The Balcony — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

Barak and Bona Washingtonia are one of those couples who have grown apart over the years. Barak’s an army buddy of mine, a regular guy, and at least from my point of view he’s as great as he always was. Bona, who’s an old friend of Ilana’s used to be a lot of fun, too, but in recent years she’s drifted into this weird hypernationalist New-Agey Breslov stuff and it’s been a strain for Barak. More than a strain. The poor guy is having a real tough time, especially now that the kids are all out of the house.

So when he invited me and Ilana over for Friday night dinner, we felt a special duty to go, even though it was freezing outside and we really felt like staying in. It’s a mitzvah to make peace in the home, between husband and wife, and all the more so on Shabbat.

illustration by Avi Katz
illustration by Avi Katz
Unfortunately, when Barak opened the door in answer to our knock, we could see immediately that things were not good. So much blood was rushing to his head that his normally olive complexion had gone dull and gray. He looked like he was about to punch a hole in the wall (something he was very good at back when we were in Nachal) and using every gram of will-power to keep himself from doing it. Ilana took one look and headed straight into the kitchen to help Bona.

“Hey, what’s eating you, ahi?” I said. “Here, let’s sit down. Don’t keep it in. Let it out. Lay it on me.”

He clenched his fists and hissed and covered his face with his hands and leaned back and looked at the ceiling and finally said, “I can’t believe she invited him!”

“What do you mean? Who?” I asked. “Hey, should I get you a drink of water? A beer?”

I could hear animated conversation in the kitchen. It didn’t sound like Bona was upset. In fact, she called out in her singsong voice: “We’ll just be a few minutes. We’re waiting for a very special guest!”

Barak took a big breath and finally got it out.

“Bibi!” he sizzled.

Read more

Is There an Obama Effect?

Gershom Gorenberg

Is this all coincidence? Or is part of what’s been happening in the Middle East for the past two weeks a result of the U.S. president declaring that the conflict of civilizations is over? My new article in The American Prospect examines the evidence.

Barack Obama spoke in Cairo two weeks ago. The Middle East has been roiling since. The street scenes in Iran have pushed the surprise pro-Western victory in Lebanon’s elections out of the headlines, along with Benjamin Netanyahu’s pained, precondition-crippled acceptance of a two-state solution and the enraged Palestinian response. Two top Israeli intelligence figures scaling down the Iranian nuclear threat from looming Holocaust to mid-range risk — a major story for a calm week — has gone almost unnoticed.

So did Obama set this off, or was he like the king in The Little Prince who ordered the sun to rise at the precise moment when it would have done so anyway? With that come two more questions: Will the crisis in Iran shake up the region even more? And what should Obama do in response?

Read more

FAQ: Amalek, Goldberg, Netanyahu and Iran

Gershom Gorenberg

When Bibi Netanyahu thinks about Iran with nukes, does he “think Amalek”? And if so what does that mean? You ask, we provide answers.

Does Bibi think Iran is Amalek? Jeffrey Goldberg set up this discussion last week in a New York Times op-ed.  The key sentence is:

I recently asked one of his advisers to gauge for me the depth of Mr. Netanyahu’s anxiety about Iran. His answer: “Think Amalek.”

Please note: That’s not a quote from Bibi, it’s a quote from the adviser taking measure of Bibi. It could be that the prime minister would use the word “Amalek,” the mythical enemy of the Jewish people. But I doubt it. It’s a term from a religious lexicon, more commonly used among religious Jews or those shaped by a religious education. Netanyahu sometimes tries religious metaphors before religious audiences, but without a lot of skill or conviction. It’s more likely that one of Netanyahu’s advisers used his own language for the boss’s state of mind.

Bibi tends to take his metaphors from history. Never mind his ability to warp history, that’s what the historian’s son likes to study and cite. As in this well-known example, as reported in Ha’aretz after Netanyahu spoke in Los Angeles in November 2006:

Read more

Vote Till You Drop

The price of being a citizen of two countries, it seems, is that elections never stop. So even before the American election winds up in one final festival of long lines, hanging chads, and voter intimidation, Israel is about to begin a new national campaign. Unlike the U.S. vote, the Israeli one will provide over 27 choices, none even close to satisfying. It’s like standing in front of the convenience-store rack of junk food when all you want is a decent meal.

Before we get started with that local madness, let me offer a last word on the American fever. If you are still arguing with a relative who thinks that the McCain-Moosehunter ticket will be better for Israeli security, my new article at the American Prospect provides some talking points:

My friends are frightened of the shame of a mother or uncle staining the family, or the tribe, with the wrong vote — a vote purportedly cast out of concern for Israel. From where I sit, this would be a shame, because the reasons Obama is better for Israel’s security are the same reasons he is better for American security.

Read more

Channeling Strangelove: Benny Morris on Iran

Gershom Gorenberg

Benny Morris’s riff on nuking Iran, featured on Friday’s New York Times op-ed page, conjures up Maj. Kong’s bronco-riding whoop at the end of Dr. Strangelove, and not just because that film revealed the glee with which the military-minded can look forward to apocalypse. Playing off the terrifying “Fail-Safe,” Stanley Kubrick and Peter Sellers also reminded viewers that the sane side could start a nuclear war by mistake – and that the “sane” side could not be counted on to act sanely. Forty-four years after Kubrick, Morris argues that Israel will use the bomb so that Iran won’t get the bomb. Is this a warning, a recommendation, or the whoop of joy as someone gives into temptation and picks up the Dangerous Thing that Dad said not to touch?

Morris, it happens, does agree with one point in my piece last week in the American Prospect. Given, he says,

Read more

Israel Attacking Iran? Five Reasons for Doubt

Is Israel planning to attack Iran sometime in the dying days of the Bush Error, I mean Bush Era? Speculation is rife. Laura Rozen has done a great job of reporting the bookmaking in Washington on this possibility.

There are very good reasons for thinking an attack would be ineffective, and that the talk about it is damaging. In a new article up at the American Prospect, I give the five reasons for doubting the wisdom of an Israeli strike, starting with this:

At first glance, the model for Israeli action is the 1981 bombing of Iraq’s Osiraq reactor. But striking Iran would be far more difficult. Former Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh, a hawk on Iran, told me to “assume that with ingenuity” Israel could succeed. Sneh cites the 1976 Entebbe raid — in which Israel flew commandos to Uganda to free passengers from a hijacked airliner — as an example of doing what appeared impossible. Sneh was the head of the medical team on that mission. Yet he is only underlining the problem: Entebbe, like Osiraq, was a pinpoint attack and totally unexpected.

Read more

Update: Bush and Lebanon; Obama, Israel and Islam

  • As I mentioned earlier , the Bush administration’s obstruction of peace talks between Israel and Syria has helped Hezbollah and Iran push for control of Lebanon. My new piece on the subject is now up at the American Prospect :

    The time, according to Hilal Khashan, was ten minutes past the ceasefire. That was another way of saying ten minutes after another Hezbollah victory, Khashan explained. I phoned Khashan — head of the political science department at Beirut’s American University — several days into Lebanon’s latest armed upheaval. He spoke in a strangely dispassionate tone I’ve heard before in Jerusalem and Ramallah, the voice of a man taking refuge from chaos in careful analysis.

    So far, Khashan said on Sunday night, the crisis that erupted last week has yielded “a major achievement” for Hezbollah. Iran, Hezbollah’s patron, has extended its influence in Lebanon. The obvious loser is the pro-Western government of Lebanon’s Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. From Beirut, U.S. support appears to be a phantom; Bush unwilling or incapable of supporting its Lebanese allies.

    From the slightly greater distance of Jerusalem, I’d add,

    Read more

Obama. What’s Complicated Here?

Gershom Gorenberg

Dan Kurtzer, the former U.S. Ambassador to Israel and an Orthodox Jew, is in Jerusalem for the 60th anniversary celebrations. This morning my wife heard him being interviewed on Israeli Radio, in Hebrew, about the U.S. election. Kurtzer explained that he’s backing Barack Obama.

This was not exactly a revelation. Kurtzer has explained his reasons for backing Obama at length . Here’s some key snippets:

…we have had eight years of disaster with respect to our foreign policy, and I have to share with you as an analyst, we have had eight years that have [compromised] the security of the state of Israel.
An administration that has ignored the search for peace in the Middle East to a point where you have chaos in the Palestinian Authority, and you have a sham process called the Annapolis process, in which our Secretary of State, whom I admire personally, travels to region and announces when she gets there that she is bringing no new ideas.
You have an administration that hasn’t engaged in the peace process, and so inherited a bad situation in 2001 and is leaving it in a worse situation in 2008. And you have an administration that has gotten us engaged in a war in Iraq that has not only cost American lives… but it’s now being called the $3 trillion war…And I would share with you that the cost to the security of Israel is incalculable.

Read more

How the Bush Administration Pursues Peace

Ha’aretz reports today on the latest leaks about the potential for Syrian-Israeli talks, and then hoses down the sparks of hopes with these paragraphs:

Following contacts between Israel and Syria, officials say significant U.S. involvement will probably be necessary for negotiations to move ahead, and that Syria is still demanding such involvement.

Both Israeli and foreign experts on Syria told Haaretz on Wednesday that a change in the American position was not on the horizon…

Read more