Wednesday, December 12, 2012

12/12/12 - 7 years of blogging

Today is my blogiversary - it was 7 years ago today that I wrote my first web-log. The last time I remembered to mark my blogiversary was in 2010. In the intervening two years a lot has happened (the Arab Spring comes to mind), but not so much (I got into a pissing match with a worthless local Jewish "newspaper" and its numbskull editor).
So I was just signing a form for a student and wrote down "12/12/12" - which works today whether it is American or European date notation: "12.12.12" . Well that is pretty spooky, but it is also my blogiversary and this is my 201st post to it.
So happy 7 years! And on to the 3rd century!

Friday, November 23, 2012

Netanyahu: Enemies more and less important

Bibi Netanyahu, quoted in today's Haaretz by Yossi Verter, explaining to those disappointed in Israel that there was no ground war in Gaza to bring down the HAMAS regime:
"I know where the public is at, but I see the big picture: we have enemies that are more important and less important. We are dealing with them in the order of their importance. We also have neighbors, and they too are important. We also have other fronts. You have to take into account the whole picture."
Now I freely admit that my speculation offered up earlier this week that the 8-day Operation Pillar of Cloud was first and foremost a cover feint to disguise the mobilization of the IAF in anticipation of an aerial strike on Iran might be wrong. With elections scheduled for January 22 it seems that domestic considerations might play a part in timing an attack on Iran.
I still feel fairly confident that operational secrecy for an Iran attack will require a camouflaged mobilization of the Air Force. Nothing that has transpired in the last 10 days contravenes my speculation. The more the local and international media remains preoccupied with Palestine, and the less and less that Israeli leaders speak about Iran, the more likely my speculation becomes probable. I still stand by my guess, fully aware that I may have the entire situation completely misread.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

RIP Pillar of Cloud

It was four days ago when I first began tweeting that there would be no Israeli ground invasion of Gaza, and that not a single Israeli ground soldier would be put in harm's way by PM Benjamin Netanyahu. Before we go on to the more fanciful part of my analysis, let's just get that one fact straight - many of us simply KNEW with a certitude equal to that shown election night by the Call Desk at FoxNews how this would all end.
Let's also stipulate another simple truth not easily digested by the pundits: this was a fabricated military incident designed, created & completely instigated by Israel. Israel was the entity that heated up the Gaza-Israel border to an intolerable boil, Israel was the perpetrator of a targeted killing at a moment and place of its choosing. The question of why Israel did this thing at this time breaks into two schools of thought, both wrong.
The first school has a micro analysis: Israel wanted to flush out the Fajr missile arsenal sooner rather than later, so it initiated an irresistible string of events in order to "mow the lawn" at minimal cost to Israeli soldiers. By every measure, Operation Pillar of Cloud (or if you like - "Defense") was a far less lethal engagement to both sides as compared to Cast Lead 4 years ago. Most of the long-range missiles were either destroyed in storage or fired with little impact. So in this way of thinking Israel started a near-war to achieve (variously) a dressing down of HAMAS; or to engage the new Egypt in regional diplomacy and have it take greater ownership of Gaza; or to cajole the Obama administration to come to Israel's aid; or similar drivel. All wrong.
The second school is more cynical, and seemingly more knowing and wise as to the intricacies of Israeli domestic politics. This school contends that Netanyahu started this particular fight in order to enhance and solidify his electoral standing in anticipation of January 22, 2013 elections. They call this an "Elections War" and would have you believe that a perpetually risk averse Netanyahu would engage in warmongering in order to do just a bit better in an election he was destined to win in any event. Also wrong.
So what just happened? Why go through this noisy exercise of calling up first 16,000 soldiers so brazenly, and then announce with greater fanfare the authorization of 31,000, and finally 75,000 troops? To make the threat of war a likely alternative to failed diplomacy, even as HAMAS spokesmen were daring the future Gilad Shalits to come on in?
No, there is another answer. I laid it out in my previous blog entry. So far, nothing in my earlier prediction has been contravened by the unfolding ceasefire. See below...

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Pillar of Cloud leads to Pillar of Fire

Operation Pillar of Cloud, which now seems to be winding down, is based on a biblical allusion from Exodus 13:21, which reports that during the day God led the Israelites in the Sinai wilderness as a pillar of cloud, and at night as a pillar of fire. The 2 are inseparable.
Operation Pillar of Fire is what I name the real purpose of this entire exercise, and it began early morning in Jerusalem, Nov. 7, just as back on the East Coast of the United States on the night of Nov. 6, the major networks were calling Ohio for Barack Obama and Karl Rove experienced uncontrollable dizziness.
The shock and pain was palpable in the Boston Romney HQ that night, but 6000 miles away there was another equally stunned group of election watchers - the fearsome threesome of Benjamin Netanyahu, Ehud Barak, and Avigdor Lieberman. Their best laid plans for the next 12 months to be in league - finally, thankfully - with a sympathetic White House lay crumpled on the floor.
There would now be no time to prepare an attack on Iran in tandem with a President Romney and Dan Senor. Instead, a countdown clock was triggered: a month or two, maybe 3 at most, before Hilary Clinton leaves State and someone else - maybe the perennially hostile Susan Rice - joins the Obama inner foreign policy circle. Ironically, an Obama reelection actually moved up the deadline for an Israeli go-it-alone strike on Iran.
There are many difficult problems associated with a strike on Iran. One of the first problems is achieving operational surprise, at least for the first sorties of the air campaign. How does Israel, an open society saturated with journalists and social media, call up its Air Force reserves without tipping its hand to Iran?
There is only one way I can imagine Israel can bring its IAF to full operational capacity without setting off a dozen warning flares: induce a situation in Gaza that would plausibly necessitate a massive call up of a sizable reserve force. The timeline beginning with Nov. 8’s Israel-Gaza border skirmishes, instigated by Israel, culminating in Ahmed al-Ja'abari's targeted killing, provided the contrived event. The entire world has suddenly forgotten Israel's supposedly existential nuclear nightmare and has become obsessively preoccupied with Gaza and the Iron Dome.
After you create the "crisis," you then resolve it diplomatically well before throwing your forces into a universally unwanted ground war. Then demobilize your reservists - EXCEPT your Air Force reserves. Take whatever time you need, within reason. (I assume that at least a certain number of these IAF reservists' absence from society & the workforce would eventually be noticed, so time isn't unlimited.)
Thus, I have convinced myself, and seek to convince you dear reader, that Pillar of Cloud is merely a feint, a ruse, and a necessary prelude to a much more dangerous and eventful and insane Pillar of Fire.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Wrong, Wrong, & Right

Well, for the second time in my history of blogging I got a US presidential election all wrong.
On the one hand, I was correct in stating that re-elected President Barack Obama would underperform his 2008 numbers. But it didn't take a rocket scientist to see that was coming. Instead of winning 52.9-45.7 in the raw vote, Obama won by 50.3-48.2. Instead of winning 365 electoral votes, Obama looks like he will win 333-206. This was the outcome I said would be amazing - the best outcome Obama might have expected - losing only 2 states (Indiana & North Carolina). Even in my most charitable prognostication, I had it at Obama 283-255, but I was actually betting on a Romney win.
So wrong & wrong. But not nearly as wrong as all the Republican pollsters and pundits, from Michael Barone to Trinity alum George Will to Dick Morris (and the list goes on) who had Romney winning with +300 electoral votes. The only truly riveting election coverage last night was over on FoxNews as "poor" Karl Rove had a tantrum on camera after Ohio was called. Imagine if Rove had a meltdown on camera how "poor" Sheldon Adelson must have felt.
I did venture a guess on the US Jewish vote, which constituted a mere 2% of the national electorate. I guessed there would be a slight down tick from Obama's 2008 performance of - depending who you ask - 76-78% of the Jewish vote, which was historically quite high. I predicted for 2012 72%. The national exit poll has it at 69-70%. This is a relatively low number, on par with Carter-Ford in 1976 (yes, there once was a time that Jews loved Jimmy Carter), and slightly better than Mondale-Reagan in 1984 (67-31). The Romney strategy of calling into question Obama's pro-Israel credibility had some effect. More on that later...
Already, one of my far-away whiskey betting buddies has magnanimously offered to exchange his bottle for a donation to a worthy cause of his choosing. The banter of the bet was fun, and I am happy to make the donation.
I hope Obama can be a better President his second term.

Sunday, November 04, 2012

US Election Predictions

Forget my bet - I'll either be the winner of 3 bottles of whisky or this election is going to cost me a run to Massachusetts for a few choice bottles to hand over to my betting comrades.
By way of preface: I have absolutely no track record for making correct predictions - I was way off in 2008
I am looking at the numbers and I want to now hazard a series of election eve observations.
Here is what I know:
1. Obama is going to underperform his 2008 victory of 52.9-45.7 in the raw vote, and 365-173 in the electoral college.
2. Obama is not going to pick up any new states over his 2008 victory. He will lose some.
3. The Senate and Congress, having tilted either a bit or sharply Republican in 2010, will produce a pickup or two in the Senate for Republicans (indicating not a particularly strong improvement, given that more Dems are up this cycle), and an essentially steady situation in the Congress as compared to 2010.
4. The electorate is a bit less white than it was in 2008 (works in Obama's favor).
5. Both candidates suffer from an enthusiasm problem with their base. Hard to know if the enthusiasm gap is bigger for one or the other.
6. Only rarely and with no consistency has any candidate hit 50% in any national poll in the last 30 days.
7. There are 4 things we did not know after both national conventions which we now know - if you will, the 4 surprises (in chronological order):
  • the 47% tape (bad for Romney)
  • the Benghazi attack of 9/11 (bad for Obama)
  • the Oct. 3 debate performance of Obama (bad for Obama; good for Romney)
  • Hurricane Sandy (the October Surprise, if you will - good for Obama)
Next, there are things I do not know, which are hotly contested by the two camps:
1. The electorate will either be composed of Dems, Repubs, and Independents in a mix that resembles past election trends - or it won't.
2. Independents are breaking significantly away from Obama to Romney - or they aren't.
3. One side has already learned it will lose - or it hasn't.
Given all that, I can foresee - if everything breaks Romney's way (the poll models are wrong, independents defect from Obama in a big way) - a possible maximum victory in the electoral college of 304-234 - but in order to accomplish this, it would mean Obama loses 10 states he carried in 2008: Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia, North Carolina, Indiana, Wisconsin. Colorado, Iowa, & New Hampshire. That would be amazing.
Much more likely is a scenario where only some of those 10 states will switch. Let's look at the best result Obama can expect in 2012 - only 2 states switch: North Carolina & Indiana (and the one electoral vote from Nebraska). Then Obama wins 332-206. That would be amazing.
Between these two extremes, the problem is figuring out which of the other 8 states Obama will lose from his 2008 victory.
Let's subtract from Obama & add to Romney the 2 likeliest states, based on current polling: Florida and Colorado. In this scenario, Obama loses 4 states he carried in 2008. Then it is Obama 294-244. Maybe.
In order for Romney to win, he'll then have to pick off one more "big state" - Pennsylvania or Ohio & then one or two other, or else run the table with all the littler states. That latter scenario is unlikely. But this is the scenario in which Obama retains Ohio & Pennsylvania, loses every other of the remaining, and loses in a squeaker: Romney 273-Obama 265. Doubt it.
So, it looks like I may be buying whisky for my betting buddies. Obama has more paths to electoral victory than Romney. And it will mean that Obama will have pulled off a modern election miracle unheralded in 20th century American politics: with unemployment above 7.2%; consumer confidence at a low point (but slightly up), and with anemic GDP, a sitting incumbent gets reelected. Never happened before. Something on the order of an African-American junior Senator with less than 2 years experience in the Senate winning the presidency.
What I'll be looking for in the earlier part of the evening (for glimmers of hope for my bet):

On the East Coast:
Bucks County, PA
Northern VA
South FL (Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach counties)
Southern NH

In the Midwest:
Cuyahoga county, OH
Milwaukee & Madison, WI (Dane, Waukesha, & Milwaukee counties)
Polk County, IA
Hennepin & Ramsey counties, MN

Basically, a significant Obama underperform in these places might mean a larger shift of states away from Obama than the "smart money" currently has it.
I don't think Obama will lose 4 states, and I don't think he will lose 10. Instead, it will be somewhere in the middle. One or two more states. But which ones?
Everyone is zeroed in on Ohio (which has gone with the winner every time since at least 1972), and rightly so. I am looking at Wisconsin (a typically Blue state) & Virginia (a Red state that went Blue once in 2008).

I don't have any confidence in the prediction I am going to make (and I admit this is only to make my bet work out - and it only works if the polling models are wrong, and if independents are abandoning Obama in droves):
Romney wins the raw vote 49.7-49.1 (meaning the winning margin is going to be less than a million votes); Romney wins electoral college: 285-253. Maybe. (Update: I just learned this prediction agrees with one put up by Glenn Beck on his radio show last week. I am quite ill.)(Even later update, Nov. 5: Karl Rove has come up with a slightly different map, same number. Now I am really nauseous.)
Obama loses 6 states (in order of certainty): Indiana, North Carolina, Florida, Colorado, Virginia, Ohio, Wisconsin.
Take out only Wisconsin, Romney still wins the electoral college. Take out only Ohio, and Obama wins the electoral college.
Hopefully, the networks won't fuck this up with mistaken calls. Could be a long night.
But far more likely, I'll be running to Massachusetts this week. The range I am seeing for Obama is anywhere between 234-332; Romney between 206-304. Looking at it that way, the middle would be a win for Obama: 283-255.

PS: my prediction for the national Jewish vote: Obama 72%-Romney 28% (underperforming 2008, but just by a bit)

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Undecided Voter Again, Part II

So this is what it feels like to be an undecided voter this late in the game. Maybe I've done this to myself by making an obvious vote for one candidate over the other into such sturm und drang. Just one vote.

When I last considered my vote in the 2012 election two weeks ago, I talked myself into taking a pass on voting for President for the first time in my life.
Now I am having second thoughts.
Using my poker metaphor, I checked on the flop. But there were still 2 more cards to be revealed. So now 10 days out - and not 21 - let's say the turn card has been revealed.
In other words, I realize I am still in the game. I am still undecided. And I might be up to the moment I am in the ballot box.
The need to take a stand against the Republican agenda on the executive level is a very compelling argument. Mitt Romney is a moderate Republican of intelligence and stature. However, if Romney wins the White House, there will be besides him one and possibly 2 branches of government to promote the anti-scientific, pro-business, pro-defense, intolerant agenda of a sizable segment of the GOP. The more conservative elements of the Republican party would have a field day.
Weak as Obama is, as hapless a leader, his White House has sometimes provided effective push-back against the most nonsensical components of the Republican manifesto. Oh, did I mention I am enraged by the Obama administration's support of the Patriot Act, and Holder's enforcement of federal marijuana laws? 
Where does that leave me?
Today? Leaning Obama.
Let's see the river.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

US Elections: Two Weeks Out

So every morning, like many of you, I wake up to scour RealClearPolitics and Fivethirtyeight. And what I have tried to figure out (because I am trying to handicap my bet) is who will win. I'm going with a simple formula: if Nate Silver determines that one candidate has a 70% chance or better to win a given state, I credit that state to the candidate. So as of this morning, my methodology gives 271 electoral college votes to Obama vs. 206 electoral college votes for Romney, with 61 votes too close to call.
But two big changes are in the offing: Ohio is about to slip below 70% likelihood for Obama; and Florida, which I currently list as toss-up, is poised to go above 70% for Romney. The first change turns the election back into a toss-up; the second merely closes the gap for Romney.
Admittedly, the 70% threshold is an advantageous and generous one for either candidate. But I am looking for certainty, not prophecy.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Undecided No Longer

It shouldn't have been this hard. I am a lifelong liberal Democrat who has voted Democratic across the board from the very first time I had the honor to vote for George McGovern in 1972. Four years ago I made up my mind in early September; this time around it's taken me to early October to come up with a plan. But I've finally figured out what I'm gonna do once I get to my ballot sheet.
I'm exasperated by President Barack Obama. I never had high expectations for him. He struck me 4 years ago as an overreaching cypher, a junior senator from Illinois with less than 2 years experience in the Senate,  the author of two amorphous books which didn't give me a clue as to what made him tick, a former state legislator who voted "present" over a hundred times rather than take a position. But there was no way I was going to vote for a team that included Sarah Palin. Period.
So then came the Obama administration. For me, there were exactly three high points during the first term of Barack Obama.
The first high point of Obama's presidency came the weekend of April 30 & May 1 of 2011. On that Saturday night he wowed the White House Press Corps dinner with a hilarious stand up routine, even as he had set in motion a daring and risky assault on Bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad. The next night he announced the successful conclusion to that attack. I was impressed.
The second high point of Obama's presidency came a year later, when he backed up his Vice President and became the first sitting President to support the right of gay couples to seek same-sex marriage. A brave pronouncement that had no practical policy implications, it was more symbolic than practical. Typical.
The third high point came in August of 2012, when I successfully refinanced my under water home mortgage (after failing a year earlier), thanks to the TARP II regulations negotiated by the Obama administration with the banking mortgage industry. $3,000 a year of savings to my pocketbook - I'll be forever grateful for that.
Other than that, this presidency has been a serial, meandering mess. No one said it better than then-economic adviser Larry Summers when he complained in 2009 to then-budget director Peter Orzsag about Obama's stewardship of the economic recovery: "‘We’re home alone. There’s no adult in charge. Clinton would never have made these mistakes."
So I don't suffer from buyer's remorse, because I never expected all that much. And my very low expectations have been confirmed and reconfirmed each and every day of this bumbling presidency. No political engagement, no willingness to engage in the hardball politicking it takes to bring about true change, this presidency has been marked by half-measures and listlessness. Obama hasn't been a great President, he hasn't been a good President, he's just been President.
But my low regard for the Obama presidency doesn't drive me into the arms of Mitt Romney. I grant that Romney is the least unpalatable of the Republican joke-candidates who graced our screens during the primary silly season ("9-9-9"; "colony on the moon"; "three departments I would me here"). But a vote for Romney is a vote for a whole range of backwards conservative social and economic policies to which I can never accede. I can hardly believe I even toyed with the idea - but that is now a closed door.
So I am going to take to heart this routine by George Carlin (may his memory be a blessing), from an election season past:
I will vote in every other race on my ballot. As usual, I will vote straight Democratic as I have always done. But for the first time in my life, I am going to skip the Presidential vote. They both suck, and I won't be party to the outcome.
Undecided no longer. As we say in poker: "Check."
Update: Oct. 27: now there is Part II.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Why I am Still Undecided

Two weeks ago may have been bad for the Romney campaign, but this past week was simply awful for the Obama campaign. And while my vote means nothing in the very Blue state of Connecticut, I feel I have to vent.
I don't need to recount the string of events that opened with Romney's disastrous late night press release about the anti-American riots in Egypt, followed by the 47% tape, and ending with the release of ginned-up 2011 tax returns - that was a bad week by all accounts. All it did was add to my sense that Romney is not fit to be President.
But this week? I am stunned -- simply flabbergasted -- that the President of the United States, winner of a Nobel Peace Prize, flew into New York, appeared on two domestic talk shows, gave a silly speech at the UN General Assembly, and then flew out -- and failed to meet with a single counterpart at this annual gathering of world leaders. I want to be clear - I am not the slightest bit concerned that Obama snubbed petulant Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and his crazy Ross Perot-like cartoon visual aids. But in the wake of the death of an American ambassador in Libya, an unprecedented attack on an American airbase in Afghanistan which destroyed more aircraft in a single incident than anything since the Vietnam War, and rioting across the Middle East and North Africa against American embassies, I can hardly imagine a time more appropriate to meet face-to-face with the leader of Libya, the leader of Afghanistan, and the leader of Egypt. To send in your lame duck Secretary of State is simply not good enough.
Oh, I imagine the calculations that David Axelrod and company must have made about the potential downside in taking a day out of the President's reelection schedule for a series of meetings with world leaders, any of which might have turned into a public relations debacle. Axelrod -- or some other Chicago political hack -- must have been deathly afraid of some diplomatic "October surprise." I understand that this is a close election, and any unscripted event might drive the not-already-locked-in voter to the other side. But if there was ever a time to assert international leadership and serve the interests of the nation, this week was such a time. President Obama was the first President in 20 years to not hold a single tete-a-tete at the UNGA. To me, this is unforgivable.
And that brings me to the question that no one seems to ask: just who will be Obama's next SecState? Does the inside track go to Susan Rice, who shamefully got on American TV just days after the death of Ambassador Stevens to pronounce that his death was not the result of a coordinated terror attack, but rather the result of the fervor fanned by "The Innocence of Muslims"? I'd almost prefer any alternative to her.
What this all means for me is that I - a lifelong Democrat whose vote is of no consequence - have reverted from my grudging willingness to pull the proverbial lever for Obama to the undecided camp. I barely could muster voting for inexperienced and untested Obama 4 years ago. I've cited more than once Joe Biden telling a group of voters in October 2008: “Mark my words, it will not be six months before the world tests Barack Obama like they did John Kennedy. The world is looking. We’re about to elect a brilliant 47-year-old senator president of the United States of America. Remember I said it standing here . . . we’re gonna have an international crisis, a generated crisis, to test the mettle of this guy.” Well, another "testing" moment arrived this week. And Barack Obama failed.
I await the first debate in less than a week. Color me -- for the moment -- a high-information voter who is undecided.

Monday, September 03, 2012

The Possession & a Jewish Magic Box

I just returned from seeing The Possession. I had to - I am a professor of religious studies specializing in the history of Jewish mysticism. People are going to ask me my opinion. I hope I can deduct the ticket price as a legitimate business expense.
So the movie - "based on a true story" - is simply ridiculous. I don't like horror movies, but decided I had to go. Within 15 minutes, I was fine - because I was laughing so hard from the sheer lunacy of the script and the technically incorrect details of the Jewish content that by the time Matisyahu showed up as a Jewish exorcist I was certain the movie was some kind of comedic parody.
And now I just read that The Possession is the number one box office winner of this Labor Day Weekend, with the 2nd biggest Labor Day opening in movie history, 2nd only to Halloween. If this is what American filmgoers want to go see, I am now certain we as a nation are simply stupid.
The center of the movie is a so-called "dybbuk box." There is no such thing as a dybbuk box. But here is a picture of the prop:
The Hebrew on the box is a mirror image of regular Hebrew. If read R-to-L the words mean nothing, and constitute gibberish. If read L-to-R, one character at a time, you do get translatable Hebrew: "See you the evil of the punishment" or better yet "You will see the evil of the punishment." On the ends of the box is the single word which again is mirror image of normal Hebrew, an incorrect Hebrew spelling of the word "Dybbuk" (if one were to spell "dibbuk" there would not be 2 letter vav's). All in all, a very unsatisfying and implausible and technically incorrect artifact. This mistaken mirror image Hebrew has become a regular feature of Hollywood Hebrew props - for example there was a tombstone in "Weeds" this season whose engraved Hebrew lettering was in mirror image gobbledygook. Why movie makers won't go to the trouble of doing things correct is beyond me.
The movie had a Jewish technical adviser - a Conservative congregational rabbi somewhere in Canada (where the movie was shot). Oy vey! I know what happens in situations like this -- the director wants it one way -- you argue for authenticity, and the result is what the director wants. A shonde fur de goyyim.

Thursday, August 09, 2012

Is There A New NIE?

I've stuck my neck out on a very long limb by insisting that Israel will not attack Iran this year. I made my first public prediction back in February, when the "smart money" was betting on a June or July attack. Here we are in early August, and exactly as I predicted -- no Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear facilities.

One option I never considered was an American attack on Iran in 2012.

One of the pieces of evidence I used in support of my prediction that Israel would not attack in 2012 was the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), produced during the warmongering Bush presidency, which concluded that Iran had suspended its military nuclear program in 2003, and would be capable of producing an atomic weapon no earlier than 2015. It was a controversial NIE, and it generated praise from doves and consternation from hawks both here and abroad. But I thought precisely because the 2007 NIE was produced for a White House that claimed "axis of evil" status for Iran it had the ring of bitter truth.

When you make a prediction as I did, you better be prepared to either stick with it or adjust it as circumstances warrant. And I am now trying to figure out if circumstances warrant.

What has happened in the last 24 hours is that an Israeli journalist who likes to break big stories but who has less than a perfect batting record (see Dennis Ross's "red phone") has reported that unnamed "Western diplomats and Israeli officials" have told him that a new NIE has been delivered to the Obama White House with alarming new information that confirms the more threatening portrait of Iran touted by Israeli intelligence for the past 6 months.

Writes Haaretz's Barak Ravid:
This NIE report on Iran was supposed to have been submitted to Obama a few weeks ago, but it was revised to include new and alarming intelligence information about military components of Iran's nuclear program. Haaretz has learned that the report's conclusions are quite similar to those drawn by Israel's intelligence community.
The NIE report contends that Iran has made surprising, notable progress in the research and development of key components of its military nuclear program.
Now if this report is true, it is -- excuse the pun -- a bombshell. A National Intelligence Estimate is a classified document that presents the findings of the top spooks/analysts in the US intelligence community. They actually become pillars of American foreign policy. When an NIE changes as radically as this Israeli journalist is suggesting, it is a game changer.  But, here we are nearly 24 hours into the publication of this "exclusive" news report and I cannot find anyone who has independently corroborated, with either named or unnamed sources, the story that a new NIE has been produced. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who might have been one of Ravid's unnamed "Israeli officials," went on Israeli radio this morning to confirm the gist of the story -- that US intelligence now tracks "much, much" closer to Israeli intelligence, but Barak walked back from calling this new US intelligence an actual NIE.

To top things off, the reporter who broke the "exclusive" that has yet to be confirmed by any other news source went on an Israeli TV news show for a live interview, and then raised speculation (more like Israeli government wishful thinking) he has overheard that this new NIE might very well serve as the pretext for a possible "October surprise" attack by the Obama administration. And for me, at that point, we pass into a world of conspiracy theories and invisible goblins. You got my attention, working journalist, but your performance on the TV show is less than reassuring.

The truly foolish character in this episode so far is not the journalist, who has double-sourced his story. The foolish character is once again Ehud Barak. In Hebrew, there is a saying "ratz le-sapper la-chevreh" which means "run to tell your buds" and it refers to the rampant gossiping and loose lips of Israeli soldiers and politicians. There have been a string of high-level US administration visitors to Israel in the last few weeks (Scanlon, Clinton, Panetta), and it looks like Barak ran to breathlessly tell his buds, the local journalist du jour, that the US is now seeing Iranian intentions the same as Israel. And I have no doubt that it was Ravid's sources -- and not Ravid -- who used the words "National Intelligence Estimate."

This story could change by the minute or by the hour. So don't hold me to any of it. It seems intriguing, but it may turn out to be much ado about nothing.

So all I am saying is this: I still stand by my prediction -- no Israeli aerial attack on Iranian nuclear installations in 2012. If this report by Mr. Ravid is confirmed (and not simply bounced around the world as a headline, citing his lone story as the source), I will reconsider. And don't ask me about 2013...

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Bibi and the Bomb

A different Jericho missile
I want to refer you all to a very interesting episode that transpired yesterday about an event that took place back in 1998 during Binyamin Netanyahu's first tour as PM of Israel, which was documented yesterday in a short posting that was written by Noam Sheizaf on the web magazine +972, and was also commented upon (in Hebrew) in an even shorter posting by the media monitor web site "The 7th Eye" of the Israel Democracy Institute.
Pinhas Lavon
It all began when the Haaretz columnist Sefi Rachlevsky published an article entitled (in Hebrew) "The 'Disastrous Affair' Syndrome" (Sindrom Eseq ha-Bish) and in English "The Secret Behind an Iran War Order" (unfortunately, behind the Haaretz English paywall). The Hebrew phrase Eseq ha-Bish is a well-known historical/political term for what is known in English as the Lavon Affair, a bungled Israeli "false flag" operation which took place in 1954, when a group of Egyptian Jews were recruited by Israeli military intelligence to blow up a string of Egyptian, British, and American sites in Egypt. The intent of the operation was to mobilize American and British leaders into a hostile attitude towards Egyptian President Nasser's new rule. The cell succeeded with a string of small explosions, including the US Information Agency facilities in Alexandria and Cairo, and was then uncovered. It is a very complicated episode, which resulted in damaged relations between Israel and the US and the UK, and caused a subterranean crisis in the Israeli government (which publicly denied any involvement in the operation), eventuating the resignation of the Israeli Defense Minister Pinhas Lavon, and the return of then-retired David Ben Gurion to the Defense Ministry, and eventually to the Prime Ministership.
Rachlevsky is a controversial journalist who first made a name for himself with a best-selling investigative book in 1998 entitled Messiah's Donkey, which has never been translated into English. Written in the aftermath of the Rabin assassination and on the eve of Netanyahu's rise to power, the book was an examination of the messianic and racist doctrines of contemporary Israeli religious Judaism and painted an extremely dark portrait for the future of liberal democratic values in the Jewish state. In 2008 he published a second book in a similar vein entitled No Limit. As best I can determine, Rechlevsky became a regular columnist for Haaretz in 2011.
The main point of Rachlevsky's column yesterday was to argue that Netanyahu intends to run yet another Eseq ha-Bish by unilaterally attacking Iran in October of this year -- just weeks before the US presidential elections -- in order to hopefully draw the much more capable yet reluctant American military into an unavoidable attack on Iranian nuclear facilities.
Wrote Rechlevsky:
The logic is simple. According to Netanyahu and Barak, Israel has the military power to delay Iran's nuclear project by only one year. This is the up-to-date estimate based on operations research by the body in charge of the matter in Israel: the air force. There is no significance to a delay of that length. There is, however, a force that can stop the Iranian project militarily: the United States. The problem, Netanyahu says, is that the U.S. administration is not willing to do so.
The solution is simple. A moment before the U.S. presidential elections, when Mitt Romney - the candidate of Netanyahu's patron, Sheldon Adelson - is breathing down Barack Obama's neck, and in the wake of the large number of casualties and the extensive damage that the Iranian response is likely to cause in the region and particularly in Israel, the American president will have no choice but to order his armed forces to join in the war.
Netanyahu is gambling that if Obama does not do so, he will lose the elections. Then Romney will replace him and, as a token of gratitude, will complete the military work. And if the gamble fails? For that there is no backup plan. 

Whatever the wisdom of Rechlevsky's editorial speculation (and I remain unpersuaded), there is a significant difference between the print version of the article and the e-version of the article. An entire paragraph from the Hebrew print version is absent from the online version, and therefore also from the English online version. This difference was (first?) noted by researcher Avner Cohen, author of two definitive academic studies of Israel's own nuclear program and policy and posted on his Facebook page.
Here is a translation of the missing paragraph:
In 1998, Saddam Hussein, weakened by the American no-flight zone, made one hollow threat. In response, [Prime Minister Binyamin] Netanyahu ordered to consider the arming of Jericho missiles. An order that wasn’t issued even during the [1973] Yom Kippur War, under a fear of destruction. Three people went to Netanyahu: Ariel Sharon, [former Chief of Staff and minister] Rafael Eitan, and CoS Amnon Lipkin-Shahak. They told him to relax, take a pill, and forget about it. Some things even a prime minister shouldn’t do. Will [Ehud] Barak be one of the three this time around? I don’t know.
Left unspoken is that the phrase "the arming of Jericho missiles" means only one thing -- nuclear warheads. The Jericho medium range ballistic missile isn't Tony Stark's fictional weapon; it is an Israeli weapons system that is apparently on its third iteration and reportedly has an accurate range which would include Iran. This 1998 incident, now reported by multiple sources, apparently generated an unusual editorial by the famed (and now deceased) Haaretz military correspondent Zeev Schiff in 2001 about the need to review nuclear release authority in Israel in the light of Israel's "extreme and unbalanced" political leadership. 
Online speculation has it that the military censor got wind of Rachlevsky's article in the print version, which had not been submitted to censorship review, and insisted that the online version not carry the paragraph. Haaretz, it is then speculated, complied with the order. The 7th Eye reports that neither the military censor nor Haaretz will comment on the article's treatment.
This of course raises the thorny issue of the Israeli military censorship regime. Aluf Benn, the current editor-in-chief of Haaretz, has in the past criticized the censorship regime regarding the nuclear question. There is a long history of combat between Israeli media and the military censor. Normally, it is the paper's responsibility to submit potentially offending news articles to the censor for review. Negotiations ensue, an administrative review might be held, but the censor's ruling is final. Occasionally a paper protests the censor's decision by publishing a blank paragraph or sentence to indicate to readers the hand of the censor. Sometimes an Israeli journalist will "pass" the item to a foreign journalist and get it printed with an overseas dateline. Foreign journalists who run afoul of the censorship regime (a very rare occurrence, insofar as foreign journalists rarely have access to truly sensitive information) have lost their press credentials and been required to leave the country.
It is safe to assume that Rachlevsky's op-ed piece was never submitted for review, insofar as the 1998 incident it recounts is a widely known "urban legend" that has been recounted in public many times. Yet the paragraph must have hit a nerve, as the debate over an attack on Iran has become more heated in recent weeks. One can imagine that there must have been a bit of an argument between Benn and the military censor Col. Sima Vaknin-Gil yesterday, but in the end Haaretz -- as it must according to the long-standing understanding between censorship authorities and the media -- relented. Not a great moment in the history of what many believe is "Israel's only 'quality' newspaper" and not a great moment for the military censor, who apparently demanded a change in an opinion piece before it was placed online. But the "missing" paragraph is nevertheless part of the public record, found in every paper copy of yesterday's edition, and on the internet for anyone who digs a bit.
So this entire episode raises a number of dark semi-secrets that touch upon Israel's plans for Iran, the nature of Israel's free press, and the competency of Netanyahu's judgment. You can draw your own conclusions.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The 70-Day Reign of King Bibi (Part II)

Earlier today in Part I I briefly recounted the back story concerning yesterday's developments in Israeli domestic politics -- the resignation of the senior coalition partner from Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu's seemingly formidable national unity government, a development not nearly as newsworthy as its creation 70 days ago.
In Part II I want to look at what this change to Netanyahu's ruling government portends.
Does this most recent bout of musical chairs in Jerusalem tell us anything about Netanyahu's threat to order his military to openly attack Iranian nuclear installations? For reasons I have explained elsewhere, neither the inclusion of the Kadima party into the governing coalition back in early May nor its recent departure serve as a marker in determining Israeli actions against Iran. Any foolish conspiracy theorist who conjures up a scenario which uses this maneuvering as a readable tea leaf concerning Netanyahu's plans for Iran, or the timing for a strike, is simply over-reaching. I go on record for a third time in as many months stating that there will be no Israeli attack on Iran in 2012. The outcome of American domestic elections has far more to do with Netanyahu's calculations than anything going on between coalition partners in Israel.
But this then brings us to the question of when Israeli voters might go to the polls, because it is my contention that Netanyahu will not strike Iran before November, 2012 (because of the US elections) nor during an Israeli election cycle (which is usually a short 90-day European-style parliamentary campaign). Here the calculation has shifted a bit.
The full life expectancy for Bibi's coalition government (a 4-year term) brings us out to approximately October, 2013. The government almost dissolved itself in late April, 2012, with anticipated elections in September. But then in a dramatic late-night machination, Bibi announced the inclusion of 28-seat Kadima into a new national unity government, which held for exactly 70 days. Now that this arrangement has dissolved, calls have suddenly arisen to move the elections to the first quarter of 2013. But for the moment these calls are no more than wishful thinking on the part of pundits and weak opposition politicians. One window of opportunity for a military operation might exist for Netanyahu between November and year's end (Israel used the pause between American elections and inauguration back in December 2008-January 2009 for Cast Lead), but if first quarter 2013 elections are held, even that window is shut.
There are forces in play that might persuade Netanyahu to opt for early elections. All the opposition parties are now in complete disarray. Snap elections would likely produce a reaffirmation of Netanyahu's continued rule with a fresh mandate. But at the same time, Netanyahu has been weakened considerably in stature by this 70-day ruse, and has thus put his reputation at greater risk than it was in April. Furthermore, the social-justice protest movement of 2011 is in the process of re-energizing. The prospect for a second summer in a row of 300,000 Tel Avivis marching against the government's failed economic policies (the first signs of a recession have arrived to the Israeli economy) can not be the backdrop against which Bibi wants to run a campaign.
What are the alternatives to Bibi? The Israeli political system tends to prefer former PMs over new faces, and Israel currently has 5 living Prime Ministers. Two of the 5 are not possibly fit to return to the job: Ariel Sharon is a vegetable in a hospital bed at Hadassah Hospital, and President Shimon Peres is 92 years old. Aside from Bibi, there is the current Defense Minister Ehud Barak and there is Ehud Olmert. Barak today is the leader of a tiny parliamentary vanity party created as cover for his defection from once powerful Labor, which he once led, and has tied his fortunes to Netanyahu. Olmert was recently exonerated by an Israeli court of serious corruption charges (but faces some further charges) and is lurking in the shadows, possibly planning to grab the reigns of the now desultory Kadima. Other than that, there is no politician on the radar screen who can emerge as a credible rival in a snap election. I'd keep my eye on Olmert.
Back to FM Lieberman & PM Netanyahu
A weakened and somewhat humiliated Netanyahu will perform as he always has: he will prefer to stay in power with his current coalition of 66 seats than face the roll of the dice which snap elections entails. But this means Bibi must mollify his current coalition partners, which he is growing less able to do. Weakened by the entire affair, King Bibi will sit on his hands as long as he can. And that means that once again -- as it was from 2009 until mid-2012, the kingmakers in the government of Israel are Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, head of the senior coalition partner Yisrael Beiteinu party (15 seats), and Minister of Internal Affairs Eli Yishai, head of the religious Shas party (10 seats). One of the disputes between these two coalition partners was the very issue of national conscription, which brought Netanyahu to the brink of calling early elections and led to the inclusion of Kadima. That unresolved issue looms over the immediate horizon. If either of these smallish parties bolt the coalition, the government collapses. It will take all of Netanyahu's hemming and hawing to keep them in. My bet is a line from an Arik Einstein song: "Outwards, it's all for the country, but inwards, it's all for the seat." In other words, better to stay in power in a government where everyone possesses the deterrent of mutually assured destruction than face an unpredictable and fickle electorate.
What does this mean for the Arab-Israeli conflict? Here, the answer is simple -- this contraction of the national unity government into its former hard-right format does not bode well for the moribund peace process, the prospects for a 2-state solution, or the easing of tensions. Kadima had placed some flowery language in its now tattered coalition agreement about taking historic risks for peace with the Palestinians, but none of it now matters. Once again fractured Israel, the various Palestinian Hatfields and McCoys, and the United States aren't interested right now in anything involving the peace process. In fact, I expect a turn further to the right in the peace process from the revived hard-right Netanyahu government. That might be the only way Bibi can keep Lieberman and Yishai at bay.
Syria's dynasty of Alawites is unraveling in the streets of Fortress Damascus. A new Muslim Brotherhood president and legislature is locked in a struggle for legitimacy with the generals of Egypt. Palestine is absorbed with the bones of Yasser Arafat. The US is about to enter its debilitating silly season.
And King Bibi has been brought back down to earth.

The 70-Day Reign of King Bibi (Part I)

Like all celebrity marriages, the nuptials were far more exciting than the divorce.
Seventy days ago, Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu arranged the creation of Israel's largest unity government in the annals of the young country's politics. Composed of an unassailable super-majority of 94 parliamentarians (out of 120), the new unity government promised that Bibi would be able to live out the full 4 years of his premiership free of even the occasional nuisance of a symbolic no-confidence vote in the Knesset, given that Israeli law requires such a motion garner the signatures of 40 MKs. With a wall-to-wall parliamentary coalition, not even that often futile maneuver lay on the horizon. Ninety-four seats meant that Bibi could claim to his nation and to his dwindling list of allies that whatever path he chose -- on Iran, on the Palestinians, on the question of conscription, on the national budget -- he had the full support of his democracy. On May 28, his face was draped on the cover of Time magazine and he was proclaimed "King Bibi." He was the master of his domain.
Some in the Israeli media and amongst the sherds of what remained of the opposition howled in disdain. But what Bibi was attempting was nothing short of a complete realignment of Israeli politics -- he was attempting to revive the grand coalition that once made up his own party, the right-nationalist Likud, which had been ripped apart in 2005 by its creator, Ariel Sharon. Back in 2005, facing a drumbeat of internal opposition to his Gaza disengagement from within Likud, Sharon created a brand-new vanity party of moderate Likudniks called Kadima (literally: "Forward"). A few spurned members of the main opposition Labor, including no less than Shimon Peres, joined the new party, but it left the Likud diehards (under the leadership of Netanyahu) an isolated boutique opposition party, to be consigned to irrelevancy for the next election cycle.
Within a few short months of its creation, Sharon stroked out, and the raison d'etre for Kadima disappeared. But Kadima somehow managed to survive the ensuing crisis as the accidental caretaker PM Ehud Olmert squeaked out an electoral victory in 2006 and kept the Kadima moderates in power. Olmert, who presided over a stormy and militaristic premiership, was in turn eventually accused by the State Attorney of rampant corruption, and was forced to resign, leading to a power struggle between lesser personalities (former Likudniks all) in the progressively more pointless grab bag known as Kadima.
When Bibi's Likud lost the election (Kadima actually won one more seat than Likud) but won the default opportunity to assemble his premiership in 2009, he had a choice. Netanyahu could form a right-center coalition with Kadima, or a hard-right coalition with smaller nationalist and religious parties. He chose the latter route, leaving Kadima outside. Netanyahu would have a second chance to be PM.
What remained of Kadima was a party with no galvanizing personality and no political agenda. Internal squabbling ensued. The leader who had presided over Kadima's electoral "almost" victory, former Likudnik Tzipi Livni (who couldn't muster religious or right wing support in her attempt to form a government), was challenged over her bumbling record by former Likudnik Shaul Mofaz, who promised Kadima functionaries a different outcome. In internal elections earlier this year, Mofaz trounced Livni. Then, as the prospect for early elections (which pollsters predicted Bibi would handily win) loomed over the country, Mofaz struck a deal with Bibi, and brought his bloc of 28 MKs into a numerically unprecedented national unity government. Simultaneously, Livni quit the party, and resigned her political post as Knesset member. Mofaz could also read polls, and understood that the Israeli electorate had grown weary of Kadima. Early elections (which might have been held in September) would spell the effective end of Kadima. So Mofaz traded certain electoral demise in 3 months' time for a seat at the cabinet table for 16 months.
That was 70 days ago.
What prompted all this maneuvering in early May was a ruling by the Israeli Supreme Court that the government of Israel's conscription law was unconstitutional. A makeshift and temporary law had been crafted in 2002 which had attempted to address the inequity of Israel's conscription regime (which granted an automatic deferment to ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students) by essentially encoding the inequity into law, and it was this so-called "Tal law" that was judged unconstitutional. The unconstitutional law had expired, and by Supreme Court decree the government of Israel had  until August 1 to come into compliance. The first among many intractable domestic issues which Bibi and Mofaz committed themselves to was to construct an equitable resolution for Israel's illegal conscription farce, all by the August 1 deadline.
Seventy days ago, Bibi made it sound like he was finally ready to accede to the demands of the secular Israeli majority, and together with Mofaz he would craft a historic conscription law which would bring the ultra-Orthodox citizens of Israel into the shared responsibility of national service. But when the moment of decision came, King Bibi reverted to form. It is now a well-known pattern of his leadership: Netanyahu consistently prefers stasis over any change that threatens his comfortable rule. 
Mofaz, known to change positions on a dime, this time stood his ground, and yesterday the national unity government dissolved after the Kadima parliamentarians voted 25 to 3 to leave the government.
And with that, the grand reunification of Likud ended. And with it came the end of Mofaz's attempt to resuscitate Kadima and assert his relevancy as a potential national leader.
BUT, the withdrawal of Kadima does not mean the collapse of Netanyahu's ruling coalition (now still a respectable 66-seat majority). No longer a wall-to-wall PM, but merely a PM presiding over a hard-right coalition, former King Bibi still rules the land. There is even the possibility that some  holdouts might jump the sinking ship of Kadima and join Bibi's Likud, making his coalition even more solid. Whether elections come as scheduled in October 2013 or a bit earlier, Bibi -- tarnished by this maneuvering but not mortally wounded -- remains PM. 
What does it all mean (for Iran, for the Arab-Israeli conflict, and for Israeli domestic politics)? For that, I'll have another posting later today.

Part II can be found here.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Why I'm Betting Obama is a One-Term President

According to the smart observers of the American presidential campaign, President Barack Obama is maintaining a statistically insignificant national 2-point lead over Republican challenger Mitt Romney. When one looks at the battleground states, there seems to be a slight advantage in electoral college results to Obama, projected around 330-208 (certainly a comfortable margin). The thoughtful FiveThirtyEight blog is currently indicating a better than 60% likelihood that Obama will win the November election. We are still a few weeks away from the national conventions, with 3 presidential and one vice-presidential debates to come thereafter. The campaign hasn't really begun.
Back in late 2011, before the Republican field had been winnowed down, I made a bet with one of my colleagues, and another with one of my former students, that BHO will be a one-term president. I think I made the first bet when Texas Governor Rick Perry was the flavor of the week. Even back then I was fairly certain that Romney would be the Republican nominee, but I wasn't counting on that. I was instead relying on three other factors, which I believe are still in play here in July.
First - the economy. It is a well-known historical fact that no modern post-WWII incumbent has been reelected when the unemployment rate is above 7.2%. As we have seen, the employment numbers this summer are stalled out in the low 8's, with no indication of a dramatic change in the offing. Unless the undecideds conclude that 8.0+% unemployment is the new "normal," I expect that the unemployment gauge (and all it portends about the health of the economy) is sufficiently determinant. People may like BHO, but conclude that despite having inherited an economic disaster from his predecessor, he is incapable of managing the American economy and the politics it has produced.
Reelection and Consumer Confidence
Second - what I call the "perfect storm" argument. I believe the 2008 election cycle generated a perfect storm of circumstances that allowed an inexperienced first-term black junior senator from Illinois to win the presidency, a concatenation of circumstances which will not be repeated in 2012. That 2008 campaign was conducted against the backdrop of a nightmare collapse of the US banking system and the American automotive industry, all tied in the public perception to the ineptitude of the Republican White House. Furthermore, the elder Republican nominee went "rogue" and selected an unvetted VP who was simply not up to the task, setting off alarms amongst undecided voters. Finally, there was the symbolic and tantalizing promise that by accepting a black President, the American voter could shake off centuries of racism in a single private act in the ballot box. This perfect storm was enough to give BHO a 53-47 popular vote victory and a 365-173 electoral vote victory.
But that perfect storm does not exist in 2012. The economy is anemic but not in apocalyptic crisis. Mitt Romney will certainly pick a reassuring VP candidate. And having crossed the racial Rubicon in 2008, American voters will now treat race as a non-issue, and will judge the incumbent on other considerations.
Finally - the question of leadership. I will accept the argument that Obama has been acceptably good on foreign and national security affairs, and I think the American electorate accepts that this is the case. But domestically, BHO (or as he is sometimes known: "no drama Obama") has proven to be a poor political practitioner. Particularly after the drubbing the Democrats suffered in the 2010 congressional elections, Obama has been stymied by a very partisan and stubborn Congress. The true value of a president is how he politically maneuvers against that kind of opposition. And in this instance, Obama has been singularly inept and ineffective.
Now none of this argues that Romney is a superior choice. But given the drumbeat of radical Tea Party fervor rumbling through the Republican party, he is a classic "moderate" Republican, a former Massachusetts governor who is the author of the template for the Obama health care plan.
Instead, this will be an election decided by those voters (maybe 10-15% of the electorate) who broke slightly in Obama's favor in 2008 to give him the presidency. The 2012 election will be decided not over Mitt Romney's anemic campaign or his past business dealings. It will be decided on Barack Obama's record - specifically on "the economy, stupid." With unemployment at 8% and GDP growth at 2%, Obama would be pulling off an unprecedented electoral miracle were he to win in November. Can political lightning strike twice for Obama?
I was one of those voters who in 2008 had great reservations about Obama's inexperience and personal narrative. I would've preferred Joe Biden or Hilary Clinton at the top of the Democratic ticket. A lifelong Democrat, I decided fairly late in the game in 2008 to vote for Obama. I haven't made up my mind yet, though I suspect I will vote against my bet. But I am one of those undecided voters. To repeat, the campaign hasn't really begun. As of today, the electoral margins in Obama's favor are far from decisive.
I still think Obama is a one-term president.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

One Year Later: Israel's #j14 Social-Justice Movement

It was a year ago today that protest tents first went up on Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv. From that moment forward the massive social-protest movement has been known in the Twitterverse by the hashtag #j14 (the english letter "j" for July and "14" for the date). For Israeli tweeters this was a conscious aping of the Arab Spring, which used #j25 for January 25 (2011), the date the first major protest in Tahrir Square against Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's rule.
In a sad commentary on the Israeli social-protest movement, the makeshift leadership of the social-protest movement split over matters big and small, and tonight Tel Aviv played host to 2 separate and competing protests. Everything in Israeli politics is fissile - it's like the old Jewish saying: "Put 2 Jews in a room and you'll have 3 opinions." Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu could not have hoped for a better outcome had tonight's anniversary fizzled into a media sideshow.  A year ago, the Israeli news channels led their evening news with the tent protest, and covered the swelling movement with breathless excitement. Tonight, the evening news (as the evening began) placed the anniversary as the third story.
But then something completely unanticipated occurred. In the midst of one of the 2 protest marches at about 10 pm, a 50-something man distributed copies of a suicide declaration to bystanders, read it aloud, doused himself in a flammable liquid, and set himself on fire. Bystanders put the fire out, and the man was transferred to a hospital in serious condition, with 80% burns.

The man, identified as Moshe Silman, opens his letter by stating that "the State of Israel has stolen from me and robbed me, left me with nothing" and calls Netanyahu and Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz "scumbags." In his letter, Silman claims he served in the Israeli Army and was a reservist but because of health conditions had lost the ability to work and had been abandoned by the social network of the Israeli state.
I am not sure, but I believe that this is the first act of self-immolation as protest in modern Israeli society. As a cultural phenomenon, it is a novum. This is only the second time in modern Israeli history that a protester resorted to self-immolation. In 2005 an opponent of the Gaza disengagement set herself on fire and died of her burns 9 days later (there was no video of her act). Now in 2012, echoes of the Arab Spring might be reverberating inside Israel. Will this culturally shocking act of political protest galvanize the #j14 movement, as did the self-immolation of Tunisian street vendor Muhammad Bouazizi serve to ignite the Arab Spring? Or will it be forgotten as an act of a madman, consigned to a news cycle and of no import?
It cannot be known. But the possibility now exists that the #j14 movement, which had initially been dismissed by opponents as a Yuppified "tent city of  nargilas and sushi," (on July 18 - 4 days into the protest - I had dismissed at as a non-event) has tragically inherited a symbol capable of energizing (and reuniting) the movement for the summer of 2012.
Now the wisdom of Netanyahu's 2 month-old kombina with Vice PM Shaul Mofaz is clear. Imagine for a moment if this protest had occurred 70 days before a domestic election?

Friday, May 11, 2012

Summing up: iPhone 4/4s in Israel (Unlock)

No posts have gotten more hits than my 2 posts on using a U.S.-contract (AT&T etc.)  iPhone 4 in Israel. You may have found this posting by way of one of those two posts. I thought I'd revisit the issue in a streamlined way and sum up the current situation. (Everything applies to the iPhone 4s; my personal experience is with an AT&T iPhone 4). (Note: I've updated this entry as of 9/27/12 to incorporate new information with the release of the iPhone 5.)
(And as of 12/12/12, this color represents an even later update for iPhone5.)

Of course, you can pay your U.S.-based carrier prices and just use your phone in Israel. But those prices are outrageous. There is a cheaper way - go local. Get a local Israeli phone number and pay significantly cheaper local rates.

My proposed solution works only if you own a GSM-based iPhone 4. In other words, Verizon iPhone 4 users can stop reading right now. Update: but many sites report that Verizon has issued their new iPhone 5 (which has a GSM slot) with the GSM unlocked. Thus, for world travelers the Verizon iPhone 5 may be the easiest and most cost-effective solution. However, some online news sites suggest that Verizon may switch the unlocked state off in some future iOS software update (this happened before with other carriers) - so be warned! In the meantime, Verizon has announced it will unlock the SIM on the 4S upon request.

What you need to do is unlock your phone from your current carrier to turn it into an unlocked (sometimes: "universal") iPhone 4. All this means is that your device (which has a unique identifier) is no longer locked into your U.S. carrier's system, and can be universally used with any GSM-based network in the world. Then, when you get to Israel, purchase a Pay-As-You-Go (PAYG) microSIM GSM card with minutes (and even PAYG 3G data schemes are available).  
Turn your phone off. Pop out your U.S. carrier microSIM card and put in the Israeli card. Turn your phone back on. You now are on a native domestic network, with your own Israeli number. If you set things up correctly, you can even have English language prompts when connecting with network services. I have experience with the Israeli phone carrier Orange, but there are other carriers such as Cellcom. The Orange PAYG card is marketed as "big talk" (all lower case; here is the link to the Hebrew page.).
Update: the iPhone 5 uses a new GSM SIM card format dubbed the nanoSIM. Israeli carrier Cellcom is reportedly selling the nanoSIM already (for 99 NIS) as Israelis have already started showing up at Ben Gurion airport with brand new unlocked iPhone 5s. I do not know yet if the other major carrier Orange Israel makes its PAYG chip in the nanoSIM format. Remember, the iPhone 5 is not yet officially available to the Israeli market. There is already information that a cutting tool exists for turning a microSIM into a nanoSIM, and while there is a slight reduction in the thickness of the nanoSIM card, users report that the slightly thicker cut-down microSIM will work in an iPhone 5. But be warned!
So the key for this simple solution is to possess an unlocked iPhone 4. You have 3 options for getting an unlocked iPhone:

1. Buy an unlocked iPhone
Apple has been selling unlocked iPhone 4 and 4s devices since late 2010. They are very expensive, insofar as they are sold without the carrier subsidy that comes with a contract. Prices as of today start at $649 for a 4s 16GB (an 8GB 4 goes for $549). Update: Similar prices for an unlocked iPhone 5: $649 for the 16GB; $749 for the 32 GB; and $849 for the 64GB.

There is also a grey-market on eBay, but the savings of $50 or so might not be worth the trouble.

(Or, if you are willing to take a step in the direction of an Android-based phone, Google has started selling their "lead" device, the Galaxy Nexus, for $349 unlocked. But that is a different matter completely.)

If you already own an iPhone 4 or 4s, there remain 2 options:

2. Have your off-contract iPhone 4 unlocked by your U.S. carrier
If you are lucky enough to have an AT&T iPhone 4 which is currently beyond the initial 2-year contact (congrats! you own the phone and have paid the same high price for your device, only you've spread out the extra $400 over 24 months, and paid a little extra to boot), you can request that AT&T unlock your phone. They will do so. This program began in early April, 2012. Check here for the procedure. Update: if you are buying an iPhone 5 and are already the owner of an iPhone 4, AT&T will permit an unlock of your older iPhone 4. After AT&T sends you the acknowledgement, all it takes is a backup and restore via iTunes of your current iPhone 4. Make sure you do this before you activate your new iPhone 5.

3. Do it yourself
If you can't go either of these routes (you own an iPhone 4 or 4s still under contract), there remains a number of software "hacks" (aka "jailbreak") which can turn your device into an unlocked state.  If you aren't tech savvy, this third route might prove to be too daunting. But it can be done.

(12/12/12 Update: there is another way for the AT&T iPhone5 - find a service that will unlock your phone through adjusting your locked status on the Apple database. Search for the term "IMEI Unlock" - and make sure you use a reliable, authenticated service like Applenberry - but be warned: these are not free.)

Be warned! These are software solutions, and can be wiped out if you refresh or upgrade your phone to some newer iOS version number. There is a small tug-of-war going on between Apple and the hackers who creatively come up with these solutions. If you have version envy, and feel you must always upgrade your phone to the latest and greatest, you have to resist that temptation. Sometimes, Apple will release an upgrade of the iOS for the sole purpose of "closing" an opening in the system architecture utilized by the hackers. Also, as part of maintaining control over their product, Apple says that you void the warranty if you do any of these alterations. You'll have to decide if it is worth the tradeoff of the Apple or carrier warranty that comes in exchange for this increased functionality. Millions of iPhone users (but still only a small percentage) have performed these various software alterations successfully. But if your phone goes haywire at some point in the future, you might well be out of luck with Apple.

The methods are different depending on whether you have an iPhone 4 or 4s, and what version of iOS you are currently running. You may find your version number under Settings --> General --> About --> Version.

I can't cover every variation - 4 or 4s, and the numerous iOS versions (and then there is one more issue: the baseband version of your phone). I can recommend that if you've gotten this far, take a look at my prior post, which gets into the technicalities, but is a little outdated. It isn't hard to find reliable information for your phone model or iOS/baseband combo. And there will be circumstances where you are simply out-of-luck: there are certain circumstances (let's say you just bought a new iPhone 4s under U.S.-contract with the latest iOS pre-installed) where the hackers haven't yet caught up to the latest Apple software release.

I'd also recommend staying away from for-fee websites that promise you a remote unlock service. 

Me? I'm right now running iOS 5.0.1 on my iPhone 4; technically that puts me 2 iterations behind the latest released iOS 5.1.1. I'm not suffering because of it. I've used my software-unlocked iPhone 4 in Israel using an Orange number, even with a 3G data plan. Previously, I used my iPhone 3G in Israel and the UK. It can be done.

Update: Me? I just upgraded my iPhone 4 to iOS 6.0 with the official AT&T/Apple unlock. No more jailbreaking for me (at least not for unlocking). My subsidized iPhone 5 arrives in a week arrived, so when I travel I'll just use my unlocked iPhone 4. (Update 12/12/12: I have verified that I have unlocked my AT&T iPhone5)

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Israel: While you were sleeping...

Exactly a week ago, I wrote a blog entry entitled "New Elections in Israel?" (note the question mark) which began with the line: "Nothing is a certainty in Israeli politics..." and then surveyed the skyline in anticipation of a September election. I am not claiming any prognosticative brilliance, but I will say I hedged my bets sufficiently to cover the stunning political turn of events which transpired at 2 in the morning in Israel.

This is not the first time that the citizens of Israel went to bed certain of a political outcome, only to wake up to a new political order. Almost 16 years ago, in the general elections for the 14th Kenesset, the Israeli public "went to sleep with Peres, and woke up with Netanyahu." Back on May 29, 1996, the votes had been counted, the television projections had all been made, and it was clear that night that Labor's caretaker PM Shimon Peres had won a squeaker of an election. When the morning came, Binyamin Netanyahu had a 1% lead in the real vote count, and went on to become the 27th PM of Israel.

Bibi (now the 32nd PM) did it again. Monday night the Israeli public went to sleep as the Kenesset was actually voting on dissolving itself and scheduling new elections for September 4, and by Tuesday morning the elections had been cancelled, and a new national unity government of 94 impregnable seats had been created in the middle of the night. By bringing in the 28 chairs of the Kadima party (under the leadership of former CoS and Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz), Netanyahu has apparently guaranteed his second term as PM will go the full distance, until October 2013, with a legislative mandate that cannot be undermined. This is no trivial accomplishment - there hasn't been a PM that has gone a full 4-year term in 30 years.

The cynicism of the late night political marriage has reignited the use of an interesting Israeli political slang term: kombina. It means something like a "machination" or "subterfuge" - a distasteful and unworthy combination. Mofaz had inherited 28 seats when he beat Tzipi Livni for the leadership of Kadima. The polls, as I noted, were all pointing to electoral disaster for Kadima in the autumn. Understandably so, given that Kadima had nothing to show for itself despite being the largest party in the current Kenesset. Mofaz, who not too long ago - Newt Gingrich-style - called Netanyahu a "liar" and vowed on Facebook to never, ever sit in a coalition with Netanyahu, reached out to Netanyahu's people with a plan. In exchange for 17 certain months on the inside with 28 seats, Mofaz offered to give Bibi an undisputed national unity government. By proposing this kombina, Mofaz assured his relevance for 17 months, and quite likely put the last nail into the strange vanity-party created by Ariel Sharon known as Kadima.

So let's take a look at the new landscape. First - Iran. I have elsewhere contended that 2012 will not be the year that Israel attacks Iranian nuclear installations, and I stand by that prediction. For all those who speculated that snap elections were designed to prepare for an autumn attack, and for all those (me) who predicted that snap elections precluded the possibility of an autumn attack - well, we now all have to go back to the blackboard. What does a national unity government portend?

Some have argued that an impregnable national unity coalition means an attack is imminent. In the past, national unity governments in Israel have often served to provide the domestic stability required for bold military moves. How can any American President in an election year stand up against an Israeli Prime Minister brandishing 80% of the country's legislators in his pocket? By shoring up all domestic support in an absolutely unassailable majority, it is argued that the likelihood of a sooner-rather-than-later Israeli attack has increased dramatically in the last 24 hours.

I don't buy it. The closed inner cabinet which will someday vote on an attack has just been increased by one seat. Sitting around Netanyahu are now 3 Chiefs of Staff (the current Ganz, and the 2 formers: Barak and Mofaz). Ganz has publicly expressed his hesitancy, and Mofaz (who has a history of changing positions) talks of a 2-year window for making the decision. Only one of the generals, Barak, talks of a 6-9 month window. If anything, the inclusion of Mofaz makes an attack even less likely this year. Mofaz is an interesting character: Iranian born, he served as lieutenant to Yoni Netanyahu on the heroic 1976 Entebbe raid that resulted in Yoni's tragic death, he served as CoS during brother Binyamin Netanyahu's first stint as PM, and was selected by Ariel Sharon to be Defense Minister. He is tough on security, and unrepentantly changes his political colors and his counsel as the situation dictates. So there is simply no way to predict what he will now counsel inside the inner cabinet forum. It seems to me that Mofaz's inclusion means more indecision, not less.

As to the Palestinians: here I think the inclusion of Kadima points to a possible softening of Israel's stance regarding Israel-Palestine. Back in 2009, when Netanyahu was forming the current government, he had a choice: create a right-center coalition with Kadima (the largest party) or a hard right coalition (with a range of right and religious parties). Netanyahu chose the latter, and then dug in his heels against the Obama administration. With Kadima now in, as well as all the right and religious parties, there is some new room to maneuver on Palestine. I don't hold out much hope for this scenario, because as long as the rightist and religious parties stay put, nothing can really change. But in Israeli politics, nothing lasts forever.

There are a variety of deadlines built into this kombina which present political opportunities. By July 31, the new government is obliged to come up with a replacement for the Tal Law, which deals with the question of the (non-) induction of ultra-Orthodox men into military or national service. This is a very divisive domestic issue, which could unravel today's political victory. By the end of the year, the coalition is similarly obliged to come up with new protocols for the streamlining of governmental business, also a sticky wicket. Upon the arrival of these built-in deadlines, any of the coalition members, but particularly Kadima, could dissolve the agreement. Imagine for a moment Mofaz coming out before the cameras: "I tried. But Bibi is a liar, as I always contended. I walk away and wash my hands of the entire deal." And that would be that.

Bottom line: Netanyahu, facing the likelihood of an electoral victory which would have strengthened his position for 2-3 years, chose instead a kombina which likely guarantees 17 months of unimpeded leadership, and then a gigantic question mark thereafter. Mofaz, facing electoral disaster, chose instead 17 months of being on the inside, in exchange for an even bigger question mark thereafter. Quite a roll of the dice, which could come back to bite the two of them in late 2013.

There is much more to report: what does this mean for Yair Lapid and Shelly Yachimovich, who now have to wait 17 long months before they can test their messages with the Israeli public; what happens to rambunctious Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and the religious parties, who until now were the pedestals of the former government coalition; what of the social justice movement and the Israeli economy; and what of former Kadima leader Tzipi Livni (now vindicated or permanently humiliated)? For now, dear readers, we will have to wait, because this blog is already too long.

In the meantime, sweet dreams.

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

New Elections in Israel?

Nothing is a certainty in Israeli politics, but it looks like on this coming Sunday PM Binyamin Netanyahu is going to call for "early" elections to take place sometime in September or October 2012. Let's assume the rumors and leaks swirling through the Israeli media are accurate, and take a look at the landscape as a summer election campaign approaches.

Most important: one has to factor in a domestic election campaign regarding speculation concerning a possible Israeli strike on Iran anytime this year. It is hard to imagine that such a strike would be initiated during an election cycle. Were Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak to order a strike during the summer, it would be the equivalent of a mega-"October surprise" and would be an impossible shock to the system, necessitating a suspension of the election for a time. So I think it is fair to draw a simple conclusion: elections in the fall means no Israeli airstrike on Iran for the remainder of 2012.

The standard narrative going into an election cycle is clear: Netanyahu believes that a quick snap election will help solidify his party the Likud. The Israeli center and left are in disarray. All the polls, which are a snapshot of the Israeli electorate's mood as of the moment, suggest that Netanyahu and Likud will do just fine, and will be able to assemble another right-leaning government in time to face either an Obama or (better yet, from Netanyahu's view) Romney White House. The tough decisions of a new budget will be better served by a new coalition agreement. Thus, elections.

Here are the facts: Russians will vote for Russians. Religious Jews will vote for religious parties. That takes care of roughly a third of the Israeli electorate. On domestic and budgetary issues, these two camps are at loggerheads -- in fact the move to early elections has something to do with the incompatibility of these two political camps. Any new coalition will have to choose between one or the other, or else finesse a way to include both. It won't be the Israeli-Palestinian strife or the Iran problem that will matter to these two camps.

Two thirds of the Israeli electorate then divides between a roughly steady 40% supporting Likud and its satellite parties, a steady 40% supporting Labor, or other centrist-left factions, and a typically 20% of  undecided voters who might break one way or the other depending on the vagaries of the day. If that undecided middle breaks in the direction of an anti-Netanyahu political figure, there is a chance of unseating Bibi. Still, all this points to a likely third primeministership for Netanyahu. Nevertheless, there are some things we all should be looking for in the coming months which could upset this scenario.

There is good reason to believe that the summer of 2012 will witness another round of social justice protests in Tel Aviv, spreading to other cities. Very little has changed in the structure of the Israeli economy between the summer of 2011 and today, and many of the issues raised by last summer's #j14 protests (income inequality, housing shortages, and a stifling cost of living) are still of vital concern to Israeli citizens. If the social protest movement is able to reignite the base in the summer of 2012, it will serve as a platform for criticism of the current government, and will have a potential wildcard effect on the vote. Last year's protests, begun in mid-July, peaked in late August and early September. The party best positioned to take advantage of this protest sentiment is Labor, whose current leader MK Shelly Yachimovich has made the economy and social justice the centerpiece of Labor's message.

Kadima, the artificial vanity party creation of Ariel Sharon which drew supporters back in 2005 from both Labor and Likud (and in fact won the largest block of votes in the last round of elections, held in 2009) is likely not going to be as much a factor in the 2012 elections. I expect a large wave of public and private defections from Shaul Mofaz's Kadima to Likud and to Labor. The new face in Israeli politics is former television news reader Yair Lapid, who has only stumbled in the months since he announced his turn to politics. I do not expect great things from Lapid.

One positive from all the maneuvering and defections of the last 4 years will be the end of Ehud Barak. His vanity party Independence (Atzma'ut) will simply disappear, and bring to an end (at least for now) the strange career of Barak.

To sum up: the deck is stacked in Netanyahu's favor, but there are some wildcard factors that might unexpectedly produce a change. I'm looking for Labor and Yachimovich to improve, and Mofaz and Kadima to falter. It's always possible some new charismatic figure might emerge in the coming months, but I judge that an unlikely development. I'll keep an eye on this campaign (if it emerges), and report back to all (4) of you.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Beinart's Crisis of Zionism

I've just finished reading Peter Beinart's The Crisis of Zionism which was also reviewed in yesterday's NYT's Book Review. The book doesn't deserve a full review insofar as it is not a very weighty book. But let me make a few points:

1. The book is not well-structured, and by no means constitutes a discussion of Zionism. It is rather a series of fairly disjointed chapters, though chapters 5 through 8 constitute a tendentious journalistic account of the first 3 years of the Obama-Netanyahu standoff.  The book is more about current trends in American Jewish communal life than it is a book about Zionism.

2. The best chapter by far is chapter 5, entitled "The Jewish President," which contains original reporting on the relationship between Chicagoan Obama and Hyde Park's liberal Jewish intellectual community, beginning with Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf and the 1970s short-lived liberal Zionist group Breira. The conclusion of the chapter, that Obama is somehow an authentically "Jewish" President, is absurd.

3. In Beinart's conclusion, there is a (strange) two-pronged call for (1) an increased use of Jewish parochial schools in American Jewish life and (2) a "Zionist BDS" against what he calls "undemocratic Israel" -- the settler economy of the occupied Palestinian territories of the West Bank. As with Beinart's long essay from the summer of 2010 in which he highlighted the so-called "distancing hypothesis"-- younger American Jews are growing more alienated from the entire matter of Israel as compared to older American Jews -- this book identifies a couple of positions that have long been held by a certain small subset of baby-boomer American Jews. As a journalist and advocate, he is not breaking new ground, but merely giving voice to trends already in place for decades. The call for devoting more communal money to Jewish education goes back to the 1970s, and the practice of observing the "Green Line" and thus treating the settlement undertaking as illegal and illegitimate has been similarly part of the liberal Jewish agenda for 35+ years. Nothing new. Or as one Israeli reviewer put it: "Too little, too late."

4. This book constitutes neither good reporting, nor good scholarship. The reader learns virtually nothing about Zionism, nor the A-I conflict. Omissions of fact and strange twisted narratives of events abound. Even as an account of the Washington-Jerusalem tug-of-war between the years 2009-2011 (which constitutes the core of the book), it is quite mangled. For one example -- the tumultuous events known collectively as the "Arab Spring" garner no more than a single mention.  I cannot recommend the book as a worthwhile read.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Long Con

A long time ago, in the days when I was a kid (or not so long ago, in the days when I was a husband), if I got caught red-handed in the wrong, I'd do everything I could to change the subject. After all - as the saying goes - the best defense is a good offense, or at least a diversion.

Which brings us to Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. In today's Haaretz, diplomatic correspondent Barak Ravid reports that on Bibi's upcoming visit to the United States, the Israeli PM will ask the President of the United States "to state unequivocally that the United States is preparing for a military operation in the event that Iran crosses certain 'red lines.'" You read that right: Bibi (according to an unnamed "senior" Israeli official) is going to ask the US to engage in yet another "WMD-maybe" campaign in the Middle East. Israel may or may not have the capability to attack multiple targets over a week of sorties - no one knows, not even the Israelis - but Bibi apparently is prepared to present President Obama with the request to commit the United States military to such a scenario.

So it has been for the last 4 years between Israel and the Obama administration. Every time the United States wants to talk with Bibi about the Arab-Israeli peace process, Bibi changes the subject. For a time, the Obama administration tried to stay focused on what it would take to jump start the moribund peace process; and at every turn the Israelis responded with the "existential threat" of a nuclear-capable Iran.

The long con has worked. Never mind that absolutely nothing has changed in the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate that Iran is years away from a bomb, and that the Iranian leadership hasn't yet made a decision to go that route. Never mind that the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has repeatedly stood by his 2004 fatwa that nuclear weapons are immoral. (Yes, such a fatwa can be rescinded, but in the land of vilayet-i fagih such a thing is a rare occurrence.) Never mind the clandestine effort to sabotage the Iranian nuclear project and kill its leading nuclear scientists. Never mind that an attack on Iran - Israeli or American - would lead to a surge of nationalist pride for the currently unpopular regime inside Iran, and possible attacks worldwide on American hard and soft targets, and drive the price of oil through the roof. Never mind that a nuclear strike against Israel (with 20% of its population Muslim) would make Iran a pariah within the Muslim world.

Israelis don't see it that way. A few weeks ago, a preposterous but well-done Cloverfield-style video popped up on the Internet, portraying from a ground-level perspective a nuclear attack on Jerusalem - capital of the Jewish state but also home to the Dome of the Rock. Israeli government officials - at least the ones who haven't resigned over the Iran issue - keep repeating the "existential threat" mantra.

Make no mistake: Bibi has effectively changed the agenda of the US-Israel discussion. Israeli settlements are no longer a burning issue, and the Palestinians have no unified political authority to talk to. So Israeli-Palestinian talks are now out of the question. The Arab Spring has rendered the Egypt-Israel rapprochement dead, and any talk of an Israel-Syria deal for the Golan Heights a non-starter for the foreseeable future. There is nothing left on the agenda but Iran. And now that the long con is reaching its culmination, an Israeli PM is reportedly set to spring the final dramatic move - defying 7 decades of agreed policy that the Israelis will never ask American soldiers to shed blood for the homeland. "If you won't commit to a military operation, we will - and by the way we will not give you any warning,"  Just no talk of a peace process - not now while we face down a modern-day nuclear-soon Hitler.

There is some precedent for this kind of Israeli overreaching. In 1956 an Israeli Prime Minister successfully proposed a joint Western-Israeli military imbroglio, when David Ben Gurion proposed to the British Foreign Secretary and the French Defense and Foreign Ministers a grandiose re-ordering of the Middle East which would, among other things, bring an end to the Nasser regime in Egypt and dissolve the kingdom of Jordan, leaving Israel with its West Bank and Iraq with its East. In the end the French and British agreed with Israel to a more limited operation designed to unseat the new military rule of Nasser and return the Suez Canal to Western hands. The ensuing 1956 Suez War was a particular disaster for the French and British, and caused untold embarrassment for Ben Gurion for years to come. 

So this new grandiose Israeli request (if you can call it that) isn't particularly uncharted territory in the annals of Middle Eastern history. This time, there are actually 2 principle players in the proposal: Bibi and his Defense Minister (and former PM) Ehud Barak. Bibi plays the bad cop, Barak the good cop. Barak dangles before the Americans that he is all for a comprehensive Palestinian-Israeli settlement but can't imagine a clear path to that goal without eliminating the destabilizing threat of a nuclear Iran. Bibi will have none of it - charged with the historic mission of saving the Jewish people from a Nazi-like "existential" threat, he won't even broach the possibility of a deal.

And the thing is (I hope): the Obama administration knows it is being conned. There are so many good reasons for the United States not to get militarily involved this year (or the next year, or the next, or the next...) in this truly pointless con. I personally like the route of STUXNET, unexplained explosions in Isfahan, and magnetic bombs on scientists' automobiles. None of this can stop a nuclear Iran, but all of it can push off the decision far beyond the 2015 date found in the NIE. In the end, the world will have to get used to a nuclear Iran, just as we have a nuclear South Korea, a nuclear Pakistan, a nuclear India, and a nuclear Israel. Iran isn't crazy - it is after all a "rational player" in the world according to every war gamer who has played out this scenario. To move from an intentionally vague policy of "nothing is off the table" to a clear commitment to a military operation is folly, despite the drumbeat of the GOP contenders and the breathless American media. Here's hoping that President Obama, finally hearing the true intent of Bibi's long con, simply says "no."