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Thursday, May 25, 2006

Man in the Shadows, by Efraim Halevy

What should one expect when picking up a book with a subtitle that reads: "Inside the Middle East Crisis with a Man Who Led the Mossad"? Surely this is going to be a real-life rendering of a Tom Clancy novel, or at the very least, a John Le Carre one? Well, not exactly. Efraim Halevy, who was at the helm of Israel's notorious and legendary secret service organization for five years, is not your typical cloak-and-dagger type. Far from it. I happened to have met him personally on a couple of occasions many years ago, and if anything, he reminded me of Sir Humphrey in the TV show "Yes Minister": the quintessential British civil servant, with impeccable manners and the Queen's English.

"Man in the Shadows" is more of a political memoir than an account of the Mossad's activities. Halevy played a dominant role as the secret envoy of several Israeli prime ministers (Shamir, Peres, Rabin, Netanyahu, Barak and Sharon) and as such was privy to many negotiations that shaped the region's politics in the 1990s. He writes of these experiences in a low-key and level-headed manner; rarely does he lapse into the emotional zone and when he does so it usually, and suprisingly, concerns Shimon Peres and/or the Israeli foreign services. Although not stated in so many words, it is clear that Halevy has little sympathy for Peres. He speaks fondly of other prime ministers he served under, but for Peres he has nothing but scorn and distrust. As for the foreign office diplomats, he makes them out to look like total amateurs.

A lot of attention is given to Jordan and to its late king, Hussein. This is understandable given Halevy's special relationship with the Hashemite kingdom and the late monarch. His involvement in bringing about the peace agreement between Jordan and Israel was substantial. His account of the Khaled Mashal incident - a botched attempt by the Mossad to kill a Hamas leader in Amman that brought about a serious crisis between the two countries - is probably the most fascinating chapter in the book. Halevy is well aware of this "Jordan bias" of his and admits to it; nevertheless, he remains of the opinion that Jordan plays a pivotal role in the Middle East, well and above what most observers will admit to.

Halevy also devotes many pages to how he views the intelligence community and its interaction with its political masters. I found these parts of the book to be more interesting than the historical accounts (especially as there are no new revelations anyway). Halevy laments the decline of the special standing of the intelligence community, especially in the US, in the aftermath of the 9/11 structural shake-ups. He believes that in the current war of the civilised world against global terrorism - a war he calls "World War 3" - the West cannot win if it does not accord its intelligence organs the proper standing and freedom of operation they deserve.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Sento - Washing Away

Reading the Daily Yomiuri over breakfast this morning (I am in Tokyo this week) I came across some distressing news: the number of sento in Tokyo has fallen below 1,000! The exact number as of today - everything is tracked and recorded in Japan - is 999.

Sento are public baths (literally: "penny baths", sen = penny; to = bath). Most people are familar with the Japanese onsen, the natural water hot springs so popular with tourists and locals. Sento are the ugly step-sisters of onsen. They are spread around the city and comprise of a small changing room with tiny lockers, a few shower stalls (the sitting type, of course) and the hot bath itself. All of the sento today are separated, unlike in the old days when everybody soaked together. They are not easy to spot as usually the entrance is very small with nothing but a small sign saying yu (hot water) over a blue-curtained noren.

Back in the times when most houses in Tokyo were not equipped with running hot water, sento was the way to keep clean. Even today, it is not uncommon in certain neighbourhoods to see people making their way to the sento at the end of the working day. However, with the more hectic life style of Tokyoites and the availability of higher-end spas and health centres, onsen are gradually washing away, yet another sign of the changing face of Japan.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Four Billion Dollars

Many years ago - it was either in the application for an MBA or during the Foreign Office tests, I don't recall exactly - I was asked to write a short essay about the person I admired most. I chose Steph Wertheimer, the Israeli entrepreneur who set up his business empire, the Iscar group, in northern Israel. Wertheimer was a Member of the Knesset for four years, built the industrial park in Tefen and the neighbouring community of Kefar Veradim. In 1991 he received the highest award the State of Israel can bestow upon its citizens - The Israel Prize.

Warren Buffet, the legendary investor and "the world's second richest man", announced yesterday that his investment company will buy 80% of Iscar for 4 billion dollars. That's a valuation worth more than 4% of Israel's annual GDP, for a privately-owned company!

Beyond its economic value, this deal has tremendous implications regarding foreign investment in Israel. Kudos to the Wertheimer family; Israel needs more of these people.