Archive for November, 2014

DEAR BIBI

An open letter to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: Bibi, times remain challenging. As an ardent supporter of Israel, let me respectfully offer a few comments. Because while you’re correct that a significant segment of Palestinians promotes the destruction of Israel, the best strategy Israel can adopt is that of a peace seeker. Before you throw your hands in the air, note that I didn’t say victim.

Let’s start with the recent murders at Jerusalem’s Har Nof synagogue. Five Israelis—four Jews and one Druze—were killed. It was heinous. Hamas’ supportive comments and Palestinian distribution of candies to celebrate reflect grave moral impoverishment. But destroy the homes of the murderers? Bar Israeli-Arab citizens from their construction jobs as the mayor of Ashkelon did yesterday? And build new settlements while we’re at it? That won’t stir the cauldron and bring more violence? Israel won’t look as mindless as many Palestinians do on a daily basis?

Yes, you want to show leadership. But when you embrace the right, you don’t lead. You follow. You say you support a two-state solution, as do I. Why not speak out when Economy Minister Naftali Bennett promulgates his plan to offer Palestinians limited autonomy, not a state—and only in part of the West Bank?

It hurts me to disagree with Naftali. He’s my cousin Maxine’s nephew. I certainly understand Naftali’s concerns. But his plan sounds reasonable only if you’re an Israeli. A one-state strategy will only provoke continuation—and escalation—of the conflict. Not that I believe that Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, is an effective peace partner. He doesn’t have the beitzim—or as they say in Spanish, cojones.

And you? You’ve said Israel is willing to make major concessions for peace? What concessions? Why not announce them and let Abbas struggle to respond? Why not show the world, including many of Israel’s friends expressing doubts, that Israel is willing to walk the bilateral walk?

Why play up to rightists like the casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson? At a recent Israeli-American Council gathering, he took the position that Israel can freely ignore the rights of its Arab population in the present or an expanded state. “So Israel won’t be a democratic state, so what?” Adelson said. Really?

Look, Bibi, I’m not suggesting that Israel compromise its security. Hitting back at Hamas last summer? I supported you. Preventing Jews from praying on the Temple Mount (security personnel even took a pair of candles from my wife when we went there) to keep order regardless of how one-sided the Muslim position? Prudent.

But let’s make sober choices in response to attacks rather than flailing wildly. Make clear to the world the truth it often willfully dismisses—that Israel is a boon to the global community, and that when we say we want peace, we mean it.

I’m not naïve. World opinion alone won’t safeguard Israel. But leveraging world opinion instead of circling the wagons can help. Over a century ago, President Theodore Roosevelt said, “Speak softly, and carry a big stick.” That’s wisdom worthy of the Talmud.

I’ll be taking off for Thanksgiving weekend. My next post will appear on Friday, December 5.

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HOW WAS YOUR VETERAN’S DAY?—A FABLE

After lunch downtown last Tuesday, I took the 1-California bus home. A man across the aisle, seemingly in his mid-thirties muttered, “How was your Veteran’s Day?” I thought he was talking to me, and he looked like a straight-up guy, so I answered, “The usual.”

“Sorry,” he said. “I was talking to myself, I guess. I do that a lot. At least, since I came back.” Picking up on the cue, I asked if he was a veteran. He was. Two tours in Iraq. A platoon leader then a staff officer in an engineering battalion. “Thanks for your service,” I said. “Really. It means a lot.” He smiled.

“Where are you headed?” I asked. “Home,” he said. “I had to work this morning.” He’d formerly been an IT manager at a major bank. Now he was working as a consultant. “Too much hierarchy,” he said. “The Army then the bank.” He liked being his own boss and was doing okay, but all his clients were in the private sector. “Government offices close on Veteran’s Day. Corporations don’t.” I nodded. “I’ve been there.”

I wondered if he was finished for the day. “Not hardly,” he said. His wife worked at a law firm downtown and had to be in the office. “Schools are closed,” he said, “so my daughter… she’s eight… stayed with a friend and her mother.” The friend and her mother had to go to the East Bay that afternoon. “I’ll work at home and look after my daughter there.”

“Could be worse,” I said. “I worked from home for a number of years.” I shook my head as if I’d forgotten something important. “Then again, eight-year-olds do demand attention.” She was a good kid, he said, but she’d have to keep herself busy finishing homework and reading. Maybe thirty minutes of video games but not more. “I have a videoconference,” he said. “Crash project coming up.”

“Sounds like you’re getting a lot done,” I said. He shrugged. “Some things.” Unfortunately, a client was still setting up automatic payment, and he was expecting an important check in the mail. The post office was closed. He had a matter to discuss with his bank but was told in an online chat that he’d have to speak with the manager personally. He shook his head. “Of course, the bank is closed.”

Being an attentive dad, he planned to take his daughter to the playground while there was still light, but he’d have to hit the books after dinner. He was taking a graduate course at San Francisco State. “I’m doing fine, but I do better in class when the instructor lectures. It’s a learning style thing.” I nodded. “No class tonight,” he said. “The campus is closed.”

We chatted about this and that until he pulled the cord for his stop. I wished him well and commented that the nation’s regard for its veterans shouldn’t be measured by Veteran’s Day, which often means little more than shopping for bargains. “Tell me about it,” he said. “One of my clients is a major retailer.”

The bus slowed. He stood. “They say freedom isn’t free,” he said. “You know who pays.”

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CATCHING CAMBODIA

A few years ago, Carolyn and I visited Cambodia. After a stay in Phnom Penh, the capital, we flew to Siem Reap. Angkor Wat, the huge 12th-century temple complex, was breathtaking. But something else also caught my attention. The roads we traveled on made San Francisco look like a third-world city.

I often say that life is maintenance. On a personal level, we (well, not all Americans) take care of our bodies. We wash. We trim our nails and get haircuts. We also try to eat healthy food and exercise.

On a communal level, we seek to maintain our physical environment. But infrastructure projects don’t come cheap, and Washington is the prime mover. Shamefully, we’ve long neglected our roads, bridges and tunnels, and school buildings. Fortunately, the economy has generated more government revenue so more work has taken place. It hasn’t always been efficient, but that’s a problem of politics rather than engineering. Witness the attractive east span of the Bay Bridge pushed as a legacy by former San Francisco mayor Willie Brown and present governor Jerry Brown. Politically mismanaged construction often stalled. Costs soared. Grave questions remain about the bridge’s structural integrity.

In my neighborhood, the news is mostly good. The Doyle Drive project connecting the Golden Gate Bridge to the Marina District and downtown, as well as to San Francisco’s west side and the Peninsula, will be completed in another two years. Hopefully. In August, crews replaced our street’s sewer lines, part of a huge citywide project. Three weeks of dust and noise proved a small price for those needed repairs. Last month, other crews repaved our street. Nearby Park Presidio, a major boulevard badly in need of repaving, waits.

Infrastructure-wise, we’re catching Cambodia. But another type of infrastructure is crumbling down to the level of Cambodia, a dictatorship under Prime Minister Hun Sen: Washington. Last Tuesday’s election, which gave Republicans control of the Senate and expanded the GOP majority in the House is a symptom. So is a lack of leadership and candor coming from President Obama whose reserved, seemingly disengaged manner has worn thin with many Americans who voted for him. Our system of government—brilliant in its conception—has lost its way. Big money and the shrill ideology from extremists on both right and left have paralyzed Washington’s ability to advance the cause of ordinary, “purple” Americans.

In an age when citizens have huge caches of information at their fingertips, Washington’s ability to get things done has slowed beyond a crawl. It’s at a virtual standstill. Yes, powerful interests always have impacted elections, legislation, even war. Once, machine politics and backroom compromises—and yes, hands got dirty—moved the nation forward by passing the riches around. The system was imperfect but effective. Now, it’s dead.

We have the capacity to span bays and rivers, dig through mountains and construct inspiring buildings that serve the common good. We also have the capacity to build bridges across the aisle in Congress and down the Hill to the White House. If we’re intent on not catching Cambodia in political respects, we won’t need a new constitution. We’ll need integrity, courage and will. What are the odds?

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