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Friday, July 28, 2006

The Limits of Power

In today's salvo of rockets from Lebanon, a "red cross" station in Tsfat and a hospital in Nahariya are hit. Also, rockets fall on Afula, 60km from the Lebanese border (i.e. long-range rockets). Tens of rockets so far today, and still counting.

Who would have thought? Israeli cities are bombarded for fifteen straight days by a para-military organization, a third of the country's population is under constant attack, northern Israel is full of ghost towns - and Israel, with the most powerful army in the neighbourhood (by far), is powerless to stop it. Stop it? It cannot even bring about a decrease in the number of rockets launched against its citizens daily.

The limits of power are becoming achingly evident to Israelis with every passing day. Some of the lies will soon be exposed in their full and painful ugliness.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

The Dire Straits War

In the press conference today, defence minister Amir Peretz suggested the war be called "Bein HaMetzarim War". The bein hametzarim days are the three weeks between the fasts of the 17th of Tammuz and the 9th of Av (today is the 2nd of Av). This is similar to, but much better than, my suggestion.

As for the English name, although a strict translation would be "Between the Straits War", my suggestion would be to make it simpler and call it "The Dire Straits War". After all, the Dire Straits are my favourite band...

Four and a Half Billion Dollars

Amid the stream of terrible news yesterday, the acquisition of Mercury by HP was grossly overlooked.

Shadowing the Iscar deal last May by 500 million dollars, this is the largest M&A in Israel's history (if we ignore the failed Chromatis deal). Given the latest troubles at Mercury this is somewhat of a bittersweet exit, but remarkable nonetheless.

I have several friends working for Mercury, both here and in the US; I congratulate them on this deal and on their newly-found riches...

100 Dead Soldiers, Every Day

The morning after, and I heard/read at least three times the sentence: "where is the IDF we knew in the Six Day War"? In other words, after nine dead soldiers yesterday in Lebanon, Israelis are wondering why the IDF is not as swift in bringing victory as it was during the 1967 war.

One fact is somehow forgotten in all this flurry of forlorn reminiscence. During six days of fighting in June 1967, almost 800 soldiers died. On average, that's more than 100 soldiers every day. Are Israelis willing to sacrifice the same number of lives to bring the war in Lebanon to a swifter end (assuming for a moment such an end is indeed attainable)?

Short memory...

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Trip to Tveria

This is a tragic day in the war for Israel: at least eight soldiers dead and many more wounded from the fighting around Bint Jbeil in southern Lebanon. This war is taking a (predictable) turn for the (expected) worse. As Meron Benvenisti writes today in Haaretz, "very soon everything will return to what it was before - apart from those who sacrificed their lives".

But this is not what I want to write about today. I want to write about my trip up north.

Yesterday I received an email from my MBA alumni network in Israel. They were organizing to deliver urgent aid to new immigrants from Ethiopia who live in the north, most of them in absorption centres, and were in dire need of supplies as they were spending most of their time in the shelters. People were asked to bring in food, water, toys, fans, linen, diapers, computers, TVs, etc. and volunteers were required in order to drive up north today to distribute the stuff around the various centres.

At 10am this morning we gathered at Tel Aviv university. In less than 24 hours, the amount of stuff that was brought in was quite astounding; it filled up an entire room and more was arriving throughout the morning. We loaded several cars and jeeps and every driver was given an address and a phone number. I was assigned to drive to Tveria (Tiberias) to an absorption centre, pictured below, where more than 300 people live, half of whom are children.

Thanks to route 6, I was in Tiberias in less than 2 hours and was warmly welcomed by the management of the centre. They, and some cute kids living at the centre, helped me unload everything and then were kind to offer a cold drink and some fruit. I took a list of additional things they needed, as there is a second delivery round planned for early next week. They thanked me warmly several times, but frankly I felt it was I that should be thanking them for giving me the opportunity to help, even if it was nothing more than a delivery job.

(On the way back home, I stopped at Rabbi Meir Baal HaNes's grave to pray Mincha and then, since I had time, drove through Bet Shean and decided to stop and see the archaelogical digs there. But that's a subject for another post.)

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

The Final Solution

Driving to work this morning I came about this interview on one of the morning radio talk-shows. As I caught it in the middle, I struggled to figure out what it was all about, but I did gather something about solving the current problems once and for all. Fortunately, there was a website address given at the end of the interview.

I checked it out. Imagine there was a way to "immediately eradicate terrorism from its root - once and for all - and reduce by tens of percents negative phenomena such as: accidents, crime, drugs abuse, illness, unemployment, strikes, disputes between various sections in society and violence of every kind".

Sounds promising, right? All it takes is for 7,000 Israelis to... meditate. Yes, it's that simple. I'm surprised our government hasn't tried it yet.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Fouad Ajami on Nasrallah and Lebanon

A good analysis of Nasrallah's miscalculations by Fouad Ajami in the WSJ yesterday, pointing the root of the problem:

That raid into Israel, the capture of the two Israeli soldiers, was a deliberate attack against the new Lebanon. That the crisis would play out when the mighty of the G-8 were assembled in Russia was a good indication of Iran's role in this turn of events. Hassan Nasrallah had waded beyond his depth: The moment of his glory would mark what is destined to be a setback of consequence for him and for his foot soldiers.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Nameless War

The current war is still nameless.

Israel's first war was aptly named the War of Independence, as it erupted with Israel's declaration of independence on May 14, 1948. The Six Day War was obviously named post mortem. The Yom Kippur War was named after the day it started, the holiest day of the Jewish year (although the Arab world prefers to call it The October War). The Lebanon War was the second name given to the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon; originally it was called Peace for Galilee but as Israel mired itself deeper and it became achingly obvious that peace in the Galilee was no longer the aim, the name was changed.

So what to call the current war? Some suggest to call it the "ad kan" war, after Olmert's words in his speech to the Knesset this week, when he banged his fist on the podium and exclaimed "no more" or "this is where we draw the line" in Hebrew. The Israeli poet Haim Hefer suggested to call it simply "boom". (Side note: I've never liked Hefer's poems; isn't it obvious now why?)

My suggestion is to name it after the day it started, which was the 17th of Tammuz in the Jewish calendar (July 13th, 2006). Appropriately, the 17th of Tammuz is a day of fasting, in remembrance of several tragedies that befell the Jewish people over the ages, most notably the breaching of Jerusalem's walls during the siege of Nebuchadnezzar in 586 B.C.E. which eventually brought to the destruction of the First Temple.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

An Instance of the Fingerpost, by Iain Pears

Reading a book recommended by a friend is almost always guaranteed to be a pleasant experience. And so was this one. I had never heard of Iain Pears until a couple of weeks ago, when a colleague of mine from work mentioned him over dinner. He described how moved he was by Pears' writing, so I decided to give it a try. On the way back from the restaurant we stopped at the wonderful Barnes & Noble store in Burlington, MA, and I picked up a copy of An Instance of the Fingerpost. (Yes, I know, the title made zero sense to me at the time as well.)

The book is a murder mystery novel. It is set in 17th century England and recalls events that happened in Oxford shortly after the Restoration of Charles II to the monarchy in 1660. The events are told in the form of four memoirs, two of which are by real historic characters (John Wallis, mathematician and cryptographer and Anthony Wood, historian and antiquary). The book is laced with historic events and people, and Mr. Pears kindly provides an index at the end of the book to help the reader distinguish between real and fictitious characters and give a short biography of the real ones.

Dr. Grove, a dean at Oxford university, is found dead in his chambers after being poisoned by arsenic. Signs point to Sarah Blundy, a servant girl who used to work for Dr. Grove. Sarah is found guilty and is hanged in public. But obviously this is only the beginning of the true story and as the plot unfolds, events much greater than a simple poisoning are revealed, some truly shocking. The ending is quite surprising, always a good thing with a mystery novel.

The author provides a fascinating look into life in academic Oxford in the age of the great scientific, medical and mathematical discoveries. Characters in the novel include such luminaries as the philosopher John Locke and the chemist Robert Boyle. It is laced with discussions on philosophy, theology, medicine and mathematics, such discussions taking place between the "men of curiosity" of that epoch. It is enlightening to witness how much religion played part both in politics and in science in those days, permeating all walks of life and defining the relationships between Protestants, Catholics and Quakers.

Pears writes beautifully with many insights into human nature and desires. The following passage struck me as particularly powerful, describing Anthony Wood's thoughts when faced with the insurmountable task of going through all the manuscripts in the libraries of Oxford to do his work. I am often struck with the same thought when I realize the number of books I will never get around to reading in my lifetime:

It is cruel that we are granted the desire to know, but denied the time to do so properly. We all die frustrated; it is the greatest lesson we have to learn.

This book has been compared to The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco. That's a fair comparison but I find Pears' writing to be more flowing and more "human", indeed more moving, than Eco's.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

The Way We War

Out of boredom, I picked up a copy of the International Herald Tribune at Charles de Gaulle airport today. There was an op-ed piece (reprinted from NYT) by Etgar Keret, an Israeli writer. He describes rather succinctly that "warm and fuzzy" feeling Israelis are now feeling about the military campaign in Lebanon, a feeling that was mentioned by one of the commenters in my previous post.

Here's the piece, in case the link doesn't work:

The way we war
Etgar Keret

TEL AVIV Yesterday I called the cable people to yell at them. The day
before, my friend told me he'd called and yelled at them a little, threatened to switch to satellite. And they immediately lowered their price by 50 shekels a month (about $11).

"Can you believe it?" my friend said excitedly. "One angry five-minute call and you save 600 shekels a year."

The customer service representative was named Tali. She listened silently to all my complaints and threats and when I finished she said in a low, deep voice: "Tell me, sir, aren't you ashamed of yourself? We're at war. People are getting killed. Missiles are falling on Haifa and Tiberias and all you can think about is your 50 shekels?"

There was something to that, something that made me slightly uncomfortable. I apologized immediately and the noble Tali quickly forgave me. After all, war is not exactly the right time to bear a grudge against one of your own.

That afternoon I decided to test the effectiveness of the Tali argument on a stubborn taxi driver who refused to take me and my baby son in his cab because I didn't have a car seat with me.

"Tell me, aren't you ashamed of yourself?" I said, trying to quote Tali as precisely as I could. "We're at war. People are getting killed. Missiles are falling on Tiberias and all you can think about is your car seat?"

The argument worked here too, and the embarrassed driver quickly apologized and told me to hop in. When we got on the highway, he said partly to me, partly to himself, "It's a real war, eh?" And after taking a long breath, he added nostalgically, "Just like in the old days."

Now that "just like in the old days" keeps echoing in my mind, and I suddenly see this whole conflict with Lebanon in a completely different light.

Thinking back, trying to recreate my conversations with worried friends about this war with Lebanon, about the Iranian missiles, the Syrian machinations and the assumption that Hezbollah's leader, Hassan Nasrallah, has the ability to strike any place in the country, even Tel Aviv, I realize that there was a small gleam in almost everyone's eyes, a kind of unconscious breath of relief.

And no, it's not that we Israelis long for war or death or grief, but we do long for those "old days" the taxi driver talked about.

We long for a real war to take the place of all those exhausting years of intifada when there was no black or white, only gray, when we were confronted not by armed forces, but only by resolute young people wearing explosive belts, years when the aura of bravery ceased to exist, replaced by long lines of people waiting at our checkpoints, women about to give birth and elderly people struggling to endure the stifling heat.

Suddenly, the first salvo of missiles returned us to that familiar feeling of a war fought against a ruthless enemy who attacks our borders, a truly vicious enemy, not one fighting for its freedom and self-determination, not the kind that makes us stammer and throws us into confusion.

Once again we're confident about the rightness of our cause and we return with lightning speed to the bosom of the patriotism we had almost abandoned. Once again, we're a small country surrounded by enemies, fighting for our lives, not a strong, occupying country forced to fight daily against a civilian population.

So is it any wonder that we're all secretly just a tiny bit relieved? Give us Iran, give us a pinch of Syria, give us a handful of Nasrallah and we'll devour them whole. After all, we're no better than anyone else at resolving moral ambiguities. But we always did know how to win a war.

Etgar Keret is the author of "The Nimrod Flip-Out." This article was translated by Sondra Silverstone from the Hebrew.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Lies, Lies and More Lies

The saying goes: when the cannons speak, the muse falls silent. Listening to the various official statements in the media, it seems that not only the muse but all common sense falls silent. Let's examine some of the "truths" we are being told:

We are fighting to get the kidnapped soldiers back. Nothing could be further from the truth. If getting the soldiers back was genuinely the top-most item on the government's agenda, Israel would be negotiating with Hezbollah for their release. Just as it did to release the shady Tenenbaum and three corpses only a couple of years ago.

Our aim is to crush Hezbollah. Right, just like we crashed the PLO in Lebanon in the 1980s. The sad truth is that the current military campaign will succeed only in bringing about another lull in the war between Israel and those bent on destroying it. Until the next time. The objective is making this interim period of relative peace as long as possible, no more.

The air campaign is effective. The truth is that no military campaign can be won from the air and both the IDF and the government know this. Israel is afraid to send troops into Lebanon because Israeli public opinion will not tolerate the mounting toll of casualties, especially as time will go by with no definitive "crushing" of Hezbollah.

The people are behind us. This is true, but only partly and only for a short time. Olmert and his colleagues know that if missiles keep falling on Israeli cities for much longer, popular support will erode and people will demand either firmer action (which is not possible) or a settlement.

The world is behind us. This is not even partly true. Yes, the US agreed to supply us with that most precious resource, jet fuel, but if fighting prolongs then not only the world but also the US will start pressuring Israel to settle. Suddenly, supplies of jet fuel will become harder to get by.

We will establish a security zone in Lebanon without IDF's presence. This is the latest gem from Peretz. Perhaps someone should hand him a book about the history of the Israeli-Lebanses border and the outstanding role of UNIFIL there over the decades.

And the list goes on, but I think the point is clear. The thrill of the first days of war is blocking all common sense and clear vision. No worries, things will become familiarly and bitterly clearer quite soon. Israelis, as I wrote earlier, have very short memories. This has always been perplexing to me, especially as Jews carry thousands of years of history on their backs. But this is a subject for a different post.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Empty Threats

For years, Israelis viewed Arab rhetoric as empty threats. Palestinian terrorist groups threatened with "mega-attacks", Saddam Hussein promised that half of Israel will burn like a dry fig leaf, Nasrallah told Israel to "bring it on", and so on and so forth. It was widely understood and accepted that the lion roar will turn into a mouse squeak.

Now it seems the Israeli government has adopted the same farcical strategy. Minutes after Gilad Shalit was kidnapped in Gaza, government officials threatened that life in Gaza will become unbearable. Today the Chief of Staff, speaking after the disastrous events in the north, warned that Lebanon would be set back "twenty years" if the kidnapped soldiers are not promptly returned. Not only Israelis, but sadly also most of the Arab world, know that these are nothing but empty threats.

It is time for Israel's government to put its actions where its mouth is, or else shut up.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Criminal Fauna

The Economist's latest briefing about Tokyo has the following story:


The capital's increasingly aggressive jungle crows have become inadvertent cyber-criminals, denying thousands of Tokyoites broadband access. It turns out that fibre-optic broadband wires are perfect material for their nests, and can be dislodged from junction boxes with a well-judged peck. NTT and Tepco, the principal providers of fibre-optic cable in Tokyo, have reported sharp surges in vandalism committed by crows, who have no such success with the copper telephone and electricity cables that criss-cross the skyline.

The crows' rising boldness must be a disappointment to Shintaro Ishihara, Tokyo's governor, who declared war on the birds some five years ago, but has watched their numbers more than quadruple since. Even if the crows are somehow dissuaded from their destruction, the attacks on broadband access are expected to continue. Cicadas have discovered that fibre-optic cable is the ideal place to lay eggs, and have been staking out breeding grounds on the telegraph poles.

In Tokyo, one of the most-populated cities in the world, the worst vandals are still crows and cicadas, not humans...

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Zidane - Sic Transit Gloria Mundi

The Talmud says that there are people who "buy their entrance ticket" to the afterworld in "one hour", meaning that one good deed can turn around a person's destiny. Tonight, in the world cup final, one of the greatest players of all times, Zinadine Zidane, demonstrated that it is possible to do just the opposite.

In one moment of anger Zidane brought his football career to a shameful end, butting his head against an Italian player and getting sent off. Instead of being remembered for his wonderful, long career, he will be remembered as the team captain who could not control his temper minutes from the end of the world cup.

And justice was done. Italy won!

Friday, July 07, 2006

Panic: Flying Tubes

Following up on a previous post, consider if you will these two pictures:

The first picture is of a kassam rocket that landed some time ago in the Negev. The second is of the kassam rocket that landed in a school yard in Ashkelon a couple of days ago. Look closely. In the first picture, you see that the rocket does not explode (as is usually the case); it merely hits the ground and bends. In the second picture you see the damage caused by the rocket: a couple of Ackerstein blocks are broken.

My point is: these "rockets" are pretty harmless unless they fall directly on your head. Can they cause injury? Yes. Can they cause fatalities? Of course. But the likelihood of either is small, as the statistics clearly show. However, listening to the accounts in the media and to the dramatic scenarios by the politicians, one is led to believe that kassams are a little short of mini nuclear devices.

So am I saying that there are no problems with the kassams? No, I'm not. Yes, Israeli cities living under the threat of daily bombardments is an unacceptable situation (and I support the military actions taken in Gaza). Yes, the citizens of Sderot, Ashkelon and other southern cities have all the right in the world to demand that the government solve the problem. And yes, under the same circumstances I would most likely react the same way.

But a little proportion is in order. Panicking in face of these flying tubes may be a natural reaction, but it also sends a clear message of how easy it is for two-bit terrorists to terrorise the Israeli population. Perhaps some history lessons about the behaviour of London's citizens during WW2 is in order.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Why I Hate Soccer

Yes, I watched the game last night. I promised myself I would watch only the semifinals and the final. Or at least try to...

What happened was I watched the first 90 minutes but when the regular time ended at 0-0 and it looked like this game, like many others before it, will be won by penalty kicks, I decided to call it a night. Waking up this morning to read that Italy won by scoring two goals in the last couple of minutes, reminded me of how much I hate this game.

Does one need to sit through 120 agonising minutes of boredom in the hope that something dramatic will happen (as it did yesterday), knowing that the chances of drama are close to nil? I'm no soccer expert, but something must be done about the rules of this game to make it more interesting. I know cricket and baseball are much more boring, but they were designed to be so from the beginning. Soccer, on the other hand, used to be an interesting sport. In my youth in Italy I distinctly remember soccer that was a pleasure to watch. Now, with all these "advanced defence techniques" and ubiquitous fouling, I find myself dozing off minutes into the game. What a waste of time!

The only good news is that Germany lost. (It may be unpolitically correct to say so, but it does warm the heart to watch Germans weep...)

Forza Azzurri!

Short Memory and Mass Hysteria

The reaction of the Israeli media, the Israeli public and particularly the Israeli right, to the kidnapping of Gilad Shalit by the Hamas and to the continued firing of rockets from Gaza into Israeli territory, provides an interesting lesson in the collective psychology of our nation. Shimon Peres was practically ostracized for daring to draw the obvious conclusion from this behaviour: it is nothing short of mass hysteria. Over and again, Israelis prove that they have a very short memory.

Here are a couple of examples of the "truths" we are told these days:

Shalit's kidnapping is proof the IDF should never have left Gaza. Kidnappings of Israeli soldiers (and civilians) have happened before, not only from territories we were in control of, but from within Israel itself! Nachshon Waksman was kidnapped in the West Bank when the IDF was in full control; Benny Avraham, Omar Souad and Adi Avitan were kidnapped from northern Israel and taken to Lebanon; and only last week, Eliyahu Asheri was kidnapped (and later murdered) from a bus-stop in Jerusalem.

The continued firing of Kassam rockets proves the IDF should never have left Gaza. Right, just as the shelling of northern Israel by Katyusah rockets for years while Israel occupied southern Lebanon is proof we should have never left Lebanon. Not to mention that Gush Katif settlements in Gaza were bombarded daily by rockets - thousands in a period of two years - while the IDF was in full occupation of Gaza.

Perhaps the most telling indication of this mass hysteria is the psak halacha (religious edict) issued by prominent rabbis, among them the Chief Rabbi of Israel, that forbids hitchhiking. It followed the kidnap and murder of Asheri last week. Written in the traditional flowery language of such edicts, the rabbis go to great lenghts to explain why the Torah forbids hitchhiking as part of the general rule of avoiding danger and taking care of oneself. One would think that after hundreds of Israelis were killed and thousands maimed for life in terrorist attacks against buses and shopping malls within Israel, the rabbis would have long ago used the same logic to forbid bus rides and shopping. But they didn't. Rather, they rode the waves of mass hysteria and short memory to speak out now against hitchhiking.

To me, these are all signs of the general "tiredeness" that is permeating Israeli society. Most Israelis are fed up with the way Israeli governments have handled the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and with the "no light at the end of the tunnel" situation. This normal reaction of a healthy people, that wants to lead a normal life, is translated by eye-rolling politicians and rabbis as a sign of weakness. The mass hysteria over a few flying tubes of metal that caused no fatalities thus far (compared with the dozens of fatalities of Israeli soldiers yearly when the IDF was occupying Lebanon or Gaza!) is understandable; after all, terrorism is exactly about that: instilling terror. My criticism is not against the people of Sderot and Ashkelon. I would have reacted in the same manner, if not worse, were a rocket to land in my son's school. My criticism is against vast majority of the political leaders and the mass media, who instead of putting matters into the right perspective, prefer to get carried away with populist scaremongering and visions of doom. Instead of leading they prefer to be led.

Yitzhak Rabin was right. He arrived at the conclusion that the sooner we strike an agreement with the Palestinians the better, even at the supposedly high "cost" of losing most of the lands occupied in 1967. He understood that Israeli society, like other societies in democratic countries, is no longer willing to put up with the unbearable costs associated with the occupation of territories where Jews are vastly outnumbered, and all in the name of nationalistic ideals that may be historically and morally correct, but defy basic reason given the possible realistic outcomes. He did not delude himself (like most of his left-wing supporters did) that the Palestinians love us; he understood the terms of the agreement need to ensure a state of non-belligerency and that it would take generations to reach a semblance of "peace". Unfortunately, his so-called "followers" (Kadima and their likes) have yet to come to the same realization.