Tuesday, March 28, 2017

The Weapon Wizards: A Review

I recently read The Weapon Wizards: How Israel Became a High-Tech Military Superpower by Yaakov Katz and Amir Bohbot.  I suppose that my timing was particularly appropriate given that I had a daughter completing her military service and a son just beginning.  Might as well read a reasonably optimistic assessment of the Israeli Defence Forces and some of its key technological accomplishments.

I am not generally an avid reader of military histories.  But I would not really put this book in that category.  While I was concerned that the book might be on the dry side, it certainly was not.  Rather than a military history, per se, the book looks at some key areas in which Israel has developed leading edge technology. It examines some of the leading Israeli figures who have had the vision to push forward major technological initiatives and it provides stories about how those leaders brought forward some ideas from the realm of the "impossible" to reality.

The Weapon Wizards is not a straight linear history.  It traces different developments - of the Israeli Air Force, the development of a drone program, the nuclear program, the satellite program, the missile defence systems and cyber warfare to name a few.  It provides surprisingly detailed accounts of some key successes of these different programs and it also emphasizes how some of these programs were started on shoe-string budgets.

I say "surprisingly" because I was often left wondering if all of this information was really declassified at this time and whether it could or should be circulated in this fashion.  There are accounts of how Israel used cyber attacks to wreak havoc on the Iranian centrifuge system; what transpired when Israel sold high-end drones to the Republic of Georgia; how Israel managed to get a deal for nuclear material in the first place; and many other stories. Some of them are told anecdotally in a style that is interesting and, at times, even gripping. Knowing that the authors are both Israeli residents and journalists, I assumed that the information provided had been carefully vetted, though that may not be obvious to the reader.

A central theme is the urgent Israeli need to ensure a qualitative technological advantage over its numerous neighbourhood adversaries and how Israel has managed to do that with a limited budget and a variety of extremely challenging obstacles, including international political realities, limited availability of personnel and diplomatic minefields..  Among a number of personalities that it examines, the book highlights the incredible accomplishments and vision of Shimon Peres who played a key role in ensuring the development of the Israeli nuclear program, the air force and even many of the later technological achievements.  Here is a brief excerpt on Peres:

"If there was one Israeli who had seen it all, it was Peres.  He was at Ben-Gurion's side throughout the War of Independence and was later the fledgling state's key arms buyer.  It was Peres who persuaded Al Schwimmer to move to Israel and establish Israel Aerospace Industries, and it was again Peres who crafted Israel's strategic relationship with France, which culminated in the founding of the country's highly secretive nuclear program....In government, he served in almost every ministry-transportation, defense, finance and foreign...."

Is is Peres who serves, for this book, as the type of personality that has led to these incredible technological advances.  Chutzpadik, visionary, persistent and committed.  These are the qualities that the authors have found in many architects of Israel's technological successes.

The Weapon Wizards also addresses the manner in which Israel has used the global arms trade to push for improved diplomatic relationships with a wide range of countries.     One might feel jaded about Israel's role in the global arms trade, which the authors implicitly suggest is an "ends justifies the means" approach to financing Israel's own military needs.  The book does not shy away from covering some questionable sales escapades that have led to internationally embarrassing incidents.

Overall, the tone of the book is optimistic.  While there is a recognition that Israel will continue to face and address a range of military challenges, some of which may impact Israel quite severely in future battles, the authors exude a confidence that Israeli ingenuity will enable Israel to face these existential challenges successfully.  Many readers will probably arrive at a similar conclusion after reading about some of the incredible successes that have been achieved to date and that are chronicled in this book.. 


Thursday, February 23, 2017

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Harari: A review.

Browsing around at Steimatzky's bookstore at the Ben Gurion airport, I came across a book by Yuval Harari, Sapiens: A brief history of humankind.  I considered it for a bit and then decided that it looked interesting.  I have to say, I made a great choice.

Sapiens is an incredible book.  It is a 400 page journey through the history of humankind.  It is well written, thought provoking and chock full of fascinating information.  Harari, a history professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, sets out to paint a grand picture of the history of humanity in a concise offering.  The book touches on a variety of disciplines with nods to biology, anthropology, philosophy, social history and many other disciplines, each of which could take up thousands of volumes.  Nevertheless, Harari succeeds beautifully in tying everything together on a multi-layered canvass.

The book progresses from revolution to revolution - the stages used as reference points.  From the "cognitive revolution" by which sapiens developed consciousness to the agricultural revolution, the scientific revolution and, still later, the technological revolution.  Fundamentally, Harari is inspired by science and the scientific method.  Where he examines historical events and cannot come to a set conclusion, he sets out competing theories with underpinning facts and details.  Sometimes he concludes that there is overwhelming evidence in support of one theory or another.  On other occasions, he concludes that the answer is unknown.  The key is the lack of arrogance.  Harari repeatedly insists on the importance of human beings being prepared to admit ignorance, to go back to the drawing board with theories and to assess and reassess their perceived knowledge base.

He uses anecdotal and historical micro examples to illustrate broad ideas.  Although many topics are not dealt with in great detail, they are raised, considered and addressed at different levels.  The range is breathtaking.  The development of different religious movements, monotheism, polytheism and animism, to name a few are discussed.  The development of currency, agricultural methods, mobility, empires and nation states are all topics that Harari covers.  He also deals with slavery and racism, gender equality, homosexuality, treatment of animals and a range of other social issues.  So much ground is covered that the book really does leave the reader filled with questions, topics for discussion and new thoughts.

One example of a really interesting topic for me - compare and contrast the behaviour and development of the British Empire with the Spanish Empire.   Certainly, Israelis often conclude that the British made a big mess in so many areas of the world, the Middle East being a prime example.  Harari's take is a much more forgiving one.  It is contrasted with the often genocidal behaviour of the Spanish.

Unquestionably, in any book like this, there are arguments that can be challenged.  There are topics that are not addressed at all.  For example, Harari barely mentions art, theatre or the role of sport in society, to name but a few.  Then again, this is not a social history, per se.  Sometimes, a great amount of attention is devoted to something that might ultimately be viewed as relatively insignificant, like one small island off the coast of Indonesia.  But all of these comments would necessarily be applicable for any book attempting to provide a macro view of human history in such a short volume.  In fact, Harari is exceptionally skilled at picking out human interest stories to illustrate broad historical concepts.

Harari's thrust is a scientific and technological one - that it is the scientists and inventors who will continue to lead world development in so many areas - providing new sources of energy, nourishment, medical advancement, and who will even change humans as we know them today.  Maybe, as Harari suggests, they will one day succeed in Ponce de Leon's quest to find the "fountain of youth," even if it is a proverbial and scientifically developed fountain.

There is little discussion about the philosophy behind some of these decisions - about how we decide which avenues to pursue and which priorities to support.  Perhaps that is due to the fact that Harari is clearly not a theist and has little time for imagined supernatural entities, as he might put it.  Not only does he downplay many aspects of the various major religions themselves, but he devotes little time to the ideas advanced by these religions.  I find that a bit ironic in a way, since Harari spends a chapter or so putting forward his own belief in the power of some age old Buddhist inspired meditation methods.

Where Harari tries to define human "happiness" and discusses different theories of it - he seems to suggest a version of Buddhism as holding one of the plausible answers to the question.  The ironic thing about that - is that he is so dismissive of other religious viewpoints and philosophies.  His chapter on Buddhist inspired meditation would not stand up to his own rigorously applied scientific standards that he uses to assess (and denigrate) so many other ideas.

Nevertheless, I greatly enjoyed this book.  After reading it, I had a look to see what type of critical reception it has received.  I discovered that it has been highly acclaimed by a wide variety of sources.  Bill Gates has written about it, President Obama gave an interview about his take on the book and Chapters-Indigo president Heather Reisman has recommended it.  I also found out that my son has been reading the original version in Hebrew.

Most interestingly, I note that professor Harari has made available, at no charge, his entire history course in 26 segments on YouTube, each 90 minutes in length. They are of course all in Hebrew, but the first segment, at least, follows the outline of the first part of the book.  I have only had time to watch a chunk of one of the lectures, but it was terrific.

Professor Harari has also made available several interviews, lectures and discussions in English as well, all of which can be found on YouTube, for example this Ted Talks discussion on how human beings came to control the world.

But the starting point has to be the book, which is really a tremendous work.  And I would imagine that anyone who reads it will be all set for hours of provocative discussion and argument about many of Harari's observations.  I am, as always, happy to join in for those conversations.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

The Lies They Tell by Tuvia Tenenbom: A Review

Tuvia Tenenbom's new book, The Lies They Tell, is a natural follow-up to his 2015 offering, Catch the Jew, which I reviewed at that time.  The writing style is the same but this time the target is the United States, rather than Israel.  Tenenbom sets out for a trip across the United States to meet people, ask difficult questions and gather material for his assessment of the current American condition.  The book was completed before the most recent election but many of Tenenbom's observations and insights were certainly prescient.

Over the course of his six month travels, he manages to visit quite a wide ranging section of the U.S., including Alaska and Hawaii, as well as a large number of states across the mainland. He meets and speaks with many different types of people including politicians, native American leaders, black and white Americans in all kinds of locations, church leaders and other categories.  He asks them pointed questions, and wittily summarizes the responses he receives with his running commentary.

This certainly makes for interesting reading in a style that is light, irreverent, entertaining and often, quite sarcastic.  Like Tenenbom's account of his trip across Israel, this is ultimately a pessimistic account, at times arrogant and even patronizing.  But it covers a great deal of ground in places where many readers may not have had the chance to visit.

Tenenbom describes his journey in open ended terms.  A curious adventure to meet all different kinds of people from Muslims, Jews and Mormons to rednecks, gang-members, religious conservatives and others.  Some of the book seems to fit the bill.  Daring to go where most people would not, Tenenbom amasses a fairly diverse range of interviewees.

That being said, midway through, I came to view this as more of a Socratic method journey, with questions that were intended to elicit certain responses as opposed to truly open minded discussions.

One of the interesting themes that Tenenbom aims to cover off is to categorize people based on a few select questions.  The obvious and easy first question is whether a person is "blue" or "red," in other words Republican or Democrat.  This type of starting question seems to get many of the people riled up and marks the discussion as a political one.  Some people will only express their opinion if Tenenbom agrees to hide their identity or not record the answers.  Others simply refuse to provide any detailed responses.

From there, many of the discussions proceed to questions about Israel/Palestine and questions about global warming and environmentalism.  It is a fascinating linkage that Tenenbom proposes, aiming to group people with respect to their views on these two issues along with their approach to smoking restrictions.

Although Tenenbom claims that he "hasn't made up his mind" on the question of whether global warming is real (as opposed to a cyclical phenomenon, that has not been specially affected by human beings), he finds a consistent linkage between those who wish to take action against it and those who claim to support "Palestine" when asked questions about the Israel/Palestine conflict.  Splitting these groups on a right/left line, he adds smoking restrictions to the mix.

Tenenbom clearly has little time for those who advocate on the Palestinian side of the spectrum.  He views American leftists as hypocritical on this issue. In his view, they call for action against Israel while ignoring so many other conflicts around the world that are far more devastating and while ignoring so many serious U.S.issues including poverty and race relations.  Some of this scorn is directed towards American Jewish liberal groups, who spend more time worrying about attacking Israel than about supporting and building their own American Jewish communities. Even though Tenenbom purports to be coming at all of this from the left of the political spectrum, much of his derision is aimed at the left.  Quite a bit of it seems aimed at Obama and Kerry in particular.

Tenenbom ties "pro-Palestinians" in with environmentalists and the anti-smoking crowd.  It is a strange leap and one that seems awkward, at best.  While Tenenbom's explanation for his Pro-Israel leaning is cogent and analyzed reasonably, he has no explanation for his leanings towards anti-environmentalism.  His dismissal of global warming concerns seems to be based on gut reaction to the environmentalist crowd rather than any logical discussion of the issues. (And he repeatedly reminds the readers that there is lots of gut...)

But his glorification of smoking is even less compelling.  Since Tenenbom is a self-described chain smoker, his assessment of many of the people he meets and places he visits seems tied to whether not they support or oppose smoking limitations.  So Seattle, a place with a variety of smoking restrictions is very inhospitable for him.  Heck, you can't even smoke in your hotel room, imagine that.  On the other hand, in parts of the southern U.S., you can apparently smoke wherever you like, so Tenenbom is much more at home. 

As is evident in his first book, Tenenbom is somewhat of a narcissist.  His writing about some of his encounters is arrogant and even patronizing.  While he sometimes asks difficult questions out of interest, more often the questions are intended to attract a visceral, angry response.  He can then ridicule the subject simply by presenting the answers provided.

Tenenbom has very high standards for the type of food he is trying to find which goes along with his search for fine spirits, cannabis, places he can freely smoke and his mainly unsuccessful search for good coffee. There is also a great deal of discussion about his relationship with his car and about guns and gun control laws across the U.S.

Along the way, he also manages to visit a wonderful collection of American parks and natural landmarks.  Like in his previous book, these trips to beautiful sites (and to the really good restaurants) seem to be the highlights of his journey rather than the people he actually meets and the interviews he conducts, despite his protestations to the contrary. 

In fairness, Tenenbom does ask some pointed questions of those on right, including the religious right and the very far right.  Even though people on the religious right often claim to be "Pro-Israel," Tenenbom digs deeper to try and see if he can get them to state that only those Jews who accept Jesus are destined to avoid eternal damnation.  He sometimes succeeds. His point is that the veneer of pro-Israel support on the right side of the spectrum often masks a deep rooted anti-Semitism.  He also has some less than favourable things to say about Trump and references his own left-leaning political convictions on several occasions.

Interestingly enough, Tenenbom visits very few Synagogues or other Jewish institutions but seems to be in a Church just about every Sunday (as well as many days during the week).  He greatly enjoys trips to black churches that he portrays as inspired, spiritually uplifting and meaningful.  He is far more critical of other houses of worship, including the Synagogue or two and the many Evangelical churches that he visit.

Overall, the book is entertaining and, at times, insightful.  There are many other interesting encounters with places and people that this review does not describe.  But there are certainly some nagging concerns about Tenenbom's logic.  The hazy clouds of smoke that constantly surround him probably fog up some of his choices on places to choose, people to meet and conclusions to draw.  For example, visiting a few centrist, pro-Israel Jewish organizations would probably upset his characterization of American Jews as a largely self-hating.

That being said, one of his pessimistic themes is that America is filled with liars - politicians, everyday people disguising their animosity towards others and people who are simply afraid to stand up for their political views.  He warns of an America that has not well integrated its diversity and seems headed towards a boiling point.    Written all prior to November, much of this assessment turns out to be all too accurate and provides yet another reason to consider Tenenbom's escapades.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Turkish Airlines: Toronto to Tel-Aviv Review

I am writing this post on a plane on the way back from Israel.  I'm on Turkish Airlines, which is one of the few international carriers to offer trans-continental wi-fi for the whole flight.  It's not free - it's 9.99 Euros for two hours or 14.99 for 24 hours.  But it's great to have - especially if you are on a day flight and people are awake.
Over my 7 years of going back and forth between Toronto, Canada and Ra'anana, Israel, this was my first time flying Turkish Airlines  I had avoided it partially due to security reasons and partially for political reasons.  The relationship between Israel and Turkey has been strained over the past few years to say the least.

But I have to say that Turkish compares very favourably to almost anything else I have flown on this route.  I would put Air Canada at the top, since it is direct. Swiss and Lufthansa are also quite nice, despite the changeovers.  But I think I would prefer Turkish over Lot, Austrian, KLM or any of the different U.S. airlines.

Part of the reason I took the flight was timing.  It left at 10:30 pm from Toronto, which meant I was able to work all day in Toronto before leaving.  I will also say that price was a consideration as Turkish was much cheaper than other options for the days I was flying.

The aircraft from Toronto to Istanbul was decent -a 3-3-3 configuration.  The seats felt wide enough.  Each person has a large personal screen and an electrical outlet (that handles all types of plugs).  There are also USB ports for charging USB devices.  The entertainment system includes a range of movies, games, music and other items.

The flight attendants were very attentive.  They came around often and were friendly and helpful.

I ordered an Asian (Hindu) vegetarian meal, which was great.  There were also a few wine choices and lots of other drinks.  Like Air Canada and all of the European airlines, there is wine and bar service at no charge throughout the flight.

On arrival in Turkey, we had to take a shuttle bus from the plane to the terminal.  We then had to pass through personal security.  This was similar to other airports and nothing particularly eventful or problematic.

The airport terminal itself is huge and very nice.  Lots of shops - many very fancy, recognizable name brands. I only bought one item - a bottle of whiskey - and I was able to do so at a reasonable price.  There was a fairly wide selection.  On the way to Israel I also picked up some "Turkish Delight" at the request of a friend of mine.  There was quite a selection of different types all over the airport.

Inside the Turkish Lounge
A highlight of my stopover in Istanbul and a highlight of this flight was the Turkish Airlines lounge, which I was able to access as a Star Alliance member.  That's some lounge!  Spanning two stories, it features a range of different types of seating in a variety of areas, most of which are very comfortable.  Overstuffed couches, leather sectionals, dining table type seating to name just a few.

Turkish Lounge
There are food stations all over the lounge - like a buffet restaurant.  A coffee/espresso station, salad bar, fruit bar, crepe station, grill area, pizza bar and many others.  No shortage of food here....(though I'm not sure if they have many kosher options).

There is a golf swing area with a range of practice clubs....an area with Sony PlayStations, showers, available Macs for use, a massage area, and a sleeping area with reclining chairs.  In case you are wondering, I did not wind up getting the Turkish massage...maybe next time.

I could probably go on and on but it is fair to say that I don't remember anything comparable from any of my other lounge visits in different airports.  As nice as the lounges are in Frankfurt and Toronto - or Zurich - this is a whole different league.

In case you are curious, I did see many Orthodox Jews on the flight and they did not seem to have any kind of problem flying with Turkish.  Certainly the Turkish planes did not seem to be as filled with Israelis or North American Jews as one might find on an El Al or Air Canada flight.  But the security seemed reasonably sophisticated and I felt safe.

My flight to Israel had a connection time of about 2 hours which worked out fine.  On the way back I wound up with an 8 hour layover because I was late in booking the flight, but I think that is generally avoidable.  There are several flights a day between Tel-Aviv and Istanbul.

All in all - thumbs up and I might do this more often....

A final note is that you must carefully look at the class code if collecting Aeroplan points is important.  Some classes of economy travel on Turkish Airlines do not allow for accumulation of any points.  For example, "U" class, as of June 2016, is in that category. 

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Activities in North Central Israel - Sakhne and ATV Trip

Photo of Gan HaShlosha National ParkWe took advantage of the hot summer weather to do a bit of travelling around Israel with some special guests.  While it is quite hot in Israel these days, it is also hot in much of North America.  So the temperature differential is not as great as at other times of the year, especially if the guests happen to be from St. Louis...

We started at Sakhne, also called "Gan Hashlosah" - the park of three.  This is a  huge spring water park.  The park is made up of three  connected pools containing natural spring water that is, apparently, 28C all year round.  There are waterfalls, a wading pool and various facilities.  Since this is natural spring water, the pools are filled with fish of all different sizes.  In fact, there are so many that you can expect to be nibbled on gently by schools of fish in different parts of the park.  But the water is beautiful, reasonably refreshing and fun.  There are shallower parts and some very deep areas.  There are lifeguards in most areas of the park.

All along the pools of water, there are areas to set up picnics, barbecues or to play some games.  As long as it isn't too hot, it would probably be a great place for ultimate frisbee, football or maybe some volleyball.

Since we were there in early July, it was close to 40C and it was quite hot.  We were able to spend most of the time in the water, in reasonably shady areas.  From Ra'anana, the distance to Sakhne is about 110 km on a mixture of highways and slower roads.  It takes about an hour and a half to get there.  The cost of admission is about 40 shekels a person, with other rates for seniors and soldiers.

After a few hours of enjoying the water, we decided to try something different and take a guided ATV ride.  We found a place that was about twenty minutes away from Sakhne called Xtreme B'Emek.  Located near Yokneam, Xtreme features guided rides on RZR ATVs.  They have two different types of vehicles - the slower ones, that can get up to speeds of 40 to 70 km/h and the faster vehicles that can get up to 100-120 km/h.  We went with the slower vehicles.

For about 100 Shekels per person ($25 USD these days), we took a 1 1/2 hour guided ATV drive through a national park.  We passed through a number of fields, some forest type terrain, small hills and some very bumpy roads.  Not very many animals along the way - a handful of cows and a fox or two.  But when we entered open field areas, we stepped on the gas and managed to get up to speeds of about 70 km/h or so, according to the guide.  It wasn't exactly "extreme" but it was quite fun. 

We were all wearing seat belts and sand goggles and travelled in groups of three per vehicle.  Our guide, Osama, was great. He was quite safety conscious and paid attention to the comfort level of the drivers in each vehicle in terms of vehicle speed.  The vehicles are all automatic and you need to provide driver's licence details for each driver - as well as sign an extensive waiver regarding damage to the vehicle and personal injury.

Our guide did not speak any English.  Neither did his guard dogs - a pit bull and a rottweiler.  That was all fine with us.  Our guests were dog lovers and these dogs were quite friendly around the guide.  We handled the communications with Osama which was fine for our guests. 

It sounds like it would be quite a bit of fun to try the faster vehicles but they are more than double the price.

There are hundreds of places that offer ATV trips in Israel.  This was my first trip and it was quite a bit of fun.  It sounds like these types of trips in the Negev or even better as long as the heat isn't too crazy.
We were considering other plans for the day as well but between these two activities, we felt like we had used up our time reasonably.  Overall, both are fun activities that we would recommend for a wide range of age groups.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Lieberman is new Minister of Defence: Major Political Development in Israel

Wading into the waters of Israeli political analysis can be hazardous.  The unexpected sometimes becomes reality.  Other times, one can be lulled into believing that there is a period of relative tranquility, only to face a sudden political earthquake.

I provided a few different comments on the last Israeli election in this blog in April and May 2015.  They are listed in the Contents By Topic.  One of my columns dealt with the decision of Avigdor Lieberman and his "Yisrael Beitenu" Party ("Israel, Our Home"), at the time, to remain outside of the government coalition.  It appeared, at the time, that Lieberman was not prepared to concede on all issues relating to the tension between religion and state in Israel.  In particular, he was not willing to participate in a government that had just turned over an enormous amount of power to several ultra-religious parties.

After a year of playing a vocal, active role in the opposition, Lieberman has suddenly and dramatically agreed to join the current government will become the country's new Minister of Defence.

The events leading up to this announcement were political theatre at is best - riveting, Machiavellian, and, for some political players, tragic.

As you may have read, the leader of the Zionist Union, Yitzhak Herzog ("Bougie") was named in a corruption investigation in late March 2016.  Perhaps coincidentally and perhaps concurrently, he became involved in talks with Prime Minister Netanyahu to bring his Zionist Union group into the current governing coalition and form a "national unity" government.  These reports seemed very strange.

On the one hand, it is hard to fathom that Bougie would be able to extract any palatable concessions from Netanyahu, given the current governing coalition.  Either Bougie would have had to convince Netanyahu to abandon several of his current coalition partners to form an entirely new government - or Bougie would have had to agree to join the coalition with little in the way of political gains to show for it.

Over the past several weeks, news reports in Israel were bubbling with stories that Bougie and the Zionist Union were about to join the government.  In fact, a press conference was scheduled for yesterday morning, presumably to provide some type of announcement as to where things stood.

However, at the last minute (or, according to plan, depending on what one might believe...), Prime Minister Netanyahu met with opposition MK Avigdor Lieberman and offered him the post of Defence Minister.  Lieberman accepted and the talks between Netanyahu and Bougie promptly came to a conclusion.  Lieberman will now take over the post of Minister of Defence, displacing the highly qualified Moshe "Bogie" Ya'alon, who had formerly between the Chief of Staff of the IDF.

This was a complete and total humiliation for Bougie Herzog.  He put his party's credibility on the line, as well as his own, by investing a significant time negotiating with Netanyahu.  According to Herzog, he and Netanyahu had come to an agreement on just about every issue and were all set to proceed with a deal when the rug was suddenly pulled out from underneath and Netanyahu decided to take a different partner to the ball.  The clock hadn't even struck 12 O'clock and Bougie turned into a pumpkin.

Herzog held a press conference last night.  He spelled out what he maintained were a whole range of political gains that he had achieved in his negotiations with Netanyahu.  According to Herzog, Netanyahu had agreed to work towards a two-state solution, to hold a regional peace conference immediately, to freeze certain settlement construction, and to take several other steps on peace initiatives.  However, Herzog noted that Netanyahu would not put any of this in writing.  Moreover, Herzog devoted a significant part of his après press conference to attacking Labour's number two in command and former leader, Shelly Yacomovitch, accusing her of sabotaging his efforts.  He vowed to stay on as leader and "rip apart the government from the opposition."

For Netanyahu, this was shrewd, Machiavellian machination.  He left Herzog and the Zionist Union utterly defeated and stabilized his governing coalition by adding several more Knesset members.  Netanyahu paid a moderately high price.  He exchanged a stable, predictable, well qualified, former IDF Chief as Defence Minister for the highly unpredictable Lieberman, who can be a loose cannon.  However, after more than a year since the last election, he has now managed to complete the exchange of Yair Lapid's "Yesh Atid" party for a a group of ultra-religious parties and can proceed unfettered with a right wing political agenda.  Herzog has been outed as hopelessly naive, impotent, incompetent or all three. 

It is hard to imagine that Netanyahu actually agreed to all of the concessions that Herzog claims.  Netanyahu would have had to pull apart his coalition completely and would have had to agree to many items that are diametrically opposed to his party's platforms.  It seems much more likely that he signaled some level of flexibility without any specific commitments.  It also seems more likely that this was all a series of political steps taken by Netanyahu to weaken the opposition, strengthen his governing coalition and secure three more years of mandate for his government.  Whether or not this is all in Israel's "best interests" may really depend on one's political perspective and philosophy.

 I will admit that I am surprised that the current governing coalition lasted this long.  Hanging on by a thread with 61 seats (in a 120 seat Knesset), the government seemed destined to break apart at any time since the last election.  However, it held together and this coalition, or a close version of it, is now likely to hold power until 2019.

Leading up to yesterday's announcement, Yair Lapid and the Yesh Atid party were the big beneficiaries of these coalition talks.  Polls suggested that Lapid's party had nearly doubled in support since the last election and the Zionist Union was bleeding support at an astounding rate.  If an election were held today, according to some of these polls, Lapid may have had a shot at winning the election.

However, mid-mandate polls may not mean that much when an actual election is distant.  A government that was barely hanging on by a thread has now been bolstered and that is a big blow indeed for the opposition parties and for Israel's centre-left.

The international fall-out will also be interesting.  Egypt has already expressed grave disappointment at this latest turn of events and other countries have provided less than flattering assessments of this development.

Unfortunately, I am quite concerned that some very rocky times lie ahead for Israel and the region.  Hopefully, Lieberman will demonstrated an unexpectedly high level of competence, diplomacy, tact and forethought in the coming days, weeks and months ahead.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Pesach 2016 תשע"ו

It is Pesach (Passover) in Israel (and around the world) and it is a very important and widely celebrated holiday here.  There are laws that prohibit stores and restaurants from selling bread and other Hametz for the whole holiday.  Students are off for more than two weeks.  Many others have taken a week or two off or are working at a half-time pace.  Even many soldiers are off....

Although Pesach is also called Hag Ha-Aviv - the "Spring Holiday," it certainly feels more like summer.  Temperatures are in the 30s throughout the country.  Combine all of these things and what do you get?  Thousands of Israelis travelling - out of the country and all over the country itself.  There are traffic jams everywhere.  National parks across the country are filled with people and the beaches are packed.
Hexagonal Pool Trail
We decided to join the crowds and take a day trip yesterday.  We drove up north, just past the Kinneret to a national park featuring the "Hexagonal Pool."  From Central Israel, this is about a two hour drive.  We left early to try and beat the traffic but it wasn't quite early enough. We faced our share of highway congestion.
Hexagonal Pool Israel
We still managed to arrive before the park was completely jam- packed.  The site entrance is right near "Had Ness" a small community north of the Kinneret.  On entering the park, you have a choice of taking a five hour hike, a 2-3 hour hike or 1 to 1.5 hour trip.  These are all the suggested times.  We chose the medium length path.  This is essentially a downhill hike through a winding path (at times involving moderately difficult climbing).  The trail is about 2.5 km - with the option of adding on about another kilometre.

At the bottom of the hike - Nirvana.  A beautiful Hexagonal pool serving as the base of a waterfall and the collecting pool for water from the Jordan river.  The water was about 18C - quite cool and refreshing.  The pool reaches a depth of 17 metres at parts.  But when it is 35-36C outside and you have just hiked down a 3 km trail, 18C water is incredible.
Hexagonal Pool, Israel

When the swimming is over, the fun starts.  Time to walk back up the trail - 2.5 km of uphill path.  The trail is reasonably steep and includes some very rocky areas and some real climbing.  In mid-day summer heat, after having walked 3 km down - this type of activity offers some challenge for people like me....but it was well worth it.

Golan Heights Winery
We got back to the car and considered other possible activities.  Amazing how Google can help with suggestions.  As it turns out, we were only about 10 minutes away from the Golan Heights Winery so we decided to make a quick stop.  I had been there before several years ago - but it is quite a nice place to visit.  We did not have time to do the tour and tasting though we browsed in the gift shop for a few minutes.  The prices were simply the same as one would find all over the rest of Israel though they had some wine selections that are hard to find.

We decided to find something to eat.  Since it was Pesach, we had, of course, brought along lots of food, featuring delicious Pesach rolls.  But no one really wanted another one of those rolls.  So we decided to look for a Kosher for Pesach Restaurant.  This can be a bit tricky.  Many restaurants are closed for the holiday.  We couldn't find anything suitable in nearby Katzrin - so we decided to drive down to Teveria (Tiberias) and find a place there.  We settled on a South American meat restaurant that was "Kosher l'Mehadrin" but, for kitniyot eaters of course.  We decided to eat there anyways and told them to hold the kitniyot.  They get lots of requests for this, apparently, so we were fine.

The whole kitniyot thing on Pesach is still confounding us.  Although the Conservative movement in North American opted to permit Conservative Jews to eat kitniyot this year - and many Israeli rabbis (Orthodox Ashkenazi included among them) have made that same decree in the past, we have continued to stick with the traditional Ashkenazi mode of avoiding rice, corn, beans and other legumes during Pesach.  This is particularly challenging if one wants to eat out.  We see restaurants across the country open for Pesach serving corn flour bread and rolls - and other kitynot-based bread substitutes.  But after 50 years of doing things a certain way, it is difficult to make the leap to switch over and start eating all of those other things on Pesach.  It is also creates an even bigger gap between Israeli and non-Israeli Jews.  So we skipped the tehina and humus and ate our skewers with matzah, cabbage and some other vegetables.

Today the temperature in Israel was even hotter - a veritable heat wave.  But there are predictions that things will cool off to "reasonable" by Friday, the last official day of Pesach in Israel this year.  Of course, Pesach will actually continue for those who observe it until Saturday night - since there would be no time between the end of Pesach and Shabbat to change over dishes, buy back Hametz, etc.,

So now we have a few days to find a Moroccan friend who is hosting a Maymuna (an end of Pesach celebration).  But until then we still have time to enjoy matzah brie, matzah lasagne, matzah rolls and other delicacies.  Chag Sameach to everyone - and make sure to eat lots of prunes.