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!