Thursday, December 01, 2005

Kadima! (Forward!)

Arik the Bulldozer had finally enough. He quit the Likud and started a new party - "Kadima", which means forward. His main objective, or so he says, is to achieve a peaceful coexistence with the Palestinians, and the echo in the Israeli population is overwhelming: 47% want to see Ariel Sharon form the next government. Wow! The new star of the newly socialist Labor Party, Amir Peretz, only made 28% in the same poll. By the way - so much for "the disengagement has no majority", and "Sharon will get punished in the next elections" bullshit the right wing has been trumpeting for months.

But something isn't right. There is no way to achieve a peaceful solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict at this time. The Palestinian Authority is a useless bunch of corrupt apparatchics, getting whacked daily by Hamas et al. There is no way Abu Mazen can broker a peace deal with the Israelis, because he would get blasted to hell the next day. And powerful Hamas is not interested in an official deal, although some high profile Hamas members have indicated lately that a change of policy could be possible in a far future.

So how can Arik deliver on his promise? Only by keeping the military threat very credible and at the same time dictating de-facto final borders by a number of further unilateral withdrawals. It has worked before, and it will work again. Not exactly the cozy side-by-side Olso had in mind, but apart from some individuals very out-of-touch with reality, nobody believes in that kind of deal anymore, anyway.

Well, to my Palestinian readers (anybody out there?) I say: Time for you guys to wake up. If you don't get your act together and start delivering the (roadmap) goods, Arik will take away 1/3 of the West Bank for the big settlement blocks, complete the neat wall around the rest and then you can do in your sand box whatever you want. He will just ignore your sorry existence.

Cool stuff, I almost feel obliged to vote for Arik in the next elections. There is only one problem: He is the head of maybe the most corrupt family in politics today. His son cut a deal with the prosecution, took the blame and will eventually go to jail for his father's filthy business, but hey, we all know who is pulling the strings in this soap opera. In the good old times a minister with that kind of PR problem had only one way out: A bullet through the head. But we are not living in those good old times anymore, and half of the Israelis are willing to vote for a "Godfather", as long as he gets rid of the Palestinians.

So, here I am left with a terrible dilemma. What is worse - external terror or internal decay? I'll let you know some other time.

Monday, October 10, 2005

The Real Terror

.. is on the roads. This weekend a maniac with 19 previous traffic offenses killed four people and created in the process five orphans. This is the third accident with multiple fatalities in the last few months being caused by a reckless driver known to the authorities as such.

Here is what I wrote to the Ha'aretz editors in response to their report (see the link above).

Quote from Ha'aretz:
Central district police superintendent Yigal Hadad said yesterday it was "a grave and very serious accident. The driver is a lawbreaker who killed four people and left five orphans. Such a man must stand up to the law in all its severity," he said.

The value of such post-mortem statements is cosmetic at best. As a police volunteer I can attest that I frequently encounter drivers with revoked licenses during traffic patrols, who are not even afraid or ashamed to admit right away that they are driving without a valid license. The willingness of the administration and courts to deal with rogue drivers in an effective way is minimal and limited to public relations damage control once a serious accident has happened.
The basic fault is in the ideology of a populist law enforcement. There are laws against every imaginable offense, but effective prosecution is limited to cases of "high public interest" - and traffic offenses short of manslaughter are not in this category. Too many people commit them regularly and changing this would mean to step onto the toes of the general public, something our usually spineless politicians are not prepared to do. But without political back-up also the courts and even more so the police are afraid to do the right thing and ending up scapegoats for the resulting public anger.
Every parent knows that you can not tell a child that stealing is bad, but if you steal only small things, then never mind, I'll look the other way. You will get punished only for serious theft.

Nevertheless, this is exactly how Israeli drivers are being educated - never mind about the speed limit within the cities, never mind about parking in a red-white zone or on a pedestrian crossing, never mind even about overtaking a car stopping at a pedestrian crossing, and so on, and so on. All these are traffic offenses which can get people killed, but as long as you don't run a stop sign or a traffic light (defined as serious offenses because they frequently cause serious accidents) nothing will happen to you.

What drivers learn very quickly is as long as you don't kill anybody, we don't really care about you being a crazy maniac.

Therefore the police force on the roads is generally unmotivated to even try to catch repeat offenders. This has nothing to do with insufficient resources, as police commanders usually claim. The prove is in the story: The killer of Highway 1 was caught 19 times before his final atrocity destroyed two families. We know exactly who they are, and they are nothing else but ticking bombs, randomly taking the lives of innocent bystanders.
We will continue to see terrible accidents caused by rogue drivers until politicians, courts and police commanders move from lip service to action and put a repeat offenders behind bars. I pray for the day to come, when a driver smiles at me saying "I don't have a license anymore" and I can smile back, put him into handcuffs and know that from here on it is straight to an express court hearing and jail. Until then we will loose more people in traffic accidents than due to terror attacks every single year.

This one I didn't write to Haaretz (because they wouldn't print it anyway): My suggestion for immediate and drastic improvement of road safety: Use targeted killings for serious repeat offenders, just like we do it in Gaza with the other terrorists!

Okay, okay, I agree, no can do, don't kill them, but imagine the look on the face of a traffic maniac stepping out of his house in the morning and finding his car blown to pieces by a missile fired during the night from a IDF helicopter! Now that would be an effective measure...

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Happy New Year!

This October is heaven for workers and hell for employers. Three major holidays fall into this month, and none of them is on a weekend. The New Year (Rosh Ha'Shana), Atonement Day (Yom Kippur) and Thanks Giving (well, kind of, anyway, Succot) cocktail will create havoc in the economy and on the roads.

It starts with the traffic jams. All highways, especially those leading from the center towards the Galilee, are totally blocked from the second the kids get to leave school until 4 AM next morning. I will never understand why everybody has to spend the holidays up north. Somebody's relatives have to live in the south!

Then comes the festive dinner. A living room packed with people beyond the structural limit of the floor, an endless flow of dishes from the kitchen onto the plates, kids shouting, dogs barking, parents trying to outscream the kids. Occasionally a short moment of civilized silence, and then the battle noise starts again. At some point things slow down a little, the guests are just too stuffed to show normal vital signs. Then the crucial decision: Skip desert, run to the car and maybe make it back home before the traffic jams start again, or hold out until 4 AM and return after the jams. In other words, can you keep eating until dawn?

Then comes the bad conscience. Again we eat much too much. Why can we not skip first dish, soup, bread, salad and whatever else comes before the main course? How long will we fight to loose that needlessly acquired ballast? Thank God for Yom Kippur - this year we will actually want to fast! How would we otherwise be back in shape for Succot? Gosh, just think of all that food...

And finally, the New Year's resolution: Next Year we'll behave like responsible adults and say no to the Gefillte Fish!.

Yeah, sure. Happy New Year!

Monday, September 26, 2005

Finally! A Comment!

After months and months of nothing, the other day I got the proof that somebody is actually reading the stuff I am writing here occasionally. I got a comment! And an interesting one, too - see for yourself under "Blame Israel for the London Terror Attacks".

I thought one idea raised by Mr. or Mrs. Anonymous deserved a response. He or she writes "Wouldn't it have been much more fair for Germany to surrender part of its land to create a homeland for the Zionists?".

Great idea! I could be living in the "Jewish Black Forest Reservation", surrounded by green, lush mountains, cool springs and lots of Black Forest cakes! So why did those Zionists come up with the crazy idea to move to the Ottoman Empire, or later the British Protectorate, buy worthless lands from the laughing Arabs, dry up swamps, have 8 out of 10 kids die from Malaria, and even farm the desert without knowing anything about it?

The answer is simple: History. The German reservation proposal may sound logical at first, but only if you ignore the history of the Jewish people. This is a very, very long story, but in a nutshell it goes like this. Somehow -a few thousand years ago- the Jews emerge as a people in this area. They adopt that strange monotheistic religion, which later becomes the inspiration and common denominator for two spin-offs, first Christianity and then Islam, never mind. They build two gigantic temples, marvels of architecture at the time, only to have them torn down, first by the Greek and then by the Romans. The Romans not only destroyed the second temple, they massacred most of the population and the rest dispersed in all directions. End of story. Or could have been, was it not for that stubborn attachment of those Jews to their culture, and yes, to their homeland. This is of course what got them into trouble with two world powers in the first place, and it continued to do so for the next 2000 years. Once the Romans had vanished from the stage, some Jews trickled back to Israel, but the majority had found it a lot more comfortable to settle abroad, say in the Black Forest and some other attractive locations. But somehow the general hospitality of the Black Forest farmers was interrupted every now and then by the occasional progrom, usually when their communities were stricken with the Black Death, Pestilence, war, or other undeserved disasters. After two millennia the Jews finally had enough and decided that it is time to go home. Zionism was born end of the 19. century and slowly the numbers of returning Jews climbed, especially after WWI, when the British administration supported the idea of a new Jewish homeland in "Palestine" for a short while. Appeared Hitler and tried to finished the job the Romans blew. End of story. Or could have been, was it not for the pioneering spirit of the Jewish refugees escaping the horrors of WWII, which meanwhile had build enough of a viable economy and self administration to trigger the acceptance of a reborn Jewish state on the original land by the international community. Israel was reinstated in 1948 on about 1/3 of the historic territory. Happy end of story. Or could have been, was it not for the Arabs, which by now were not laughing anymore and decided to end the Jewish adventure right here and then. But that is really a long story.

It seems history is the problem. Things were a lot easier if everybody would just forget about their past and their culture, and live happily ever after. That may be an acceptable way of living, but then we all have to do it. One can not ask one people to forget about their very roots and at the same time sanctify the historical rights of another people. Can one?

One last thing. My commentator called Israel "the last obvious European colonial enterprise". The absurdity of that claim should be clear by now. The idea of a modern Israel was born by the Jews calling themselves Zionists, but their romantic dream became possible only due to the bad conscience of the Europeans for not having stopped the slaughter of 6 Million of their unwanted citizens, and the lack of motivation to reintegrate the surviving refugees. As absurd as it may sound, without Hitler there would be no Israel today. The Israeli desert was a convenient place to dump those Jews, and anyway the Arabs would take care of the rest, and finally, end of story. Or so you think!

Sunday, August 28, 2005

Construction Issues Revisited

I never finished the sad story about our home construction. Trying once more to make a long story short, just when we were about to loose all hope, the construction company kicked into gear and things started to move so fast we couldn't keep up.

After a short period of relief I started to get really, really stressed when I saw the subcontractor for the concrete construction: The guy was soo fat all he could do was to sit on an old leather couch (!) his workers had placed into what would one day become our living room. From there he directed his crew with occasional shouts like "Don't put so much steel into the ceiling, stupid!", or "Measure? Why measure? I can see from here that this is the right angle!", or "Concrete is made from sand! Understand? Mostly from sand!" These are free translations from Arabic, which I don't understand at all, I confess. But even if he didn't actually say it this way, the effect his encouragement had on his teenage workers can not be denied. Not a single wall without a belly, not a single 90 degrees angle in the whole house. The representative of the construction company, who obviously had developed a liking of me, saw me standing in the middle of the concrete cave almost in tears and muttered the following notable words: "Never mind, it looks a bit strange now, but once you have some paint and pictures on the walls you will just forget about all those angles." I felt like drinking his blood then, but you know what? The guy was right. Four months after living in my first partly-self-owned house I almost started to like it.

Almost, until I went on vacation to Germany and came to visit the new house of my old buddy Andreas. Same kind of house, same kind of neighborhood (okay, four times as expensive, but everything is relative, right?), and not a single defect to be found under the whole damn roof! I looked for the better part of a day, accidentally sneeking into every corner ("What? Ahh, nothing, just lost a coin here somewhere..."), even krept under the stairs ("Gee, that coin must have rolled all the way in here!") and couldn't find one thing that had gone wrong. Just when I got ready to throw myself out of the bed room window ("How do you open these windows???"), I found a piece of rubber on the shutters that had softened a bit in the August sun and left a black mark on the white window seal. Ha! Gotcha! ("Ahh, did YOU see THIS?") Man, they screwed you too, didn't they? Yeap, this is how it goes, people. Everywhere! Forget about building your dream house! Ha! Haha! Haaarrrrrggghhh!

We Have Disengaged!

Or haven't we?

While the actual withdrawal from Gaza went faster than expected and was mostly free of the much feared violence, my predictions (and those of almost everybody else here) have become reality. We already had one more suicide bombing, this time in Beersheva, and rockets were fired from the Gaza strip into Israel "proper".

Remember my other prediction? This was the last attempt at progress in the Israeli-Palestinian arena for a number of years to come. I think I better stop watching the news for a while...

Sunday, August 07, 2005

Civilized Right Wing Protest?

In the autumn of 1983 half a million people demonstrated against the NATO decision to station Pershing nuclear missiles in West Germany, as a counter balance to the Russian SS20 missiles in Poland and the DDR. The protests were lead by radical left wing students, claiming to be concerned for world peace, and frequently turned violent. I was a first year student in Goettingen that year and witnessed the utterly senseless destruction hundreds of radicals would bring upon downtown Goettingen every weekend, smashing all shop windows in the pedestrian zone and battling a helpless police force with showers of stones, bottles and steel balls from sling shots. The peace loving students had no ideological problem with the outright war they were waging against people with a different opinion, the "establishment" and bystanders alike.
Fast forward to the year 2005 and the mass protests against the disengagement from Gaza and the northern West Bank. For the second time in as many weeks tens of thousand of right wing protesters gathered near the Gaza strip to demonstrate against the government's plans. They faced off against 30,000 police and army for three days and you know what happened? Nothing. Yeap, that's right, nothing. Let's say apart from some collateral damage to the environment and the infrastructure of the communities hosting the demonstrations (just image the sewage treatment facilities build for 5,000 people having to deal with 60,000). But violence? No such thing, although the issue is lot closer to the hearts of the protesters than the Pershings ever were to those brain-amputated militants in Germany.
While I still think that we have to leave Gaza, I can't help but to express my respect for the way the protests have been managed so far, apart from some hickups at the beginning (the useless road blocks). It is probably true, right wingers are law abiding citizens for the most part, except for the very extremists. I just hope that Natan-Zada's idiotic act of killing four Israelis of Druze ethnic background does not draw the movement into a bad direction via a cycle of violence and revenge. The ultimate test will of course be the evacuation of the first settlements in a week from now. Keep tuned.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

The Mayor Answered!

Surprise, surprise. The Mayor of London did indeed answer my slightly provocative EMail - not personally, of course, but at least a public relations assistant of his sent a standard letter condemning all forms of violence against civilians - whether committed by suicide bombers or the Israeli military. Thank you so much, Mr Mayor.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

London once more....

Needless to say, Mayor Livingstone has not answered the EMail I wrote him with more or less the same text as in the last post. Never mind.

But somehow I can not help but feel strangely amused by the headlines from London. One more round of attacks (failed, thank God) and the Londoners don't show anymore the great resolve not to be intimidated by terror, but start to walk or bike to work instead of using the tube, and are irritated by the sound of ambulance sirens (IHT headline, July 26). The oh-so-civilized British police is adopting a shoot-to-kill tactic to stop terrorists, killing a harmless electrician with 5 shots to the head in the process - and I thought they didn't even have guns... Here is my forecast: One more attack and there will be checks of all MELTS ("Middle-Eastern looking terror suspect") at the entrances to public transport facilities. Then one more and the MELTS will be allowed to use public transport only after being issued a special permit, depending on a lengthy background check ("Question 3: Do you have any connection to a terrorist organization? Question 4: Which spelling is correct: Al-Queda, Al-Qaeda, Al-Qaida or Al Jarreau?"). Latest after ten attacks downtown London will become a MELTS-free zone, with an eight meter high wall around it.

It is unavoidable: Once a country experiences the effects of continuous terror first hand, a lot of measures once considered undemocratic, unethical or even illegal will be implemented under the pressure of a terrified (=exposed to terror) public. In that sense the harshest criticism of Israel's anti-terror measures comes from Scandinavia, where not a single terror attack has ever taken place. I'd say, let's wait and see which funky anti-MELTS measures the Swedes will invent, once their time has come.

Here is my low-cost suggestion to make the London public transport system safe again in one day: Allow people to use buses, trains and the tube only in swim suits, slippers and without bags. No opportunity to conceal a bomb, that's it. It's summertime anyway.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Dear Mayor Livingstone,

First my condolences for the 50-some dead from the recent terror attacks. That must have been really terrible for you.

But you know, those poor Pakistanis didn't really have much of a choice. After all, they don't have the military means to fight the mighty British Army in Iraq, which has taken part in an invasion costing the lives of 25,000 Iraqi civilians so far. So, under the circumstances, the suicide attacks in London were their only effective way of resistance, you see.

The British government and Al-Qeada are really only two sides of the same coin. I sincerely hope that this insight helps you to overcome your pain.

(Livingstone to Sky News: "Given that the Palestinians don't have jet planes, don't have tanks, they only have their bodies to use as weapons. In an unfair balance, that's what people use. Israel has done horrendous things which border on crimes against humanity the way they have indiscriminately slaughtered men, women and children in the West Bank and Gaza for decades. The Likud and Hamas members are two sides of the same coin. They need each other in order to attract support.(...)"

Monday, July 18, 2005

Blame Israel for London's Terror Attacks?

It was to be expected. Soon after Londoners came out of their shock, there were voices blaming Israel for what had just happened to them.

Maybe somebody out there can explain to me what is the connection? Would a wacko Pakistani blow himself up because he can't witness the suffering of the Palestinians at the hand of the Zionist enemy anymore? I didn't think so...

What we see here is the bill for Saddam Hussein's early retirement and the removal of the Taliban from power in Afghanistan. US and British forces invaded both places for their own national interest, not to protect Israel - God forbid.

Why then does every announcement of Al Qaeda et al. mention the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Simply in order to erode public support for Israel in Europe and to increase public support among Muslims world-wide for their useless slaughter of innocent civilians anywhere, anytime.

Get it people, Israel is nothing but a "shitty little country" (to speak with Daniel Bernard, the French ambassador to the UK), and those few square miles of desert inhabited by some 6 million people can not possibly be responsible for the negative bias of 1.5 billion Muslims towards the Western World.

Monday, July 11, 2005

A Political Joke

I received this joke recently by EMail. It gives a very good impression of what people think about the Likud's party central committee, around which allegations of corruption and abuse of power have become common news.

Teacher at the beginning of the new school year: "..and now everybody will tell us what his or her father is doing!"

1st kid: "My father is a policeman and arrests thieves!"
2nd kid:" My father is a doctor and fights diseases!"
3rd kid: "My father is a bus driver and brings kids to school!"
Last kid: "My father is a strip dancer in a gay bar, and if customers are willing to pay a lot of money, they can even have sex with him."

The teacher, totally shocked: "What? You can't be serious! Is that really true??"
The kid (whispering): "No, actually my father is a member of the Likud central committee, but I was too ashamed to tell this to the other kids..."

Monday, July 04, 2005

Gaza First? And Last!

The count-down continues, it seems like we are really going to pull out of Gaza in August. Right wing activists are blocking highways (who in his or her right mind could expect to generate any sympathy for the settlers by keeping thousands of people at each junction away from their families or jobs?). The most idiotic thing I have ever heard in that context was the explanation of one protest organizer to why the road blocks planned for the day after the train accident were cancelled: "We would not have gotten enough media attention in the aftermath of the accident." Nothing about the victims, media attention is what counts. Shmock!

The theme of the setter's campaign against the pull-out is "Jews don't expel Jews from their homes." This works well with the emotional mindset of many people here, and you can see a lot of orange flags and bands -the banner of resistance- on houses and cars.

I am impressed that despite the uncertainty about the benefits of the pull-out and the great effort by right wing activists and many religious groups to stop the count-down, the majority of Israelis is still supporting Sharon's plan. The sad thing is that it won't bring us any closer to peace with the Palestinians and everybody here knows that. During a recent trip to Germany a lot of people expressed new hope, but I could only smile at so much naivete. Nothing of what is going on in the territories suggests that the militants are planning to give up the armed struggle and move towards non-violent resistance. On the contrary, arms smuggling is at a high and preparations to start a new wave of terror attacks are being discovered every day.

Once that new terror wave starts, the Israeli public opinion will move so much to the right, that any negotiated settlement containing more pull-outs will become an illusion for many years to come. I start to develop the feeling that this is Sharon's great plan: Give up lousy Gaza and justify the total freeze on any other moves towards the Palestinians with the terror starting after the pull-out. If so, he is on the right track, as the Palestinians are preparing to fall into this trap as fast as they can.

It seems nothing is ever going to change out here.

What is Life Really Like in Israel?

After a long break due to the house project (see below...) here finally some new stuff.

Although I have tried here and there to relate to the daily life in Israel, this time I want to explicitly give you my take on what is life like these days in The Holy Land.

I could sum it up in one word: Tough. But the again, there is hardly a place on earth where people don't think their life is tough. Even my parents in wealthy Germany with (still) secure and comfortable pensions are moaning every day under the tax weight, the Euro and everything getting worse all the time. So tough is a very relative statement, I admit.

But life is tough here, no doubt. Nobody will deny that our security situation is somewhat more tense than, say, in the Black Forest. But, apart from a small part of the Israeli population that is directly exposed to the almost daily attacks by Palestinian militants and terrorists, most people here got adopted quite well to the threat and take it like Germans take the bad weather. It is annoying, sometimes even depressing, not much you can do about it, but probably there are better days ahead.

So, as surprising as it may be to the outside world, terror has not managed to make a significant dent in the quality of life - again, this is true for the lucky majority that has not lost anyone close in a terror attack. Maybe this is comparable to the risks of traffic. Many more people die here on the roads than in terror attacks, but if you, your family or friends have not been involved in a serious accident, you don't really relate to the dangers on the road in an emotional, upsetting way. Your know the danger is there, but chances are good it won't hit you personally.

Daily life is more a reflection of the struggles to earn a decent living than anything else. In a way, the economic situation of most people is absurdly bad. The average family gross income is barely $ 2,000 / month, and family means just that: Both parents have to be working to bring home that kind of salary, which is quite modest for a country with a flourishing HiTech industry and world-class academic institutions. In the HiTech sector itself things are a little bit better. A good engineer with 5 years experience can earn some $ 4,500 - but wait, before you pack your bags to move here, consider the tax load and the buying power. Take home at that level is less than 40% (income tax, health insurance, social security, pension funds,...) and literally every item on your shopping list except for tomatoes, cucumbers and oranges is more expensive than abroad. A half way decent middle class car goes for $ 20,000, and a 120 m^2 flat 10-20 km from Tel Aviv in a reasonable neighborhood is around $200-250,000. The bottom line: Even a modern HiTech warrior working 12 hours a day in order to develop the next big thing for a Venture Capital funded start-up can not alone guarantee the family a reasonably comfortable life in suburbia.

So while the vast majority of the Israelis is struggling to live the middle class dream, or even just to get by, the government spends like there is no tomorrow. Public sector spending is 54% of GDP, a whopping 15% higher than in Europe, for example. And the same time, public services are dismal for the most part. Sure, some of the money goes into a quite formidable and therefore expensive military, but the bigger problems are die-hard leftovers of the socialist past, like all-mighty unions and low performance standards, rampant corruption up to the highest levels and the blunt abuse of the democratic system by all kind of special interest groups. To know the right person ("protectia") is still more important than to be qualified or otherwise entitled, and not only the Arab municipalities have totally bloated administrations staffed with friends and relatives of the mayor. And I am not telling you any secrets, all of this is known, it happens every day out in the open, and never has a high ranking public servant been punished in a meaningful way for abuse of power and corruption. In China a criminal like the ex-mayor of Yehud (a bankrupt municipality near Tel Aviv) would have been executed, here the guy is not even in jail.

And then there is the fragmentation of the Israeli society into religious and secular, right wing and left wing, Askenazi and Sephardi Jews, native Israelis and immigrants, Jews and non-Jews. So if there are no other things to worry about, Israelis start to fight between themselves. This level of tension is culpable everywhere in daily life. Israelis are famous for being aggressive, unfriendly and egocentric in their public behavior. This changes dramatically once you have befriended somebody, but until that moment you are in for a rough ride by most European or American standards.

But this change of attitude is where the fun part starts. Relationships with friends, neighbors, colleagues and whomever else you can call at least an acquaintance are very, very friendly and warm. They don't stop at the superficial "How are you? (But don't bother to answer, I don't really care!)" level. Families are very close and the Friday night dinner at mom's is so commonly observed a ritual that traffic just before the Sabbath can be worse than morning rush hour.

More about the god sides of life in Israel another time.

For now just one image: "Spring in the Negev" - this is how the desert looks like right after the winter rain and before the summer heat turns everything into a brown, stony, ahh - well, desert.