November 30, 2006
Not exactly funny

For those who thought that Israel's security forces were models worthy of international praise and emulation:

The issue is not the army or the intelligence services. Whether or not they lived up to their myths last August in Lebanon is being probed by several official committees.

The issue is the police and the prison service. Spokespersons of each are blaming the other. The precise allocation of responsibility is the subject of an official inquiry.

The story would be hilarious if it did not involve a rapist with an especially sadistic pattern of activity. Nevertheless, the follies involved in his escape, and the efforts to find him over the last week have been the subject of two newspaper cartoons in the usually serious Ha'aretz. One depicts the anxiety of women who see the rapist's face on all the men they see on the street; another shows Prime Minister Ehud Olmert escorting Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (who visited recently) into a police station for their meeting, telling her that it was dangerous outside.

The story begins with a message sent to the prison, ordering that Benny Sela be brought to Tel Aviv for a court hearing at 7 AM last Friday morning. Apparently, officials in the prison did not know that the court does not sit on Friday morning, and never begins its sessions at 7 AM. These are not exotic bits of information. Israeli government bodies do not open for business on Friday, or start work at 7 AM on any day.

The next scene is at the court house. The vehicle bringing the prisoner parked in a walled enclosure; the guard put handcuffs on Sela, but not chains on his legs as may be required. There is some question as to whether the handcuffs were locked, or simply slipped over his wrists.

Sela left the vehicle and walked toward the court house. He said that he left a file in the vehicle. The guard left him alone, and returned to the vehicle to search for the file.

Guess what Benny did at that point?

He jumped onto and over the wall.

Another prisoner noticed that Benny was leaving, and said something. The guard did not jump on and over the wall, but waited for someone to open the gate.

Benny had disappeared.

When the police chief heard the news, he was having breakfast at a Tel Aviv restaurant. Some say that he finished his meal before going into the field.

Women are terrified. Benny has a long record of particularly ugly stuff. Some letters to the media are full of praise. He may be acquiring the status of a folk hero. Not exactly Robin Hood, but someone who has outwit the authorities.

Thousands of police were sent to patrol Tel Aviv, pass out pictures of the escapee, and beat the bushes in the countryside. Television news showed them beating the bushes. Stations elsewhere are left with minimum personnel. Who knows what is happening in their surroundings. Speculation is that criminals who specialize in house break-ins and car thefts are having a field day.

Hundreds of police were sent to Netanya. A taxi driver reported that a passenger was suspicious. He was barefoot, and fled when the driver showed concern. After a few hours, the police concluded that they had been chasing a petty thief, who simply ran from the taxi when it got near his destination in order to avoid paying the fare.

The next alarm and substantial reallocation of personnel focused on a man on a motor scooter, who abandoned his vehicle and fled on foot when approached by a police officer. When finally captured, this character was found to be innocent of rape, but feared that the police were after him for driving a motor scooter without a license.

Then the hunt focused on the town of Safed. Again hundreds of police brought from other places were sent to poke around the alleys, footpaths, ruins, burial places, and synagogues of that old city. Safed was a religious center from the Middle Ages, and attracts pilgrims to pray at the graves of revered rabbis. A few years ago it was an artist colony. Those of you with paintings of flying rabbis and other religious themes, perhaps in the styles of Marc Chagall or Grandma Moses, may have something from Safed. Now it is largely a place of ultra-Orthodox study and prayer. The artists and non-religious tourists are gone.

The police transferred their personnel from Safed. The evening television news showed one of the city's residents, a religious Jew in skull cap and beard, who bore some resemblance to Benny Sela. He asked the public to notice that he was not Benny Sela, and to stop calling the police when they see him.

Lock your doors. He may have left the country.

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 09:58 PM
November 28, 2006
A suggestion and a question about Iraq

I see in today's New York Times that President George W. Bush still declines to call the situation in Iraq a civil war. A couple of days ago, Kofi Anan, still Secretary General of the United Nations, said that the situation was on the verge of a civil war.

Anan's comment reflects the power of the United States. When the president says there is not a civil war, the man at the United Nations, even though he is not on the White House's "best friends" list, says that it is not yet a civil war.

My own perception is that the civil war started about the time of the media event some years ago when that statue of Saddam Hussein came tumbling down. For the American president, a "civil war" may require only two orderly armies fighting one another, perhaps one dressed in blue and the other in gray.

Whether it is a civil war or something else, the American army, with its British allies and a few others does not seem to be dealing with it effectively.

My own proposed solution, only partly facetious, is to declare a mistrial, let Saddam out, and give him a month or two to reorganize his security forces. The result will not be pretty, but is likely to end the mayhem and begin the rebuilding of the infrastructure. The price of oil will come down as Iraq's begins to flow in a more orderly manner. Thanks to the oil revenue, there will be weapons of mass destruction in that country, but probably not before the neighbors in Iran are stacking their own weapons of mass destruction. If the worthies of our world cannot do anything to keep the Iranian madmen from acquiring nuclear weapons, the prospect of them in Saddam's hands will not add a great increment to the threats we must all endure.

Whether it is or is not a civil war may have something to do with there being a misstep or a total failure in Bush's effort to produce democracy in Iraq. Among the motivations for groups fighting one another, and the foreigners, is their strong opposition to an American version of democracy.

Yesterday I heard a segment of a radio talk show that featured one of the Hebrew University's experts on the Middle East. He was critical about an American president who could expect democracy in Iraq. The host asked him why American intellectuals had not been more active in cautioning the White House. The professor said that he was not familiar with the intellectual scene in the United States.

The professor is nothing if he is not widely read. I interpreted his comment to be critical of American colleagues who lacked the wisdom or capacity to produce some reality in the aspirations of the White House for Iraq.

My own perceptions are that American opposition to the war has focused on other issues: the cost in lives and treasure to the United States, the manipulation by Jews in and outside of the Administration to use American military in a way to help Israel, and the lack of success in stopping the killing, or rebuilding infrastructure without corruption in order to get the electricity, water, and oil flowing. If I missed a strong current of criticism about the aspiration to bring democracy to Iraq, I invite a response from anyone who wishes to provide me with a detail or two.

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 09:38 PM
November 27, 2006
A Zionist solution

Some of the people who get my letters forward them to others. Some of those recipients have written to me, and have found their way to my list.

Today I received a note from a friend of a friend of a friend, i.e., who got to me via a friend of his, who is a friend of an original member of my list (I think).

The substance of the letter was that few of his local Jewish contacts are interested in Israel. An effort to establish a group concerned about Israel in his congregation of about 450 adults produced a group of six, four of whom were originally Israelis or married to Israelis.

As far as I know, the phenomenon of disinterest is widespread among American Jews.

Is this an occasion for oy gavalt! or a reason to say a shechianu? To translate: to scream our anxiety, or to thank God for bringing American Jews to the point of normalhood, shared by overseas Irish, Italians, Poles et al, separated by generations from their roots and only remotely identified ethnically?

Orthodox American Jews tend to be more highly identified with Israel, and more concerned with its problems. (They are also more likely than other American Jews to vote Republican and to support George W. Bush.) French and British Jews tend to identify more than Americans. That may be due to their greater likelihood of being Orthodox, and/or being in the focus of local Muslims and others less enamored of Israel than the average American.

For the man who wrote me the letter about the lack of interest in Israel, and others who feel concerned, there is a Zionist solution. The planes are still flying. A bit of googling will turn up the details of an Israeli emissary who will help with the paperwork.

A number of commentators have pondered the fate of the Jewish people. Perhaps the first was whoever contributed that line in Genesis that God's people"will be strangers in a country not their own." A common theme in recent writing is that the Jews will disappear when they no longer have to defend themselves against antagonism.

By this recipe, the way to create a Palestine from the Mediterranean to the Jordan is to embrace peace. Then individual Israeli Jews, like their American cousins before them, will gradually or quickly go the way of others, concerned more about the good life than the nation of Israel.

If that is on the horizon, it is too far away for me to see it from here.

For those worried about the fate of the Jewish people, there is the story of my best friend (i.e., me). The lad came from an anti-Zionist household, and was expelled from Sunday school a year short of graduation on account of not taking the curriculum seriously.

It has been almost 32 years since the fateful plane ride. Most of the time has been good. I always hope for better.

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 02:04 AM
November 26, 2006
Cease fire?

It is hard to do business with those people.

This morning I woke to the radio telling me that Israel and the Palestine National Authority had agreed to a cease fire with respect to Gaza as of 6 AM. There would be no rockets fired toward Sderot and other communities, and Israel would not attack targets there. Later reports were that the Palestinians would stop digging tunnels from Egypt to Gaza and stop smuggling arms across that border, and that Israel had already pulled its troops, tanks, and other weapons out of Gaza.

By 8 o'clock we heard about the first rocket fired toward Sderot. At least five more came during the morning and early afternoon.

Various Palestinian organizations said that they had not agreed to the cease fire; that the Israelis did not understand it properly; that it also required a cessation of Israeli activities in the West Bank. The chairman/president of the Palestine National Authority, Ahmed Abbas, said that all factions had accepted the cease fire; that continued firings were a violation; and that he would order Palestinian security forces to fan out across the northern region of Gaza to stop the firing of rockets.

This was not the first time he has ordered security forces to stop such firings in the 15 months since Israel removed its settlements and troops from Gaza. On occasion he has said that he tried, but could not stop the firing. At other times he has done no more than to proclaim that the rocket firing must stop; that it is endangering the future of Palestine.

Meanwhile, the Israeli prime minister, and even right-wing minister Evette (Avigdor) Lieberman has said that the IDF would give the Palestinians a couple of days to get themselves organized, before responding to further rocket attacks.

There is a bit of hope, but not too much. We have been this route before. Palestinian officials have lacked the will to impose what power they have on factions that use the sword or its modern equivalents to free all of Palestine for the sake of Muslim rule. Last weekend their weapon of choice was a 68 year old grandmother who blew herself up while approaching an Israeli position. In a pre-suicide video, she claimed to be avenging a family member. Three soldiers were lightly wounded by bits that flew from the explosive belt. There was a funeral a day later for the pieces of grandma that had been collected.

Perhaps the 400 or so deaths that the IDF has caused since August (fighters and collateral damage), plus considerable property destruction, has convinced the Palestinians that they are not winning this war. Four hundred dead is small change for the American experience in Iraq, where 100-death days are not uncommon. But for Israel and Palestine, it is a lot. The total number of deaths on both sides since September, 2000 is probably not more than 5,000, equivalent to a particularly bloody month in Baghdad and its surroundings.

Should we esteem a religious movement that can send a grandmother to her death for the sake of Allah? Or should we do what we can to assure that she gets to Paradise before we do, while giving yet another chance to a cease fire that may lead to something better for all of us?

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 07:40 AM
November 20, 2006
Recognizing reality

I recently sat with an American visitor in the breakfast room of an Eilat hotel. He expressed sentiments widespread not only among our overseas friends, but among many Israelis: how tragic that we have to endure the threat of Palestinian violence.

It is tragic, but it is not the whole story. I asked the American to look around. To our left were some 20 or 30 meters of buffet laden with more delicacies than we could possibly taste in several sittings. Outside the clean windows were two swimming pools waiting our pleasure. Beyond was a promenade stretching for a kilometer or more with stalls selling cheap imports from India, as well as classier shops with the better goods of Western Europe and North America. I urged him to think of the people in Gaza, who most likely hate us and support those who threaten us. Their living standards are so far beneath what we were enjoying in the resort, and what we have at home, as to make a detailed comparison grotesque. And if we suffer from the prospect of violence from them, they suffer from the reality of the IDF's retaliation or pre-emptive strikes.

In retrospect, this was a defining moment. It clarified the reality of Israelis' lack of peace, but also the balance of power and suffering.

Our suffering is not distributed equally. The residents of Sderot are paying the bill in this chapter of Jewish history. A few hours after my conversation with the visitor, we heard of a rocket that killed a women, and injured two other residents of that poor town. The report went on to indicate that this was the 10th death from rockets in Sderot since the first attack six years ago.

That represents ten personal tragedies of a kind none of us wants to experience among our family or acquaintances. Yet it may be a smaller incidence of death than a population the size of Sderot's suffers from traffic accidents and other calamities in places that consider themselves at peace.

Perhaps more weighty on the residents of Sderot is the constant fear that a rocket will fall, and the frequent sounds of warning sirens and explosions. People want to leave the town, but most of them are unlikely to find work readily elsewhere. And if they put their apartment on the market, it is doubtful that anyone would make an offer.

Currently we are hearing about the Russian billionaire who is making a high profile donation of a week's stay in a classy Eilat hotel for the people of Sderot. We also hear that several of the thousand or so who have made the trip are saying they will not leave the hotel when their week is up. Also, a number of children waited hours for buses that were delayed, and then did not make it through the rush to get themselves a place. Fortunately, we heard about the subsidized migration only as we were on our way home.

If the people of Sderot are suffering more than others at the present, residents of Jerusalem, Netanya, and Hadera suffered more than the average during the earlier season of suicide bombings, and the people of Haifa, Nahariya, Kiryiat Shmona, Zefat, Tiberias, and smaller Jewish and Arab settlements in the north paid their bill during the rocket attacks from Lebanon. Many of us have had a turn at the focus of Palestinian violence, even while more Palestinians are likely to have suffered more persistently from Israeli violence.

We are stuck living alongside a population that may desire peace, but lacks the mechanisms to deal with religious and political fanatics, or those who are simply mad. The IDF retaliates and pre-empts, but respects moral standards as high as those of any military engaged in anything more than parades and shining equipment. Most of us accept the limitations. We realize that we can limit Palestinian terror with our military power, but not stop it entirely, and that Palestinian politicians have shown themselves unwilling or unable to control those who would rather die violently than live peacefully.

Being fatalistic is not correct, politically or intellectually. But it is suitable in this setting.

We also pay a price of international condemnation from those who think it is all, or mostly, our fault. We can curse them as hypocrites and perhaps anti-Semites, and draw some consolation from realizing that most of them live in homes and enjoy resort hotels no more attractive than our own. We are paying the price for being Jews in a Jewish state, but also enjoying the advantages that come with a pragmatic capacity to recognize reality, and to achieve what is possible.

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 02:42 AM
November 17, 2006
Our leaders

Commentators described Prime Minister Ehud Olmert as a man who spoke during the recent Lebanon War like Churchill, but acted like Chamberlain. Heroic statements preceded actions that seemed timid, delayed, inelegant, and unsuccessful by comparison.

Now he may be doing it again.

He has ratcheted up his rhetoric about Iran's nuclear program. He has said it is the most severe threat against the Jewish people and Israel since 1938; that Israel cannot tolerate an Iran with nuclear weapons; and that Israel knows what it must do.

Against this, the opinion of numerous military persons is that the Iranian nuclear project is dispersed and well protected, and that Israel does not have the capacity to destroy it, or in the best case to delay further development by more than a few years. Moreover, an Israeli military action is likely to isolate Israel even more than at present in international politics, as well as to spur whatever sentiments exist in Iran to retaliate as severely as possible as soon as possible.

So why is the prime minister talking so tough? First, perhaps, because he is good at it. He may not be in Churchill's league, or even in John Kennedy's, but he knows how to talk and to strum the nationalist heart strings. He tells a number of Israelis and overseas Jews what they want to hear.

Secondly, he is in trouble. His performance in the recent war and several charges of corruption have dropped his public standing to record lows. Benyamin Netanyahu is climbing back from what were even lower scores in public esteem, and Avigdor Lieberman is moving higher in prominence from his posture even further to the right than Netanyahu.

Talk is cheap? Perhaps in the short run, but Olmert's talk is also dangerous.

Not all is gruesome. We are just back from the Negev and Eilat, where much was awesome in the positive sense. We left the southern resort city before the arrival of 1,000 people from Sderot, now enjoying a week's paid vacation in a five-star hotel (we made do with a four-star hotel) at the expense of Arkady Gaidamak. He is one of our Russian billionaires, currently wanted by authorities in France, who is making his name (and perhaps paving the way to the Knesset) by high profile activity as the owner of a football team and as a supporter of deserving Israelis. He spent millions to provide refuge in a tent city in the south during the Lebanon war for low-income northerners threatened by rockets from Lebanon, and now this gesture for people of Sderot who are suffering from rockets falling on them from Gaza.

A number of established politicians are speaking out against this new boy in their game, except for Avigdor Lieberman. He may see Gaidamak as a potential partner for appealing to the million or so Russian speakers who may comprise 15 percent of the electorate. And Gaidamak's contributions to low-income people from the north, and now from Sderot, will endear him to another slice of the Israeli electorate.

Meanwhile, legal authorities are pursuing investigations of Gaidamak about money laundering in the range of US $50 million. At least one of his potential rivals has said that Gaidamak's Jewish identity is suspect, which is not unlikely for someone coming from the former Soviet Union. Stay tuned. This story will continue for some time.

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 12:17 AM
November 08, 2006
Thinking of myself

The IDF did it again. An artillery shell or two, said to be aimed at a field from which rockets were being fired at Israeli towns, went astray and destroyed a residential building some 500 meters off target. The result was 18 dead, most of them members of one family still sleeping in the early morning.

Israeli officials are falling over themselves expressing regret, somewhat short of apology. The more careful are saying that the targets were appropriate: those who were trying to kill Jews. War is unpleasant, and not exact. Israel did not intend to kill children, but things like that happen when the concern is self-defense.

The political opposition and the left-leaning press is in their routine of detailed description and severe condemnation. The IDF, according to a conventional posture, is not able to stop the rockets coming into Israel, so it should stop killing Palestinians. There must be a way to solve this politically.

The United Nations Security Council is scheduled to sit on this matter. Not, mind you, on the much greater violence in Sudan, but the Arabs have the votes in the United Nations to condemn Israel and to prevent a discussion of Sudan. European politicians are competing to find the best way to express their concern for the Palestinians; Americans are more balanced.

Palestinians are calling for revenge. By upping the vigor of their claims about Israeli conquest, slaughter, and genocide, they might succeed in increasing daily efforts to kill Jews. As a result, the police are at a peak of preparedness and distributing their forces to likely places.

If any good comes from this it will be the postponement of the gay/lesbian march in Jerusalem. The police are worrying that they do not have enough personnel to guard the marches from ultra-Orthodox violence, to deal with all the pre-march burning, stone-throwing, and other chaos already underway by ultra-Orthodox who are homophobic to say the least, as well as to protect the country from the Palestinians. If the march is postponed, the violence of the ultra-Orthodox gangs may end, and I should be able to reach my cinema course this evening without worrying about being stoned on the way; and will be able to get to the airport tomorrow to fetch our overseas visitors, and return home again without worrying about blocked roads.

When living close to multi-cultural violence, one has to think primarily of small things: how will it affect me? Bigger issues can come later, or be dealt with by those with greater skill and authority.

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 10:18 PM
November 04, 2006
So what else is new?

The IDF is in the midst of an extensive operation in Gaza. Hourly news reports the body count. We are at about 40 Palestinians killed, one Israeli soldier killed, a couple of Israelis wounded, and lots of Palestinians in bad shape. Aging veterans of watching Vietnam know that body counts do not end wars.

Despite this, or perhaps because of it, the homemade rockets keep coming. One landed on a home in Sderot and did considerable damage. There were also some minor wounds, and several cases of anxiety.

David Grossman gave an impressive speech before 100,000 people gathered to remember the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. He made a convincing argument that there is no king in Israel; the leadership is empty, sickened by minor or major corruption, concerned only to benefit from the headlines. He also condemned the Palestinian leadership that was leading its people to disaster. Grossman is convinced that a Palestinian population exists that a creative Israeli leadership could reach with a direct appeal in behalf of a reasonable peace arrangement.

One who has read Grossman's books on Israeli Arabs and Palestinians should not be surprised at what he said. He has made the acquaintance of numerous reasonable people from those communities. So have many of the rest of us. Are there enough of them to make a difference? Palestinian public opinion polls are not encouraging. Some years ago a right-wing Israeli government sought partners among Palestinians not associated with the national leadership at the time. It did not work. Could this government do it? Could Grossman help? He writes good books, but his attractive and well-expressed idea seems likely to end up on the growing pile of once-promising possibilities.

Avigdor Lieberman, the new minister in charge of planning strategic defense, is saying that separation from Israeli Arabs and Palestinians is the answer. Cyprus is his model of the week. Last week he wanted to emulate the Russian policy with respect to Chechnya.

A gay pride march, scheduled for later this week in Jerusalem, has come under threat of mayhem from the religious leaders of Jews and Muslims. Is this a sign of peace that might occur under a multi-cultural theocracy?

A massive electric transformer moved along the roads on Friday night. It was convenient for the police in the short run, due to limited traffic on the Sabbath. But one ultra-Orthodox political party is threatening political scandal, and targeting one of its competitors (another ultra-Orthodox party) currently serving in the government, that tolerated this abomination.

So far the Muslim religious leaders have not expressed themselves about the transformer. Maybe a multi-cultural theocracy would not work.

Something like 40,000 pieces of luggage piled up at the international airport, due to a wildcat strike of baggage handlers. Arriving travelers waited up to seven hours for their luggage, or went away without it. Planes took off minus their passengers' checked bags. The Minister of Tourism pleaded for reason. This was not a way for tourism to recover from the damage done by the recent war in Lebanon.

There is still Iran's nuclear program, and indications that Egypt, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, and some of the Gulf Emirates are moving in that direction. Either because they are afraid of the Iranians, or of us.

The talk shows are featuring commentary on Grossman, Lieberman, and the gay march. So far not a word about political corruption.

I would listen to the classical music station, but this far east in Jerusalem there is interference from Palestinian stations.

Despite all of this, I remain hopeful. Next week we celebrate the first birthday of nephew Itamar. Maybe he, or someone of his generation, can deal with these issues. To be sure, whoever is chosen would need partners from the Palestinians, other Arabs, Iranians, ultra-Orthodox Jews, and our own gays and lesbians.

I would not bet on it. But I am not likely to be among those who will judge the
outcomes.

More reliable is the rain. There will be flowers in the spring.

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 10:59 PM