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Major Events in Israel
An Analysis
By Marc Schulman

Friday February 2, 2007

The fighting continued today between Fatah and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Another ceasefire has been announced but it is expected to have as much success as its predecessor. It is hard to see how this ends, or for that matter, the greater fissures in the Muslim world come to closure. The religious wars went on in Europe for over 100 years after the reformation, but that was a time when the battlefield was not nearly as lethal as it has become. If the Middle East did not have oil, the rest of the world could just wish them good luck and tell them to call when the difficulties have been resolved. But not only is there oil, Israel is there and the Gaza Strip is but a few miles from Ashkelon and other Israeli cities. Peace will not be achieved until Israel can come to an agreement with some type of Palestinian entity. That will not be possible before the Palestinians reach peace among themselves.

The Israeli media is dominated by the analysis of the impressions of former Justice Minister, Haim RamonŐs trial. Two very interesting things have come to light in the last two days. There seems to have not been any cases in the history of Israeli jurisprudence of someone being charged with sexual harassment in a case in which the accused could make a good faith claim to have believed the kiss was wanted. It was further revealed that the state prosecutor threatened the accuser that she might be charged with libel if she did not press charges. Not withstanding what I wrote two days ago, it would seem that Ramon received "special treatment".

There is an excellent article in the New Republic call "IsraelŐs Worst Nightmare". Written by an old friend, Yossi Klein Halevi, and Michael Oren, the article lays out the history of the Iranian nuclear program. According to the authors, its origins are what pushed Rabin into the Oslo process. The article states, "Now, more than a decade later, the worst-case scenario envisioned by Rabin is rapidly approaching". If you want to sleep comfortably at night do not read this article.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert announced that Defense Minister Amir Peretz could not alone pick a missile defense system and at the same time, Peretz made it clear that he was not moving from the Defense Ministry. Can someone please find some adults to run the country?

Thursday February 1, 2007

The Winograd Commission completed the gathering of evidence on the last summers Lebanon War. ItsŐ last witness was Prime Minister Ehud Barak who testified before the commission for over six hours. The establishment of Winograd commission by Prime Minister Olmert was initially met with skepticism by many, who felt it might whitewash the actions of the government. The actions of the commission have quieted the skeptics who now have high expectations of commission. The commission will issue its interim report next month. Until then much of IsraelŐs political and military leaders are holding their breadth.

The ceasefire between Hamas and Fatah lasted all of 12 hours as heavy fighting broke out between the two factions. The hatred that has developed between the two sides has become unbridgeable. Fatah announced that it had seized seven Iranian weapons specialist in Gaza, at the Islamic University. The direct involvement of Iran with Hamas further complicates an already impossible situation.

Defense Minister Peretz made a decision as to which short-range missile defense system Israel was going to purchase. In what is probably his most important decision as Defense minister he selected the system being developed by Rafael-the Israeli government arms manufacturer. The advantageof Rafael missile defense system over the other systems, was in its sophistication and the fact that has been developed in Israel and will be produced there. The disadvantage is that it will take two year to begin to deploy. Lets hope our enemies decide to wait.

Wednesday January 31, 2007

The news from Israel has been dominated by the conviction of former Minister of Justice Haim Ramon for forcing a kiss on an unwilling young woman. While initially I felt slightly sympathetic to Ramon, after all, compared to what President Katsav has been accused of, a forced/or misunderstood kiss did not seem like a criminal offense. After reflection and after listening to an interview with the woman who made the accusation, I am saddened for Ramon and feel he may be paying a high price for what should have been a civil suit but feel that the results will be beneficial for Israeli society. As a father who has a daughter who interacts with Israeli politicians on a regular basis, I am glad that Israeli society has made such rapid strides and what might have been expected but never acceptable is no longer acceptable. We will never know what went on in Ramon's mind (see link).

With Ramon now permanently removed from the Ministry of Justice, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will now have to appoint a permanent replacement for him. This is his opportunity to try to remove Amir Peretz from the Ministry of Defense. IsraelŐs Channel 10 reported that Olmert stated that keeping Peretz in the Ministry of Defense was endangering the country. This is something he should have thought about when he appointed him. It would seem Peretz does not want to give up the Ministry so it may be up to either the Winograd Commission or the Labor Party primaries in May to bring about the needed change. If the voters have their way neither Kadima (OlmertŐs party) nor Labor (PeretzŐs party) will be forming much of a government next time. According to recent polls, both parties would receive only 9 out of 120 Knesset seats.

Tuesday January 30, 2007

The Israeli government has decided to continue its policy of "restraint" following yesterdayŐs bombing in Eilat. The decision was reached by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in conjunction with the security services, all of whom believed that the potential gain from any action would be far outweighed by the damage it could do, which would result in uniting the currently fighting Palestinian factions. I guess they all read yesterdayŐs posting. Only Defense Minister Amir Peretz must have missed it; he argued for a strong response to the bombing.

Today, a large group of retired military and security officials published a plea that former Prime Minister Ehud Barak be appointed Defense Minister instead of Peretz. Their view is that in this critical period Israel needs a Defense Minister with experience. They believe that this person needs to be someone who has had a military career, and they feel that of the potential candidates, Barak is the best option.

Major General Gershon Cohen, commander of the Israeli Defense ForcesŐ Military College, testified today at the KnessetŐs Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. He said that many promotions in the army today are being given as a result of political connections. This would mean that the military would be paralleling the worse aspect of Israeli civilian life and the idea is very troubling.

In Lebanon, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasarallah came out of hiding to address his supporters who were massed to celebrate a major Shiite festival. In his speech he chanted "death to Israel". The chants were met by chants from the tens of thousand Shiites listening and repeating "death to Israel". The video of the event reminded me of the films from the Nazi rallies in Nuremberg before World War II.

On the corruption front, Israeli television Channel 10 reported that Finance Minister Avraham Hirchson is being investigated for embezzling funds when he worked for the National Insurance Carrier. This is in addition to previously announced investigations.

Monday January 29, 2007

Suicide bombers returned to Israel today. For the first time since April 2006, a suicide bombing took place in Israel today, this time in the southern city of Eilat. This is the first time that there has been a suicide bombing in Eilat. The Islamic Jihad, with the help of the Al Aqsa Brigade of Fatah, sent the suicide bomber. The bomber entered Israel from the Sinai desert after leaving the Gaza Strip through Rafah crossing on the Gaza-Egypt border. The explosion, which took place in a bakery, left three people dead.

Three questions need to be answered; how, why and what next. The how was unfortunately relatively simple. The Israeli-Egyptian border is an unfortified, unfenced and under-patrolled border. Plans exist to build a fence along the border, but the price of the fence is about $700 million. Before the pullout from Gaza, Israel controlled the border between Egypt and Gaza, and therefore the major danger of an open border with Egypt were the Bedouin smugglers. Today, without control of the border between Gaza and Egypt, having an open border with Egypt is like having an open border with Gaza. There clearly is no choice anymore then spend the money. One of the security personnel was quoted as saying on Israeli TV that he doubted todayŐs events would be enough to convince the government to spend the money; after all not that many people were killed (compared to past bombing, it is "fortunately" the case). LetŐs hope he is wrong.

Why now? The answer to this question has two parts. Firstly, the Islamic Jihad never stopped trying to carry out suicide bombings. The Israeli the Israel Security Service (Shabak), which until 2002 was known as the General Security Service and is similar to the American FBI, have been extremely successful in catching potential bombers before they can commit their crimes. Unfortunately, it is impossible to be 100% successful. Furthermore, the Shabak is more effective in the West Bank. There, they have more access and can offer more carrots and sticks compared to the Gaza Strip, from which Israel has withdrawn. Secondly, there seems to have been a concerted effort to carry out a bombing in order to remind the Palestinians, who are fighting with each other, who the real enemy is.

What next? What should IsraelŐs response be? The answer is to not fall into the trap that has been set up by the Palestinians. As I mentioned above, one of the goals of the bombers is to redirect the Palestinian efforts at Israel. Israel can do that by retaliating. They can go after Islamic Jihad targets and accidentally hit a young child. It is very difficult to ignore an attack; to allow Qassams to fall on Sderot and to accept the fact at any given moment someone is planning an attack against Israel. But, can there be any doubt however, that what the Palestinians are doing to themselves is much worse then anything Israel can do to them?

Sunday January 28, 2007

Israeli news continues to be dominated by events in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and in the greater Arab world. Fighting reached a new peak between Hamas and Fatah in Gaza and the West Bank, with 26 dead and dozens wounded after a weekend of heavy fighting. In December and January, 26 Palestinians were killed by Israeli military while 92 were killed by other Palestinians. This is the first time in recent history that the numbers have changed so drastically. Last year 1500 Palestinians were wounded by Israelis. 1500 were wounded in the last six months by other Palestinians.

By viewing the actions of the two sides, the hatred is very palpable; at the same time, after watching interviews with Palestinians from the street, I believe that they realize the tragedy of what is befalling them.

Dr. Guy Bechor, a Middle East affairs analyst from the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, was interviewed this morning on Israeli radio. He had two very important insights. Dr. Bechor compared what is currently happening in the Arab world to the civil war that developed within Palestinian society between 1936-1939. It started out as a protest against the Jews, but soon the Palestinians turned against each other. This internecine fighting destroyed much of Palestinians leadership and made it nearly impossible for them to successfully oppose the establishment of the State of Israel a decade later. He also stated that the multiple struggles between Islamist and Statistic and between Sunnis and Shiites have become so strong that they have eclipsed for the first time the Arab Israeli conflict. According to Dr. Bechor, what we are witnessing between Hamas and Fatah, and between Sunnis and Shiite in Iraq, has been below the surface for a while. The conflict has now suddenly burst through the surface with such power that it is sweeping through the Arab world at an alarming rate (from Gaza in the West to Yemen in the East).

The situation in Lebanon remains tense, with a backlash seemingly growing against Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah. Today, a leading Shiite cleric attacked Nasrallah for acting as tool of Iran. The cleric declared that the direction in which Nasrallah was leading Lebanon is one that leads to disaster, and that it only helped Iran in its confrontation with the United States. He blamed the Iranians for destroying Iraq and then went on to state that the Shiites have been a small minority in the Arab world and need to act accordingly. Nasrallah attempted to bring down the Lebanese Prime Minister SinioraŐs government in Lebanon, but failed. Having overreached suddenly Lebanese are no longer afraid to criticize Nasrallah.

The Israeli Finance Ministry has announced a major change in economic policy. It has announced a plan that would insure mandatory pensions for all employees in Israel. It would also create an earned income tax credit (also known as a negative tax rate) for Israelis in the lowest earning categories. The plan includes increasing the taxes on cars that employees receive from their employers as a means to pay for the reform. Observers give the plan a good chance of being passed.

Shabbat is fast approaching while I could comment on the latest fighting between Hamas and Fatah or between the Sunnis and Shiites in Lebanon or elsewhere in the Arab world, I feel it necessary to reflect on what I saw when I watched President Katzav on TV on earlier this week and then how I felt as the cameras followed him in Qiryat Malachi to synagogue this afternoon in Israel.

Katzav"s speech shook me to the core. I could not believe what I was hearing. That the President of Israel could hold and exhibit such rage at what he described the "establishment". That the man who succeeded to become the President of Israel could show so much hatred for the institutions of the state-be they the police, the prosecutors, or news media. I understand that the fall from the top is particularly hard, but someone who spoke the way he did, did not suddenly develop this hatred in the last weeks. This was a deep seated hatred that has been stoked in recent years by ethnic politics that have greatly harmed the country. I just could not believe the someone who reached the position of President could consider himself such a victim.

The attack on the "establishment" while mostly an attack on the Askenaz establishment, was not simply an ethnic attack as it once would have been. Today, too many Sephardim are at pinnacles of Israeli society it to be that simple. It does reflect however, the widening economic gaps that have developed in the last two decades between the economic have and have nots-Israel went from one of the most egalitarian societies (maybe because no one had anything) to a country with a very large income gap between rich and poor. This does not help, but itŐs no excuse.

It has always been said that the bloodiest wars are Civil Wars. Maybe it is because we expect more from our "brothers". It is said that the Second Temple was lost because of baseless hatred among brothers; the last thing Israel can afford is the deepening of the ethnic divide within the country. IsraelŐs neighbors have enough of that.

Thursday January 25, 2007

The Knesset voted today to approve President Moshe Katsav's request for a temporary leave of absence despite the outcry of many that it is inappropriate for anyone about to be charged with such a serious crime to stay in office. Politics won today and Katsav was granted his request. This morning, many Israeli commentators wrote similar comments to my analysis from yesterday (see below). A significant percent of the public seems to have been receptive to Katsav's ranting. Before his speech, 73% of the public believed he should resign immediately, but, after the speech that number dropped to 47%.

Events in Lebanon heated up today when clashes took place between students in Beirut. The Christians and Sunnis attacked Shiite students. Four students died. There seems to be a significant backlash developing over Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah's attempt to topple the Lebanese government. Nasrallah's opponents took to the streets today to protest his crippling of the Lebanese economy. Lebanese Sunnis were shown chanting "better [Israeli Prime Minister] Olmert than Nasrallah". Opposition to Nasrallah was expressed as far away as Libya, where Libyan President Omar Qadaffi attacked Nasralla. He questioned how Nasrallah can be costing the Lebanese $70 million a day in an attempt to bring down the government.

Meanwhile, Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak gave a major speech calling for the separation of religion and state in the Muslim world. Mubarak's government is threatened by the rise of support for the radical Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Mubarak realizes that if there is any hope for modernity in the Arab world, religion and state must be separated.

The annual figures on poverty in Israel were released today. The good news is that poverty that has been growing in the country has leveled off. There are still however over 1,600,000 Israelis living under the poverty line; 440,000 of them are children.

On a historic note, Yediyot Aharanot, Israelis largest circulation newspaper, will be running a long article tomorrow on the history of Israeli-Syrian relations. The article will reveal that during Yitzchak Rabin's term as Prime Minister, a tentative agreement had been reached between Israel and Syria. Under its terms, Israel would withdraw from the Golan Heights in return for peace. The innovative part of the agreement was that Israel was going to be able to keep its base on Mt. Hermon (an intelligence base) in return for letting the Syrians have a similar base near Safad. In the first week of November 1995, former Syrian President Hafez Assad pushed to sign the agreement. According to the article, Rabin said he had to wait until he had passed a budget before he could finalize the agreement. On the 5th of November, a few days later, Rabin was assassinated.

Wednesday January 24, 2007

Israeli President Moshe Katsav did not do the correct thing today and announce his decision to resign after Attorney General Menachem Mazuz decided to indict him on charges of rape and other improper conduct. Instead, he gave a nearly one hour long speech attacking the media, the police and practically all other Israeli institutions. I watched the whole speech and was stunned.

The President accused the media and the police of conspiracy, lynch, and McCarthyism. He stated that from the day he was elected, people were against him due to their disbelief 'that someone like him could be President'; thus playing the "ethnic card". Katsav implied that because he is

Sephardic (he was born in Iran) they were attacking him. Most of the speech was directed at the Israeli media. The attack went far beyond anything I have ever seen and made US Vice President Agnew's attack on the media seem like child's play.

After his performance today, the President must resign. This is not due to the charge of rape, but because he, as President of Israel, attacked in an extremely paranoid way the very institutions of the country he represents. Katsav struck me as a man who has ceased to act in a rational manner. He had hoped that his speech would have a positive effect on public opinion. The initial reactions on Israeli television and the radio were similar to mine. Commentators could not believe what they heard, and some people who were previously unsure if the President should resign now believe he that he must do so at once.

Prime Minister Olmert was scheduled to deliver a major address at the Herzliya Conference a few minutes after Katsav's speech. Throughout the day, commentators questioned whether Olmert would comment on the disconcerting news emanating from the President's Office, especially considering the legal trouble that Olmert himself may be in. Apparently, after listening to Katsav's speech, Olmert decided that he had no other choice but to call on the President to resign and opened his speech with that announcement. Prior to the President's speech, it seemed that there were enough Knesset Members to block an attempt to remove him from office. Since Katsav did not resign, it is up to the Knesset to decide what will happen next. I hope his speech changed enough minds, but not in the way he had been hoping.

Tuesday January 23, 2007

The news from Israel today has been totally dominated by the decision of Attorney General Menachem Mazuz to indict President Moshe Katsav on charges of rape. Katsav will also be indicted for sexual harassment and impeding an investigation. Katsav has been President since his surprise victor of Shimon Peres in 2000. This is the most serious charge ever against a senior Israeli politician and seems to be the most serious charge ever against a sitting head-of-state in the world. As of now, it looks like Katsav will not announce his resignation tomorrow but will instead ask to be suspended. Let's hope for the sake of Israel that Katsav comes to his senses and resigns instead. Six months ago he probably could have resigned in return for an end to the investigation. Instead, Katsav decided to remain President and put the country through this worldwide embarrassment. Now its time to think about the country he claims to love.

Israeli TV reported that according to intelligence sources, the latest overtures of Syria toward making peace have been accompanied by real changes in Syrian policy. According to the sources, Syria has begun pressuring Hamas leader Khaled Meshal to compromise in order to make a Palestinian unity government possible. The sources claim that Syria has also stopped supporting terrorist activity in Iraq. Of course, that has not stopped Syria from supporting Hezbollah effort to topple the Lebanese government. Those efforts include the large, and sometimes violent, demonstrations that crippled Lebanon today. In this case, however, Syrian President Bashar Assad has a direct interest in trying to stop the investigation into the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. It is widely believed that this investigation will lead to the direction of Assad. Despite the apparent change in Syrian activity, the source said that Olmert's government is not interested in pursuing negotiations. It is hard to imagine how a government as weak as this government could enter into serious negotiations with anyone.

For those interested I now have started a frequent analysis of Election 2008 at another part of the site.

Monday January 22, 2007

Today, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz agreed on the appointment of General Gabi Ashkenazi as the new Chief-of-Staff. While there was little criticism of the appointment itself, and nearly everyone agrees that Ashkenazi is a fine choice, there is a great deal of criticism on the speed of which the decision has been reached. Many critics suggested that the appointment should have been delayed until after the Winograd Committee, that is investigating the Lebanon War, issues its interim report which is expected within six weeks.

Speaking the Herzliya Conference, MK Tzachi Hanegbi disclosed that that in 2004, the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee reported directly to former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon the dangers of a possible war with Hezbollah. Their letter outlined the exact scenario that occurred this past summer during the Lebanon War and warned that Hezbollah would be able to rain missiles on the North for weeks and that Israel neither had a military solution nor was the state of civil preparedness in the North adequate. This information yields a serious question: how could the political leadership decide to go to war when IsraelŐs intelligence services warned of dire consequences should there be confrontation between Israel and Hezbollah? This information fuels the claims of those who argue that the appointment of the next Chief-of-Staff should have been delayed until after Winograd CommissionŐs interim report.

The long sought after meeting between Hamas leader, Khaled Meshal, and Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, occurred last night in Damascus. Nothing was agreed upon at the meeting, which ultimately did not accomplished anything. The crosscurrents in the Arab world continue make it more and more difficult for Israel to develop a truly effective strategy pertaining to the multitude of issues that engage the region, and in addition, complicates the United StatesŐ ability to find a solution for Iraq.

There are two intersecting crosscurrents at the moment. First, there is the western vs. rejectionist crosscurrent, which is expressed in the case of Fatah vs. Hamas. The second crosscurrent complicating the issue is the conflict between Shia and Sunni in the Arab world. That conflict has moved beyond a struggle between different ethnic groups, but has become a battle in the Muslim world for the proper direction for Islam. Some Shia are positioning Shiite beliefs as a reformation in Islam. They claim that Muslims should embrace the Shiite position, as it will allow Islam to modernize. One of the main differentiations between Shiite and Sunni is based on their beliefs as to the place of the Ayatollah as a central religious figure whose word had to be obeyed, but who has the ability to reinterpret Muslim law. A Sunni booklet being distributed in Israel to Arab Israelis attacks the Shiite and accuses them of heresy due to the belief that word of their religious leader is more important then the word of Mohammed.

Where does that leave us? Navigating these waves is the challenge of the years ahead.

Sunday January 21, 2007

The news from Israel today mostly discussed what has transpired in the country recently and what is expected to happen this week. According to Israeli media, this week Defense Minister Amir Peretz is to choose General (res.) Gabi Ashkenazi to be the next Chief-of-Staff and the Attorney General, Menachem Mazuz, is to indict the President for rape. But as we know from previous media speculation, nothing is final until there is a formal public announcement by the relevant parties.

Much of the reflection going forward and looking back took place the Herzliya Conference. The annual conference is sponsored by the Interdisciplinary School in Herzliya and brings together experts in academia, industry, and government. The conference is best known as the event in which Prime Minister Sharon first unveiled his change of approach in the West Bank and at which his plan for the unilateral pullout from Gaza was born. At this yearŐs conference, which will take place through Wednesday, the major strategic speeches were devoted to the Iranian threat. Opposition leader, MK Benjamin Netanyahu and the US Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns both stated that Iran could not be allowed to have nuclear weapons. Netanyahu called for a worldwide effort to stop the Iranian plans, while Burns stated that the US would continue to fulfill its roll in assuring stability in the region, which includes working to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

As opposed to past yearsŐ discussions that emphasized Israeli economic affairs, at this yearŐs conference the speeches emerging from the business sector dealt with concerns on the state of governance. Eli Hurvitz, the chairman of the board of Teva, arguably IsraelŐs most successful company, gave a stinging speech against the government. Hurvitz attacked the leaders of the government and shared his fear that a good solution does not exist. A self-declared optimist, Hurvitz stated that he fears there is darkness at the end of the tunnel.

Shimon Shimoni, the former Director General of Ministry of Education, gave one of the most interesting speeches. He called for a complete change in the educational system in Israel. His plan called for ending high school at age 16, followed by three free years of college for all students who qualify. Those who do not meet the requirements for academic colleges would receive a technical education. Those who wanted to begin academic studies but do not qualify would receive an extra year to meet the criteria. Israelis would then enlist in the army at age 19 after completing an academic degree.

The controversy over whether the supposed peace talks between Israel and Syria that had been reported by IsraelŐs daily newspaper, HaŐaretz, had been done with the governmentŐs approval continued. Dr Alon Liel, who conducted the negotiations, was interviewed on Israeli television this evening. He stated that he updated the government after every meeting.

The Economist has an interesting editorial in its current issue. It is titled Spurning an Olive Branch and claims that America should not tell Israel to reject an overture from Syria. In the editorial it states: "If you are a superpower, however your strategy has a habit of changing, along with conditions, regimes and fashion. America has the luxury of being able to reassess its interest, drop old friends, find new ones, promote autocracy one day and emphasize democracy the next. Sometimes its attention swivels from the Middle East. Israel, on the other hand, has a permanent and perhaps existential interest in finding a way to get along with its neighbors. It really cannot afford to pass up any opportunity, however cynically motivated to break the encircling wall of enmity."

Friday January 19, 2007

The news from Israel continued to be dominated by the question of who will be the next Chief-of-Staff. This is a good time to look at why Lieutenant General Dan Halutz's tenure was considered a failure and what the Israel Defense Forces need in a new Chief-of-Staff. Halutz was the first Chief-of-Staff that served in the Air Force.

The Israeli armed forces are organized differently from the American armed forces. In the American forces the various commands, be they Pacific, Atlantic, or Middle East, all are joint commands that include Air force, Navy and Army units. Thus, senior US military officers have many opportunities to interact with and even command forces from other services. These commanders also serve a period in the Pentagon, again often in joint billets. In the US Armed forces, the Chairman of the Joint Chief-of-Staff is not in the command loop. He is the chief military advisor to the President, but it is the President who appoints the new commander of Central Command and not the Joint Chief-of-Staff.

The Israel armed forces are organized very differently. In Israel, the Chief-of-Staff is the commander of all the different forces. In terms of the potential career of an Air Force pilot, he will typically begin as a squadron commander, advance to an assignment at Air Force Headquarters, which while physically is at the same location as everyone else, is a place of its own. He will then become a base commander, and if he is going to continue moving up the ranks, will head air operations and then finally become commander of the Air Force. In almost every case, unless he had been involved in direct air support, the commander of the Air Force never has professional interaction ground forces.

Halutz was chosen (after serving a period as Deputy Chief-of-Staff) at a time when the belief was that Iran is Israel's greatest challenge, and the Air Force would be the likely solution to military issues that may arise in that arena. In addition, Halutz was selected when Ariel Sharon was Prime Minster and Shaul Mofaz, who had previously been a Chief of Staff, was the Defense Minister. Thus, Halutz could bring his special area of expertise and his command of technology to the Chief-of-Staff position, while other military decisions could be made by the Prime Minister the Defense Minister.

Unfortunately when the Lebanon War broke out three problems quickly developed.

Like all Air Force officers in every air force since World War I, Halutz believed that the Air Force could solve any problem with enough time and resources. If Sharon had been healthy during the war, he would have known better then to believe that the Air Force could win the war.
Halutz has never had experience commanding the Ground Forces. Years ago, when tanks were supreme in the Israeli army, infantry officers who wished to advance to command a division had to go for tank training to understand what it meant to command a tank. Halutz has none that type of training.
The effectiveness of Ground Forces, especially one with a large reserve contingent is greatly affected by the competency of its commanders. In the Air Force there are good and great pilots. While a great pilot may be given a particularly difficult assignment, the level of competency of squadron and other senior commanders does not have the same impact in the air as it does on the ground.

Halutz did not advance in the ranks with the ground commanders. He did not know which ones he could look in the eye and ascertain that they would successfully carry out their mission. Thus, when things got rough he did not know which commanders to replace and who to replace them with.

The three potential candidates for Chief-of-Staff, Deputy Chief of Staff General Moshe Kaplinsky, General (res.) Gabi Ashkenazi, and General Beni Ganz, all come from infantry units and have commanded large ground units. Thus they can "correct" the problems discovered during Halutz's tenure. The only predicament is that the existential threat to Israel is still Iran, and the next war may be fought by the Air Force, by missiles or in cyberspace. So it's a trade off. Israel will be ready next time if a war like last summer's Lebanon War arises, but as they say, the army that loses was ready for the previous war: what will happen in next war?

New York Times has an interesting article today called Rebuke in Iran to Its President on Nuclear Role. This article dovetails with a piece on Israeli television last night about the rising opposition to the Iranian President's actions, both on the street and in the Parliament. They showed people willing to be interview publicly being highly critical of Ahmadinejad. The subject is worth keeping an eye on.

Thursday January 18, 2007

Today, Israeli news continued to be dominated by the resignation of the Chief of Staff, General Dan Halutz. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has made a great show of consulting with top officials, including opposition head and former Prime Ministers Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak in an effort to either gain true insight as to who would be the best choice for the next Chief of Staff or to improve his relationship with potential rivals and make a great show of being a "statesman". The consensus is that the Prime Minister will have a hard time opposing General Gabi Ashkenazi, who seems to be Defense Minister Amir Peretz's top choice. All of the candidates seem equally qualified, if all seem equally uninspired.

Meanwhile, speculation continues as to whether, and more likely when, Peretz will be replaced. There are three opportunities for this to happen. If MK Haim Ramon, who is on trial for sexually harassment, is found guilty, it will allow Olmert to reshuffle the cabinet and give Peretz a major social welfare cabinet position. The second opportunity will occur when the Winograd Committee, which is investigating the Lebanon War, issues its interim report. If the report is finds fault in Peretz's wartime decisions, he will be forced to resign. Finally, internal Labor Party elections are set to take place in May and Peretz is widely expected to lose.

The Defense Minister did have a small victory today when the Labor Party Central Committee approved his nomination of MK Raleb Majadele to be the Minister of Science, Culture and Sport. Majadele is set to be the first Arab cabinet member in Israeli history. Most of Peretz's opponents tried to block the appointment, but 253 of the 488 members of the Central Committee voted for it.

Despite the obvious weakness of the current government, no one expects early elections. The members of the current coalition are so weak that no one wants new elections and there is no other immediate coalition that can be formed.

I have completed a review on this site of the Prisoners by Jeffrey Goldberg. I highly recommend reading it.

Wednesdy January 17, 2007

Today, the Israeli news has been dominated by the announcement that the Chief of Staff of the Israel Defense Forces, Lieutenant General Dan Halutz has decided to resign. Both in his letter of resignation and in a speech which he gave today to the graduates of the Navy Commanders course, Halutz did not take personal responsibility for the failure of the war in Lebanon. He stated that his actions represented what he had been taught by his father and through his 40 years of service in the Israel Air Force: to be a man of honor (see his letter).

The most immediate question is who will replace Halutz. There are two leading candidates: Deputy Chief of Staff General Moshe Kaplinsky and the Director General of the Defense Ministry, General (res.) Gabi Ashkenazi. Ashkenazi's advantage is that he had already left the IDF when the war in Lebanon took place and does not bare any responsibility for its outcome. This would be the first time a retired General, who was passed over to be Chief of Staff would be called back to service. Kaplinsky is the natural selection, but is tainted by his wartime service. A third potential candidate is Beni Ganz, today the Ground Forces Commander.

All three candidates are veterans of infantry units:two, Kaplinsky and Ashkenazi, came of age in the Golani Brigade, while Ganz served as a paratrooper. Their backgrounds are at considerable variance from that of Lt.-Gen. Halutz, an Airforce pilot, but are consistent with the backgrounds of previous Chiefs-of-Staff. Defense Minister Amir Peretz appears to be leaning heavily towards Ashkenzi as his choice, but the Prime Minister seems unwilling to render a quick decision.

The resignation of Halutz has put additional pressure on Olmert and Peretz to resign, while public disapproval ratings are increasing every day.

See chart below: The first chart shows the percent of Israelis who think Halutz was right in resigning. The second chart shows the pct who think Ehud Olmert should resign and the third, those who think Amir Peretz should be resign. The poll was conducted by Channel 10 News in Israel.

I suggest that you read todays article in the New York Times titled Hangings Fuel Sectarian Violence. The article highlights the growing divide between Shites and Sunnis, and observes that the Arab unity that followed the Lebanon War has faded and been replaced this growing annimosity.


Tuesday January 16, 2007

Late news: Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Lieutenant-General Dan Halutz announced his resignation. The resignation comes five months after the end of the Israel-Lebanon War. The resignation is long overdue, as Halutz led the IDF in the least successful war in Israel's history. This leaves the Defense Minister and Prime Minster who are yet to take personal responsibility for their actions.

Today's news from Israel was dominated by the official announcement that a criminal investigation against Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has begun. The lead story in this morning's Ha'aretz was that an unofficial agreement has been reached between Israeli and Syrian representatives on a possible peace treaty between the two countries.

The Ha'aretz article claims that over the course of two years, a secret understanding had been reached after a series of meeting in Europe. The agreement calls for Israel's complete withdrawal to the lines of 4th of June 1967 (prior to the Six Day War). The theoretical agreement calls for turning much of the Golan Heights into an international park. It also calls on Syria to end its support of Hezbollah and Hamas. Both Jerusalem and Damascus deny any official knowledge of the agreement. From the Israeli side it is obvious that the negotiations were undoubtedly unofficial but it is hard to believe that they took place without any government knowledge. On the other hand, nothing happens in Syria without the government knowing about it.

The Syrians continue signaling that they are interested in entering official negotiations with Israel. Clearly the Israeli government is unable to enter negotiations at the moment. Leaving aside strategic issues or even the potential cost of peace with Syria, the current government is too weak to take any initiative.

This brings us to the other major news item: the official announcement that the police will begin a formal investigation of Olmert's role in the state's sale of a controlling interest in Bank Leumi. State Prosecutor Eran Shendar directed the police to begin a criminal investigation against the Prime Minister. The specific charge is that he changed the terms of the tender to meet the needs of his close associate, Australian real estate baron Frank Lowy. An announcement is expected in upcoming days regarding two more investigations that are in later stages, also associated with the Prime Minister. Furthermore, there are said to be additional investigations underway on a number of other matters against Olmert as well.

Olmert joins a long list of Prime Ministers who have been under investigation. Over the past 10 years, all of Israel's Prime Ministers have faced criminal investigation. This time however, is different in two ways. First, there are more investigations underway concerning the affairs of the current Prime Minister then any of his predecessors. More importantly, perhaps, is the fact that Olmert is wildly unpopular and has extremely low public support. While most of the public assumed that Sharon had engaged in problematic financial transactions, they preferred to overlook this as long as he could lead the country to a better place. Nobody believes that Olmert can lead the country anywhere, and with the many investigations that he faces it is hard to see how he can continue to do any part of his job.

Monday January 15, 2007

Most of the world media has been absorbed in Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's visit to Israel and the Palestinian Authority and with the agreement to hold a three way meeting between Rice, Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. In Israel however, the upcoming plan has been met with a collective yawn. It is the view of many, including myself, the possibility of any substantive progress is remote. That will only change when the Palestinians start directing their collective energies towards building a proto-state instead of firing Kassam rockets, from areas that Israel evacuates.

Statistics released today show that only 30 Israelis, including soldiers, were killed by terrorist actions in 2006. This rapid decrease can be attributed to a large degree to the successful actions of the security forces. Clearly, the Palestinians are paying the price with the many road blocks throughout the West Bank and with the much debated security fence that has been built in the area of the"Green Line". While these security measures are protested daily, they are no doubt effective (see chart).

Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh created a stir when he stated that the time would come when Israel will be forced to consider the release of jailed Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti. Barghouti was convicted of multiple homicide charges for his help in planing terrorist attacks. In a later interview on TV, Sneh made it clear that Bargouti is the most popular secular Palestinian and there will come a time when it will be in Israel's interest that he be freed. While secular does not necessarily mean moderate, (I will quote Barghouti in a book review I will write later this week on the "Prisoner") Sneh is indeed correct that the day will come, but it certainly is not here today.

Dr. Uzi Arad, head of the Institute for Policy and Strategy at the Lauder School of Government, Diplomacy and Strategy of the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, has made a very interesting proposal for negotiations with Syria. He suggests keeping 25% of the Golan Heights in return of a multi-country exchange of land (Jordan giving Syria some land and Israel giving Jordan some land). If that plan could work, it would solve many problems.

Israel's ongoing corruption scandal took another turn today when Accountant General in the Ministry of Finance Oren Zelekha, reported to the police that his wife received threats warning him to leave Jerusalem or his legs and possibly hers would be broken. Zelekha has been giving speeches for the last two years on how corrupt the whole system is. For a time, he seemed like a lone wolf in the wilderness, but the events of the last month have made it painfully true how correct he has been.

In an item not directly related to Israel, but I think of interest to our readers. The new French Presidential Candidate of the ruling Union for a Popular Movement Party is Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy. He is the son of an Hungarian-born aristocrat father and a Jewish mother. In his acceptance speech, Sarkozy, who has been accused of being a spineless politician, stated that his view of the world and his responsibilities as a politician have been transformed by his visit to Yad Vashem, Israel's official Holocaust memorial museum.

Sunday January 14, 2007

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited Israel today. Israeli commentators have had a hard time uncovering any news from the visit. After being asked if she thought the sanctions against Iran would be enough, Rice admitted it was not, but did say that just having sanctions put Iran in a unique place. The Israeli interviewer inquired what would ensue if diplomacy failed and sought out her opinion regarding Israeli military action. Rice claimed that the mere fact that discussion of such actions was taking place proved the seriousness of the situation, but she said that there was still much that could be done prior to military action. However, Rice did not say that she disapproves of Israeli military action were diplomacy to fail.

A second Madrid Conference took place this past week. This meeting did not include government representatives but did include leading non-governmental figures from both Israel and the Arab states. Dan Meridor, once one of the "princes" of the Likud who left politics ten years ago, was one of the leaders of the Israeli delegation. His major observation on the conference was the seeming willingness of the Syrians to enter negotiations with Israel. Meridor attacked the Israeli government's position not to enter negotiations. He stated in the interview given to Israeli television that time was not working on Israel's behalf. He strongly recommended that Israel enter negotiations and either call Assad's bluff or reach an agreement with him.

In the ongoing corruption scandal, today Israeli television reported an additional investigation against Finance Minister Avraham Hirshson. He is being investigated for having workers of Kupat Holim, which he headed, do private work in his home.

Thursday January 11, 2007

The Head of the Labor Party, Defense Minister Amir Peretz, appointed MK Raleb Majadele to be Israel's Minister of Science and Technology. Majadele is the first Arab Minister in Israel's history. Representatives of Israel Beitenu party attacked Majadele appointment. The chairman of their Knesset faction, Esterina Tartmen, attacked the appointment as a "lethal blow to Zionism". Her remarks were widely condemned by member of other parties, including members of the Likud party. Peretz's selection was widely seen as an attempt to solidify his support by Arab members within the Labor party. The problem no doubt with the appointment of Majadele is that he has just as much expertise to be the Minister of Science and Technology as Peretz has to be Minister of Defense.

Today Channel 10 published a poll of candidates for the chairmanship of the Labor Party. Ehud Barak led with 26.5% of the vote, while Ami Ayalon can in at second place with 25.5% of the vote. According to this survey, Peretz stood at 16%. In a runoff according to this survey Ayalon would beat Barak by a significant margin.

Today the Fatah movement celebrated its 42nd anniversary. Palestinian President and the head of Fatah, Mahmoud Abbas called on the Palestinians to stop firing at each other and to refrain from heading down the road towards civil war. At the same time he attacked Hamas and their "Iranian supporters". In an interesting discussion on El Arabeya (an Arabic TV channel), a secularist and an Islamist discussed the effect of the rise of Islamic governments and movements. The opponent of the Islamist stated that the rise of Islamic governments and movements has weakened Arab states and resulted largely in Arab death. He cited the fact that since Hamas has come into power five Israelis were killed by Palestinians, while 305 Palestinians were killed by other Palestinians.

Wednesday January 10, 2007

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert continued touring China today, making the required pilgrimage to the Great Wall. Olmert's warm reception by the Chinese Parliament caused commentators to take notice and mention that sadly, he is usually less welcome in the Knesset (Israeli Parliament).

Israel's relationship with China has always been complicated. China is deeply dependent on Middle Eastern oil and, as a consequence, maintains exceptionally friendly ties with many Muslim countries. Peking is host to embassies representing more than fifty Islamic countries all of whom vote in the UN. The Chinese have always been careful not to antagonize the Arab and Muslim world - which would likely be the result of public support for the State of Israel. Nevertheless, strong military and economic ties have been established between Israel and China. Israeli companies engaged in advanced research and development (R&D) are very sought-after by Chinese entrepreneurs. Also, Israel is major supplier of advanced arms and military technologies to China. Finally, many Chinese hold Jews and Israel in considerable esteem, believing that the Chinese and the Jews share many similar traits.

While in China, Olmert denied any wrongdoing in the cases that have been presented by the police investing possible illegal behavior. Meanwhile, Israel media reported that the investigation into the actions of Finance Minister Hirschson was more serious than previously reported.

On the political front Channel 10 News reported that Amir Peretz has told his confidants that he will need to step down as Defense Minister and assume a social ministry. Peretz's office denied the report.

Tuesday January 9, 2007

Israeli Attorney General Menachem Mazuz has ordered the police to open a criminal probe against Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on one of many investigations that are being conducted against him. The most serious of them is the charge that as Finance Minister, Olmert intervened in favor of one of the parties trying to buy Bank Leumi. Mazuz said that he examined all the evidence and felt there was enough suspicion to open a criminal investigation. Olmert joins a long list of former Prime Ministers as well as a large share of current cabinet members that are under criminal investigation. This is taking place during Olmert's trip to China. His main agenda there is to convey to China the dangers of Iran.

Israeli Military Intelligence chief, Major General Amos Yadlin, testified before the Defense and Foreign Affairs committee of the Knesset today, saying that Hezbollah has fully rearmed since the end of the Lebanon War in August 2006. Thus, any possible success that the Israeli government claimed to have had in the War has now been erased. The MI chief further stated that member of Al-Qaeda have been flocking to Lebanon.

On the political front, Defense Minister Amir Peretz publicly stated that he is too busy dealing with the important issues in order deal with political issues. The newscaster on Israeli TV ridiculed that statement, saying the only thing Peretz is doing these days is political and went on do describe a long list of the political meetings that the Minister has held recently

Today New York Times features an excellent OP Ed piece called Don't Play With Maps by Dennis Ross that attacks President Carter for misrepresenting the map that President Clinton suggested as a final status agreement. In his book, Carter presented two maps: one he called the Palestinian interpretation of the Clinton plan and the other the Israeli interpretation. According to Ross, the Palestinian interpretation was actually an earlier Israeli proposal, while the Israeli one was ClintonŐs actual plan, which gave the Palestinians 97% of the West Bank. Ross's contention is that one of the largest problems in the Israeli Arab dispute is the myths believed by the sides. Ross says that the myth that Clinton did not offer enough to the Palestinians and thus Arafat was justified in rejecting the proposal is one of those dangerous myths.

Monday January 8, 2007

The scandal in Israel's Income Tax Authority continued to deepen today. A long list of additional people gave witness today, including a very close confidant of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, as well as the assistant to the Civil Service Commissioner. The essence of this scandal, which is the most serious of the many scandals engulfing the government, is the claim that the current Commissioner and possibly the previous one received their jobs with the understanding that they would appoint others to key positions. Implicit in the charge is that they would all give preferential tax treatment to political supporters of key individuals. The obvious question is whether it is possible that Ehud Olmert's office manager could be involved in the appointment of the Tax Commissioner without his knowledge. If that connection is made, this may turn out to be one scandal too many for Olmert.

On the political front, Barak, who announced that he was seeking to be the new head of the Labor party, gained momentum today. Minister of Tourism, Yitzak Herzog and other politicians have been showing their support of Barak. Defense Minister Peretz announced a new peace plan today, but most observers considered it to be a cynical move to slow Barak's momentum.

On a lighter note, former Prime Minister Netanyahu seems to have become a butt of some jokes on Israeli TV after making false factual claims on an Internet site regarding a number of his accomplishments in while in office.

The fighting continues between Hamas and Fatah. The issue of the connection between Hamas and the Iranians Shia remains a central point. Hamas made the tactical decision to accept money from the Shiite Iran, despite the fact that Palestinians are overwhelmingly Sunni. On one hand it has allowed Hamas to pay their soldiers three times what Fatah is paying, while on the other hand it has complicated their political situation substantially. The Shia jubilation at the hanging of Saddam, who the Palestinians supported, made that support all the more problematic.

Sunday January 7, 2007

Two very different events occurred today that might have a major impact on politics and with relations between Israel and the Palestinians. On the political from Ehud Barak announced that he was running for the Chairmanship of the Labor party in the May primaries. His election to that post would result in his becoming Defense Minister (something that has been rumored to might happen much sooner). Barak chances of regaining the leadership of the Labor party had been enhanced by two factors: a successful personal campaign to make peace with many former opponents in the party. More importantly the failure of the War in Lebanon and the refusal of any of the current military or political leaders to take responsibility for the failure has paved the way for a former military hero to return to the top ranks of leadership. Rabin was a most more successful Prime Minister the second time around. He as opposed to Barak who left politics for business in the intervening years spend those years as a member of parliament, and of course as Defense Minister. Let us hope that Barak has learned the right lessons in his period in political wilderness. Israel unfortunately needs Barak because Israel has painfully learned it cannot afford to have politicians without the proper experience making decision of life and death

A very interesting development occurred today in the fight between Fatah and and Hamas. Fatah in opposition to Hamas held a major rally in Gaza. Tens of thousand attended the rally in which they called the Hamas killers. In addition in his speech to the crowd Mohammed Dahalan called the Hamas tools of the Syrians and tools of the Iranians. His remarks were received with enthusiasm. Dahalan made it clear that the Fatah was not going to sit idly by while Hamas killed its men, and it was not going to sit idly by while the Palestinians proto state became a tool of Iran and Syria. The divide is now clear, the Palestinians are going to have to determine who they want to lead them-it may be by new elections, sadly for the Palestinians it will probably be at the point of a gun.