Little Secrets– “Necessary Stories” column from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

“Don’t look,” said my friend Alon. “But the former Shin Bet chief just sat down at the table to our right.”

I gazed intently into my soy latte and then, without moving my head, squinted over in the direction of said table.

illustration by Avi Katz

“All I see is a blur,” I said. “I think I need to get my peripheral vision checked.”

“No, that’s really the way he looks,” said Alon.

Alon is a correspondent for one of the major dailies. I’d called him in desperation on Saturday night because I had a column to prepare and had no idea what to write. Alon knows everyone and everything and I figured he’d be able to slip me a scoop.

“Meet me at 10 a.m. in the Aroma Café on Arlosoroff Street,” he told me. “We’ll brainstorm. And it’s a good place to pick up a tidbit or two.”

The cafe was buzzing at mid-morning. Nearly every table was taken, and at least one person at each table was a familiar face. Over the bar hung a large sign with large letters: “Aroma Arlosoroff: A Quiet Spot For Intimate Encounters.” The morning sun flooded in through the plate glass windows that made up three of the café’s four sides.

“It’s where I meet my most confidential sources,” Alon whispered as we walked through the door. “If you come here, you gotta know how to keep a secret.”

“I see there’s free WiFi,” I said.

“Hey, stop staring,” Alon hissed.

“But that guy over there, surrounded by the paparazzi,”

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Requiem for Sini, and for the Labor Party

Gershom Gorenberg My new piece on the Labor Party is up at The American Prospect: Sini died. My son spotted the square black-bordered obituary notice deep inside the newspaper. It was placed by Sini’s kibbutz. It referred to him as “Sini,” his nickname — “Chinaman” in loose translation, politically incorrect today but accepted when he … Read more

House of Ill-Dispute

There have been some pleasant surprises this week. For instance, the Supreme Court ordered the state to explain why it isn’t removing the outpost of Migron, built on other people’s land. The state – meaning Defense Minister Ehud Barak, for practical purposes – wanted an indefinite delay, based on a supposed agreement with the Council … Read more

Military Intelligence – a Contradiction in Terms?

Maybe there’s some uniquely calm land where military heroes and ex-generals don’t get a head start in politics. But that land is neither Israel or the United States. The only thing consistent about John McCain’s campaign is the claim that he deserves to be president because he was a POW. Closer to where I live, both Shaul Mofaz and Ehud Barak presume that having been the country’s top military commander not only qualifies them to be prime minister, but makes the job theirs by right. A military man, supposedly, not only understands national security but has proven his ability to make decisions under pressure.

For the past week, though, all three have done their best to disabuse of such notions:

  • John McCain finds himself behind in the polls, trying to design policy on economics, which he doesn’t understand, facing a debate for which he is not ready. What does our war hero do? Why, with heroic cool and elan, he panics.

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“No, no, no, I won’t play on Tzipi’s team. She’s a little giirrl.”

Gershom Gorenberg

Occasionally, pop culture offers the appropriate commentary on matters of state. To understand Shaul Mofaz’s feelings about Tzipi Livni winning the Kadima primary, view a snippet of this scene from She’s the Man, a remake of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night set in high school. (Sorry, there’s a block on embedding the clip.) The relevant bit here is at 4:18-4:36, after Viola scores the winning goal in the big soccer game. Watch the goalie in the orange uniform who failed to block the kick by the girl.

Ehud Barak seems to feel the same way about serving in a cabinet with Tzipi Livni as the boss.

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Also Bankrupt: The Israeli Political System

OK, Lehman Bros went belly up. Far as I am from wealth, I still find this upsetting. I find it even more upsetting that the Israeli political system currently has about as much credibility with the public as Lehman’s assets had with its creditors. The ruling party’s vote tomorrow for a new leader comes down … Read more

The Belabored Party

My wife occasionally mentions a repeated gag on the fake news broadcast on Saturday Night Live in the 70s. After other mangled news, the announcer would say, “And Franco is still dying.” Given what he could expect in the next world, it’s no wonder he was slow about moving there.

But the record for slow political deaths surely belongs to Israel’s Labor Party.

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Barak Speaks–Does He Have Anything To Say?

Haim Watzman

Ehud Barak will Talk More to the Media,” says the headline in today’s Ha’aretz (Hebrew edition). It’s a mark of the sad state of Israeli politics that it’s worth a headline when the leader of what ought to be the country’s progressive camp decides to talk to the press.

It’s hard to believe but, since regaining leadership of the Labor Party more than a year ago, Barak has said virtually nothing about the major policy issues of the day. He’s one of the three major contenders for the prime minister’s post in the next elections, yet he’s given the public little information about his thinking. We know his social policies, his foreign policy strategy, or his budget priorities. His message to the voting public has been “trust me because I’m Israel’s most decorated soldier and a proven leader.” But leader of what, and in which direction?

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Obama in Israel: Political Implications

Gershom Gorenberg

Obama stopped through for two nights and a day, as if he were writing one of the New York Times travel pieces about how to spend 36 hours in some locale. At first glance, the trip was purely about photo-ops, gathering footage for later campaign ads that will air in south Florida. But there were some hints of real political content, as I explain in my new article at The American Prospect. Here’s one piece:

Hamas Walks It Back: On Wednesday morning, Israel Radio reported responses to Obama’s arrival, including this one: “A Hamas spokesman said, ‘The American senator is trying to reach the White House via Tel Aviv, at the expense of the Palestinians.'”

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The Extremists of Your Own City Come First

Gershom Gorenberg

This week’s key misunderstood news story from the Looking Glass Land of the West Bank is that the Defense Ministry is about to approve settlement at a spot called Maskiot, near the Jordan River. On first glance, that’s bad because it means that the government is abandoning its freeze on new settlements. At second glance, the freeze on new settlements is a joke – but Maskiot is really bad news. It shows again that the government consistently, reflexively, obsessively gives in to the most extreme elements of the settlement movement.

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Tzipi and the General: Who’s Experienced?

Gershom Gorenberg

Tzipi Livni is running against the embodiment of dumb military macho, and she’s responding wrong.

In a Ha’aretz piece this morning (in Hebrew), political reporter Mazal Mualam tells us that Livni’s main competition in Kadima, Shaul Mofaz is conducting “a negative campaign against Livni, focused on her lack of military experience” while Livni “is refraining from personal attacks.” Instead, she’s trying to set her own defense agenda, most recently by touring the northern border with the Italian foreign minister. It’s a quieter version of an ad about phone calls at 3 a.m. to the commander-in-chief.

Livni, let me stress, is far too hawkish for my tastes. A colleague who covers diplomacy describes her as a person who lacks empathy, a quality needed for good negotiation: You don’t have to agree with the person across the table, but it’s valuable to understand how he or she thinks. That said, she’s more of a diplomat than her rivals within Kadima, or outside of it. Labor’s Ehud Barak not only flubbed his chance, he has rationalized his failure by dismissing the very possibility of peace, reinforcing the right’s politics of despair. His line is, “If I couldn’t do it, it can’t be done.” Fortunately, in a multiparty system, I’m not constrained to vote for Barak, Bibi Netanyahu, or whoever Kadima picks. But how Kadima goes about making the choice still matters.

Mofaz is an ex-chief of staff who exemplifies how mediocre the officer class has become.

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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.

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