Monday, November 7, 2022

Reports of the demise of democratic Israel are. . .

Tom Friedman recently wrote an op-ed in the New York Times headlined "The Israel We Knew Is Gone."  While the headline is a bit misleading and the piece is a little more nuanced than that, Friedman nonetheless paints a dire future for Israel.  In his eyes, we've pretty much become Orban's Hungary.

I don’t discount the seriousness of the situation.  Religious Zionism's Bezalel Smotrich, Otzma Yehudit's Itamar Ben-Gvir, and Noam's Avi Maoz hold despicable views.  Ben-Gvir, in particular, uses and encourages violence.

At this stage in his career, Netanyahu will do or say just about anything to get into and to stay in power in order to squash his trial.  Many critics often say Netanyahu is like Trump.  Wrong.  Netanyau is much smarter.  Trump most likely believes much of what he says.  Netanyahu knows better.

Trump was born a narcissist. Netanyahu has evolved into one in his effort to gain power and thereby, he hopes, stay out of jail.  He is more akin to Republican House leader and wanna-be Speaker Kevin McCarthy.  Both have sold their souls to get what they want or perceive they need.  For the literary baseball crowd, it's Damn Yankees without the music and dance.

Despite Friedman and others who would like to write Israel off, the fact is, to continue the baseball references, we're in the early innings.The coalition negotiations just started.  Yes, Netanyahu is desperate and could give the store away, destroying the courts, marginalizing Israeli Arabs, imposing religious strictures, and destroying whatever small slimmer of possibility that is left for reconciliation with our Palestinian neighbors.

On the other hand, Netanyahu is a very wily, conniving politician, usually three or four steps ahead of his allies and opponents.  In a recent op-ed, Times of Israel editor David Horovitz does an admirable job of analyzing the challenge Netanyahu will have negotiating between the monster he helped create and now relies on and his natural impulse to seek smooth sailing. 

Netanyahu has always been risk adverse.  As Prime Minister he withstood pressure from the right that would have embroiled Israel in Gaza and other wars. He also pushed back at pressure that would have had him take steps in (probably futile) efforts to make peace.

Wednesday, August 3, 2022

Vin Scully: Mensch Personified

Baseball and sports lost an icon when broadcasting legend Vin Scully died last night at the age of 94.  But the world lost a good, decent man, the kind that is in short supply on the public stage these days. 

The voice of the Los Angeles Dodgers for 67 years (yes, 67!), Vin Scully was a the consummate professional, a beloved legend. 

He had it all.  The voice.  The poetry.  The knowledge of history.  The unique ability to tell the corniest story without sounding. . . corny.  The ability to zoom in on the “little angel,” the two or three-year old dripping ice cream in the stands, and say some syrupy, sentimental words without sounding ridiculously syrupy or sentimental. 

Scully, or Vinnie as all of us who “knew” him and thought of him as a comforting, familiar “friend,” had something few in broadcasting or, for that matter, in life in general, had:  he knew when to shut up.  Vinnie would let the scene—the spectacular catch, the clutch hit, the historic moment, the roar of the crowd—speak for itself. 

I never heard him speak ill of anyone.  I have never heard anyone else say that he did.  Not a whiff of scandal or dishonor.  Old-school virtues. 

He was one of those rare public figures who did not always need to be the center of attention.  He didn’t feel threatened by the silence, and he didn’t feel the need to have the light shine on him.  It was never about Vinnie.

Even when it was supposed to be about Vinnie, it wasn’t.   As retirement neared at the age of 88 and the accolades came flowing in, he always acted humbly, always took it all with a grain of salt, always tried to share the spotlight, always tried to deflect the attention a bit. 

A few of my favorite Vin Scully memories:

--The ninthinning of Sandy Koufax’ 1965 perfect game, his fourth no-hitter.  “It is 9:46 p.m. in the City of Angels. . . .

--Hank Aaron’s 715th major league home run, breaking Babe Ruth’s record.  "What a marvelous moment for baseball. What a marvelous moment for Atlanta and the state of Georgia. What a marvelous moment for the country and the world. . . A black man is getting a standing ovation in the Deep South for breaking a record of an all-time baseball idol. And it is a great moment for all of us. . .” 

--Kirk Gibson’s two-out, walk-off home run in the first game of the 1988 World Series.  "In a year that has been so improbable, the impossible has happened.” 

--The San Francisco Giants AT&T Park, the final game he called, when the Giants put up a plaque honoring him in the visitor’s broadcast booth, Vinnie pointing to it, and reading it for Willie Mays, and, as always, trying to deflect attention and get back to announcing the game.    "I was thinking sitting in the booth talking to Willie, who would ever think that little redhead kid with the tear in his pants, shirttail hanging out, playing stickball in the streets of New York with a tennis ball and a broom handle, would wind up sitting here, 67 years of broadcasting, and with my arm around one of the greatest players I ever saw, the great Willie Mays.''  

Humility, class, grace, honesty, modesty, intelligence, poetry.  We could use a lot more people with Vin Scully’s characteristics in public life today, be it sports, entertainment, media, politics, or government. 

Thanks, Vinnie, for all the great times.  May that beautiful voice last forever. May your memory be for a blessing.  

(Originally published in The Times of Israel)



Tuesday, July 19, 2022

Welcome to my neighborhood

It was exciting to have President Biden here in Israel last week even if, as some analysts have asserted, we were just a waystation on his way to his real objective, Saudi Arabia.  It's understandable if we were second fiddle; U.S. gas prices were topping five bucks a gallon and Saudi Arabia has  oil.  We've got computer chips and falafel.

Our apartment is very close to the President and the Prime Minister's residences, so we had some inconvenience but we also really felt the activity.  It was refreshing to have a President of the U.S. and a Prime Minister of Israel who acted like adults and conducted themselves civilly.  No incidents, no embarrassing statements by either side, no significant gaffes. Disagreements handled smoothly and respectfully. Warmth exuded.

Regardless of  politics, a lot of people here in Israel are thankful that visit went smoothly and safely.  There was a collective sigh of relief when Air Force One took off.

Prime Minister Lapid, having just recently taken office upon the downfall of the Bennet coalition that Lapid knitted together and facing an election on November 1st, acquitted himself well.  He displayed some class and graciousness, characteristics often missing in Israel politics and in politics generally.  He broke protocal by inviting his predecessor, Naftali Bennett, to the airport to greet Biden and his entourage.

And he demonstrated class and sensitivity to Defense Minister Gantz, a man who betrayed his commitment to Lapid and those that voted for him not to join a Netanyahu-led government based on Netanyahu's commitment that the prime ministership would rotate to Gantz, a commitment that, out of about 9.5 million Israelis, only Gantz and perhaps his wife believed had a chance of being kept.

Despite having ample reason to shun Gantz, Lapid, knowing that Gantz's mother, like Lapid's father, was a Holocaust survivor, included him in Biden's visit to Yad Vashem, Israel's official memorial to Jewish victims of the Holocaust and an obligatory must-stop for visiting dignitaries.

A major point of agreement:  Both Biden and Lapid expressed their support for a "two-state solution."  And both agreed that it is not likely to happen anytime soon.

Tom Friedman's recent column discussing the visit takes off from his long-stated belief that without the establishment of a Palestinian state, Israel is headed to a bi-national state or a non-democratic state.

Monday, April 4, 2022

Never Again?

 "Both the fighters and the ordinary civilians, they kept looking up at the western sky. . . They were looking for the American warplanes that they felt sure were coming to help them.  All that week, when people realized I was an American journalist, they would grab at my jacket:  'When are the Americans coming?  They told us they were coming.'"

"There was all this shooting going on, people were in despair, and they knew the end was coming, and all of a sudden, this cheer goes up.  And it spreads.  Even over the gunfire, you could hear this cheering.  I finally asked someone what was going on, and they said, 'the Americans have arrived at last, they are on the outskirts, but they're coming this way.'  So this rumor had started. . . Well, this was a very difficult thing to hear."

Timothy Foote, a Time-Life journalist, as quoted in Scott Anderson's The Quiet Americans p. 451-2, describing Budapest in 1956.

Perhaps history does not repeat itself exactly, but sometimes it comes hauntingly close.

If tyrants could be stopped by the number of reports of the spotting and siezing of oligarchs' yachts, Putin would be six feet under by now.

If wars were won by talking about how strong and comprehensive sanctions are and how unified NATO is, white flags would be flying from the Kremlin.

But wars driven by expansionist ideology and dreams of an empire are not deterred or beaten by sanctions.  And, besides, Germany and several other European nations are still paying Russia for substantial parts of their oil supplies, and two countries representing 2.8 billion people are not imposing sanctions.

Every former and would-be general doing commentary on the war is enthusiastically exclaiming their astonishment at just how bad the Russian army is performing.

(Continue at

Wednesday, March 2, 2022

Is Israel standing up enough?

David Horovitz makes a persuasive case for Israel taking a full-throated stand in support of Ukraine and making an explicit condemnation of Russia's egregious invasion.

In an ideal world, that is what any democratic country that respects sovereignty and independence should be doing. Of course, in an ideal world, an oppressive regime should not exist and certainly should not be engaging in naked, unprovoked aggression against its neighbors.

The world's only Jewish nation, its people imbued with a history of oppression and powerless against evil forces, of course feels instinctively that standing with the victim is the right place to be.

And yet there is consternation over an apparent hesitation by Prime Minister Bennett to specifically condemn Russia. There is a debate over whether Israel is doing enough.

It is interesting that Israelis are having this debate among themselves. Are there many non-European countries that are having internal debates about their level of support for Ukraine? It is also interesting that citizens of other countries, including the United States, are asking what Israel is doing. And, of course, there are some who are saying Israel is not doing enough.

Why are Israelis and others having this debate, asking these questions, making these criticisms?  Is it because of the Jews' long history of being the victims and their long identification with the underdog?

Is it because Israel takes pride in and often speaks of its status as the "only democracy in the Middle East? Is it because Israel has a special relationship with and receives unparalled support from the the United States, the "leader of the free world" that is leading the non-military effort to repel Russia?

One might argue that at least some of the criticism comes from a disproportionate focus on Israel's alleged faults, and from a desire to take any opportunity to discredit Israel. From the same motivation that causes the U.N. to pass 14 resolutions against Israel in 2021 while passing only four against all the other countries on earth.

From the same unending hostility that causes the U.N. Human Rights Council to make Israel the only nation with a permanent agenda item, and that causes the U.N Human Rights Council to choose Israel as the only country to be subject to an open-ended and effectively permanent inquiry into alleged war crimes.  You don't have to be much of a cynic to believe that at least some critics are motivated by a deep-seated animus toward Israel and/or Jews.

The fact is that Israel has drawn lines, has balanced competing interests, has considered both moral and practical factors in doing and saying what it has done and said about Ukraine.  In that regard, it is like every other country, including the U.S. and the nations of Europe.

Among other things, those nations have considered their dependence on Russian energy, their desire to avoid a direct military confrontation with Russia, their businesses who rely on Russian customers and suppliers, and they have weighed those considerations against the moral and practical reasons for confronting Russia.

None of those countries have chosen to jeopardize the lives of their soldiers or civilians in their stand against Putin's naked aggression against a sovereign country that wishes to be a part of Europe.

One can argue with Israel's conclusion, but one cannot argue that Israel isn't like every other country in weighing carefully all of its interests when determining how to support Ukraine.

What has Israel done regarding Ukraine?

1. It has come out in support of Ukrainian sovereignty. Foreign Minister Lapid specifically mentioned Russia in his condemnation while Prime Minister Bennett has not.

2. Israeli doctors have flown in to assist.

3. It has provided 100 tons of humanitarian aid.

4. It voted in support of the UN General Assembly’s resolution condemning the invasion.

5. While not directly supportive of Ukraine, it is noteworthy that Israel is helping citizens of countries that wish its destruction leave Ukraine.

Israel’s statement in support of Ukrainian sovereignty and Lapid’s mention of Russia caused Russia to attack Israel for controlling the Golan Heights.

What has Israel not done:

1. The Prime Minister did not specifically condemn Russia.

2. Israel did not co-sponsor the UN Security Council condemning the invasion, a resolution that was doomed to defeat at the hands of Russia's veto.

Any person who supports democracy and freedom would like to see Israel, as well as many other countries, be even more vociferous and more generous in their support of Ukraine.  However, there are reasons with life-and-death implications behind Israel's approach. Horovitz makes mention of the situation with Russia in Syria, but then somehow disregards it in arriving at his conclusion.

Because of decisions by both Presidents Obama and Trump, Iran and Russia both have a military presence in Syria, with Iran supporting Hezbollah and other terrorist groups in efforts to attack Israel and to install sophisticated precision missiles aimed at Israel, like the 140,000 installed in Lebanon (often embedded amongst civilians) despite UN resolution 1701 assuring that, except for the Lebanese Army,  southern Lebanon would be demilitarized.

Israel has an arrangement with Russia that allows it to prevent Iranian entrenchment in Syria, but Israel has to coordinate closely with Russia’s military there. One mistake that causes a Russian casualty or death, and Israel is toast.

This is not theoretical geopolitics. If Israel cannot operate in Syria, Iran and Hezbollah will become entrenched there and will use it as a base to harass and kill Israelis. If Russia does not allow Israel to operate in Syria, and/or does not coordinate with it, Israeli pilots and other soldiers will have a much tougher job and be at much more risk as they attempt to defend the north.

The importance of Israel's need to manuever in Syria becomes magnified if the reports of the resuscitation of the Iranian nuclear deal prove true.  The deal, negotiated by nations outside the region, will reportedly do nothing to impede Iran's ability to support terrorism, to destabilize other nations, and perhaps to slow Iran's development of ballistic missles capable of carrying nuclear weapons.  It will undoubtedly put more funds at Iran's disposal.

There is another risk:  About 200,000 Jews live in Russia.  While times have been relatively good as of late, Russia and many Russians have a deep, historic "tradition" of vicious, often violent anti-Semitism.  While it may not be the overriding factor,  Israeli leaders are always mindful of the jeopardy that Diaspora Jews may be in as a result of Israel's foreign policies.

The question is if the upside of an explicit condemnation by Prime Minister Bennett and the comparatively small amount of military aid it could contribute outweigh these real, potentially deadly risks.

Many of the people in the West who think Israel should say and do more despite the life-and-death risks that may result live in countries, including ones in Europe, that will not commit their soldiers to fight for Ukraine. They will not even establish a no-fly zone.  And yet they would have Israel make statements that could very well have deadly consequences for Israel. It seems just a bit hypocritical.

Ironically, President Zelensky asked Israel to host and mediate peace talks because he is of the view is that Israel is one of the few countries that has decent relations with both Russia and Ukraine. Putin rejected the idea.

While Zelensky's proposal was is flattering and shows the value of Israel's relationship with Russia, Putin's rejection was probably a good thing. Bennett and Lapid have enough trouble mediating between their coalition partners. It's doubtful they needed additional work.

 (Originally published in The Times of Israel)

Friday, February 25, 2022

Ukraine, Israel, and the nuclear bomb

Virtually every democratic leader has declared Putin's invasion of Ukraine an unadulterated, unjustified attack of a tyrant against a free and independent country.  They have declared that such aggression cannot stand, that might does not make right.

President Biden stated that "America stands up to bullies.  America stands up for freedom."

Retired General Petreaus has called Putin's actions "An assault on democracy."

What is the response of the free democratic world to this naked aggression?  To this violation of sacred sovereignty?  How does America and its allies stand up to bullies?  How do they stand up for freedom?

Apparently, by imposing some financial penalties.  But not by meeting military aggression with military might.

The minute the Biden Administration and NATO made it clear that NATO would not use military means to defend Ukraine, they assured that Putin would move against Ukraine and, if not stopped, ultimately against other nations.  His history bears this out.  The history of dictatorial tyrants bears it out.

Why have America and its allies not stood up militarily for Ukraine.  I have heard two reasons: 1) Americans and Europeans are tired of endless wars.  2) Ukraine is not part of NATO.

The answers: 1) Anyone who thinks allowing this invasion to proceed without a military counter by democracies will prevent future fighting that will involve the U.S. and NATO  is living in a fantasy land.  They obviously do not read history.