Wednesday, July 23, 2008

How not to understand Ahmadinejad

July 23, 2008

Over the weekend I finally finished a book that I began in August 2007 and had hoped to complete before Pessah - Saul Friedlander's The Years of Extermination: Nazi Germany and the Jews, 1939-1945. It's the kind of tome I had to put down from time to time (sometimes for weeks on end) before returning to it.

While the book is compelling, the subject matter is dismal.

Jews are not the only ones in history to have endured unspeakable suffering. But the Holocaust is unique in that it was systematically carried out by a civilized, industrialized, bureaucratic European power, with broad popular support - and it was catalyzed by an organizing principle: "scientific" racial supremacy.

The Nazis propagated and exploited their racism throughout occupied Europe, though with varying degrees of success. The Italians under Mussolini largely obstructed anti-Jewish measures; the Poles did not even pretend to be grief-stricken at what was happening on the other side of the ghetto walls.

Throughout much of the Shoah, notes Friedlander, the attention of the Labor Zionist leadership which controlled the yishuv was focused on nation-building, not rescue efforts. Diaspora leaders, for their part, were loath to be seen as turning WWII into a "Jewish issue."

By the fall of 1942, Washington, London, the neutral countries, the Red Cross and the Vatican all knew that the methodical and total destruction of Europe's Jews was well under way. All have alibis to explain why they allowed events to take their course.

FRIEDLANDER writes with - I wouldn't call it dispassion - remarkable restraint, allowing readers to draw their own sobering conclusions. Two lasting impressions his book left me with concern Adolf Hitler and Heinrich Himmler.

Der Fuehrer was not insane, and save for the final months of the war, he was in perfect command of his faculties. What drove his policies was a world view that demanded the annihilation of European Jewry - which explains why the resources needed to implement the Holocaust often received precedence over those needed to defeat the Allies.

In this sense, though Germany lost the war, Hitler largely accomplished his life's goal: a Judenrein Europe.

Friedlander also dissuades us from the perilous inclination to view the top Nazi echelon as comic-book villains. From Hitler on down they certainly had their, shall we say, peculiarities. But Friedlander makes it clear that you don't have to be bonkers to be evil. A quote from Himmler, Hitler's No. 2 (insofar as the execution of the Holocaust was concerned) hammers home this point.

For Himmler, killing Jews was not so much a thuggish pleasure as a "difficult" burden. In pep talks he gave to Nazi officers charged with carrying out the destruction of European Jewry, he repeatedly "offered encouragement and justification."

"On October 4, 1943 he described the extermination of the Jews as 'the task which became the most difficult of my life… The difficult decision had to be taken to have this people disappear from the face of the earth." [emphasis added]

I FINISHED Friedlander's book about Germany, and picked up the weekend newspapers with their coverage of Iran. The international community - the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, plus Germany, with the EU in the vanguard - had given Teheran two (more) weeks to comply with demands that it suspend uranium enrichment.

When it comes to the "lessons of history," I'm an agnostic. Determinists like Abraham Lincoln believed that "What has once happened will invariably happen again, when the same circumstances which combined to produce it, shall again combine in the same way." Relativists such as E.H. Carr, on the other hand, claimed that none of us can write or read about the past, or draw lessons for the future, in a completely objective manner. For Carr, the "lessons of history" are so general as to be of limited utility.

I TEND to agree with Carr. There is a big danger in making decisions about Iran largely through the prism of the Holocaust.

Like Hitler, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is not a lunatic. Unlike the fuehrer, his leadership is not undisputed; he is not worshipped by frenzied masses, and no one suggests he will be Iran's leader-for-life.

Presumably, he does reflect the hateful world view of Iran's entire leadership when he calls for the Jewish state to be "wiped off the map"; says "Zionists" are "the most detested people in all humanity"; and declares, as he did on June 2: "You should know that the criminal and terrorist Zionist regime, which has 60 years of plundering, aggression and crimes in its file, has reached the end of its work and will soon disappear off the geographical scene."

But we can only speculate about whether Iran's leaders are genuinely apocalyptic - and thus immune to standard nuclear deterrence. We can only speculate about whether their desire to destroy Israel is paramount, akin to Hitler's determination to destroy European Jewry at all costs. Are the mullahs coldly, rationally willing to sacrifice their power, their people and their country to achieve this overriding mission?

The doyen of Middle East scholars, Bernard Lewis, asserts that the notion of mutual assured destruction (MAD) constitutes an inducement rather than a deterrent to Iran's apocalyptic Islamist regime. Perhaps.

In that case, I wonder why the Iranians haven't simply procured an off-the-shelf nuclear weapon from North Korea or Pakistan. And why have they not attacked Israel with other types of weapons of mass destruction - like chemical and bacteriological - already presumably at their disposal?

None of this is to suggest that Iran is not terribly dangerous, or that we shouldn't pull out all the stops to prevent it from gaining nuclear weapons. Even a non-apocalyptic nuclear Iran is a real and present danger to Israel, the region and the world.

FINALLY, sanctions offer another example of the limited utility of historical parallels. After Hitler came to power in 1933 and persecution of the Jews intensified, American Jews led a boycott campaign against German products and services. Its impact was negligible, arguably even counterproductive.

The opposite is the case today. Hard-hitting sanctions offer a very real prospect of success. In fact, the mild sanctions now in place have already contributed to the regime's unpopularity; driven it to ration petrol (Iran's refining capacity is limited, so gasoline has to be imported); and resulted in a 26 percent inflation rate.

It may be that the best - not to mention safest - way to bring the mullahs to their knees is via the economic and political isolation of Iran.

But whatever the international community decides, if it fails to summon the necessary will to compel Iran to end its nuclear weapons program, the catastrophic consequences could make for horrifying history.

Not at any price

Jul. 23, 2008

Had the morning of Sunday, June 25, 2006 been uneventful, three young recruits inducted into service back in 2005 and serving along Israel's border with the Gaza Strip would have completed their mandatory army service and been routinely discharged into civilian life yesterday.

Instead they were surprised at 5:30 a.m., when eight Palestinian infiltrators tunneled their way under the Kerem Shalom crossing, emerged 300 meters inside Israel behind army positions and split into three groups. One squad attacked the soldiers' tank with missiles and grenades.

Lt. Hanan Barak and St.-Sgt. Pavel Slutsker were killed instantly. Within days, for all but their loved ones and friends, their memories had been erased from the public consciousness. Instead, the spotlight focused on the third soldier, Cpl. Gilad Schalit, who, apparently wounded, was taken prisoner.

Several days later, 18-year-old Eliyahu Asheri, hitchhiking home from school, was kidnapped and murdered by Palestinian terrorists in the West Bank. He became another forgotten statistic. Then, on July 12, Hizbullah guerillas infiltrated Israel's border with Lebanon, killed eight IDF soldiers (who today recalls their names?), carried away Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser, and ignited the Second Lebanon War.

While the identities of the war's dead faded into obscurity, the names Goldwasser, Regev and Schalit became national obsessions. Though it seemed likely to the authorities, early on, that the Hizbullah captives were dead - the country remained in denial - the mantra "Bring the boys home" was applied equally to Goldwasser, Regev and Schalit.

Goldwasser and Regev have indeed been "brought home" - at an unacceptably high price from the politico-security perspective - in an exchange that enjoyed strong support among ordinary Israelis. Now attention focuses exclusively on Schalit.

The emotional blackmail, media frenzy and leadership vacuum that set Samir Kuntar free now threaten to unleash an even greater "prison escape." Hamas is demanding 1,000 terrorists, including the masterminds and facilitators of some of the most heinous bloodbaths of the second intifada - including the Dolphinarium, Sbarro and Netanya Seder massacres.

The expertise these luminaries of the Palestinian "resistance" could provide in a third intifada is too frightening to contemplate.

NEWLY DISCHARGED yesterday, the men from Gilad Schalit's company have commendably chosen, rather than the traditional trip abroad to "decompress," to devote themselves to freeing their comrade. Immediately after replacing their fatigues with civilian clothes, they marched to the Defense Ministry compound in Tel Aviv to pressure Defense Minister Ehud Barak to "do the right thing." Later, the ex-soldiers and other supporters of Schalit rallied in Rabin Square. Their implicit message: Bring Gilad Schalit home, at any price.

Reports coming out of Cairo - denied in Jerusalem - say that Israel is prepared to release Marwan Barghouti as part of an exchange for Schalit. Charged with 37 murders, the Fatah leader was convicted of "only" five killings in the course of terrorist attacks he supervised in metropolitan Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. That would indeed bring Gilad Schalit home - at any price.

AS SCHALIT'S army buddies were setting off on their Tel Aviv march, yet another east Jerusalem Palestinian Arab was transforming his bulldozer into a lethal weapon. Following in the footsteps, as it were, of Husam Taysir Dwayat, who 20 days ago used his bulldozer to kill three people and wound 45, Ghassan Abu Tir on Tuesday used his bulldozer to crush cars and ram a bus near the King David Hotel. Fortunately, an armed passerby took prompt action, killing the terrorist, who, in a matter of minutes, had managed to wound 29.

Had Abu Tir and Husam Taysir Dwayat survived their rampages, their names would no doubt figure on Hamas's list of prisoners they want released.

The strategic challenge the government of Israel faces is not Hamas's custody of Cpl. Schalit, but its suzerainty over Gaza. Of course Israel must strive to bring Schalit home, but not at any cost. For instance, Israel could reasonably offer to trade for its IDF captive the Hamas "parliamentarians" it took into custody within days of Schalit's capture.

The government could also debate MK Avigdor Lieberman's proposal to capture the most senior Hamas leaders in Gaza to use as fresh bargaining chips. Or it could weigh a rescue attempt.

What it must not do is cave in to populist sentiment, throw open the prison gates, and let legions of terrorists out to wreak more bloody havoc.

Impurity of arms

Jul. 22, 2008

Israeli TV news programs Sunday night aired distressing video footage. It showed a Palestinian who had been arrested, blindfolded and handcuffed during rioting against the security barrier apparently being shot with a rubber bullet, at practically point-blank range.

As a lieutenant-colonel positions the man, identified as Ashraf Abu Rahma, 27, near the door of an army jeep, a soldier is seen taking aim at him. We hear a shot, but the film clip is not continuous so we do not actually see the shooting. Footage resumes with Abu Rahma on the ground.

If these images accurately portray what happened, Israelis can only be disheartened by the brutality of the perpetrators, and by the lack of discipline such cruelty and stupidity exposes. If guilty, those involved should be punished appropriately.

The IDF's judge advocate-general has already viewed a tape of the incident and the army has launched an investigation into the conduct of the soldiers. Defense Minister Ehud Barak expressed his chagrin, calling the incident an aberration that does not reflect the values of the IDF. That is what all Israelis would like to believe.

The rubber bullet injured Abu Rahma's left toe. He was treated by an IDF physician on the scene and released. Images of what is purported to be his swollen toe are now posted on the Web.

This troubling incident, which could have ended much worse, took place on July 7, over the Green Line, near Nil'in, which is west of Ramallah and northwest of Modi'in Illit. It is a spot where often-violent protests are orchestrated weekly against the security barrier. Its opponents claim that this fence will cut them off from their farm land.

The barrier is being erected to keep Palestinian suicide bombers and terrorists away from Israel's population centers. But Israel's Supreme Court stands ready to hear Palestinian complaints and has ordered the route to be shifted where warranted.

PROTESTERS OPENLY film their staged confrontations with the soldiers at the barrier, for propaganda purposes. Typically, after throwing rocks, vandalizing sections of the fence under construction, even overturning the occasional bulldozer, "demonstrators" confront Israeli security forces.

The script then calls for the security forces to "overreact" - which, unfortunately, they sometimes do. In one incident, a helmeted policeman is filmed head-butting a rioter. The Abu Rahma shooting was caught on film by a 14-year-old Arab girl from Ni'lin using a hidden camera provided by the B'Tselem advocacy organization.

The soldier, serving in the regular army, reportedly told investigators that his commanding officer ordered him to fire at Abu Rahma, who had allegedly been rioting. Abu Rahma claims the demonstration was "peaceful."

Plainly, the incident should have been immediately reported up the chain of command. The IDF should itself have investigated and exposed any wrongdoing. On the face of it, the army took action only after B'Tselem released its video to the media.

B'Tselem, which is mostly funded by foreign governments and foundations though staffed by local Israelis and Arabs, has been distributing cameras to Palestinians in areas of "friction" between Arabs and Jewish residents of the territories or soldiers. The camera project, slugged "Shooting Back," also apparently captured four masked Israelis beating Palestinian shepherds near the village of Khirbet Susiya in the Hebron area.

We can empathize with soldiers and reservists who are put in the field under a beating sun, forced to endure in staged protests an onslaught of rocks, stones and taunts by Palestinian rioters and their cadre of radical sympathizers from within Israel and abroad. With all that, what is demanded of our forces - even in the face of blatant provocation - is professionalism, discipline and restraint.

THE IDF, which operates in an unprecedented media bubble, is held to a higher standard than just about any other army in the world. When its fails to meet that ethical expectation - as it seems to have done on the occasion under scrutiny - the entire country suffers the consequences.

It's not just that Israel's fortunes are especially dependent on the support we receive from Europe and America and so our good image matters. We must also not allow the Palestinians' glorification of violence to brutalize us.

Friday, July 18, 2008

WRAP: bulldozer attack; New World Disorder; Fatah-Hamas reconciliation: Prisoner Exchange; The New Lebanon

The new Lebanon

Jul. 18, 2008

Putting decades of vicious sectarian, political and personality differences aside, Lebanon's body politic came together Wednesday night in a heartfelt display of national unity: Samir Kuntar had been brought home.

After a nearly 30-year absence, there he stood before the frantic multitude, this progeny of Lebanon - whose road to manhood took him from out-of-control juvenile delinquent to adolescent child-killer to unremorseful mature terrorist - in army fatigues, waving the Lebanese and Hizbullah flags, arm outstretched in the Hizbullah salute, a manic glint in his eyes. A true son of his country.

In a flash, the face of the new Lebanon was unmasked. As celebratory music helped work the crowd into a frenzy, and with Kuntar and several other released terrorists on stage as props, the real "hero" and personification of that new Lebanon, Hassan Nasrallah, emerged for a few moments - his first appearance since January. The Druse-born Kuntar impulsively kissed his beaming hero. Nasrallah did not reciprocate.

"The age of defeats is gone, and the age of victories has come. This people, this nation gave a great and clear image today to its friends and enemies that it cannot be defeated," Nasrallah told the jubilant crowd.

He was then whisked away by bodyguards to a hiding place from which he delivered the rest of his address, broadcast over a gigantic screen set up in the south Beirut square where the welcoming ceremonies were held.

"One of the greatest fortunes is that the unity government welcomed the freed prisoners," Nasrallah declared.

A while earlier the red carpet had been rolled out at Beirut International Airport, as warlords and politicians from rival factions welcomed Kuntar and the other released gunmen as national heroes.

Druse leader Walid Jumblatt proudly recalled that his father, Kamal (assassinated by Syria), had been in the vanguard of Lebanon's Palestinian cause. Christian Maronite president Michael Aoun cited Lebanese unity in the struggle against the Jewish state and commitment to "the return of the Palestinians to their land." Nabih Berri, speaker of the Lebanese parliament and boss of the Shi'ite Amal movement, was there, as was "pro-American" Prime Minister Fuad Saniora, a Sunni Muslim.

Rounding out the delegation were the Sunni majority leader of parliament, Saad Hariri (whose father was also assassinated by Syria) and Christian opposition leader Michel Aoun. They put aside their own differences and their disputes with Nasrallah to give each of the returning "militants" a hug and a kiss.

A VITAL lesson Israeli strategists must draw from this nauseating display of perverted unity: Lebanon and Hizbullah are one. If, heaven forbid, there is another war, the IDF must wage it with ferocity - not on Hizbullah's terms, but across the Lebanese battlefield.

Ever since the June 1982 Lebanon War, the Israeli military has allowed itself to be hamstrung in targeting Lebanon. International media coverage of that war, often manipulative and tendentious, along with Western - particularly US - opposition to striking at the country's infrastructure, made vanquishing our enemies impossible.

Even among Israelis there was the lingering sense that Lebanon was essentially a peace-loving society taken hostage by violent, unrepresentative factions.

Ultimately, that assessment reigned supreme, inhibiting the IDF from finishing Yasser Arafat off. Instead the PLO was merely ousted from its Beirut and southern Lebanon strongholds and exiled to Tunisia.

But that war's unintended consequences led to an even worse outcome: Iranian-backed Shi'ite Islamism and the rise of Hizbullah.

NOW THAT Lebanon and Hizbullah have apparently melded, the self-defeating legacy of IDF inhibition must end. At the start of the Second Lebanon War, former IDF chief of staff Dan Halutz warned bombastically that Israel would "turn back the clock in Lebanon by 20 years" if Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev were not returned.

No one took him seriously - Israel would never punish "good Lebanon" for the crimes of "bad Hizbullah." The IAF limited itself to mostly targeting Islamist strongholds. But if Lebanon and Hizbullah are now one, Israel needs a radically revised strategy for winning a war on Lebanese soil.

Artificial distinctions between "Lebanese" and "Hizbullah" targets were swept away by Wednesday's display of barbaric unity. Lebanon was revealed in its hostile unanimity. If new conflict comes, Israel must internalize that unanimity of hate-filled purpose, and defeat it decisively.

Israelis are steeling themselves today for the painful images that will doubtless accompany the anticipated exchange of unrepentant terrorist Samir Kuntar for IDF reservists Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser.

It's already been a week of images that, mostly, encapsulate Israeli frustrations: newly-released but old photographs of Ron Arad; pictures of Syrian president Bashar Assad with his back turned to Ehud Olmert at the Bastille Day ceremony in Paris; and of Olmert at the same ceremony, his hand good-naturedly draped around Hosni Mubarak's shoulders.

Even the encouraging image of banter between Mubarak and Olmert left us wishing Egypt didn't hold our bilateral relations hostage to what happens with the Palestinians; while Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas looking so affable in Paris made us wonder what there is to smile about.

AN IMAGE that weighs heavily on our minds today is that of a smiling, 32-year-old Ehud Goldwasser in a photo recognizable worldwide. Yet his real life - as a son and brother, his deep love for his wife, Karnit, along with his work at the Technion, and his hobby as a photographer - has been largely obscured despite his unwanted celebrity.

The same holds true of 27-year-old Eldad Regev. He is often pictured in a photo that shows him carefree, sunglasses balanced on his head, smiling into the camera. His real life, too, is largely unknown. Friends describe him as "a fanatical football fan" whose dream was to become a lawyer.

there are the inscrutable images of Gilad Schalit, kidnapped on June 25, 2006, and held by Hamas in Gaza. That he is quiet and introverted comes through in the photos we have of him. Sometimes pictured in uniform, wearing eye-glasses, sometimes in civilian clothing looking like the boy next door, he seems even younger than his 21 years.

IMAGES REFLECTING Zionist sacrifices - and desire for peace - are nothing new.
On January 3, 1919, Emir Faisal, the Arabian-born Hashemite ruler, was famously photographed with Chaim Weizmann (both men wearing desert headdress). Faisal had just, conditionally, accepted the Balfour Declaration. Eight-nine years later, that image of Jewish-Arab partnership still beckons.

Of course, as the numerous Oslo-era meetings between a smiling Yasser Arafat and various Israeli leaders demonstrated, positive images - even written commitments - do not guarantee sincerity of intentions. Unlike the emir, the Palestinian leader could never reconcile himself to genuine accommodation with the Jewish state.

Yet when Arab leaders display warmth and try to meet Israel half-way, their goodwill is reciprocated. We think of the images of Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin at the Knesset in November 1977, and how, within five years, Egypt and Israel signed a peace treaty.

Good personal relations do not dictate positive policy outcomes, but they certainly do no harm. King Hussein of Jordan first met publicly with prime minister Yitzhak Rabin on July 25, 1994. The two men developed a relationship of mutual respect and collegiality best captured in the famous photo of the king lighting a cigarette for the premier. The Jordanian-Israeli treaty was signed on October 26, 1994 - less than 100 days after Rabin and Hussein's first meeting.

THERE IS no surefire way to calibrate the right combination of image and substance that might pave the way to Arab-Israel peace. We know, however, what doesn't work. At the November 2007 Annapolis summit, for instance, the Saudi foreign minister wouldn't join in shaking hands with Olmert and Abbas - and thus chose to avoid giving much-needed legitimacy to Israeli-Arab reconciliation. A rare opportunity was squandered.

Sometimes, pictures only raise questions. How can the debonair Assad, so cosmopolitan in Paris with his fashionably dressed wife, also feel at ease in the embrace of the medieval-thinking mullahs of Teheran? Are image and policy really that divergent? Plainly, though, Assad avoiding Olmert, Assad opting not to replicate Sadat by coming to the podium of the Knesset, tells us much about his true intentions.

Today will bring difficult images of a Hizbullah-dominated Lebanon celebrating a slaughterer of innocents, and of an Israel mourning its fallen. That disparity of images reflects the yawning gulf of values between Israel and too many of its neighbors.

Palestinian reconciliation

Jul. 6, 2008

It may yet take months, but there is every likelihood that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas will ultimately reconcile his Fatah movement with Hamas, an interim government of "technocrats" will be formed, and new Palestinian elections will be held.

Abbas was in Damascus on Sunday and Monday to discuss those prospects of reconciliation with President Bashar Assad, who is pushing for Palestinian unity. Arab leaders, though jostling for relative influence, want to see Palestinian factions form a united front.

Abbas is still refusing to meet with Khaled Mashaal, the Damascus-based Hamas leader, until the Islamists reverse what Abbas calls the June 2007 "coup," which ousted Fatah from Gaza. For its part, Hamas wants reconciliation efforts to result in Abbas internalizing the results of the January 2006 Palestinian Legislative Council elections, in which it won 74 out of 132 seats.

Fatah is still smarting from this defeat, which led to months of failed efforts at power-sharing. Abbas had sought to retain Fatah's influence, pursue talks with Israel and maintain ties with, and the flow of cash from, the West. Meanwhile, Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas "pragmatist" who became PA prime minister, rejected Quartet requirements that the Islamists renounce violence, recognize Israel and adhere to previous PLO commitments.

THE TWO sides are divided over Fatah's long, often corrupt and autocratic stewardship of the Palestinian cause and over its control of the Palestine Liberation Organization - the internationally recognized arm of the Palestinians. Hamas and Fatah also differ over how best to achieve and articulate Palestinian aims and the role of Islam in the anti-Israel struggle. Then, too, there are the visceral personal hatreds between key figures in both camps.

Fatah never denied the Islamic aspect of anti-Zionism, though it has emphasized Palestinian nationalism since 1964, when it embarked on "the armed struggle." Yet whatever his ultimate motives, Fatah leader Yasser Arafat moderated the group's public position and signed the 1993 Oslo Agreement with Israel, which paved the way for the establishment, in 1994, of the Palestinian Authority.

Hamas, founded by Sheikh Ahmed Yassin in 1987 during the first intifada, is an offshoot of the notorious Muslim Brotherhood. Islamists believe that every dunam of land between the Jordan and the Mediterranean is consecrated in trust for future Muslim generations; that compromise is a sin, and nationalism a heresy. Its 1988 Charter foretells that Muslims will one day obliterate Israel.

WHILE ISRAEL'S presence in Judea and Samaria keeps Hamas's military wing in check, Hamas's leaders prepare for the day when they will take control of the PA. Despite intensive well-funded Western efforts channeled through Abbas supporters to strengthen Palestinian civil society, a vast network of Hamas-affiliated social welfare organizations, supported by donations from throughout the Muslim world, boosts the popularity of an already admired organization. The IDF is expanding its efforts to close Hamas's West Bank institutions and confiscate their property - really a job the PA should have done.

It is hard to believe that anyone - not US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, not EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, and certainly not Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni - has any illusions about what would happen to Abbas and Fatah were the IDF to withdraw from the West Bank.
As Abbas's prospects dim - a Ramallah judicial body unilaterally "extended" his term beyond January 2009 - Fatah needs the legitimacy unity would bring. And for Hamas, unity is the road to controlling the West Bank.

COULD ABBAS enhance his popularity by reaching a "shelf agreement" with Israel by the December 2008 deadline? It's hard to see how, given that his "moderate" negotiating stance demands Israeli withdrawal to the 1949 Armistice Lines as well as the Palestinian "right of return" - signaling the demographic destruction of Israel and unacceptable even to the most pliant of Israeli governments.

If Palestinian negotiators are quietly making far-reaching concessions on borders and refugees to pave the way toward a shelf agreement - without preparing their people for the idea of compromise - Abbas's popularity will plummet further. Conversely, if no deal is achieved, Abbas's leadership will be undermined and Hamas emerge ascendant.
So while Fatah-Hamas reconciliation appears inevitable, the chances of it contributing to Jewish and Palestinian states living side by side in peace and security seem ever more remote.

Does Livni have a Plan B?

New world disorder

Jul. 5, 2008

At the start of the modern era, summits of world leaders were as rare as they were consequential: The Peace of Westphalia in 1648 after the Thirty Years War; the Congress of Vienna in 1815 after the Napoleonic Wars; the 1919 Paris Conference in the wake of WWI; and the 1945 San Francisco meeting, which created the UN.

Nowadays, summits of world leaders are a routine affair and their outcomes mostly inconsequential. That is the way many observers are viewing the G-8 meeting which takes place today and Tuesday on Hokkaido Island in northern Japan. Israelis may, however, want to take a closer look.

Political scientists used to debate whether a "multipolar" world - where more than two states were powerful - made war less likely than a "bipolar" world in which just two superpowers competed and client states fell into line behind them. For a brief moment in history, with the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Empire, scholars pondered the implications of a "unipolar" world in which Washington alone called all the shots.

That debate is mostly over. International affairs today, it is becoming evident, are conducted in neither multipolar nor bipolar nor unipolar worlds, but, as Richard N. Haass argued in the May/June issue of Foreign Affairs, under conditions of "nonpolarity."

In this new, more disordered environment, power is "diffuse rather than concentrated, and the influence of nation-states [can be expected to] decline as that of nonstate actors increases. Today's nonpolar world is not simply a result of the rise of other states and organizations, or of the failures and follies of US policy. It is also an inevitable consequence of globalization," wrote Haass.

ISRAELIS LOSE sleep over terrorism, Palestinian intransigence, the Iranian menace and our underperforming political system. Thus what amounts to a major transformation in the international political arena may have escaped our notice. Yet the Jewish state must operate in this radically different world, so we had better try to understand and adapt to it.

We need to remind ourselves that we are not at the center of the universe. Just look at the main issues at the G-8 confronting the leaders of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, the UK, and the US, plus the president of the European Commission: global economic malaise, galloping energy prices, a food disaster threatening very poor countries, and climate change.
Yet the days when eight or nine or even 14 powers - observers were also invited - could harness their collective will and shape a new world agenda are behind us. Globalization has transformed how the game is played.

So it may be unrealistic to expect the "international community" to act in concert to solve the Iran problem, Israel's principal dilemma. Iran just doesn't figure high enough on the agenda of a disordered world.

Nevertheless, the task of Israel's decision makers is to raise the profile of the Iranian nuclear threat - and those reported IAF exercises off the coast of Greece were a good start. Competition for world attention is fierce; so too must be our efforts to focus the global spotlight on Teheran.

BEYOND what we want of the world, let's clarify what we should expect from ourselves. We had better be absolutely certain that we are accurately assessing the threat from Iran, that we read Iranian intentions correctly and are not allowing anything save cold objectivity to guide us.
In a nonpolar world we still need the understanding of patrons and friends, though they have luxuries we don't. They can theoretically acquiesce in an attack against Iran aimed at stopping an imminent threat, yet abandon us should they arbitrarily judge our actions merely "preventive."

On the Palestinian front, we need to think hard both about the content of a prospective shelf agreement and about the state of the international political arena in which it might be implemented. Israel cannot afford a bad deal to be adjudicated in an unfriendly nonpolar environment.

Israel sorely needs wise leaders capable of navigating in this new international arena in which Jewish rights are still not universally recognized, and where existential threats loom large. A small country needs allies, especially in a world where power is diffuse.

Out of context

Jul. 2 , 2008

When Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase, "The medium is the message," he probably meant that the media determine not only what "news" is, but what it is supposed to mean.

Newspapers, television and the Internet do not merely disseminate information; they explain its significance, provide frames of reference, create and reinforce attitudes.

That's exactly what happened Wednesday when an Arab from the southeast Jerusalem neighborhood of Sur Baher killed three and injured dozens in a bulldozer rampage - one that, coincidentally, culminated under the windows of major news outlets headquartered on Jaffa Road.

Journalists sprang into action providing the "who, what, where, when and how" of the tragedy. Within minutes, consumers of news around the globe were in the loop. Even before all the dead had been buried, the injured hospitalized and the wreckage cleared from the streets, the media proceeded to provide "context."

WHY DID Husam Taysir Dwayat do it? The hasty and erroneous answer offered by an overwhelming number of news outlets amounted to: "It's the occupation, stupid."
That is the type of "context" one would expect from Al-Jazeera, which described the rampage as an "operation."

Yet even the otherwise fine coverage provided by The New York Times was marred, apparently by editors, who inserted a tendentious paragraph about... bulldozers: "Caterpillar equipment has a special resonance among Palestinians. Human rights activists have lobbied the company to stop selling its heavy vehicles to the Israeli military out of concern that they have been used to demolish Palestinian homes, uproot orchards and construct Jewish settlements in occupied land."

Reuters unhelpfully contrasted Israel's supposed oppression of Palestinians generally with its maltreatment of Jerusalem Arabs: "Unlike Palestinians in the blockaded Gaza Strip and in the occupied West Bank, those living in occupied east Jerusalem have free access to the Jewish west of the city and to Israel." The wire service added that it found no evidence that Dwayat was a "guerrilla."

As for the Associated Press, it was almost as if the world's leading content provider sought, under the guise of uncovering a motive for the rampage, to provide justification for it: Dwayat had been fined for building his house without a permit, and a demolition order was on file.
"In contrast to West Bank Palestinians," AP noted, "Arab residents of Jerusalem have full freedom to work and travel throughout Israel," begging the question of why Israelis restrict the movement of West Bankers.

Xinhua, the Chinese news agency, headlined its report: "Hamas refuses to laud Jerusalem rampage." That certainly helps frame, in the minds of millions of Chinese, Hamas's Gandhi-like ethos against killing innocent civilians.

London's The Daily Telegraph focused on the romantic angle. "'His heart [was] broken by a young Russian Jewish woman,' Dwayat's friend told the paper. 'She came here, she lived here in his parents' house with him, she stayed for a month… But then a radical Jewish group seized her one night and returned her to her family.'"

The Guardian Web site prominently connected its straightforward coverage with a Homepage link to a column by Jerusalem-based Seth Freedman entitled "The inevitable overreaction." "There can be no excuses. Nothing; not the occupation, nor the siege of Gaza… But just because there can be no excuses, does not for a minute mean there can be no explanation…40 years of cruel and unusual punishment of the Palestinians was likely to bear such murderous fruits. It's not because we're Jews; it's because of the relentless oppressive tactics employed by successive Israeli governments…"

Over at the London Times, Foreign Secretary David Miliband is quoted as urging Britons to keep the bigger picture in view: "Our first thought is for the victims and the relatives of the victims… Our second thought is obviously for the process of building a Middle East peace that's enduring."

IN FACT, the prospects for peace-building are immeasurably undermined by the moral relavatism encapsulated above. The media's smug, even disingenuous, contextualization of Palestinian violence in general, and Wednesday's carnage in particular, as attributable to the "occupation" completely demoralizes those Israelis who genuinely want to see a resolution of the conflict.

Any "root causes" appraisal of Arab brutality that ignores more than 60 years of Palestinian rejectionism, intransigence, self-defeating violence and denial of Jewish rights offers neither context nor candor.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Rationality isn't all it's cracked up to be

Man is a rational animal who always loses his temper when called upon to act in accordance with the dictates of rationality.
- Orson Wells

It's no secret that Hamas desperately wants the June 19 temporary truce to last for as long as possible. An Arab source told me that the Islamist group has been under severe pressure - not so much, he claims, from the IDF as from distressed Gazans who need a respite from Israeli and international sanctions, which have made their lives absolute misery.

Of course, Hamas also wants time, unmolested by the IDF, to import concrete which it will use to expand its network of tunnels and bunkers (hence the need for opening the overland passages from Israel). It also wants to smuggle in more powerful explosives, anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles, stock up on shekels and send promising operatives for specialized training abroad.
With all these incentives, how do you explain the fact that the Palestinians almost immediately violated the truce by firing rockets into Israel? Marcus Sheff, executive director of the Israel Project, quips that extremist Palestinian factions have "Terrorist Tourette's" - they can't behave rationally because they suffer from an unaccountable, violent "tic" that compels self-destructive outbursts.

Either the Palestinians are behaving irrationally, or we're misinterpreting what they're doing as irrational, or we are the ones who are being irrational and don't know it. Or - perhaps even more problematic - rationality isn't all it's cracked up to be, and human beings can't but behave irrationally at times.

WHILE NO one sets out to behave foolishly and we all think we're sensible and that our reasoning is logical, the possibility that we're kidding ourselves about how rational we are comes up repeatedly. Take the latest research published in the journal Neuron and reported in last week's Economist, in which a team led by Brian Knutson and G. Elliott Wimmer hypothesize that people have a tendency to over-value items they own to an irrational extent.

This also helps explain why some very high-IQ people I know are chronically disorganized and can't part with clutter. Modern offices (and small Israeli apartments) demand tidiness, but evolution has imprinted our brains with an even stronger need to horde.

Primitive man, it seems, can't easily part with his tangible possessions. Nor can we.
IF YOU want the case for rationality, let me recommend The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch, the young computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon who was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and told he had only months to live. Pausch's book is based on a "last lecture" he gave to his students; it has been viewed by many others via the Internet.

It's also meant as an expression of love to his wife and a way to pass on his values to his three small children. He tells them: "You can't control the cards you're dealt, just how you play the hand."

In these heartrending but in no way maudlin ruminations, Pausch implicitly addresses the question Aristotle posed 2,000 years ago: What is the best, the happiest, the most meaningful sort of life worth living? His answer: a life that combines emotional intelligence with rationality.

THE NEXUS between rationality and death also came up this week, when the Israeli cabinet decided to trade a demonic terrorist for the remains of two fallen IDF soldiers. To my mind, it was not merely a wrong but an irrational decision, since it only strengthens our enemies' dangerous conviction that if they stand firm, we will always cave. And yet it was taken by an overwhelming majority of ministers amid wide popular and media support.
Plainly, we all define "rational" differently.

TAKE ANOTHER, more prosaic decision by Cabinet Secretary Ovad Yehezkel - about bottled mineral water - that seems, on the surface, to be perfectly rational. Telling ministers that a cubic meter of mineral water costs 1,000 times more than tap water, Yehezkel wants ministries to stop ordering mineral water and install water purifiers.

As my colleague Herb Kenion put it: "He said this to ministers who, for the first time in recent memory, were sitting around a cabinet table bereft of the little blue plastic bottles of water."

Now I use tap water for my Shabbat urn and bottled water during the rest of the week - and, believe me, you can taste the difference. Thus there is a rational case to be made for bottled water: It tastes better. And I can afford the indulgence, so my decision to use mineral water is therefore rational. But whether Yehezkel's decision is rational depends on the cost-benefit ratio.
Are machines that purify and chill (and often also boil) water really cheaper than water in bottles? The government will have to purchase or rent the new equipment, invite bids for its maintenance, and bring in plumbers to draw tap water pipes to innumerable locations in government buildings throughout the country. These costs are worth looking into.

It may be perfectly sensible for Americans, on the other hand, to question the rationality of spending $11 billion a year on bottled water. Manufacturing all those plastic bottles leaves one big carbon foot-print; producing them uses up the equivalent of an amazing 17 million barrels of oil. While tap water may contain pollutants (not to mention microscopic creatures, as ultra-Orthodox Jews in NYC have discovered), the quality of bottled water is often only loosely regulated.

Reasoning can therefore take you only so far: It may well be that there is no rational answer to the tap vs mineral water debate.

MICHAEL CHABON'S The Yiddish Policemen's Union, which I have just read, also grapples with the rationality issue. Though no great Zionist, Chabon is a talented and imaginative storyteller. Toward the end of the book he places an epiphany, of sorts, in the mind of the main character, detective Meyer Landsman:

"All at once he feels weary of ganefs and prophets, guns and sacrifices and the infinite gangster weight of God. He's tired of hearing about the promised land and the inevitable bloodshed required for its redemption. 'I don't care what is written. I don't care what supposedly got promised to some sandal-wearing idiot whose claim to fame is that he was ready to cut his own son's throat for the sake of a hare-brained idea. I don't care about red heifers and patriarchs and locusts. A bunch of old bones in the sand. My homeland is my hat. It's my ex-wife's tote bag.'"

All very imaginative, but the case is strong that - far from being a "sandal-wearing idiot," Abraham handled his situation with perfect rationality, an argument made by NYU Prof. Steven J. Brams in his book Biblical Games. Brams claims that "rational interpretations of biblical actions are no more farfetched than 'faith' interpretations." And in his game theory construct, "the more sophisticated the rationality calculations biblical characters make, the less need for them to have blind faith in God to achieve their goals."

Anyway, and without away giving too much of the plot, the dilemma Chabon's Jews face is in large measure not of their own making.

It may be rational for Meyer Landsmanan, as a lone Jew, to opt out, but history has amply demonstrated that as a people, we cannot cast off our scripted role - rationality be dammed.

Wrap: Bishara/ Africa/Hizbullah trade/Olmert

Bishara's legacy (July 2)

What if, on the night of May 10-11, 1941, even as the Luftwaffe was blitzing London's Westminster Palace, a British MP was off in Berlin advising German leaders about how best to confront Winston Churchill?

Now fast-forward to another war, another time and another place: the summer of 2006. Hizbullah gunners are bombarding northern Israel from Lebanon; soldiers have been killed, soldiers have been kidnapped. Tens of thousands of Israelis are sweltering in shelters. The country is at war.

Knesset Member Azmi Bishara, however, is off in Beirut, where, authorities suspect, he is helping Hizbullah evaluate Jerusalem's political and military strategy. We say "suspect" because Bishara fled Israel before he could be brought to trial.

It is thus altogether fitting that the law passed on Sunday by the Knesset - that henceforth bars anyone visiting an enemy state for illegal purposes from running for the Knesset - has been dubbed the "Bishara Law."

In a 52-24 vote the legislature declared that anyone who unlawfully visits Syria, Lebanon, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia or Yemen must wait seven years before seeking a seat in parliament.
This legislation modifies the Basic Law: The Knesset, which stipulates that "a list of candidates or a candidate can be elected as long as their goals or their actions, literally or interpretively, do not negate the existence of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, [express] incitement to racism, or support [the] armed struggle of an enemy state or a terror organization against the State of Israel."

Anyone who now travels to an enemy state with criminal intent, the amendment just passed adds, "will be seen as a supporter of [the] armed struggle [against Israel], unless they prove otherwise," and thus be blocked from running for seven years thereafter.

IT IS regrettable, though entirely unsurprising, that Arab Knesset members have unleashed a torrent of invective against the Bishara Law. It is also sad because their stance hammers home just how wide, and deep, is the chasm between the political culture of Israel's majority Jewish population and that of its large Arab minority.

It is lamentable, too, because Arab MKs do a disservice to their constituencies by their unremitting, capricious exacerbation of the country's rifts. No one expects Palestinian Israelis - as many Arab citizens now want to be identified - or the representatives they send to the Knesset to champion the Zionist cause. Yet through their all-encompassing devotion to anti-Israel radicalism, rather than to the pragmatic building of legislative coalitions with Zionist parties - which could improve the quality of life in the Arab sector - these MKs are delinquent in their responsibilities to their voters and the state.

MK AHMAD TIBI has angrily predicted that the Supreme Court will overturn the Bishara Law as unconstitutional, supposedly because a simple Knesset majority cannot modify a Basic Law. We shall see.

MK Muhammad Barakei is more outlandish, complaining that the law imposes "a rule of terror in thought and political opinion." Nonsense. Arab citizens will still be able to visit relatives abroad, attend weddings and funerals and articulate any views they want, barring outright collaboration with the enemy.

MK Sa'id Nafa, a Druse who has visited Syria, has already filed a petition with the court to have the Bishara Law overturned on the grounds that it violates the Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty.

Yet no one will be barred from running for the Knesset if, say, they attend a conference on global warming held in Yemen. Arab politicians will still be able to travel to meetings in enemy states - not to support "resistance" against Israel, but in the cause of peace or religious tolerance.
We trust the justices will affirm that the law pertains exclusively to individuals who go abroad to meet with the likes of Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar - as Bishara did - and Hassan Nasrallah for the purpose of giving aid and comfort to the enemy; and that it will in no way restrict innocuous freedom of movement.

The assurance that from now on - the law does not apply retroactively - candidates will be ineligible for a Knesset seat if they conduct themselves precisely as Azmi Bishara did strikes us as eminently sensible... and regrettably necessary.

An African tyrant (June 30, 2008)

One cartoon can say it all. Sometimes only a cartoonist - in this case the Swiss-based illustrator Chappatte - can adequately encapsulate a phenomenon that is at once tragedy and farce.
Chappatte's latest creation has Robert Mugabe on stage speaking into a microphone: "I beat the opposition" while, off to the side, his supporters do just that, literally.

On Sunday, the 84-year-old Mugabe had himself sworn in for a sixth term as president after winning what The New York Times described as "a one-horse race." His opponent, Movement for Democratic Change leader Morgan Tsvangirai, dropped out of a run-off campaign and was given asylum in the Dutch Embassy in Harare. In the March general election, widely suspected of having been rigged in the president's favor, Tsvangirai won 48 percent to Mugabe's 43%.
Mugabe's henchmen have been murdering, torturing, raping and imprisoning Tsvangirai's supporters. One six-year-old boy was burned to death because his father was a Tsvangirai ally. The wife of a MDC mayor was kidnapped and killed.

To say this election was waged in an atmosphere of "intimidation" hardly does justice to the term. Mugabe's mantra that "only God" can remove him from office seems true enough given that he controls all the temporal sources of influence in Zimbabwe - the civil service, media and security apparatus.

MUGABE STARTED out as a socialist fighter with the ZANU-PF against Rhodesia's white minority government and was imprisoned in the 1960s. Independence and majority rule came in 1980, when Mugabe became prime minister. Two years later, he turned against his political rival, Joshua Nkomo, accusing him of treason. Mugabe's North Korean-trained praetorian guard killed thousands of civilians in Nkomo's tribal area of Matabeleland, and the country became a one-party state: absolute power vested in the person of one brutal man.

Mugabe continues to sees the world through the prism of "anti-colonialism" and socialism. This world view - compounded by the fact that he surrounds himself with obsequious lackeys - has led Zimbabwe to ruin. Inflation is 100,000 percent; only 20% of the population is employed; previously productive land has been confiscated and turned over to his supporters. The best those who oppose him can hope for is - in true totalitarian fashion - to be "reeducated."

THE UNITED STATES has called for an arms embargo against Zimbabwe and is planning a series of unilateral sanctions beyond those already in place against Mugabe's closest enablers. Britain will support additional sanctions, while the EU has called for a power-sharing arrangement based on the March elections won by Tsvangirai. The African icon, Nelson Mandela, celebrating his 90th birthday in London's Hyde Park before 40,000 well-wishers, denounced the "tragic failure of leadership" in Zimbabwe.

Mugabe has allies in the international community - South Africa (which announced it will recognize Mugabe but push for a negotiated settlement of the leadership crisis), China and Russia. They can be counted upon to keep the UN Security Council off Mugabe's back. Still, UN Deputy Secretary-General Asha-Rose Migiro, speaking after Mugabe's "victory," is urging a negotiated solution.

Africa watchers argue that only South Africa can nudge Mugabe from the stage - perhaps when Thabo Mbeki is replaced by Jacob Zuma in the presidency.

The 53-nation African Union, meeting today in Sharm e-Sheikh, says it is following developments in Zimbabwe "closely." Individual African leaders - Nigeria's and Zambia's for instance - have begun to speak out against Mugabe; as has the Pan-African Parliament.
Truth be told, the AU has a lot on its plate: Darfur, tensions between Chad and Sudan, and between Djibouti and Eritrea; the stability of Kenya; fragmentation in the Ivory Coast, and trouble in Somalia and the Congo.

The continent has a staggering 15 million people who are internally displaced. For instance, 500,000 Zimbabweans are displaced within their country because of government violence; two million others have fled to neighboring South Africa. So Africa may need to hear its friends elsewhere encouraging it on Zimbabwe.

Robert Mugabe is not history's - nor even Africa's - worst tyrant. He does, however, stand out as someone who took a country with extraordinary promise and has been steadily wrecking it before the eyes of the world. He needs to go.

The cabinet decides (June 30, 2008)

A nightmare that began on July 12, 2006, now draws to a close. That was when Hizbullah launched an unprovoked assault across the border from Lebanon, killing three IDF soldiers and capturing Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser.

In the course of the war that followed, 156 Israeli soldiers and civilians were killed. Our country was largely unprepared and, as the Winograd Committee determined, poorly led. Hizbullah's Hassan Nasrallah announced the war had been unleashed to obtain the release of Lebanese inmates in Israeli prisons, foremost among them Samir Kuntar, and hundreds of Palestinian prisoners.

The IDF did not follow through on its threat to turn Lebanon's clock back 20 years unless Regev and Goldwasser were returned. Yet hundreds of Hizbullah gunmen were killed and millions of dollars of damage was done to Hizbullah's infrastructure. No wonder that in May 2007, Nasrallah admitted that had he known the price Lebanon would have to pay for kidnapping Regev and Goldwasser, he would have thought twice.

SHORTLY BEFORE 4 p.m. on Sunday, the cabinet voted 22 to 3 to accept a deal far more modest than Nasrallah first demanded, which will see the two soldiers finally brought home.
The hearts and minds of Israelis were focused on the cabinet room, where the mood was solemn, and where everyone was given a chance to speak. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert wanted this to be a collective decision.

When it was his turn to talk, Public Security Minister Avi Dichter read a letter from Smadar Haran, who lost two children and a husband to Kuntar's brutality in 1979. Haran did not advocate Kuntar's release, far from it, but she wrote that she didn't want her suffering to sway the ministers from doing what was best for the country. Later, she remarked that until Dichter informally solicited her opinion, no Israeli official had ever bothered to make inquiries.

At the outset of the cabinet meeting, Olmert announced that as far as Israel knows, Regev and Goldwasser are no longer alive. Though the news does not come as a bolt out of the blue, family members were nevertheless shattered by the manner in which it was delivered - via the media.
The deal requires Israel to free Kuntar and four other Lebanese; return the bodies of dozens of terrorist infiltrators; provide information to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on four missing Iranian diplomats; and, following the implementation of the agreement, to release an unspecified, but presumably modest, number of Palestinian prisoners.

THIS NEWSPAPER opposed the release of Kuntar for the remains of Regev and Goldwasser because of the heinous nature of the crime he committed and because it will likely strengthen Nasrallah in his efforts to show Hizbullah's concerns transcend his own Shi'ite community (Kuntar is Druse and was a Palestine Liberation Front operative).

We also opposed a trade because Kuntar has become an important symbol throughout the Arab world; because of previous government commitments made to the family of IAF navigator Ron Arad (missing since his plane went down over Lebanon in 1986) not to release Kuntar without a quid pro quo; and because trading Kuntar for the remains of two dead soldiers will likely complicate the price we will have to pay for the return of Gilad Schalit from the Gaza Strip. This latter warning was echoed by the Mossad and Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency), which opposed the deal.

But the cabinet has spoken and its stance is supported by most Israelis, much of the media and IDF Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, who told the ministers that he feels himself responsible for all IDF soldiers - the fallen included. All of us must now respect the decision.
Israel's body politic has gone through a traumatic chapter. What we must now ensure is that we emerge from it stronger and better prepared for the battles ahead. And Hizbullah might want to remember that by taking on Israel - even when we were admittedly not at our best - it got far more than it bargained for.

Abdication, again (June 26, 2008)

If it is true, as the 17th-century French diplomat Joseph de Maistre argued, that "every country has the government it deserves," then Israelis can only blame themselves for allowing a dysfunctional cabinet and a discredited premier to rule them.

Since the interim findings of the Winograd Committee were released in April 2007, this newspaper has consistently maintained that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's bungling of the Second Lebanon War demands his removal from office. After the committee cited him for "serious failure in exercising judgment, responsibility and prudence" and placed "primary responsibility" for the lack of success in the war on his shoulders, we called for his exit.
Nothing that has happened since - his entanglement in yet another police investigation; his deep unpopularity; and, most notably, his continued inability to govern effectively - changes that assessment of Olmert's leadership.

DESPITE EVIDENCE that the government cannot make tough decisions in an effective, efficient and timely manner, Israel's politics-as-usual system has now prolonged Olmert's stewardship and the country's political near-paralysis.

On Wednesday, it looked as if the Knesset might finally vote to call for new elections and thus compel Olmert's departure. This followed on the heels of Defense Minister Ehud Barak's third warning that Kadima had better select a new leader with whom Labor could stay partnered - or else.

Barak issued similar threats in May 2007 and February 2008. In response, Olmert set in slow motion a process by which Kadima would make plans to hold a leadership race. But the widely-held perception that the government was not properly functioning forced Barak this week to insist on a specific leadership selection date, or Labor would support a Likud motion to dissolve the Knesset.

And so, in the early hours of Wednesday morning, Kadima ostensibly gave Labor what it wanted: a commitment to select a new party head by September 25.

NOW THAT the dust has settled, we know this much: Ehud Olmert, political Houdini that he is, has bought himself more time. Even if Kadima selects a different party leader three months hence, it would not automatically preclude Olmert's retaining the premiership. Moreover, lawyers for the prime minister are scheduled to cross-examine Morris Talansky on July 17 about those cash-stuffed envelopes. Now a poll of Kadima Party members suggests that if Talansky's initial testimony is punctured, Olmert could defeat Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni in the party leadership race.

Meanwhile, Olmert can be expected to accelerate diplomatic efforts in the hope that a breakthrough with the Palestinians or Syrians or Lebanese might salvage his career. All the while, the Shas Party will continue exploiting Kadima's and Labor's quest to keep the coalition alive by pressing its parochial demands for budget-busting child-support payments.

THE LATEST turn of events further heightens Israelis' already damaging level of cynicism and alienation regarding our political system. The handling of the Lebanon war was bad enough; also the sluggish manner in which key players in the political and military echelon took responsibility for their deeds. But Olmert's Machiavellian ability to retain power in the face of so overwhelming a case for his departure is perhaps the most damaging of all.

Foreign Minister Livni would like Israelis to know she appreciates how they feel. At a conference in Tel Aviv this week, she said: "There is no doubt that the public has lost its faith in politics. From here, the path to an unstable foundation of democracy and anarchy is very short… It is enough for one leg to be crooked in order to twist all of democracy."

BUT TALK is cheap. At the end of the day, Livni and Barak, together with more than two dozen other cabinet ministers, could not - even one of them - bring themselves to resign from this government: not on principle, nor to hasten its demise, nor even for the sake of dissociating themselves from a prime minister already castigated by a committee he selected to investigate the war and since further compromised by the demands on his time involved in his legal battles.

When the moment comes, at last, to elect a new Knesset, voters need to empower parties committed to changing the political system and making it more accountable - to give the resilient people of Israel the kind of government they deserve. The remarkable Zionist enterprise merits far better than the leadership we have today.

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