Random Musings on the Past Week in Tel Aviv

Happily it’s been a very quiet week here, well I guess you can say that if you ignore all the stoning attacks, knifing and other events, almost all of which took place in the West Bank and Jerusalem. Here in Tel Aviv we do are best to ignore events in the West Bank or even in Jerusalem.  They say Tel Aviv is a bubble- and while it is a big bubble it certainly is one.  I was speaking to my son-in laws- father today, and he complained that I had promised to make it North this summer( he lives on the Lebanese border).  I realized as I was making excuses to him that other than one trip to Jerusalem, and dinner in Ramat Gan  the only place I have been this summer outside of Tel Aviv  has been to pick up and drop off people at Ben Gurion Airport.  I really need to get out a little more- I know Tel Aviv and Tel Avivan’s very well the rest of the country these days a little less so.

The only real news this week has been the decision by Minister of Interior Security Gilad Erdon to appoint Gal Hirsch as the new police commissioner.  The appointment has been controversial.  The police object to having an outsider brought in as police commissioner. Most of the country is not sympathetic to that complaint, since its widely accepted the police department needs a thorough house cleaning that only an outsider can bring.  The reason the appointment is particularly controversial is that Hirsch was commander of the Northern Battalion responsible for the Lebanese border right before and during the Second Lebanese War and many people including parents of the soldiers killed blame him for the mistakes of that war.  I don’t know him personally. However, yesterday I spoke  to a friend who served under him.  His most salient point was that everyone, his soldiers as well as he  himself, was sure he was on the way to becoming Chief of Staff- that outsized self confidence sounds like his Achilles heal.

The other news of course has been coming out of Washington and that has been the constant drip of Democrats coming out in support of the Iran agreement. The chances of stopping the agreement in Congress never good are now close to zero. I hate to be right, but I certainly wrote on the first day it was suicidal for the Israeli government and the  American Jewish community to fight the Obama administration at this point.  Its not clear to me why that was not obvious to everyone.  Peter Beinart had an article in today’s Ha’aretz, on the failure of the American Jewish leadership on this matter. While many of  points he made in the article I do not fully agree with, when the vote takes place and its clear how great the failure has been, in normal societies all the players would resign, the head of AIPAC, the head of the Presidents Conference and probably Netanyahu as well.  Of course none of that will happen and the cause of our defeat will be “the whole world’s against us”.

One final interesting point this week has been the mini furor caused by an interview given by Natalie Portman, in the Independent, where she complains about the uni dimension of her holocaust education, a subject that I care about deeply.  It has given me an idea for  a Newsweek article discussing the Iran deal, Jewish identity and the holocaust.  Hopefully it will be done by Monday.

Shabbat Shalom


Why Were Missiles Fired at Israel From Syria

Yesterday was a strange day.  I wrote an article for Newsweek in the early afternoon, prompted by Israel’s  deployment of the Iran Dome system in a number of cities.  The article centered on the unpredictability of life in Israel.  I filed the article at 5 PM and then at 5:40 missiles were fired into Northern Israel from Syria.  Certainly an unexpected event.  We were concerned about missiles from the South instead we received them from the North.

It turns out the weapons were fired by Islamic Jihad, supposedly under the direction of the Iranians from one of the few places on the Golan Heights that the Syrian Army still controls. The big questions of course is why.  The simple answer was that it was a retaliation for an Israeli attack a couple of weeks ago.  That could be the case, but this attack was not the firing of a few mortars toward the Israeli part of the Golan Heights, it was the firing of missiles that landed much deeper in Israel.  It was an act that was sure to bring about a significant Israeli response- one that took place.  The question remains why?  One can only speculate- but I have one potential answer.  Hardliners in the Iranian regime who are interested on in derailing the nuclear agreement by provoking a crisis with Israel.  Can I prove it of course not- one of our greatest weakness is how little we understand about internal Iranian politics.  Who are the opponents of the agreement and why do the object? Is it idealogical? Or might it be because certain forces such as the Quds forces have been making a great deal of money because of the embargo and will be the biggest losers?

The answer is we simply do not know.  Israel responded to yesterday attack with disproportional response both from the air and from artillery fire.  The goal was to show the Syrians that if they allowed further attacks from their soil they will price that their regime cannot afford.  Of course another thing we do not know is how much the Syrians are still masters in their own house.


Computers and the Future of Work

Recently there has been a number of books and articles written about the end of the work  including one in the Atlantic called World Without Work  or the book Rise of the Robots.

Screenshot 2015-08-18 13.48.35


It’s a problem that I have been thinking about for a long time and to me its probably the greatest economic threat  facing the Western world.  For the past few years one of the major issues topic of discussion has been the rising income disparity in most western society.  While the problem has been discussed, not enough effort has been directed at understanding the causes of the problem.  While a clear and immediate cause has no doubt the drop in income taxes and estate taxes.  However that only explains part of the problem, another part of the problem is no doubt the percent of the economy that the Financial sector takes which has risen from from 2% to 6%. Much of the rise of the financial sector was made possible only because of computers.  No one could be making any money doing high speed trading if it was not for computers, and there could be no mega banks without their computer systems.

The largest culprit however, is the raising roll of computers in society.  Whether it’s replacing factory line workers, the book store workers who no longer have jobs because of Amazon, or even the para legals who are now being replaced by computer programs, the world needs less workers to do more.  Today, there are few jobs that cannot be replaced by  computers.  This has resulted in a fundamental shift in the balance between Capital and Labor.  For centuries there has been a balance between the two, to create products you needed both- labor needed capital to buy equipment- capital needed workers to produce the products so there remained a balance between the two.

Today with enough capital you can accomplish almost anything.  Very few people with very little infrastructure, can accomplish very much.  Google is an example of that shift- Profits that were distributed over hundreds of newspapers and tens of thousands of workers are now concentrated in the pockets of Google who now earns more then the whole newspapers industry together all thanks to its massive computing power and brilliant algorithms.

Many times in the past people have lamented new technologies and the jobs that have been lost.  I believe that this time it’s different, we are not expanding the muscle power of humans, by giving them mechanized plows or making them move faster by giving them trains and planes, we are replacing the human brain with the fruit of technology.

The politicians of the world spend their time debating, lowering or raising taxes, tariffs and trade agreements, while missing the much larger story right in front of us.  The implications of these shifts are too large to fully calculate, but require serious examination.  They will also require a complete change in our social and economic policies.  It will not be enough to just retrain workers we will need to rethink the very nature of work and income.

This past week I had to pre tape my weekly radio appearance, which usually covers Foreign  Affairs, but since we did not know what would happen in intervening days we decided to talk about the future of work instead.


Some Things Never Change

When I was a teenager, my parents use to come visit Israel every summer ( as I did) and they liked staying at the old Moriah Hotel.  The old hotel was a small hotel with 30-40 rooms run by the owner.  This was during the period between the Six Day War and the Yom Kippur War and with tourism booming in Jerusalem, they decided to expand, and try to build the new building that stands today on Keren Hayesod Street in Jerusalem.  When I visited them I would stare in amazement as three or four workers would be working on the site trying to build a big hotel.  Three summers in a row they returned and slowly a hole was dug, foundations laid and maybe one story finished.  Finally, I imagine the owner ran out of money, sold out to one of the chains at the time and quickly the building went up.


I was reminded of that story today when I went with my son Eytan to Mifgash Ha Steak, which is located at the intersection of Begin and Karlbach- one of the interchanges that have been closed to begin work on the Light Rail.  I stood in the restaurant talking to the owner, one of the many owners of small business that will be terribly impacted by the construction, that is expected to keep the intersection closed for five years.  We discussed why is it that in Israel it takes five years to do the work that would  allow the intersection to reopen, when in many other places the work would be done in 6 months.  As we looked out the windows of the restaurant it was clear, there we one piece of heavy equipment working. On the whole site, I counted at tops 10 workers toiling away.  Other places in the world, if a key intersection was to close they would have hundreds of workers toiling 24/ 6 finishing the project.


Some things never change!

Danny Danon Ambassador to the UN??

So Minister Danny Danon of the Likud has been appointed the new Ambassador to the UN.  The one Minister ( actually deputy) that Netanyahu has actually fired for insubordination.  Danon, makes Netanyahu look like a true moderate, and maybe that is the idea, but the thought of Danon with his poor English and extreme views holding the same chair that Abba Evan, Chaim Herzog and even PM Netanyahu seems absurd on the face of things.  It makes a joke of the talk of fighting the BDS movement, or reaching out to the US Jewish community or even trying to repair the relations with Washington.  The UN Ambassador, is the second ranking Israeli diplomat in the US, even though he is officially part of the UN delegation and accredited there. When it comes to TV appearances, newspaper interviews that is who the media turns to. I guess the Prime Minister is bored being just the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister, he wants to also be the UN Ambassador, or at least make sure that all of the TV networks have no one else but him to go to appear on the Sunday TV shows.

Danny Danon
Danny Danon

Its clear that Netanyahu did it for his internal political needs, but maybe one day, our needs will come before the needs of the Prime Minister

How did the Refugee Problem become a Right/Left Issue

Earlier this week the Israel Court mostly upheld the law that allows the government to keep asylum seekers in a special detention facility for a period.  This was the third time that the Knesset passed a law on the subject of the refugees.  The first allowed almost unlimited detention and the second law  2 years of detention, this one allowed for 18 months detention. The first two laws were struck down by the court. The Supreme Court did insist that 18 months was too long and requested that the Knesset revise the maximum period to 12 months.


Both supporters of law and its opponents were unhappy with the decision.  Unfortunately supporters and opponents largely broke down along left right lines.   The left believes that a law that violated the civil rights of the refugees should not be upheld at all, and the right was angered that the court would dare overturn part of a law a third time.  Before the decision was announced  Minister of Justice Ayelet Shaket posted on her Facebook feed a warning that if the Supreme Court overturns the law she would push to pass the law that would allow the Knesset to overturn Supreme Court decisions.

I find all of this very disturbing to say the least.  On one level there is no question that the court bowed to political pressure in the same way that the Supreme Court of the US bowed to FDR when it approved  Social Security, at a time when Roosevelt was threatening his famous court packing plan.  The situation here  is a little different. The US was in the midst of a crisis and FDR had extremely broad support to make far reaching economic changes.   Here we have a country pretty much split down the middle and  a court that is trying to uphold the very basic human rights prescribed in Israel’s own Basic Laws. The somewhat frightening part of the story is the fact that politicians on the right do not seem to understand the concept of separation of power.  They keep on saying that the Knesset is the ribon,  meaning the ultimate authority and no one should question that.  They actually believe that it undemocratic for the judicial branch to question actions of the Knesset.  There is a second related matter that I have previously referred to, and that is the willingness to change Basic Laws.  Like I mentioned before there was a consensus among parties not to touch basic laws that has now broken down.

The wider problem of course is the refugees.  Before the fence was built (something I must give PM Netanyahu credit for) it was an almost impossible situation with thousand arriving every month and no end in sight.  Thanks to the fence, six refugees came last year.  All together there are 40,000 African refugees here.  This is a world wide problem.  Europe is being swamped with refugees.  There is no question that having them here is a challenge especially to the residents of South Tel Aviv who tend to be poor.  But the reason that its such a challenge is that we have done nothing to try to accommodate the refugees.  The attitude has been, if we make it to nice for them more will come.  Of course that ignores the fact that we now have a very high fence and none have been able to come.  As a result the are officially forbidden to work, and authorities have made sure that it takes literally years to review requests for refugee status.

After the Supreme Court  decision Likud Minister of Public Safety  Gilad Eradan, continued the Likud’s attempt to demonize the left and posted “now the left is caught between the poor residents of south Tel Aviv and their concern for human rights.”  Amos Shocken, the publisher of Ha’aretz, who rarely directly attacks politicians then responded angrily how could he, a member of the party who has been in power for the last six years, blame the left.  I have to ask who hardened our hearts 70 years after the Holocaust that we cannot find innovative solutions to the problem of the refugees.  How is it that we can import 100,000 foreign workers and yet we have to round up and detain in a detention center these refugees.  Finally how did this become a right/left problem?  It certainly would not have been in the time of Menachem Begin.  How did the right become so xenophobic that we can only help victims when they in Nepal and Haiti and not on our doorstep?


“Ha Asimon Nafal” Israelis Begin to Understand the Damage Netanyahu is Doing Over Iran

This weekend it looks like for  many Israelis  “Hasimon Nafal” which is a term from the time in Israel that pay phones used tokens(the token dropped), so the phrase means that suddenly people started to get it.  The get it in this case, is the fact the PM Netanyahu might be steering the ship of state on to the rocks with his policy on the Iran agreement.  It started with the President Ruby Rivlin being asked in an interview what he thought of the policy.  His answer was that the most important strategic asset Israel has is it’s relations with the United States.  The second most important strategic asset Israel has is it’s relations with the United States and the third most important strategic asset Israel has is it’s relations with the United States.

Rivlins remarks suddenly made it ok to criticize the Prime Minister.  MK Omer Bar Lev from the Zionist Camp and the former commander of the elite Sayert Matkal wrote a long post on Facebook saying the agreement is not so bad.  General (ret) Yossi Kuperwasser who was the commander of the Central Command and military advisor to PM Sharon, on the main Friday night news on Channel 10 stated that what is going on in Washington is a disaster and it will weaken Israel.  We must accept the idea that this is done deal, and the Americans do not have to ask us when they enter into an agreement.

Political analysts believe despite the Shumer decision President Obama has the votes to sustain the veto.  They are starting to ask the question and what if Netanyahu wins.  What then.  Of course no one has the answer.  Most Israelis still support the PM, but questions are finally being asked.

Two last points, I read Senator Shumer’s statement and he like other critics raises good questions, but of course he does not answer the question what will happen if the Congress overrides the veto, his statement seems more like, it’s a problematic agreement and therefore I will vote against so my conscious is clear.

Which brings me to some of the Jewish supporters.  Peter Beinhart had a ridiculous article in Ha’aretz saying that Iran is not an existential threat to Israel. It’s a ridiculous article based that boils down to the fact that  until now they have not tried to destroy Israel, therefore they will not in the future.  Yitzhak Rabin recognized Iran as a potential existential threat and that was one of his reasons for pursuing Oslo. Supporters of the agreement including J Street need to acknowledge Israelis very real fears that if given a chance Iran would wipe us off the map, but explain why this agreement is the best of some poor options.

Tomorrow I will try to interview of few Israeli politicians and put together a Newsweek article for Monday on the main theme of this post.

Another Depressing Week

Its been another frustrating week. It has not been a terrible week like last week, but in some ways a more depressing one.  Depressing since its clear that events of last week will pass and nothing will change.  Even as they were happening we saw many of the spokesman from the right starting from Prime Minister Netanyahu talk about how terrible it is but…. That prompted one of the few members of the old guard of the Likud left in politics MK Benny Begin to say, the very problem with the right “is the but”.

I was slightly hopeful at first that the confluence of the three events together last week- the events at Bet El, the stabbing in the Gay Pride March and the burning of the Palestinian infant would be enough to maybe break through to the average Israelis and maybe wake them from their blissful slumber, but it’s clear that is unlikely to be.   Today after the Palestinian attack on the West Bank the PM and others on the right immediately put out statement attacking the left for not condemning the Palestinian attack after condemning the attack on the Palestinian child.  I will not relate to the fact that my twitter feed within minutes of the attack was full of condemnation by Yitzhak Herzog and Tzpi Livni- I guess they are not on the Left ( I do not follow Zahava Galon so I can’t say whether she quickly condemned it), what I find most disturbing is that lack of understanding, that we are what is called in Hebrew “The Ribon”. We control most of the West Bank and its our responsibility to protect its citizens from ours, not to mention there is a real difference between attacking soldiers and burning an infant.


Of course, if all of this was not enough, I can truly be depressed about what is going on in Washington.  I truly do not understand our Prime Minister- as I have said before it’s lose lose.  What the hell are we doing?  I wrote about it yesterday in a piece entitled Has Prime Minister Netanyahu ever heard of The Genet Affair?  and strangely received the least response of anything I have written lately.  Despite my  desire to try to understand why we are still opposing the Iran agreement, I have yet to hear a coherent argument.  One friend, with clear right-wing leaning wrote on Twitter to me “We don’t accept diktats from others. Gone are times when we can’t speak for ourselves. We are masters of our own destiny. Not U.S.”

I have no words..

Tonight comes the unconfirmed report that we are refusing to take part in a Joint US Israel Defense Exercise.

I could go on, but I  fear writing will be more depressing than cathartic