Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Eulogy for My Mother

I offered this eulogy (hesped) at my mother's funeral last week:  

My mother was a brave woman. She did things her way. She left home soon after she graduated from high school to take a look at the bigger world – which for her meant first Detroit, and then California. She was a single working mom before the term had been invented. She lived through a tumultuous time with two tumultuous children.
The book of Proverbs asks eyshet chayil mi yimtza, which we usually render into English as “a woman of valor, who can find.” Chayil is translated here as valour, but we know this word chayil is not unrelated to the modern Hebrew word for “soldier” or “force.”
My mother Marian Harriet Goldish Kiener, Shivya Masa bat Shayne Bayle ve-Shmuel, was not only an unconventional woman of valor in the old-time religion sense of the book of Proverbs; she was also a kind of soldier and she was certainly a force to be reckoned with.
Any child can say this of his or her loving mother – no one has known me longer, worried for my welfare so thoroughly, took my side more often, and delighted in my accomplishments like my mother. My brother and I were rebellious young sons in a singularly rebellious time period. We defied our parents, and our mother in particular, at every turn. To paraphrase the GEICO commercial – “that’s what kids do.” 
She didn’t understand everything we tried or attempted, to be honest, we didn’t understand what we were doing half the time - but the love never wore off. More than 30 years ago my brother defiantly went off to California for a while to find his fortune, but my mother, a single woman in a time long before it was fashionable or acceptable, had already pioneered that path a further 30 years earlier. She acted like she couldn’t understand our youthful defiance, but she was a defiant youth herself, going off to Detroit, then to Minneapolis, then to Los Angeles. She was such a force of nature, a bit of the rebel herself, that even though she played the part of the baffled matriarch shouldered with two rambunctious and error-prone boys, she always forgave, and always found a way for us to come back to her embrace.
She was a soldier. She championed through a long career at Musicland and then earned her well-deserved retirement. She then bravely took off to Arizona to live the retirement dream. And she loved it. But she soldiered through her well-deserved retirement and outlasted almost every one of her friends, and then returned to the land where her two sisters lived.
Finally, my mother was a force to be reckoned with throughout her life and in her last home at Knollwood Place. You could be the CEO of Bristol-Palmolive or the local grocer - expect a long hand-written letter of complaint in wonderfully clear cursive script if you sold her shoddy merchandise or tried to swindle her. She made her expectations known to all, and had a sharp word for those who failed to meet them. But people loved her – because my mother had a marvelous sense of humor. She loved to smile and laugh.
Like a tough, hard-living, fun-loving rebellious soldier, for entertainment she liked to gamble. She ran the BINGO game at Knollwood Place, and helped convene the monthly trip to Mystic Lake. I remember childhood trips to Sioux City where we would bet on the ponies and buy a cooler full of oleomargarine to bring back to Minnesota. In her latter decades, she drew great joy from playing adult penny slot video games at Mystic. To paraphrase the Geico commercial – “that’s what old women do.”
So my mother was a woman of valor, a strong woman, a discerning woman, and a force to be reckoned with. I would not be the man I am today without her love and support. My brother can attest to the same awesome debt we owe her.
Sister to two remarkable women, mother of two, grandmother to six, great-grandmother to one – it’s really a beautiful story, a kind of fairy tale. It all worked out. It was a life well-lived.
Eshet chayil mi yimtza “Who can find a heroic woman?” All of us who knew her knows we saw the real deal. Yehi zikhra barukh– Her Memory has certainly been a blessing to all of us.

Friday, August 28, 2015

MOPing Up Israel

Massive Ordnance Penetrator

As I wrote recently for a lead editorial in my local Jewish newspaper, the opponents to the Iran Deal are "Losing the Battle" in Congress. Even clear-headed opponents to the deal have read the writing on the wall.

So now we move to the next phase, a phase that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to defer until after the Congressional vote - just how will the United States enhance Israel's security from both Iranian behavior outside the nuclear arena, and from the fear that Iran may still cheat on the deal.

There is one crazy idea circulating in Washington for years. It has been trumpeted most recently by the Washington Institute for Near Eastern Policy, the well-placed and highly-regarded pro-Israel think tank. I first heard the idea aloud in a conference call with former Ambassador Dennis Ross about a month ago. Two days ago, Ross was joined by former CIA Director and military wunderkind David Petraeus in an op-ed in The Washington Post to make the case for the crazy idea, entitled "How to Put Some Teeth into the Nuclear Deal with Iran." Coming from two respected insiders, the article is garnering an enormous amount of attention. Here's the gist of their presentation:

The Iranians also should know that if they produce highly enriched uranium — for which there is no legitimate civilian purpose — that we would see that as an intention to make a weapon and would act accordingly. There is no mention of highly enriched uranium in the president’s letter. Although Obama speaks in the letter of providing the Israelis with the BLU-113, a 4,400-pound “bunker buster” bomb, it would not be sufficient to penetrate Fordow, the Iranian enrichment site built into a mountain. For that, the Israelis would need the 30,000-pound massive ordnance penetrator (MOP) and the means to carry it. While some may question whether we would act militarily if the Iranians were to dash to a bomb, no one questions whether the Israelis would do so.
 Bolstering deterrence is essential in addressing key vulnerabilities we see in the deal. A blunter statement on the consequences of Iran moving toward a weapon and of producing highly enriched uranium would allay some of our concerns. Providing the Israelis the MOP and the means to carry it would surely enhance deterrence — and so would developing options now in advance with the Israelis and key Arab partners to counter Iran’s likely surge of support for Hezbollah and other Shiite militias after it gets sanctions relief.
Deterrence would be more effective — and full implementation of the agreement more likely — if the Iranians understand that there will be a price for every transgression, no matter how small, and that we will raise the cost to them of de-stabilizing behavior in the region. The president’s letter to Nadler was useful but fell short of addressing our concerns. It is still possible for the administration to do so.
So that's the crazy idea: give Israel the MOP.

The MOP is one big freaking bomb. It is more than 20 feet long and weighs a minimum of 30,000 lbs, though it only carries something more than 5,000 lbs of explosives. It was developed over the last 5 years by the United States specifically to penetrate through more than 200 feet of mountain protection, and thus could destroy even the most "impregnable" underground facilities in the Iranian nuclear enrichment program.

You can't put the MOP on the tip of a rocket, not even the biggest Minuteman ICBM in the US arsenal. It certainly can't be placed on Israel's largest surface-to-surface Jericho III ballistic missile. You can't mount it on an F-22 or F-35 combat fighter, certainly anything older like an F-16.

There are only two ways to deliver it - the American stealth B-2 Spirit strategic bomber (which can carry two MOPs), or a retrofitted subsonic B-52H Stratofortress strategic bomber (which can carry one). Neither heavy bomber is part of the Israel Air Force inventory.

Thus, to be perfectly clear, any MOPing of Israel entails a credible delivery system. To MOP Israel "and the means to carry it" is to supply Israel with strategic bombers. Period.

Now let's take a look at this a bit more carefully. First, the economics: a single B-2 stealth bomber costs about $2 billion per unit, though I've heard it said that if you deduct research and development, it is more like $900 million per plane. The United States has about 20 B-2s. A B-52H costs far less per unit - only $84 million. The US has 76 of those, with less than a dozen in reserve (the last one was built in 1962).

One can assume that no sane ally would deliver a squadron of supersonic stealth strategic bombers to Israel, which reportedly holds approximately 150 nuclear warheads of various sizes. So because of its expense, and because there are so few to move around, and because it is so dangerous, let's assume the B-2 is off the table, and was not what was intended by Ross and Petraeus.

So the only real option for MOPing Israel is to provide it what is affectionately known as the BUFF (Big Ugly Fat Fucker) - the B-52H. At full weight, the minimum runway length for a BUFF is 11,000 feet, and more typically 13,000 feet, though there are recorded take-offs and landings at shorter lengths. As best I can glean from published sources, there are only two working runways in all of Israel that can handle an eight-engine B-52H - one is at Ben Gurion Airport, and the other, built in the mid-2000s, is at Netavim airbase to the southeast of Beersheva.

Netavim Airbase

So now imagine the delivery of a handful of MOPs to Israel, and a wing (2 planes? 4? 8?) of B-52Hs to go along with it. The Israeli Air Force has never contemplated such a wing. There have been a few published reports in Israel that the Israel Air Force doesn't even want such a thing. The technology is 60 years old, and so are the refurbished airframes, which are projected to remain airworthy for another 30 years.

B-52 Boneyard at David-Monthan Airbase outside Tucson

The B-52 goes against IAF doctrine. Advanced avionics and high performance are the strategic mindset of Israeli fighter pilots. A slow subsonic, 6-person crew bomber from the 1960s just doesn't fit. The IAF would have to build massive facilities, and it would have to train a new generation of pilots, crew, and ground support personnel to handle the BUFFs. Even at an accelerated pace, such a squadron wouldn't be operational for years, and would come at fantastical cost.

Then imagine flying a slow-moving heavy bomber into a well-defended combat environment. Since the MOP is not a stand-off bomb that can be fired from a distance, it must be released in close vertical proximity to its target. And B-52s have been easy targets for a long time. Hell, the North Vietnamese shot down 16 B-52s in 11 days during an air operation in 1972. Without massive suppression of Iranian air defenses as a prelude, no sane Air Force would fly a B-52H into the area.

That doesn't mean that the government of Israel hasn't requested the MOP. It has, reportedly at least 3 times in the past 6 years, and such requests have been consistently rebuffed.

But there may be an even greater impediment to MOPing Israel. The United States and the Russian Federation are bound to a strategic arms agreement known as New START, which went into effect in 2011. According to Article IV of New START, "Strategic offensive arms subject to this Treaty shall not be based outside the national territory of each Party." Heavy bombers are just such "strategic offensive arms."

Article XIII of New START is even more explicit: "To ensure the viability and effectiveness of this Treaty, each Party shall not assume any international obligations or undertakings that would conflict with its provisions. The Parties shall not transfer strategic offensive arms subject to this Treaty to third parties. The Parties shall hold consultations within the framework of the Bilateral Consultative Commission in order to resolve any ambiguities that may arise in this regard. This provision shall not apply to any patterns of cooperation, including obligations, in the area of strategic offensive arms, existing at the time of signature of this Treaty, between a Party and a third State." (h/t @KingstonAReif)

Thus, to MOP Israel is to violate New START. Is the United States going to unilaterally violate its signature arms control agreement with Russia in order to calm Israeli concerns?

So let's put this matter aside, once and for all. It might sound good to Israel's supporters. As a bit of debate theater, the proposal to MOP Israel is an effective way to deflect some critics of the Iran deal. But MOPing Israel is a non-starter. Let's put this ridiculous idea to bed, now and forever.

Saturday, August 15, 2015


We can all imagine a worse world. We Americans are all living under the shadow of a bright blue morning in September that turned into a national nightmare. We now consume apocalyptic extravaganzas to a neurotic degree, something we haven't seen with this intensity since the Cold War's darkest beginnings (Them! It Came From Outer Space). While we're awake, we often perversely entertain ourselves with CGI zombies and rogue robots, with mutants and super-powered aliens.

We can all imagine a worse world.

We can imagine a nuclear arms race in the Middle East leading to an accidental nuclear detonation that leads to a chain reaction between the nuclear superpowers that leads to a post-apocalyptic alien world where apes become masters of the planet. 

We can imagine a terrorist getting a hold of a nuclear device, and in our darkest imaginations, we realize there is no Schwarzenegger to save us, and a bomb goes off in Miami that leads to a chain reaction between the nuclear superpowers that leads to a post-apocalyptic alien world where apes become masters of the planet. 

We can imagine a defiant Iran which despite this agreement secretly builds a bomb, and a reliable means to deliver it on Tel Aviv that leads to a chain reaction between the nuclear superpowers that leads to a post-apocalyptic alien world where apes become masters of the planet. 

We can imagine a massive multi-sortie American air bombardment using strategic B-52 or B-2 bombers to deliver on multiple Iranian targets the 15-ton Massive Ordnance Penetrator - one or two to each bomber - that wipes out the entire nuclear infrastructure of Iran which leads to a chain reaction between the nuclear superpowers that leads to a post-apocalyptic alien world where apes become masters of the planet. 

We can imagine it all, because we've seen it on our waking screens. Because of 9/11, we've become neurotic. Understandably so. 

Our neuroses are manifold. Our media has a celebrated sub-genre of apocalyptic fiction, and our non-fiction media - our scientific and verifiable non-fiction - contains a sub-genre which predicts a global mass extinction event in the far or near future.

But what if we imagined like John Lennon asked us to imagine? 

Can we imagine an Earth that - after a eugenics war (oops!) - becomes the center of a Federation of Planets of sentient beings across many galaxies? 

Can we imagine a complicit Iran evolving into a "moderate" Shi'ite theocracy in both its domestic conduct and international behavior? A Shi'ite theocracy that would establish diplomatic and economic relations with a Jewish state set next to an independent state of Palestine?  

Can we imagine a future with robots, intelligent communication devices, and Multivac? Our science fiction writers helped us to imagine these things. What was dream is now reality.

Can we imagine a future with clones, androids, warp-powered starships, and time travel? Of course we can, we've seen it in our waking dreams.

Shouldn't we embrace our hopes, and not our nightmares?

So that is the Iran deal in a nutshell. If it succeeds, it is its own reward. If it fails, be sure to always respond politely and promptly when you get pulled over by that ape cop.  

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The Devilish Compromise

As promised in my last blog post, here is a link to this week's editorial in the Ledger on the Iran Deal: http://www.jewishledger.com/2015/07/the-iran-deal-a-work-of-devilish-compromises/

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Sandy Koufax, Yom Kippur, and the Minnesota Twins (and Jewishjournalism)

Like I recently explained, I am not feeding the blog these days. Instead I have a new gig, which I have only alluded to, as an editorial writer for my local Jewish newspaper, The Connecticut Jewish Ledger. Mostly I write unsigned lead editorials about Israel and the Middle East. Sometimes I write credited op-ed pieces. This week it is a piece about Jews and baseball.
For anyone who has ever read my blog over the years, you might be surprised that I now write for the Ledger. After all, back in 2011 I got into a blog war with that very newspaper and its crank right-wing owner. Here and even more viciously here.  And there is an even older fight with former editor Jonathan Tobin (long before he became a bloviator for - wait for it - Commentary magazine).
But the worm turns. The right-wing crank sold the paper just before he died, and out-of-the-blue I was asked to serve on an editorial board for the newly revitalized paper.
This week I am very nervous about producing a lead editorial on the Iran deal. I've actually dealt with the Iran deal once before for the Ledger. Some letter writers didn't like it. Wait until next week!

Thursday, June 18, 2015

For Israel, Orange is the New Black

I haven't been blogging much lately, but I have been commenting on the issues as an editorial writer for my local Jewish newspaper - the Connecticut Jewish Ledger. Here is a link to my most recent effort, entitled "For Israel, Orange is the New Black": http://www.jewishledger.com/2015/06/for-israel-orange-is-the-new-black/

Monday, May 04, 2015

Israeli Politics: Let's Make A Deal!

I've been patiently waiting for this moment, ever since I published a post 6 weeks ago laying out the coalition problems of one Benjamin Netanyahu.  Having prompted the March elections, having won a stunning victory over the Zionist Union and having trounced his rivals to his right, PM Netanyahu has for the moment become the weakest link.
A few minutes ago, Israeli politician Avigdor Lieberman announced that his small 6-seat party Yisrael Beitenu will not be joining the next government, and furthermore announced his resignation as Foreign Minister of Israel. "It's about principles," said the former bar bouncer, "it's not about [cabinet] chairs."
As things stand now (with a bit more than 48 hours to go before the mandated deadline for coalition formation), Netanyahu has a signed deal with 2 coalition partners: Moshe Kahlon's Kulanu party, and the ultra-Orthodox Yahadut ha-Torah. For those counting: that's a grand total of 46 seats - 15 short of a 61 seat majority. Supposedly waiting in the wings are two further parties - Aryeh Deri's Shas with 7 and Naftali Bennett's Bayit Yehudi with 8. But neither has signed yet, and are now smelling blood in the water.
There you have it - the minimum mathematical threshold for forming a government of 61. So now the fun begins. No sane PM would want a government of 61. Internationally, it projects weakness. Domestically, it means any single member of Kenesset (MK) in the coalition can plausibly threaten to bring it down - over a matter of policy, of money, or of "honor."
So what to do? Settle for 61 now, and hope to bring in more partners later? Siphon off a few disgruntled MKs from other parties? Go back to Lieberman and sweeten the pot in order to get to a slightly more respectable number of 67? Or turn to Buji Herzog and the Zionist Union (24) and try for a broad government of national unity?
This drama of political brinksmanship will play out over the next 48 hours, and for those of us who enjoy Israeli domestic politics, we are in for a fun roller coaster ride.
If Bibi can't form a government in the next 48 hours, the President of Israel is obliged to go through another round of consultations and then turn to the leader who is best indicated to form a government - in this case one would expect Buji Herzog, leader of the ZU - to try and form a government, while the former government (now, mind you, without a Foreign Minister) carries on as caretaker. Now THAT would be interesting...

Update (a few hours later - 5:10 PM EDT) - Shas has now signed its coalition agreement, so now Netanyahu is at 53. Will Naftali Bennett and his Bayit Yehudi (Jewish Home) party - the holdout - be joining soon? Or is this the perfect set-up for a one-day full-court press to get Herzog to join the government? None of the signed partners would present a particular problem for Herzog - and none of the big cabinet positions (other than Treasury) have been formally doled out. If there is going to be a play for national unity, it will happen now.

Friday, March 20, 2015

How to Avoid "Reassessment"

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be the next Prime Minister of Israel. This we know. The world also knows how he campaigned in the final days of the election, and is repulsed by how he did so. After following an imperial "Rose Garden" tactic of avoiding the press, in the last 5 days of the campaign Bibi went on a media frenzy, and in the course of those 5 days he morphed comfortably into a right-wing demagogue, Lee Atwater style, in which he volunteered out loud a series of positions that revealed his inner ideological heart, including a last-minute racist scare warning that "Arab voters are streaming to the polling stations." It was ugly, it was shocking, and while it worked, it has caused the Obama White House to use the dreaded "R" word - "reassessment."  In order to win this election at all costs, Bibi purged his Likud party of the worst extremists, snubbed President Obama by holding a campaign rally in the halls of Congress, and in the end loudly retracted his 2009 commitment to a 2-state solution. It was a winning strategy, but it came with a painful price on the world stage.

Yesterday Bibi unconvincingly spoke again to the media - this time to Andrea Mitchell of NBC News, and this time in English, using his governing persona instead of his campaigning persona. He tried to walk it all back. It was a pathetic performance. Bibi won the electoral battle, but lost the bigger war for international legitimacy.

In the not so complicated schizophrenia that is Benjamin Netanyahu, there is the inner Bibi for domestic consumption (in Hebrew), and the public Bibi for the diplomatic community (in English). The two are not the same. And Netanyahu is smart enough to know that Israel needs the continued support of its principal ally, and that what he had to do to win has now placed his next premiership at risk with the European Union, with the White House, and even with American Jews.

There is only one path for Bibi to extract himself from the sullied victory he just achieved - a national unity government that projects some kind of softer image to the world. While Netanyahu can certainly say "fuck all of you" and opt for a narrow right-nationalist-religious coalition government, he knows that if he does so the international isolation and US administration anger will not abate. "Fortress Israel" will simply not work. Netanyahu will at least have to consider the option of a broader national unity government in order to paint lipstick on his pig.

For this he needs help from Isaac Herzog, leader of the Labor Party and co-chair of the newly created (for this campaign cycle) Zionist Union with Tzipi Livni. Tzipi Livni is a perennial failure, surpassing Shimon Peres for the title of Israel's "The Biggest Loser." Livni is another example of an Israeli politician much more popular abroad than at home.

She was a child of Likud all her political life, but like many others broke with her political home base when Ariel Sharon grew tired of Likud infighting and created the Kadima party. She actually once won an election in 2009 as head of Kadima, but because of her uncompromising negotiating style allowed a government to slip out of her hands. She was ousted internally from Kadima, temporarily retired from politics, and then reconstituted herself as a tiny vanity party - ha-Tenu'ah. Her odyssey from Likud royalty to moderate international diplomat eventually brought her to Labor - but not as a Laborite. For the umpteenth time, weakened Labor tried a "combina" - a sleazy opportunistic merger - in an effort to create a "big tent" centrist alternative to right-wing Likud. They called it the Zionist Union. Herzog and Livni even came up with their own internal "rotation" plan, promising the Israeli electorate that if they should win, the two would rotate the premiership over the course of its four-year life expectancy. The merger spectacularly failed, and as polling indicated just how reviled Livni was with the electorate, the two leaders gamely retracted the rotation plan on the eve of the election. It didn't help. So much for the big tent.

Of the 24 seats now held by the Zionist Union, 5 belong to Livni. Labor by itself would remain the 2nd largest party in the Knesset. The Zionist Union serves no further purpose. It is time to put a stake through its heart. Either Herzog should break the Zionist Union, or Livni should resign.

So here is a scenario - Bibi needs to repair the damage. Herzog leads a bloc of 19 seats without toxic Livni. Isaac Herzog as Foreign Minister would be precisely the antidote to Bibi's now thrice-revealed inner heart.

In order to manage and staunch the crisis of an American reassessment, Bibi needs a national unity government. But domestically, a good part of the purpose of this campaign was to be rid of Livni forever. For Netanyahu, Livni is the poison pill of national unity. If she were gone, Bibi could form a broad-based government. It doesn't hurt that Labor has served this junior role more than once in Likud- or Kadima-led governments. So try this:

Likud 30
Labor 19
Kulanu 10
Shas 7

And you have 66 seats. Add Yahadut ha-Torah and/or one of the two right-wing parties ha-Bayit ha-Yehudi or Yisrael Beytenu and you approach 80 seats. National Unity. A dysfunctional inner cabinet. Another two-faced self-contradictory government - but that is the only way out of the isolation chamber Bibi has created for himself.

I admit this is a long-shot proposition. But it is the only way the next 22 months of a Netanyahu-led government can hope to have any respectability in the international arena.

It's precisely the kind of chicanery that comes up in every coalition-building negotiation. It's sleazy and opportunistic, hypocritical and devious.

After all, this is Israeli politics.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Quick Post-#IsraElex Analysis

I suck at predicting American presidential politics. But I am pretty damn good when predicting Israeli politics. I've gotten every Israeli election right since I've undertaken this blog 10 years ago - which means I've been right four out of four. And today I will reveal my analytical secret as to why I always get it right.

If you were to believe all the wishful-thinking journalism generated over the 2015 elections in Israel, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was fighting for his political life. I never believed it, not for a second. Fifty days before the election, even working off of incorrect polling numbers, I boldly predicted that Netanyahu would be the next PM of Israel. This turns out to have been an easy call.

And boy-oh-boy, were the numbers ever faulty. Throughout the entire election cycle, poll after poll pointed to a slight advantage in electoral strength to the Zionist Union combination of Buji Herzog's Labor and Tzipi Livni. Even the initial election day exit polls, in which voters in certain key demographic polling stations were asked to accurately indicate their choice, were all uniformly wrong - meaning that tens of thousands of voters regarded it as their civic duty to purposefully fuck with the media. Lesson one - there is no way to accurately gauge the modern Israeli electorate.

But here we are - highest turnout in 16 years; smallest number of parties in the 20th Knesset since 1988; lowest performance of religious parties since 1992; and best performance by the right wing bloc since 2003.

But the bottom-line reality is this - there are essentially 4 blocs of voters. 10% of the electorate is locked in as the Arab (and naturally characterized as leftist) vote. A bit less than 20% of the electorate is locked in as the religious (and naturally characterized as a kind of rightist) vote. A little less than a third of the electorate is locked in to the secular center-left. And a little more than a third of the electorate is locked in as secular right-nationalist. That leaves about 10% of the electorate as a perennial swing vote, which can break to the center-left or to the right depending on each individual election.

Lesson two - when the national security environment is non-threatening or hopeful, this 10% breaks towards the center-left. When the national security environment is threatening and inhospitable, this 10% breaks right.

The closest comparable election to 2015 is 2003, the year Ariel Sharon's Likud trounced Ehud Barak's Labor. The 2003 election was cast against the backdrop of the violent Second Intifada. The right-nationalist bloc picked up 14 seats and the non-Arab center-left lost 7 seats. Sharon then created a fairly stable secular right-center coalition.

The 2015 election was carried out against the backdrop of the inconclusive war with HAMAS of 2014, and the growth of Da'esh to the left (Sinai) and to the right (Syria). The floating 10% responded accordingly: the right-national bloc picked up 15 seats, and the non-Arab center-left lost 6 seats. Given that the previous government was already led by Netanyahu, it was easy to predict his victory.

And that's what I did.

And by the way, fifty days ago I wrote "I think the polling numbers for Bennett's ha-Bayit ha-Yehudi party are too high." I got that right too. The polls said 15; BY ended up with 8.

Now, with the final Knesset numbers fixed, the question is what kind of government will emerge. Most of the Israeli punditry has talked itself into the formation of a so-called narrow right-nationalist-religious government. It is easy to see how such a government can be formed.

Likud 30
Kulanu 10
ha-Bayit ha-Yehudi 8
Shas 7
Yahadut ha-Torah 6

gets one to the threshold of 61, and if you add Yisrael Beytenu's 6, you have a government of 67 seats.

But it isn't that simple. Netanyahu must dole out the legally mandated 18 (likely to be expanded to 22) ministries of his coalition cabinet in a way that satisfies his lesser coalition partners and his own Likud party. Netanyahu has already promised the pandora's box of Treasury to Kulanu's Moshe Kahlon. Shas's Arye Deri wants to return to the Interior Ministry from which he was forced out 23 years ago. But the biggest prizes are Defense and the Foreign Ministry - the so-called inner cabinet. Yisrael Beytenu's weakened Avigdor Lieberman wants Defense. ha-Bayit ha-Yehudi's Naftali Bennett wants the Foreign Ministry or Defense. Netanyahu would prefer keeping his current Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon, and needs to find something honorable for his many Likud politicians, including most prominently the number 2 man on the Likud list Gilad Erdan.

The badly beaten Zionist Union or the smaller Yesh Atid might yet become part of the solution to Netanyahu's intricate sudoku puzzle. But since the point of Netanyahu's decision to go to the polls was to be rid of ZU's Tzipi Livni and Yesh Atid's Yair Lapid, I can only imagine him taking back at most one of the two. Livni, one of the most toxic politicians in recent Israeli history, might break away or be forced out from the Zionist Union, clearing a path for Labor to join.

That is the best one can hope for - a national unity government with ZU but minus both Livni and Lapid. If so, then attacking Iran remains off the table. But if a narrow right-nationalist-religious government with an inner cabinet of adventurous hawks is the order of the day, I expect Israeli jets over Natanz before the fourth premiership of King Bibi falls.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

#IsraElex Final Predictions

This is a risky thing I attempt. We're more than 72 hours out from the election - the last round of pre-election Friday papers are just appearing on the web. I took the political self-mapping poll available at Sheldon Adelson's Israel Hayom and discovered to no surprise that I am more Meretz or United List than anything else.

But here goes:

Six weeks ago I predicted that Benjamin Netanyahu will be the next Prime Minister of Israel. I stick by my prediction.

The party numbers don't matter. Even if the Zionist Union (formerly Labor) beats Likud by a 25-18 margin,  it won't make a difference. Netanyahu will be the next Prime Minister. 

There is a reason I believe the odds-on favorite is a right/religious government led by Netanyahu. Let's imagine the alternative, a national unity government led by Isaac Herzog.

There is simply no way Isaac Herzog, the leader of the Zionist Union can both win a plurality of seats (+7 or even higher over Likud) and then form a secular center-left government. Buji could form a national unity government with Likud, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu - fighting a battle he never imagined when he forced these elections 5 months ago - preemptively rejected the overtures. As in 2009, but by a much thinner margin, Bibi lost the plurality and his Likud was the second largest party. But Bibi formed the government. So too in 2015.

The chances for a national unity government are much better for Netanyahu than for Herzog. If there is a national unity government, Netanyahu will be its Prime Minister. A national unity government which includes the ZU is the best conceivable outcome for keeping an Iran military operation off the table for the duration of the upcoming government. But such an outcome will have no impact on the current diplomatic stalemate with the two Palestines of HAMAS and the Palestinian Authority. More stalemate.

But what kind of national unity government? It is hard to imagine a secular national unity government. Much more likely, at least one of the religious parties, or some combination, will be in a national unity government. The biggest will be Naftali Bennet's Jewish Home party, which is holding at 11 seats. He was in the last government; he'll certainly be in the next. He's playing a long game.

But far more likely Netanyahu will form a government without the Zionist Union, without Meretz, and certainly without the Arab United List. After all, even if Likud loses by a 7 seat margin to the Zionist Union, it is not as if Likud's loss is Labor's gain. The voters slipping away from Bibi are slipping to the right.

Will Bibi rightfully claim the leadership mantle of the right bloc, even with a 2nd place Likud? Of course he will! Only if Likud somehow slipped to third would Netanyahu cede the mantle of the right.

Barring that, Netanyahu intends to construct a government without Tzipi Livni - an irritant - and, if possible, Yair Lapid - a real threat. He can likely rid himself from one of the two with ease.

What will be the surprise breakaway party of this election cycle? There are two newcomers, and they are both vanity parties - Moshe Kahlon's Kulanu and Eli Yishai's Yahad. Kahlon has a chance to outperform polling, currently tracking at 9 seats.

Might Yair Lapid and his Yesh Atid party become the comeback kid of the 2015 campaign? What if the surprise of the 2013 election is the surprise of the 2015 election?

This will take weeks to sort out. After the dust settles, this election will prove to have been nothing more than a pointless casino-fueled exercise, a slight rearranging of the chairs.

No problems solved, no new initiatives in foreign policy, no change in settlement policy or military posture, and most importantly - no American reset with Israel. 

Same as it ever was.

Saturday, February 07, 2015

The Fashla - הפשלה

Today I'd like to start with a bit of Hebrew slang. Like much Hebrew slang, the etymology of the term under consideration comes from Arabic. I'm talking about the slang word fashla, which I best translate as "a complete disaster" or "an unanticipated (and probably predictable) fuck-up." It comes from the Arabic verb fashala, "to lose courage, to become cowardly, to despair, to fail, to become unsuccessful."

You are fortunate enough to be living in an age in which you can witness a perfectly executed Israeli fashla.

Sometime before the State of the Union speech, when President Obama declared he would veto any bill that proposed tougher sanctions on Iran, House Speaker John Boehner was approached with an idea - some published reports argue it was casino mogul and Republican mega-donor Sheldon Adelson who presented the idea - invite Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to speak before a joint session of Congress. Netanyahu would lay out the threat of "radical Islam" to the civilized world, and would specifically address the menacing nuclear threat of a fanatic and viciously anti-Semitic Shi'ite theocracy.

Boehner liked the idea. He contacted the Israeli Ambassador to Washington Ron Dermer. Ron Dermer is known, Karl Rove-like, to be "Bibi's brains." He has been a close political confidant and speechwriter for Netanyahu since 2008 until his appointment to the plum ambassadorship of Israel's closest ally in 2013. Before immigrating to Israel in 1997 he had worked for a time with Republican political consultant Frank Luntz. If either Dermer or Netanyahu had stayed in America, they would today be Republicans in heart and soul. Boehner knew he'd find a sympathetic ear and direct access to the Boss.

The three together planned a stunning Republican congressional protest, all within Constitutional bounds, against a threatened Presidential veto of a bipartisan call for more stringent sanctions on Iran. Bibi Netanyahu was a master of the Speaker's rostrum. Back in 2011 Boehner, then in grudging cooperation with the White House, had extended a similar invitation to Netanyahu, and Bibi was treated to energetic support from those seated in the House chamber. In fact, this would be the third time Bibi addressed Congress, an honor granted only Winston Churchill, one of Netanyahu's heroes.

For Netanyahu, the added benefit of appearing on domestic wall-to-wall media coverage of his "historic mission" to Washington just 2 weeks before an Israeli election was irresistible. Bibi has portrayed his principal political adversary Yizhak (Buji) Herzog as a weak-on-security neophyte and a bumbling amateur. On the other hand, Netanyahu imagines himself a cunningly wise leader, the absolutely right man for these dangerous times.

For creating a fashla, this was a perfect storm.

The too clever by half masterstroke, once it was finally revealed to the unsuspecting White House and the Democratic leadership less than 48 hours after the State of the Union speech, quickly turned into a classic fashla. No amount of spin or fudging the facts of the invitation would turn it around. Within a week of the announcement, bipartisan support for tougher sanctions against Iran - the very mission which Netanyahu had intended to reinforce - crumbled apart. Democrats had to choose between their President and the Prime Minister of Israel. It was an easy call.

Two weeks after the announcement, Democratic Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi was hinting at a wholesale defection of dozens of Democratic congressman from the audience. Vice President Joe Biden, who has missed only one joint session designed to host an invited foreign leader, announced suddenly he would be out of town that day. The image of a half-filled chamber, with Republican Senator and President pro tempore Orrin Hatch sitting in the left chair, will not make for a rousing moment reminiscent of Bibi's prior appearances.

In classic fashla fashion, the masterstroke has completely backfired. Iran has disappeared from the discussion, and instead the only discussion is the worsening relations between Netanyahu, Obama, the Democrats, and even American Jews, who view the entire matter with growing concern.

So there you go - a first-class, high-drama fashla.

And thus concludes today's lesson in Israeli slang.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Benjamin Netanyahu, the next PM of Israel

Crunch the polling numbers any way you want - the inevitable outcome, barring a seismic shift in Israeli voter sentiment over the course of the next 50 days, will be a government headed by current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Two days remain before final party lists are published, and I can imagine yet another "surprise" joining together of currently separated lists. But barring that, we have the broad contours of the Israeli electorate in the winter of 2015. I think we're looking at a variation of the 2009 Israeli elections, in which Netanyahu's Likud came in second place, but still formed the government.

The best poll averaging web site is Project 61. Seven weeks out, the renamed Labor party - now calling itself "the Zionist Camp" - leads with a projected 25 seats. Netanyahu's Likud party comes in a close second, at 23. The remaining 60% of legislative seats are divided, in descending order, between right-wing, religious, centrist, Arab, and left-wing parties.

As in 2009, the winning party will not be called on to form a government. That task will fall to the leader who can convince Israel's President Ruvi Rivlin that he has the best shot to form a government. And that leader will be Netanyahu.

Take the long view. I've gone back 7 Knesset elections back to 1992, and broken down the political parties into 4 blocs: 1) secular-right-national; 2) secular-center-left; 3) religious-ultra-Orthodox; and 4) Arab. When the secular-center-left bloc gets above 49, it forms a government. It takes 43 seats for the secular-right-national bloc to form the government. According to Project 61, we're at 37 for the secular-right-national and 38 for the secular-center-left. No one has crossed the threshold for a certainty.

The newly united Arab parties' list is not a factor in coalition politics, because all Zionist players consider the Arab parties treyf. So in fact a leader must get to 61 from the remaining 107 seats.

The growing religious-ultra-Orthodox bloc will hold the key. It might surprise you, but various components of this bloc could go either way - it all depends on what is offered party leaders in the inevitable coalition negotiations that will ensue after elections.

One caveat - I think the polling numbers for Bennett's Bayit Yehudi party are too high.

Netanyahu will have two different paths to the required 61 seat majority in the Knesset. Most likely, he will attempt a so-called "national unity government." Despite the acrimony of the current election campaign (oftentimes quite personal), never underestimate the desire of Israeli politicians to have delivered to them control of massive governmental bureaucracies. I could easily imagine a secular center-right coalition made up of Likud, Zionist Camp, Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beytenu, and Moshe Kahalon's new Kulanu party, for a total of 64 seats. Some of these parties could be dismissed for religious parties and still maintain a semblance of "national unity."  And if the "unity" fever becomes strong, one could imagine a not particularly stable government of over 75 seats. This unwieldy scenario would be the best outcome for hopes of holding in abeyance any military misadventure with Iran because of serious disagreements within the unity umbrella. But it would mean continued stalemate with the Palestinians, with a government of Israel torn internally on how to best move forward. One governmental crisis and the whole thing would collapse.

Or Bibi can go the "hard-right" route. Here he works with right-wing, religious, and ultra-Orthodox parties, with Avigdor Lieberman's dwindling Yisrael Beytenu vanity party. He would have 62-69 seats this way.  Then the chances of a military attack on Iran go way up, and re-energized opposition to any American-brokered diplomatic path to resolving Palestinian claims becomes the norm.

Another good web site is batelbe60.com. They try to "Nate Silver" the election polling, and they come up with similar results. While they don't break up the parties into the same blocs that I do, they argue that the current numbers give a very high chance for the formation of a national unity government, either secular or with some ultra-Orthodox components. Next would come a not too impossible center-left government, with some ultra-Orthodox. Least likely would be a hard-right religious ultra-Orthodox government. Impossible would be a center-left secular government.

What is abundantly clear is that these elections are a waste of everyone's time - and that just may be the point. It may have seemed to Netanyahu in December that a rearrangement of the political deck-chairs on the Titanic was in order. Or it may have seemed a convenient way to take a pause from dealing with Israel's security and domestic problems. Either way, the systemic and incapacitating divisions of the Israeli electorate remain. Nothing has changed: the Israeli electorate is as divided as ever, creeping to the right and towards God.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

King Bibi, Messiah Bibi

The furor over Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's shock-and-awe campaign for stricter sanctions against Iran took a new turn this week when US Speaker of the House John Boehner dropped a diplomatic bombshell: Netanyahu would be invited to deliver a speech to a joint session of Congress on March 3, in defiance of the Obama White House. Truth be told, the invitation had been negotiated in a closely-held round of talks between Boehner's office and the Israeli ambassador to Washington, Ron Dermer. On the day of the announcement, Dermer had held a two hour meeting with US Secretary of State John Kerry, and uttered not a word about the pending trip.
In Israel, the surprise announcement has been roundly criticized in the media and amongst Netanyahu's political opponents, but it remains to be seen how the ploy will play with Netanyahu's base and with undecided voters in national elections to be held exactly two weeks after the speech. Even Dan Margalit, columnist for Israel Hayom - the Sheldon Adelson-financed free newspaper which many identify as an organ for Netanyahu's amen corner - criticized the timing and stylistics of what otherwise Margalit regards as a just cause.
In the United States, the Republicans are crowing over the poke-in-the-eye delivered to a President they believe coddles the dithering and duplicitous Iranians. Democrats are furious with Netanyahu, and the White House can hardly contain its anger. American Jews are collectively wringing their hands, No less an Israel supporter than Abe Foxman has called the invitation "ill-advised."
Time Magazine once proclaimed Netanyahu "King Bibi." But I think he is going for something more. When, I asked myself, was the last time a Jew has traveled to the Emperor's doorstep to admonish the Emperor? It's been nearly 750 years since a Jew challenged the reigning hegemon of his day. In 1280 the Jewish mystic Abraham Abulafia travelled to Rome to convert Pope Nicholas III to Judaism. The Pope was at his palace in Soriano, and defying a threat to be burned at the stake, Abulafia traveled to the castle, and was immediately placed under arrest for his insolence, and was ordered to be put to death for his outrage. Only when learning that the Pope himself died was Abulafia released, and from there he went on to Sicily to pronounce himself Messiah. Abulafia, who has left us dozens of books, some of an autobiographical nature, soon disappeared from the historical record. To this day we do not know the precise date of his death. As with all false messiahs, he didn't deliver.
Is that the new role that Netanyahu is taking on for himself? Netanyahu's father was a medieval historian, his brother a lionized martyr from the 1976 Entebbe raid. Netanyahu sees himself on an historic mission to deliver his nation from an Iranian nuclear armageddon. He is a Prime Minister soon to be reelected and to thereby become the longest-serving Prime Minister in Israeli history, even outdistancing the historic founder David Ben-Gurion.
Is Bibi maneuvering to something more than King of the Jewish state? Is he going for the ultimate crown?
This won't end well.