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Global Thoughts — 22 March 2013

This past weekend we went to visit my 100 year old great aunt who is in an assisted living facility. When we arrived, my son Jeremy went to the check-in counter and said we were here to visit Fay, and then informed them “she is supposed to die soon.” Actually, my great aunt says she would be thrilled if that were true. Being 100 and not in good health is no blessing.

Our kids are developing well. In a waiting room, Jeremy was building the Berlin Wall from Legos. It’s been half a year since we were there but he remembered the place with the towers and the wall you couldn’t cross. I didn’t know what he meant, but then he said Germany. He recently asked me how long it took to ship the statue of liberty from France to America. He wanted to look at an atlas to make sure that Egypt was attached to Africa where he thought it was.  His favourite telly program is Top Gear on BBC America. Elizabeth is learning how to read and does all kinds of gymnastics moves around the house that would send most people to the chiropractor. This past weekend she ate asparagus for the first time and told someone that the reason we live on the best block in the whole wide world is that we have so many Italian restaurants on it.  We are presently looking forward to our 2 week break for Passover. And now it’s time for some….

Elizabeth showing her Passover Haggadah she made in school.

Passover Thoughts – The essential Passover commandment of eating matzah crackers is unique, because at 17 minutes 59 seconds the unleavened bread is considered sacred, and at 18 minutes and one second, it is considered leavened bread, and to eat it is considered a sin worthy of death of one’s soul. Surely there is no real difference between the physical state of the cracker during that one split second under or over 18 minutes. Although considering that a TED talk is limited to no more than 18 minutes, perhaps there is some logic to this idea. The reason the rabbis say we eat Matzah is to recall that the Jews left Egypt in haste, that they had no time to bake their bread. But in reality this is a crock. The exodus from Egypt was planned in advance, the Jews had plenty of time to get ready and the actual execution was rather meticulous; the idea of eating in haste was mentioned in the bible in Exodus Chapter 12 more than 2 weeks before the actual exodus. If someone were going on a trip, what mother wouldn’t think ahead to pack a sandwich? Therefore, the idea goes beyond the simple circumstance of the exodus itself.

A central tenet of Judaism is that time matters. Time and commandment is also opportunity. Opportunity has to be taken advantage of before it expires, and losing one’s opportunities in life (ie: commandments to perform a certain act at a certain time, or just to live one’s life to its fullest) is considered a form of sacrilege.

Right now in Israel there is a very interesting opportunity. For the first time in a long time, it looks like Bibi Netanyahu, the country’s prime minister, is forming a coalition government without the ultra-orthodox (haredi) parties. The modern orthodox and the secular are united in wanting this to happen. Neither of them will blink on this demand because all previous attempts to form a coalition of the center failed when they were bought off at the price of including the haredi parties. Having been bought off, all these reform movements then lost their power at the next election having failed to deliver the goods to their constituents. Lapid and Bennett understand this all too well, as the heads of their respective reform parties in the past election. There is a very high probability that one effect of this new coalition will be to take back the office of the chief rabbi from the ultra-orthodox to the modern orthodox and to make the rabbinate more progressive. Netanyahu was used to buying off ministers with ministries but right now the coalition partners care less about what ministries they get (except for Livni from the old school who got Justice and walked away happy very quickly in the coalition negotiations) and much more about making changes to laws governing society. There is a general feeling in the country, even among the secular, that people want more religion in their lives but they don’t want that religion to be alien to them and an instrument of coercion by the state, which it is now because the chief rabbinate and the religious courts which handle life cycle events are controlled by the ultra-orthodox. It is interesting – Israelis want in a certain sense to be more like the Arabs around them who tend to see Islam as part of their lives, but they don’t like it when their governments shove it down their throats.

If Israel continues down this path, it is likely to have a more progressive policy not only toward civil issues involving religion such as life cycle events (ie: marriage and conversion), but peace issues will be affected as well. American Jews of the under-50 generation outside the 10% who are Orthodox have become more alienated from Israel as the country leaned rightward both politically and religiously. Look around in 20 years and you might see new-found kinship between next-generation American Jews and Israel, as well as a different Israel. This will matter because right now the people who make the US Government sweat when it comes to Israel are the people over 50 who are fundraisers and vocal about Israel. Look around and you don’t see that many people under age 50 doing this and you also see many more Asians and Latins taking the places that used to be taken by Jews in the fundraising department. So looking over the long haul something has to give and people might look back at this particular election as having been a turning point in Israel’s transformation into a more unified country among its own and a more progressive country regarding its relationships with world Jewry and the rest of the world. If so, it will be because some leaders in Israel decided not to waste this opportunity and to strike at the right time this Passover eve.

I just watched Obama’s speech in Israel to a large hall of students. I thought it was the perfect speech and that Obama shares a profound sense that he wants to talk over the heads of the political leaders who until now have been the elders of the founding generation. He wants to invest new hope in the generation that is more confident in themselves and the future and is beginning to affect the political process. Over the long haul, even though there are tons of reasons to be skeptical right now over the entire spectrum of Middle East issues, Obama is steering the US to be on the right side of history. No, the Arab World will not be “democratic and free” the same way the US thinks it should be, but that is not the point. The Middle East will run to its own tempo and according to its own definitions, but at least right now the Israelis and Arabs can look at Obama as a guy who leads a country that appears in his heart to be sympathetic to both of their aspirations and concerns. He doesn’t look like a cynical phony as past presidents did and who correctly earned the ire of the region’s populace. This is a real change, and it is for the better for all concerned.

Here’s an interesting comparison. I’ve noticed some surveys from Pew and BBC that show that China is seriously unpopular in a large part of the world. I had thought otherwise and that a country without having armies everywhere and simply throwing money around to buy everyone off would be more popular than they are. The government’s cynical support for regimes such as in Libya, Syria, North Korea, and Iran have earned them a good amount of the bad reputation the US has carried for generations, and their aggressive military and deeply self-serving trade policies have earned them mistrust across Asia as well as in Africa and Latin America. For instance, in Nassau, Bahamas a company owned by the government of China is building a huge bloc of hotels on prime real estate and building a dedicated highway to the airport; one condition was that all the construction workers come from China.  You can just imagine how much China might have spent to buy off the Bahamian government to pass a project that would employ only foreigners and result in fierce competition to the hotels that already exist and employ so many of their people. It might be good for the Bahamas down the line but these kinds of deals don’t sew trust among ordinary people who get surveyed and ultimately vote. North Korea is turning out to be a really bratty stepchild for that country.  Turkey thought it could have lots of friends and no enemies and so did China. America has friends and enemies, although the US policy under Obama has been less cynical than ever. The moral of the story is that nobody is going to have all friends and no enemies but pound for pound the US’s stock in the world is rising and China’s is falling. The most respected countries will be those that are on the right side of history.

After reviewing the situation in the Middle East, here are few serious predictions:

1.         Obama will NEVER greenlight an Israeli military attack against Iran.

2.         Obama will do everything possible to avoid a military attack against Iran, because he fears jeopardizing economic recovery. The actual effects of a strike are less than feared on the economic side, but the uncertainty is a major deterrent to him and his advisors.

3.         If, however, Obama fears that he will go down in history as the US president who presided over Iran becoming a nuclear power, he will himself order and exercise control over a US military strike against Iran. Obama tends to control matters of foreign policy and run them through the White House and the Pentagon, with the State Department being a minor decider. As presidents go, Obama is more of a control freak on military matters and foreign affairs.

4.         The Iranian leadership, knowing that they will get the best deal possible for them under Obama, will agree to a deal that enables them to develop nuclear energy beneath certain thresholds. They will use the next 5 years or so to develop a wide range of nuclear projects that will allow them at a certain point to break out in a military sense widely and quickly, so that if they have a more hostile US president in place, that president will have to think very hard before making a military move against that country.

5.         Israel is most unlikely to attack Iran without a green light from the US. Paragraph 4 represents a very bad situation for Israel if in fact it becomes a reality. If the Iranians are disciplined and do what globalthoughts predicts, it probably will.

6.         Because of the developments of the past several years, there is almost no probability that any kind of comprehensive peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians is possible in the short to medium term. There is no feeling among the Israelis that it is a good idea to take on vulnerabilities when they have no sense that they know who in another few years will control Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Libya – you get the idea. Let alone who will control Gaza / West Bank. Whether or not Kerry, the new secretary of state, thinks this is a priority for him, the odds are that Obama will not be very interested at tilting at windmills and the Israelis (and Obama and the rest of America) are primarily interested in social and economic affairs within their borders. Nevertheless, I think Obama was right to plant seeds for the future during this visit to Israel. Perhaps later during his term there will be things to talk about and he will need a constituency; but right now, I don’t see much to talk about given all the uncertainty and Israel being the only place between Morocco and Afghanistan that is stable and has anything approaching the rule of law.

 

Last word on Passover — a friend of mine deployed in Kabul who gets care packages meant for Jewish soldiers says that the Afghans like gefilte fish (stuffed carp) and Passover macaroons. He said that with one can of macaroons, you could subdue the whole Taliban.

Good news from Saudi Arabia: It is now legal under the Koran to execute via firing squad instead of by beheading. It seems that they had a shortage of executioners around the country who couldn’t get to the various beheadings on time. I can’t understand why – the whole country has about 75 beheadings a year. I noticed when I visited Saudi Arabia that nobody shows up on time to anything, but even this they can’t pull off… (OK, excuse the pun.)

Interesting news also from Egypt – it seems that Israeli soldiers in Gaza say that cooperation between them and the Egyptian military is better now than it was under Mubarak. It seems that Hamas in Gaza made so much trouble, and the Moslem Brotherhood has enough problems running Egypt, that it needs to keep Gaza in its box and has gone and done a bunch of things that Israel wanted done that Mubarak wouldn’t do, such as close the border crossings and flood most of the tunnels that were being used to smuggle people and goods into Gaza from Egypt.

I know some people who are dictatorial who could perhaps find themselves a home in Venezuela now that Chavez is gone. Too bad to see a nice and wealthy country ruined over a generation.

Meanwhile, the much-ballyhooed sequestration occurred in the US and hardly anyone noticed. Except that The Blue Angels cancelled their appearance at the Chicago air show this coming August for lack of funding, just after we bought tickets to attend. Bad luck, but maybe they’ll change their mind before then. But frankly, cutting the US budget by whatever amount they supposedly did doesn’t really make much difference to me.

Good lesson in how things work: Coca Cola and other beverage makers fought Mayor Bloomberg’s attempt to regulate sales of soda and other sugary beverages in New York City. The law was supposed to fight obesity which disproportionately affects people in minority populations and compounds the conditions that keep minorities in poverty. But Coca Cola’s allies in the fight against the law were lots of organizations within the minority communities – that get millions of dollars in funding from soda and beverage industry companies. Need I say more?  Apart from the fact that the law was poorly drafted and probably deserved to be overturned by a judge, you have to consider that you can basically buy off community leaders and subjugate a community. And that’s how it’s done.

Although I was there a few years ago and don’t think much of the place, I have to give credit to Mexico which is gaining respect as a country that is being well-run and reforming, and its rate of growth currently exceeds that of the US.

We are heading to Miami where the Financial Times has confirmed what we all knew in our guts — that nowadays, more than 50% of the population of Miami speaks Spanish as its first language.

Look forward to telling you about other new things in another month.

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