Friday, February 15, 2008

(The following might or might not be true. If anyone uses it for the purpose of doing harm to any of the people involved, I'll declare it to be completely fictional.)

It was a West Wing moment.

I was standing in the vestibule of the office of a very senior Israeli politician, together with her Chief Counsel and a member of Knesset. (I'll call her D and note only that she isn't the one I call "charmless".) D stepped out of her office to greet us and without really taking me in says, "Welcome, Professor Chorin, your name is familiar. Was I once your student?". I smiled at her as she finally looked at me and said, "No. But we've met." Suddenly, the asimon drops and she gasps and steps back and says, "Oh my! It's you, isn't it? It's really you!" Everyone in the office froze and held their breath wondering what the hell I had ever done to D.


Many years ago, shortly after I had finished a three-month course as a combat medic, I came upon a terrible accident on the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway. The injured were strewn on the highway. The first victim I came across was already being tended to, so I moved on and found a woman lying on the highway in need of care. I did what needed to be done and parted from her as she was loaded into an ambulance that eventually arrived. She was extremely grateful.

This particular accident made it into the newspapers because the first victim I had come across happened to have been a famous person and, tragically, he died of his wounds that day. The papers noted that one of the passengers in the other car was hospitalized and mentioned her name, D. Her name was not familiar to me but I took note of it.

A few years later, I was surprised to hear that somebody named D was elected to the Knesset. This particular name D is not a common one, so I had reason to believe she was my D, but I didn't pay the episode much attention. A few years later, D was appointed to be the head of a very important Knesset committee. On that occasion she gave an interview to a local Jerusalem newspaper, the front page headline of which concerned an anonymous person who had "saved her life" (this was an exaggeration) after a terrible car accident and that she wished more than anything to speak to him.

Although I was uncomfortable about taking credit for what little I had done, I got D's phone number and called her. I left my phone number on her answering machine and she returned my call when I was not home. My wife told her that I was the person she was looking for. D said she was very excited to hear that, but she did not call again.

Several months later I was contacted by the producers of a very popular live TV talk show who insisted that they would send a taxi for me immediately because D was a guest on the show that evening and had asked that I come. After much hesitation, I relented and went. I was seated in the front row directly behind D, so she wouldn't see me. After chatting with a horse-trainer and a weight-lifter, the interviewer turned to D and they began discussing her accident. He asked her if she would like to meet the person who "saved her life". She said that she would not, that it would be too traumatic. He asked her again and she refused again. Finally, she agreed to turn around to hear my brief account of the story.

After the show we chatted briefly. The next day she called me on the phone and apologized for not being more gushy on the show. I assured her that she acted honorably and did not owe the producers an emotional display. She told me that if I ever need anything I should give her a call.

Not long after that a student in the august institution where I work (AIWIW) did something quite terrible. D was well-placed to do significant harm to AIWIW and publicly threatened to do so. The president of AIWIW called me and asked me to intervene. I did so (somewhat reluctantly) and the matter quieted down.

That was the last time we spoke until our meeting a few days ago to discuss constitutional matters. Over the years since then, D climbed the ranks. She has reached very near the top of the political pyramid.

But I still take her breath away.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

In my last post, I summarized the report. Now I want to add some commentary (especially in light of Yehezkel Dror's comments quoted in the press today).

The salient feature of the report is its bloodlessness. This was a report that cited the profoundest imaginable failures of leadership, yet couldn't possibly bring 100,000 -- or even 1,000 -- protesters to the Knesset. If it's blood you're after, you didn't get it. It won't bring down Olmert, at least not in the short run. Should we be disappointed?

To be sure, Olmert is a disaster. He is a fraud. Unlike some commenters, I don't buy into the argument that we are better off with a weak left-wing governments than a weak right-wing government; that's too clever by half. I want Olmert and the rest of his hacks to go. But still, I believe the Winograd Commission did us a great service. By focusing on the systemic flaws rather than on personal flaws, it left open the (small) possibility of some systemic changes actually being made.

Moreover, and this is the key point, the report serves as a model of precisely the kind of self-restraint that is so missing in Israeli politics. These commissions are just another way for judicial oligarchs to supervise the government. This report showed that a serious committee can do its job and let the public decide without being infantilized. In the long run, if it raises the level of political discourse, this self-restraint will serve us better than a quick kill. (And, yes, I know that in the long run we'll all be dead.)

As for Dror, forgive me for saying the unpopular thing, but he's right. He was asked whether the public should react to the report by dumping Olmert and he responded by saying that there are many considerations to take into account when making such a decision. I, for one, would be in favor of dumping Olmert, even if the report had declared him the greatest statesman since Thomas Jefferson.

Dror is a loose cannon and he is known for shooting off his mouth without considering the possible consequences. His remarks didn't suggest that the committee did consider or should have considered Olmert's politics in reaching its conclusions (which would have been scandalous); he merely said that now there could be overriding considerations in deciding what to do about the report. A dumb thing for a person in his shoes to say, but absolutely correct.