Monday, December 28, 2009

Thinking About Airline Security

The decade that began with 9/11 ends with the near-miss of 12/25. Paul Krugman called this decade today in the New York Times the "Big Zero," the decade we accomplished nothing and learned nothing. He was talking about the economy, but it applies to other things as well. When it comes to terrorism and air travel, it certainly has been the "Big Zero" decade. We haven't learned a thing.

I flew back from Israel on December 22, 3 days before the latest Christmas Day fizzled attack on a Northwest/Delta Airbus 330 as it was descending towards the Detroit airport. On December 22, I flew on a Delta flight. Before I ever entered the plane at Ben Gurion Airport, I was subjected to 9 distinct security measures. I knew, as do all air travellers leaving Israel, that I needed to arrive at the airport security line 3 hours before departure time. So here is what happened: (1) My taxi was stopped at a fixed security checkpoint more than a mile out from the airport. (2) I was eyeballed by a security officer as I walked towards the main entrance of the departure hall. (3) I was pre-screened by a verbal question and sent into a line of other passengers. (4) I was then verbally interviewed by a security officer who examined my passport, my boarding pass, and asked me questions about why I was in Israel, how it was that I spoke Hebrew, who invited me to conduct business in Israel, where I -- once it was apparent I was a Hebrew-speaking American Jew -- prayed in the United States, what my family ties to Israel were, where I stayed, who my friends in Israel are, if I had packed my own case, if I was taking any gifts. (5) My checked luggage was then x-rayed. Because of my answers, I was allowed to skip a hand inspection of the contents of my checked and carry-on luggage (we won't count that). After checking my luggage at the flight desk, (6) my papers were again examined, and (7) I then had my carry on pieces x-rayed and I passed through a magnetometer. The magnetometer went off, and (8) I was then directed to stand on some unusual electrified platform for a few seconds, and only then was I permitted to gather my carry-on and waved through. Let's not count passport control as a security measure (though it is). All this took 90 minutes. I had 30 minutes to visit duty free. Boarding began 1 hour before departure time. At the gate, (9) I was again subjected to a complete x-ray of my carry-on luggage and then subjected to another magnetometer. That lead to the jetway and to the plane. And remember -- because of my answers, I skipped through at least 2 further security layers: a hand inspection of my luggage contents and a body search (I've had both in the past).

Eight days earlier, I flew a Delta flight to Israel from JFK. I was subjected to 4 security measures. (1) My checked luggage was subjected out of my view to an x-ray scan. (2) I had my passport and boarding pass quickly eyeballed by a TSA officer. (3) I then went through a magnetometer while my carry-on was scanned. (4) Because I was flying to Israel, there was a secondary magnetometer and x-ray of my carry-on luggage conducted by bored and apathetic private security personnel at the gate (hired by an airline that is so penny-pinching that it charges $6 for an onboard snack in coach domestic flight). For most flights, that security check at the gate is not performed. No one asked me a question. Not a one.

It doesn't take much brainpower to figure out what is wrong with this picture. The key is the verbal interview. A trained interviewer needs to ask certain intrusive and pointed questions. And based on those answers, certain other questions should be posed. If anything is wrong, keep asking questions, submit luggage to hand inspection, do a body search with a wand or with your hands. And that is something that simply will not be done in these United States. Imagine for a second: ask someone named Umar Farouq Abdalmutallab a few questions. Observe his answers and his demeanor. Have a computer on hand connected to a database of 550,000 names on it. Check his or her name if you have any hesitations about sending him on to his next step. Do this for every single passenger. Profile passengers. Travelling alone? Have an Arabic or Muslim name? Are you a citizen of some country known for terrorist inculcation? (I don't mean the usual suspects -- I also mean Britain.) What is your religious beliefs, if any? Who are your friends?

But we will not see these practices in these United States. "Privacy issues." "Civil rights." "Overly intrusive." But the real issue is the manpower and cost it would take to provide real security for the US air transportation system, which is magnitudes greater than the passenger totals of a single small country's single international airport. Instead we have an understaffed TSA putting passengers through a charade of meaningless procedures which do not actually provide security, but rather dispenses a psychological calming effect to the travelling public.

Rather than ask a question or use professional profiling techniques, the air transportation system responds with palliative demonstrations of faux dynamic response to a heightened sense of insecurity. We now have to sit in our seats without a blanket, have entertainment systems altered to disable GPS maps, time our bathroom trips so we don't spend too much time in the lavatory, and reduce our carry-on belongings. In other words, use the same stupid methods inaugurated in late 2001: subject everyone to ineffective "security measures" because no one will dare ask a passenger a question. This passive security system -- no forward questions, no profiling -- has failed again and again. Until there is a fundamental change in the way the TSA approaches air transportation security, we will never find a solution to the scourge of our modern, hate-filled times.

What a joke.

My first year using an iPhone: Favorite Apps

As 2009 rolls away, I thought I'd take a moment to share with probably no one what I've come to enjoy most on my iPhone 3G, purchased in January of this year. In other words, yet another list of "my favorite apps" to clog up the Internet. In the past 11 months I've installed and removed dozens of apps, but these are the ones that I use almost every day.

First things first: you would be a fool not to jailbreak your phone. Only 10% of the customer base does so, but it is a no-brainer. There are easier and harder ways to do this, and if you are not tech savvy you might find it difficult. Always a struggle when Apple issues a software upgrade (so resist the temptation to upgrade your phone's software whenever the opportunity arises - wait until DevTeam gives the all clear), but the JB community has managed to keep up so far.

If you are already running iPhone OS 3.1.2 and have a Windows PC, here are clear instructions for jailbreaking your phone, from Redmond Pie, a great site by Taimur Asad, a student at Bahria University in Pakistan.

Having said that, here is what I have found to be my everyday essentials (just Google for more info):

1. (JB) OpenHebrew3. Made by Tom Zickel, an undergrad at the Technion, it is the perfect way to make an iPhone handle Hebrew, long before the iPhone was introduced (just this month) to the Israeli market. Still the best.
2. (JB) Ultrasn0w. This is already a bit outdated, but it is how I achieve "unlock" status on my slightly dated baseband. Be careful here! If your baseband has been updated along with 3.1.2, you might not be able to use this trick. Instead you will need something called (JB) Blacksn0w. Unlocks the phone so you can pop in a GSM chip from any provider. Most local telcoms sell pay-as-you go chips. Essential for international travel and getting cheap local rates. OK, I don't use this every day, but whenever I am overseas, it is essential.
3. ($) News Feed Elite. A great aggregator of news sources, very customizable.
4. Skype. Only works out of the box in Wifi environments, but with (JB) VoIPover3G will work in 3G-land also.
5. ($$$) Slingplayer. $40 well spent. Same as Skype, designed by AT&T to work only in Wifi, but with (JB) VoIPover3G will work under 3G. Of course, you need a SlingBox connected to your cable box at home. But once you have it all set up, watch your home TV ANYWHERE!
6. (JB) VoIPover3G. Requires going into the guts of the phone with SSH (abbreviation for Secure SHell; get [JB] OpenSSH), but it damn works!
7. ($) Tweetie. Best twitter app I've come across.
8. ($) WhiteNoise. Great way to go to sleep. Pick your sound, from crickets to waves on the beach to white noise. Also a free lite version, less sounds.
9. (JB) Backgrounder. Allows apps to run in the background. Combined with (JB) ProSwitcher and you have a Palm-Pre style quick application jumper. Can be a real battery drainer if you aren't careful.
10. ($$) WorldMate Gold. Expensive but useful way to keep track of all your trips, flights, hotels, car rentals.
11. Shazam. What the hell is that song? Run this app while the music is playing, and it will go out and get you all the details.
12. ($) Missile Command. Favorite game from grad school, rendered nicely.
13. ($) HebrewBible. The whole Hebrew Tanakh, searchable. Also includes Siddur.
14. ($) TopDictionaries Hebrew<->English Translator. $10, but the best dictionary out there. Uses its own keyboard inside the app.
15. Wikipanion. Nice gateway into Wikipedia. Great way to settle disagreements about facts.
16. ($) PocketTouch. $.99. Nice gesture-based way to flip through songs. Great in the car or (I am told) while exercising. It was better as a JB app, but the developer went legit.
17. Sportacular. Great way to stay current on sports scores, pushes game updates.
18. (JB) BossPrefs and (JB) SBSettings. Install in that order. Great way to gain control of the phone's settings quickly.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

India at the White House

It's been really interesting to follow the media coverage of the security breach that occurred last night at the first White House State Dinner of the Obama administration. Two reality-TV wannabes walked through a Secret Service security checkpoint and had their pictures taken with Katie Couric, Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel, and the Vice President of the United States, Joe Biden. I kid you not. The couple - who are being looked at by a production company for a new Bravo-TV series "The Real Housewives of Washigton, DC" - even posted their pictures on Facebook! The story is dominating the American media tonight, but one is hard pressed to find more than a single mention of this embarrassing diplomatic and security Keystone Kops amateurism in all of the Indian media. What an international embarrassment!
CNN yesterday made a big deal of the fact that Jennifer Hudson would be performing a quartet of "American standards." Ho hum. Of far greater importance was that A. R. Rahman performed (he too was photographed in a joint shoot with the party crashers). For Harold & Kumar fans, our old onscreen stoner buddy Kal Penn was "in the House." Jai Ho!

Monday, November 23, 2009

Bad rabbis

Take a look at the article I wrote, just published in my colleague Silk's Religion in the News. The article is entitled "Airing the Syrian Laundry."

Friday, November 13, 2009

The Flood: 2012 Movie Review

Roland Emmerich's latest disaster movie "2012" opened today, and -- nerd that I am -- I relived some of my happier midnight showing escapades (various Star Trek, Star Wars, and Matrix movies) last night by going to the 12:01 am showing. Fortunately it was in the large Odyssey theater, so the screen was gigantic and the 15,000 watts of sound was crystalline. The movie clocks in at a whopping 2 hours and 38 minutes, and reportedly cost Sony Pictures $260 million to make. Order the large popcorn, and make sure to get a refill during one of the predictably dull exposition scenes that pock the movie every 15 minutes or so.
I like most of Emmerich's stuff. I like end of the world movies, and the genres are endless. There are the nuclear war movies; the alien movies; the natural disaster movies, even the evangelical Christian movies. Emmerich has done some of the best. He tells stories well and has the vision to concoct fantastic special effects. It's always entertaining.
This new movie is no different. It was entertaining. But it wasn't very good. The reason I walk away from the movie with such ambivalence is that on the one hand it delivered the goods; but on the other hand it was an exercise in derivative conceits and winks. It broke new ground visually and it was totalistic in its vision; and at the same time it felt tiresome and uninspired.
All the tricks and plot lines of the genre were out in full force. Most of the acting was believable and convincing (save for Danny Glover's wooden performance as the last President of the United States), and the story moved from Act to Act at a reasonable pace. But nothing any of the actors did or said was intriguing or worth remembering. All that mattered was the CGI.
One thing I could not get out of my head: how could people use cell phones as all the world's infrastructure was blown away? The cell networks are the first thing to go. But there we are with everyone jabbering away on what seemd to be the exact same phone. Product placements abounded: Bentley got a shout out, and it was no surprise that every scientist seemed to have a SONY VAIO laptop. Just more creative financing for a quarter of a billion dollar movie.
In the end, the movie is a fantasy-day flood epic, giraffes and all (though like all things today, the ark is "Made in China" -- not in Mesopotamia). It doesn't rain for 40 days and 40 nights, but there's even a character named Noah. None of it makes any sense.
Bottom line: it's not worth the $12 (.000000046 of $260,000,000). Watch the free trailer, and wait for the BluRay rental, or the torrent. That way, with a good remote, you can treat it like porn (which it is): skip through the crap, and reduce 158 minutes of tedium to 40 minutes of fun.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

A Serious Man, A Serious Movie

Let's get the important stuff out of the way. A Serious Man is good; but it ain't up there with Fargo and The Big Lebowski. It's right around No Country for Old Men. A solid three on the Coen brothers' pantheon of great movies.

That's not to say that this new movie will not become my most often-watched Coen brothers' film. How could it ever be otherwise? The movie captures in an inviting and wondrous way part of my own childhood. I was born the same year as Joel Coen in St. Louis Park, Minnesota. I attended and was bar mitzvahed in the very synagogue used in the movie for interior shots. I sat on the same Talmud Torah buses, and had the same teachers and principal in TT as they both did. So I will forever be captivated by this movie, insofar as it serves as that very rare public artifact that speaks intimately to my own life memories.

But beyond these unusual attachments, as a professor of Jewish Studies and as an occasional blog-only film critic, I want to say something more about the movie. This cinematic rendering of the biblical Book of Job has quite a bit to offer the film goer. This is not the first time the Coen brothers have tackled a Western classic by way of film: O Brother, Where art Thou? (2000) was a glorious retelling of Homer's The Odyssey, set in the 1930s. A Serious Man is a dark and playful representation on film of an infinitely more dark and playful God.

The opening quote from the medieval sage Rashi - "receive in simplicity everything that happens to you" (from his commentary to Deuteronomy 18:13) - is then followed by a 10-minute bubbeh maiseh (grandmother's tale), appropriately acted out in Yiddish with subtitles. Take that, Mel Gibson with your phony Aramaic dialogue! Here's the real deal - a chance for 3 fine Yiddish-speaking actors (Allan Lewis Rickman, Yelena Shmulenson, and the incomparable Fyvush Finkel) to ham it up, telling the tale of a dybbuk, a possessed spirit of the dead Reb Groshkover. To the horror of her husband, who doubts that Reb Groshkover is a dybbuk, a wife takes matters into her own hands and plants an icepick in the heart of Reb Groshkover. For a moment the wife is vindicated, as no blood emerges from the wound and the rabbi prattles on. But then the dybbuk (?) bleeds and weakens, he takes leave of the couple's house and stumbles off into the howling wind. The husband is convinced her wife has murdered a fellow Jew - "We are ruined...all is lost" - the wife looks out the open door into the wind and with equal conviction says: "Blessed is the Lord. Good riddance to all evil."

After the prologue's blackout, we are transported to the Upper Midwest to 1967, and to a collection of suburban Jews. We meet Professor Larry Gopnik (played by Michael Stuhlbarg) and his family, and almost from the moment we are introduced to the players trouble ensues. Gopnik's wife and her lover seek to manipulate Gopnik into a divorce he doesn't want, despite his wife's infidelities. His career may be in shambles. His puss-bearing ne'er-do-well brother (played by Richard Kind) lives on the couch, and later in the motel room after he has been thrown out of the house, on the next bed over. Gopnik seeks out the wisdom of three wise men, three rabbis each more senior than the next. None provide solace, though one tells a fantastic extended Jewish story about magical teeth, all to serve up a classic Jewish joke.

The only bright spot in Gopnik's miserable life is his son Danny (Aaron Wolff), whose bar mitzvah ceremony provides the modern-day Job with a moment of contentment and nachas. While Gopnik himself receives no worthy answer from the three rabbis, the most senior of the rabbis has some bar mitzvah advice (drawn from the soundtrack's theme song) for Danny:

"When the truth is found. To be lies.
And all the hope within you dies....."
Then what?

Things even look up for Gopnik when pressures at work begin to disappear. But God is testing Gopnik, and when the pressure becomes too great, and the debts too overwhelming, Gopnik snaps and in a moment of weakness commits a trespass against the norms he has set for himself in his desire to be a good (aka "serious") man. And with that, God indeed provides his dark and playful answer.

There are laugh-out-loud funny moments in the movie. When an older man lifts the Torah scroll in synagogue and wavers slightly under the load, he grimaces out a curse under his breath. A sacred space of Jewish ceremonialism in the heart of the Upper Midwest, and a congregation member - so thoroughly acculturated in the mannerisms of his good neighbors - blurts out the expletive of "Jesus Christ." Perfect.

The Jews of Minnesota - we might call them "the Chosen Frozen" - are people who try to do the right thing. They are haunted by their burdensome past, and by their sardonic God, and yet they try to methodically live out their lives as menschen. We were taught to "receive in simplicity all that happens to you." No one told us what to do or think "when the truth is found to be lies, and all the hope within you dies." The world is a bit more complex than the idyllic suburban lifestyle our parents tried to create for us in St. Louis Park, MN. Modeled on Norwegian and Lutheran values, suburban Minneapolis was a cheerful and simple place and time. But that fantasy world of idyllic Midwestern suburbs gave way to a complicated life of travail and compromise. Is it any surprise that the Coen brothers - masters of the jaundiced eye - would be any less relentless when engaging the story of Job and the God on high who plays darkly with his creatures below?

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Rolling Obama

A day after the empty photo-op between President Barack Obama, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, and West Bank President Mahmoud Abbas at the UN, and the Israelis are clucking that they are "satisfied" with the outcome. And why not? Obama put on his stern face, chided the two sides for failing to bridge their differences, used the verb "restrain" instead of "suspend" with reference to the settlements, and instructed both sides to send emissaries to Washington to continue the pre-talk talks. From Netanyahu's perspective, this outcome was a victory. Pressed by US special envoy George Mitchell right up to the eve of Rosh ha-Shana to announce a suspension of settlement construction in Israeli-occupied territories, Netanyahu just said no, and even so got to meet Obama in a testy meeting in New York. For his part, Abbas stood firm on his demands, and still got a meeting with Obama. OK, the two adversaries had to shake hands for the cameras with Obama looking on - but we've seen frustrated American presidents supervise such meaningless gestures in the past.
Middle East leaders watch the same cable news organs and read the same newspapers we do. They see that President Obama can be rolled by Republican senators over his domestic agenda. Even with a 60-seat majority in the Senate, the Democratic president seems constitutionally incapable of pushing through on his own with health care reform. Obama's calm, take-it-slow chase after "bipartisan" concurrence; his abdication of the role of chief executive in favor of legislative proceduralism; and his quixotic pursuit of an elusive congressional consensus have resulted in nothing more than Beltway gridlock. Deadlines pass, arguments fester, and nothing gets done.
Netanyahu understands all this, and figured quite simply that if the weak Republicans can smack down the stall on Obama over health care, he can do no less on behalf of his domestic voters over Israeli settlements.
Message to world leaders, broadcast every day throughout the world: there is no apparent downside to saying no to Barack Obama. This president can be rolled.

Monday, July 20, 2009

The Last Straw, Continued

So sometime today the OU (the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America) issued a statement regretting what it calls the "unauthorized link" to the OU in the booklet entitled "From Two Sides of the Border" (see previous post). This fabricated concoction of accusations was distributed for months by the IDF to its soldiers, and was apparently approved by someone in the Israel office of the OU. " has been ascertained that this endorsement was made by staff at the OU’s Israel branch office, and was never submitted to, nor approved by, senior Orthodox Union management." Here's the oldest damage control trick in the PR book: compartmentalization. Then the OU statement goes on to conclude: "The Orthodox Union expresses its sincere regret to those of other faiths who may have been embarrassed or offended by the publication of this work." Oy vey!

This lame rescinding of endorsement of the booklet by the OU is beyond disappointing. It is appalling. Is it inconceivable to the wise men of the OU that just possibly someone of their OWN FAITH might be embarrased or offended by the publication of this work?

Can someone say "tone deaf"?

Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Last Straw

I've been struggling for the last few years with my continued membership in an Orthodox synagogue here in Hartford. There is absolutely nothing bad about my synagogue: I literally love my Rabbi, and enjoy the company of my fellow congregants, many of whom are personal and lovely friends. Of all the Orthodox synagogues in town, this one is closest to my less-than-absolute engagement with the halakhic tradition. There is no doubt that politically I am far to the left of most of my fellow shul-goers, and I've always had the feeling that while there are profound disagreements with my political stands, my politics and presence are not only tolerated, but actually sought out. On the local level, I am reminded of a quote attributed to the great 20th century Jewish philosopher Martin Buber: "I pray with people I can't talk with, and I talk with people I can't pray with." This quote only partly applies to my synagogue, but I am certain that it would be more so the case were I a member of one of the more right-wing Orthodox synagogues in my town.

Two things happened to me last year that shook my ongoing half-assed membership in an Orthodox synagogue, and neither had a thing to do with my synagogue. First, I spent 2-1/2 months on sabbatical in Tel Aviv, surrounded by sabra friends and colleagues from Tel Aviv University, the bastion of secular Israeli elite culture. I discovered that I had more in common with what I have termed "secular-knowledgeable" Israelis than I do with "religiously committed" American Jews. By "secular-knowledgeable" I mean intellectually curious human beings who have a deep and abiding interest in Jewish history and Jewish texts of all ages and provenances, who take these texts seriously, and use them to construct a progressive and humane worldview. I don't think I'll find very many "secular-knowledgeable" American Jews here in Hartford, certainly not amongst the Conservative and Reform synagogues in town. When I returned to Hartford after my sabbatical, I sat down with my beloved rabbi and told him of this new recognition of affinity with "secular-knowledgeable" Israeli culture. I looked him in the eye: "Rabbi, I've come to realize I am not Orthodox." His answer, said with a knowing smile, was perfect: "We've known that for years!" It was the perfect answer to hear in the moment, for it conveyed what I enjoyed most about my synagogue and my rabbi -- "We accept you and your craziness just the way it is. No pressure, no judgmentalism -- just keep hanging in there." And so despite my pronouncement, I made no effort to leave my shul.

Then came the Postville, Iowa, kashrut scandal. I wrote a piece for Religion in the News about the May 2008 ICE raid at the Agriprocessors kosher slaughtering plant and its aftermath. As a result of my research, I came away deeply troubled by the application of kashrut in modern consumer culture. Back in 2004, I had watched online the videos of the slaughtering of animals which had been surreptitiously recorded by PETA activists. For more than 2 decades I had taught in my courses that kosher slaughter was somehow humane and caused minimal pain to the animals, because that was what Jewish apologists uniformly reported. The PETA tapes showed something altogether different. I was dismayed but ultimately unsurprised when national rabbis from the Orthodox OU defended Agriprocessors. I had quit keeping kosher out of the house a long time before 2004, but the cumulative effect of the Postville story caused me to question why I should continue the effort in my kitchen any longer.

Habits die slowly. Neither of these 2 events caused me to give up on my synagogue. I have barely attended synagogue this past year, but I still imagined that this Orthodox synagogue, a member-in-good-standing of the national Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations, was still my Jewish home.

This morning however my Twitter application delivered what for me is the last straw. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz published a story today entitled "Vatican teaching Hezbollah how to kill Jews, says pamphlet for IDF troops." The news article explains how a pamphlet has been distributed to thousands of Israeli soldiers by the IDF which is a supposed eyewitness account of a former Hezbollah senior operative who has converted to Judaism. The story has been circulating on Habad and American Orthodox websites for months. This supposed convert claims that the Vatican sends Hezbollah emissaries to Poland so they may look at Auschwitz and learn how to kill Jews. Says the pamphlet: "Every real Arab, deep inside, is kind of a fan of the Nazis." The article further explains that the IDF has now suspended distribution of the pamphlet. Go read the article for yourself.

But here is the kicker: Who paid for this piece of drivel, distributed by the IDF itself to its own soldiers? The Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America (the selfsame OU), the national umbrella synagogue group to which my synagogue belongs.

I know that my rabbi and most of my friends at shul would never knowingly participate in the funding of such a racist and fabricated piece of shit. But I can no longer live with the fact that the synagogue I am a member of is aligned, even through the indirect means of "belonging" to this Union, with a document that encourages Israeli soldiers (young, uneducated teenagers with automatic weapons) to see the world in this kind of perverted, demonic fashion.

With deep sadness for the bonds of friendship I will be severing, a letter of resignation from my synagogue will be going out later today.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Using my iPhone in Israel

[Sept. 12, 2010: I've been blogging for almost 5 years about all sorts of things, and no post has received more hits than this one I wrote in June, 2009, about how I figured out how to use my US-based iPhone in Israel without having to use ATT's ridiculously expensive international plan. For some reason, when people type in the Google phrase "use iPhone in Israel" this 2009 post gets placed very high on the results list - hence all the visits. I've since updated this original post 4 or 5 times (the last time was on August 26, 2010), and I recommend that if you have stumbled on this post you should read it in its entirety for history and background. This post is valid still, and I will try not to repeat information as I continue to add to it. Essentially, depending on which iPhone you have (3G, 3Gs, or 4), and then again depending on which version of the phone's software you are running, and finally depending on which "baseband" you are using, there is probably a solution for you.]

(For folks who want the latest info on the iPhone 4 specifically, scroll down to the last couple of updates [starting with UPDATE 3, dated August 4, 2010] in this posting; also, most recently, look here)

This is a nerdy blog post coming up.

I am pleased as all get out to report that I have been using my iPhone 3G here in Israel with nary a glitch. No, I am not paying through the proverbial nose by using AT&T's partnership with local providers and thus I am avoiding phone calls costing $1.60 per minute. I actually am using an Orange (Israel) Big Talk SIM card in my phone, the same pay-as-you-go (sometimes known as PAYG) card I've been using for the last few years in an old-style beaten-up "universal" phone, which I can now toss out. Now the main feature I am missing on my iPhone is 3G data connectivity, but that is easily compensated for whenever I walk into a wi-fi reception zone, which abound in Tel Aviv.

I first saw this set-up last year when I was here in Israel on sabbatical, and met some native IT workers brandishing their iPhones-on-Orange-network here in a country that still as of today does not have an authorized seller of iPhones (though that will be changing very soon). In the intervening year since my sabbatical I bought a 3G phone, and then jailbroke it and unlocked it so that I too could saunter around Israel with an iPhone. To "jailbreak" is to alter (read: increase) access to the phone's operating system and perform modifications on the phone not allowed by Apple and its monopolistic app store. To "unlock" a phone is to render the iPhone into a universal multi-band GSM phone. And it works perfectly. A few provisos: I could not upgrade my phone firmware any higher than 2.2 (right now 2.2.1 is the standard, and on Friday 3.0 will be released). I also can't use a baseband other than the somewhat antiquated 2.28.00, so my iPhone is a bit behind the curve, but what I lose in version envy I make up in usable functionality. I won't be upgrading to 3.0 until the dev-team (the folks who do all this interesting hacking) perfects the jailbreak and the new unlocking software, to be called "ultraSn0w."

That the 3.0 firmware will soon be broken and unlocked is due to a group of dedicated programmer/hackers (dev-team), some based here in Israel, who are engaged in a daily struggle with Apple over the artificial limits that Apple puts on its phone software. I've randomly asked dozens of iPhone users I know in the States whether they have "jailbreaked" and it seems like I am the only one who has done so. But let me tell you -- having a working iPhone in Israel is a great thing and still produces an "oh, wow" reaction from locals.

UPDATE 1: December 2009: Ran jailbroken OS 3.1.2, unlocked on baseband 04.26.08 (one iteration behind the current baseband), and everything went well once again like a charm.

UPDATE 2: March 2010: In England for a week and bought a PAYG Orange SIM for my iPhone for 10 BP and picked the dolphin plan for internet and data. Worked perfect! Got 3G reception all over London and in Oxford. Cool!

UPDATE 3: August 4, 2010: Now that I have an iPhone 4, I awaited the new jailbreak (which came out in late July, just days after a Federal court ruled that jailbreaking is not illegal, as Apple had contended), and as of early this morning, the release of ultrasn0w 1.0-1, which unlocks the iPhone 4 running iOS 4.0.1 as well as the completely redesigned baseband. Here is a link to a complete step-by-step guide. Now all I will need is a a cool SIM cutter, which cuts my "old" BigTalk SIM card from Orange Israel down to the iPhone 4's new micro-SIM size. 

Whatever you do, do it quickly. Apple is going to soon release an update of the iPhone software that will close the backdoor which allows the phone to be easily jailbroken by simply pointing your Safari browser to a specific website (as specified in the step-by-step). Once Apple closes this "vulnerability" it may take the jailbreakers a bit of time to find the next vulnerability in the operating system.

Everything you need to jailbreak and unlock an iPhone is available as of today (August 4), but hurry up! The give-and-take between the hackers and Apple is always in flux, and the solution of today may not necessarily be the solution of tomorrow. And remember! Once you jailbreak, never upgrade your firmware or your iTunes program on your PC or Mac until the jailbreakers give the "all clear." 

UPDATE 4: August 26, 2010: 2 developments:

1) I got a SIM to micro-SIM cutting tool from which was drop-shipped from a factory in China. I think the total cost was something like $15. I cut both my Orange UK and Orange Israel SIM cards using the tool and they both worked perfectly in my unlocked iPhone 4 using iOS 4.0.1. 

I've looked at the web sites of the 2 main GSM providers in Israel (Orange & Celcom) to see if either offer a micro-SIM PAYG card, and I also checked the major Hebrew language chat board devoted to the iPhone in Israel ( and while I can confirm that micro-SIM cards are sold by both companies (after all, once the iPad was marketed in Israel, micro-SIMs became a necessity), neither company seems to market yet a PAYG micro-SIM. Most of the Israeli forum participants also discuss exactly what I am suggesting: cut your SIM down to micro-SIM size with a cutting tool. 

Which brings me to point 2:

2) The dev-team has announced that they will not be providing a jailbreak for the latest iOS, numbered 4.0.2. In the cat-and-mouse game between Apple and the jailbreakers, the decsion has been made by the hackers not to play this round. This is understandable, because the only reason Apple released 4.0.2 was to close out the security "leak" which the jailbreakers had found in earlier iOS's whereby one could jailbreak over the web. The hackers don't want to "waste" an exploit (you can be certain they know other ways to get into the guts of the iPhone operating system) on a trivial upgrade. Which means that if you go out and buy a brand new iPhone 4 pre-loaded with 4.0.2 (which is the case now), you are shit out of luck, because no one I have seen has come up with a way to downgrade a brand new US iPhone 4 pre-installed with 4.0.2 back to 4.0.1. You'll probably have to wait until Apple unleashes an iOS that actually offers tangible improvements (dubbed iOS 4.1 - due out Sept. 8) and the dev-team produces a jailbreak. If you have a 3G or 3GS right now it is not a problem to jailbreak iOS 4.0.2, but you have to use a different method than the OTA (over-the-air) solution unveiled in late July. ha-mevin yavin.

UPDATE 5: Sept. 26: I'm still stuck on jailbroken iOS 4.0.1, even as iOS 4.1 has been widely deployed and Apple has announced that iOS 4.2 is on the way in November. The dev-team simply hasn't released its new jailbreak yet; but rumors on the net suggest it is a matter of days or weeks before the jailbreak for 4.1 is issued. Also, Apple released a new version of iTunes this week, numbered 10.0.1, and according to the experts, it is "jailbreak safe." But avoid all the web sites that offer a jailbreak for you iPhone for money. These are malicious sites. 

For us iPhone 4 "unlockers" (people who jailbreak primarily so they can unlock) there may be a further complication - the baseband (the software running the actual phone component of the device) needs to be manageable by the unlocking software, and the simple fact that a JB might soon be available for iOS 4.1 does not guarantee that an unlock will be available. The baseband of 4.1 is different than 4.0.1, and currently unlockable. Remember: Jailbreaking is one thing; unlocking is another. So stay tuned...

UPDATE 6: October 10, 2010: Today on 10/10/10 a long-awaited jailbreak exploit "dropped." The jailbreak for the iPhone 4 running iOS 4.1 came from a surprising source (someone who a few months ago announced he was "out of the business"), is officially named LimeRa1n, and early reports indicate that the system is a touch buggy (there have already been 3 updates to the software today). Most importantly, there is no known method in the jailbreaking software to "hold" the baseband at an unlocakable version. So even though with great fanfare there is now a workable jailbreak for the iPhone 4 running 4.1, I still say "WAIT"!

I've posted a new entry over here, continuing the saga. 

Saturday, June 06, 2009

A silly response to Obama's speech

Tonight I received an e-mail from a member of my synagogue, with the subject heading: "Something that we can all agree on re Obama speech". I'm pretty sure he sent out to a wide network of recipients.

Here is the e-mail:

Shavua tov!

From Saturday's NY Times letters:

To the Editor:

In President Obama’s push for Mideast peace, one key unasked question is: Can the Islamic world accept a non-Muslim state in the middle of an Arab-dominated region? If the answer is no, then all negotiated agreements are nothing more than subterfuge.

Howard Schwartz
Englewood, N.J., June 5, 2009

I wrote back to my friend:

The simple answer to this question is: yes, the Arab world can accept a non-Muslim state in the middle of an Arab-dominated region. Parts of the Arab world already have -- Israel has formal peace treaties and diplomatic relations with Egypt and Jordan, diplomatic relations with Turkey, informal diplomatic contacts with Morocco and a few Gulf states, and recognition by the Palestinian Authority. The letter poses a silly question of slight rhetorical impact to a certain predisposed audience, but the question is totally and factually misleading. The Saudi/Arab League Peace Proposal of 2002 and 2007 states unequivocally that in exchange for a full Israeli withdrawal, a just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem, and the creation of a Palestinian state in all the lands that Israel conquered in 1967:

"the Arab countries affirm the following:

I- Consider the Arab-Israeli conflict ended, and enter into a peace agreement with Israel, and provide security for all the states of the region.
II- Establish normal relations with Israel in the context of this comprehensive peace."

The conditions for such recognition are utterly unacceptable to Israel, but the Saudi/Arab League Proposal in theory is a clear statement that the Arab world can accept a non-Muslim state in its midst.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Obama in Cairo

Oh, it has been a long time. But the summer is here, work is over for a while, and I'll be leaving soon to visit Israel. So the time has come to re-ignite the blog. For the 3 people who read this, welcome back!

This weekend I'm going to speak at Trinity for a few minutes about President Barack Obama's historic speech to the Muslim world which he delivered on June 4 in Cairo at Cairo University. I've watched the video of the speech, and I've looked briefly at the transcript (including the official Arabic translation posted on the web site).

Let me say right off the bat: in principle, I've got no problem with the Obama administration's new approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict. It's more an issue of unfortunate timing. It is fairly clear that the new Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu is going to use every diplomatic trick in the book to forestall the new forceful call for suspending all settlement activity in the West Bank. It is also fairly clear that the Hamas government in Gaza is not going to renounce violent resistance to the Israeli occupation. Between the two, I'd bet the Israelis would be the first to capitulate, but I hardly imagine that it will come to pass. Then what?

It is somewhat misleading to use the term "settlement" when talking about Israeli living arrangements in the West Bank. I think the English term "settlement" conjures up the notion of smaller-than-towns kind of arrangements. Let's set aside for the moment the massive suburban bedroom communities around Jerusalem like Ma'ale Adumim (pop. 33,000 in 2005). Let's talk instead about the city of Ariel (pop. 16,600 in 2007). Here is Google Earth's view of Ariel:

Look at the size of this monstro-city! Every one of those houses, schools, and shopping centers make up this so-called "settlement." There is even a controversial college in its midst claiming 9500 students enrolled! This city (for all intents and purposes) is 25 miles east of Tel Aviv, more than 11 miles beyond the internationally recognized border of Israel, deep in the heart of the West Bank (at this point the WB is only 32 miles wide). It has a reported population growth rate of more than 3% annually.

Who's kidding who? In the mid-1980s the Israeli urban planner and geopgrapher Meron Benvenisti warned that the clock on reversing Israeli settlements may already be past midnight. The opportunity to stop the settlement insanity passed a long time ago. Even if a deal could be reached on adjusting Israel's borders to accommodate the bedroom communities of Jerusalem (in exchange for some empty Israeli land somewhere in the southern West Bank-Israel border area), what in the world is to be done with a place like Ariel?

So let's say for a moment that all settlement activity is frozen (not that this Netanyahu government will easily agree to such a thing), and let's be even more charitable to Israeli expansionism and say that Ma'ale Adumim and the Etzion bloc of Israeli settlements south of Jerusalem, and all the post-1967 Jewish neighborhoods of East Jerusalem are allowed to remain part of Israel in some fantastical settlement. What do you do with Ariel and it's 16,600 inhabitants?

For those like me who have argued for decades against Israeli settlement activity in the occupied territory, the truth is sad but true: all talk of a two-state solution at this late date is well-nigh impossible, even if

a) there was an accommodating Israeli government; and
b) there was an accommodating Palestinian governing body

But there are neither of these two things. The current Israeli government won't even commit to a two-state solution, and the self-immolating Palestinian factions (weak Fatah in Ramallah; weak Hamas in Gaza City -- currently shooting at each other) can't swallow accepting all the settlement blocs and Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem.

So now along comes Barack Obama. We Americans know intimately his rhetorical skills; we also know his analytical Spock-like detachment. Obama is also good at telling an audience what it wants to hear. I never forget -- not for a moment -- that he is an ex-academic, that he is famed for "listening to all sides" and then trying to find a middle ground. And that was the essence of his Cairo speech. Obama has surrounded himself with famed "pro-Israel" advocates like Rahm Emanuel, Joe Biden, and yes, even Hilary Clinton. These people may be more constitutionally sympathetic to the Jewish state, but they are not knee-jerk advocates of muscular Israel as was the previous American administration. Obama also was a close social friend of then-University of Chicago professor Rashid Khalidi, who has a very different set of sympathies and analyses of the conflict than the regnant theories of the Bush administration. Whatever Obama knows of this conflict comes from discussions, book-reading and briefings suggested by the likes of Emanuel/Biden/Clinton on the one hand, and Khalidi on the other. Accordingly, Obama has internalized the current "cutting-edge" analytical narrative of the Arab-Israeli conflict -- that there are two victimized peoples. One is the victim of antisemitism culminating in the Holocaust; the other is the victim of Israeli occupation. Each deserves a home, but ironically (some would say perversely) one people's successful homeland was created at the expense of the other. As Obama put it, there are "two peoples with legitimate aspirations, each with a painful history that makes compromise elusive."

In a nutshell, this is the analytical approach of the "new" Israeli historian Benny Morris, who entitled his grand history of the conflict Righteous Victims. This approach doesn't so much produce a symmetrical narrative, where Jewish victimhood is equated with Palestinian victimhood, as it produces a nuanced view as to why the Zionists succeeded and how their success engendered Arab hostility and stifled the national aspirations of the Palestinians. This was the over-arching theme of Obama's treatment of the Arab-Israeli conflict in Cairo. It is simultaneously sympathetic to Israel and sympathetic to Palestine. For the President, the problems of the last 61 years are not the result exclusively of Arab rejectionism, but also the result of Israeli behavior. Obama thus rhetorically endorsed the "new" history of the conflict. If one speaks of Arab or Palestinian intransigence, in the same breath one speaks of Israeli intransigence. This is a monumental shift in the underlying American approach to the conflict, a position which has been brewing for years in the State Department and in academic circles.

Does this new "canonical" meta-narrative to the history of the conflict have an impact on American policy? The answer is and will be yes. The new American insistence on the suspension of all Israeli settlement activity directly flows from this meta-narrative. On the other hand, Obama's insistence that Hamas and Fatah renounce violent resistance is a recurring trope in Obama's approach to Palestine. In his first visit to Israel and the West Bank as a US Senator back in January 2006, Obama urged college students in Ramallah to follow Martin Luther King Jr.'s path of non-violence in resisting Israeli occupation. He said the same thing in Cairo:

"Resistance through violence and killing is wrong and it does not succeed. For centuries, black people in America suffered the lash of the whip as slaves and the humiliation of segregation. But it was not violence that won full and equal rights. It was a peaceful and determined insistence upon the ideals at the center of America's founding. This same story can be told by people from South Africa to South Asia; from Eastern Europe to Indonesia. It's a story with a simple truth: that violence is a dead end. It is a sign neither of courage nor power to shoot rockets at sleeping children, or to blow up old women on a bus. That's not how moral authority is claimed; that's how it is surrendered."

President Obama thus directly addressed the Palestinian people and signaled a new American approach to Hamas. Abandon violence, and all will be forgiven. This is an understandable American policy shift from the previous administration which boycotted Hamas as a terrorist group. Only a unified Palestinian leadership can prove to be a worthy negotiating partner. As parties in a negotiation go, a reluctant Israel is one thing, but a Palestinian leadership utterly divided makes for a thoroughly untenable negotiating partner. Watch for the alleviation of the Fatah-Hamas rift to be the main American diplomatic effort for Palestine, even as it simultaneously pressures Israel to halt settlements. Unfortunately for Israel, America can apply pressure more concertedly on a constituted Israel government than it can apply on fractious Hamas and Fatah.

How will this all play domestically in the United States? That question I will take up in another blog.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Has it been 2 months?

Wow! I've not been paying attention. It's been almost 2 months since the last blog entry. So much has happened! An Israeli government, a-once-in-28-year event in the Jewish calendar, the beginning of the baseball season, Adam Lambert is dominating American Idol, and somewhere along the way I bought an iPhone. It's almost more than I can handle in a single update. In fact, I am too wasted at the moment to respond to any of these things. So maybe sometime this joyous Passover season I'll take a moment to get serious. In the meantime, Hag Sameah to all my readers. Don't forget to give a shout out to Elijah!

Friday, February 13, 2009

US & EU Prefer National Unity

In a young country with a consistent history of political shockers, Israel goes into the new week paralyzed by complete political deadlock. The drama of Israel's democracy -- its proud self-image as the "one true democracy in the Middle East" contrasted by its corrupt and venal reality -- makes for a compelling story. In the last 13 years the country has voted five times -- first, in 1996 came the short-lived government of Binyamin Netanyahu, whose premiership ended in a cloud of scandal. Then in 1999 came Ehud Barak, whose equally short-lived premiership ended in a thorough trouncing by Ariel Sharon in 2003. Sharon stroked out in early 2006, to be replaced by Ehud Olmert, who squeaked through an election later that year. Olmert resigned under a cloud of illegality in 2008, and elections occurred this past Tuesday. It is like a perpetual revolving door -- one government swept away by another -- riven by religious-secular demands, economic disparity, racial prejudices, and rabidly divergent approaches to matters of national security.

The greatest shock to Israel's body politic was the 1995 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin at the hands of a Jewish assassin. Like all great but troubled democracies (India, the US), Israel has had to deal with the ultimate political catastrophe. That it has survived asassination of its head of state with its political institutions relatively intact is testimony to a certain vitality and health, but one should note that all is not perfect. The Economist rates Israel at 38 in its Democracy Index, a "flawed democracy." (Also "flawed" is India at 35; the US is at 18.) The proliferation of political parties and the complete absence of political consensus (the 2 leading parties in this past election garnered 22% each -- the 2 "big" parties together still do not represent even half of the electorate) means that this "flawed democracy" is once again rudderless.

The reason I say "once again" is because in 2009, Israeli political history is ironically repeating itself. In 1984, the two leading parties garnered over 65% of the electorate, but were split almost evenly (one party, Labor, had a 44-41 seat advantage over Likud). Then-Labor leader Shimon Peres was tapped by President Chaim Herzog to form a government, but Peres failed to create a government without Likud. In failure, Peres accepted a national unity government with his political rival Yitzhak Shamir of Likud, and agreed not only to appoint Shamir his Foreign Minister, but to resign the premiership in two years' time and rotate positions with Shamir.

Now in 2009 -- irony of ironies -- Peres sits in the President's House, and in his hands is the same decision that faced his compatriot Herzog 25 years ago. The experience of "rotation" was a bitter pill for Peres to swallow, and it is hard to imagine he wishes such a thing on either Tzipi Livni or Netanyahu. But there are a confluence of political signals coming out of the EU, the United States, and Jerusalem, which argue for Peres pushing hard for such an accommodation.

While the United States takes no official position on the internal deliberations of Israeli democracy, and the State Department vows to work with whatever government emerges, there can be no doubt that an Israeli government headed by Netanyahu and composed of right-wing "nationalist" parties is thought of by American "peace processors" as an awful prospect. EU Foreign Minister Javier Solana was not as circumspect as the Obama administration, and undiplomatically stated his clear preference for a national unity government in Israel. Netanyahu has acknowledged that he was approached by contacts in the American administration; Livni has denied any contact. But it is certainly likely that the State Department has conveyed to both politicians its desire to see a Likud-Kadima dominated government.

Netanyahu himself has indicated he would like to try for such a government. If he fails to get a national unity government with Livni, only Netanyahu has a plausible Plan B, a hard right-nationalist government. Livni has no Plan B to turn to.

But who would lead a national unity government? Here is where rotation might be helpful.

Here is my rotation scenario: Peres meets with all the parties. He notes that a majority of small right-wing and religious parties endorse Netanyahu's Plan B. Peres counsels for national unity, with Labor and possibly Shas. He then informs Livni and Bibi that, for the sake of the country, they should try to work it out. The two then explore the rotation option, with Livni getting first crack at the job of PM.

In this scenario, the problem with rotation in 2009 is the discrepancy between the 65% of shared electoral power between Labor and Likud in 1984, and the current 44% shared electoral power of Kadima and Likud. In 1984, the two partners could form a government all on their own; in 2009, they still need lots of assistance. And there are very few palatable options, other than a humiliated Labor party, to turn to. But in the end, Labor will play along. Labor by itself will hardly grant a national unity government legitimacy, so at some point one of the religious parties (Shas? more likely Torah Judaism) will have to be induced to join.

Will it happen? I don't know. But this is a deliciously ironic moment for those of us who have watched the political tragedy of Shimon Peres over the years. Peres, the frustrated former half-Prime Minister of the 1980s, and the tragic brief successor to Rabin in the 1990s, has one last fateful part to play in the ongoing drama of Israeli democracy.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Israel: Election Results

The Israeli exit poll results are in, and all 3 national TV channels are in agreement -- Kadima and current Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni have garnered a 2-seat lead over Binyamin Netanyahu's Likud party, 30-28 (or 29-27). If these predictions hold up (and they may yet prove unreliable), according to Israeli political norms Livni will be tapped to attempt to form a new coalition government of at least 61 parliamentary seats. This is not a sure thing, though, for according to Israeli law the Israeli President Shimon Peres (Kadima) must consult with all the parties to determine who will have the most support in forming a government. Only then, after a week of consultations, will the President designate a politician to form a government. The right-national parties have apparently agreed amongst themselves to uniformly recommend Netanyahu to Peres. It is nevertheless hard to imagine Peres turning away from Livni. More on that later.

This is not the only surprise. Avigdor Lieberman and his Yisrael Beitenu party seriously underperformed the pre-election polls. Instead of amassing 18 seats in the upcoming 18th Kenesset, Yisrael Beitenu managed only 14 or 15 seats. Lieberman may not find himself in the future government. Lieberman wants to see a right-wing government, and might indeed try to create with Netanyahu a blocking action to foil Livni from forming a center-right government. Netanyahu almost made the ultimate comeback -- from the irrelevancy of 12 seats in the 17th Kenesset to 27 or 28 in the new Kenesset. He just couldn't cross the finish line. But Lieberman is willing to listen to all offers.

The third surprise -- not really a surprise -- is the collapse of historic Labor and its leader, current Defense Minister Ehud Barak. Earlier I speculated that for Barak, the Gaza War was a Hail Mary pass for electoral relevancy. The strategy failed. Labor and Barak are now facing the dilemma of Netanyahu and Likud after the 2006 elections -- a humiliating 4th-place finish, the size of an irrelevant minor boutique party comprising 13 seats.

Livni had an opportunity late last year to form a government out of the more favorable configuration of the 17th Kenesset without going to national elections. She refused to accede to demands of the Shas party on social spending and on national security positions, and instead chose to go to the polls. Neither Kadima nor Shas will easily forget that episode. It was a gutsy, some say tempestuous, roll of the dice, and one could argue that Livni did not improve her situation by going to the nation. Livni now awaits Peres's decision, facing the option of forming a weak center-right government (Kadima-Likud-Labor), or a stronger right-right government (Kadima-Labor-Yisrael Beitenu-National Union), or no government at all.

On the BBC I just heard Palestinian senior negotiator Saeb Erakat speculating on the possibility of a rotation-government, whereby Livni becomes Prime Minister for 2 years, and then Netanyahu takes over. As strange as this seems, it is reminiscent of the hamstrung rotation government of 1984-88 between then Labor leader Shimon Peres and Likud's Yitzhak Shamir. Peres started first as PM, with Shamir as Foreign Minister; then in late 1986 they switched roles. Peres tried to advance peace feelers, which Shamir struggled to undo. It is possible we might see such an outcome.

What is clear is that Israel has taken a hard right turn. Kadima leads the electoral race, but Likud leads the largest electoral bloc of right-nationalists. All the self-defined rightist, nationalist (and religious) parties could constitute a blocking action of at least 62 seats. Can any of them be peeled away from this right-national bloc through promises of cabinet slots, baksheesh, or compromised political stances? That is Livni's dilemma.

At the State Department, fingers must be crossed in the hope that Livni will be the new Israeli PM.

A murky outcome, indeed. Livni may have narrowly won the evening, and yet lost the opportunity to govern.

Update, 10:30 pm (4:30 am Israel time): with the official vote count now 100% complete, it appears that the Kadima lead has been trimmed to one seat, 28 to 27 for Likud. In a further blow to the Israeli left, Meretz has been reduced to a 3 seat presence in the upcoming Kenesset.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Last Israeli Polling

An apathetic Israeli electorate is finally getting serious about the upcoming Tuesday Israeli election, and some electoral shifts are apparently afoot. The post-Gaza War bump indicated by polls for Labor and its leader Ehud Barak seems to be dissolving in this final weekend. Why this is happening is not entirely clear. To be sure, Barak has not run an attractive political campaign. And the continued drizzle of missiles out of Gaza has done nothing to burnish Barak's proposed image as the military strategist who found a once-and-for-all solution to the missile crisis.

The beneficiary of this last-minute dissolve of Labor is apparently Tzipi Livni and her Kadima party, now running a close second behind Likud and Binyamin Netanyahu. It really matters not the slightest who wins -- Livni or Netanyahu -- the upshot will be a coalition government of far righter political outlook than the current one. It is hard to imagine any conceivable coalition configuration that does not include the thuggish Avigdor Lieberman and his Yisrael Beiteinu party in its midst, but it could happen. Lieberman, who faces an ongoing corruption investigation (a bribe scandal involving the now defunct Palestinian casino in Jericho) which will not be resolved before Tuesday, might ultimately prove to be an unacceptable coalition partner, even as his rightist pronouncements garner a half million votes. Still, a Likud/Kadima-Labor-Shas coalition (75 projected seats) that foregoes Lieberman (as Yoel Marcus wishes in Friday's Haaretz) will nevertheless have a more right-wing slant, if only because of the newfound strength of Likud. No matter what, Likud and Kadima together will make up the bulk of the next government. If Labor joins, expect Barak to continue as Defense Minister. If the religious Shas party is in the next government, there is virtually no chance that Lieberman (who is rabidly secular) will sit at a cabinet table with Shas leader Eli Yishai. Livni, the well-regarded (in some circles, but not all) current Israeli Foreign Minister, might more palatably represent such a right-center government to the world community than truculent Bibi, but it will still be a government less prone to engage in enthusiastic peace processing with the broken Palestinian political leadership, and a government even more keen on insisting on "security."

Sunday, January 25, 2009

First Polling in Israel

The first of this week's election polls are being broadcast by Israel's Channel One, and there is nothing to suggest that the electoral outcome on February 10 will significanly vary from the results that pre-war polls indicated. Binyamin Netanyahu's Likud party continues to lead with a projected 30 mandates (seats in the 120-seat Kenesset); Tzipi Livni's Kadima party is projected to receive 22 seats, and Ehud Barak's Labour is projecting 17 seats. Whatever improvement registered by Labour has simply come out of the hide of Kadima. On Tuesday the political parties will start broadcasting their political campaign ads (in Israel, the parties are granted free air time according to a complicated formula), and while these are always interesting to watch, they rarely shift voter sentiments.

If these new Channel One poll numbers are correct (and I have no reason to doubt them), it confirms the sense that the perpetual 20% of the Israeli electorate that might be lured to the left or to the right has swung decisively to the right for this election cycle. The next Israeli government, the one that President Barack Obama, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, and Special Envoy George Mitchell will be dealing with, will be made up of a coalition of Likud, right-leaning and theocratically-oriented smaller parties, and Kadima (now as clear 2nd fiddle). The smaller right parties (and some of the more right-leaning Likud MKs) will effectively block any initiative proposed by the Americans. Netanyahu will be able to hide behind the democratic dynamics of coalition politics when he delivers his "no" to President Obama. Makes me think that maybe Obama initially offerred the job of Special Envoy to one of the State Department "old hands" (Dennis Ross, Martin Indyk, Dan Kurtzer). When they all realized that it would be Netanyahu that would be sitting in the Israeli PM chair, they all said (in unison): "Thanks, but no thanks. Let George do it!"

The good news? The political logjam that has crippled Israel these last 12 months because of Olmert's ongoing corruption problems is coming to an end. The bad news? Instead of political paralysis in Israel, there will be a highly infelexible and unresponsive (or, from a domestic perspective: a highly cautious and self-protective) Israeli leadership.

So what can the diplomatic triumvirate of Obama-Clinton-Mitchell expect? An ongoing internal Palestinian hatefest as the Fatah-Hamas rift festers with no resolution in sight; and on the Israeli side, a few months of coalition maneuvering until a feeble right-wing government emerges. This new Israel will be even more averse to talking to any Fatah-Hamas coalition government; whatever Palestinian leadership that engages with Israel will find Israel even more committed to deferring big decisions until its definition of security is obtained. Don't expect "change we can believe in" in the Arab-Israeli conflict anytime soon.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire: The Next Mother India?

It's been over 2 years since I last wrote about Indian cinema. But today's Oscar nominations cause me to take a gander at Slumdog Millionaire, Danny Boyle's incredible sleeper of the 2009 season. It started by running in arthouses in November, and now with its Golden Globe win and 10 Oscar nominations, this movie is getting the kind of distribution very few arthouse films receive.

Based on Vikas Swarup's novel Q & A, Slumdog Millioniare opened finally this week in Mumbai. The movie has generated some controversy inside India. On his blog site, the great Indian Bollywood star Amitabh Bachchan initially attacked the movie: "[It] projects India as Third World dirty under belly developing nation and causes pain and disgust among nationalists and patriots." Bachchan actually "appears" in the film in a most novel way, and it might be a touch of pique that prompted this soon-retracted comment.

With all these Oscar nominations, it might be good to look back upon Indian cinema's history with the Oscars. The great 1957 classic, Mother India, directed by Mehboob Khan, was the first Indian film nominated for Best Foreign Language Film. One of the first great color epics, Mother India was the story of an ancient/young nation sacrificing for some better future, told through the bitter life of a mother and her two sons. It is often compared to Gone With the Wind for its historical reach and its tragic scope.

It was not until 2002 when India again received a nomination, and this time it was Ashutosh Gorwiker's Lagaan. Lagaan is remembered for its breakthrough technology (live miking of actors as they performed scenes) and its incredible musical score by A. R. Rahman, the greatest composer of contemporary Bollywood.

Despite the foreign funding, the lead director and screenwriter both Brits -- Slumdog Millionaire is a fantastic Indian film. Foreign funding might be a problem for nationalists, but is a welcome development for the new globe-reaching Bollywood.

Slumdog Millionaire continues the narrative of Mother India, propelling the modern Indian story into the next generation -- the urban generation of cable television and cell phones, of IT call centers and abject slums existing side-by-side. And in the best spirit of Mumbai's tolerant and slightly subversive Indian film community, the movie refreshingly does not tell the story of Hindustani suffering, but instead tells the story of Muslims in a country of continuing Hindu-exclusive nationalism. The story of Muslims in modern India has occasionally been addressed, but in Slumdog Millionaire it is portrayed in all its vicious intensity.

With a knee-tapping soundtrack by A. R. Rahman, and a story of love and romance, Slumdog Millionaire is one of the most compelling must-sees of this Oscar season.

And Bollywood fans -- stay for the credits!

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Cease fire?

At this moment, Israeli PM Ehud Olmert is addressing in Hebrew the Israeli people with word of an unilateral cease fire, based on 2 agreements: one signed yesterday between Israeli Foregin Minister Tzipi Livni and American Secretary of State Condaleeza Rice; and a second between the government of Israel and the government of Egypt. The cease fire will be applied Sunday morning local time at 2 am, or 7 pm Saturday evening East Coast time. Hamas for its part has defiantly announced that it is not a party to any cease fire agreement. Your guess is as good as mine as to whether the cease fire will take hold, and whether Israeli forces will begin to withdraw from Gaza. For the moment, the bitter pill of Israeli forces remaining in Gaza will be a source of ongoing Hamas consternation, which might place this unilateral cease fire in doubt.

Now the truly "snap" election begins in Israel, with a campaign that will last barely more than three weeks. Olmert for his part is declaring victory, and if the Israeli electorate accepts that judgment, it is likely that the electoral standing of first Ehud Barak, and second Livni, will have improved, at the expense of Likud party leader Binyamin Netanyahu. There is much in this somewhat murky conclusion to Operation Cast Lead for Likud to criticize. If indeed a regime has been created which will truly prevent the smuggling of armaments into Gaza from Egypt, a truly decisive change has been introduced into the Hamas-Israel struggle. But even so, there might well be many Israeli voters unhappy to see Hamas still entrenched in Gaza.

If this is indeed the end of the Gaza War, it ends in a way quite different than the 2006 Second Lebanon War. It ends with few Israeli casualties, and with serious damage done to its intended adversary -- Hamas. The Israeli electorate never soured on Operation Cast Lead. As it began, so it ends -- with widespread support and increased confidence in the Israeli army and its military leaders. Israel will certainly have to answer for some of the more controversial incidents of this war on the international stage of public opinion, but honestly this matters little in the calculations of Israeli voters. We'll have to wait for some new polling data to see just exactly how the Israeli public digests the outcome of these past three weeks of warfare.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

The Dangerous Endgame

Imagine for a moment you are the weak, ineffectual Secretary General of the weak, ineffectual United Nations. But being the third-level diplomatic bureaucrat you are, you fly off to the Middle East armed with a toothless Security Council resolution calling for a cease fire, and meet in all the relevant regional capitals urging the Israelis and Hamas to stop their warring. As it happens, the day you arrive in Jerusalem, the Israeli army shells your clearly delineated refugee headquarters in Gaza City. How's that for a nice "fuck you"?

The Israelis claim that an RPG was fired at Israeli troops out of the UN compound -- hence the return fire. Maybe -- but since there aren't any qualified journalists in Gaza City, all we have is indignant UN workers (whose sympathies are with the Palestinian cause) and the less than impartial IDF spokesman to deal with. As with every other incident (like the al-Fakhura school incident), there is enough dis- and mis-information to keep both sides happy and miserable.

By all accounts, we are witnessing the dangerous endgame to Operation Cast Lead. Israeli and Hamas diplomats are speaking indirectly through Cairo on either a temporary cease fire or a permanent cessation of hostilities. If anyone seriously believed some of the earlier Israeli ministerial pronouncements that Cast Lead would lead to the toppling of Hamas, the talks in Cairo, in which Israel is yet again dealing with Hamas, prove otherwise. The Israeli Army is reportedly pressing ahead slowly into Gaza City itself (not because of great resistance, I imagine, but because slow steady pressure will likely produce a "better" cease fire deal for Israel). Late today, Israel announced it had killed Said Siam, the Hamas Interior Minister (essentially in charge of internal security -- a major player). Hamas for its part has fired off some of its longer range Grad missiles into Beersheva, with serious injuries. The tempo is picking up on both sides. Will the fighting stop in time for Barack Obama's inauguration? That now seems to be the artificial deadline that Israel is working with.

But if Olmert can say "fuck you" to UN Secretary General Ban, and can announce in public that President Bush is his poodle, what is to prevent this bizarre little "leader" from making the same mistake twice (that last weekend of the Second Lebanon War), and pushing the endgame into some awful and unexpected outcome? Of course, Olmert alone is not in charge -- he still must work in tandem with Defense Minister Ehud Barak, but the unpredictability of urban ground fighting makes these next few hours particularly fragile.

Whatever happens in the Gaza Strip the next few days, the inevitable result is this: the "military" power of Hamas has been seriously decreased, but its international, popular, and inter-Arab prestige has been increased. This is why I wrote at the outset of the Israeli operation that I could not understand why Israel started this war. Let's say Tom Friedman was right yesterday in The New York Times and the tactical winner of the 2006 Lebanon War was Israel. According to Friedman, by pounding Lebanon the way it did, Israel created a credible deterrent force which caused Hezbollah to essentially remain a paper tiger throughout this current conflict. But at what cost? Lebanon is now a Hezbollah-run country, Hezbollah's missile capacity remains strong, and the clock ticks towards the day when Hezbollah will choose to unleash its arsenal.

So now let's look at Gaza and Hamas: Hamas has been crushed, but it will still have missiles; Hamas has been humiliated on the battlefield, but it is now legitimated internationally by engaging Israel in a new round of political negotiations; Gaza has been seriously damaged, and all of Hamas's infrastructure is decimated, but when the dust settles, it will be Hamas that supervises reconstruction and compensation (in league with Israel, which will continue to be the principle choke point for all ingoing supplies and materiel) and return to its social-network glory.

The good news? This war may soon end. The bad news? This war may soon end. With a cessation to fighting on the horizon, watch for both sides to pull out all the stops in the unsettling Middle Eastern variation of the game "chicken."

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

What happened to 1860? Olmert the Fool

On January 8, the United Nations Security Council passed a UK-sponsored resolution, number 1860, by a vote of 14-0, with the United States abstaining. The resolution, which the US worked to develop, called for an immediate cease fire in the Gaza war. As is usual with these things, there was a great deal of give-and-take in developing language that would be acceptable to the Arab members of the organization, and to Israel. The resolution was thus a toothless mess. While it expressed great concern for the humanitarian disaster in Gaza, it said nothing about the missile attacks on Israel.

Israel wasn't happy with the language. And so as the vote was about to occur, Israel's accidental Prime Minister Ehud Olmert demanded to speak with President George Bush. By Olmert's own account, recorded before cameras, he called looking for the outgoing President, who at the time was speaking before a group in Philadelphia.

Olmert told a group of regional council members in Ashkelon on Monday (I saw the video on Israeli TV, but try as a can I can't find it anywhere on the internet): "All of a sudden it became clear that there was going to be a vote in 10 minutes. I wanted to speak to Bush. They told me he was giving a speech in Philadelphia. I said I don't care what he is doing - pull him out of the speech! They pulled him out and I said to him that it isn't possible that the US would vote for a resolution which isn't good for Israel. He said he didn't know what the text said. I told him I knew exactly what it said. He contacted Rice and told her not to vote for it...The outcome is that she is quite embarrassed. The result was that the resolution she helped draft and organize, in the end she had to vote against."

For years we've known that this idiot Olmert has a big mouth, and will use any opportunity to inflate his own puny significance. Don't forget, it was Olmert who in a gaffe on German television let the nuclear cat out of the bag when two years ago he became the first Israeli PM to openly brag about Israel's nuclear capability.

Olmert now finds himself in opposition with his own inner cabinet, continuing to push for an expanded military assault on Gaza, just as he did in the final weekend of the 2006 Lebanon War, to disastrous results. Every other responsible authority was forced to resign after 2006 -- but Olmert refused to take ministerial responsibility for his role as lead incompetent. Would that he had left after the Winograd commission had issued its report! Maybe we would not be looking at this current war. But Olmert stayed on, until he was finally forced to resign because of his own personal greed. But there was just enough time for one more military adventure.

Olmert's idiotic instinct to press even harder at the endgame is repeating itself, using innocent Arabs and Israeli citizen-soldiers as canon fodder. In the future, Israelis will scratch their collective heads over how they allowed themselves to be led into 2 unnecessary wars by such a fool.

On January 20, the man who is responsible for putting Hamas in power in Gaza will thankfully step down from the US presidency. It was George W. Bush and his neocons who in 2005 were intent on proving to the world that democracy was breaking out throughout the Middle East. As voters were going to the polls in Iraq and a democracy movement was taking to the streets in Lebanon, the neocons insisted on holding a vote in the Palestinian Authority. The west-oriented Fatah leadership warned about the instability in Palestine, and counseled against holding a vote, but Bush was insistent. Under a complicated voting scheme, Hamas "won" the 2006 legislative elections, and within months brutally suppressed and exiled Fatah from Gaza. Thank George W. Bush for this intolerable, intractable situation where a radical Islamist movement wields control over a hopeless slum of 1.4 million people.

Sometime after February 10, the man who is responsible for 2 wars in 30 months will thankfully leave office. Olmert will probably be replaced by an even more muscular and aggressive successor. There isn't much reason to welcome Binyamin Netanyahu to the Israeli Prime Ministership (he still remains the likely electoral victor in less than a month), but one can hope that Netanyahu's many faults do not include the strategic vacuousness and downright callousness that will forever mark the short, useless, pathetic leadership of Ehud Olmert.

Getting Good Information on the Gaza War

OK, web and techie types, this blog is for you.

I've been trying to get good real-time information on the War in Gaza. As usual, I've been scanning the various Israeli and Palestinian web sites. And 2 days ago, I found an add-on tool for my IE browser (there is also a version for Firefox) from, a localized version of Google, which allows me to watch live Israel Channel 10 & 1, al-Jazeera in Arabic and English, BBC, SkyNews, CNN, Iranian TV, Hezbollah's al-Manar station - you name it. Unfortunately, the interface of the add-in bar is in Hebrew, so I can't recommend it to everyone. I've got a PC connected to my 1080p 60" HDTV, so I can watch any of these things in my living room, full screen. Right now I am watching Uri Avneri being interviewed live from Tel Aviv and Daniel Pipes live from Philadelphia on al-Jazeera English (what a combination!). A minute ago I was watching the Channel 10 morning news, just as 3 Katyusha missiles hit northern Israel. This add-on toolbar is incredible.

Another way to go is Livestation. This might work better for those who can't use a Hebrew interface, or on a MAC or Linux. It's one way you can get Ramattan's live feed from Gaza City, as well as most of the channels I've mentioned above, and it allows full screen mode.

Based on my viewing, what Ethan Bronner reported in Tuesday's New York Times is absolutely true: Israeli media is ignoring (I am compelled to say censoring) the images and stories of humanitarian havoc in Gaza; on the other hand, these images and stories are all that one can see on al-Jazeera, where Hamas missileers are referred to as "fighters." No wonder Israeli public opinion is 90% supportive of what its army has done, and the Arab world is so inflamed. In Israel, there has been very slight coverage of the bombing of the al-Fakhura school, or the incident in Zeitoun, or the use of horrific white phosphorous armaments on human targets. (Update note: White phosphorous is not a banned armament, and is normally used for smoke screens. In 2006, the US was accused of using white phosphorus against humans in Fallujah.) I find only two Israeli journalistic voices who are attempting to report and comment on the human wreckage inside Gaza, and both write for Haaretz: Gideon Levi and Amira Hass, who are being simultaneously picked apart by colleagues on their own paper. I suggest people take a look at their writing on the Haaretz English web site -- Hass has a piece in today's Hebrew edition, which I suspect will make its way over to the English site later today.

I'll mention one other interesting online open-source tool which I heard about earlier this evening on BBC: the software is called ushahidi (Swahili for "testimony"), and al-Jazeera is using this open-source software to aggregate reports on an interactive map. This is a far from reliable informational tool, since it relies on anonymous, non-journalistic reports (even Twitter postings), but it nevertheless is an interesting and novel application of web technology.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Israel in Gaza: What of Stage 3?

Contradictory signals in the Israeli morning newspapers, on the 17th day of the Gaza War. Yesterday Maariv reported that the Israeli cabinet approved a decision to move ahead with a so-called "Stage 3" of the military operation. To briefly review, Stage 1 was the "shock and awe" air assault on Gaza, which essentially transpired during the first week. Stage 2 was the "ground incursion" into Gaza, largely accomplished by the IDF standing army over the last 10 days. Stage 3 is reportedly the insertion of thousands of fresh reservists into Gaza with the apparent intent of re-occupying portions of the Gaza Strip, particularly the Philadelphi road corridor on the Western edge of the Gaza Strip (the site of dozens of underground tunnels used by Hamas to smuggle in supplies and military equipment), as well as a far greater ground push into the built-up urban areas of the Gaza Strip.

But Maariv may have it wrong. The more reliable Haaretz is reporting today on its web site of a serious disagreement within the Israeli inner cabinet. According to Haaretz, Defense Minister Ehud Barak (who is most identified with Operation "Cast Lead") and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni (who was the first cabinet member to question the operation of the Lebanon War in 2006) both expressed in a gathering of the inner cabinet on Sunday opposition to upping the ante with Stage 3, with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert pressing for a full-cabinet green light for Stage 3. Olmert, we should all remember, does not have to answer to the Israeli voters in 4 weeks. Both Barak and Livni are obliged to cast an eye towards a longer-term future. It is not just the need to wind this up by January 20th (Barack Obama's inauguration day); there must be a hope on the part of these two politicians to see this matter more or less resolved by February 10th, Israeli election day. If thousands of reservists are patrolling the streets of conquered and broken Gaza City on February 10th, both understand their political futures will be bleak.

It seems that from Day One of this (mis)adventure, the Israeli leadership was working with a very tight timetable that was largely dictated by the expiration date of the 6-month ceasefire on December 19, 2008. Clearly, when the "shock and awe" started, the Israeli leadership must have imagined a conclusion to the military assault before Stage 3 would have to be implemented. It is not that Hamas has been particularly tough (as Hizbollah was in Southern Lebanon in 2006) -- it is simply that the Israeli "best case" scenario has not panned out on Israel's hoped-for accelerated schedule. And while so far there is nothing resembling an unpopular quagmire for the Israeli military in Gaza, Stage 3 has the potential for quagmire.

Meanwhile, as each day passes and the humanitarian dimensions of the assault on Gaza have become more evident, criticism (or at the very least questions) of the operation has been growing in the Israeli media. Forthe first time since the start of this war, Israeli media is reporting that a soldier has refused to carry out an order on moral grounds. Since Friday, leading Israeli columnists (Ari Shavit, Nahum Barnea) are openly questioning the wisdom of pressing the military campaign, and simultaneously calling for a greater effort to quickly press for a diplomatic endgame.

Even as its forces are being overrun in Gaza, Hamas leaders both inside Gaza and in Damascus continue to posture defiantly, though there are indications that some Hamas leaders, particularly inside Gaza, are ready to turn to a "defeatist" political track. As each day passes without an acceptable ceasefire to the two sides, the logic of the Israeli strategy forces them to press harder, with all the attendant humanitarian havoc. With every day, the alleged strategic gains achieved in the first week of the war are diluted by continued brutal urban warfare. Whatever operational secrecy existed at the outset of the Israeli assault, that secrecy has now been obliterated by the published reports of a serious argument within the Israeli leadership. Both sides are beginning to crack a bit. It's precisely at such moments when horrible mistakes -- even worse than those that have occurred so far -- can occur.