Thursday, April 30, 2009

Obama's first 100 days & Israel

Thursday - Two new leaders

As Israelis celebrated Yom Ha'atzmaut yesterday, President Barack Obama completed the first 100 days of his presidency - with some pundits and lobbyists baying for him to "stand up to Israel" by imposing an American diktat to "solve" the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

These calls often come from those who - without a trace of irony - say they are friends of Israel. Zbigniew Brzezinski, for example, wants Obama to declare: "This is the settlement. This is what we're for."

J Street's Jeremy Ben-Ami is more tactful, saying his goal is to provide Obama with political support within the Jewish community for what amounts to an imposed solution.

Thus has Binyamin Netanyahu's new government been greeted just 30 days after taking office.

From the day he took office, Obama has been under vicious attack by incorrigible partisans who stoke the flames of polarization. Nevertheless, his approval ratings are higher than those of George W. Bush or Bill Clinton 100 days into their presidencies.

Netanyahu has been called an enemy of peace and an opponent of a Palestinian state.

Obama has been accused of embarking on a march toward fascism or socialism; one critic even claimed the US government was building "internment camps" for its enemies. Regrettably, even mainstream television and radio outlets have given platforms to such absurd accusations.

The truth is that any president inheriting a nosediving economy in the midst of a global financial meltdown would have embarked on something like Obama's $789 billion stimulus package. While Americans have every right to debate his economic policies, no person of good faith can claim that Obama is leading America toward "tyranny."

Obama inherited a quagmire in Iraq, which is again being riven by sectarian bloodshed and anti-American sentiment. But aside from Iran, his most formidable foreign policy dilemma is Afghanistan-Pakistan, where al-Qaida and the Taliban pose a clear and present danger to the cities of America and Europe. The president is committed to defeating the extremists on their own turf.

Netanyahu, for his part, inherited a moribund negotiating process after the Palestinians rejected an extraordinarily magnanimous peace overture from Ehud Olmert. No reasonable critic of Israeli policy would suggest that Netanyahu wants to rule over the Palestinians, or that he is not committed to a territorial arrangement with them.

SO AS Israelis consider Obama's first 100 days, and as American policy-makers mull over Netanyahu's first month, here's what really matters:

• America is Israel's closest ally because the two nations share values and interests. Still, Washington and Jerusalem have long differed over how best to trade land for peace. We anticipate that the new administration will stand with Israel no less than its predecessors did. Similarly, we fully expect there to be sharp differences - as there always have been. Simply, the interests of America and Israel are not always identical.

• The link between the peace process and confronting Iran is straightforward. We in Israel need to do a better job of explaining to the administration that the menace of an ascendant, nuclear-armed regime, funneling guns and cash to Hamas and Hizbullah, inhibits the Palestinians' taking the most elemental steps toward peace.

• The administration warns that Teheran faces "crippling sanctions" if its rapprochement with Iran fails. It must realize that the clock is ticking.

• No one, least of all the Arab states, should need to be bought off to oppose a nuclear-armed Iran. Stopping the mullahs is a shared Arab, American and Israeli interest.

• Funding a Fatah-Hamas unity government - not that there's one in sight - without an explicit Hamas commitment to recognizing Israel, ending violence and abiding by previous Palestinian commitments would achieve only the illusion of momentum. A "unity" government not wholeheartedly committed to a two-state solution is hardly worth anyone's effort.

Candidate Obama chose his words carefully when he declared that "Israel's security is sacrosanct," and that "the United States must be a strong and consistent partner - not to force concessions, but to help committed partners avoid stalemate."

Those who would try to talk Obama out of this solemn pledge are no friends of Israel - no way, no shape, no how.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Israel at 61


Dear readers,
Wed is a bank holiday in Israel. In fact, it is the ONLY day off that is not connected to a religious holiday that I can think of. (I work on election day.) And because we don't have a paper on Wednesday, if I play my cards right, I can do my Thursday writing today and have a real day off. Yipee!
Happy independence day.


Tears and joys

Do you want to understand this country? Accompany us during the 48 hours that take in Remembrance Day and Independence Day.

There's a joke that says most Jewish holidays can be summed up thus: "They tried to kill us, they didn't succeed, let's eat." Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha'atzmaut are different. The reality is more like: "They're still trying to kill us. We won't let them win. Let's eat."

Remembrance Day commemorations began yesterday at Ammunition Hill in Jerusalem, where one of bloodiest battles of the 1967 Six Day War was waged. The fortified Jordanian police station that stood on the hill had to be overcome to help clear the way to Mount Scopus, the campus of the Hebrew University and the Old City. Thirty-six men gave their lives to achieve that mission.

At 8 p.m. last night, a siren ushered in memorial services throughout the land. Television and radio broadcast the main ceremony from the Western Wall plaza. Stirring our emotions, the cameras showed the memorial flame being lit, our flag at half-mast and the honor guard at attention, with the Wall illuminated in the background.

When our dispersed people began their return to this land in the 1880s, who could have foretold that the culmination of that homecoming would be too late for millions of them? Who, moreover, could have known that the 1948 War of Independence would be but a down payment on further wars to come?

Another siren will pierce our heart this morning at 11 o'clock in remembrance of the 22,570 men and women - of the defense forces, police, secret services and the Jewish undergrounds - who fell defending our national renewal; from 1860, when those Jews already here first began trying to build their lives outside the Old City walls, up to Operation Cast Lead this year.

What a lot has changed in 61 years. Iran, once friendly, is now an implacable enemy racing to build a nuclear bomb and threatening our annihilation. Egypt and Jordan once warred against us; now there is peace.

But the elusive peace is the one denied us 61 years ago. The Palestinian Arabs call our achievement of self-determination their catastrophe - nakba. In his latest book, One State, Two States: Resolving the Israel/Palestine Conflict, historian Benny Morris writes: "Put simply, the Palestinian Arab nationalist movement, from inception, and ever since, has consistently regarded Palestine as innately, completely, inalienably, and legitimately 'Arab' and Muslim and has aspired to establish in it a sovereign state under its rule covering all of the country's territory."

In other words, even if one has a skewed view of the conflict in which the "occupation," "settlements" and "east Jerusalem house demolitions" block out every other reality, Morris is implying that were these seemingly burning issues made magically to disappear, Israel would still be at fault - for existing.

This explains why, in late 2008, the most moderate of Palestinian moderates, Mahmoud Abbas, spurned Ehud Olmert's overture to create a Palestinian state on the equivalent of 100 percent of the West Bank, plus Gaza.

It also explains why the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative is predicated not just on forcing Israel back to the hard-to-defend 1949 Armistice Lines and on swamping us with millions of Palestinian "refugees," but also on the Arab League's unwavering refusal to accept the legitimacy of Israel as a Jewish state. Why? Because to do so would be to admit that the Jews have a connection to this place that predates the arrival of the Arabs and the birth of Islam.

It would be an admission that the Jews have a right to share this land.

INDEPENDENCE Day celebrations begin at 8 p.m. Tuesday night. For many, the transition from somber commemoration is jarring. Yet there is no better way to demonstrate the link between the tears of sacrifice and the joys of independence.

And so, we wipe away our tears and begin counting our blessings: In 1948, this country started out with 600,000 Jews; today there are 5,593,000. Since Independence Day last year, more than 150,000 babies were born; more than 12,000 Jews made aliya.

Keep counting, and Hag Sameah.

Monday, April 27, 2009


Monday - New flu in perspective

Gone are the days when a public health scare in Mexico or Hong Kong had little relevance for Israelis.

No sooner had Shabbat ended when news arrived that the H1N1 swine flu virus could be threatening a global pandemic. Over 80 Mexicans have been felled. Hundreds more are sick. Possible cases have been reported in France, Spain and New Zealand (among a group of students and teachers who returned to Auckland via Los Angeles after spending several weeks in Mexico). Eleven cases of H1N1 have been reported in California and Texas, along the Mexican border.

Some 3,000 miles away in New York City, health officials are examining whether eight students in Queens have come down with mild cases of the disease. And in London, officials breathed a sigh of relief after determining that the flu-like symptoms experienced by a British Airways cabin crew member on a flight from Mexico City was not swine flu.

Margaret Chan, director-general of the World Health Organization, declared the disease a "public health event of international concern." The WHO threat level is currently set at 3. If a pandemic is imminent, it will rise to level 5.

Public health experts find it worrisome that those affected are not mainly the medically vulnerable, whose immune systems may be compromised, but also many young and vigorous people.

While swine flu is not new and cases of human-to-human transmission have previously been documented, the current H1N1 is the result of a mutation of genetic material from pigs, humans and birds.

There is no vaccine for H1N1, nor do scientists know whether individuals vaccinated against regular flu will be protected.

NATURALLY, there is a psychological component to the crisis. Images beamed around the world from Mexico City of nuns on their way to Sunday services and train commuters wearing surgical face masks create a sense of unease. Even the White House found it necessary to say that President Barack Obama was fine, thank you very much, in response to a disconcerting report that while in Mexico City, he met with Felipe Solis, an archeologist who subsequently died of flu-like symptoms.

While epidemiologists gather their data in an effort to clarify the nature and extent of the outbreak, Israel, like all countries in our globalized world, is gearing up. Better to be prepared, as we were for the 2003 SARS scare, than to be caught off guard.

H1N1 symptoms include a fever of more than 37.8°C (100°F), body aches, coughing, sore throat, respiratory congestion and, in some cases, vomiting and diarrhea.

At this writing, there have been no confirmed cases of H1N1 flu here. Physicians are, however, diagnosing a 26-year-old Israeli who returned from Mexico on Sunday and had himself admitted into Netanya's Laniado Hospital.

Obviously, Israelis who return from abroad feeling ill, with a fever, need immediate medical evaluation. Our Health Ministry has been in contact with health providers to ensure that cases of flu are promptly diagnosed and reported. Since carriers of the disease could themselves be asymptomatic, quarantining is not necessarily indicated. Still, the MDA is deploying special equipment in some of its ambulances should it prove necessary to transport highly infectious cases.

THE potential crisis comes just as Ya'acov Litzman takes over at the Health Ministry as deputy minister. Litzman is a savvy, dedicated and personally modest public servant who grew up in the Borough Park neighborhood of Brooklyn. Although his haredi and non-Zionist United Torah Judaism party prefers (for religious reasons) not to have a cabinet vote, Litzman's talent and drive should not be underestimated.

Moreover, Israel enjoys a highly advanced medical infrastructure; and ample supplies of Tamiflu, generally effective against flu symptoms, are available. We're also fortunate that with spring here and windows open, making ventilation easier, the virus should find our climate less than hospitable.

As long as the authorities are alert, the rest of us can stay calm. Still, basic precautions are called for: Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze. Wash your hands often with soap and water, especially after coughing or sneezing. Alcohol-based hand cleaners are also effective. Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth because germs spread that way.

We should all stay healthy.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Dr. Fadl and the muddled moralists

Erev Shabbat

How the human rights community keeps getting it wrong

Sayyid Imam al-Sharif - known as Dr. Fadl - was an early "spiritual" leader of al-Qaida and inspiration of Egypt's Islamic Jihad, which assassinated Anwar Sadat. In the wake of 9/11, he was arrested in Yemen. Today, sitting in an Egyptian prison and having experienced an epiphany, he spends his days writing on Islamic jurisprudence.

As Israel Television's Arab affairs analyst Oded Granot reported, Dr. Fadl recently launched a religious attack on the way Hamas conducted the recent Gaza war. The prophet Muhammad, he declared, would not have authorized the battle; and Allah will hold Hamas leaders accountable for every drop of Muslim blood spilled.

Granot's report came just as the preliminary results of the IDF's probe of civilian casualties in Operation Cast Lead were released. Five military investigative teams reviewed how our armed forces conducted themselves in the recent fighting. They examined incidents involving UN or international facilities fired upon; medical buildings, ambulances and crews shot at; numbers of civilians harmed; use of weaponry containing phosphorous; and, finally, damage caused to infrastructure and buildings.

WHEN Israel withdrew from Gaza in summer 2005, the Palestinian leadership wasted no time in turning the Strip into the prototype of the "Palestine" they hope to create, firing thousands of rockets and mortars at our civilian population. The people of Sderot and the surrounding Negev communities were traumatized; homes, schools, synagogues and parks were damaged. Life became close to intolerable. In December 2008, after Hamas refused to renew a de-facto cease-fire arranged under Egyptian auspices, Israel finally struck back.

To warn civilians away from areas about to come under bombardment, the IDF dropped 2,250,000 warning leaflets. It commandeered enemy radio frequencies, and made 165,000 automated telephone calls alerting individual Gazans. It used costly but highly accurate munitions. And it authorized humanitarian convoys to enter Gaza - indeed, it halted offensive activities for several hours a day to allow Palestinian civilians to obtain basic necessities.

While our army was attempting to minimize civilian casualties, the enemy's forces operated largely under cover of those civilians. Violating the elementary rules of war, Palestinian gunmen utilized residential dwellings, hospitals, mosques, schools and UN and other international agency buildings. Ismail Haniyeh chose Shifa Hospital as his headquarters, his gunmen camouflaging themselves as doctors and nurses. Red Crescent Society ambulances were used to smuggle fighters and weapons.

And still, according to these preliminary results, the IDF managed to operate in accordance with international law. Grossly irresponsible accusations recently aired by several Hebrew media outlets claiming that soldiers intentionally or recklessly targeted Palestinian civilians were, according to the probe, baseless.

SADLY, wars claim the lives of innocents: 150,000-200,000 in current intra-Muslim fighting in Algeria; 25,000-50,000 in Muslim-Russian fighting in Chechnya; and, since the US ousted Saddam Hussein, 600,000-1.2 million in Iraq, to cite just a few examples.

In the course of the Gaza fighting, the IDF killed 709 enemy combatants and 295 civilians (the identities of 162 other male dead have not been established). There is not an iota of proof that Israeli forces willfully killed a single civilian. And yet - because Hamas embedded itself among its own population - innocents died. To cite one ghastly blunder, 21 members of the Daya family were killed on January 6 because Israeli forces hit their home instead of the weapons depot just next door.

Some 600 structures were destroyed, either when gunmen shot from inside them, or because they served as armories; or to provide our troops with safe passage around booby-trapped buildings.

Will the IDF's probe lead media outlets to retract their assertion that "1,300 Palestinians, mostly women and children, were killed"? Probably not.

Will it make Israel's human rights community, or the foreign governments and foundations who bankroll them, stop claiming that the army is lying, or even inject greater caution into their critiques? Unlikely.

At root, the army's critics are frustrated by the link between the IDF's determination to minimize its own casualties (disparaged as "zero-risk" doctrine) and the number of enemy non-combatants killed. They see Israel's refusal to play into Hamas's human shields strategy as unethical.

For them, too few of our sons came home in body bags.

Which tells us that Dr. Fadl now has a better grip on right and wrong than certain morally obtuse human rights advocates.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

CATCHING UP - Durban & Incitement

this brings me up to date... as far as catching-up goes.

The case for 'incitement'

It's no secret that stories critical of government polices that appear in the Israeli media become fodder for those abroad with an anti-Israel agenda. Indeed, foreign critics can honestly claim that they are "echoing" what media outlets or prominent journalists here are asserting.

But while there are often disturbing aspects to the populist and ideological bent of much of the media - which sometimes lapses into dangerous irresponsibility - our robust press is integral to civil liberties.

"Hasbara" - Israel's public diplomacy - is self-evidently problematic because the country does not speak with one voice. Israeli officials may be vexed by what they read in the morning papers or watch on the evening news. But they rightly have no control over news and opinion.

A free press is a "handicap" this and any democracy willingly embraces.

NOT SO in much of the Muslim and Arab world. Recently, Arab extremists learned that the Israel Foreign Ministry had been translating and posting articles on its website from the Arab media. This material highlighted the ideological divide between writers associated with the rejectionist camp (Syria, for example) and relative moderates (Egypt and Saudi Arabia). As reported by the invaluable Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), a number of media outlets aligned with the rejectionists then published a blacklist of "moderate" writers who, they claimed were paid Zionist agents since their criticism of Arab affairs was picked up by Israel.

To which one blacklisted "moderate" retorted: "Israel is winning the wars because it has mechanisms for [self-] criticism [even] in times of war… The resistance and jihad movements must be divested of their aura of sanctity and subjected to a cost-benefit assessment."

Of course, the main reason differing views among the Arabs are aired at all is that opposing voices toe the line of the respective regimes under which they live; or because they work and publish in the West.

THE ISSUE of press freedom is very much on the agenda at the Durban II conference in Geneva even though Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's pathetic Monday performance hogged the media spotlight.

At stake is the question of whether Muslim and Arab delegates will succeed in imposing their free press "standards" on other civilizations. The conference will be voting on whether to include in its closing policy statement an innocuous-sounding clause prohibiting "incitement."

As anyone who has strolled down the streets of, say, Cairo, or picked up an Arabic newspaper knows, incitement to Jew-hatred and anti-Zionism is perfectly acceptable.

But the Muslim delegations would use the incitement clause of the final Durban II statement to ban all criticism of Islam, Shari'a law, the prophet Muhammad and controversial tenets of Islam.

Muslims point to the controversial 2005 cartoon depicting Muhammad with a bomb in his turban which was published by the Danish newspaper Jyllands Posten as precisely the kind of "incitement" their Durban II efforts are intended to head off. That cartoon, and 11 others simultaneously published by that newspaper, sparked Muslim riots worldwide.

Flemming Rose, the editor who commissioned and published the cartoons, said he did so because he had noticed a disturbing trend of self-censorship. Writers, artists, museum curators and translators had all been intimidated into avoiding involvement with projects critical of Muslim extremism.

Rose, currently in Israel to deliver a series of lectures under the auspices of Hebrew University's Shasha Center for Strategic Studies run by Efraim Halevy, says he ran the cartoons to draw a line against this encroaching self-censorship, and to hammer home the idea that criticism of Islam - actually of those who hijack it for extremist purposes - is not synonymous with insulting the religion.

If Durban II supports the anti-incitement clause, the Muslim and Arab world will have succeeded in insinuating its illiberal attitude toward the press on the international community.

And if the West compromises on press freedom to placate Muslims, the capitulation will be seen, correctly, as a sign not of respect, but of submission.

CATCHING UP - A bad word about the Swiss

Morality in neutral

Switzerland is situated in the heart of Europe, surrounded by Germany, France, Austria and Italy. But unlike these EU-member countries, the Swiss are neutral in international affairs.

And under cover of neutrality, Swiss President Hans Rudolf Merz, who is both chief of state and head of government, met Mahmoud Ahmadinejad last night over dinner in Geneva. The Iranian leader is in town to attend the Durban II "anti-racism conference," which opens today.

Israel's Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon told Army Radio that the Merz-Ahmadinejad meeting "caught us by surprise." It shouldn't have.

The Swiss have their interests. Swiss businessmen with ties to Pakistan's A.Q. Khan have been implicated in selling, on the black market, blueprints for a compact nuclear weapon. The Swiss trading company EGL is doing billions of dollars' worth of (technically legal) business with Iran.

When Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey was granted an audience with Ahmadinejad last year, the feminist politician, eager not to offend, donned a head-scarf.

THE SWISS Foreign Ministry explains that Berne has a "long-term strategic rationale" for its actions. Some of that rationale was already on display during World War II, in Switzerland's erratic policies toward Jewish asylum seekers.

When it looked like Germany would win the war, Switzerland, for the most part, kept Jewish refugees out; but when it appeared the Allies might win, the Swiss reversed course. In the final weeks of the war, they even demanded that the Nazis stop deportations altogether.

Back in 1938, when Berlin was ascendant, the Swiss requested that Germany and Austria mark the passports of their Jewish citizens with a "J" so that Berne could distinguish between "genuine political refugees" and fleeing Jews. A Swiss police captain named Paul Gruninger who allowed thousands of Jews to cross the border illegally was thrown off the force.

But when it suited Swiss "rationale," Jews were allowed in - from The Netherlands and Belgium in 1941; from Italy in 1943. And in 1944, 1,684 Jews were permitted to enter from Bergen Belson as part of the Rudolf Kastner-Adolf Eichmann deal.

All told, perhaps 30,000 Jews managed to reach Switzerland during the Shoah.

All along, Eduard Von Steiger, who was in charge of Switzerland's refugee policies, claimed that "the boat is full." He would later explain that had he known the Nazis were systematically slaughtering Europe's Jews on the other side of the Swiss border, "we might have widened the bound (sic) of what was possible."

That alibi has more holes than a piece of Emmental cheese. By May 1942, Swiss army intelligence had photos of Jews who had been asphyxiated by the Nazis at the Russian front.

In fact, the Swiss leadership knew exactly what the Nazis were doing - from their own diplomats and businessmen, from the Brazilian ambassador and from German sources.

Hugo Remuad, of the Swiss Red Cross, argued that genocidal anti-Semitism was simply a consequence of there being too many Jews. Or as Swiss judge Eugen Von Hasler put it: "It is also in our own interest that the greatest thing of all [the destruction of Europe's Jews] is coming to pass, and our hearts beat as one with the young white men who, dog-tired, forge onward to the East as [defenders] of European culture."

Meanwhile, Swiss banks raked in their spoils both by collaborating with the Nazis over pilfered Jewish cash and gold, and - later - by retaining some 36,000 bank accounts, valued at $1 billion, belonging to murdered Jews. This wealth lay dormant until 2004, when a class-action suit (and the resultant Volker Committee) forced Swiss banks to begin returning the money to the estates of the murdered.

IN 1995, former Swiss president Kaspar Villiger apologized for his country's treatment of the Jews.

And yet his successor, Merz, met last night with Ahmadinejad even as the Iranian leader puts the finishing touches on his atom bomb, swears that the Holocaust never happened, and calls for the extermination of of the "filthy [Zionist] bacteria."

While Swiss leaders shamelessly fete Ahmadinejad, we Israelis are heartened by the decision of the United States, the Netherlands, Canada, Australia and Italy to boycott the Durban II circus, along with its various sideshows.

CATCHING UP - too slick to deny the Holocaust outright

The new deniers

It is Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Day - Yom Hashoah. Here in Israel, the sirens will sound at 10 a.m. and for two minutes work will come to a halt, vehicles will idle, and Israelis will stand in silent memory of the six million victims of Hitler's war against the Jews.

The opening ceremony of Holocaust Remembrance Day was broadcast live from Yad Vashem in Jerusalem last night on television and radio. In the presence of President Shimon Peres, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Rabbi Meir Lau, chairman of the Yad Vashem Council and himself a child survivor, six torches were lit by six men and women who lived through the war as children. About 1.5 million of the murdered were children.

Today, therefore, is a time to reflect on the greatest tragedy to befall the Jewish people in modern times and to think about how anti-Semitism has morphed into anti-Zionism. It is also a day for soul-searching about the state of Holocaust remembrance.

Sixty-four years after the defeat of the Nazis, the memory and the meaning of the catastrophe they wrought is being chipped away, sometimes unintentionally, but mostly in a cynical, premeditated manner.

Holocaust denial dates back to the late 1960s and takes various forms. Some try to denigrate the Shoah by claiming that Hiroshima and Dresden prove that the allies were as heartless at the Nazis. Denial is propagated on the radical right, the radical left and by many in the Muslim and Arab world.

ON THE eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day, the world's preeminent Holocaust-denier and leading anti-Zionist, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was granted a platform at Durban II, the UN's so-called anti-racism conference in Geneva yesterday. He promptly called for the destruction of Israel: "Governments must be encouraged and supported in their fights at eradicating this barbaric racism. Efforts must be made to put an end to Zionism," he said.

We watched in distress as many in the audience and galleries applauded. Such barefaced anti-Zionism is, however, offensive to Western governments and we were gratified that dozens of EU delegates - including those from France, Finland and the UK - walked out as Ahmadinejad spewed forth his venom. Of course, the real heartbreak was that these countries were represented in the hall in the first place.

Yesterday's farce in Geneva proved again how the charge of "racism" has been cheapened to the point of having lost much of its meaning. The same holds true for the words "genocide," "war crimes," "apartheid" and "ghetto." Those who distort - willfully or through ignorance - the meanings of the dreadful vocabulary of hate for tawdry political purposes commit an unpardonable injustice.

EQUALLY pernicious are those who are too slick to deny the Holocaust outright but instead claim that Israel inoculates itself with the memory of the six million in order to kill or oppress innocent Palestinians with impunity.

A variation on the theme that Israel uses the Holocaust as a battering ram against the Palestinians is the disingenuous argument that it's time for us Israelis to move on: We need "closure," runs this line of more subtle attack, because Zionism's guiding principle of "Never Again" supposedly deludes us into thinking that we face existential threats (from Iran, Hamas, Hizbullah) or demographic threats (posed by the Palestinian demand for the "right of return"). None of these factors, these manipulators would have the world believe, really threatens our existence.

Our bogus fears, goes the claim, are as "corrosive" as they are delusionary. They make us think we are vulnerable when we - a nuclear power - are stronger than all our enemies combined. Moreover, say the anti-Zionists proponents of "closure" - Israelis have "walled, fenced, blockaded and road-blocked" millions of Palestinians "into a pitiful archipelago of helplessness" all because of our exaggerated sense of fear. We've taken our unfounded fears of annihilation and used them to inflate the nature of the threats against us. And this "retreat into the victimhood" has made us think that our violent ways are nothing more than "self-defense."

It's hard to decide which is worse - outright Holocaust-denial of the Ahmadinejad variety, or insidious assertions by Euro-leftists and anti-Zionists that would lull Israelis into letting down our guard and robbing us of the will to fight for our survival.

CATCHING UP - Meeting Flemming Rose

I've been too busy to post lately. Here are three piece back-to-back.

An Islamist 'new world order'

The Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) member-states at the Durban II gathering in Geneva is pushing for "a new world order" that would expand and impose "nondemocratic and illiberal values on the West," says the Danish editor who in 2005 commissioned and published a series of cartoons, one of which depicted the prophet Muhammad with a bomb in his turban that led to worldwide Muslim rioting.

Flemming Rose, editor of Jyllands-Posten, Denmark's largest-circulation newspaper, is visiting Israel under the auspices of the Hebrew University's Shasha Center for Strategic Studies, headed by former Mossad director Efraim Halevy. He's here to lecture on how nations need to find the right balance between religious sensitivities and freedom of expression.

Rose says the OIC is trying to use Durban II to rewrite the rules of human rights and international law in a way that undermines the values of liberty enshrined in the Western canon - including the US Bill of Rights, the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

It's all part of an ongoing Muslim campaign that has been making significant strides, says Rose.

European liberal values, which dominated United Nations voting following the fall of the Soviet Union, are now in retreat. Muslim states attending Durban II are pushing the conference to say that criticizing Islam is a form of incitement.

"We're seeing an erosion of support in the West for freedom of expression in the guise of preventing incitement against Islam," says Rose.

He wants the West to stop being so defensive, pointing out that "Muslims in Demark enjoy far more civil and political rights than they would have in their home countries."

Rose would distinguish between criticizing Islam as a theological and political idea and insulting its adherents.

"I spent many years in the former Soviet Union as a foreign correspondent and married a Russian woman. I am a strong anti-communist, but my late Russian father-in-law was a staunch Stalinist. I abhorred his convictions, but felt love and tenderness for him as an individual."

His experience in the Soviet Union gave him a "very strong antagonism against self-censorship and intimidation of people because of what they are saying."

In Muslim society, he notes, the rights of the dominant religion and culture are paramount. In the West, it is the rights of the individual that reign supreme.

Rose argues that in a globalized world, the idea that Westerners conduct their lives according to Western values while Muslims conduct theirs according to Muslim values simply does not work - because globalization involves both technology and human migration.

"When you publish in Denmark, you can read it within minutes in a totally different political and cultural context. At the same time, every European society is getting more complicated culturally and ethnically. Different taboos and moral codes are forced to live together."

Within their own world, says Rose, Muslims "do not see their own minorities. And when they come to the West, they continue to behave as if they were in the majority."

In this context, the West has no choice but to stand firm on its values - because Muslims are constantly pushing theirs. In our interconnected world, the old model of live and let live simply doesn't make sense.

What Rose would really like to see is reciprocity. He dreams of challenging Muslims: "Accept my taboos, and I will accept yours. If it is a crime to build a church in Saudi Arabia, then it should be illegal to build a mosque in Europe."

But such an approach, he readily admits, is unacceptable because it would lead to an intolerable decrease in freedom.

He talks about "sleeper" blasphemy laws - statutes that have long been on the books in European countries, and that Muslims are trying to reinvigorate. He argues for a "redefinition" of the concept of blasphemy so that it is not exclusively about religion but includes values, classical liberal ones as well.

Were it up to Rose, the only free speech restrictions he'd allow are those that prevent incitement to violence, and discourage libel and infringement on privacy.

"All other restrictions - like blasphemy laws, some of which date back to the 1930s - I'd get rid of."

The key, says Rose, is for the West to continue to emphasize individual rights and not, as in Muslim society, collective rights.

That leads him to make the controversial case for repealing legislation that makes Holocaust denial a crime - even though he feels strongly that the Shoah was a unique event in history, "without precedence. But I think it is a question of morality that you deal with through education and debate; it is not something you legislate. I would only leave [the Holocaust denial law] on the books if you could prove that repealing it would lead to violence. That is not a danger in today's Europe."

"Let's be consistent," he says. "We don't want Jews to have a law based on them as a group if we're arguing that Muslims living in the West should equally not have special group privileges."

Moreover, he says, holding firmly to preserving Western values at home makes it easier for the West to defend human rights in the Muslim world and elsewhere.

Rose wants Israelis to understand that Durban II is part of a broader trend of non-democratic societies trying to hijack international law, thereby instituting a new set of values.

How ingenious, he notes, that having coined the term "Islamophobia," Muslim countries are insinuating that criticizing Islam - as distinct from discriminating against individual Muslims - "is a disease, a sick fantasy that needs to be cured."

Friday, April 17, 2009

Durban II - Here we go again

Wishing all of you a Shabbat Shalom

Friday & Saturday - April 17 & 18

The Durban II charade

First the good news: United Nations professionals have taken over the operation of next week's Durban II conference, determined not to permit the meeting to deteriorate into a repetition of the infamous (2001) Durban I - an anti-racism conference which ironically became a cesspool of Jew-hatred.

Now the bad news: Even if the conference, in Geneva on April 20-25, is conducted in an atmosphere of superficial civility, the deck is already stacked against the Jewish state. The real, irreparable damage has been done by the preparatory committee chaired by Libya and co-chaired by Iran - and paid for mostly by Russia, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. The PLO threw in $1,700 as a token of its esteem.

This is akin to purveyors of trans-fat orchestrating a conference on good nutrition. You just know they have ulterior motives.

Under Western pressure, the Durban II organizers "cleaned up" a draft declaration which "reviews" how well the "action program" of Durban I was implemented. All the blatant and egregious references to Israel have been removed. Nevertheless, the supposedly sanitized document begins with an "affirmation" of the original Durban hate-fest and closes with a spiteful denunciation of "occupation" as being "closely associated with racism."

Those who understand the Orwellian newspeak of the "World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance" will appreciate that by affirming Durban I and denouncing "occupation," the conference's built-in anti-Israel majority has simply found a palatable way to continue exploiting the cause of human rights in order to demonize the Jewish state.

Canada, to its credit, was first to announce it would not participate in the Durban II charade. Israel followed suit; then Italy.

Unfortunately, the EU appears set to attend since it can hardly oppose a reaffirmation of Durban I, in which it participated. And Germany, once again, rather than being Israel's true friend inside the EU, says that given its past, it can't be seen to miss an anti-racism conference - even a bogus one.

The Obama administration continues to demand significant changes in the draft declaration and opposes a reaffirmation of Durban I. We urge it to hold firm.

HOWEVER the conference plays out, whatever Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad says when he addresses it, and whatever surprises the Organization of the Islamic Conference may have in store for the wording of the final declaration, this conference will end badly because it is attracting the same old crowd, the non-governmental organizations that made Durban I a scandal.

On Sunday, the anti-Zionist radicals plan a massive protest against Israel in Geneva.

So, in the final analysis, it isn't only the text that's a problem, it's the overall Durban gestalt.

Israel has wisely decided to boycott Durban II. Jerusalem's policy is not to play along with phony probes over false massacre charges in Jenin (2002); suspicious deaths of Palestinian civilians in a Gaza beach explosion (2006); the Palestinian bid to use the World Court to block the security barrier (2004); and Richard Falk's investigation of Israel's "human rights abuses" in Gaza (2009).

And if Richard Goldstone does not investigate Hamas when he probes civilian deaths in the recent Gaza war, he too should get no cooperation.

If you hold a political pogrom and no Zionists show up, it kind of takes the pleasure away.

Israel has no interest in enabling sham investigations where its guilt has been predetermined or in facilitating propagandistic show trials.

THE REAL losers in the Durban II charade are the millions of human beings who suffer at the hands of state practitioners of systematic intolerance. With the Jewish state serving as a scapegoat, authoritarian states, including China, Russia, Zimbabwe, Venezuela and Iran, will get a free ride at a conference supposedly dealing with oppression. Countries like North Korea, Libya, Sudan and Somalia, whose citizens enjoy neither political rights nor civil liberties, will strut about as they judge our country.

Fortunately, while the world makes a mockery of human rights, the honor of Geneva will be salvaged and the suffering of the oppressed will receive a glimmer of attention via a parallel gathering - the Summit for Human Rights, Tolerance & Democracy - co-sponsored by genuine human rights groups including Freedom House, Stop Child Executions and UN Watch.

All is not lost.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

George Mitchell in Israel

Thursday - Helping Mitchell

US Middle East envoy George Mitchell, on his first visit here since the new government took office, is scheduled to meet separately today with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman to discuss how to move forward on negotiations with the Palestinians.

He may well find the Israeli leadership distracted.

In a report neither confirmed nor categorically denied by the White House, The New York Times has stated that Barack Obama may be ready to drop a previous Bush administration demand that Iran stop enriching uranium as a precondition for holding direct negotiations with Washington. The US has anyway said it is ready to join talks with Iran that Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia want to convene. Simply put, Teheran's intransigence has yet again paid dividends.

The US would be willing to "allow Iran to continue enriching uranium for some period during the talks," according to the Times. America's immediate aim is for Teheran to allow international inspectors into its nuclear facilities wherever they may be. Washington's longer-term goal is for Iran to cease enrichment.

Clearly, even at this late date, a compromise could be found that would allow Teheran to maintain a closely monitored civilian nuclear program in return for acquiescing to intrusive international inspections to guarantee it has ceased pursuing a bomb.

Israelis worry, however, that the administration will delude itself into thinking that it has lots of time for talk. We've seen how adept Iran is at playing for time. So, any diplomatic approach needs to have fixed dates and performance-based milestones.

There is reason to think US decision-makers appreciate how fast the clock is ticking. Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a House committee last month that Iran had enough material to manufacture a bomb. He added: "Iran having a nuclear weapon… is a very, very bad outcome for the region and for the world."

Dennis Blair, the director of national intelligence, told a Senate committee that, "although we do not know whether Iran currently intends to develop nuclear weapons, we assess Teheran at a minimum is keeping open the option to develop them."

CIA director Leon E. Panetta was more explicit: "From all the information I've seen, I think there is no question that they are seeking [weapons] capability."

Even the International Atomic Energy Agency says Iran's 5,500 centrifuges provide it with enough enrichment capacity to build two nuclear bombs a year.

In other words, with the Bush administration bogged down in Iraq, the EU shamelessly stoking Iran's economy, Russia and China flagrantly running interference for it at the UN, and Iran's apologists in the media presenting Israel as the real villain in the Middle East, the mullahs were able to cross the threshold - they now have the material and the knowledge, but have not yet constructed a bomb.

WITH THE threat of an Iranian nuclear device hanging over us, it is improbable that Mitchell will make much headway on the Palestinian track.

Furthermore, the Palestinian polity is paralyzed by divisions between an ascendant Hamas and a fading Fatah. Yet in rejecting an unprecedentedly magnanimous peace plan proffered by the Kadima government late last year, Mahmoud Abbas's "moderates" exposed themselves as unwilling to make the most rudimentary compromises necessary to achieve a two-state solution.

To restate the obvious: No Israeli government will agree to withdraw to the 1949 Armistice Lines, or to a militarized "Palestine" or to a Palestinian "right of return." Moreover, Fatah's recent affirmation of its disgraceful refusal - 16 years after Oslo - to recognize the legitimacy of Israel as a Jewish state speaks volumes about ultimate Palestinian intentions.

And while we welcome Abbas's cordial pre-Pessah telephone call to Netanyahu, what Israelis would really like to happen is for Fatah to become a genuine alternative to Hamas. That means preparing its people for the kinds of painful concessions they will have to make - alongside the painful concessions Israelis have already indicated a willingness to make - for peace.

So the sooner Iran's toxic sway over the region is dissipated, the better the prospects that Mitchell can help us all move toward reconciliation.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Wealth & Responsibility

Tuesday & Wednesday - Charity begins with priorities

Before the global economic crisis robbed millions of their financial security and turned the world upside down for some, and before most of us had ever heard of Bernie Madoff, organizations tasked with providing basic services to Jews in the Diaspora were - as early as the winter of 2008 - reporting fund-raising shortfalls due to the drop in the value of the dollar.

For the organizations that provide humdrum but utterly indispensable services, this past year or so has been shattering.

It's looking like the United Jewish Communities will be cutting another 18 percent from its $37 million budget - on top of an earlier series of reductions and layoffs. The UJC is the successor organization to United Jewish Appeal, the Council of Jewish Federations and the United Israel Appeal. It brings together 157 local Jewish Federations and 400 independent communities across North America.

Even the solidly middle-class Jewish Federation of Greater Washington has had to trim it budget and give managers a pay cut.

Cash is down but needs are high.

Nursery tuition at a middle class Manhattan Jewish day school runs $23,875. New York's Jewish Week reported that financial aid requests from parents are soaring.

In addition to providing programming for middle class people hard hit by the recession, federations continue to look after the less well off. Roughly 15-20% of the US Jewish population lives below the federal poverty level.

The community could once count on government to carry the bulk of the burden for responsibilities such as operating nursing homes. But US municipalities and states have had to cut their allocations and the federal stimulus package will not cover the entire shortfall.

The economic crisis also means there is less money leaving America for the Jewish Agency and the American Joint Distribution Committee, which helps overseas communities. During Operation Cast Lead, for instance, the federation system provided a credit line to pay for programs that helped Sderot residents receive treatment for trauma.

Too many Israelis are ignorant of the role played by US Jews (and also evangelical Christians) in helping to cover expenses for programs and activities aimed at a wide stratum of our society - from those who frequent the opera to those dependent on communal Seders.

THE ECONOMIC crisis notwithstanding, the top priority for America's estimated 6 million Jewish people is continuity. From a sociological perspective, Jewish affiliation in the 21st century is a matter of choice. Cohesion comes more naturally to those whose Jewishness revolves around religious observance and/or who look to Israel as the cultural center of their lives.

Some 47% of US Jews marry out. So there is an urgent need to anchor affiliated Jews within the community and entice others back.

All this requires, foremost, a vibrant leadership capable of raising funds and establishing coherent program and budgetary priorities.

The trouble is that the community has grown so hyper-pluralist that coherence doesn't come easy. There are too many organizations and there is too much competition for resources. No organization dares admit that it's superfluous. Rich people, along with just plain folk, can always be convinced to part with their money - sometimes for worthy causes and sometimes not. Moreover, as if by magic, "new" rich people come along to fill a void. Guma Aguiar, CEO of Leor Energy, has emerged as a major giver to Chabad-Lubavitch and to Nefesh B'Nefesh.

NO ONE knows when the global financial crisis will finally end. Nor can anyone tell the wealthy how to spend their money. Still, we would urge communally responsible philanthropists to focus their support on charities and causes that aid the broader community. When times are good no one begrudges an affluent person their philanthropic dalliances. But these are not ordinary times. And the needs of the many deserve priority.

In order for money to go where the community most needs it, Jewish benefactors ought to do a better job of communicating, coordinating and networking. This may require a willingness to partner with existing philanthropic structures.

Capital is accumulated in the free market, but prioritizing Jewish communal needs necessarily involves an element of collective decision-making.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Gerry Adams & the Easter Bunny

Monday - Pirates, bunnies and fanatics

Both the Easter Bunny and the Sinn Fein's Gerry Adams spent the weekend handing out goodies - the fairy-tale rabbit distributed gifts to children; the Irish republican politician handed out fairy tales about Hamas wanting nothing more than to live harmoniously alongside a Jewish state.

But the real news was elsewhere: Cairo's decision to crack down on blatant Hizbullah operations on Egyptian soil; the foiling of a terrorist plot in Britain; and piracy off the Somalia coast.

The struggle between Egypt and Hizbullah reflects, in part, Cairo's suspicion that Hassan Nasrallah - acting as Iran's proxy - may be creating an infrastructure within Egypt that could endanger the Mubarak regime. Egypt also has an eye on the June 7 Lebanese elections, where Shi'ite Islamists are the most powerful force. Cairo knows that if the Hizbullah-Syria-Iran bloc does well at the polls, as is feared, the Sunni world will be that much closer to writing off Lebanon as a total loss.

BUT IT is to the suspected Easter Monday plot against targets in the Manchester area and the continuing assaults against shipping off the horn of East Africa that we turn our attention here.

Both pirates and terrorists hatch their plots in failed states - Somalia and Pakistan, respectively; both exploit young Muslim men who "have nothing to lose," and both target primarily Western interests. And like Hamas and Hizbullah, British-based al-Qaida operatives and Somali pirates might all plausibly claim that they face foes who are disproportionally armed.

According to a RAND study, Somali pirates have earned an estimated $50 million in ransom beyond the value of the hijacked cargoes. Dozens of ships and hundreds of crew members are being held. The initial reaction to Somali piracy, as in the 2008 case of the Saudi tanker Sirius Star, was capitulation. But surrender emboldened the pirates and the international community has been forced into resistance.

The pirates, including those who were holding Captain Richard Phillips, are dispatched in speedboats to corner their prey, by warlords who are tipped off by local port authorities. Clambering up grappling hooks, the outlaws board the ships, overpower those on board and report to their masters ashore. The brigands are a motley crew of former fishermen (who know the sea), thugs from local gangs and technical experts who operate the satellite phones, GPS and military hardware necessary to carry off the attacks.

THE British media seemed more obsessed by the ineptitude of (now former) assistant commissioner Bob Quick, of the Metropolitan Police - who, in full view of photographers equipped with telescopic lenses, carried a top secret memo into 10 Downing Street outlining plans to stop Muslim extremists from killing large numbers of shoppers on Easter Monday - than with the plot itself.

Quick's gaffe necessitated accelerating raids in Manchester and Liverpool before suspects could get wind that authorities were on to them. UK police are now holding 11 Pakistani "students" and one UK-born Muslim. Prime Minister Brown acknowledged that "there are links between terrorists in Britain and terrorists in Pakistan."

A 2006 plot to down airliners using liquid bombs, a 2007 attempt to ram a car loaded with petrol into Glasgow airport and an attempted bombing of an Exeter eatery in 2007 all failed to come off as planned.

The last major successful al-Qaida-inspired attack in Britain took place on July 7, 2005, claiming 52 lives. Authorities say, however, that more than 4,000 British Muslims have received anti-civilian warfare training in Pakistan. Many of the 10,000 Pakistanis currently in Britain on student visas have been only cursorily vetted.

While piracy and terrorism are manifestations of the clash between Islamist extremists and the civilized world, neither has anything to do with the Arab-Israel conflict. Moreover, as distinct from the Palestinian cause, there is little profit in apologizing for African piracy or - beyond the fringe - exculpating the intended mass-slaughter of British civilians.

The violence off Somalia, the threatened mayhem in Britain and the relentless Palestinian terror against Israel all argue for enduring resolve by the international community. This has to be combined with a clearsighted willingness to rebuild the failed polities that spawned the fanatics in the first place.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Obama...idealist or pragmatist?

Friday & Saturday - The president abroad

This is day 81 in the countdown toward the 100th day of Barack Obama's presidency. The benchmark probably dates back to Franklin D. Roosevelt, who came into office with no particular ideology but promising "action, and action now" - and a readiness to pursue pragmatic policies.

Obama has returned to Washington after his most significant trip abroad since taking office. The president enjoys strong support from the majority of Americans who voted for him (Democrats give him an 88 percent approval rating) though he has made few strides in winning over John McCain's supporters (only 27% of Republicans think he's doing a good job). Obama's critics complain he spent too much time overseas in "excuse me, excuse my predecessor, or excuse my country" mode.

Still, Obama's message - "I'm personally committed to a new chapter of American engagement" - set a new tone for US foreign policy among Washington's ostensible allies in Europe, Turkey and Iraq.

•On the issues that most concern Israelis, paramount among them Teheran's nuclear ambitions, Obama reiterated that he had "made it clear to the people and leaders" of Iran "that the United States seeks engagement based upon mutual interests and mutual respect. Now, Iran's leaders must choose whether they will try to build a weapon or build a better future for their people."

•As the Netanyahu government conducts a policy review on Arab-Israel peacemaking, Obama said: "Let me be clear: The United States strongly supports the goal of two states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security." And Obama had a message for Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman: "That is a goal that the parties agreed to in the road map and at Annapolis. That is a goal that I will actively pursue as president."

•Finally, as the West's top "emissary" to a Muslim world where visceral loathing of Israel knows no bounds, the US president told students in Istanbul: "This notion that somehow everything is the fault of the Israelis lacks balance - because there's two sides to every question."

Obama made an unannounced (but not unanticipated) five-hour trip to Iraq where he was warmly received by US troops. He said combat forces would be pulled out by August 2010, and all US troops by the end of 2011. He told Sunnis and Shi'ites, who've lately ratcheted-up their intramural slaughter, to take responsibility for their country because America needs to focus on battling al-Qaida and the Taliban in Afghanistan-Pakistan.

In Ankara, he paid his respects at the mausoleum of Kemal Ataturk, the secularist founder of modern Turkey. Whatever Obama may think of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose politics are rooted in political Islam, he urged the EU to make room for Turkey.

He told the Turkish parliament and the wider Muslim world that the United States "is not and will never be at war with Islam. America's relationship with the Muslim community, the Muslim world, cannot and will not just be based upon opposition to terrorism," he said. "We seek broader engagement based upon mutual interest and mutual respect."

Obama has been convinced - partly by venerable cold warriors such as Sam Nunn and Henry Kissinger - that it might be easier to garner international support for stopping pariah states from going nuclear if the US shows a willingness to sharply reduce its own atomic arsenal.

So he parlayed news that North Korea had launched a ballistic missile into a far-reaching call for worldwide nuclear disarmament. "In a strange turn of history, the threat of global nuclear war has gone down, but the risk of a nuclear attack has gone up… Terrorists are determined to buy, build or steal [a nuclear weapon]," he said.

THUS FAR into his presidency, it's already apparent that Obama seeks to harness idealism with pragmatism. Yet if the G-20 (on the economic crisis), NATO (on Afghanistan-Pakistan) and Russia (on Iran) remain unmoved by appeals to multilateralism, expect Obama, like Roosevelt, to go with whatever works.

What this means for Israel in pursuit of its highest national interest, blocking Iran from fielding a nuclear bomb, is that Binyamin Netanyahu needs to convince Obama that doing anything short of stopping the mullahs would be dangerously reckless.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Passover in Israel

Wed & Thursday - Pessah illuminated

Count on matza being brittle, on maror being bitter, and on the Chief Rabbinate to exploit the most widely and lovingly observed festival to create a pointless controversy.

Were the rabbinate a bastion of probity and spirituality, a relentless campaigner for Jewish unity and Ahavat Yisrael, we might be inclined to forgive its occasional dalliance with religious coercion. But it is none of these things. So its declaration that it will "out" stores selling leavened products on Pessah is just the latest instance of this country's established church getting its Judaism precisely wrong.

The eating of bread and other leaven known as hametz is forbidden by Halacha. Observant Jews of all streams, and many secular Jews too, willingly honor this ancient tradition; 70 percent of Israelis won't go near bread during the festival.

The rabbinate, however - with little success - has been pressuring supermarket chains (most of whom anyway do not sell hametz) to fiddle with their checkout bar code readers so hametz items can't be processed. How superfluous - as if supermarkets were inundated with tactless customers surreptitiously grabbing from inaccessible shelves and trying to sneak their purchases past the checkout clerks.

The law of the state is clear and just: Hametz may not be displayed during the festival. At the same time, however, it is not illegal to sell hametz. Muslims, Christians and wayward Jews can purchase bread products from stores not certified as kosher. This nicely balances civil liberties with societal values.

The rabbinate's coercive agenda is echoed by the Orthodox nationalist "Legal Forum for the Land of Israel." Better known for championing the settler agenda in the courts, the group reportedly plans to spot-check stores during the intermediate days of the festival and press the authorities to penalize businesses found displaying hametz.

Rabbi Ya'acov Meidan of the Har Etzion hesder yeshiva in Alon Shvut - no liberal theologian he - has wisely argued that coercion is counterproductive, and not the way to bring Jews closer to observance.

FOR THOSE driven nevertheless to impose Jewish values on the public, here are some better ideas:

• The supermarkets that deserve to be "outed" are those that don't pay their Jewish or Arab workers a living wage.

• If anyone's kashrut certificate deserves to be jeopardized, let it be hotels that serve strictly kosher food yet impose a penalty on Sabbath-observing guests who don't check out during Shabbat.

• The Ministry of Interior should be picketed until it stops making the lives of converts miserable. Its latest outrage: A pregnant Italian (Orthodox) convert married to a kashrut supervisor isn't deemed Jewish enough to receive Israeli citizenship.

• Embrace the 300,000 Israelis who immigrated to Israel under the Law of Return but have not been allowed to convert to Judaism because they will not commit to leading Orthodox life-styles; lobby for the belated implementation of the Ne'eman Committee findings.

• Pressure local burial societies to allow women to deliver eulogies at the funerals of their loved ones.

• Isolate those who would desecrate God's name by disrespecting the leaders of other faiths. And welcome Pope Benedict with respect when he visits the Western Wall.

• If you are a revered rabbi, tell your flock to follow their consciences in deciding how to vote; add that there is neither sin nor merit in casting a ballot, only civic responsibility.

• Denounce rabbis who pervert the holy texts by allowing husbands to keep their wives chained as agunot in order to extract concessions in divorce settlements.

• There are 10,000 divorces a year. Re-direct part of the "religious" budget to preparing couples for the real challenges of marriage.

• Lament that for some secular people, rumors that a ritual immersion bath (mikve) will be built in their neighborhood evoke fears of haredi coercion rather than joy over this unifying link to an ancient practice.

ONCE every 28 years, our tradition teaches, the sun returns to the position it occupied on the fourth day of creation. That anniversary came around this morning, prompting observant Jews to recite the Birkat Hahama prayer at sunrise. It arrived just in time to remind us what Judaism is about: enlightenment and illumination.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Israel's economy

Tuesday -- Jobs over dogma

Back in 1934, US president Calvin Coolidge remarked, "When a great many people are unable to find work, unemployment results." Though economics continues to make great analytical strides, the current global economic crisis leaves us Israelis with more questions - and fears - than answers.

There's been a 70-percent surge in applications for unemployment benefits compared to last year at this time. A record 20,000 workers joined the unemployment rolls in March. From well-paid electrical engineers living along the coastal plain to warehouse workers in the periphery, more than 100,000 men and women have lost their jobs in the past six months. Unemployment stands at 6.8 percent. Thousands more jobs in manufacturing are at risk. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu cautions there may be worse to come.

And yet, a ray of hope: Some 12,000 unemployed have found new work, while the average gross salary has held steady at NIS 8,197.

The Kadima government was unable to get the Knesset to pass a budget, and that will hamper Netanyahu's efforts to tackle unemployment promptly. However, he and Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz have decided to make lemonade out of lemons by pushing the Knesset to agree on a two-year budget, combining 2009 and 2010, in order to stabilize the situation. The catch is that it will take until mid-July to develop a biannual financial plan - and critics, including Bank of Israel Governor Stanley Fischer, argue Israel doesn't have that kind of time. The new government counters that, with the Pessah holidays and the legislature's recess in the offing, there is insufficient time for the Finance Ministry and Knesset to complete the necessary work for a two-year budget any sooner.

While we have great respect for Fischer - as does Netanyahu, his former pupil - it strikes us that a two-year budget, serving more as template than straitjacket, will enhance the country's economic stability and restrict the proclivity of politicians for impromptu, questionable expenditures. A multi-year budget also gives permanent Treasury professionals added influence - a generally good thing so long as someone as economically savvy as Netanyahu is at the helm. In short, it may be worth the wait.

NETANYAHU wants to use the budget as a tool for cushioning the impact on Israelis of the global economic crisis; to do that he will be looking to cut NIS 10 billion in government expenditures in order to augment the National Insurance Institute and provide monies to meet rising unemployment benefit demands. He intends to spend on infrastructure, and bolster businesses in the periphery. He reportedly wants to cancel certain tax exemptions, while freezing public-sector salaries. He's promised to coordinate such moves with the Histadrut Labor Federation.

He also wants to shift more public land into the private domain.

Netanyahu and Steinitz want to lower taxes even though the Bank of Israel opposes such a move. With the budget deficit at NIS 3.3 billion and projected to rise to NIS 40 billion by year's end, Bank officials argue that with revenues down, now is not the time to cut taxes.

While, in the main, we support the premise of shrinking government expenditures and lowering taxes, timing is everything. Netanyahu will want to bring Fischer on board before making such a move.

In a conversation with the Post and in a recent Wall Street Journal article, Amotz Asa-El argued that Netanyahu has not necessarily abandoned his fundamental free-market economic ideology, but sees his most pressing task as buying time until the global economy recovers. By meanwhile collecting allies and co-opting rivals, he hopes to soften the blows that await thousands of workers as jobs, salaries and purchasing power all shrink. The emerging zeitgeist worldwide, Asa-El explains, is to put economic dogma on hold and go with what works.

Stung by critics of his tough-minded 2003 tenure at Finance, Netanyahu needs to find a middle ground that discourages a culture of dependency while guaranteeing a safety net especially for those least able to withstand the current economic turbulence.

In the words of Franklin D. Roosevelt: "In our personal ambitions, we are individualists. But in our seeking for economic and political progress as a nation, we all go up - or else all go down as one people."

Monday, April 06, 2009

That North Korean missile

Monday - Learning from Pyongyang

There's a lesson to be learned about North Korea's launching over the weekend of a Taepodong II rocket - and it isn't just that the more treacherous the crisis, the less likely it is that multilateralism will provide a solution.

The launching was yet another step in North Korea's march toward building and perfecting a nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile.

World leaders were as worried as they were impotent while North Korean technicians pumped fuel into the rocket, which can hit Japan and possibly Alaska and Hawaii as well.

In launching the missile, North Korea violated UN Security Council Resolution 1718, passed after the regime's October 9, 2006 test detonation of a nuclear device which violated the Non-Proliferation Treaty. The council demanded that "the DPRK not conduct any further nuclear test or launch of a ballistic missile."

The Democratic People's Republic of Korea - which is neither democratic, nor run by its people, nor a republic - claimed it had launched a "communications satellite," and not a ballistic missile. That's a distinction without a difference. In any event, the North American Aerospace Defense Command said the satellite did not make it into orbit.

At Japan's behest, the Security Council was scheduled to hold an emergency session on Sunday evening. But little more than a strongly worded statement was expected to come out of it. China and Russia would use their veto should tougher sanctions be proposed - and, anyway, analysts argue that economic leverage has negligible impact. What matters is that China is opposed to regime change, even were it possible.

Though we live in a multi-polar world where Pax America is passé, the West, Japan and South Korea appear to take their lead from Washington. The Obama administration says that North Korea's behavior will be punished appropriately. Well, whatever that means, it does not include a frontal confrontation. Not with the US economy in a tailspin and America's volunteer army stretched in Iraq and Afghanistan-Pakistan.

Every despotic regime is despotic in its own way. B.R. Myers, who teaches North Korean studies in South Korea, says that the DPRK leadership, appealing to the emotions of a "systematically infantilized" population, exploits a fountainhead of xenophobia to rally its masses around the leader. Myers says the message is: "Foreigners bad, Koreans good, Leader best." Koreans have been brainwashed to feel unrestrained compassion, even pity, for the Leader's burden.

North Korea's behavior is of particular interest to Israel. Pyongyang has proliferated nuclear knowhow to Iran, Syria and Pakistan. Iranian experts attend all major North Korean launchings, and there is cross-pollination of Iranian money and DPRK technology.

NORTH KOREA is a unique case. But beyond Korea's benighted borders, the overarching lesson to Western leaders is: Don't threaten what you can't deliver.

This is because despotic regimes like North Korea - but also Iran and Hamas in Gaza - use Western failure to follow through to bolster their position. More than that: North Korea, Iran and Hamas relish crises because they invariably demonstrate (a) that their people are under siege by pitiless foreigners; and (b) that only their leadership and the people's willingness to sacrifice can ultimately protect them from the alien threat.

Another lesson from B.R. Myers: Do not presume to put yourself in the shoes of the leaders of alien societies. The rational-decision-making model has its limitations when dealing with tyrannical, dogmatic and ideologically mobilized polities. For example, preventing the suffering of ordinary people is, for these polities, largely irrelevant. They focus not on the punishments (airstrikes, sanctions, etc.) they have endured, but on the punishments they have withstood and, especially, on the bad behavior (terrorism, kidnapping) their respective regimes have gotten away with.

The people of North Korea, Gaza and, arguably, Iran, know they would be economically better off if their leaders played by civilized rules. And yet there is every reason to believe - certainly in the case of Gaza and North Korea - that given a genuinely free choice, the masses would still opt for the current leadership.

The lesson, therefore, is: North Korea, Hamas and Iran cannot exchange their belligerency for normalcy. Why? Because, paradoxically, they derive their legitimacy from a constant state of confrontation and threat.

Friday, April 03, 2009

Avigdor Lieberman's First Day

Friday -- Who killed Annapolis?

Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has made a stormy entrance. The "ultra-nationalist" (BBC and al-Jazeera); is "blunt and belligerent" (The New York Times); "aggressive" (Haaretz) and a "racist" (Yasser Abed Rabbo). This new government will make "no concessions for peace" (Guardian) and "spurn the peace process" (CNN)

Why the uproar? Because Lieberman announced: "The Israeli government never ratified the Annapolis accord."

Ahem. Actually, the cabinet did endorse Annapolis, on December 2, 2007. Ehud Olmert sold it to his colleagues with the argument that the negotiations would not be constrained by any deadline, and with the promise that if an agreement was reached, it would be implemented only after the Palestinians halted all violence. Privately, prior to the cabinet's endorsement, Olmert briefed Lieberman; who then absented himself from the vote.

BUT THE thing is, Annapolis is dead - just as Lieberman so undiplomatically stated. And everyone knows it. It died when Mahmoud Abbas and Ahmed Qurei rejected Olmert's and Tzipi Livni's offer last year of virtually the entire West Bank (the Palestinians already have Gaza), plus tracts of the Negev to make up for strategic settlement blocs retained beyond the Green Line.

Olmert and Livni proffered international stewardship for the holy places, and were prepared to turn over east Jerusalem. A tunnel or bridge would connect east and west "Palestine," providing contiguity between the West Bank and Gaza.

The Kadima government balked only at a total pullback to the 1949 Armistice Lines, and on granting millions of Palestinian "refugees" the right to "return" to a truncated Israel - something that would demographically smother our Jewish population.

In other words, had the Palestinians taken Olmert's and Livni's astonishingly magnanimous deal, "Palestine" would have become the 22nd Muslim Arab state in the Middle East.

Still, the petulant way Lieberman made his Annapolis announcement detracted from the substance of what Israel's argument should be. Had he handled himself more adroitly, the next day's headlines might have read: "New Government Embraces Road Map." For Lieberman did pledge a total commitment to what is officially known as a "Performance-Based Road Map to a Permanent Two-State Solution to the Israel-Palestinian Conflict."

The Annapolis process was a stab at leapfrogging over the road map because the Palestinians could not - or would not - fulfill their obligation to end the violence. And the international community preferred the illusion of momentum Annapolis provided. The alternative would have been to concede that even "moderate" Palestinians are not prepared follow through on the hard work necessary to achieve a two-state solution.

Lieberman is convinced that all the sweet talk from Olmert and Livni got Israel precisely nowhere. Yet, significantly, the Netanyahu-Lieberman-Barak government is committed to achieving a Palestinian state via the road map. What now needs to be worked out is whether the Palestinians remain committed, and whether the steps to implement the road map must be taken sequentially (the Israeli view), or in some other undefined fashion (the Palestinian view).

The road map stipulates that,"A two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will only be achieved through an end to violence and terrorism, when the Palestinian people have a leadership acting decisively against terror and are willing and able to build a practicing democracy based on tolerance and liberty, and through Israel's readiness to do what is necessary for a democratic Palestinian state to be established…"

That would require Israel to freeze settlements and dismantle those established since February 2001.

This is what Lieberman supports. What could be clearer?

THE Lieberman flap comes as Israel buries another victim of Palestinian terror, 16-year-old Shlomo Nativ, who was hacked to death on Thursday in Bat Ayin, a settlement southwest of Jerusalem. It is this kind of Palestinian brutality - combined with diplomatic obduracy - that keeps the road map grounded.

By talking tough instead of talking smart, Lieberman claimed he won "respect." In fact, he handed an unnecessary win to those who misrepresent Israel's stance by arguing that it is blocking the creation of a Palestinian state.

This was an inept performance by our novice foreign minister, no question. Nevertheless, Annapolis has become just another footnote in the 100-year history of Palestinian rejectionism.

Shabbat shalom and thanks for reading...

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Happy Birthday Tel Aviv

Thursday - Tel Aviv at 100

No two cities complement each other better than Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Yet the denizens of Israel's political and spiritual capital often view their compatriots 60 kilometers down the road as if they were from another planet. Which is fine with Tel Avivians, who think of their coastal city, the country's commercial and cultural capital, as the real Israel.

Jerusalemites, whose city lies smack between Judea and Samaria, are sometimes exasperated when smug Tel Avivians act as if the Green Line were 1,800 kilometers away, instead of just 18.

Yet we would invite those quick to disparage Tel Aviv as a pale imitation of Miami, or to decry its sultry summer climate, to take a second look. Tel Aviv is an absolute delight in the spring and fall, as anyone who strolls along its beachfront promenade and boardwalk will readily acknowledge.

This is arguably Israel's most civilized and tolerant city. So what if the atmosphere on Shabbat is different from that of Jerusalem? The beauty of 21st-century Israel is that it offers both environments. Yet the city is all too simplistically dismissed as home to "Hebrew-speaking gentiles" when, in truth, interest in Judaism has never been greater there.

So all Israelis - haughty Jerusalemites included - have reason to celebrate this month's centennial anniversary of the founding Tel Aviv-Jaffa, a new beginning in a land steeped in history.

It does not detract from the sanctity of Jerusalem to appreciate Tel Aviv's beaches, museums, parks, Bauhaus architecture and soaring Azrieli towers. That's why the theme of this year's Independence Day celebrations will be "100 Years of the First Hebrew City - Tel Aviv-Jaffa." In fact, the celebrations begin Saturday night at Rabin Square, with a sound and light show accompanied by the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Zubin Mehta.

TEL AVIV-JAFFA is the nucleus of a metropolis that extends from Rehovot in the south to Herzliya in the north. Today's Tel Aviv, with its skyscrapers, urban sprawl and gentrified neighborhoods, was intended to be a garden suburb of the port city of Jaffa, itself first settled in 1820 by a Jewish traveler from Constantinople.

Over the years, Jaffa became home first to Sephardi, and then Ashkenazi Jews. With monies raised by the Jewish National Fund and despite the obstacles placed in their way by Ottoman authorities, Jews began buying land beyond Jaffa's city walls.

On April 11, 1909, Tel Aviv's founders met on the beach to allocate plots for a new neighborhood to be called Ahuzat Bayit. The name Tel Aviv was coined on May 21, 1910 and was the title Nahum Sokolow gave to his translation of Theodor Herzl's novel Altneuland, though you'll also find the name in Ezekiel 3:15.

When the Ottoman rulers expelled its Jews during the First World War, Tel Aviv-Jaffa extended 1,000 dunams beyond Old Jaffa. The residents obviously welcomed the British Mandate with open arms.

During the Arab riots of 1921, most of Jaffa's Jews fled to Tel Aviv.

In the years following WWII, Tel Aviv was a center for "illegal immigration" by sea. When the War of Independence broke out, the city was shelled by Arab positions in Jaffa. It was when the Hagana captured Jaffa that most of its 100,000 Arabs fled.

At independence, Tel Aviv had 210,000 residents. In 1949 it and Jaffa were amalgamated, along with nearby abandoned Arab villages. Today, Tel Aviv-Jaffa boasts a population of 400,000 residents.

Iran refers to Tel Aviv as the capital of "the Zionist regime." And, in fact, all foreign embassies are located there. Perhaps it's easier for foreigners to acknowledge an Israeli connection to a city with "no history" than to one which abounds with Jewish associations going back millennia.

But Tel Aviv represents the first Jewish city that was "not a ghetto," in the words of Marcus Ehrenpreis in his 1927 Soul of the East.

The poet Haim Nahman Bialik wrote that he loved Tel Aviv because it was "established by our own hands… because we need not feel obligated to anyone for its good points, or apologetic for its bad ones. Is not this the whole aim of our redemption… to be owners of our body and soul, masters of our spirit and creation?"


Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Netanyahu Takes Over

See too:
(my interview is about half-way through)

Wed - And now, to work

Israel has a new government, the most bloated in its history, with 30 ministers and seven deputy ministers.

It's appalling. Selfish. And to be expected.

• Blame the political system, which makes it impossible to form a government without exchanging patronage for parliamentary support. No political party ever formed a government without horse-trading; and now the Likud has been forced to throw in paddocks, stables and hayricks to garner the support of roughly 70 of the 120 Knesset members.

Did anyone think Israel Beiteinu, Shas, Labor, United Torah Judaism and Habayit Hayehudi would come cheap? Or that the hurt egos of Likud MKs excluded from the most prestigious ministries wouldn't have to be soothed?

• Blame the voters, who should have thrown their support behind one of the three or four major parties for the Knesset, but instead sent 12 parties to the legislature - most of whom place their parochial needs above the collective good.

• Save some blame, too, for Kadima leader Tzipi Livni. Had she joined Binyamin Netanyahu's government together with Avigdor Lieberman, a relatively lean cabinet able to embark on urgently needed electoral reform could have emerged. Instead, Livni claimed - quite disingenuously - that "policy differences" with Netanyahu over how best to negotiate with the Palestinians would not allow her to join.

Yet what actually sent her to the opposition was his refusal to consent to a rotation government.

THE SIZE of the government may make it hard for Knesset committees to function, but it shouldn't have a deleterious impact on governmental decision-making. That's because the mega-cabinet, which will meet Sundays, is not where decisions will be made.

The premier must appoint a security cabinet, whose membership is determined by law. Netanyahu will also create an "inner cabinet" to debate a range of domestic and international issues. It will include Lieberman, Dan Meridor, Moshe Ya'alon, Bennie Begin, Silvan Shalom, Binyamin Ben-Eliezer and Eli Yishai. But the most sensitive decisions will be made by Netanyahu and Ehud Barak.

How efficiently the government works will depend not on the size of the cabinet, but on how well key staffers in the Prime Minister's Office coordinate the apparatus of power and manage the flow of decision-making up the chain of command.

ISRAEL now has a semblance of a "unity government" and can move forward. Indeed, there are several laudable cabinet appointments.

Though Netanyahu will head his own economic team, Yuval Steinitz will be his man at the Treasury. Steinitz has no particular expertise in economics, but sufficient brainpower to excel in a job where personal loyalty to the premier can help bring coherence to government policy.

The ministry has an image of being dominated by supercilious civil servants who think they should set the agenda. On the other hand, with tax revenues dramatically down, it may fall to Steinitz to tell the coalition partners that not all of his boss's promises can be kept. The presence of Shas's Yitzhak Cohen as deputy finance minister is, however, worrisome. His being there will cost taxpayers money.

At a time of unprecedented economic dislocation, Israelis are less interested in economic dogma than in job and wage security.

LET'S hope the brainpower of Meridor (security services), Ya'alon (strategic affairs), Yaakov Neeman (Justice) and Begin, among others, will fully be utilized.

With our new premier intent on reversing the downward spiral in our education system, Netanyahu loyalist Gideon Sa'ar takes the education portfolio. Consummate professional Matan Vilna'i will stay on as deputy defense minister, and that's comforting.

Yuli Edelstein can contribute as hasbara minister - not by seeking to create an empire, but by working with the premier's new communications director, Ron Dermer, to maximize existing public diplomacy resources while avoiding ruffling bureaucratic feathers.

Of course, the object of this exercise is not to form a government, but to govern. Together with Barak, whose presence bolsters Israel's case in the international arena, Netanyahu will grapple with a crisis-filled agenda that includes Iran's nuclear weapons program, Hamas's ascendency among the Palestinians, and a wobbly economy.

We can't promise Netanyahu a honeymoon. But we'd advise a good night's sleep - there's lots to be done.

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