Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Israel: I'm outta here!

I'm leaving for the airport in a few minutes. It was a great 10 weeks, and. I am grateful for all the old and new friends who made it such a great time I promise to continue blogging even after I am gone.
I realized tonight that while I take off from here, President Bush is arriving. And then it occurred to me: whether you're a current president, a former president (Carter), or the next president (Obama or McCain), this place -- by which I mean both Israel and Palestine -- is going to give you nothing but heartache. There is simply no upside for an American president -- current, past, or future -- to dig in and try to fix this conflict. So why do they do it? Because it seems so tantalizingly close? Because it is The Holy Land? Because if it descends into deeper instability it could lead to a nuclear exchange? Because it generates campaign support and votes at home? Probably all of this and some things more. So the most unpoular President in the history of modern America is going to spend a few days with the most unpopular Prime Minister in the history of Israel. This is a get together I'll be happy to miss.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

The Olmert Scandal: Gag Order Lifted (Mostly)

Well, the bombastic 60th Independence Day festivities are over (with 2 onlookers seriously wounded when a public demonstration of Israeli military prowess resulted in an awful accident), and finally the Israeli courts have lifted most of the ridiculous gag order (which the gutless Israeli newspapers slavishly followed) concerning Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Before I get to the details, let me just say: shame on all the publishers and editors of Israel's supposedly "independent" media. This story has nothing to do with national security in the conventional sense (though more on that later). Why not a single paper (other than Yediot Aharonot -- and then only for one edition) chose to openly challenge the idiotic ruling of the courts, Pentagon Papers-style, is very disturbing. The big media venues completely dropped the ball here, and it does not bode well for the future of Israeli democracy.

Speaking of the dim future of Israeli democracy, the story that has finally been published on all the news media web sites confirms the identity of Morris Talansky (a contributor to, amongst others, George Bush, Bill Clinton, Rudy Giuliani, and Paul Welstone???) as at least one American businessman who handed over hundreds of thousands of dollar in envelopes to Olmert's lawyer and office administrator over the course of a number of years while Olmert was mayor of Jerusalem and minister of industry and trade in the Sharon government. One accusation has Minister Olmert in exchange writing a letter to hotel owners encouraging them to use Talansky's mini-bar restocking service.

Late tonight Olmert went out on national TV with a partial defense, denying the now circulating accusations ("I never took a penny into my pocket"), but simultaneously offering to resign as PM if charges are actually filed. Press reports suggest the investigation will take weeks if not months, so it seems that any immediate fear that President George W. Bush might not be able to greet his friend Udi next week in Jerusalem is off the table (though Bush is cancelling a 3-way that had been planned with Olmert & Mahmoud Abbas). But with Abbas suffering heart problems, Olmert suffering political problems, and Bush suffering from lame-duckness, forget the chances of seeing the Annapolis "non-process" bear any fruit.

But that isn't the whole story. Here is what some are whispering, and a tale which I have on fairly decent authority from a senior local journalist. I don't have any way to fact check -- this may simply be the theory of a journalist; or it may be the truth. It certainly sounds plausible. Let's call it the "vast right-wing conspiracy" theory.

Understand first, that since the 1990s, Israeli politics has become more "Americanized" -- more media-driven, more consultant-based, and much more expensive (blame longtime US-resident Benjy Netanyahu for this transformation). And American and European Jewish "philanthropists" have been priming the pump of this new kind of Israeli politics in ways and at levels that are unprecedented. One way this has been done is by setting up foundations (like the New Jerusalem Fund) and think tanks (like the Shalem Institute), and funneling millions to support ideologies and specific political figures acceptable to donors. Good lawyers make these foreign foundation donations totally legal. American millionaires (on both sides of the political spectrum) are turning Israeli politics into their egotistical playground, and bringing unprecedented corruption to the political landscape. That is what I meant above by stating that this is in a certain way a story about "national security": it is apparent now that Israeli politicians at the highest level can be bought, and certainly compromised, by foreign millions. In this case, this latest bribery investigation is supposedly the result of a decision made by wealthy American Jewish businessmen working with Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu (himself tarnished by bribery allegations) to bring down the Olmert government sooner rather than later, by revealing these obviously damaging facts about Olmert at this time.

Here's the context: Olmert is exchanging messages with Syria through Turkey, and both sides suggest that they are within striking distance of a deal. More importantly, under the watchful supervision of Condoleeza Rice, Olmert and Abbas were actually making some progress on the Annapolis track. These American Jewish philanthropers, longtime supporters of Netanyahu (but also once friendly with then-Likud rising star Olmert) decided to take Olmert down. And so one of them began to sing, essentially becoming a state witness for the case against Olmert. Now, it has been suggested, Talansky's lawyer back in Long Island has warned Talansky that if what he is currently telling Israeli investigators is true, Talansky will have a hard time explaining hundreds of thousands of unreported dollars to the IRS. So Talansky, I am told, has clammed up. He's also been quoted as saying he fears Olmert may try to do him harm (but this from a guy who apparently used thugs himself back in the US to collect pledges).

I seriously doubt this story will be fully unpacked before I leave Israel (sigh) next week. But if I got any of the story right, you read it in this blog first. If not, then I was a victim of bad Israeli journalism. (And I repeat, there must be a reason that Steven Colbert retains "Israeli Newspapers" on his On Notice list.)

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

The Cost of War

Today was Memorial Day in Israel, Yom ha-Zikaron, which abuts Independence Day, which begins in a few minutes. I've participated before in Independence Day here, but today was the first time I visited a military cemetery on Memorial Day.

We came after the big crowds who participate in the formal morning ceremony, culminating in a 1-minute siren at 11 am. We came at 5 pm, and the Kiryat Shaul cemetery was still full of families, still dotted with mourners at hundreds of graves. The amount of flowers on display was truly overwhelming.

At one place I found the grave of a major general, in fact, a former Chief of Staff, the highest rank one can achieve. He was born in Jerusalem, served his country nobly for many decades, and died at the age of 65, not from war. Next to him was the grave of a private, born in the United States, the son of Nancy and Abraham, who died at the age of 18 in 1995 (probably somewhere in the West Bank or in Gaza? -- the marker did not say). At the foot of the grave, in rare English, carved into stone: "We love you, Oren -- Mom and Dad."

In an earlier blog this week I cursed out an anonymous Israeli soldier who cavalierly pointed his assault rifle at me at a checkpoint in the West Bank. I cursed the wrong thing. I really meant to curse this damn conflict. I meant to curse the fact that the naive and joyful act of visiting a microbrewery -- in the US nothing more than a leisure-time diversion -- is here an act of political adventure. I meant to curse the miserable & pathetic "leaders" who have not done enough to bring this misery to an end. I curse the fact that this conflict has produced very little other than row after row of beautifully manicured graves -- not just in Kiryat Shaul, but also in Jenin.

Gag on this!

This is psoitively hilarious. For 5 days, the Israeli media has been awash with a story concerning a new and serious scandal involving Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. At the request of the police, the Israeli district court issued a comprehensive gag order on anything having to do with the story, but even so last Friday Yediot Ahronot let it be known that the case involves illegal bribes (or at least money transfers) from an American businessman. The police & judges of Israel are pretending to live in a quaint time before the existence of that damn internets and the blogosphere. Yesterday, The New York Post broke the name of the American businessman, Mr. Morris Talansky of Woodmere (Woodburgh), NY, who is being questioned for passing large sums of money to Olmert when he was mayor of Jerusalem in the 1990s. (I should mention I had dinner with Olmert back in those days -- a "slim customer" if I ever saw one.) Anyhow, the word broke in Israel via the Internet yesterday afternoon, and here it is 24 hours later, and not a single one of the gutless major papers and news outlets (and their constantly updated web sites) has a word concerning Talansky, who has been here is Israel visiting his children (address has already been posted on the net) since Passover. On one Israeli radio station this morning, announcers told listeners to go The New York Post web site, without saying what will be found there, and Haaretz ran a clouded picture of the web page. Bloggers have been uncovering parts of the story: Talansky's ties to Olmert are proven through the New Jerusalem Fund web site, which lists the home address of Talansky in Woodsburgh, NY, as the business address for the Fund. All of this we know from the Internet and blogs, (even The New York Times has been able to advance the story) and yet the dinosaurs of the Israeli legal system still demand that the gag order be kept in place, and the gutless publishers of once brave independent Israeli newspapers are playing along. Ridiculous.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Olmert Over?

Back in January of 2006, when Ariel Sharon had his stroke and Barack Obama was visiting the Holy Land, I also happened to be here in Tel Aviv for an academic conference. Within days of the emergence of Ehud Olmert as the fill-in for Sharon, in my first blog entry on Olmert, I informed readers of this blog that "there is a hint of corruption" surrounding him and his family. Later, during the election campaign, I went into further details concerning allegations of Olmert's corruption. After Olmert was elected in his own right (though by a much smaller magin than the polls had predicted) he promised to turn Israel into a country -- let me quote the Hebrew -- she-keyf li-chyot bah -- "where it would be a joy to live in." Then on the morning of July 12, Olmert decided in something under 3 hours to launch a war into southern Lebanon against Hizbollah, with disastrous results for Israel and Lebanon (but not for Hizbollah). Two commission reports later, 3 criminal investigations later, and this "seasoned politician" has survived everything that has been thrown at him. He even survived watching his poll numbers tank to single digit approval (even George W. Bush is not that unpopular). He has since orchestrated a slow and steady comeback to nearly a 20% positive approval rating (still below Dubya's benchmark historic low). Predicted to be down for the count more than once these past two years (today marks the 2 year anniversay of Olmert's elected government), Olmert has proven to be the winner of Hisardut -- "Survivor."

And now it is the week of Israel's 60th anniversary, a week in which Olmert will play host to his buddy George Bush here on home court, and oversee an extravagant and opulent soiree (though sadly and without explanation, Barbara Streisand cancelled out from her scheduled visit, and her promised rendition of Avinu Malkeinu). A week of celebration and national clucking and long-winded speeches. This month of May was supposed to be a good month for Olmert. A time to kick back with a good cigar and enjoy the fireworks.

But then Friday the Israeli police suddenly descended upon Olmert's official residence with very little warning to interrogate him, for the fourth time in 2 years, about a new financial/political scandal. There are rumors flying as to what this new scandal might be -- the media is being gagged by the courts from publishing any details -- but it seems to be a financial bribe from a few years back, and this fourth rumor of financial irregularity may very well be the scandal to break the political culture's lethargy, and bring this pathetic caricature of a "seasoned politician" to his proper and early conclusion. The morning papers are all headlining the rumored corruption charge as "very serious," in fact the most serious and substantive of all the charges that have swirled around his head these past few years. There is open discussion of the possibility that these new charges or so corrosive that Olmert maight have to step down. Wishful thinking? Israeli media frenzy? (Let's not forget that "Israeli Newspapers" still appear on Steven Colbert's "On Notice" board.)

And May was supposed to have been a fun month...

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Middle Eastern MicroBrew

For years, Hannah has been talking about Taybeh Beer. Thursday night I found a great bar in Tel Aviv that served it, and I had one. I liked it. So with time running out on my time here, and having put it off and put it off, I finally relented today and went off with her and Sophie to the Christian West Bank village of Taybeh, just north of Ramallah, to visit this amazing micro-brewery . It was the first time in 9 years I've ventured deep into Palestine, and I must say that my Israeli hosts seriously advised against it. For them, this is hostile enemy territory -- the last 9 years have been devoted to separating Israel from Palestine not only physically but also psychologically. In their minds, what I did today was insane, immature, and irresponsible -- but most importantly, dangerous. Indeed, today at an Israel checkpoint in the southern West Bank a 30 year-old Palestinian man brandishing a knife reportedly lunged at an Israeli soldier, and was shot to death. Something like that could conceivably have happened just as easily at one of the 5 checkpoints I had to traverse today (though no one left their car or truck). But I am convinced that I cannot possibly talk or teach about the Arab-Israeli conflict with any credibility or self-respect without crossing over to the other side. And the truth is, the way that Israel has cantonized the West Bank, I barely crossed to the other side. On the main highways of the West Bank, the Israeli yellow license plate rules the roads, many of which are laid out to allow Israelis to traverse the West Bank without traveling through or near Palestinian towns. For the first time in my 2 months here, I finally saw the formerly familiar green license plates of Palestine. At one entry checkpoint, we were separated by license plates....those of us with Israeli plates were sent right through on a separate lane. Those with green were sent aside to await inspection, if only identity papers.

We ended picking the long route to Taybeh, going out towards the West Bank on the 5 freeway. East of Rosh ha-Ayin, we hit our first road barrier, but were waved right through. On either side of the road were high fences topped with barbed-wire; the notorious security barrier at this point was nothing more than that, with constant patrols. Just a bit before Ariel, 5 quit being a highway and became a decent 2-lane inter-urban road, the 505. At Ariel, a West Bank Israeli settlement (?) of over 18,000 people that is easily 20 km beyond the former green line, we fueled up. At the Tapuach checkpoint we were divided by license plates, and then went south on the 60. Whenever we passed by an Israeli settlement, Israel flags were affixed to lightpoles as if we were in Jerusalem. Finally at Ofra, we turned onto what our map said was the northern entrance to Taybeh via the 449 road; we barely got a km when we came to a closed gate, and an Israeli soldier (wearing dental braces -- if he were 19 I'd be surprised) told us that we could not got to Taybeh this way. So we continued down 60 until we found the southern route into Taybeh. The Israeli road map told us not to traverse the entry road to Taybeh without Israeli Army escort -- and I have to admit that this gave me the creeps. Turns out that Israeli citizens are not permitted by Israeli law into what is called Area A, and while residents of Taybeh insist they are in Area C, the IDF treats it as A. At the intersection leading to the road to Taybeh, there was an IDF camp, but no soldiers could be seen. There were big signs in white letters on red background at the entrance to the road leading to Taybeh warning Israeli citizens to not go any further. We drove on.

It was easy finding the Taybeh Brewing Co. and we were greeted by brewmaster Nadim Khoury with an unusual kind of Middle Eastern hospitality -- instead of a cup of Turkish coffee, we were offered a taste of delicious Taybeh Amber. Nadim lived for years in the 70's and 80's in Brookline, MA, and as a college student in business administration he did what most college students do -- he home brewed. Eventually it became an obsession, and he went to study the process, and when the Oslo peace process promised a bright future, he was one of many ex-patriot sons and daughters of Palestine who decided to return and make a living and thereby produce a unique Palestinian product: alcoholic beer. The company's tagline? "Drink Palestinian: Taste the Revolution." Cute.

Others have told the story better than I. Articles have been written around the world about Nadim and his dream (see this NYT article from 1996). All I can say is that he was totally gracious and friendly towards us, and thoroughly professional in his approach to brewing. Having been to Scotland last year to visit whiskey distilleries, I was excited to see my first beer brewery, insofar as the first step in making malt whiskey is exactly the same as the malt beer process. Nadim Khoury follows the German 1516 purity law for beer, and his beer -- which these days (since the 2nd intifada) is hard to find in many Israeli establishments -- has no preservatives and like most micro-brews, is best drunk soon after bottling. He is excited about introducing a non-alcoholic beer to the local market, particularly now that famous Egyptian cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi has ruled that it is permitted to drink non-alcoholic beer. There is even a Facebook group devoted to the beer.

Taybeh is one of the only all-Christian villages in the West Bank. In fact, it might be the only one. Church spires, not minarets, dot its skyline. Israeli Jewish settlements are off in the distance on three of its sides. It seems to be an island of Christianity in a sea of crashing Muslim and Jewish waves. And yes, there is an Octoberfest celebration sponsored by Taybeh Brewing Co. every year since 2005 (though last year it was held in September so as not to conflict with Ramadan). Sadly, I won't be around this October.

We left Taybeh with a case of beer and other mementos, and when we got to the end of the 2 km entry road, where the 2 red signs stood, the IDF soldiers had come out of their camp to run a spot checkpoint. This time there was a very slowly moving queue of cars and trucks. When we inched up towards the barricades, a young Israeli soldier signalled I think for me to stop over 30 meters short of the forward water tanker whose driver was being inspected. Apparently, I failed to react fast enough for his 19 year-old tastes, and so he unshouldered his automatic weapon and aimed it straight at me. Is running a checkpoint outside a Christian village so dangerous that you have to level a gun at a rental car carrying 3 Jews and a case of beer? In my entire time on the occupied West Bank -- where I was warned by Israelis that a Palestinian kid might throw a rock at my car; a Palestinian sniper might shoot at my car; a Palestinian terrorist might slit my throat -- the only time I faced anything remotely threatening, if only with gestures, was by an Israeli soldier. What an irony: some bored punk stuck in a shit job (sitting on this intersection leading to an all-Christian village), possibly rattled because an incident had occurred somewhere else on the West Bank earlier in the day, didn't hesitate for a second and pointed an automatic assault rifle at me. Fuck him.