify the constituency of the Lebanese government into treating Hizbollah as a pariah; and deteriorate the missile stockpile and launch capability of Hizbollah. The first tactic is a cynical application of lethality, designed as much for Israeli domestic consumption as to accomplish any practical goal. Lebanon is a broken state and has been so since the civil war of the 70s and 80s; its army, government, and general population is a multi-confessional patchwork which if it turned on Hizbollah would dissolve into civil war. The weak government of Lebanon, still recovering from decades of sectarian strife, and occupation by both Syria and Israel, has not honored its commitment to disband Hizbollah in the past; under a barrage from the sky and the sea it certainly cannot do so today. So what is the point of bombing the Beirut airport (and then pausing long enough to allow 5 MEA jets to be transferred to Jordan)? Why destroy Nasrallah's certainly evacuated headquarters when it sits in the midst of a densely populated Shi'ite neighborhood? Why drop leaflets on a village giving residents until 6 pm to evacuate, then shoot up a caravan of cars fleeing the town at 12 noon? Even if the Lebanese people were inclined to banish Hizbollah from the body politic, the air assault on Beiruti neighborhoods has such a high potential for collateral damage that it undermines the very political result Israel would like to foster. So I assume that the images of Lebanese under high-tech bombardment is a cynical effort by the Israeli leadership to assure its own citizens that if they are going to suffer from the terror of Katyushas, the Lebanese people will suffer in kind.

The second tactic, a mini-version of the massive American "SCUD hunt" in western Iraq of January 1991, is a much more practical effort. Hizbollah has fired off somewhere around 500 rockets in the last 60 hours; one can assume that Israel has destroyed a significant complement of missiles before they could be launched. While Israel has not yet placed large numbers of ground forces across the Lebanese border, we know from the 1991 SCUD hunt that identifying and "painting" launchers and storage facilities must be done by special forces. So assume that Israeli elite forces are already deep inside southern Lebanon, hiding in the hills and working with collaborators. If the ballpark figure of 13,000 missiles in Hizbollah possession is accurate, we must assume that at least 10% of Hizbollah's arsenal has been used up or destroyed in 60 hours. At this pace, it is a race against time - and as the missile arsenal is degraded, the temptation for Nasrallah to "use it or lose it" increases. It is thus only a matter of time before Hizbollah fires off its Fajr-3 and Fajr-5 Iranian produced rockets, the latter with a reported range of 75 km. All this is designed to provoke Israel into a massive ground re-occupation of southern Lebanon, where the hit-and-run suicide tactics first perfected by Hizbollah can be reapplied. Score one for Shaykh Nasrallah, who looks like he is calling the shots much more effectively than Ehud Olmert.

Despite all the carnage, there are some hard and fast rules that are emerging from the fog of war. Olmert and Bahsar al-Assad are allowing this decimation of poor Lebanon to take place without shooting at each other; Israel is pointedly keeping out of Syria's face, and Syria isn't trying to further stir the pot. To be sure, both sides are walking right up to the line without crossing it - Israel today bombed the Lebanese side of a major passage point between Lebanon and Syria as part of its effort to ensure that no further missiles enter the battle zone. Either side might be calculating at some point in the future to make a move against the other, but for the moment the war in Lebanon has not turned into a regional conflagration. As domestic civilian casualties mount, the pressure on Olmert to "do something more" will only deepen. What his mentor Sharon never contemplated - two fronts of live fire - Olmert has easily endorsed, with the "pacifist hawks" of Labor in tow. All the bombast aside, Sharon learned some painful lessons in Lebanon, and almost had his career destroyed by it; Olmert is just starting his learning curve. It is a crying shame that innocents on both sides are being so callously sacrificed so that Ehud Olmert can learn a bitter, yet totally predictable, lesson.

Friday, July 14, 2006

The Difference between Gaza & Lebanon

First, what is not different: both fronts were triggered by a humiliating localized attack on an IDF position stationed in order to maintain a murky "status quo." Both fronts abut population centers where missile launches were either a reality or a distinct possiblity. Warfare on both fronts started with the limited goal of extracting soldier-abductees; the Israeli military goals in both instances then took on a life of their own, with (in the case of Gaza, the undeclared) purpose of destabilzing the government which either materially participated in or sanctioned the triggering abduction, and the subsequent missile attacks on the Israeli homefront. Both fronts obliquely refer back to Damascus, and possibly Tehran; and yet, as of this writing, neither Syria nor Iran have either directly injected themselves or been drawn into the conflict. Both HAMAS and Hizbollah have compatriots in Israeli prisons, and abducting Israeli soldiers has long been a tactic for extracting them in negotiated prisoner swaps.

But there are differences: HAMAS is not Hizbollah. Let's dwell on that simple statement: HAMAS is not Hizbollah. HAMAS is now the central pillar of a Palestinian government under occupation in internationally unrecognized borders; Hizbollah is a coalition partner of an "independent" Lebanese government which enjoyed internationally recognized borders (see the UN statement of June 18, 2000), supervised by impotent UN observers who allowed southern Lebanon to become an independent and missile-tipped Hizbollahstan, while Israel and the world watched on. One of those unpleasant Middle East ironies: everyone - Israelis included - understood that Hizbollah was amassing these last 6 years an arsenal of over 10,000 missiles, the most sophisticated having been supplied directly from Iran. In other, simpler words: in the eyes of the world, HAMAS has a legitimate gripe (though its ideology & use of terror is unacceptable to a sizable portion of the world community); Hizbollah (which attacked from "sovereign" Lebanese territory) has nothing (though Hizbollah maintains that Israel holds a few hundred meters of land in the Sheba Farms area [picture of Sheba "Farms," taken by yours truly June 27], a claim not recognized by the UN).

HAMAS represents on behalf of its people the unpalatable partner in any future resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian problem; Hizbollah represents no one -- it is simply a hate-filled Iranian proxy which can never be mollified (and now we know it cannot be contained). HAMAS cannot effect a debilitating partial shut-down of the Israeli economy; Hizbollah can. HAMAS, despite all its rhetorical defiance, can conceive of a cease-fire with Israel; Hizbollah cannot. HAMAS and the Palestinian people it must represent have much to lose; Hizbollah, by firing at Haifa, is posed to make its apocalyptic last stand, and is bringing down Lebanese society in the process. It has nothing left up its sleeve, other than the hope of more direct intervention from Damascus or Tehran.

However, HAMAS has now been goaded by Hizbollah into taking as recalcitrant a stand as possible. The slim glimmer of hope - championed by neighbors Jordan and Egypt - that the HAMAS government and Israel could somehow defuse the Gaza front by carrying out a massive prisoner release in exchange for soldier Shalit, now seems to be futile. The government of Israel will continue its military press on both fronts, but it is absolutely clear that the more significant front is the northern one.

As international diplomacy tries to stave off a full-scale state-to-state war, the key "controlling legal authority" will be UN Security Council Resolution 1559 (you'll then have to open the pdf file from the list). Take a moment to read it. In polite diplomatic language, it calls for the disbanding of all militias in Lebanon, and the extension of Lebanese governmental sovereignty over all Lebanese territory. The resolution is nearly 2 years old, and it is a joke. In the coming days, this toothless document will serve as the base point for all diplomatic efforts to resolve the northern conflagration, a very unlikely outcome.

It takes no powers of prognostication to predict that the upcoming weekend will be crucial for determining the trajectory of this almost-war. Of the two fronts, the chances for a deal and cease-fire are slightly better on the southern front; but only by a slim margin. What is clear is that the southern front cannot possibly lead to a state-to-state war with Syria and its 10 divisions arrayed along the Golan Heights; keep your eyes on the northern front, where the situation can flash up to an even more dangerous level in a single moment.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Restraint Amidst Chaos

Day 2 of the Lebanese crisis: The coordinated Israeli military response to the breakdown of the status quo on Israel's northern border has so far been one of surprising restraint. By focusing in on the Lebanese area of operation, Israel has avoided directly provoking Syria into the conflict. Syria may yet become part of the military equation, but for the moment it appears that Israel's intent is to put pressure on the weakest link to the north, the barely functioning government of Lebanon and its people. Meanwhile, Hizbollah has fired off from its sizable missile arsenal which it has been amassing since Israel's April 2000 withdrawal (down to the last millimeter, according to the UN) from southern Lebanon. Basically, the entire country of Israel from Acco north has been placed on alert and hundreds of thousands of citizens are being encouraged to stay indoors and sleep in shelters for a second night. Katyushas have landed deep into the Galilee, in Nahariya, Zefat, and Karmiel, and Hizbollah is threatening to fire its longest range missiles at Israel's principal port city of Haifa (population 287,000). A similar disruption of civilian life has taken place in Lebanon from Beirut south to the international border due to Israeli air and naval bombardment. Thus, a battlefield has been carved out which extends 40 or so miles in either direction from the international border, in which well over 2 million people live, and civilian casualties have been reported on both sides, with the Lebanese people suffering far more than their Israeli counterparts. If Israeli civilians are going to suffer, the Israeli thinking requires no less from the residents of Lebanon.

So far the reserve call-up has only numbered in the hundreds (mainly pilots and ground support crews in the IAF), but one can easily imagine that this situation could quickly spiral out of the current "restrained" tit-for-tat into an all-out interstate war. To the south, Israel has kept up its barrage upon Gaza, striking the Palestinian Foreign Ministry building. There are plenty of conceivable scenarios for the worsening of the situation: Israel could fire upon the Beirut suburb of Dahiya, where most Hizbollah leaders live amongst the general population; Hizbollah could fire at Haifa. Alternatively, there are no conceivable scenarios for an improvement of the situation to a cease fire. The first 36 hours of this crisis have produced a tinderbox....expect it to get much worse before it gets better.

As far as internal domestic politics: the civilian Israeli government of July, 2006 is careening down a path vaguely reminiscent of the civilian Israeli government of May, 1967. The non-military PM Levi Eshkol was desperate in May, 1967 to avoid a war; eventually he succumbed to IDF pressure, installed General Moshe Dayyan as Defense Minister, and went to war. In June and July 2006 the non-military PM Ehud Omert (and equally neophyte Defense Minister Amir Peretz) are struggling greatly against the more muscular approach being championed by Chief-of-Staff Dan Halutz. For the moment, the civilian authority seems to be controlling the Israeli response (largely because intelligence chief Yuval Diskin is siding with Olmert and Peretz), but the pressure on Olmert is enormous to open up the warfare in order to "change the rules of the game" (Halutz's ominous phrase). The disruption of life in the north, the impact on the Israeli economy, and the mounting cancellation of tourist reservations (Israel was almost back to pre-intifada tourist numbers in the early summer) all mean that this conflict would best be settled quickly and decisively. All this puts great pressure on Olmert to widen the warfare and bring the matter to a quick and decisive conclusion. Unfortunately, short of a complete reshuffling of the deck (through a full-scale mobilization and war posture), there is no quick and decisive conclusion foreseeable on the horizon.

And it is not as if the powerful Israeli military holds all the cards. The trajectory of this crisis is also in the hands of the PA in Gaza, Shaykh Nasrallah (leader of Hizbollah) in Lebanon; and then the regional states, particularly Bashar al-Assad in Damascus. If there were indications that the HAMAS government was prepared to make a deal to end the siege of Gaza, those intentions are now probably off the table. There is little reason for the terrorists of Gaza and south Lebanon to back off - every futher provocation only reinforces the perception that the great Israeli military machine is incapable of rearranging the game rules short of massive (and disproportianate) intervention, which will then eventually be condemened by the international diplomatic community. After years of "restraint" and status quo, the clock in the Arab-Israeli conflict has been turned back 20 years.

I for one see no way out.

1315 Update (2015 Israel time): Hizbollah has fired missiles at Haifa.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

And now, into Lebanon

Eighteen days into the stalemate in Gaza, and this morning (not to anyone's surprise, and as I predicted in my June 29 post) we have heard from Hizbollah on Israel's northern border. In another blow to IDF operational efficiency, 3 Israeli soldiers were killed and two soldiers were abducted from their armored Hummers during a massive morning Hizbollah mortar attack, 4 more soldiers killed in the immediate effort to free the abductees, and now the state of Israel faces its worst military scenario since April 2002. Today was not only a day of death for the Israeli army: the death toll on the Palestinian side in Gaza's "Summer Rains" operation has probably reached 100, and a significant number of innocent civilians are amongst the casualties (today a mother and her 5 children were among the 23 killed by Israeli missile fire).

So along with the Gaza standoff, the sense that the neophyte Israeli political leadership is completely out of its depth, and that the IDF is vulnerable to humiliating attacks, is compounded by Hizbollah joining the fray. All domestic civil flights to northern Israel have been suspended and northern residents have been ordered into shelters. The Israeli air force has this morning flown 17 sorties into south Lebanon, blowing up infrastructure as far north as the Litani and Awali rivers.

Israeli news web sites are reporting that the IDF's Chief-of-staff Dan Halutz is recommending a reserve call-up, for now Israel is confronting a two-front guerilla war - abductions in the south and in the north, Qassams from the south and Katyushas from the north. The IDF has moved most of its standing army to cordon off Gaza; any significant ground action into Lebanon will require reservists. Be certain of this: given the severe economic impact that a reserve call-up places on the Israeli workforce and economy, expect to see action sooner rather than later.

HAMAS spokesmen have congratulated their counterparts to the north. Short of reoccupying both Gaza and southern Lebanon, PM Ehud Olmert has only one viable option (which he is unlikely to choose, but which I would recommend): arrange as quickly as possible a massive prisoner release, now doubled to include not only HAMAS detainees, but also Hizbollah detainees. Israel has certainly gone this humiliating route is time to do so again. The other unpalatable option involves the likely envelopment of Syria (which provides moral and operational support to both HAMAS and Hizbollah - hence the threatening flyover of the Syrian presidential summer palace 2 weeks ago) into the quagmire. It is impossible to know what is going on in Damascus, and it is also possible that today's development transpired without direct Syrian intervention, but more and more it will appear to Israeli analysts that the Syrians are using surrogates to challenge the bumbling Israeli leadership. And precisely because it is new and untested, and clearly fumbling under the pressure, expect the Israeli leadership to opt for a show of muscle. After all, Olmert is no Sharon, and he will feel compelled to demonstrate he can't be kicked around early in his tenure as PM; the IDF staff, humiliated a second time in less than 3 weeks, is itching for a chance to display its lethality. The potential here for full-scale state-to-state warfare has increased this morning dramatically.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

The Bubble - Brokeback Mountain meets Paradise Now

Day 2 back from Israel and I must say that the jetlag coming back was much worse than going out. Up at 4 am this morning and can't get back to sleep; but dead tired at 2 yesterday afternoon. Hopefully today will be the last day of this biorhythm torture. As long as I am awake, let's do a review of Eitan Fox's new movie "The Bubble" (ha-Bu`ah; opened June 29). Warning: spoilers to follow...

My friend Amy once joked that even Israeli comedies end with all the major characters dying from a suicide bomb. Well, while this movie is no comedy, it ends the same way. After giving us a phenomenally textured and surprising plot in "Walk on Water" (released in 2004 and an international sensation), Fox this time has concocted a cinematic cliche, artistically and technically superb (once again Fox's soundtrack selection is pleasantly Indie Rock with only the slightest attention to local Israeli music), but a plot line that causes one to roll one's eyes in disbelief. At a reported cost of $1.5 million, an extensive advertising campaign, and a series of merchandising and fashion tie-ins (look soon for "I LOVE LOVE TEL AVIV" T-shirts), this is one of the most grandiose projects in the history of Israeli cinema.

The "bubble" in question is the formerly trendy Shenkin neighborhood of Tel Aviv, the hot spot of the avant garde and bohemian crowd in the first half of the first decade of the 21st century. Now a different south Tel Aviv neighborhood, Neve Tzedek, has become the metrosexual magnet for trendy restaurants, coffee shops, and urban gentrification. But until 2005, Shenkin Street was the place to be. And this is where screenwriters (and couple) Fox and Gal Uchovsky (who wrote "Walk on Water") set this movie, probably in the summer of 2003, when Shenkin was at its frothing pinnacle. They even re-opened for the shoot the already defunct CD store ha-Ozen ha-Shlishit, a fixture of the former glory days of Shenkin.

Our heroes are three flatmates, Noam (played by Ohad Knoller, who starred in Fox's first breakout made-for-TV mini-hit "Yosi ve-Jagger"), Yelli (played by Alon Friedman), and Lulu (Daniela Virtzer's first big-screen role). Noam and Yelli are gay men, friends for life, but no sex between them. Noam works at the CD shop, Yelli is a cafe owner, and Lulu, the straight woman, plans raves while working in a knock-off of a Bath & Body Works-type store. In the pre-credit sequence, Noam is a soldier at a checkpoint in the West Bank, where he first encounters the fourth major player in the plot, a gay Palestinian named Ashraf (Yousef "Joe" Sweid, reprising the role of a gay Palestinian from "Walk on Water") who makes goo-goo eyes at Noam as he lifts his shirt on command to prove he is not strapped with explosives, a common checkpoint ritual. The checkpoint scene is gut-wrenching as a humiliated pregnant Palestinian woman collapses and gives birth to a still-born child.

Reserve duty over, Noam returns to beloved Shenkin (iPod in ear) to resume his trendy life. Life is full of witty repartee -- face-to-face and text-messaging -- between the off-beat "Three's Company," with lots of cappuccinos. Then Ashraf shows up at the flat (Noam had misplaced his wallet during the effort to save the stillborn). Within minutes Noam and Ashraf are in lip-lock. We the viewers -- but not they the characters -- will eventually discover that as children Noam (he of French Hill) and Ashraf (he of neighboring Shuafat) once played together in the same sandlot, destined to be together for all eternity.

I can't really reproduce all the convoluted plot lines of the story -- who is sleeping with who, who is betrayed by who. It really isn't all that important. Oblivious to the world around them, the characters try to live a po-mo life as if they were in Lower Manhattan. But Shenkin isn't SoHo; it is right in the middle of Israel/Palestine. Ashraf, with a perfect sabra accent, changes his name to Shim and becomes a waiter at Yelli's cafe. All is "Brokeback Shenkin" until Ashraf is outed for being a Palestinian, the real taboo of the movie. He runs home to Nablus, where his sister is about to marry a militant operative. Noam and Lulu go to find Ashraf, pretending to be French TV journalists. Surprise! As Ashraf and Noam lock up again in Nablus, the militant brother-in-law to-be stumbles into the room.

Meanwhile, Lulu is arranging for a "Rave Against the Occupation," the perfect expression of the ineffectual nature of Shenkin self-absorption in the face of the realities of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Ashraf, who was part of the early planning and ad campaign for the rave, finds his way back to Tel Aviv briefly to drop some ecstasy and dance with his beloved Noam.

Do you see where this is headed? The day after the wedding, Ashraf's sister is shot by Israeli soldiers in a collateral damage incident as they are chasing down armed militants in the streets of Nablus and dramatically dies in Ashraf's arms. The militant groom vows vengance. Ashraf, humiliated by his sexual orientation in repressive Nablus and with nowhere else to turn, offers to go in his brother-in-law's stead. And so one evening Ashraf reappears on Shenkin street with a bulging jacket and a button in his hand. Noam sees his beloved and the trigger, walks out to speak to his man, and then -- white out (a la "Paradise Now"). Two dead -- a suicide bomber and an Israeli victim.

The most disturbing intent of the screenwriters is their condescending Orientalism concerning Ashraf. Through this movie, we are taught that even a po-mo Arab, the trendy couterpart to the Tel Aviv triumvirate who so easily morphs into another young hipster, cannot resist the inchoate, primal call of istishhad (martyrdom). What an ugly, ugly message. All this begs the question: if a gay man is a shahid, what awaits him in heaven?

Despite the preposterousness of the plot, and the trendy "insider" sensibilities that only a small segment of either Israeli or overseas theatergoers will understand (actor Lior Ashkenazi, the star of "Walk on Water," plays himself briefly in a strange cameo appearance), this is still a movie to watch. It is a very personal movie, and Fox has claimed in the Israeli media that this is an unvarnished glimpse into the real life of the Shenkin scene, which he and Uchovsky know first-hand. It may strike the viewer as completely eccentric and bizarre, but it is part of the legend of modern Tel Aviv. What Sex & the City did for the Meat Packing District in Lower Manhattan, "The Bubble" tries to do for Shenkin. By the time these two pop-culture vehicles were aired, both neighborhoods were already so out. But they each had their moment. As a period piece, "The Bubble" is really rather interesting, though confounding beyond tolerable. Expect this movie to make the rounds at all the international, Israeli, and Jewish film festivals later this year with not nearly the success of "Walk on Water." To the degree that the creators were trying for something more -- a statment about "the situation," as Israelis often obliquely refer to the conflict -- they overreached, and totally failed in a crush of cliches.


A devastating review of ha-Bu'ah by Uri Klein appeared in the Hebrew edition of Haaretz (I haven't been able to find it on the English language site; for those whose Hebrew is serviceable, click here) the same day I blogged this review. The review (and the movie) were considered significant enough by the editors to be included in its entirety in this weekend's international print edition of Hebrew Haaretz, which always includes a digest of the week's most significant articles. Klein's review was much more extensive than mine, but along similar lines.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Week Two, Regime Change & Lehitraot

The TAU Workshop is now long over; a large group of hangers-on are leaving on this morning's Continental flight, and I am departing tonight. I am not sure, but I might be the last holdover, having decided to take a very long weekend spilling into Monday to see friends, buy presents and books, hit the beach, and see a newly released movie by my favorite Israeli director Eitan Fox entitled "The Bubble" (I'll be going to th 21-screen Cinema City in Herziliya for the afternoon matinee in a few minutes and will post a review later). One of my neatest purchases, which I am working with even now, is a set of keycaps for my laptop giving me English, Hebrew, and Arabic keys, just like on my desktop keyboard at home. Last night I took my buddy Yoav and his wife Raaya to a steak place in Herziliya (which was ok, but not stupendous) as a way of expressing my thanks for their gracious hospitality.

All-in-all this was a very useful, informative, and fun 17-day trip, and I think it helped me decide where I will spend my upcoming sabbatical in 07-08. As some of you know, I've been toying with the idea of going to India (all of course due to my newly concocted obsession with all things Bollywood), but I must admit that this damn place has its bizarre attraction on my post-modern Jewish soul. So I think Mumbai is out -- Tel Aviv is in. We'll see...

We're now into week two of -- can I really call it "the hostage crisis"? It is not a hostage crisis. What is playing out now is a scenario that was probably concocted by the Israeli military in late January-early February of 2006. The abduction of a soldier has served as the trigger for an Israeli push to bring down the HAMAS government. You might remember that back in February & March there was much talk after the surprise legislative election results in Palestine about what to do with a HAMAS-led Palestinian Authority. While the eventual outcome of these deliberations was to financially embargo the PA from the international welfare of the West -- and then have the PA survive on the fickle donations of the Muslim world (which have not materialized) -- there were those who argued (remember Benjamin Netanyahu?) that a HAMAS state was intolerable and had to be taken down. Interim Israeli PM Olmert seemed to side with the "take our time" crowd and eventually brought in the Labor Party to provide the necessary cover for effecting regime change. Without Labor, no PM can do what Olmert is doing. Labor, the supposed "dovish" main party, provided the domestic political cover for "Defensive Shield" in 2002 and was actually the controllng party during "Grapes of Wrath" in 1996. I'll leave it to each of you to determine whether either of these two operations benefitted the state of Israel in the long run.

The pretense of missiles in Sderot, capped by the soldier's abduction, has given Olmert the "perfect storm" confluence of events which makes it possible for him to surround Gaza, threaten 750,000 people with a cutoff in electricity; blow up their already threadbare infrastructure; flyover a sovereign neighbor's presidential palace (and what if the Syrians had a miraculous shoot-down? where would we be today?); abduct 1/3 of a neighboring country's government; and destroy the offices of a neighboring country's PM.

Make no mistake about it -- this will end with the destruction of the HAMAS government. Olmert originally said he would wait awhile before he went to a policy of unilateralism and convergence. Rather than wait 6 months to see what would develop (and remember, we were very close to seeing a national unity government made up of Haniyeh and Abbas -- Olmert's worst nightmare), Olmert waited 6 weeks. Convergence could not occur without a further unilateral move: the unilateral move of pre-emptive warfare to effect regime change.

It certainly works to Olmert's advantage that the regime he is about to remove is a group of unresponsive ideologues who have made rhetorical defiance and civil chaos the pillars of government. Even Egypt, which has been working hard to resolve the crisis, is ready to walk away from brethren Arabs. Isolated by their own intransigence, the HAMAS government will likely go down as the 2nd greatest failure of the Bush doctrine -- "democracy for the Middle East."

Well, that is it from this side of the pond. I am certain to follow these events from back home after the requisite recovery from jetlag. Tonight I go visit friends in Mevasseret Zion, then off to the LBG airport. Hopefully I will not be hassled as were some of my workshop compatriots. Usually I have little trouble with security at LBG, because I speak-a the language, but I am concerned this time because I bought a highly inflammatory Arabic book in Nazareth and if they do hand-search my luggage it will generate an interesting discussion. Then the biggest problem will be which single-malt shall I buy in Duty Free. Decisions, decisions.....

1530 Update: Back from the movie "The Bubble" - not Fox's best movie, but it will certainly be well-received by the Israeli art crowd both here and abroad. As I said, it deserves a posting unto itself. Nevertheless, it was a 1:40 hour movie without subtitles and I completely understood it, though I may have lost about 5% of the slang related to homosexual love and the drug ecstacy. I'm all packed up and ready to shut down the computer. It's awfully hot today.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Mission Creep

Yesterday was fun. Went with Yoav to the sprawling open air market in south Tel Aviv called Shuq ha-Carmel, and got daughter Ari the latest rage in women's fashion: mikhnas dayyagim ("fishermen's pants"). Yoav bought some clothes from an Israeli clothier who makes jeans and shirts for the European market in Gaza, Nablus, and China. We also went to a Russian and Asian grocery store. At the Russian store there were products lettered in Cyrillic and pork products by the dozen, including a butcher counter where one could order up fresh pork chops on the spot; at the Asian grocery store there was every conceivable Pacific-rim ingredient - frozen, fresh, and ready-to-go.

Almost a week into the Gaza reincursion crisis, and no sign of change. Israeli tanks, artillery, and naval vessels surround Gaza; a defiant alliance of three Palestinian resistance groups continue to up the ante with ever more grandiose demands; the IDF, embarrassed by the success of the original attack and abduction, want to avenge their incompetence with draconian assaults on Gaza; the Israeli political leadership continues to perform poorly -- it all has the makings for a disaster. Now that Israeli body politic has had a moment to catch its breath, it seems that the majority of Israelis do not want to see Israeli sons and daughters return to Gaza. Why are we here again? What is the mission? they are asking. It is also clear that the rash of abductions of HAMAS VIPs a couple of nights ago was a long-planned and rehearsed option, not designed to respond to the current trigger event, but as the first in a series of steps to bring about through external force the collapse of the Haniyeh government.

Qassam missiles and pinprick attacks on the surrounding army will not be stopped by reinvading Gaza or bringing down the Haniyeh government. Everyone understands that there is nothing Israel can do militarily to change the equation. This is the frustration when a nuclear-armed hi-tech army asymmetrically confronts a dedicated resistance movement (what is it called in Iraq? an "insurgency") in an urban setting.