One step forward, one step back

Two big things happened in Israel:

  1. Israel landed a spacecraft on the moon! (Not what you were expecting first, right?)
  2. Israel had an election

Unfortunately, neither was perfectly executed.

Israel is the fourth country to land a craft on the moon (the seventh to orbit the moon). Just that is praiseworthy and we should be really proud! But “land” is sort of a stretch; it crashed to the surface.

The craft was called “Beresheet” – “In the beginning,” also the name of the first book of the Torah – so we can look forward to more attempts. The main picture making the rounds on social media was the arrivals board of Ben Gurion Airport listing the arrival time on the moon as if it was one of the many flights coming in.

The craft managed to provide a selfie just before crashing (a note about camera use and driving?).

Beresheet moon selfieFrom the moon

SOURCE

Along with the Israeli flag, the Hebrew says: “The People of Israel Live.” Beresheet came back on line after the crash to provide another selfie. ON. THE. MOON!

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We also had an election. We can be proud that we’re still a democracy and we only have to deal with awful political campaigns for 3-4 months and we’re done. We need another month for the “winner” to form a coalition and then we get back to the business of running the country.

The “winner” is Benjamin Netanyahu (Likud) for his fifth term. I put winner in quotation marks because the next largest party “lost” by an extremely slim margin: Likud 26.45%, Blue and White 26.11%, with fewer votes cast than in the last election. But it was enough to push Likud to 36 seats in the 120-seat Knesset and Blue and White (a coalition party itself) to 35.  Netanyahu needs to put together a coalition of at least 61 Knesset votes and there are enough parties that lean to the right to do it. However, they include religious parties that will have their own demands. Some suggest that Likud and Blue and White (center-right) could come together to have no special interests in the coalition.

Here’s where I think Israel crashed. Netanyahu and his family are under investigation for corruption and he’s come out swinging against the media using Trumpian terminology (witch hunt, fake news, leftist conspiracy, etc.) I’m going to leave aside fake social media bots, vote challenges and recounts by hand, cameras in certain voting locations, and the fact that there were more parties in the race than I have ever seen before – 43 – so every vote for parties that didn’t pass the 3.25% threshold is a lost vote. Rather, I’d like to highlight a few “coincidences.” Perhaps it was a well-timed coincidence that the US recognized Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights. Perhaps another well-timed coincidence was Russia brokering the return of a soldier’s body to his family. He had been missing for 37 years. Plus we had the anticipated moon landing (a couple of days after the election). The logic is that nobody but Netanyahu could pull all that off – certainly not the political newbies in the other parties – because he’s good friends with Trump and Putin. And look how “good they are for Israel.”

Are all these excellent gifts given for free? Is it because we’re just so awesome and have suffered for millennia? We probably won’t know the true costs for a long time.

As an optimist, I’d like to see the glass as half-full: Israel landed on the moon and has a more or less functional democracy. But there’s plenty of room for improvement.

Hey, is that an elephant in the room?

With all the fuss about William Barr’s 4-page summary of the Mueller report, I decided it might be worthwhile to read it.

The line that caught my attention and the line that no one seems to be talking about is:

The report outlines the Russian effort to influence the election and documents crimes committed by persons associated with the Russian government in connection with those efforts.

 

Russian meddling is not alleged or suspected. It is a verifiable fact.

Since I didn’t see it mentioned anywhere, I thought, “How often does a foreign power interfere with elections?” There’s a Wikipedia page about it.

There we find that in the 2016 US election, Russia intervened, Ukraine tried, and there’s some suspicion about Saudi Arabia.

Guess who interferes in elections more than any other government in the world, and by a large margin too?

The. United. States.

One study indicated that the country intervening in most foreign elections is the United States with 81 interventions, followed by Russia (including the former Soviet Union) with 36 interventions from 1946 to 2000 – an average of once in every nine competitive elections.

This study was done by Dov Levin, an Israeli scholar who started his academic career at Haifa University.

His research shows that the United States and the Soviet Union/Russia use covert or overt “partisan election interventions.” Influence tends to swing the vote by 2 to 3 percent. Sometimes that’s enough, sometimes not. (He published his academic article in February 2016.)

He notes that two things need to happen in order for intervention to take place – he calls them motive and opportunity – “a great power must perceive its interests as being endangered by a certain candidate or party within a democratic target … a significant domestic actor must consent to, and willingly cooperate with, a proposed electoral intervention by the great power.” The willing actor need not be the candidate.

In September 2016, Levin published an article in the Washington Post giving a synopsis of his research and said that the Soviet Union/Russia had meddled unsuccessfully in US elections two times previously (1948 and 1984). At the time, he said that Russian interference would likely be ineffective as the United States is a “hard target,” but Putin’s end goal would be “anyone but Hillary.”

In December 2018, Levin published an article stating that it would be unlikely for Mueller to prove that Trump colluded with Russia.

if possible collusion between the Trump camp and Russia occurred along the lines of past cases, the number of people who would know or who were involved in the collusion in the Trump campaign is probably quite small. Many senior members of the Trump campaign, including some of those personnel with ties to Russia, would likely have had no clue of such collusion going on. It may well be possible that even Trump was kept in the dark by those in his campaign who might have conspired with Russia.

Another obvious difficulty is that colluders are not taking notes and keeping records of their activities. Anyone who has seen even one episode of Law & Order knows that you can’t prosecute without hard evidence.

And then I started wondering about the numbers in the 2016 election. Did Russian meddling have an effect?

I’m not a statistician, but here are a few things I found interesting.

  • The trend in the 2016 election was for most states to shift toward the Republican side.
  • In many cases, the shift was not enough to swing a blue state to a red state.
  • In 4 states, the margin of victory was less than 1 percent. Together they equal 50 Electoral College votes (or enough to change the election result).
    • Michigan
    • New Hampshire
    • Pennsylvania
    • Wisconsin
  • Compared with the 2012 election, only 1 state (29 EC votes) had a margin of victory of less than 1 percent, and in the 2008 election, it was 2 states (26 EC votes). In neither case was it enough to change the outcome of the election.
  • Michigan, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin were blue states in the 2012 election, all shifted toward red, but only New Hampshire (4 EC votes) stayed blue.

Then I took an even closer look.

State Clinton Trump Other parties
Michigan 47.27% 47.5% 5.46%
Pennsylvania 47.46% 48.18% 5.08%
Wisconsin 46.45% 47.22% 7.09%

Neither major party got 50 percent of the vote, and the non-major parties got more than 3 percent of the vote (the number of votes Levin says a foreign power can influence). If Levin is correct and Putin wanted “anyone but Hillary” in office, these numbers seem to suggest that.

Let me add a few more statistics for comparison. These are popular vote percentages (due to rounding, they don’t always add up to exactly 100 percent).

Election Year Democrat Republican Other
2016 48.18% 46.09% 5.73%
2012 51.06% 47.2% 1.73%
2008 52.93% 45.65% 1.45%
2000 (Gore v. G.W. Bush) 47.87% 48.38% 3.75%
1992 (Clinton v. G.H.W. Bush v. Perot) 43.01% 37.45% 19.54%

I added the 2000 and 1992 elections to show that 3rd party candidates can have an influence on the elections – in 2000 in favor of the Republicans and in 1992 in favor of the Democrats, when a viable 3rd party candidate broke the Republican party.

What does all this mean?

  • I’m bothered that foreign interference in a sovereign country’s elections is treated as “business as usual.”
  • I wonder if the interference caused enough Americans to reject both parties, and it was a tossup whether it would favor the Democrats or the Republicans. In any case, the voting statistics show a divided nation with more people considering 3rd party candidates.
  • Maybe the strategy to determine how to tip the Electoral College was suggested by an entity that had a preferred outcome.
  • Did the United States get a taste of its own medicine in 2016? Is this a harbinger of a new world order?
  • We may never know everyone who colluded with Russia in the 2016 election, or at least we may not have enough solid evidence, but we do know Russia interfered and Putin got the result he wanted.
  • Israel’s election is coming up on April 9 and I’m feeling more cynical than ever.

A Wall, a Fence, and Border Security

Israel’s border security is the inspiration for the US’s southern border security solutions. Our security doesn’t involve surrounding the whole country with 35-foot-tall concrete slabs. We built smart fences with layered security. Only 5% of the security barrier in the West Bank built to stop terrorism consists of very tall concrete slabs.

Here I’ll focus on the border fence built between Egypt and Israel to stop the flow of unauthorized migration from Africa.

The February 2017 US Senate report (you can read it here) compares the efficiency and efficacy of Israel’s border security to that of the already existing southern US border solutions. Israel’s fence is better by far.

fence

  • 150 miles of fence cost US$415 million
  • Yearly maintenance cost is US$58 thousand per mile
  • It was built in 2 years and the physical structure is made of rebar, barbed wire, and concrete buried underground
  • It’s about 15 feet tall
  • There was a 10-mile section that was easier to breach so they raised that section to 25 feet

Does Israel’s fence “work”? Yes. From tens of thousands of migrants coming through the border, last year fewer than 20 came through.

But here’s what the security fence didn’t do:

  • Write a formal immigration policy for Israel (it never occurred to anyone that non-Jewish people would want to live in a Jewish state, so there are guidelines but no formal policy for people who fall outside the definition provided by the Law of Return)
  • Deal with the tens of thousands of migrants already in Israel
  • Deal with security or trafficking at airports, maritime ports, or any other points of entry not covered by the fence

If the US followed Israel’s plan, here’s what should happen:

  • The US southern border needs about 13 of Israel’s fences (all things being equal), so it should cost US$5.4 billion. This doesn’t take into account terrain differences, proper oversight, consistency, eminent domain issues, etc. Even if you round up for other factors, let’s say US$10 billion
  • It should cost $112 million dollars per year for maintenance

The US already has 650 miles of fence.

  • The lower estimate given by the Senate report says it cost $2.3 billion (though another report says over the years it has been $7 billion). At US prices, Israel’s 150-mile fence would have cost US$530 million (or up to $1.6 billion)
  • Maintenance today on the US fence is US$77,000 annually per mile (or almost US$20,000 more per mile than Israel’s)

In short, the existing US fence was more expensive to build and is more expensive to maintain. But somehow it’s not effective. If the US builds a new fence using a plan based on anything other than Israel’s fence, it will be a case of throwing good money after bad.

Israel’s fence deals with a specific issue: unauthorized African migration, mostly from Eritrea and Sudan.

The US southern border fence claims it will deal with two specific issues: immigration and crime. So I checked a few statistics.

So if the border security “works,” it will stop approximately 400,000 people from entering the US via the southern border. It will do nothing about visa overstayers, nothing about “unauthorized” immigrants already residing in the US, nothing about immigration policy, nothing against any kind of trafficking (most likely), nothing for any other border sector, airport, or maritime port, and nothing about immigration from any other region than Mexico and Central America. It will also probably be over budget and improperly and expensively maintained. In addition, those who might have come via the southern border will likely find alternate routes.

Trump’s US border wall is a Golden Calf. Some will bow down and genuflect to its glittery greatness, and it might even make some people feel better. But like a statue, no matter how much you pray to it, it won’t actually do much.

The Space Between

We have national elections coming up in Israel on April 9.

**To my American readers: Try to wrap your mind around an election campaign that is only three months long!

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My mom asked me why I don’t seem to be so interested in the Israeli political scene, especially since I seem to have a lot of opinions on the US political scene. (To be fair, I think everyone in the world is interested in the US political scene. Every day there is some new shocking thing.)

The thing is that Israeli politics are very different from US politics.

In the US, you have two parties, three branches of government, and each state follows a similar pattern.

In Israel, for the upcoming election there are at least 11 parties. You might think that it would be easier to find a party to support, but I find it harder. The principles of each party tend to be so specific that I find myself agreeing with several principles from several parties. But in Israel, you vote for the party, not for people or on specific issues. The percentage of votes the party gets is reflected in the number of seats each party gets in the Knesset. Because one party is not usually strong enough to get a simple majority (61 seats), Israel is ruled by coalition governments. If the coalition is weak, you have elections sooner; if the coalition is strong, you have a full term of government (4 years).

You don’t vote for the Prime Minister either. The leader of Israel is the head of the party that got the most votes – again, it’s the party that matters not the person or the issue.

Israel is the size of New Jersey, but the country has snow-covered mountains in the north and desert in the south, hi-tech in the city, and agriculture in the country. But rather than have regional representation, you can only choose the party and hope that the party represents you.

Right now, people are breaking away from parties, creating new parties, getting fired from parties, getting nominated to parties (not to mention the corruption scandals and possible indictments). Only in February will we have an idea of who is on each party list.

And that’s another thing: some parties have elections within their parties to determine who is on their list; other parties just present their list. That means that if you are a member of a party, you can vote in the primary. The list is numbered by how many votes each person got (sometimes they add special interest places on the list that are likely to get a seat in the Knesset). Then, the number of seats the party gets in the Knesset (based on the percentage of total votes in the election) determines who goes to the Knesset. In parties that don’t have primaries, the leadership determines the list. If you are not a member of any party, you can still vote for any one of the parties in the main election with the knowledge that the list was determined by other people and may or may not represent you, your region, or your interests.

Israel is a little country in a hostile neighborhood, so it’s also really hard to understand how a political swing here or there will affect the country in the short, medium, and long term. As a voter, you have to trust that the coalition that the head of the leading party came up with will protect the citizens, will strengthen the economy, and will do what is right for Israel.

So, it’s not that I’m not interested in the political scene; it’s more that I can’t find myself in the political scene. I do my civic duty by voting (it’s hard not to, it’s a day off!) in the hope that the party I choose will do the best it can for Israel. I don’t feel that any party represents me personally, so from the space in between the parties, I allow myself to be an observer of the process.