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Thursday, August 31, 2006

Flying with Israelis and with Japanese

Flying from Tel Aviv through Frankfurt to Tokyo this week, I was on two Lufthansa flights on the same day. So same environment: same airline, same crew (not the actual people of course) and same service.

The main difference between the two flights was that most of the passengers on the Tel Aviv-Frankfurt flights were Israelis while most of the passengers on the Frankfurt-Tokyo flight were Japanese. The other difference was the duration of the flight: 3.5 hours for the first flight vs. 10.5 hours for the second.

For the sake of brevity, let's call them the "Israeli flight" and the "Japanese flight" accordingly. Here below are some observations about my experiences on these two flights. Keep the above differences in mind and draw your own conclusions:

  • On the Israeli flight, 10 minutes after the "boarding completed" announcement (i.e. all passengers on board) was made, people were still fumbling with their bags and standing in the aisles. On the Japanese flight, everybody was seated.
  • Throughout the Israeli flight, except for take-off and landing (first and last 20 minutes of the flight), most of the aisles and the area near the galleys were blocked by people standing and talking to each other. On the Japanese flight, the aisles were free throughout the flight except for the occasional person hurrying to/from the bathroom.
  • The one time I needed the bathroom on the Israeli flight I had to wait in line for 5 minutes. The three times I needed the bathroom on the Japanese flight I never waited.
  • The bathroom I frequented on the Israeli flight had paper towels on the floor and the toilet was not flushed by the previous user(s). The bathrooms I used on the Japanese flight were spotless (there might have been some water drops near the basin, I'm not sure).
  • I sat near the galley (exit row on both flights). Throughout the Israeli flight I kept hearing the "ping" sounds that warn the flight attendants that someone pushed the call button. I never heard one "ping" on the Japanese flight.
  • As the plane was approaching the gate, and upon hearing the pursar utter the words "flight attendants, all doors in park", almost all passengers on the Israeli flight jumped from their seats and dove for the overhead compartments to fetch their bags. Needless to say, the "fasten seat belts" sign was still on. On the Japanese flight nobody moved before the "fasten seat belts" sign was off.

As I said, draw your own conclusions...

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Still Here

Well, it's August 23 and we're still here.

I think that the reports about Ahmadinajad planning something terrible against Israel this week were correct. However, it wasn't a nuclear attack. It was something else.

His scientists seem to have been successful in devising a monstrous way to make us suffer. They found a way to heat Israel up to an intolerable degree. The heat wave here is simply out of this world and I refuse to believe God has anything to do with it. It must be the Persians.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Two Days To Go

According to Bernard Lewis, a well-respected scholar on Islam and the Middle East, there is a chance Israel has only two days to live. Come Tuesday, we'll be nuked by Iran.

I'm letting you all know, just in case I suddenly stop blogging. If I do, you'll know why.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Humour - From the Other Side

One of the things I missed in this war is the humour. During the first Gulf War, when missiles rained on Israel almost every night, Israelis developed a wonderful sense of humour (some of it black). The zehu zeh trio on TV were at their peak at the time. This time around - nothing. Perhaps a sign of the malaise...

Anyway, I saw today the following joke. It's from "the other side" and it's funny (in a sad kind of way):

Olmert was sitting in his office wondering how to invade Lebanon when his telephone rang.

"Hallo, Mr. Olmert!" a heavily accented voice said. "This is Abul Abed, down at the tea house in Beirut! I am callin' to tell ya dat we are officially declaring war on you, yes you!"

"Well" Olmert replied, "This is indeed important news! How big is your army?"

"Right now," said Abul Abed, after a moment's calculation "there is myself, my cousin Mustafa, me next-door-neighbor Abou Khaled, and the whole team from the tea house. That makes eight!"

Olmert paused. "I must tell you Abul Abed, that I have one million men in my army waiting to move on my command."

"Holy jeez," said Abul Abed. "I'll have to call ya back!"

Sure enough, the next day, Abul Abed called again. "Mr. Olmert, the war is still on! We have managed to acquire some infantry equipment!"

"And what equipment would that be Abul Abed?" Olmert asked.

"Well sir, we have two Mercedes 180, and a truck."

Olmert sighed. "I must tell you Abul Abed, that I have 16,000 tanks and 14,000 armored personnel carriers. Also I've increased my army to one and a half million since we last spoke."

"Ya lateeeeef", said Abul Abed, "I'll be getting back to ya."

Sure enough, Abul Abed rang again the next day. "Mr. Olmert, the war is still on! We have managed to get ourselves airborne! We modified a helicopter with a couple of shotguns in the cockpit, and four more neighbors have joined us as well!"

Olmert was silent for a minute then cleared his throat. "I must tell you Abul Abed that I have 10,000 bombers and 20,000 fighter planes. My military complex is surrounded by laser-guided, surface-to-air missile sites. And since we last spoke, I've increased my army to TWO MILLION!"

"Lah lah lah lah," said Abul Abed, "I'll have to call you back."

Sure enough, Abul Abed called again the next day. "Olmert I am sorry to have to tell you dat we have had to call off this war."

"I'm sorry to hear that" said Olmert. "Why the sudden change of heart?"

"Well, sir," said Abul Abed, "we've all sat ourselves down and had a long chat, and come to realize there's no way we can feed two million prisoners."

War? What War?

Voices calling for dismissal of Chief of Staff Dan Chalutz are not new, from left and from right.

The left do not like him because they think he's an insensitive brute. When asked by a journalist last year what it feels like when launching a missile into Gaza knowing civilians might get hurt (Chalutz is a pilot), he said: "all you feel is a slight bump in the wing and you go on".

The right do not like him because of his role in the disengagement process a year ago, when he commanded the IDF troops that evacuated Gaza's Jewish population.

This morning, the Israeli daily Ma'ariv published the following story: on July 12 at noon, Chalutz called his broker at the bank and asked him to sell his stock portfolio, worth about 120,000 NIS (about $27,000). This was only a few hours after the kidnapping of the two Israeli soldiers by Hezbollah. The IDF and Hezbollah were trading fire, Israeli warplanes were bombing southern Lebanon in an attempt to block the kidnappers' escape route, Israeli tanks were in pursuit of the kidnappers inside Lebanon and the Israeli cabinet was debating whether to start a war or not.

Chalutz did not deny the story. He commented that his portfolio was a private affair that had nothing to do with the war, and that in any case on July 12 he still "did not think and did not foresee that there would be a war".

Chalutz should go home. Not because he thought about selling his portfolio at a time when the IDF was in hot pursuit of the kidnappers; it's bad, but not reason to fire him. However, the fact that the Chief of Staff says that at noon on July 12 he "did not think and did not foresee" that a war was a realistic possibility is absolutely unbelievable and unacceptable. This is a clear failure of the highest authority in the army.

Monday, August 14, 2006

War Over - Lies Exposed

War is over (for now). Olmert made his victory speech. Time to check the lies I wrote about a few days into the war:

We are fighting to get the kidnapped soldiers back. All Israeli soldiers are on their way out of Lebanon, except for Goldwasser and Regev. And Shalit is still somewhere in Gaza. If these three come back home, they will do so in the "conventional" way, i.e. in return for the release of terrorists and prisoners from Israeli jails. Not because of the war.

Our aim is to crush Hezbollah. The last day of war saw 250 rockets and missiles launched by Hezbollah into Israel; images from Haifa made the city look like a war zone. Tens of Israeli Merkava tanks were put out of order by Hezbollah's anti-tank fire. Not one village in southern Lebanon is free of Hezbollah control. Need I continue? An ideological organization like Hezbollah cannot be crushed. Period.

The air campaign is effective. If so, why the ground offensive? Why more than 100 soldiers dead? Why did the number of rockets increase, not decrease, as the air campaign proceeded?

The people are behind us. This was and remains to some extent true. Except that many of these people view the government as a total failure in the way it dealt with the very same "people". The erection of the "tent city" in Tel Aviv yesterday, hours before the ceasefire, epitomizes the uselessness of the government's response to its citizens' needs in time of war.

The world is behind us. Right... The same world that saved us from continued embarrassment by forcing the ceasefire.

We will establish a security zone in Lebanon without IDF's presence. Yet to be seen... I heard Morrocco, Malaysia and Indonesia - all Islamic countries - are offering to send troops to man UNIFIL's "expanded" force in southern Lebanon. Knowing they will be there protecting me, together with the French, makes me sleep better at night.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Prognosis: Profound Malaise

Shortly after the rioting in Paris' banlieues at the end of last year, French President Jacques Chirac addressed the nation on TV and diagnosed France as suffering from une profonde malaise. The rioting was merely a symptom of the general feeling of unease and discomfort so rife in France, a feeling of despair and helplessness with the present coupled with gloomy predictions about the future.

My prognosis is that Israel will enter a similar state following the ceasefire (which, barring last-minute surprises, is expected to begin tomorrow).

Despite some gains on the ground and on the diplomatic front, the general feeling here is that Israel lost this war. The government is perceived as being too hesitant and indecisive; it took too long to approve the ground offensive, only to backtrack a mere 24 hours after the green light was finally given. The IDF is perceived as a rusty and bulky war machine, ill-equipped to deal with a nimble and determined enemy such as the Hezbollah and unable to reduce, let alone eliminate, the daily bombardment of Israeli cities. Stories are beginning to appear in the media about unavailable equipment to the reservist soldiers and about neglect of thousands of northern residents stranded in shelters. In the last two days, government officials and army generals were busy making veiled but obvious comments to the media about who's fault it all is, no doubt in preparation for the post-war investigation committees.

Israel entered this war with almost optimum conditions: the enemy did not expect it, the public was solidly behind it and, at least initially, the world did not cry foul. And yet, through a series of miscalculations and a misplaced sense of hubris, it finds itself a month later picking up the pieces and trying to salvage what can still be salvaged of its deterrence and reputation. The repercussions are obvious: heads are going to roll, the government will not live out its term and our enemies will make most of their victory.

An inevitable profound malaise will permeate all walks of life in Israel as the countdown to the next war will begin.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006


Israel is at a crossroads in this war. Either go for a ceasefire or for an escalation.

After almost a month and little to show for it, the army is requesting a large operation that practically means the re-invasion of Lebanon. Olmert knows that if he agrees, hundreds of soldiers will die, with guarantee of a decisive victory and the risk of regional conflict. Hence his inclination to stop. On the other hand, if he does not agree and the war ends soon, he will be blamed for not having what it takes to be PM. In the eyes of both the enemy and, increasingly, the Israeli public, Israel has lost this war by squandering the opportunity to make a difference in the first round of fighting.

I don't envy him. We'll see what the cabinet comes up with today.

UPDATE: The cabinet approved a short while ago the larger operation. Today's high toll for the IDF in Lebanon is only a precursor to what we can expect in coming weeks.

Monday, August 07, 2006

The Cold Arithmetic of Blood

Good op-ed article by Merav Arlosoroff (in normal days a finance journalist) in Ha'aretz today, following the difficult day yesterday. "A war is not an insurance policy" she write. This is something the Israeli government should be communicating to the public, instead of making irrelevant speeches about having won the war when clearly this is not the case.

The cold arithmetic of blood

By Meirav Arlosoroff

Exactly 100 years ago, Theodore Roosevelt received the Nobel Peace Prize for bringing the two sides in the Russian-Japanese war to the negotiating table. Besides the fact that the teddy bear is named after him, Roosevelt is also remembered as being an outstanding American president. A century ago, he coined one of his many famous sayings: ?Speak softly and carry a big stick."

Roosevelt's approach is not alien to Israel. The historical Mapai party adopted it, and it also inspired David Ben-Gurion when he shaped Israel's security outlook during the War of Independence, as well as during the retaliatory operations taken by the elite Unit 101 and in the Sinai campaign (in the last case, unsuccessfully). In fact, Israelis express this sentiment intuitively when declaring, quite frequently, that they won't be anyone's sucker.

Roosevelt's approach has been put to the test now, too, in the battles Israel is waging in Lebanon, which are apparently about to end. Let there be no mistake: The war in Lebanon has not been about the return of two abducted soldiers. It is a war for Israel's deterrent power. This is a war that is being waged over the question of whether Israel will be able to retain the message that having to defend its home front is taboo, and that anyone that dares to violate that taboo will pay an unbearable price.

Hezbollah is not the strategic threat posed to Israel at present. The real threat lies in Syria, which is arming itself with thousands of missiles with various and sundry warheads, and in Iran, which is only a heartbeat away from attaining nuclear weapons. The war in Lebanon, therefore, is not only a war against Hezbollah and its ability to continue to attack Israel. It is a war against Iran and Syria, which clearly have the ability to attack Israel. The only question is whether they will dare.

The achievements in Lebanon will have crucial implications vis-a-vis this question. From this point of view, the extended fighting there is not a campaign. Nor is it a war of "no alternative." It is an existential war, one of the most important ever fought by Israel. It is a war intended to ensure that the real strategic threat to Israel, the one from Iran and Syria, will be cut down to a minimum, thanks to Israel's ability to maintain its deterrence. And it is also a war that can affect the peace process with the Palestinians: Israel's ability to maintain its deterrence is the best way to convince them to come to the negotiating table, just as Israel's ability to maintain its deterrence during the Yom Kippur War prompted Egypt to sign a peace agreement with Israel.

This is an existential war and Israel should be fighting it as one. It is a war in which every possible military effort should be invested, exposing the country to the dangers of an all-out war - of soldiers being captured, of becoming embroiled in difficult battles, and of facing such perils as opening of a second front and incurring very large numbers of losses. Coping with these dangers is essential despite the fact that doing so does not guarantee achievements.

A war is not an insurance policy. Taking risks is not a sufficient condition for victory in such circumstances, but it is certainly a necessary condition - because only those who dare will succeed. Only those who are willing to dare can truly threaten the other side.

Israel cannot promise that the Hezbollah will pay an intolerable price for breaking the taboo by attacking the country's home front. It can promise to be willing to pay a very high price in order to make Hezbollah pay a far higher one. This promise could have been the basis for its deterrence.

Israel's willingness to fight to the death to protect its home front is the only way to make those considering attacking that front in the future think twice. To put it bluntly: Israel's willingness to absorb hundreds of losses can prevent the deaths of thousands, and perhaps even more, in the future. This is a cold and cruel arithmetic of blood, but it is the one that will be determined in this war. And it is doubtful whether Israel has fulfilled its part in it.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Painfully Small Country

In Israel, the theory of six degrees of separation is not applicable. Not because it's not a valid theory but because this is such a small country that people are are connected to each other not through five intermediaries but probably through no more than two.

This has become painfully true for me yesterday.

A couple of weeks ago, almost every Israeli knew someone that was living under constant bombing up north. Last week, almost every Israeli knew someone who had been drafted to join the war. Last Friday, I was informed of a young soldier who had died fighting in Lebanon; I did not know him personally, but through one intermediary. (I also "know" one of the two kidnapped soldiers in Lebanon through two intermdiaries.)

This is a small country. At most times claustrophobically so. At times like these painfully so.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Cease Fire Looming

I listened to Olmert's speech today (most of it). I normally do not waste time listening to such speeches, but as I was driving in insane traffic and as listening to music is not the done thing these days, Olmert was pretty much the only option.

Some of the gems from the mouth of our Prime Minister: "Israel is winning, with unprecented gains"; "the face of the Middle East has changed"; "this war created a new balance in the region"; "Israel can no longer be threatened with missiles"; and so on and so forth. You get the picture.

The conclusion is obvious: Olmert knows that time is running out and fast. International pressure, coupled with the evident lack of success in bringing about a decisive victory in the battlefield (as if one were possible), means that the cease fire is around the corner. Unless Israel deliberately widens the scope of this war in order to escalate the conflict and continue fighting - and it's becoming a bit late in the game to do that - Olmert will very soon need to agree to a political solution that will allow Israel to bow out of this conflict with some dignity. However, as this political solution will not bring about a significant change compared to the situation Israel was in prior to July 12, 2006, he is beginning to spin the story to make this war look like a victory, lest he and his government be blamed for promising too much and achieving so little.

The window of opportunity Israel created three weeks ago, with the help of a collosal blunder courtesy of Nasrallah, is snapping shut. Olmert's government hesitated and missed a golden opportunity to make a difference. Now they are scrambling to save what they can. So obvious and so sad.

Bet Shean, Israel

Last week, on my way back from Tveria, I stopped at Bet Shean, a small city in northern Israel, close to the border with Jordan.

My first goal was to eat. As most of the places in Tveria were closed, I was hungry by the time I arrived in Bet Shean. Fortunately, the first building that greets drivers arriving from the north is a small shopping mall with a McDonalds restaurant, boasting a huge sign that this is the kosher McDonalds... Well, how can I resist such a temptation?

Lunch was mostly uneventful, but dining among local residents proved an experience in and of itself, in an anthropological manner of speaking... Say no more.

I then set out to find the archeological digs of ancient Bet Shean. Fortunately, the place was open. The guy at the cashier almost fell off his chair when he saw me approaching; evidently, not many people visit these days. I paid 23 shekels, got a small brochure and headed in. I had the entire 1300 square metres of the National Park of Bet Shean to myself. And what a pleasant surprise it turned out to be.

The digs revealed the remains of a city that was populated continuously since the 5th century B.C.E. The most spectacular remains are from the glory days of the Roman city of Scythopolis, during the rule of Hadrian in the 2nd century C.E. There are also remains from Hellenistic times. As the city was destroyed by a powerful earthquake in 749, many of the buildings were preserved as they were during the Roman times. (Apparently, what happened to the people is still a mystery, as no human remains were found).

Frankly, the Roman ruins are so impressive that they compare, in my humble opinion, with the ruins of the Foro Romano in Rome. I will let the pictures I took speak for themselves:

I then climbed the 200 or so stairs up to Tel Bet Shean, seen in the background in the 3rd picture above. It wasn't easy climb, given the heat and beating sun, but well worth it. I am now studying about the history of Israel during the days of the First Temple and seeing some of the ruins there from biblical times was truly fascinating. Ancient Bet Shean was the place where the Philistines hung the bodies of king Saul and his sons after the fateful battle of the Gilboa. The tel digs also uncovered ruins from the Pharaonic times.

On the way out I could not resist taking a picture of my car, so lonely in the the vast and empty car park: