Tuesday, May 13, 2008
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
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
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.
Sunday, May 04, 2008
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...