It was a busy day in Israel today. The Pope arrived, Prime Minister Netanyahu went to Sharm el Sheik to meet President Mubarak of Egypt, and the budget crisis was resolved.
Netanyahu's visit with Mubarak was the first opportunity for him to present his “peace plan”, which he has held as a closely guarded secret. By all accounts, the visit went well, not so much due to Netanyahu, but because Israeli and Egyptian interests are aligned to a degree that has never been the case before. Therefore, the Egyptians are more interested in working together to stop Iranian influence than to work on behalf of the Palestinians. The next question is how President Obama is going to react to Netanyahu's plans.
Meanwhile, regarding Gilad Shalit, Netanyahu has reportedly established a precondition for talks: Hamas must return with a new list. Reportedly Egypt agrees with Netanyahu’s approach. The change in Egypt is palpable. A leading Egyptian journalist being interviewed on Egyptian television stated that Israel would be crazy to withdraw to 1967 borders, in return for a 10 year ceasefire from Hamas. He said their [Israel's] parliament building would be under rocket fire. One Israeli expert stated that he has heard expressions of understanding of Israeli security needs in closed door meetings with leading Egyptians, but never before has he heard it expressed publicly.
The Pope's visit seems not to have started on the best foot. Israeli news described his reception as 'cool'. There was criticism of his speech that it did not go far enough since he did not apologize. I am not sure what people want, I heard most of his speech and he seems to have said all the right things. The Pope was willing to say the right things while he was still in Jordan even though it enraged some of the Muslims. Some Israeli observers shared my bafflement at what people wanted from this Pope.
On the economic front, Netanyahu has given in to all the criticism of the budget plan and cancelled all the cut backs. He enraged the workers at the Ministry of Finance who believe they were ignored and left out to dry. This is an interesting article in Haaretz that is worth reading by Shlomo Avineri https://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/1084417.html
The United States has renewed sanctions against Syria. This was not done because of anything to do with the Arab Israel conflict, but due to events in Iraq. Last week a terrorist was caught about to set off a large bomb. After interrogation, it became clear he was Syrian; trained by the Syrian intelligence service, and sent by them into Iraq to kill as many Iraqis as possible. This undermines one of the central goals of the Obama administration, and therefore, infuriated them. The Syrians have reacted with relative equanimity to the Obama administration's decision, saying it is all part of negotiations. I think we have another classic case of neither side understanding the other here. To the Americans, a bomb in Lebanon might just be "part of the negotiations", but receiving incontrovertible proof the Syrians are a major factor behind the latest string of bombings in Iraq is a something else all together.
The Pope has begun his visit to the Middle East and is already mired in controversy. In a speech today in Jordan, he talked about the unbreakable bond between Christianity and the Jews, not something the Muslims in Jordan were waiting to hear. In addition, he has received direct criticism for not speaking up about his 2006 remarks positing Islam only contribution to the world has been violence. Hardly an auspicious beginning.
The news from Israel continues to be dominated by the fight over the budget. This dispute will likely be resolved over the next few days, after various deals are struck and individuals get to show how tough they were. The details of the budget fight will not be remembered. What will be remembered is that Netanyahu, who most Israelis thought was the politician with the most competency in economics, will have been shown once again, to zig zag through decisions. Not a great confidence builder.
The Israeli Treasury released the new budget today. It was met with universal condemnation by the whole spectrum of Israeli politicians. The budget proposal and the accompanying bill called "Chok Ha-s'darim", which literally translates as the "law of arrangements" has shone a light on a budget process that is so bad, it makes the process of electing an Israeli Prime Minister sane by comparison.
Israel's State budget is written by the workers of the Finance Ministry, with little or no input from any of the ministries impacted. In the current process, the workers of the Finance Ministry decide all levels of the budget of each of the ministries, including all of their staffing. Thus, employees of the Finance Ministry make all the key decisions for the positions that will be funded in each and every ministry; as well as what will be spent funding all programs. The employees making these decisions have no real knowledge in the field for which they are making those decisions. Finance Ministry employees are primarily men (and very few woman) in their late 20’s and early 30’s who have received degrees in economics or in some cases, an MBA. Many began their careers at the Ministry of Finance and have no experience beyond their field. What makes this situation even worse, is that after the budget is presented, the government then has a short time to discuss the proposal (usually one marathon session, after cabinet ministers have read a 300-page document that even economic experts say would be impossible for them to comprehend in such a short time span). To make this process almost laughable, one of the first acts of the new government was to approve the concept of a two year budget. This action was taken to increase the stability of the government. Since, if a budget is not passed the government falls. Now, the new ministers, who have been in office for only a few weeks, find themselves having to approve a budget for which they have little or no input; a budget they will be committed to for a two year period.
Furthermore, once the budget goes to the Knesset, the Knesset has no independent method to review the budget. There is no Israeli equivilant to the Congressional Budget Office, nor is there the equivalent of the Library or Congess or large Congressional staffs with expertise in different areas. Knesset members each have three aids, all are young and inexperienced. To make matters even worse, together with the budget is the "law of arrangements", first passed in the mid-eighties during Israel’s economic crisis. The "law of arrangements" was used for what was supposed to be a one-time method of passing all of the needed economic reforms, as part of one package. Now, it is used as a method of bringing about all types of “reform” the workers of the Finance Ministry wish to bring about. An example of one of these "arranged" items is the decision to force Israeli elementary schools to compete with one and other for students. This might possibly be a very good idea, but there will be no hearings in the Education Committee of the Knesset on this topic, and there will not even be meetings in the Education Ministry to discuss the impact of this decision. It will merely be part of an omnibus bill that needs to be passed with the budget.
These bills are the work of the employees of the Finance Ministry. The Prime Minister and the unqualified Finance Minister singed off on the measures in the bill. They reflect many of their priorities.
The new budget calls for a number of changes: decreasing the period of unemployment insurance, decreasing child allowance, child leave and requiring a co-pay for hospital visit are among the surprises included in the bill. Also, included was the dropping of the earned income credit promised just two weeks ago by Netanyahu (as he unveiled his new economic plans that included tax cuts.) The budget plans, which to some degree were necessitated by the need to cut 42 Billion Shekel from Israel budget, were received with almost hysterical condemnation. The head of Bituach Leumi (Israel’s social insurance agency) called the proposed plan the end of the social net in Israel, as we know it. The Deputy Minister for Health from Yahudut Hatorah called it "shtuyot" (hogwash), mockingly suggesting that after asking patients to pay 50 shekels a day for hospitalization, regardless of their economic circumstances, they should ask students for 10 shekels a day for school and ask people to pay 50 agorot each time they cross at a crosswalk. Even Likud ministers decried the plan and stated that to pass buget like this was "not the reason we came back to power." By night time tonight in Israel, the Prime Minister had already asked the Finance Ministry to go back and change their plans.
There can be no question that Israel is going to have to make hard choices when it comes to the budget. The deficit has ballooned due to falling tax revenue. Israel is not the United States and cannot run a deficit that becomes too big. This method, however, does not seem to be the most effective, nor the most democratic way of going about it.
Talk of new peace plans dominated the airwaves, internet sites and newspapers in the Middle East today. Rumors circulated of a new Arab peace plan, as well as a new peace plan from the American administration. The Arab peace plan is reportedly going to include changes in the section that deals with refugees and may include options of resettling them in other areas. The American plan is supposedly going to be based on a report by Senator Mitchell. In reaction to this there was an interesting discussion on London and Kirshenbaum where the Palestinian representative, who was a member of the Palestinian Authority government, made an interesting point. He said he believes that any agreement had to be based on the Arab peace plan and that the Palestinians could not come to an agreement without it. He stated that on both Jerusalem and the refugee issues, the Palestinians could not reach an agreement without the rest of the Arab world. He stated that the Palestinian Authority could not agree for Jordan to allow more Palestinians to settle there. He also stated that in any agreement the one place that refugees would not remain is Lebanon. It was interesting that he was clearly stating that refugees would be resettled in Arab countries and not saying they had to return to Israel.
Where there is smoke there is always a little fire. There is a plan coming and we will find out more about it over the course of the coming month. Israeli television ran a long interview with Steve Rosen, the former employee of AIPAC against who charges were dropped. Rosen, who is now free to speak his mind, warned that there are many people in the FBI and other places in the government who are straight out anti-Semites, and said that only thing that separated him from Dreyfus is that he was to afforded a public trial and had the ability to defend himself. Finally, he explained how the government managed to convince Lawrence Franklin to plead guilty and be used to set up Rosen and Weisman. Once they found classified material in his home they had him (a technical violation but chargeable just the same). He has a wheelchair bound wife and 5 kids and they offered to allow him to keep his pension if he cooperates. He cooperated and pled guilty and the poor guy received a 15 year sentence. Rosen spent the last few years chronicling the events and has written a book that he is submitting to his publisher tomorrow. On a personal note I last saw Rosen over 20 years ago when he interviewed me for a job. Seeing him now after this ordeal certainly makes me wonder where the years have gone.
Dueling discussions took place today; one in Cairo and one in Damscus. The first meeting took place between Syrian President Assad and Iranian President Ahmedinejad. At that encounter the two pledged unlimited support for Hamas and Hezbollah. The accompanying images on TV certainly conveyed two leaders very happy with themselves.
While in Cairo, President Mubarak of Egypt, King Fuad of Saudi Arabia, and King Husein of Jordan met with US Defense Secretary Gates. At this gathering Gates assured the participants the United States was standing behind them and not making any secret deals with Iran. Gates publically stated that the United States was disappointed with the Iranian response to America’s open hand. It was not planning to close that hand yet, but if the Iranian response did not change, there would be no sense in pursuing it.
There is talk of a major effort by the Egyptians to convince the Netanyhu government to accept some part of the Arab peace plan. An unprecedented sense mutual interests' have been created between Israel and the moderate Arab states– led by Egypt and fueled by the recent events between Cairo and Iran. Egypt however, feels it needs a sense the peace process is moving forward to inoculate itself against charges of "collaboration" with Israel. Washington clearly wants the same thing. The Israeli government has clearly been getting the message. When President Peres met with President Obama today, he spoke on behalf of Prime Minister Netanyhu and stated Israel accepts all previous agreements. The meeting with Peres was closed to the press– a decision that disappointed Israeli diplomats.
Vice President Biden was the main US government speaker at the AIPAC conference. Biden ended his speech speech, with the usual platitudes supportive of Israel, however, emphasizing that "delaying the pursuit of these goals is not an option. It's easier, but it is not an option. And the longer we wait, the harder it will be. Now is the time to work together for the promise of a better day, and for the success and strength and security of our most-treasured ally, Israel." Full Text
Finally, I must comment on the decision of UN Secretary General Bn Ki-Moon to bury a UN investigative report on Israel’s actions in Gaza. The report was completely biased, did not mention Hamas’s firing of missiles into Israel, and ignored all the evidence that the IDF presented. Nothing new for the United Nations. Ban Ki Moon however said the report had no judicial value and he criticized the report for not discussing the missile attacks on Israel.
The following is the readout from theh White House on President Obama's meeting with President Peres: Readout on President Obama’s Meeting with President Shimon Peres of Israel:
The President appreciated the opportunity to welcome President Peres, in recognition of the enduring friendship between the United States and Israel. The two Presidents exchanged views on the opportunities and challenges, including the pursuit of a comprehensive peace in the Middle East and Iran's nuclear program, that the present moment presents to achieving our countries' shared goal of peace and security for Israel and all of it neighbors. The President looks forward to his meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu later this month.
Shimon Peres was the main speaker at the annual AIPAC conference today. Shimon Peres, "promoter of Benjamin Netanyahu", was the teaser piece before tonight’s Israeli news. Sure enough, the coverage included extensive excerpts from Peres' speech to AIPAC, in which he stated that Netanyhu was a man who understood history and wanted to make history. Peres continued, in Israel, the way you make history is by reaching peace. That was the public show. Tomorrow President Peres meets with President Obama. This is the first time in Israel’s history that the ceremonial President has met with the President of the United States before the Prime Minister. This is not accidental. Obama prefers meeting with Peres, whose views he knows, while the meeting that will take place in a couple of weeks between Obama and Netanyahu is fraught with uncertainties.
Israeli TV reported that White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel was at the AIPAC conference. In background conversation, Emanuel was stating the Obama administration's position that the only way to stop Iran was to make progress on Palestinian question. The position of the Israeli government is the mirror image of the American position, claiming that no progress is possible on the Palestinian question without confronting the problem of Iran. Israel's position will not be able to withstand the pressure that will, no doubt, be applied by the US and the EU. It's not that a solution to the Israeli Palestinian problem needs to be reached, but there needs to be a sense that progress is being made. As Martin Indyk stated in his recent book, Egypt and Jordan do not necessarily want peace, but they need a peace process. Nenayahu and Lieberman’s word will be important in the coming weeks.
London and Kirshenbaum had an interview with the old/new Director General of the Ministry of Education, Shimshon Shoshani. This will be his third time as Director General, and he and PM Netanyahu see eye to eye on the general direction that educational reform needs to take in Israel. It seems they are both devotees of a McKinsey Report, that shows the level of achievement possible in a country's educational system is determined by who becomes teachers. It seems those countries where students in top tenth percentile of university students become teachers, have the best teachers and the best educational outcomes. Gee Whiz, I wonder what McKinsey was paid for that report. Of course the problem is that the brilliant consulting firm did not lay out how you accomplish there advised outcome. Most of the teachers in Israel, not only did not finish in the top ten percent of their class, many were unable to get into the standard academic colleges.
Good news finally over the past few days. The US Justice Department decided to end their prosecution case against Steve Rosen and Keith Weissman of AIPAC. The dubious prosecution had taken place under a 1917 espionage Act. THE CHARGE: that they had passed on information; classified information, on the deliberations of the executive branch, and about Iran, to representatives of Israel. THE SECRET: that Iranians were planning to kill Israelis in Northern Iraq. A complete fabrication created to entrap Rosen and Weissman. It was the first time any non-employee of the government has ever been charged with passing on secrets of this nature.
This was a very strange case. A case that should never have been brought; one that clearly had tinges of anti-Semitism tied to it. As recently as two weeks ago, information was leaked that Representative Jane Harman had somehow been involved. The NYT carried this item as a lead article- and as I wrote then, it was very strange. Read the Wall Street Journal Editorial from Saturday called "The AIPAC Case Fallout." Do not hold your breadth to read a similar editorial in the New York Times.
Michael Oren is Prime Minister Netanyahu’s pick to be Israel's next US Ambassador. Finally, someone was chosen for a job because he might be good at it and not because it was necessary to appoint him for coalition reasons. Oren, who is American born, was educated in Princeton and Columbia. In the past few years Oren has authored two bestselling, outstanding books. The first, The Six Day War and the Making of the Modern Middle East is considered the definitive account of the Six Day War. His second book, Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present is a fascinating account of the America’s involvement in the Middle East from the early days of the Republic. Oren is well spoken, telegenic and understands the underlying politics of Washington. His political views are idiosyncratic and cannot be easily categorized. Oren's one area of weakness could be his lack of any administrative or diplomatic experience, but that has not slowed President Obama down, and my guess is that Oren’s intelligence will easily compensate for any lack of experience.
Today, the Israeli government voted to cut the budget over the next two year by 50 billion shekel. At the same time, it established three new government ministries, the Ministry of Strategic Affairs, the Ministry of Intelligence, and the Ministry of Public Affairs and Diaspora. Labor and Shas Cabinet members all voted against the budget decrying the decrease in government spending in the midst of a deep recession. Minister of Education Gideon Sa’ar of the Likud also voted against the budget claiming it would not provide enough money to fund education, which he said needed to be a national priority.