Monday, August 31, 2009

Are Europe & America starting to wake up?

Iran without the bomb

The battle raging among Sunni Muslims - between belligerent Islamists carrying the mantle of al-Qaida and comparatively more moderate adherents - is sufficiently disturbing without throwing the destabilizing impact of Iranian Shi'ite imperialism into the mix.

Over the weekend, for instance, came news that the son of the Saudi interior minister - who happens to be his father's deputy at the ministry - had been the target of a failed al-Qaida assassination attempt. Elsewhere, hundreds of Sunni Muslims have been killed this summer by fellow Sunnis in Dagestan, Ingushetia and Chechnya. In Afghanistan/Pakistan, the slaughter is mostly Sunni on Sunni. Only in Iraq has much of the recent intra-Arab killing been carried out by Sunnis against Shi'ites.

On top of what the Sunnis are doing to each other, Iran does its bit to promote the bloodletting, in Afghanistan and Iraq, naturally, but also in Yemen, where the latest uptick in violence is facilitated by Iranian support of anti-government Shi'ite rebels. Iran also stokes upheaval by supporting seditious Sunni groups in Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco and Mauritania and among the Palestinians. In Lebanon, Teheran operates openly through its Hizbullah proxy. Its agents in South America and Africa pursue their malevolent goals more surreptitiously.

Iran makes all this mischief armed with only conventional weapons. Place an atom bomb in the hands of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and the world becomes exponentially more dangerous - especially now that his regime is becoming more despotic.

As Iran's June elections demonstrated, power is now concentrated among an ever-shrinking elite which feels no need to pursue consensus policies at home. Former leading revolutionaries have been subject to Stalin-like show trials, coerced into making transparently false confessions. The revolution is consuming its own, becoming more fanatical and turning crooked. The Economist reports this week that the Revolutionary Guards control most state-owned companies and may even have a stranglehold over the black market in alcohol, tobacco, and heaven knows what else.

The appointment as defense minister of Ahmad Vahidi - the man most likely responsible for the 1994 bombing of the Jewish center in Buenos Aires in which 85 people were killed and 200 wounded - supplies yet further proof that the ruling clique has become more shameless, arrogant and unpredictable.

ON FRIDAY, IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei issued another one of his Kafkaesque reports, in advance of a September 7 meeting of the agency's 35-member policymaking body in Vienna. He has perfected the art of airbrushing any sense of urgency out of these reports. "There remain a number of outstanding issues," ElBaradei droned, "which give rise to concerns and which need to be clarified to exclude the existence of possible military dimensions to Iran's nuclear program…."

He makes no judgment about the military aspects of Iran's nuclear program; takes no position on reports that a renegade Russian scientist provided weaponization knowhow to Iran; and offers no view about reports of Iranian scientists carrying out computer modeling of above-ground nuclear detonations.

Here is ElBaradei taking off the gloves: The IAEA does "not consider that Iran has adequately addressed the substance of the issues…." To his credit, he doesn't sweep under the rug the fact that Iran has not suspended its enrichment of uranium or halted work on heavy water, as demanded by the Security Council.

The generally well-informed Jim Hoagland of The Washington Post predicts that after much haggling, Iran will agree to stop short of building a bomb, but will insist on retaining its capability to do so. That would leave Iranian imperialism unchecked and perpetuate for generations the threat of an Iranian bomb.

On Wednesday, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany will meet in Frankfurt. Berlin and Paris have announced that stiffer economic penalties are in the offing if Iran does not end its quest for the bomb. Meanwhile, a new poll tells us that 81 percent of Americans feel Iran poses a serious threat to the United States; a survey last month found 66% feeling that President Barack Obama is not tough enough on Iran.

Iran without the bomb is a certified menace. Perhaps the nightmarish consequences for Europe and America of a nuclear-armed Iran are, belatedly, starting to register.

Friday, August 28, 2009

How Ted Kennedy's death is seen in Jerusalem

Liberals and Israel

The death of Sen. Edward Kennedy, a quintessential liberal, reminds us that there was a time when liberalism and pro-Israelism were synonymous.

Kennedy-style liberalism was rooted in optimism about human nature, trust in the good that government can do, and faith in the power of negotiations to resolve seemingly intractable problems.

Kennedy made his first trip to Israel in 1962 as a prelude to his senatorial campaign. Though it was billed as a "private visit," Kennedy gave a "fervent Zionist address" before 2,000 Hebrew University students. A handful of local communists protested the appearance. In those days, liberals and communists were bitter enemies.

As a freshman senator, Kennedy became chair of the subcommittee on international refugees. When he came to suspect that UNRWA money - largely contributed by US taxpayers - was being diverted to Ahmed Shukeiry, Yasser Arafat's predecessor, and his gunmen, he protested.

After visiting Arab refugee camps in Lebanon and the Jordanian-occupied West Bank, Kennedy advocated rehabilitation and training programs to help those displaced by the 1948 war start new lives. Israeli leaders supported his efforts. But the Arabs insisted that the only just solution for the refugees was their return to their original homes and the dismantling of Israel.

KENNEDY was by no means a knee-jerk supporter of this country.

He opposed Israeli retaliatory raids against Arab fedayeen and called for third-party mediation.

In 1966, he introduced his own plan for Middle East peace which advocated respect for the territorial integrity of all states in the region. The Arabs would have none of it.

After the 1967 Six Day War, Kennedy remained a steadfast friend of Israel and said that on a personal basis, he did not object to Jerusalem remaining united under Israeli sovereignty.

During the Nixon administration, he urged the sale of Phantom fighter planes to Israel, clashing with J.W. Fulbright, the powerful chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations committee.

By the early 1970s, he had became a key champion of the Soviet Jewry movement. In 1974, he irritated the Kremlin by meeting with Jewish refuseniks in Moscow.

Throughout the Nixon and Ford years, Kennedy steadfastly championed military aid to Israel.

When Jimmy Carter pushed a major arms package for Saudi Arabia, Kennedy voted against - though he honored a White House request not to lead the opposition to the deal. He also opposed Carter's occasional flirtations with the then-quarantined PLO.

And when the Carter administration supported an Arab-inspired UN Security Council resolution calling for the removal of all Jewish settlements beyond the 1949 Armistice Lines, Kennedy called the US vote "shameful." He wanted to see the parties negotiate the issues - including settlements.

He unsuccessfully challenged Carter for the 1980 Democratic presidential nomination, while receiving strong support from Rabbi Alexander Schindler of the Reform movement and other liberal Jews. (Carter ultimately lost his bid for a second term to Ronald Reagan.)

When Reagan sought to sell F-15s to Saudi Arabia in 1981, he too ran into opposition from Kennedy. And in the face of unbridled Reagan administration outrage over the Israeli attack on the Iraqi nuclear facility later that same year, Kennedy lambasted the administration as "profoundly wrong."

THE PRO-ISRAEL liberalism embodied by Kennedy, Hubert Humphrey, Henry Jackson, Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Jacob Javits seems archaic nowadays.

Their generation knew first-hand that the Arabs' rejection of Israel's existence was at the root of the conflict.

Today, calls for throwing the Jews into the sea have been replaced by reasonable-sounding Arab initiatives for a two-state solution. Only the fine print - pertaining to recognition, borders, militarization and refugees - suggests something else.

Once there were no settlements, and still the Arabs sought Israel's destruction. Yet yesterday, a CNN primer of the conflict pointed to settlements as the stumbling block to peace.

Maybe the old Kennedy liberals were really centrists, and today's progressives are really leftists. Or maybe, 60 years on, liberals have just grown uncomfortable and impatient - after Lebanon wars, intifadas, checkpoints, barriers and Gaza blockades.

The liberal catechism is 1. All conflicts are soluble; 2. Israel is the stronger party; 3. And so it must take the greater risks for peace.

Liberals are exasperated by Israel's failure to embrace these principles categorically. Yet we survive in this region because we don't.

Edward Kennedy understood all this and more. Israel feels his loss acutely.
Shabbat shalom to all

Thursday, August 27, 2009


The PM in Europe

Were it not for fresh revelations about the cause of Michael Jackson's demise and embarrassing questions about British Prime Minister Gordon Brown's involvement in setting the Lockerbie bomber free, the media in England might have devoted itself to more thoroughly bashing Israel on the occasion of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's visit to London this week.

Alas, the Guardian on Tuesday relegated its two anti-Zionist pieces to page 16. The Times carried a Ramallah-datelined interview with Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salaam Fayad on the inside pages. The Telegraph reported (incorrectly) that Netanyahu was about to concede on the settlement freeze issue, but worried that "his nationalist foreign minister" had "inflamed the situation by dismissing the prospect of a diplomatic breakthrough." The Independent tried to uncover the real reason Israel has lifted checkpoints in the West Bank including around Nablus, the "town once synonymous with the Palestinian resistance." According to one local, it was a temporary charade put on for the Americans and Europe.

That was the context for yesterday's meeting between Netanyahu and his "good friend" Brown at No. 10 Downing Street. Britain indeed counts itself as a "true friend" of Israel deeply concerned over a Jewish presence beyond the 1949 Armistice Lines. Yet despite incessant pressure from pro-Palestinian advocates for a boycott, Israel-UK trade remains strong. Netanyahu also thanked Brown for his support on the Iranian issue. Britain does not promote trade with Iran, though the extent of commerce between the two countries is hard to gauge since much of it takes place surreptitiously via the United Arab Emirates.

ON THURSDAY, Netanyahu is to meet with Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin. The last embers of hope that economic penalties could sway Ayatollah Ali Khamenei not to proceed with his bomb may well rest with her. Unfortunately, Germany has the distinction of being Iran's second biggest trading partner after China.

Germany is deeply involved in trying to influence events in the Israeli-Palestinian arena. It has lent its good offices to help free Israeli captives; it provides important military support to Israel. After Netanyahu's path breaking Bar-Ilan speech in June, Merkel telephoned with words of encouragement. Germany is also heavily involved in aiding the Palestinians - spending $50 million on West Bank sewage treatment plants.

Popular attitudes in Germany toward Israel are little different than elsewhere in Europe. The Economist recently described Germany as "a place built on consensus - in the workplace, in society and in politics."

It must exasperate Germans that Israelis and Palestinians have still not buried the hatchet. But they place the onus squarely on Israel because of the "occupation." It does not occur to them that unremitting Palestinian rejectionism is the main obstacle to peace. That explains why President Horst Kohler was tone deaf to Israeli outrage over awarding the Federal Cross of Merit to the anti-Zionist campaigner Felicia Langer.

During Operation Cast Lead, polls showed that Germans found Israel "aggressive" (49 percent) and "ruthless" (59%). Seventy percent of young Germans rejected the idea of a special relationship with Israel because of the Shoah. In fact, 13% opposed the existence of a Jewish state altogether.

In this context, it is notable that Merkel feels quite differently. During a March 2007 visit to Israel she insisted that Germany did have a "historic responsibility" to the Jewish state. "It means for me, as a German chancellor, Israel's security is non-negotiable." She has a reputation for being "a strong backer of Israel" and "instinctively pro-American" in venues where these are not necessarily meant as compliments.

Netanyahu arrives in Berlin a month before parliamentary elections that may see Merkel's Christian Democratic Union in a position to jettison its "grand coalition" with Vice Chancellor and Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier's Social Democratic Party. Arguably, one reason German policy has been less demonstrably pro-Israel than Merkel's rhetoric is Steinmeier's influence.

Guido Westerwelle of the Free Democratic Party, a likely Merkel coalition partner, is in the running for the foreign minister job. When Westerwelle's homosexuality was exposed, he was "smeared" with the - unproven - allegation of being "excessively pro-Israel."

After the September 27 elections, Israelis are hopeful that Merkel will find a way to bring her sentiments and her government's polices - especially on Iran - into greater harmony

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

What Obama can learn from LBJ

How to lose a war

Earlier this summer, The New York Times reported, Barack Obama gathered a group of historians for dinner at the White House. The president expressed concern that Afghanistan could hijack his presidency just as Vietnam overtook the stewardship of Lyndon B. Johnson. LBJ pursued a grand domestic agenda - civil rights and the Great Society - yet failure in Vietnam defined his presidency.

Military analyst Harry G. Summers, who died several years ago, identified two reasons why the US abandoned the fight in Vietnam in his book On Strategy: 1. There was no society-wide commitment to victory. American leaders had not psychologically mobilized the home front behind the war, refusing to ask Congress for a declaration of war; 2. The US failed to go after North Vietnam for most of the war, focusing instead on its Viet Cong proxies.

These fundamental errors are being repeated in the struggle against Islamist extremism.

People in Europe and America do not grasp why their troops are fighting in Afghanistan. On Iran, Western leaders have not only avoided a head-on confrontation with the mullahs, but are even seeking to appease their Hizbullah and Hamas proxies.

In fairness, Obama has tried to explain that Afghanistan is not a war of choice, but of necessity. "Those who attacked America on 9/11 are plotting to do so again. If left unchecked, the Taliban insurgency will mean an even larger safe haven from which al-Qaida would plot to kill more Americans."

In fact, the situation in Afghanistan is muddled. The surviving Arab terrorists responsible for 9/11 - including Ayman Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden - have found refuge inside Pakistan. The Taliban are actually a loose confederation of religious fanatics (whose leader, Mullah Omar, also survives), Pashtun xenophobes, drug lords and tribal chiefs. The war is being waged on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistan border, and Pakistan has its own Taliban. In this context, Afghan election results - due today - are unlikely to herald a new dawn.

The war is not going well. So America has revised its strategy. The focus is not on killing the enemy, but on avoiding civilian casualties while creating conditions necessary for society-building. Unfortunately, there are insufficient troops on the ground to accomplish this goal. Most of the country is too unsafe for aid agency personnel to operate.

Washington has invested $30 billion in Afghanistan since 9/11 and now has 57,000 military personnel on the ground. Britain has committed to 9,000. In theory, there are 42 nations in the anti-Taliban coalition, but whereas the US has suffered 796 combat deaths and Britain 206, the combined loses of Germany, France and Spain amount to 87. No wonder support for the war in Britain is stagnating at 46 percent, while fully 65% of Americans expect the US will eventually have to withdraw without achieving its goals.

BRITAIN'S unconscionable release on humanitarian grounds of terminally ill Abdel Baset al-Megrahi, the only person convicted in the December 21, 1988, Lockerbie bombing, could pave the way for billions of dollars in oil contracts between Tripoli and London. But what message does the Brown government's decision to play footsie with Muammar Gaddafi - while hiding behind the Scottish justice secretary - send to Britons already feeling cynical about staying the course in Afghanistan?

This sordid episode, moreover, does nothing to illuminate who really blew Pan Am flight 103 out of the sky.

In 2000, a man named Ahmad Behbahani, claiming to be a defecting Iranian intelligence operative, told CBS's 60 Minutes that Iran was behind Lockerbie; and that the motive for the attack was retaliation for the accidental downing in July 1988 of Iran Air flight 655 by the USS Vincennes, killing all 290 passengers. Behbahani spoke of an operation involving the Syrian-based Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command and a group of Libyans trained and funded by Iran.

If patience is running thin on Afghanistan, and there is no stomach to stop Iran, the reasons are obvious. From Lockerbie to Afghanistan, Western decision-makers have compartmentalized Islamist violence - rather than defined it as a strategic menace to the Western values of tolerance and liberty.

The lesson of Vietnam is that wars become unwinnable when leaders fail to identify their true enemies, leaving their societies unmobilized, confused and lacking in motivation.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Civil liberties even when it is not easy

From 'Aftonbladet' to Neve Gordon

It's easy to support freedom of the press and freedom of speech as abstract principles. But what if a Swedish newspaper publishes false stories that could inspire violence against Jews? What if a tenured Israeli academic calls on the world to boycott his country?

Last week, Donald Boström "reported" in the mass-circulation Swedish tabloid Aftonbladet that the IDF murders young Palestinian Arabs to enable the harvesting of their organs for transplanting. On Sunday, the paper said it had sent two other journalists, Oisin Cantwell and Urban Andersson, to the West Bank, where Palestinians confirmed Boström's original expose.

If Israelis have overreacted to this mendacious twaddle, it's because anti-Semitic blood libels have had deadly consequences for our people ever since Greek pagans first accused ancient Jews of kidnapping foreigners for sacrificial purposes. Christians picked up the theme in the Middle Ages, accusing Jews of drinking the blood of Christian children for ritual purposes.

In 1236, Germanic Christians "modified" the vilification by claiming that the Jews used the blood of Christian boys for medicinal purposes. And the Nazis brought the defamation into the 20th century via Der Stuermer.

Now Aftonbladet has the distinction of keeping the lie alive in 21st-century Europe.

Had the Swedish Foreign Ministry backed the condemnation of Boström's article by Elisabet Borsin Bonnier, Sweden's ambassador in Tel Aviv - instead of reprimanding her - the matter would have ended there. Stockholm could have announced that in a democracy, the government does not muzzle newspapers; but that the blood libel does not reflect the views of the Swedish people or government. Israel did not ask for anything more.

Instead, while Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt opted to pontificate about the Swedish constitution and freedom of speech, he could not bring himself to dissociate from the substance of the defamatory article.

STILL, perhaps the Israeli reaction has been over the top. While Aftonbladet was exposing the Jews for snatching Arab body parts, Britain's Sun newspaper revealed yesterday that space aliens may be in the process of invading that island nation. Indeed, over the weekend, the Scarborough Evening News reported fresh UFO sightings over Yorkshire.

Meanwhile, in America, the Weekly World News covered the discovery of the secret burial ground of Bigfoot. Only recently, the paper had revealed that the head of the Orthodox Church of Ethiopia would soon announce the location of the Ark of the Covenant, noting that some experts saw a link between UFOs and the Ark.

Perhaps Aftonbladet will now investigate the connection between other reports circulating on the Web of alien sex experiments on earthlings and the missing Palestinian organs. Or does the paper take itself too seriously to pursue such a line of inquiry?

Aftonbladet can take succor from the support it received Sunday from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. The terror group recalled that as early as the 1980s, the IDF had been suspected of stealing organs from Gazan children who had been taken to Israeli hospitals - ostensibly for treatment.

Free-world newspapers, in both hard copy and electronic form, can write basically anything they want, subject to self-regulation and national libel laws. So it should be.

The bylaws of the Swedish Journalists Association call on members not to lie. Sweden's press ombudsman and its press council are charged with monitoring and promoting good journalistic practice. Let them judge whether Aftonbladet has violated the ethical standards of Swedish journalism.

WE FEEL much the same way about Neve Gordon's op-ed in The Los Angeles Times last week, in which the Ben-Gurion University political science instructor called for boycott, divestment and sanctions against our country.

If the op-ed editors of the paper want to maintain their practice of carrying two pieces critical of Israel for every pro-Israel comment, that is their prerogative.

But it would be an egregious mistake - playing straight into Gordon's hands - for donors to punish his Zionist university in Beersheba for upholding freedom of expression in connection with Gordon's destructive views by withholding their support.

The most apt response would be for contributors to endow a chair in Zionist studies in Gordon's department, and for the university to fill it with a Zionist scholar of world renown.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Maybe there are just too many generals in Israeli politics

Ya'alon's misstep

Here's a prediction: When Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu travels to London and Berlin next week, Vice-Premier Moshe Ya'alon won't be standing in for him as acting premier. That's because Ya'alon has gone off the reservation.

As guest of honor earlier this week at a meeting of the Jewish Leadership Movement, a stridently right-wing Likud caucus led by Moshe Feiglin, Ya'alon said the wrong things, in the wrong way, in the wrong place.

In arguing that Jews have a right to live anywhere in Judea and Samaria, Ya'alon was articulating a fairly conventional Israeli position. Yet this government, in pursuing an accommodation with the Palestinian Arabs, has agreed that Israel will not exercise Jewish rights everywhere between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean.

In arguing that even unauthorized outposts "are completely legal," Ya'alon was staking out a position at odds with his own government.

The tone of what Ya'alon said was also off-putting. This newspaper has been critical of Peace Now for its wholesale marginalization of the entire settlement enterprise. We've criticized the organization too for taking money from foreign powers and foundations intent on swaying Israeli public opinion and government policies. Yet we have never questioned the motives of grassroots Israelis who earnestly identify with Peace Now. And we think Ya'alon's intolerant characterization of the organization as an elitist "virus" further demeans the level of political discourse in this country.

Ya'alon's venue was also peculiar. Netanyahu opposes any role for Feiglin within the party. The premier's ongoing campaign to block Feiglin, who nowadays plays by the rules of the political game, from lawfully dissenting within the Likud strikes us as wrongheaded. But in aligning himself so publicly with Netanyahu's nemesis, Ya'alon has demonstrated a remarkable lack of loyalty to the man who so recently ushered him into politics.

THE YA'ALON affair exposes yet again why the Israeli political system is dysfunctional. There is something awfully wrong when a number two feels no compunction about turning against his chief after only five months in office.

The controversy also reminds us that generals tend to find the give-and-take of politics exasperating. Politics is the art of the possible; it demands compromise and endless bargaining over who gets what, when and how. The military, in contrast, is a hierarchical organization. Generals give orders; subordinates obey.

Just as Ya'alon is proving a divisive force in the Likud - irritated, perhaps, that he has to compete with others in influencing the premier - Shaul Mofaz is champing at the bit as Tzipi Livni's number two in Kadima. Ehud Barak, meanwhile, has practically eviscerated the Labor Party to maintain his grip on power.

Ya'alon presents himself as a man above the fray who speaks truth to power. His supporters believe that Ariel Sharon did not extend the then chief of staff's term by the customary year because Ya'alon opposed the Gaza disengagement. Opinions differ on whether this was really so.

In any event, Ya'alon could learn something from his cabinet colleague Bennie Begin about honorable behavior at the apex of government.

THE PRIME Minister's Office announced that "Minister Ya'alon's statements are unacceptable to the prime minister, both in substance and in style, and do not represent the government's position."

Speaking at Bar-Ilan University in June, the premier outlined the peace policies of this government. He noted that "in the heart of our Jewish homeland [there] now lives a large population of Palestinians. We do not want to rule over them. We do not want to run their lives." He offered to negotiate the creation of a demilitarized state for the Palestinians, insisting that they recognize Israel as a Jewish state and renounce the "right of return" to Israel proper for refugees and their descendants. A pullback to the 1949 Armistice Lines is out of the question.

Ya'alon heard that speech - some reports suggested he participated in drafting it - and the next day told Army Radio that he could live with a Palestinian state under the conditions defined by Netanyahu.
Shabbat shalom

Wednesday, August 19, 2009


Wed & Thursday

The US health care debate

As Israelis observe Americans debate universal healthcare, we find ourselves struck by the fact that our little country is actually more advanced than the US in providing all residents with medical coverage. But we take no pleasure in the realization that political discourse in the US has sometimes deteriorated to the crude levels too often seen in Israel.

Most of America's 307 million people do have health coverage, either through their employers, Medicare, Medicaid, veterans' benefits or special government programs targeting children of the working poor.

But 49 million don't; some of these probably want coverage but can't afford it. An additional 25 million Americans have too little insurance for their needs.

Yet even without universal coverage, America has a budget deficit of $1.8 trillion and spends twice the average share of its gross domestic product - 16 percent - on health as Israel.

President Barack Obama wants every American to be able to choose a private or government-backed health care plan. Members of the House of Representatives and the Senate have put forth several schemes (some with White House input) as they hold town-hall meetings with their constituents. No one yet knows what the final healthcare bill will look like.

Ardent conservatives, among them the influential radio personality Rush Limbaugh, say Obama's plan shows "similarities between the Democrat Party of today and the Nazi Party in Germany." Limbaugh: "Obama's got a healthcare logo that's right out of Adolf Hitler's playbook"; and "Adolf Hitler, like Barack Obama, also ruled by dictate."

Former Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin claims the president is intent on setting up "death panels" of government bureaucrats empowered to determine whether disabled or elderly Americans are "worthy of healthcare."

WHAT explains such vituperative language? Part of the answer is that America's political culture abhors a concentration of power in any one branch of government out of a visceral fear, dating back to the founding fathers, of tyranny.

Moreover, as with all Big Lies, there is a kernel of truth to the implicit charge that universal healthcare will not provide unlimited care, forever, under all circumstances.

On the other hand, those who now have private insurance live under those same constraints, and those who have no insurance have no protection at all. All plans - commercial, governmental or hybrid - "ration" healthcare.

According to the Pew Research Center, most Republicans say the US healthcare system doesn't need fixing, while most Democrats argue the opposite view. But overall, says the center, 75 percent of Americans do want to change the system. And Obama remains popular with an average 53:40 approval rating, while his Democratic Party controls both houses of Congress.

Even Obama supporters say he needs to give the American people more specifics on how the plan will be paid for and better explain why providing a public or quasi-public option is not some elaborate plot for a government takeover of all healthcare delivery.

WE DO not presume to tell Americans how to proceed. We can only point to our own experience which demonstrates - albeit on a smaller scale - that universal coverage is workable.

However, there is no doubt that Israelis sacrifice a level of privacy that Americans enjoy. For instance, medical records in Israeli health funds are computerized, and their confidentiality is hardly airtight.

Visiting a family doctor here tends to be a no-frills affair. Care is generally of a high standard, but there are no stylish offices or solicitous receptionists. You hand the physician your magnetic card; there's a minimum of small talk; you're treated and quickly out the door.

Israelis belong to one of four health funds, equivalent to HMOs: Clalit, Maccabi, Meuhedet and Leumit. Your GP does not oversee your care during hospitalization. There may be a wait for elective procedures.

But hospitalizations and medications are fully covered, though most people also purchase supplementary health insurance from their health fund and some take out additional private insurance coverage.

Everyone is covered. We pay for it all through individual sliding-scale health taxes deducted from our salaries and transferred to the health funds via the National Insurance Institute.

It may well be that a modified version of our system could work well in the American setting.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Crime in Israel

Crime and values

Crime in Israel doesn't just seem to be getting worse. It is worse. On Monday, The Jerusalem Post published a "crime blotter," compiled from reports after the weekend by news editor Amir Mizroch, of murder (and dismemberment), armed robbery, intimidation of the police by mob figures, stabbings, rape, sexual assault, family violence and juvenile delinquency.

Many Israelis are dismayed by what is happening; especially the senseless murder of Leonard Karp and the assault on his wife and daughter on the promenade at Tel Baruch beach in Tel Aviv. A group of eight Arab youths, who were inebriated, accompanied by two young Jewish women, one a soldier, allegedly murdered Karp, who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

This news came on the heels of the recent discovery of body parts both in Ramat Gan and north of Netanya; the arrest of a suspected serial rapist in Haifa; and an apparent revenge murder in Beit Dagan - among other mayhem. In contrast, 20 years ago, the entire month of August 1989 passed without a single criminally-inspired murder. There were heroin busts and arrests for foreign currency smuggling. A police chase resulted in the accidental death of a three-year-old Tel Aviv girl. A Knesset committee learned that prostitution was unchecked; another panel heard that thousands of children had been abused. In addition to horrific violence associated with the first intifada, there was also the occasional attack by groups of Israeli Arabs inside the Green Line - robbing passersby (in Haifa) and throwing stones at strolling couples (in Acre). A Gaza Palestinian accused of raping and killing a Jewish boy was on trial for murder.

There was also religious violence, with Jerusalem haredim clashing with police (in Har Nof) in "defense of the sanctity of the Sabbath."

Though this country has never been a Shangri-La, it has known comparatively little violent crime of the kind that makes a person think twice about going out for a walk.

IT MAY be true that Israel's murder rate is now comparable to other advanced societies, as police insist. For instance, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics, there were 171 murders in Israel (population 7.4 million) during 2008. In New York City (population 8.3 million) there were, by comparison, 523 killed last year. London (7.5 million) averages around 170 homicides annually.

Comparing crime rates across societies is unsatisfying. Zionist sensibilities are not assuaged because Israel's murder rate is on par with London's. True, we are no longer a small and comparatively homogeneous country. Still, who wants "natural growth" in our murder rates, in line with an increasing population?

Israel is not immune to the ills that affect other advanced societies - teenage binge-drinking, desensitizing computer-generated virtual violence; brutality peddled as entertainment, laissez-faire parenting and adolescent ennui.

A PUBLIC policy debate is under way about how to address a situation perceived to be deteriorating.

Part of the solution is more effective and efficient management of police resources. For instance, in certain districts, community-based policing can provide some of the answers - especially when cops who know a neighborhood walk the beat. Decision-makers still need to decide whether it's best to give municipal officials jurisdiction over local crime-fighting, or empower regional police commanders to do the job.

We need to be hiring more police. Currently there are 2.65 cops for every 1,000 Israelis (in Italy, the ratio is 5:1). But quality matters as much quantity. Starting officers' salaries are woefully low; we need to raise the pay scale of police and strengthen their professionalism.

Enhancing personal security also requires appointing prosecutors and judges who put public safety first, and a Finance Ministry prepared to spend astutely on the criminal justice system, including the Prison Service. Above all, it requires leadership from Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.

Since criminal behavior permeates all strata of society, tackling it requires a multi-faceted approach. For instance, youthful boredom in the Arab sector can perhaps be ameliorated by mandating community service.

One way to re-instill decency and civility as requisite values of Israeli society is for mukhtars, business leaders, politicians, rabbis, media personalities and other elites themselves to behave as if the children of this country are watching. Because they are.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Hosni Mubarak in Washington

In February 1982 when Hosni Mubarak made his first visit to Washington as Egypt's president, it was Ronald Reagan who was waiting for him in the White House.

There were many visits in the intervening years, though Mubarak avoided coming during most of George W. Bush's tenure, miffed at administration demands for democratization.

Now, Mubarak, age 81, is back.

Washington-Cairo relations are again on track; US pressure for reform is less heavy-handed and less public. Mubarak will meet with President Barack Obama on Tuesday, and is scheduled to see American Jewish leaders today. Cairo views the visit as an opportunity to reclaim its place as America's key ally in the Arab world.

The two issues topping the agenda - just as they did 27 years ago - are the Palestinians and economic ties. Bilateral trade today stands at $8.4 billion; annual US aid is pegged at $2b. On economics, the Egyptians are pushing for more non-energy sector trade. They also want to decrease (from 11 percent) the amount of goods produced by Israeli companies participating in the Egypt-US-Israel Qualified Industrial Zones - duty-free gateways to the American market.

MUBARAK will be pushing Obama to present yet another international plan to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict and echoing with gusto the Obama administration's call for a construction freeze over the Green Line. Of course, it would be far more helpful were Cairo - and Washington - to urge Mahmoud Abbas's Palestinian Authority to return to the bargaining table and respond constructively to Binyamin Netanyahu's seminal Bar-Ilan address of two months ago.

The settlement freeze issue is a diversion because in any final status agreement, Jewish communities on the "Palestine" side of the border would be relocated to the Israeli side. Egypt should instead be pressing Abbas to negotiate as if he really wanted a Palestinian state. This means dropping unrealistic demands for an Israeli pullback to the 1949 Armistice Lines; finding a mechanism to share Jerusalem (Israel has proposed several ideas); accepting that "Palestine" will have to be demilitarized, and abandoning calls for the so-called Palestinian right of return to Israel proper.

Egypt has been working to promote a Palestinian national unity government that has the support of both Fatah and Hamas. In Washington, Mubarak needs to hear that harmony among the Palestinians will be meaningful only insofar as it leads to reconciliation with Israel, an end to terror and a commitment to fulfill previous Palestinian commitments. Cairo appears to be playing a helpful role in indirect talks between Israel and Hamas aimed at freeing Gilad Schalit. And since Egypt faces a dual threat - from Sunni jihadists connected to al-Qaida and from Shi'ite Iran's infiltration of the Palestinian cause via Hamas - it is wise to be trying harder to stem the flow of weapons from Sinai into Gaza.

However, in urging Arab Gulf states to reject the administration requests that they improve relations with Israel, Cairo is being decidedly unhelpful, especially since it should be in the vanguard of building trust between the Arab world and Israel. It is being reckless in its plans to redirect worldwide concern over Iran's quest for nuclear weapons, to Israel's non-threatening nuclear program at next month's UN General Assembly session.

Plainly, Cairo does recognize the menace the Iranian regime presents to Egypt and the region. It has quietly allowed an Israeli dolphin-class submarine and missile cruisers to transit the Suez Canal - a clear signal to Teheran. It continues to crack down on the Muslim Brotherhood, saying that some of its members have been spying for Iran while others have been accepting money from Hizbullah.

ARGUABLY, Mubarak's regime could have done more to institutionalize representative government without jeopardizing its own stability. In squashing the reformists, the regime has forced opponents to coalesce around Muslim extremists. Twenty percent of the parliamentary opposition are "independents" associated with the Brotherhood.

We can't predict whether Mubarak will seek reelection in 2011. But when he leaves the scene it is in Israel's highest interest that his successors uphold Egypt's peace treaty obligations.

Israelis have long regretted Mubarak's insistence on a "cold peace" rather than one that would have served as a template for genuine reconciliation between Arabs and Israelis. We would be delighted if he yet changed course

Friday, August 14, 2009

'Rescue' as process

'Rescuing' Ethiopian Jews

The Soviet Jewry movement helped shape the Jewish identity and Zionist commitment of Diaspora activists, taking precedence over family, work and school. There were nighttime vigils and Sunday marches. London Jewish ladies chained themselves to the gates of the Russian Embassy. University students smuggled holy books to refuseniks.

When the Soviet empire imploded in 1990 and the iron gates were opened, 600,000 Jews left for Israel. This was the single biggest wave of aliya in Zionist history. The country had to house the new arrivals. It had to provide work, retrain them, teach them Hebrew and support them in the difficult transition to a new way of life.

Israelis were swiftly disabused of the notion that the immigrants would all be clones of the heroic figures they had come to "know" - Shpilberg, Zalmanson, Sharansky. Most were mere mortals. Some had intermarried; many were Jewishly illiterate. Soon enough, prejudice against the immigrants denigrated them as "welfare cheats, frauds, goyim and sluts."

How much easier to "Save Soviet Jewry" than selflessly share our space and resources with them!

And yet their absorption is largely a success story.

BUT IF Russian-speaking Jews have suffered prejudice, Ethiopian Jews have fared much worse. The Ethiopians had no mythical heroes to offer us. Beta Israel were simply our unfortunate brethren and we felt obliged to help them - hence Operation Moses (1984) and Operation Solomon (1991).

Other Ethiopians, some with dubious ties to Jewish civilization but with family connections to those already here, continued to trickle in. The community is pressuring authorities to bring in other relatives left behind.

Our country has been generous in providing for Ethiopian absorption; and selfless volunteers have taken up the cause of helping the Ethiopians acclimate. As a community-organizing effort to reconnect Ethiopian olim crammed into city apartment blocks with the land, an innovative group called Earth's Promise has been developing a string of garden plots in Beersheba, Hadera and elsewhere.

The Jewish Agency sent three Ethiopian teens to Turkey last week to attend an international space camp run in partnership with NASA.

But for many of the 100,000-plus Ethiopian olim, the transition from an agrarian milieu to a technologically advanced urban society has not been smooth. The older generation arrived here battered by dislocation, civil war and famine. Many households are dysfunctional, strained by changing gender roles and a yawning generation gap in which traditionalist parents feel alienated from their Hebrew-speaking offspring. Crime, truancy and domestic violence are all too prevalent. Formerly honored elders have been disempowered by Israel's jealous religious establishment.

With their family and communal structures torn asunder, it is remarkable that so many Beta Israel have managed to thrive. Some of the younger generation blend in comfortably at fashionable Tel Aviv nightspots; others have been warmly embraced by the Orthodox. There are now Ethiopian broadcasters and an Ethiopian member of Knesset. This summer even saw the release of the first ever Israeli-Ethiopian film, Zrubavel, by director/screenwriter Shmuel Beru.

Unfortunately, Ethiopians remain the victims of those who imagine themselves racially superior. Last week, for instance, an Egged driver allegedly refused to open the door of his bus to an Ethiopian college student; when she finally managed to board, he harangued her with slurs.

It is, however, not racism when schools in socio-economically deprived areas decide to limit the enrollment of Ethiopian children, fearing that a demographic "tipping point" might force the exodus of other youngsters. In any case, Ethiopian students bunched together in poorly performing schools would be unlikely to achieve success. Many require intensive and costly remedial, educational and social services. One solution might be for schools in more affluent areas to set aside scholarships for Ethiopian students.

Hebrew University Africa expert Steven Kaplan recently told The Los Angeles Times that "even after 30 years," he could not say with "any real confidence" that "we've turned the corner for the second and third generations of Ethiopians."

Part of the reason is the immensity of the challenge; the other is Israelis' failure to internalize the idea that "rescuing" Ethiopian Jews - even more than "saving" Soviet Jews - is not a lightning operation, but a process that demands persistence.

Shabbat shalom

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Haredi violence...again

Reflexive violence

What is it about the sub-culture of a not inconsiderable number of haredim, primarily those belonging to sects adhering to social insularity and theological extremism, that makes them habitually turn to violence when frustrated? Rather than hold a peaceful protest, lobby elected officials, or seek relief via litigation, too many of those associated with the anti-Zionist Edah Haredit, a constellation that encompasses Satmar, Toldot Aharon, Toldot Avraham-Yitzhak, and elements of the Breslav, Dushinsky and Munkacs sects, reflexively - so it seems - turn to thuggery and intimidation. So do some other haredim.

The latest instance took place Sunday night when Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat was leaving a non-political meeting at the home of the "Admor of Kalib," Rabbi Menachem Mendel Taub, in the Ezrat Torah section of town. He was set upon by dozens of stone-throwing Satmar ruffians. After the mayor's security detail whisked him to safety, Barkat declared that he would not cave-in to violence.

He was referring to haredi opposition to his decision to provide free public parking near the Old City on the Sabbath. Despite initial, tacit approval from ultra-Orthodox municipal council members, haredi demagogues incited against the garage opening on the dubious grounds that it violated the religious-secular status quo. The car park is actually blocks from the nearest haredi district. And police had recommended its opening to accommodate the influx of vehicles heretofore scattered helter-skelter outside the Old City walls.

In pledging not to give into violence, Barkat could just as easily have been talking about the rioting that followed the arrest of a haredi mother accused of trying to starve her son to death. Extremist haredim reacted with nights of stone-throwing and property destruction.

With commendable alacrity, mainstream haredi leaders - Hassidic, Litvak and Sephardi - on the city council stridently denounced Sunday's assault on Barkat. Unfortunately, they've allowed themselves to be browbeaten into coming out against the car park opening.

The Edah Haredit, for its part, said it planned to "demonstrate" outside Barkat's home, office and at the disputed facility - possibly on weekdays as well as Saturdays. Rabbi Tuvia Weiss, a leading rabble-rouser, rejects any compromise "over the holiness of the Sabbath." Read: "We will continue to desecrate the holy day 'in order to save it.'"

WE WORRY that the authorities will - Barkat's rhetoric notwithstanding - ultimately find a "compromise" that essentially rewards the extremists. Doing so would send a terrible signal about the character of the capital.

We note that the court ultimately released the allegedly abusive mother to house arrest - just as the rioters had demanded. A legal observer we respect has argued that police could have separated the mother from the endangered child without taking her into police custody. Perhaps. But for those raised in a sub-culture that disparages outsiders, rioting - not reasoned dialogue - is the default response to not getting your own way.

There's no point in reminding the extremists that halacha obligates them to adhere to the law of the land - dina d'malchuta dina. They shamelessly engage in Talmudic sophistry to justify their immoral, unethical and anti-halachiac deportment.

The larger issue for us is the character of Jerusalem. Observant Jews of all stripes, and good number of secular residents too, appreciate the fact that Jerusalem slows down for the Sabbath. There is a dramatic drop in traffic; most businesses are closed. Public transportation comes to a halt. The calm is good for the soul and the environment.

Frankly, extremist haredim are giving Jewish observance a bad name. In one neighborhood, locals opposed the opening of a mikve (ritual bath) to be used by the entire community out of fear that it would draw haredim to the area.

Most Jerusalemites value tradition while rejecting religious coercion. Their ideal is a city whose neighborhoods are mixed - not one of Balkanized enclaves.

Whether the issue is Shabbat parking, gender-segregated buses, or the equal application of the law, we urge authorities to hold firm. And we appeal to mainstream haredim, the majority of whom, we fervently trust, do not identify with the tactics of the extremists, to at least speak out for tolerance even if their consciences do not allow them to advocate pluralism.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

A Third Lebanon War May be on the Horizon

Is Nasrallah miscalculating?

It's been fairly quiet along the Gaza-Israel border, hasn't it? Well, actually, no. Approximately 107 Kassam rockets and 66 mortar shells have been fired by Palestinians at Israel since the end of Operation Cast Lead on January 18, 2009. Shells hit yesterday at the Erez crossing meters from ambulances about to evacuate Gazan heart patients for treatment in Israel; Kibbutz Alumim was also targeted.

Despite what Palestinian supporters call the "siege of Gaza," Israel routinely trucks-in tons of food and supplies to the hostile Strip and is responsive to humanitarian appeals for medical evacuations. But the "siege" - such as it is - ought to continue until IDF soldier Gilad Schalit is released and Hamas abides by the demands of the civilized world to end terrorism, recognize Israel and assume as binding previous commitments made by the Palestinian Authority.

To it credit, Human Rights Watch has belatedly - ok, very belatedly - labeled Hamas's bombardment of Israeli civilians a "war crime." For the most part, however, unless Israel retaliates in a robust manner, no one takes much notice of how many rockets are fired from Gaza into Israel.

THE more worrisome - for now - powder keg is along the border with Hizbullah-subjugated Lebanon.

Last month a huge Hizbullah arms depot located on the outskirts of Khirbet Slem blew up, sending shock waves across the border. In an atypical reprimand, UN Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations Alain Le Roy publicly criticized Hizbullah for violating UN Security Council Resolution 1701 (which brought the Second Lebanon War to an end in the summer of 2006). In the past three years, Hizbullah has been illegally replenishing its weapons, which are mainly shipped by its Iranian patrons with Syrian connivance.

Hizbullah seems intent on carrying out a mega-terror attack in Israel or the Diaspora ostensibly in retaliation for the 2008 liquidation in Damascus of Imad Mughniyeh, the group's principal terror-master. The likelihood may be that Hizbullah will attack an Israeli airliner, diplomat or some Jewish target abroad. Meanwhile it has been engaging in psychological warfare - blasting the muezzin's call to prayer across the border and sending its operatives, dressed in civilian clothes, to the border fence.

Last week on Israel Radio, Defense Minister Ehud Barak sent a warning to Hizbullah: An attack against Israeli or Jewish targets anywhere would result in painful reprisals against Lebanon's infrastructure as well as Hizbullah strongholds. On Sunday, Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon reiterated that Israel would hold not only Hizbullah, but the Beirut government responsible for violence initiated in Lebanon. And yesterday Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu added his voice, warning Lebanon/Hizbullah not to attack because if it did Beirut will be held responsible.

In an amiable interview with Al-Jazeera on Sunday - there was some joking about whether a jet passing overhead was Israeli - Hashem Safi al-Din, who is chairman of Hizbullah's executive council, taunted our defense minister: Act "foolishly" and "the war of the summer of 2006 will look like a joke," he warned. While asserting that Hizbullah did not seek war with Israel, Safi al-Din let drop that, "Today we are more powerful, and this is thanks to the 2006 victory, which is why we think the Israeli threats are hollow and meaningless." The "resistance," he claimed, has long possessed "rockets that can reach every house in Tel Aviv."

It is hard to know whether Lebanese internal political developments are contributing to Hizbullah's jingoism. Lebanon elected a new parliament in June when Hizbullah supposedly suffered an electoral setback; yet the formation of a government is still far-off. The ever-mercurial Druse leader, Walid Jumblatt, has switched sides - sort off - from the Christian-Sunni March 14 Coalition to cast the fate of his people with the Shi'ites.

IN August 2006, Hassan Nasrallah admitted that had he appreciated the ferocity of Israel's response to Hizbullah's aggression, he would have never sent his men across the border. Now, with new weapons in-hand, Nasrallah may calculate that Israel will abjure hard-hitting retaliation, even for a mega-terror attack, in order to keep its population safe from reprisal bombardment in a third Lebanon war.

It would be too bad for us all if Nasrallah's destiny was to keep making the same stupid mistake.

Monday, August 10, 2009

FATAH MEETS & IRAN RACES (two postings)

Abbas's bully pulpit

In keeping with a long tradition of "helping Abu Mazen," Israel made it possible for Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah General Assembly to gather 2,000 delegates in Bethlehem beginning August 4. The assembly is an effort to demonstrate that Fatah remains the vanguard of the Palestinian polity. Delegates have come from around the Arab world, save for Hamas-controlled Gaza.

The atmosphere for the conference was auspicious. The Obama administration has been ostentatiously leaning on Israel to halt all housing construction over the Green Line. Life under the "occupation" - now that the Palestinians are not systematically shooting at us - isn't at all bad. Over the weekend, for instance, the main north-south West Bank highway, Route 60, was jammed with Palestinian and Israeli traffic; intrusive security restrictions affecting average Palestinians were nowhere to be seen. The West Bank economy is doing relatively well. And Israel's leadership has committed itself to the establishment of a demilitarized Palestinian state.

Under these circumstances one might have expected Abbas to finally begin the process of socializing Palestinians to the idea of coexistence with Israel and the need to compromise on borders and refugees. Instead, Fatah remained steadfastly uncompromising.

Armed resistance, Abbas's assembly declared, remains legitimate though for tactical reasons will be held in abeyance - for now; violent "civil disobedience" is laudable; recognition of Israel as a Jewish state is out of the question; and Fatah will continue to insist that the descendants of some 700,000 Palestinian refugees from the 1948 war - today numbering in the millions - have a "right of return" to Israel proper to, in effect, demographically asphyxiate its Jewish population.

Abbas summed matters up this way: "The Fatah movement was established so as to liberate all the Palestinian lands and we will not concede even a single inch. We will continue our struggle and with the path of resistance until we establish our state whose capital is a united Jerusalem that is purged of settlements and settlers."

He then invoked Jerusalem's place in Islamic and Christian traditions, willfully disregarding what Zion has meant to Jewish civilization from time immemorial.

SOME SAY the bellicose rhetoric is traceable to schisms within Fatah pitting old timers led by Abbas and Ahmed Qurei, who returned from Tunis with Yasser Arafat after the 1993 Oslo Accords, and the transitional generation of Mohammed Dahlan, Jibril Rajoub and the popular Marwan Barghouti (imprisoned in Israel on multiple counts of murder). They, in turn, are challenged by a politically toothless younger generation - some associated with the Aksa Martyrs' Brigades (Fatah's armed wing).

Others suggest that Fatah did not want to appear "soft" toward Israel in relation to Hamas. But the Islamists have been losing their appeal among Fatah's disenchanted bourgeois base partly because of the way they have been coercing religious behavior on Gazans. Fatah is now slightly more popular than Hamas among all Palestinians.

Still, many of them view the assembly with a cynical eye. That Abbas was re-elected "general commander" running unopposed did not help Fatah's credibility.

FOR Israelis, what matters is that rather than demonstrating leadership, Abbas and Fatah made demagogic appeals to a Palestinian street that sees moderation as weakness. This self-defeating intransigence is a deep-seated facet of Palestinian political culture. Abbas had a bully pulpit to coax the population in a more moderate direction, yet he and other Fatah leaders took the easy road - scapegoating Israel.

Still, the assembly generated enough prevarication and dissimulation to perpetuate the pose that Fatah is a genuinely "moderate" alternative to Hamas.

Abbas apologists will claim that the Palestinian Liberation Organization - not Fatah - acts for the Palestinians. In fact, Fatah controls the PLO. They will point out that Prime Minister Salaam Fayad, a technocratic outsider, is actually running the Palestinian Authority in a constructive manner with Abbas's blessing. This claim has more justification, though Fayad, who was imposed on Abbas by the US, has limited influence.

When the incendiary rhetoric from Bethlehem is over, chances are unfortunately remote that Washington - much less Europe - will ease off on the red-herring issue of settlements to take Abbas to task for not using the assembly to preach peace, compromise and coexistence.

At times like this, it seems "helping Abu Mazen" has become an end in itself.


Boycott Ahmadinejad

Say what you want about Iran - at least it's not North Korea. There is a world of difference between a totalitarian state ruled by a demigod, where the merest blush of opposition is unimaginable, and an authoritarian regime, rooted in religious fanaticism, in which the members of the ruling clique publicly duke it out. But what if those distinctions become less meaningful as Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and his protégé President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad continue to consolidate power while their regime takes its final steps toward constructing a nuclear weapon?

This week saw Bill Clinton parleying with Kim Jong-il in Pyongyang. In return for the visit - Pyongyang insisted on the former US president, husband of the current secretary of state, as emissary - the North Koreans released two American journalists they were holding hostage.

With this US concession in the bank, Kim may now be willing to return to "six-party" talks - if Washington relaxes existing sanctions and drops its demand that North Korea first give up its nuclear weapons program.

MEANWHILE, it's becoming increasingly apparent that Ahmadinejad is the true face of the Iranian regime directed by Khamenei. Having stolen the anyway rigged June 12 election, the two leaders don't seem bothered that their political adversaries boycotted Ahmadinejad's second-term swearing-in ceremony.

These dissidents - former presidents Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Muhammad Khatami, for instance - are mostly embittered reactionaries, not liberal reformers. Now, a new intramural dispute is raging over whom Ahmadinejad will appoint as his senior vice-president (and possible successor). On the sidelines, Mir Hossein Mousavi, the defeated presidential candidate - no flaming liberal himself - is left to post his criticisms on the Internet.

According to The New York Times, Ahmadinejad is in firm control. He's backed by Khamenei, parliament and the Revolutionary Guards, and enjoys the acquiescence of influential religious figures.

Indeed, anyone who watched Khamenei as he stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Ahmadinejad throughout the inauguration ceremony and saw the men warmly embracing afterward would not delude themselves into thinking that the two are not in lock-step.

AS IF to bookend events in Iran and North Korea, this week marks the 64th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.

Even if Iranian elites remain divided over Ahmadinejad, this in no way diminishes the dangers represented by the country's nuclear program. If anything, Khamenei may have an incentive to accelerate the project to rally the nation and underscore the prowess of his leadership.

But what if the cost of pursuing the bomb undermined his position? As it is, many educated Iranians have lost faith in the legitimacy of their political system because of the election fiasco. Inflation hovers at 26 percent; real unemployment is probably 40%. The world's second-largest oil-producer has to import 40% of its gasoline.

Now more than ever, the country desperately needs international investment. The bad news is that it's getting it. China announced this week an investment of $3 billion-$6b. in Iran's oil sector. Pakistan announced freight train service between the two countries. And an unnamed European company will reportedly invest $4 billion in Iran's Lavan gas field.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton insists that engagement with Khamenei and Ahmadinejad is still on the table. The administration set a September deadline for the Iranians to start talking. Teheran's apologists say the time limit resulted from Zionist pressure and isn't based on any objective threat. Others imply that it's too late to talk - or to level draconian sanctions.

London's Times reported this week that "Iran has perfected the technology to create and detonate a nuclear warhead and is merely awaiting the word from... Khamenei, to produce its first bomb."

Either way, the current Iranian leadership is not interested in substantive negotiations.

YET THE stakes are far too high to give up. Iran is not North Korea. The Obama administration should lead the civilized world in refusing to recognize the Ahmadinejad regime. It should offer to cooperate with any Iranian leadership that abandons nuclear weapons, ends support for terrorism, and frees political prisoners.

Iran is the lynch-pin to President Barack Obama's hopes for a world that is free of nuclear weapons. Conversely, an Iranian nuclear bomb would unleash a new atomic arms race in the already volatile Middle East.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Swine flu in Israel

Wrong on H1N1

When mid-summer headlines warn that 700 young Israelis may die in the course of 2010 from the H1N1 virus, it is natural to feel anxious. A quarter of Israelis, say health experts, may contract swine flu, leaving a third of the population sick at home. Some 150,000 Israelis could find themselves hospitalized. If the epidemic gains momentum, authorities would have to close schools, kindergartens and daycare centers. Gatherings from classical concerts to football matches might be canceled. Commuters would be dissuaded from using crowded buses. We could see people walking down the streets wearing surgical masks.

Two basic questions come to mind: How concerned should Israelis be? And is the government of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu - he's also health minister - managing preparations for the crisis effectively? The two issues are obviously connected.

Experts surmise that the death rate from swine flu is not likely to go beyond that of regular influenza. That still means more people will die - many hundreds as usual of the regular flu, and hundreds more of swine flu. The difference is that H1N1 appears to be particularly risky for people between 15 and 49, whereas regular influenza tends to be most harmful to the elderly and those whose immune system is compromised. People over 40 seem to have acquired immunity due to previous exposure that makes them less susceptible to H1N1 virus.

Israel's public health system is positioned to provide citizens with protection on par with those of other advanced societies where sanitary conditions are good and adequate supplies of expensive antiviral drugs are readily available. Contingency plans for more hospital beds and enhanced emergency services are in the works. So, based on what we know today, there is no reason for panic.

YET AUTHORITIES face a dilemma that brings us back to the question of the government's approach to the epidemic. Scientists are at work perfecting a vaccine that could be available in early winter. But there are no guarantees that H1N1 will not mutate into a different strain by the time the vaccine is disseminated. Moreover, people will require two inoculations against H1N1, and getting them to come back for their second jab could prove problematic. Those who need to be vaccinated against the regular flu would have to get three separate shots. The Center for Disease Control in the US is urging people over 65 who routinely take the seasonal vaccine to do so as soon as it is available. We trust Israel's health funds will follow the CDC's lead.

An H1N1 vaccine that is rushed from the laboratory to the pharmacy could have unanticipated side-effects. But the critical public policy decision pending is whether to purchase in advance the not-yet-perfected vaccine and do so in huge quantities. Netanyahu has ordered that NIS 450 million already earmarked for the purchase of medications that would expand the arsenal of treatments available for cancer, mental illness, heart disease and other serious disorders be redirected for battling H1N1. And he has ordered that masses of Israelis be vaccinated. But many may refuse, as is their right. The Health Ministry would then be stuck with expensive vaccine.

In contrast, US health officials plan to focus their vaccination efforts on pregnant women, people who live with or care for children younger than six months, health care and emergency services personnel, people between the ages of six months and 24 years, and people aged 25 through 64 who are at higher risk for H1N1 because of chronic health disorders or compromised immune systems.

Israeli health experts are divided over the wisdom of Netanyahu's approach. Deputy Health Minister Ya'acov Litzman favors something closer to the US approach, which would protect those most vulnerable and avoid decimating the expanded health basket for other diseases.

The main reason to vaccinate citizens in a nationwide program is to lower the pool of people who could prove to be a reservoir of new infection. Is Netanyahu's judgment to give priority to eradicating H1N1 at the expense of other public health concerns the right call? Not if you believe that H1N1 is already an epidemic/pandemic that cannot be eradicated, but that it is only a serious condition for a relatively small and identifiable population. That seems to be the scientific consensus. A poll of family doctors in Israel found that most oppose Netanyahu's approach.

We urge him to rethink his plan for mass inoculations at the expense of the expanded health basket.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

East Jerusalem evictions

Jews & Sheikh Jarrah

It was not a pretty picture. The belongings of two Palestinian Arab families dumped in the street after they were evicted from their homes in the east Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah. They were expelled on Sunday after Israel's Supreme Court ruled that the land upon which their homes were built belonged to the Sephardi Jewish community.

This area, also known as "Simon the Just," was purchased by Jews at the end of the 19th century during the Ottoman Empire. According to The New York Times, the evacuated houses were built in the 1950s by the United Nations for refugees who had fled west Jerusalem during the 1948 war. When Israel captured east Jerusalem from Jordan and united the city, after the 1967 Six Day War, the families were permitted to stay on as tenants. At some point, they stopped paying rent having become convinced - we know not by whom - that the Jews' deed to the land was a forgery.

It took a large force of police to carry out the evictions in the face of opposition from the residents, left-wing Jewish supporters and foreign demonstrators.

Coming on the heels of the controversy surrounding the nearby Shepherd Hotel complex, which was also purchased to create Jewish residential housing, the evictions drew worldwide condemnation. The international community says Israel has no legal claim to east Jerusalem; nor does it accept Israeli sovereignty over west Jerusalem.

Israel finds itself in the anomalous position in which not a single nation recognizes Jerusalem as our capital. All foreign embassies are located in Tel Aviv. Meanwhile, European governments, with Britain often in the lead, have invested vast resources, sometimes surreptitiously, in promoting Arab claims to east Jerusalem (and the West Bank), bankrolling organizations, many staffed with Israelis and sporting Hebrew names, whose mandate is, in effect, to promote EU policy vis-à-vis Jerusalem and the West Bank.

The British Consulate in Jerusalem explicitly denies that Israeli courts have jurisdiction over east Jerusalem. Its diplomats term the Arab connection to Sheikh Jarrah "ancient."

Media coverage of the issue has been overwhelmingly supportive of the Palestinian position.

THERE happens to be another side to this argument.

Put aside, for our purposes here, the ancient Jewish connection to Jerusalem and Zion's centrality to Jewish civilization over the millennia.

Begin instead with the fact that there is no neatly delineated "east" and "west" Jerusalem - one section housing Arabs and the other Jews. Jerusalem beyond the Green Line is home to some 200,000 Jews and 270,000 Arabs, though 66 percent of all residents are Jewish. The city is built on a range of hills and valleys. Arab and Jewish neighborhoods crisscross in the north, east and southern sectors.

Sheikh Jarrah, in the northeast, is strategically situated on the way to the Mount Scopus campus of the Hebrew University. During the 1948 war, Arabs massacred 78 doctors and others who were heading by convoy to Hadassah hospital, also on Mount Scopus. Today, in addition to the hospital (which serves both Israelis and Palestinians) and the university (which has thousands of Arab students), the area is also home to Israel's police headquarters and Justice Ministry.

Staunchly right-wing Orthodox groups have been competing with Gulf Arabs in the quest to purchase properties in the area. (Israel does not forbid Arabs from buying land in Jerusalem.)

In this particular rivalry, we side with the Jewish groups, even if this newspaper is sometimes put-off by the way they see the world, because whatever arrangements may ultimately be negotiated for sharing Jerusalem, mainstream Israelis will insist on unfettered access to Mount Scopus via Sheikh Jarrah.

As far as British claims of an "ancient" Arab connection to the area, Nadav Shragai convincingly documents, in the latest "Jerusalem Issue Brief" published by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (, that the Jewish connection to what is today Sheikh Jarrah predates the founding of both Christianity and Islam.

That said, we are not enthusiastic about the purchase of property or the construction of Jewish residential housing in heavily Arab neighborhoods when not dictated by strategic imperatives.

Jews and Arabs are destined to share this city. Both peoples would be wise to avoid actions that exacerbate tensions.

Monday, August 03, 2009

Gays murdered in Tel Aviv

Wild weed

We do not know who carried out the ghastly shooting at a gay youth support center in Tel Aviv Saturday night. Some in the media and in the political establishment have jumped to the conclusion that the rampage was motivated by homophobia. Others speculate that the shooter may have been a homosexual with a grudge. We reserve judgment about the identity of the perpetrator; but like most Israelis from across the political and religious spectrum, we condemn this unprecedented assault.

Foremost, our condolences go to the families of Nir Katz, 26, from Givatayim, and Liz Tarbishi, 17, from Holon. Ten of the wounded remain hospitalized, several in intensive care, and we wish them a full and speedy recovery.

For some of the families, Saturday night's bloodbath was a double trauma since there were parents who did not know about the sexual orientation of their children.

The emotional nature of the reaction to this vile attack is understandable. MK Nitzan Horowitz of Meretz, who is gay, participated in an impromptu rally to protest "incitement" against the gay and lesbian community. Granted, there is prejudice against gays in Israel. Yet gay activists readily grant that Israel is one of the world's most progressive countries in terms of equality for sexual minorities, and in some respects - military service, for instance - far more advanced than many other Western societies.

Not only did major political figures rush to condemn Saturday night's attack, but even the ultra-Orthodox Sephardi, Shas Knesset faction - some of whose members have been vitriolic against gays - issued a statement condemning the violence and calling for the capture and prosecution of the attacker.

THROUGH the haze and shock of Saturday night's attack, it is important to maintain perspective. Whoever did it - gay or straight, observant or secular - was a wild weed and not indicative of their community.

Gays in Israel are not oppressed. There is no culture of marginalization. While community standards vary from place to place, gays in metropolitan Tel Aviv are valued citizens. The TA municipality helps fund the annual gay parade. Even in comparatively conservative Jerusalem, an openly gay man, Sa'ar Nethaniel, served on the municipal council in the previous government. It is true that the gay parade invariably generates local ultra-Orthodox opposition. In 2005 a haredi man from Kiryat Sefer stabbed three participants at Jerusalem's gay parade. Not only was he convicted of attempted murder, but ultra-Orthodox leaders have incrementally toned down the vociferousness of their anti-parade agitation. While in deference to local norms, gay pride events in Jerusalem have become relatively (and appropriately) understated. Mutual - albeit tacit - accommodation, backed by the Jerusalem Open House and the mainstream haredi leadership, is a fact of life.

Tolerance toward gays is nothing new. As early as 1953 the attorney-general of Israel issued instructions not to prosecute gay activities. In 1992, the Equal Employment Opportunity Act of 1988 was expanded to prohibit anti-gay discrimination in employment. In 1994, the Supreme Court recognized same-sex partner benefits in the private sector; in 1997 these were extended to the public sector. In 2000, the age of legal consensual homosexual relations was lowered to 16.

Same-sex couples can today legally adopt children. Gay marriages abroad can be registered as legal in Israel. Knesset legislation provides gays with enhanced civil liberties protections. Many municipalities do likewise. Moreover, gay life - far from being delegitimized - is a not infrequent theme in our cinema (The Bubble, Yossi & Jagger), music (Dana International), theater (Passing the Love of Women) and literature.

Contrast the situation in Israel to gay life in neighboring Arab and Muslim countries.

In Iran, homosexuality is outlawed; sodomy is a capital crime. The mullahs endeavor to make the lives of gays miserable. Scores have been flogged and others executed. Gays are not as relentlessly persecuted in Saudi Arabia, but sodomy is punishable by death. In relatively tolerant Turkey, gay life is not criminalized, but neither is there much forbearance for outward displays of homosexuality.

Saturday night's carnage in Tel Aviv is heartbreaking. It is not - at least based on what we know now - cause for national consternation over the place of gays in Israeli society.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Refugees in Israel

Meant to post this before Shabbat but ran out of time....

Let the children stay

The prospect of the Jewish state expelling 2,800 children whose parents are foreign workers or illegal immigrants tugs at the heartstrings.

An authorized foreign worker who gives birth in this country loses her right to work here; illegal immigrants shouldn't be here in the first place. But the fact is that hundreds of their Hebrew-speaking children call Israel home. Interior Minister Eli Yishai would be doing the right thing to let them stay. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu took a step in the right direction yesterday by delaying their expulsion for at least three months.

There is something fundamentally wrong with the system that brings over workers from abroad to do the jobs most of us do not want - home care for the elderly and infirm, back-breaking farm labor, or construction.

Until Yasser Arafat launched the second intifada in 2000, the farm and construction jobs had gone mostly to Palestinian Arabs from the West Bank and Gaza. But that conflict forced Israel to turn to Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe to meet its labor needs.

Yet, from the get-go, potential foreign workers could not simply apply for, say, a four-year work visa at the Embassy of Israel closest to them. Instead, they were "imported" by licensed brokers - not a few of them rapacious and unscrupulous. There is money to be made in bringing foreigners to Israel, and the sooner one batch goes and another can be brought over, the more money the brokers make.

Most workers pay these middlemen a hefty fee for the opportunity to work here. That means many are in debt the moment they arrive. While in Israel, the foreigners are indentured to their employers by arcane rules, which provide them with little protection. Legal workers can't simply move to a different job, or to one with better conditions. If a caregiver's patient dies, the worker has few options, other than leaving the country, even if she or he only recently arrived. As the Post reported on Wednesday, the Interior Ministry inexplicably shut down a database through which workers with time remaining on their visas could learn about other openings. Thus, through no fault of their own, legal workers can suddenly find themselves illegal.

On Tuesday, two presumably legal Chinese workers held a protest atop a construction crane to object to their treatment. Next day, authorities arrested four brokers who had obtained work permits under false pretenses - ostensibly to provide caregivers for the blind, but in fact to meet needs for janitors and in construction (where new permits have been frozen).

We don't even know for sure how many illegals are in the country - estimates vary between 80,000 and 300,000. Authorities tried to keep most of them out of the main population centers, but under legal challenge reversed their "Hadera-Gedera" policy.

ADVOCATING against the children's deportation is easy. But we also support allowing foreigners who came here legally, and developed a strong attachment to this country, the opportunity to apply for resident alien status; thus providing them with the rights and obligations of citizenship, save for voting and military service. And we want to see their Israeli-born children become naturalized citizens in every sense.

We have less sympathy for those who came here illegally, or under false pretenses. After due process, and allowing for extenuating circumstances, we favor repatriating most illegal immigrants to their home countries.

As for those illegals, mostly from Sudan and Eritrea, who are genuine (pending UN certification) asylum-seekers and cannot be deported under international law, we urge the UN to move speedily to help resettle these people in countries where their lives will not be in danger. Where appropriate, perhaps some of these refugees could be offered resident alien status.

We urge authorities: Rather than proceeding with a draconian Knesset bill that proposes treating illegal immigrants as if they were security infiltrators, invest your energies in building a security barrier along the Negev-Sinai border to keep both infiltrators and illegal aliens out.

Long-term, Israel needs to secure its borders, liberalize its naturalization procedures and, separately, revamp the way foreign workers reach our shores.

Tiny Israel cannot serve as a life-boat for millions of desperate refugees fleeing their poverty-stricken and war-torn countries. Yet it has a moral obligation to deal humanely - and with Jewish compassion - with those who are here, regardless of how they arrived.

My Archive