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Babylon & Beyond

Observations from Iraq, Iran,
Israel, the Arab world and beyond

Category: Richard Boudreaux

ISRAEL: New blow to pension savers

The global financial crisis has been bad enough for Israelis counting on a healthy pension income after retirement. Many pension funds holding their savings had invested heavily in Israeli companies that are now reeling from the collapse of real estate markets abroad.

Now there's more alarming news for Israel's beleaguered savers: Harel Insurance Investments & Financial Services said some of its subsidiaries had invested nearly $11 million belonging to Harel's pension fund clients in an American fund that, in turn, had sunk money into financial instruments linked to disgraced Wall Street trader Bernard Madoff. In a statement to the Tel Aviv stock exchange, Harel said the unnamed American fund could not estimate the potential damage from its $7.5 billion in investments linked to Madoff. U.S. prosecutors and regulators have accused Madoff, a former chairman of the Nasdaq stock market, of masterminding a $50-billion fraud through his investment advisory business. He was arrested Thursday.

--Richard Boudreaux in Jerusalem

Richard Boudreaux

RichardRichard Boudreaux, Times Jerusalem bureau chief, has reported from more than 50 countries as a correspondent in Latin America, Europe, the former Soviet Union and the Middle East. His work has earned Columbia University's Maria Moors Cabot Prize and an Overseas Press Club award. He is a graduate of Baton Rouge High School, the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, and the School of International Affairs at Columbia University. He is a competitive long-distance runner. He lives in Jerusalem with his wife, a retired journalist, and has a grown daughter who teaches third graders with learning disabilities at a New York City public school in East Harlem. His parents live in Louisiana, where his nonagenarian father leads a jazz band.

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ISRAEL: Obama's Western Wall prayer made public


Before leaving Israel on Thursday, Barack Obama took out a sheet of King David Hotel stationery and penned a heartfelt prayer to God. It was meant to be private, but his early morning visit to the Western Wall, where he deposited the folded piece of paper into a crevice, was a public event.

As the Democratic candidate headed for the airport, a young Orthodox religious student searched the Wall until he found the note and turned it over to Maariv. The newspaper's decision to publish the prayer drew a storm of criticism in Israel.

"It was unworthy and inappropriate to publish this note," fumed Shmuel Rabinovitz, the rabbi of the Western Wall. "This violates a request that is private and personal." The rabbi's objection follows a 1,000-year-old Jewish edict against snooping on someone else's mail.

Bloggers joined in denouncing the newspaper, even as they speculated how much Obama's letter would fetch on eBay. But one critic, attorney Guy Mashiach, figured the senator probably anticipated the invasion of his privacy.

"Obama is intelligent enough to understand that in Israel, nothing remains private, discreet and secret for more than a few hours and that one mustn't count on a secret meant to be shared only by you and God for eternity being kept even in the holy of holies," he wrote on the Haaretz newspaper's web site. "Obama didn't fall into the trap of asking for John McCain's disappearance ... and penned a remarkably beautiful note, as though he had known the note would go directly to one of the more tabloid-like papers."

Read more about Obama's stolen Western Wall prayer

— Richard Boudreaux in Jerusalem

Photo: Barack Obama places a note in the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest site, in Jerusalem's Old City. Credit: Tara Todras-Whitehil / Associated Press

ISRAEL: Olmert's peace offensive

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is waging a peace offensive as he battles on the home front against allegations of corruption that threaten to cut short his term in office.

In an interview with The Times this week, he spoke of a "race against time" to reach an interim accord with the Palestinian Authority in U.S.-backed peace talks before President Bush leaves office in January. "If we miss the opportunity," he said, "then how long will it take before we can restart with a new American administration?"

Broadening his peace effort Wednesday, Olmert went public with the existence, since early last year, of talks between Israel and Syria through Turkish mediators, aimed at ending the two neighbors' long enmity. That represents a longer-term effort by Olmert to end Syria's backing for the Palestinian movement Hamas, a sworn enemy of Israel that is not part of the talks with the Palestinian Authority. The move weakens the Bush administration's policy of trying to isolate Syria.

An Israeli-Syrian accord could oblige Israel to return most or all of the militarily strategic Golan Heights, which it seized from Syria in the 1967 Middle East war. In return, Israel would expect Syria to break its alliance with Iran, which backs the Lebanese group Hezbollah as well as Hamas. Israel is alarmed by Hezbollah's recent muscle-flexing in Lebanon, and by Wednesday's internal political agreement there that appears to solidify the group's status as an armed force overshadowing the power of the state.

—Richard Boudreaux in Jerusalem

ISRAEL: An Israeli view of Obama and his pastor

From a new blog by two distinguished Israeli authors comes a commentary by Haim Watzman on Sen. Barack Obama and his former pastor -- a relationship that reminds Watzman of his own mixed feelings about his first rabbi in Israel.

Obama Having moved from America to Israel as a young man 30 years ago, Watzman admired Rabbi Tzefaniah Drori for his dedication to the town of Kiryat Shmonah, a poor community that was the frequent target of Palestinian rockets. But while attending synagogue services, Watzman came to detest the messianic doctrine of Israeli territorial expansion that the rabbi preached.

"People choose religious communities for lots of different reasons," Watzman writes. "So, while I think the politics of Reverend Jeremiah Wright abhorrent, I assumed from the start that many in his church don't hold the same beliefs -- Barack Obama among them. Obama has done the right thing by making this explicit."

Watzman describes himself as a supporter of Sen. Hillary Clinton, Obama's rival for the Democratic presidential nomination. "But I admire Obama for having the courage and forthrightness to address the issue of Reverend Wright straight on. ... People may still have reasons for opposing Obama, but his association with Reverend Wright should not be one of them."

Watzman's comment highlights a difference in the way Israelis and Americans view Obama. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz, using a panel of experts to rate how "good for Israel" each U.S. presidential candidate would be, says Israelis find more fault with Obama for his willingness to speak to the president of Israel's arch-enemy Iran than with his association with his former pastor.

— Richard Boudreaux in Jerusalem

Photo: Democratic Illinois senator and 2008 presidential candidate Barack Obama spoke to the National Jewish Democratic Council's Washington conference at Almas Temple last year. Credit: Matthew Cavanaugh / EPA

ISRAEL: Spies who blog


Facing competition from a lucrative high-tech industry at home, Israel's domestic spy agency shed a bit of its secretive image two years ago by creating newspaper ads and a Web site to list available jobs and solicit applicants. In a new feature of the campaign, the Shin Bet this week unveiled a blog in which its techies write about their work lives in an effort to attract more of their ilk to the ranks.

The agency, deeply involved in Israel's battles against Palestinian militants, conducts surveillance and interrogations. But the bloggers, who sit at office computer terminals, get less than their share of adventure. So far they sound more concerned with their salaries and knocking off work early enough to spend time with the kids.

"A," a programming engineer, writes that he heard the Shin Bet was looking for high-tech workers and imagined the fictional Counter-Terrorism Unit from the hit TV series "24." The bloggers are identified only by the first letter of their names and appear in black silhouette on the site.

"Who wouldn't want to imagine themselves working in the command-and-control center of the CTU?" wrote "A," before conceding that his job is somewhat less exciting. "Though it's really unfair, I didn't get a siren to put on my car, and I too have to sit in traffic jams."

Brandy, in a reader response to the blog, said she was disappointed. "Maybe I've watched too many James Bond movies," she wrote, "but you make it sound gray and charmless."

Richard Boudreaux in Jerusalem


ISRAEL: Digital gap between Arabs and Jews

Mouse The gap between Israel's Jews and the 20% of its population who are Arab citizens has been measured in many ways. The Arabs' rates of unemployment and infant mortality are twice the national average; investment in public education is about twice as high per Jewish pupil compared with per Arab pupil.

Asmaa Ganayem, director of the technology center at Israel's Al Qasemi Academic College of Education, has turned up a new indicator: the digital gap. She found that 72.5% of Jewish households are connected to the Internet, compared to 52.5% of Arab homes. Her research, reported this week by Israel's, shows that the gap widened between 2002 and 2005, but has narrowed since.

A separate study by Gustavo Mesch at the University of Haifa offered explanations for the disparity: lower exposure to the Internet at Israeli Arab workplaces and more negative attitudes toward new technology among Arabs. The researchers said the gap could be reduced by integrrating the Internet into Arab school curricula and adding the Arabic language to more Israeli government websites.

Richard Boudreaux in Jerusalem

ISRAEL: Racing along the Dead Sea


The course is a runner's dream. It starts and ends at Ein Gedi, an oasis where the Judean Desert meets the Dead Sea, and follows the gentle undulations of Highway 90 along the western shore, past palm trees, freshwater springs and Copper Age archaeological digs. The half-marathon route is out and back, turning around near Israel's ancient Masada fortress.

A few thousand runners from Israel and abroad gather each February, when temperatures are bearable at this below-sea-level spot, for the Dead Sea Half Marathon and companion 10-kilometer race. Competing in Saturday's 26th running of the event was a pleasant break from my work covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

It also gave me a glimpse of Israeli organization. Managing an event involving so many athletes is tricky anywhere. So much about Israel is first-world, but I wondered how the country would stack up against others where I have raced during my years as a foreign correspondent.

At first, I was impressed. It was easy to pre-register on the Internet, find a parking place at Ein Gedi and collect the packet containing my race number and an electronic chip that would record my race time. Water stops had been set up every two kilometers along the course, and the pre-race announcements in Hebrew and English were loud and clear.

Then things went awry.

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ISRAEL: Twin cities by fate

Israel's Army Radio broadcast an unusal exchange between Yossi Belisha, an Israeli, and Jamal Khudari, a Palestinian, during a call-in debate Monday about Israel's cutoff of fuel and other essential supplies to the Gaza Strip. Israel imposed the blockade last Thursday in response to near-daily Kassam rocket fire from the Hamas-ruled territory. The broadcast came during a lull in the rocket fire, before Israel agreed late Monday to a temporary easing of the blockade.

Belisha lives in Sderot, the Israeli town hit hardest by the rockets. Khudari lives in Gaza City, which has suffered most from power blackouts caused by the fuel cutoff. Here are excerpts from their on-air debate hosted by Army Radio's Razi Barkai.

Barkai: Describe life today where you are.

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ISRAEL: Babylon babble causes a diplomatic incident

The source for this Nov. 8 posting, the Jerusalem Post, reported that an Israeli journalist's use of the online translation engine Babel Fish resulted in a series of incomprehensible questions to the Dutch foreign minister. That report was incorrect; the translation engine he used was Babylon.

You're about to leave for an educational seminar in the Netherlands, where your group will meet the foreign minister. The Dutch Consulate wants to know in advance what you intend to ask him.

Your English is not very good, your Dutch nonexistent.

What do you do?

Faced with that problem, an Israeli journalist got the bright idea to type his group's questions in Hebrew and run them through Babylon Babel Fish, the automated online translation service.

The output, according to the Jerusalem Post, was a series of mangled sentences and a diplomatic embarrassment.

"Helloh bud, Enclosed five of the questions in honor of the foreign minister," the journalist's e-mail began. "The mother your visit in Israel is a sleep to the favor or to the bed your mind on the conflict are Israeli Palestinian, and on the relational Israel Holland."

It continued with five nearly incomprehensible questions, and several other mentions of "mother."

One question that was meant to read: "What, in your opinion, needs to be done regarding the Iranian threat to Israel?" became "What in your opinion needs to do opposite the awful the Iranian of Israel."

The Dutch Foreign Ministry was not amused. It is considering canceling the group's trip and filing a formal complaint.

"How could this e-mail possibly have been sent?" an irritated Israeli diplomat asked the Jerusalem Post.

Ask Babylon Babel Fish, bud. It mistakes the Hebrew word for "if" (ha'im) for the Hebrew word for "mother" (ha'ima) and translates "Dome of the Rock" as "bandages of the knitted domes."

— Richard Boudreaux in Jerusalem

ISRAEL: Is Google Earth a threat to security?

Israel’s Yediot Aharonot thinks so. Under the front-page headline “Transparent Country,” the newspaper reported Friday that updates in Google Earth’s online satellite imagery service make it possible for Israel’s enemies to see clearer, sharper pictures of the Jewish state’s air force bases, missile lauch sites and the top-secret nuclear reactor in the Negev Desert.

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