Slouching Toward Sodom — “Necessary Stories” column from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

   painting by James TissotAnd the Lord appeared to me by the sycamores of Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv as I sat at the door to my tent in the heat of the day, and I raised my eyes and looked, and lo, three men stood by me. And when I saw them, I ran out to meet them from the tent door and bowed down to the earth to be frisked, for they were surrounded by mean-looking buzz-cut security men with little thingies in their ears.

And I said, “My Lord Bibi, if now I have found favor in thy sight, pass not away, I pray thee, even though I didn’t vote for you and never will. Let now a little water be fetched from the kiosk over there and wash your feet because those black Oxfords are really the wrong thing to be wearing on the Mediterranean coast on such a sweltering day.”

Lord Bibi consulted with his companions, the Lord High Treasurer and Philosopher-King-in-Waiting and Mr. Daddy Landbucks.

“We can stand,” Lord Bibi said. “We don’t have much time as we have other engagements to the east. We just came by to offer our sympathies and to say that we’ve been trying for years to lower housing prices but have been frustrated by the monstrous bureaucracy deeded to us by our Bolshevik predecessors.”

Read moreSlouching Toward Sodom — “Necessary Stories” column from The Jerusalem Report

You’re a Good Man, Bibi Brown — “Necessary Stories” column from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

illustration by Avi Katz
“Fire! Fire! The Temple’s on fire!” I cry out, waking myself up.

Ilana rolls over and glares at me. “Calm down,” she says. “Your freedoms do not include shouting ‘Fire!’ in a crowded Temple.”

“Ohmigod,” I say. “I had the weirdest nightmare.”

“It must be something you didn’t eat,” Ilana suggests.

“I was a dog,” I say.

“A dog?”

“In a comic strip. And there was this music …”

“This is the fluff of which dreams are made?” Ilana sighs. “Let’s hear it…”

Read moreYou’re a Good Man, Bibi Brown — “Necessary Stories” column from The Jerusalem Report

Beyond Unbelief: Bibi’s Speech and Fred Cavayé’s Pour Elle

Haim Watzman

Sometimes a mediocre film puts everything in perspective. When the lights went down in the Cinematheque last night I was in the middle of discussion with my companion (full disclosure: I’m married to her) how to parse Bibi’s two-state speech. One position (not mine) was that the prime minister had offered an honest and sincere statement of both Israel’s willingness to compromise for peace, whereas the other position (not hers) was that Bibi was just paying lip service to President Obama’s peace initiative and had no real intention of making any progress with the Palestinians.

The film was Fred Cavayé’s Pour Elle (Anything For Her), a thriller that calls for a willing suspension of more beliefs than does Christopher Hitchens writing about God.

Lisa and Julien are happily in love and have a cute little boy named Oscar. Lisa is arrested and convicted of a murder she did not commit. When all legal recourses are exhausted and Lisa turns suicidal, Julien, who teaches French in a high school, decides to free his wife by force. He consults with a former prisoner who has written a book about his many prison breaks (for a guy on the lam, the guy is startlingly easy to locate and oddly willing to speak freely to a total stranger). Then he carefully concocts a plan, scrawled all over the wall of his study at home, to grab Lisa when she’s being taken to the hospital because of her diabetes and abscond with her and Oscar to El Salvador.

Read moreBeyond Unbelief: Bibi’s Speech and Fred Cavayé’s Pour Elle

Unaerobics: Bibi’s Speech Tonight

Haim Watzman

It’s a hot afternoon and I’m still feeling heavy from overeating on Shabbat. So should I go to my Sunday night masters swim group or stay home and watch Binyamin Netanyahu’s much-heralded policy address? Which will get my pulse up higher?

I think I’ll go for the swim. By all accounts, Netanyahu will surprise no one. He’ll try to square President Obama’s circle by declaring how important the Israel-U.S. relationship is, while at the same time refusing to accept America’s lead in setting Israel on course toward serious negotiations over an accommodation with the Palestinians and the Arab world.

Netanyahu will follow the lead of his mentor, Menachem Begin, in insisting that Israel’s settlements in the territories have no connection to negotiations with the Arabs. President Jimmy Carter thought he had gotten Begin’s consent to a settlement freeze until the ultimate fate of the West Bank and Gaza Strip was determined; Begin insisted that he’d agreed only to a three-month freeze. Netanyahu might offer a similar sop,

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Bibi’s Taxes–Value Subtracted

Haim Watzman

Gershom and I had an argument back in 1996, when Binyamin Netanyahu was elected to his first term as prime minister. Gershom claimed that Bibi was, at core, a radical right-wing ideologue, whereas I argued that he was an opportunistic hack.

In that term, Bibi went on to prove himself a devout Republican-style capitalist on the economic front and a territorial maximalist on the diplomatic front. But, in the wake of the government’s approval of the national budget yesterday, I think I might win the argument this time around. Over the past week, Bibi has swayed, bent, and ended up breaking most of his principles. The result is a budget that is a mishmash. It’s not the tax-cutting, small-government budget he promised, nor is it an Obama-style Keynesian economic recovery budget. It’s the worst of both.

One of its weirdest provisions is the hike of one percent in the value added tax, to 16.5 percent, and the decision to levy the tax, for the first time ever, on fresh produce. No one likes tax hikes, nor do people like filing their tax returns for the year. Luckily, software exists to help people do this and you may even find TurboTax deals online too.

With Israel, like the rest of the world, facing recession, national economic policy needs to encourage consumption. Raising this consumption tax does the opposite. Goods and services will cost more, and people will buy less. Economic activity will slow, jobs will be lost, and people will buy even less.

Furthermore, the VAT is a regressive tax. It’s paid by all Israelis, and since the poor and middle class (this includes the authors of the South Jerusalem blog) spend nearly all their income and have little to save, they pay a higher proportion of their income in VAT than do rich people. Imposing it on basic goods like produce makes it even more regressive.

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Cold Feet–Why Israeli Voters Shouldn’t Get Their Fantasy Government

Haim Watzman The talk in the locker room at the Jerusalem Pool has been surprisingly conciliatory since the election last week. Dani, who voted Meretz (after seriously considering Hadash) and Siman, who voted Likud, agree that the next coalition should consist of the Likud, Kadima, and Labor, under Bibi Netanyahu’s leadership. When I pointed out … Read moreCold Feet–Why Israeli Voters Shouldn’t Get Their Fantasy Government

The Election Results–First Thoughts

Haim Watzman

The exit polls show Tzipi Livni and the Kadima party slightly ahead of the Netanyahu and the Likud, but the right-wing nationalist block with a small majority. The Green Movement-Meimad did not achieve the two percent threshold.

So was my vote wasted?

There are two possible answers. Had the Green Movement-Meimad’s votes gone to Livni directly, she’d be in a stronger position, with a clearer lead over the Likud. And had they gone to Labor or Meretz, the left-wing block just might barely have tied the right wing block, meaning that Netanyahu could not form a government of the right alone. (Probably not, but maybe just.) From this point of view, my vote was wasted and in fact gave Bibi a boost into power.

On the other hand, even if such a tie between right and left had been achieved, the only government that Livni could form would be one much like the one she might just be able to form with the current results. That means a government that will be dependent on the support of at least two of the right wing and/or ultra-religious parties. And that means a government that would be unable to pursue the peace process or make significant progress on the other pressing issues facing the country. In that case, the votes cast for the Green Movement-Meimad would not have made much difference anyway.

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Is Birthright for Bibi?

Haim Watzman

Is Birthright a wonderful program that encourages Jewish identity and commitment to Israel, or is it a propaganda machine aimed at promoting a particular right-wing nationalist vision of the Jewish state?

The latter, says Josh Nathan-Kazis in his op-ed How Your Free Trip Will Help Israeli Hard Liner Benjamin Netanyahu Become Prime Minister in the Jewish student magazine New Voices . Nathan-Kazis focuses on Birthright’s dependence on the largesse of right-wing casino tycoon Sheldon Adelson. According to Nathan-Kazis, Adelson has donated $67 million to Birthright and supplied a third of its operating budget for 2008. Adelson also funds the right-wing, pro-Likud newspaper Yisrael HaYom and is a major backer of the Jerusalem-based neo-con think-tank, The Shalem Center

Nathan-Kazis is right that wherever money is involved, we should suspect political influence. And, in fact, some young American Jews who sign up for a Birthright trips find themselves being handed a largely Greater Israel, neo-con bill of goods on their trips. But certainly not all, and evidently not because of Adelson’s money.

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Secret Shorts: Avner Shor’s New Book on Sayeret Matkal

Haim Watzman

When my son informed me Saturday night that he was taking all three of my pairs of walking shorts back to the army with him, I was left scratching my head. Why would a commando-in-training need three pairs of walking shorts? He wasn’t telling me, and I resigned myself to the fact that I’ll never know.

In shadowy, prestigious elite military units, not only operations, but mundane everyday activities remain secret pretty much forever. As if I needed to be reminded of that, Sefarim, Ha’aretz’s Wednesday book supplement, has a two page spread (in Hebrew) on a new book about “The Unit”—Avner Shor’s Crossing Borders: Sayeret Matkal and Its Founder, Avraham Arnan. Reviewer Yiftah Reicher-Atir, himself a veteran of The Unit, notes that Shor’s book contains little about the actual operations that Sayeret Matkal has carried out since it was founded in 1957. The large majority of them remain classified.

Read moreSecret Shorts: Avner Shor’s New Book on Sayeret Matkal