Brill was used to seeing classified intelligence, but this day was special. The “agent” was one of the first Israeli spies to infiltrate Egypt successfully since the end of the Six-Day War a year earlier. He had photos that supposedly would help reveal Egyptian war plans, including possible preparations behind the ceasefire line.
A small crowd surrounded the agent in the department’s main nerve center. Colonel Avraham Arnan, Brill’s direct superior, was focusing on one photograph. “What do you think it is?” he asked the group of analysts. “It looks like a military bridge.”
It was. Egypt had moved the bridge to less than a mile from the Suez Canal, the strategic waterway that connected the world of commerce but separated Egypt from the territory it had lost to Israel during the Six-Day War. The bridge could be used by tanks and armored personnel carriers to cross the canal and invade Israel—far too close for comfort.
Before sending the agent to Egypt, Israel had pursued other avenues to gather intelligence on what Egypt was doing just over the canal. One officer designed a special platform to mount on tanks so that intelligence officers could stand on them and peer over the 30-foot-high sand barriers the Egyptians had erected on their side of the Suez. The platforms seemed effective until the day an Egyptian sniper took a shot at one of them.
Next, the Israeli Air Force flew reconnaissance aircraft along the border and took pictures of what was happening on the ground. But because of Egyptian surface-to-air missiles, the aircraft had to fly at high altitudes, rendering the pictures of little or no value. That left the IDF with only one viable alternative—live agents on the ground in Egypt, passing for Egyptians, looking like Egyptians, and traveling to the Suez Canal via Europe to take photos of what was happening along the border.
Arnan walked the photo down the hall to alert Aman’s top brass. Brill stood there thinking how crazy it was that one single photo held the key to Israel’s survival.
“We need to launch such an operation to get a single photo of what is happening just over the canal?” Brill asked. He could grasp the significance of the intelligence, but something felt wrong. It just didn’t make sense that there wasn’t an easier way to see what was happening a few hundred feet away.
On his drive home that evening, Brill couldn’t shake the feeling that there had to be an easier way to gather intelligence over the canal. Suddenly he recalled a movie he had seen a few weeks earlier in Tel Aviv. The feature had been preceded by a short newsreel that included a story about an American Jewish boy who had received a toy airplane as a gift for his bar mitzvah. Brill’s imagination started going. He remembered that the planes came in different colors, were wireless and pilotless, and could be flown by remote control. What Brill conceived seemed almost too easy: Buy a few remote-control airplanes, attach cameras to their bellies, and fly them over the Suez to photograph Egyptian military positions.
Brill knew he would need partners to implement his idea. So he went to air-force headquarters, snooped around, and discovered Shlomo Barak, an officer who spent his weekends flying remote-control airplanes. He was one of a handful of people in Israel at the time who had the necessary experience for what Brill had in mind.
Brill tried to get the air force to assume responsibility for the idea. He was unsuccessful. “Remote-control planes are toys, and we have no use for them,” officers from the air force’s technology branch told Brill.
So he went back to his own commander. “We can buy a few of these planes for real cheap, install cameras, and fly them over the Suez to spy on the Egyptians,” Brill told Arnan. Arnan wasn’t convinced. He first asked to see the planes in action.
Later that week, they met at a small airstrip outside Tel Aviv for a flight demonstration. Barak piloted the remote-control plane, did some maneuvers, a flip or two, and landed it flawlessly. Arnan liked the idea but wanted to know what it would cost. Brill didn’t know and, so, together with Barak, he compiled a list: three airplanes, six remote controls, five engines, a few spare tires, and propellers. The grand total: $850.
Arnan approved the budget, and a member of Israel’s defense delegation in New York went to a Manhattan toy store, purchased the equipment, and sent it back to Israel in the embassy’s diplomatic pouch. This way, no one would question why an Israeli was traveling with so many toy airplanes in his luggage.
After their safe arrival in Israel, the planes were brought to the Intelligence Directorate’s technological team for further development. They were fitted with 35-millimeter German-made cameras with timers programmed to take pictures automatically every 10 seconds.
“We’re ready to go operational,” Brill told Arnan a few weeks after the planes arrived. The senior officer was still skeptical. He feared the planes would be shot down by Egyptian anti-aircraft fire and suggested that they first see if IDF anti-aircraft teams could shoot them down.
On a hot summer day, Arnan and Brill drove down to the IDF’s anti-aircraft training base in the Negev Desert, restricted one of the roads so it could serve as a runway, and even gave the anti-aircraft gunners a heads-up as to the direction from which the planes would be flying.
The plane took off and started circling over a patch of sand, and the gunners opened fire. The sound was deafening, lasting what seemed like a lifetime. Brill lost sight of the plane and feared the worst. To his surprise, after the smoke cleared, the toy was still there, soaring above. Barak tested flights at 1,000 feet, 700 feet, and then at a mere 300 feet. The gunners could not make a successful hit; the toy airplane was too small a target. After the plane landed, the astonished Arnan turned to Brill and gave him permission to take the plane for flights over Egypt.T he first target was a row of Egyptian military positions located near Ismalia, a town along the Suez and next to Lake Tismah, otherwise known as Crocodile Lake. The team chosen to fly the plane consisted of two people, one a “pilot” who operated the remote control and the other a “navigator” who watched it through a set of 120 x 20 binoculars and ensured that the pilot did not lose his line of sight.
The dramatic first flight, in July 1969, didn’t go as smoothly as planned. First, since there were potholes everywhere, it was difficult to find a piece of road that could function as a runway. After the discovery of a 100-foot airstrip, takeoff was finally approved. Arnan gave permission to penetrate about a mile into Egypt. But then, when the plane was airborne, it entered a cloud of sand. Its momentary disappearance triggered panic that it would crash in Egypt and Israel’s new secret weapon would be discovered. Barak, who served as the navigator, told the pilot to fly the plane in circles and to increase altitude. “Don’t be pressured. Just keep flying until we see it,” Barak told him.
After a few tense moments, the plane finally emerged from the cloud, and the pilot managed to land back in Israel. The film was immediately taken to be developed, and when the photographs came back, Arnan and Brill were stunned. The resolution was amazing. They could clearly see the trenches the Egyptian military had built along the canal. Even communication cables connecting the different positions were visible.
For the first time, Israel had clear photos of the obstacles the Egyptians were building along the Suez and how they were preparing for a future war.
After another mission, this one over the Sinai, Arnan sent the team to the Jordan Valley, where similar fights were conducted over Jordanian positions. The success was mesmerizing, and by the end of the summer, Major General Aharon Yariv, head of military intelligence, had decided to establish an official development team to build a small but sturdier remote-control airplane that could be integrated into regular service. Yariv sent Brill a letter thanking him for his invention: “You deserve praise for this invention because without innovation at all levels and ranks, there would be no IDF.”
A few weeks later, Brill was promoted and put in command of all early-warning intelligence systems in the Sinai. He was confident that he had left his pet project in good hands. It was time to move on. One day, some months later, he received a phone call from one of his original partners. The team appointed by Yariv had tried to build a new airplane, instead of relying on existing platforms, and it kept crashing. As a result, Aman’s top brass decided the project was too expensive and, anyhow, should be overseen by the air force. Aman was shutting the project down.
Brill refused to go down without a fight. Through the course of 1969, he sent a number of letters to Yariv and the rest of the country’s intelligence brass and warned of devastating consequences should the project be abandoned. He pleaded with his commanders not to end the project. They refused to listen.
On October 6, 1973, on Yom Kippur, the Egyptian military launched a surprise and successful attack across the Suez, proceeding practically unopposed up through the Sinai Peninsula. While Israel ultimately held on to the territory during the bloody debacle, when the war ended, the country was left in a state of trauma. More than 2,000 soldiers had been killed, the most since Israel’s War of Independence.
Brill could barely contain his anger. He was certain that if his project had not been canceled, Israel would have detected Egyptian military movements and had time to bolster defenses or even prevent the war. Seeing what was happening just over the border could have saved thousands of lives.
“Had we continued taking pictures of what was happening just three miles over the canal, we would have seen the Egyptian tanks, bridges, and equipment amassing and understood they were preparing for war,” he said. “Unfortunately, this didn’t happen.”
Aman understood its mistake, dusted off Brill’s old plans, and reached out to local defense companies to begin designing an Israeli lightweight unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV)—what today is more commonly referred to as a drone.
It would take another few years for the Israeli design to become operational, but in the meantime two things were clear: Israel needed quality intelligence, and that meant getting into the drone business. Brill could not have known at the time, but what he started on the shores of the Suez Canal in 1969 would burgeon one day into a massive, billion-dollar industry for Israel and position it as a global military superpower.A fter several years of research, development, and test fights, Israel’s first drone—the Scout—was finally delivered to the air force in 1979. The first version of the Scout was launched by a rocket, but soon enough, state-owned Israel Aerospace Industries upgraded the model so it could take off and land on a runway, just like an airplane.
In June 1982, Israel had decided to invade Lebanon to end the rising cross-border terror and rocket attacks by the PLO. The greatest obstacle was the presence of nearly 20 Syrian Soviet-made surface-to-air missile (SAM) batteries deployed in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. The SAMs severely limited the air force’s ability to maneuver.
The IAF had been preparing for war. In the weeks before, Scout drones flew over the valley to collect radar and communication frequencies from the SAM batteries. This was precious data needed for what the IAF planned to do next: electronically neutralize the batteries.
Israel’s full-force attack was launched on June 6. An electronic warfare system succeeded in blinding and neutralizing most of the missile systems, and the Scouts assisted Israeli fighter jets in identifying and bombing the missile batteries. The operation was a major success. The IAF destroyed almost all of the Syrian SAMs, and in one fell swoop, knocked 82 Syrian MiGs out of the sky without losing a single Israeli fighter jet.
That operation caused a shift in Israeli thinking. Officers who until then had refused to believe in these new unmanned aircraft had a change of heart. The potential of these miniature drones suddenly seemed unlimited.
In the meantime, while Israel’s Scouts were moving from one successful operation to the next, Israel’s greatest ally, the United States, was having difficulty getting its own drones off the ground. Billions of dollars were being poured into projects that closed down one after another. Nothing seemed to work.
A few years earlier, the Pentagon had funded the development of Aquila, a drone built by Lockheed Martin that required a few dozen people for takeoff but kept crashing. In 1987, after burning through over $1 billion, the Pentagon decided to shut the program down.
Boeing was also working on a drone—the Condor—that came with a 200-foot wingspan, as large as the reconnaissance aircraft it was being developed to replace. That program was also shut down after a $300 million investment. Only one Condor was built; today it hangs in a museum in California.
In December 1983, the U.S. finally decided to ask Israel for help. A few weeks earlier, the U.S. Navy had launched a botched attack against Syrian anti-aircraft batteries stationed near Beirut in response to the downing of an American spy plane. The attack was a disaster: Two American planes were shot down, a pilot was killed, and a navigator was captured. While a few Syrian guns were destroyed, the Syrian anti-aircraft fire forced the U.S. planes to drop their bombs far from their targets. An inquiry into the botched raid concluded that a nearby U.S. battleship had had cannons in range of the Syrian air-defense systems and that they could have been used without endangering American pilots. The problem was that the Navy had no way of knowing where the Syrian missile systems were located. It needed eyes in the sky to direct them.
A few weeks after the botched operation, Secretary of the Navy John Lehman traveled to Beirut and decided to use the occasion to fly to Tel Aviv to learn about Israel’s use of drones. He had heard about the Scouts and their success in 1982 but had never seen them up close. When he arrived at Israeli military headquarters, Lehman was taken into an operations room and asked to sit in front of a small TV. He was handed a joystick and given control over a drone in flight. Similarly, Marine Corps Commandant General P. X. Kelley visited Israel to view the drone program. At the end of his trip, he was presented with a kind of home video, shot by a circling drone. In some of the footage, Kelley’s head was fixed in the camera’s crosshairs.
After high school, Abe Karem went to study aeronautics at the Technion, Israel’s equivalent of MIT. He then joined the air force, and after his discharge he went to work for IAI.Both men were sold. The next stage, though, was to figure out how to push the deal through the complicated U.S. bureaucracy. Lehman decided simply to skip over the usual procedures and had the Navy directly contract Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) to develop a new drone based on the Scout. The Americans wanted something bigger and stronger, with a more advanced avionics system that could serve as a spotter for battleships. IAI soon had a prototype, which it called the Pioneer. After a flight demonstration in the Mojave Desert, the U.S. Navy ordered 175.
Delivery of the Pioneers started in 1986. In 1991, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq invaded Kuwait. The U.S. went to war to free the Gulf state. During one operation, a Pioneer drone flew over a group of Iraqi soldiers, who saw the aircraft and, not knowing what it was, took off their white undershirts and waved them in the air—the first time in history a military unit surrendered to a robot.
A few months after returning to the U.S. in 1983, Lehman learned of another drone under development in Los Angeles, which he was told could also potentially serve as a spotter for Navy gunships. This drone was the work of an Israeli engineer who had recently left a senior management position at Israel Aerospace Industries—manufacturer of the Pioneer—to try his luck in the U.S.
Born in Baghdad in 1937, Abe Karem had moved to Israel just after the state was established, in 1948. By the time he was eight, Karem knew he wanted to be an engineer, and a few years later, he found his true love—aviation. At 14, he built his first airplane and within two years was an instructor in his high school’s toy-plane club. After high school, Karem went to study aeronautics at the Technion, Israel’s equivalent of MIT. He then joined the air force, and after his discharge he went to work for IAI.
During the Yom Kippur War, in 1973, Karem built his first unmanned aircraft. The IAF was having difficulty penetrating Egypt’s Soviet air-defense systems, so within a couple of weeks, Karem’s team had developed a decoy—basically a missile that could be controlled with a joystick—the IAF could use to activate the Egyptian radars, detect their location, and then hit them with anti-radiation missiles fired from nearby fighter jets. Despite its success, after the war, the IAF decided to buy similar decoys from the U.S.; Karem’s version was buried. He argued for the importance of investing in domestic systems to create a local industry but failed. Frustrated, he quit and decided to try his luck in America.
Karem and his family moved to Los Angeles. He set up Leading Systems in his 600-square-foot garage in Hacienda Heights and began building a new drone. Called Amber, the prototype was made of plywood and fiberglass with a two-stroke engine that Karem pulled out of a go-kart. He had the Amber in the air for as long as 30 hours. Eventually, Karem’s company ended up a part of General Atomics, and there Karem built a later generation of the Amber called the Gnat 750.
The turning point for Karem came from a combination of the most unlikely of places—Bosnia and Israel. In 1993, ethnic war broke out in the former Yugoslavia. The combatants wore civilian clothes, and the U.S. government was encountering difficulty in assessing the situation on the ground.
During a brainstorming session one day at Langley, then-CIA Director R. James Woolsey recalled a trip he had made to Israel as undersecretary of the Navy where he had seen a new drone unit the IDF had established. Woolsey saw footage there of a convoy of three Mercedes sedans drive on a road in southern Lebanon. Intelligence, his host explained, had identified a passenger in the second car as a senior Hezbollah operative. The drone, the officer continued, “lit up” the car with a laser target designator, enabling a nearby IAF helicopter to fire a missile and destroy it.
Woolsey had seen this use of laser guidance—referred to as “lasing”—when he served as general counsel for the Senate Armed Services Committee during the Vietnam War. Back then, fighter jets did the lasing, but Woolsey had positive recollections of the accurate airstrikes that followed.
“We need a long endurance drone,” he told his staff. He was told it would take six years and cost $500 million to develop. Woolsey then called Karem, whom he’d met a few years earlier. “How much would it cost, and how long would it be before you could be up and operating over Bosnia?” he asked.
“Six months and $5 million,” Karem said. Woolsey teamed Karem up with Jane, a CIA employee (whose full name cannot be published) who had developed a special command-and-control system for drones. In six months, the Gnat 750 was flying reconnaissance missions over Bosnia. A few days later, a live feed from the drones was installed in Woolsey’s seventh-floor office at Langley, and the CIA director was able to watch foot traffic over a bridge in Mostar while communicating with the ground station through an early form of chat software.
The Pentagon awarded General Atomics a contract to develop a more robust drone based on the Gnat, with a bigger engine and new set of wings.
The biggest change to the Gnat was General Atomics’ decision to place a satellite communication link on the aircraft. The company decided that the more advanced drone needed a new name, so it held a competition. The winner was “Predator.” The drone would go on to become infamous as America’s most lethal weapon in the global war on terror, responsible for countless strikes in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Yemen. It took Israel and an Israeli engineer to help make that happen.W hat makes drones appealing for militaries is that they can successfully carry out “3D” missions—dull, dirty, and dangerous. “Dull” refers to routine, mundane missions like patrols along borders or maritime surveillance of seas and oceans. These are physically demanding and are extremely tedious and repetitive. While humans tire after 10 or 12 hours, the Heron drone—the Israeli Air Force’s main workhorse since 2005—can stay airborne for 50 hours.
“Dirty” involves entering airspace infected by chemical or biological agents. While a human would have to wear cumbersome protective gear, drones can operate risk-free, making them more versatile. And “dangerous”? That’s more open to interpretation, but it basically covers missions that can be done by a robot instead of a pilot who could be injured or killed.
In today’s IDF, drones are used by all military branches. The air force, for example, maintains drones like the Heron for reconnaissance missions on all of its various fronts—Gaza, Lebanon, and Syria.Drones have an almost endless list of advantages, which make them preferable to manned combat aircraft. They are smaller, lighter, cost less, and can hover over targets for longer. Fighter jets have the advantage and disadvantage that they can break the sound barrier, and while speed is an advantage in a dog fight or a mission that requires a quick in-and-out, it means that the aircraft’s presence can be identified almost immediately. Drones can hover over targets while their engines’ humming noise blends into city traffic. It makes them the perfect weapons to hunt and eliminate moving targets, such as terrorists.
Since the delivery of the Scout, in 1979, the Israeli Air Force has used and retired a number of different drones. But unlike the larger fighter jets, attack helicopters, and transport aircraft that are purchased overseas, Israel’s drones are strictly blue and white, developed and manufactured by homegrown Israeli companies. Since 1985, Israel has been the largest exporter of drones in the world, responsible for 60 percent of the global market, trailed by the U.S., whose market share is just 23.9 percent. The customers have been dozens of different countries, including the United States, Russia, South Korea, Australia, France, Germany, and Brazil. In 2010, for example, five NATO countries were flying Israeli drones in Afghanistan.
In today’s IDF, drones are used by all military branches. The air force, for example, maintains drones like the Heron for reconnaissance missions on all of its various fronts—Gaza, Lebanon, and Syria.
With a length of about 27 feet, the Heron is just a bit shorter than a Cessna light aircraft, although its wingspan is significantly longer, by about 20 feet. It is powered by a rear propeller, emitting a steady lawnmower-like sound. Its best quality is its autonomous flight system, allowing the operators to insert a flight route before takeoff and then get the aircraft off the ground by pressing just four buttons. The drone then flies to its target and can be programmed to return to a predesignated point at the end of the mission. This allows the operator to focus on the mission instead of on flying the plane.
Heron’s manufacturer, Israel Aerospace Industries, does not publicly divulge the drone’s exact cost, but industry estimates put the price tag at approximately $10–$15 million, far less than the cost of a manned combat aircraft. For the price of one F-35 fifth-generation multi-role fighter, one of the most recent IAF purchases, the air force can buy about 10 Herons.
The Heron can fly in two different modes, line-of-sight or satellite. The operator must be located within 250 miles of the drone at all times if it flies in line-of-sight mode. In satellite mode, the drone is controlled via a satellite linkup, meaning that distance is limited only by the amount of fuel it can carry. But the real significance of a drone is in its payload. Herons, for example, carry their cargo in more than one space—in their bellies, on their wings, and in rotating gimbals mounted under the nose. The gimbals include the sensors, which vary based on the mission—day/night cameras, infrared vision, laser targeting, as well as special sensors to identify weapons of mass destruction (WMD).
One Israeli-designed sensor shows the advantages these sensors afford. Called the Chariot of Fire, this sensor can detect changes in terrain, revealing possible locations of underground rocket launchers, a critical capability in a place like the Gaza Strip, where Hamas buries its rockets. Basically, the sensor can detect the invisible.
Israel’s drones were originally designed for ISR missions—intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance—to fly over targets and monitor developing situations. Early on, though, Israeli military planners understood that they could do more—that the unmanned aircraft could adapt.
The drones were already carrying laser designators, which could be used to “light up” targets that would then be attacked by helicopters or fighter jets. Why couldn’t they carry the missiles, too? Today, Israeli drones, including the Heron, reportedly have the ability to locate targets and destroy them as well. Israel does not confirm that it has drones with attack capabilities. It is, however, well documented that this capability exists; Israeli drones have appeared at defense exhibitions with missiles mounted under their wings, and in WikiLeaks cables, Israel confirmed that some of its strikes in the Gaza Strip were carried out by armed drones. The Heron and the Hermes 450, another medium-sized drone developed by Israel’s Elbit Systems, can reportedly carry laser-guided Hellfire missiles and smaller munitions like the Israeli-developed Spike missile. The Spike causes less collateral damage and is said to be particularly effective in accurate strikes against wanted terrorists.
The Gaza Strip is ground zero for Israel’s drone revolution. There, on a daily basis, the lawnmower hum of drones can be heard in the narrow alleyways. Gazans have given the drones the nickname “Zanana,” Arabic for “buzz” or “nagging wife.” In Gaza, drones collect intelligence and help the IDF build its “target bank” in the event of a conflict.
Weighing a mere 13 pounds, the Skylark has an operational endurance of three hours at altitudes as high as 3,000 feet.During Operation Pillar of Defense in Gaza, in November 2012, the IDF attacked nearly 1,000 underground rocket launchers and 200 tunnels that had been located and identified with intelligence gathered by drones. The first salvo of that operation was ordered in a drone-assisted attack. Ahmed Jabari, Hamas’s military commander, was driving in Gaza City when a missile struck his Kia sedan. Jabari, who had been at the top of Israel’s most-wanted list and had escaped four previous assassination attempts, was finally taken out by a drone.
Before Israel bombs Gaza in retaliation for rocket attacks, UAVs are there to survey the target; as helicopters and fighter jets move in to bomb a car carrying a Katyusha rocket cell, UAVs are there to ensure that children don’t move into the kill zone; when IDF ground troops surround a compound where Hamas terrorists are hiding, UAVs are there to provide real-time air support and guide the soldiers safely inside. And when needed, the drones can reportedly also attack.
At the smaller end of the IDF drone scale are drones not flown out of air-force bases but pulled from soldiers’ backpacks and literally thrown like a quarterback throws a football. One such drone, the Skylark, was delivered to IDF ground units in 2010. Weighing a mere 13 pounds, the Skylark has an operational endurance of three hours at altitudes as high as 3,000 feet. These Skylarks can be utilized in all types of operations, from random patrols in the West Bank to large-scale ground offensives in places like Lebanon and Syria. This new state of warfare provides commanders with quick over-the-hill intelligence. Commanders are no longer solely dependent on the Israeli Air Force, which in turn can focus its attention on larger, more strategic missions. The miniature UAVs are so popular that by 2016 they were being used by military forces in Australia, Canada, the U.S., South Korea, France, Sweden, and Peru.I n 2009, Israel reportedly achieved a new level in drone performance. It was the middle of January, and Israeli soldiers were operating deep inside the Gaza Strip, the first large-scale ground operation since the “Disengagement,” Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from the Palestinian territory four years earlier. The government had just launched Operation Cast Lead in response to the ring of more than 2,000 launched rockets and mortars in the previous year alone. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had decided enough was enough.
While the country’s focus was on the Israeli infantry and armored brigades operating in Gaza, a new threat was brewing far from Israel, in distant Sudan.
Intelligence obtained by the Mossad, Israel’s super-secret spy agency, indicated that a ship packed with advanced Iranian weaponry—including Fajr artillery rockets—had docked in Port Sudan, on the Red Sea. These weren’t ordinary rockets; they would change the strategic balance.
Up until then, Hamas’s arsenal had enabled the Palestinian terror group to threaten the homes of the 1 million Israelis who lived in the south of the country. The Fajrs had the capability to go much farther and strike Tel Aviv. The containers, the Mossad learned, were being loaded onto trucks, to be transported north through Sudan and Egypt, where they would then be delivered to a depot near the Gaza border. Then the rockets would be smuggled into Gaza through underground tunnels.
The chief of staff of the IDF, Lieutenant General Gabi Ashkenazi, started drafting a plan to attack the convoy, but the clock was ticking. The moment the trucks crossed the border into Egypt, the strike option would be off the table. Israel couldn’t mount an attack in Egypt, a country with which it had a fragile peace treaty. If the missiles then made it into Gaza, they would be swallowed up into one of the most densely populated territories in the world. While Israel’s intelligence coverage over Gaza was good, it wasn’t a sure bet. The rockets had to be stopped before reaching Gaza, meaning that the attack had to take place in Sudan.
An argument erupted within top defense circles. The doves—those opposed to the strike—warned of Israel’s growing international isolation. The country was already under intense criticism for the rising death toll and extensive devastation in Gaza. News of a strike in another country would be difficult to explain. The hawks, on the other hand, argued that Israel could not sit by and allow advanced weaponry to reach Gaza. The potential threat was just too big.
The final decision was brought before Olmert. In operations like this, the prime minister usually asks a few technical questions about the mission and its risks before giving approval. In this case, in addition to the usual procedures, it would have been important to ensure that the strike could not be traced back to Israel. The mission would have to be done without leaving fingerprints.
The question now was how. Sending fighter jets to Sudan was risky. The entire mission could be jeopardized if there was a malfunction or one of the planes was detected by Egyptian or Saudi radars, which covered that part of the Red Sea. There were also technical considerations, since the target—a convoy of trucks—would be on the move and, as a result, difficult to track. Timing was everything. The intelligence would have to be precise; the fighter jets wouldn’t be able to stay in Sudanese airspace for very long, and they would have limited fuel. The IDF reportedly chose an unconventional route—to strike the convoy with the help of drones. This was a first. Drones had never before been used in long-range strikes in a distant country like Sudan.
Only a handful of officers knew all aspects of the mission. Everyone knew that if word got out, the mission would be scrubbed, and the Iranian missiles would reach their destination in Gaza. The next time Israel saw them would be when they slammed into homes in Tel Aviv.
The yellow, sun-scorched Negev Desert is mostly barren, with little water or vegetation. Few Israelis settled there, leaving the large, dry terrain as the IDF’s primary training ground. Israel’s UAV operators were already experts at tracking moving vehicles, but until they began training for the Sudan mission, they had been focused on a single terrorist driving in a car or riding a motorcycle. To prepare for this one, they had to practice locating and following a couple of trucks loaded with missiles. In the expansive Sudanese desert, this would be like finding the proverbial needle in a haystack.
The Heron TP, Israel’s largest drone, with the wingspan of a Boeing airliner, and the Hermes 450, the IDF’s main attack drone, were the UAVs chosen for the operation. The Heron TP would fly in first, at altitudes where it could not be detected, to locate and track the convoy. The next wave would consist of Hermes drones and, if needed, fighter jets, which would dive in for the strike.
On the night of the bombing, there were some clouds, but for the most part the skies were clear, typical January weather in Sudan. As the Sudanese and Palestinian smugglers made their way through the desert, the last things on their minds were the Israeli drones tracking them from thousands of feet above. Even if they saw the incoming missiles, it would have been too late. Forty-three smugglers were killed, and all of the trucks were destroyed.
The initial mission was a success. A few weeks later, in February, Iran tried again. Olmert reportedly approved another strike. This time, 40 smugglers were killed, and a dozen trucks were destroyed.
The Sudanese were stunned. They had known that Iran and Hamas were using their country as a clandestine smuggling route, but Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir’s government thought Israel would never do something as daring as launch an attack on a sovereign African nation. This analysis led the Sudanese government to the wrong conclusion: that America must have been behind the strike. On February 24, a few days after the second strike, the chargé d’affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Khartoum, Alberto Fernandez, was summoned to the Sudanese Foreign Ministry, on the banks of the Blue Nile River, for a meeting with Ambassador Nasreddin Wali.
“I have sensitive and worrisome information to relate to you,” Wali told Fernandez. The U.S. official knew what was coming but played it cool. Looking down at his handwritten notes in Arabic, Wali pulled out a torn and worn-out map of Sudan and pointed at an empty patch of desert in the eastern part of the country. Fernandez listened as Wali read out the number of people killed and vehicles destroyed. “We assume the planes that attacked us are your planes,” Wali told the American diplomat.
Fernandez mostly listened as Wali lamented America’s decision to unilaterally strike Sudanese territory and to undermine the two nations’ “tight cooperation” on security.
“We protest this act and we condemn it. Sudan reserves the right to respond appropriately, at the right time, in a legal manner consistent with protecting its sovereignty,” Wali concluded. Fernandez did not deny the Sudanese accusation but promised to relay the démarche to the State Department in Washington.
Even if the U.S. knew that the strike had been carried out by the IDF, as reported, Fernandez refrained from outing Israel to Khartoum. Nevertheless, Olmert could not hold back from publicly hinting at the possibility that Israel had been involved in the operation. A few days after Fernandez’s meeting, the prime minister took the stage at a security conference near Tel Aviv and revealed that Israel had carried out counterterrorism operations in places “not that close” to home.
“We are hitting them, in a way that strengthens deterrence and the image of deterrence, which is sometimes no less important, for the State of Israel,” the prime minister said. “There’s no point getting into details, everyone can use his imagination. The fact is whoever needs to know, knows . . . there is no place where the State of Israel cannot act.”
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How Israel Took a Toy and Made It a High-Tech Weapon
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Terror is a choice.
Ari Fuld described himself on Twitter as a marketer and social media consultant “when not defending Israel by exposing the lies and strengthening the truth.” On Sunday, a Palestinian terrorist stabbed Fuld at a shopping mall in Gush Etzion, a settlement south of Jerusalem. The Queens-born father of four died from his wounds, but not before he chased down his assailant and neutralized the threat to other civilians. Fuld thus gave the full measure of devotion to the Jewish people he loved. He was 45.
The episode is a grim reminder of the wisdom and essential justice of the Trump administration’s tough stance on the Palestinians.
Start with the Taylor Force Act. The act, named for another U.S. citizen felled by Palestinian terror, stanched the flow of American taxpayer fund to the Palestinian Authority’s civilian programs. Though it is small consolation to Fuld’s family, Americans can breathe a sigh of relief that they are no longer underwriting the PA slush fund used to pay stipends to the family members of dead, imprisoned, or injured terrorists, like the one who murdered Ari Fuld.
No principle of justice or sound statesmanship requires Washington to spend $200 million—the amount of PA aid funding slashed by the Trump administration last month—on an agency that financially induces the Palestinian people to commit acts of terror. The PA’s terrorism-incentive budget—“pay-to-slay,” as Douglas Feith called it—ranges from $50 million to $350 million annually. Footing even a fraction of that bill is tantamount to the American government subsidizing terrorism against its citizens.
If we don’t pay the Palestinians, the main line of reasoning runs, frustration will lead them to commit still more and bloodier acts of terror. But U.S. assistance to the PA dates to the PA’s founding in the Oslo Accords, and Palestinian terrorists have shed American and Israeli blood through all the years since then. What does it say about Palestinian leaders that they would unleash more terror unless we cross their palms with silver?
President Trump likewise deserves praise for booting Palestinian diplomats from U.S. soil. This past weekend, the State Department revoked a visa for Husam Zomlot, the highest-ranking Palestinian official in Washington. The State Department cited the Palestinians’ years-long refusal to sit down for peace talks with Israel. The better reason for expelling them is that the label “envoy” sits uneasily next to the names of Palestinian officials, given the links between the Palestine Liberation Organization, President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah faction, and various armed terrorist groups.
Fatah, for example, praised the Fuld murder. As the Jerusalem Post reported, the “al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the military wing of Fatah . . . welcomed the attack, stressing the necessity of resistance ‘against settlements, Judaization of the land, and occupation crimes.’” It is up to Palestinian leaders to decide whether they want to be terrorists or statesmen. Pretending that they can be both at once was the height of Western folly, as Ari Fuld no doubt recognized.
May his memory be a blessing.
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The end of the water's edge.
It was the blatant subversion of the president’s sole authority to conduct American foreign policy, and the political class received it with fury. It was called “mutinous,” and the conspirators were deemed “traitors” to the Republic. Those who thought “sedition” went too far were still incensed over the breach of protocol and the reckless way in which the president’s mandate was undermined. Yes, times have certainly changed since 2015, when a series of Republican senators signed a letter warning Iran’s theocratic government that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (aka, the Iran nuclear deal) was built on a foundation of sand.
The outrage that was heaped upon Senate Republicans for freelancing on foreign policy in the final years of Barack Obama’s administration has not been visited upon former Secretary of State John Kerry, though he arguably deserves it. In the publicity tour for his recently published memoir, Kerry confessed to conducting meetings with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif “three or four times” as a private citizen. When asked by Fox News Channel’s Dana Perino if Kerry had advised his Iranian interlocutor to “wait out” the Trump administration to get a better set of terms from the president’s successor, Kerry did not deny the charge. “I think everybody in the world is sitting around talking about waiting out President Trump,” he said.
Think about that. This is a former secretary of state who all but confirmed that he is actively conducting what the Boston Globe described in May as “shadow diplomacy” designed to preserve not just the Iran deal but all the associated economic relief and security guarantees it provided Tehran. The abrogation of that deal has put new pressure on the Iranians to liberalize domestically, withdraw their support for terrorism, and abandon their provocative weapons development programs—pressures that the deal’s proponents once supported.
“We’ve got Iran on the ropes now,” said former Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman, “and a meeting between John Kerry and the Iranian foreign minister really sends a message to them that somebody in America who’s important may be trying to revive them and let them wait and be stronger against what the administration is trying to do.” This is absolutely correct because the threat Iran poses to American national security and geopolitical stability is not limited to its nuclear program. The Iranian threat will not be neutralized until it abandons its support for terror and the repression of its people, and that will not end until the Iranian regime is no more.
While Kerry’s decision to hold a variety of meetings with a representative of a nation hostile to U.S. interests is surely careless and unhelpful, it is not uncommon. During his 1984 campaign for the presidency, Jesse Jackson visited the Soviet Union and Cuba to raise his own public profile and lend credence to Democratic claims that Ronald Reagan’s confrontational foreign policy was unproductive. House Speaker Jim Wright’s trip to Nicaragua to meet with the Sandinista government was a direct repudiation of the Reagan administration’s support for the country’s anti-Communist rebels. In 2007, as Bashar al-Assad’s government was providing material support for the insurgency in Iraq, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi sojourned to Damascus to shower the genocidal dictator in good publicity. “The road to Damascus is a road to peace,” Pelosi insisted. “Unfortunately,” replied George W. Bush’s national security council spokesman, “that road is lined with the victims of Hamas and Hezbollah, the victims of terrorists who cross from Syria into Iraq.”
Honest observers must reluctantly conclude that the adage is wrong. American politics does not, in fact, stop at the water’s edge. It never has, and maybe it shouldn’t. Though it may be commonplace, American political actors who contradict the president in the conduct of their own foreign policy should be judged on the policies they are advocating. In the case of Iran, those who seek to convince the mullahs and their representatives that repressive theocracy and a terroristic foreign policy are dead-ends are advancing the interests not just of the United States but all mankind. Those who provide this hopelessly backward autocracy with the hope that America’s resolve is fleeting are, as John Kerry might say, on “the wrong side of history.”
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Michael Wolff is its Marquis de Sade. Released on January 5, 2018, Wolff’s Fire and Fury became a template for authors eager to satiate the growing demand for unverified stories of Trump at his worst. Wolff filled his pages with tales of the president’s ignorant rants, his raging emotions, his television addiction, his fast-food diet, his unfamiliarity with and contempt for Beltway conventions and manners. Wolff made shocking insinuations about Trump’s mental state, not to mention his relationship with UN ambassador Nikki Haley. Wolff’s Trump is nothing more than a knave, dunce, and commedia dell’arte villain. The hero of his saga is, bizarrely, Steve Bannon, who in Wolff’s telling recognized Trump’s inadequacies, manipulated him to advance a nationalist-populist agenda, and tried to block his worst impulses.
Wolff’s sources are anonymous. That did not slow down the press from calling his accusations “mind-blowing” (Mashable.com), “wild” (Variety), and “bizarre” (Entertainment Weekly). Unlike most pornographers, he had a lesson in mind. He wanted to demonstrate Trump’s unfitness for office. “The story that I’ve told seems to present this presidency in such a way that it says that he can’t do this job, the emperor has no clothes,” Wolff told the BBC. “And suddenly everywhere people are going, ‘Oh, my God, it’s true—he has no clothes.’ That’s the background to the perception and the understanding that will finally end this, that will end this presidency.”
Nothing excites the Resistance more than the prospect of Trump leaving office before the end of his term. Hence the most stirring examples of Resistance Porn take the president’s all-too-real weaknesses and eccentricities and imbue them with apocalyptic significance. In what would become the standard response to accusations of Trumpian perfidy, reviewers of Fire and Fury were less interested in the truth of Wolff’s assertions than in the fact that his argument confirmed their preexisting biases.
Saying he agreed with President Trump that the book is “fiction,” the Guardian’s critic didn’t “doubt its overall veracity.” It was, he said, “what Mailer and Capote once called a nonfiction novel.” Writing in the Atlantic, Adam Kirsch asked: “No wonder, then, Wolff has written a self-conscious, untrustworthy, postmodern White House book. How else, he might argue, can you write about a group as self-conscious, untrustworthy, and postmodern as this crew?” Complaining in the New Yorker, Masha Gessen said Wolff broke no new ground: “Everybody” knew that the “president of the United States is a deranged liar who surrounded himself with sycophants. He is also functionally illiterate and intellectually unsound.” Remind me never to get on Gessen’s bad side.
What Fire and Fury lacked in journalistic ethics, it made up in receipts. By the third week of its release, Wolff’s book had sold more than 1.7 million copies. His talent for spinning second- and third-hand accounts of the president’s oddity and depravity into bestselling prose was unmistakable. Imitators were sure to follow, especially after Wolff alienated himself from the mainstream media by defending his innuendos about Haley.
It was during the first week of September that Resistance Porn became a competitive industry. On the afternoon of September 4, the first tidbits from Bob Woodward’s Fear appeared in the Washington Post, along with a recording of an 11-minute phone call between Trump and the white knight of Watergate. The opposition began panting soon after. Woodward, who like Wolff relies on anonymous sources, “paints a harrowing portrait” of the Trump White House, reported the Post.
No one looks good in Woodward’s telling other than former economics adviser Gary Cohn and—again bizarrely—the former White House staff secretary who was forced to resign after his two ex-wives accused him of domestic violence. The depiction of chaos, backstabbing, and mutual contempt between the president and high-level advisers who don’t much care for either his agenda or his personality was not so different from Wolff’s. What gave it added heft was Woodward’s status, his inviolable reputation.
“Nothing in Bob Woodward’s sober and grainy new book…is especially surprising,” wrote Dwight Garner at the New York Times. That was the point. The audience for Wolff and Woodward does not want to be surprised. Fear is not a book that will change minds. Nor is it intended to be. “Bob Woodward’s peek behind the Trump curtain is 100 percent as terrifying as we feared,” read a CNN headline. “President Trump is unfit for office. Bob Woodward’s ‘Fear’ confirms it,” read an op-ed headline in the Post. “There’s Always a New Low for the Trump White House,” said the Atlantic. “Amazingly,” wrote Susan Glasser in the New Yorker, “it is no longer big news when the occupant of the Oval Office is shown to be callous, ignorant, nasty, and untruthful.” How could it be, when the press has emphasized nothing but these aspects of Trump for the last three years?
The popular fixation with Trump the man, and with the turbulence, mania, frenzy, confusion, silliness, and unpredictability that have surrounded him for decades, serves two functions. It inoculates the press from having to engage in serious research into the causes of Trump’s success in business, entertainment, and politics, and into the crises of borders, opioids, stagnation, and conformity of opinion that occasioned his rise. Resistance Porn also endows Trump’s critics, both external and internal, with world-historical importance. No longer are they merely journalists, wonks, pundits, and activists sniping at a most unlikely president. They are politically correct versions of Charles Martel, the last line of defense preventing Trump the barbarian from enacting the policies on which he campaigned and was elected.
How closely their sensational claims and inflated self-conceptions track with reality is largely beside the point. When the New York Times published the op-ed “I am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration,” by an anonymous “senior official” on September 5, few readers bothered to care that the piece contained no original material. The author turned policy disagreements over trade and national security into a psychiatric diagnosis. In what can only be described as a journalistic innovation, the author dispensed with middlemen such as Wolff and Woodward, providing the Times the longest background quote in American history. That the author’s identity remains a secret only adds to its prurient appeal.
“The bigger concern,” the author wrote, “is not what Mr. Trump has done to the presidency but what we as a nation have allowed him to do to us.” Speak for yourself, bud. What President Trump has done to the Resistance is driven it batty. He’s made an untold number of people willing to entertain conspiracy theories, and to believe rumor is fact, hyperbole is truth, self-interested portrayals are incontrovertible evidence, credulity is virtue, and betrayal is fidelity—so long as all of this is done to stop that man in the White House.
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Review of 'Stanley Kubrick' By Nathan Abrams
Except for Stanley Donen, every director I have worked with has been prone to the idea, first propounded in the 1950s by François Truffaut and his tendentious chums in Cahiers du Cinéma, that directors alone are authors, screenwriters merely contingent. In singular cases—Orson Welles, Michelangelo Antonioni, Woody Allen, Kubrick himself—the claim can be valid, though all of them had recourse, regular or occasional, to helping hands to spice their confections.
Kubrick’s variety of topics, themes, and periods testifies both to his curiosity and to his determination to “make it new.” Because his grades were not high enough (except in physics), this son of a Bronx doctor could not get into colleges crammed with returning GIs. The nearest he came to higher education was when he slipped into accessible lectures at Columbia. He told me, when discussing the possibility of a movie about Julius Caesar, that the great classicist Moses Hadas made a particularly strong impression.
While others were studying for degrees, solitary Stanley was out shooting photographs (sometimes with a hidden camera) for Look magazine. As a movie director, he often insisted on take after take. This gave him choices of the kind available on the still photographer’s contact sheets. Only Peter Sellers and Jack Nicholson had the nerve, and irreplaceable talent, to tell him, ahead of shooting, that they could not do a particular scene more than two or three times. The energy to electrify “Mein Führer, I can walk” and “Here’s Johnny!” could not recur indefinitely. For everyone else, “Can you do it again?” was the exhausting demand, and it could come close to being sadistic.
The same method could be applied to writers. Kubrick might recognize what he wanted when it was served up to him, but he could never articulate, ahead of time, even roughly what it was. Picking and choosing was very much his style. Cogitation and opportunism went together: The story goes that he attached Strauss’s Blue Danube to the opening sequence of 2001 because it happened to be playing in the sound studio when he came to dub the music. Genius puts chance to work.
Until academics intruded lofty criteria into cinema/film, the better to dignify their speciality, Alfred Hitchcock’s attitude covered most cases: When Ingrid Bergman asked for her motivation in walking to the window, Hitch replied, fatly, “Your salary.” On another occasion, told that some scene was not plausible, Hitch said, “It’s only a movie.” He did not take himself seriously until the Cahiers du Cinéma crowd elected to make him iconic. At dinner, I once asked Marcello Mastroianni why he was so willing to play losers or clowns. Marcello said, “Beh, cinema non e gran’ cosa” (cinema is no big deal). Orson Welles called movie-making the ultimate model-train set.
That was then; now we have “film studies.” After they moved in, academics were determined that their subject be a very big deal indeed. Comedy became no laughing matter. In his monotonous new book, the film scholar Nathan Abrams would have it that Stanley Kubrick was, in essence, a “New York Jewish intellectual.” Abrams affects to unlock what Stanley was “really” dealing with, in all his movies, never mind their apparent diversity. It is declared to be, yes, Yiddishkeit, and in particular, the Holocaust. This ground has been tilled before by Geoffrey Cocks, when he argued that the room numbers in the empty Overlook Hotel in The Shining encrypted references to the Final Solution. Abrams would have it that even Barry Lyndon is really all about the outsider seeking, and failing, to make his awkward way in (Gentile) Society. On this reading, Ryan O’Neal is seen as Hannah Arendt’s pariah in 18th-century drag. The movie’s other characters are all engaged in the enjoyment of “goyim-naches,” an expression—like menschlichkayit—he repeats ad nauseam, lest we fail to get the stretched point.
Theory is all when it comes to the apotheosis of our Jew-ridden Übermensch. So what if, in order to make a topic his own, Kubrick found it useful to translate its logic into terms familiar to him from his New York youth? In Abrams’s scheme, other mundane biographical facts count for little. No mention is made of Stanley’s displeasure when his 14-year-old daughter took a fancy to O’Neal. The latter was punished, some sources say, by having Barry’s voiceover converted from first person so that Michael Hordern would displace the star as narrator. By lending dispassionate irony to the narrative, it proved a pettish fluke of genius.
While conning Abrams’s volume, I discovered, not greatly to my chagrin, that I am the sole villain of the piece. Abrams calls me “self-serving” and “unreliable” in my accounts of my working and personal relationship with Stanley. He insinuates that I had less to do with Eyes Wide Shut than I pretend and that Stanley regretted my involvement. It is hard for him to deny (but convenient to omit) that, after trying for some 30 years to get a succession of writers to “crack” how to do Schnitzler’s Traumnovelle, Kubrick greeted my first draft with “I’m absolutely thrilled.” A source whose anonymity I respect told me that he had never seen Stanley so happy since the day he received his first royalty check (for $5 million) for 2001. No matter.
Were Abrams (the author also of a book as hostile to Commentary as this one is to me) able to put aside his waxed wrath, he might have quoted what I reported in my memoir Eyes Wide Open to support his Jewish-intellectual thesis. One day, Stanley asked me what a couple of hospital doctors, walking away with their backs to the camera, would be talking about. We were never going to hear or care what it was, but Stanley—at that early stage of development—said he wanted to know everything. I said, “Women, golf, the stock market, you know…”
“Couple of Gentiles, right?”
“That’s what you said you wanted them to be.”
“Those people, how do we ever know what they’re talking about when they’re alone together?”
“Come on, Stanley, haven’t you overheard them in trains and planes and places?”
Kubrick said, “Sure, but…they always know you’re there.”
If he was even halfway serious, Abrams’s banal thesis that, despite decades of living in England, Stanley never escaped the Old Country, might have been given some ballast.
Now, as for Stanley Kubrick’s being an “intellectual.” If this implies membership in some literary or quasi-philosophical elite, there’s a Jewish joke to dispense with it. It’s the one about the man who makes a fortune, buys himself a fancy yacht, and invites his mother to come and see it. He greets her on the gangway in full nautical rig. She says, “What’s with the gold braid already?”
“Mama, you have to realize, I’m a captain now.”
She says, “By you, you’re a captain, by me, you’re a captain, but by a captain, are you a captain?”
As New York intellectuals all used to know, Karl Popper’s definition of bad science, and bad faith, involves positing a theory and then selecting only whatever data help to furnish its validity. The honest scholar makes it a matter of principle to seek out elements that might render his thesis questionable.
Abrams seeks to enroll Lolita in his obsessive Jewish-intellectual scheme by referring to Peter Arno, a New Yorker cartoonist whom Kubrick photographed in 1949. The caption attached to Kubrick’s photograph in Look asserted that Arno liked to date “fresh, unspoiled girls,” and Abrams says this “hint[s] at Humbert Humbert in Lolita.” Ah, but Lolita was published, in Paris, in 1955, six years later. And how likely is it, in any case, that Kubrick wrote the caption?
The film of Lolita is unusual for its garrulity. Abrams’s insistence on the sinister Semitic aspect of both Clare Quilty and Humbert Humbert supposedly drawing Kubrick like moth to flame is a ridiculous camouflage of the commercial opportunism that led Stanley to seek to film the most notorious novel of the day, while fudging its scandalous eroticism.
That said, in my view, The Killing, Paths of Glory, Barry Lyndon, and Clockwork Orange were and are sans pareil. The great French poet Paul Valéry wrote of “the profundity of the surface” of a work of art. Add D.H. Lawrence’s “never trust the teller, trust the tale,” and you have two authoritative reasons for looking at or reading original works of art yourself and not relying on academic exegetes—especially when they write in the solemn, sometimes ungrammatical style of Professor Abrams, who takes time out to tell those of us at the back of his class that padre “is derived from the Latin pater.”
Abrams writes that I “claim” that I was told to exclude all overt reference to Jews in my Eyes Wide Shut screenplay, with the fatuous implication that I am lying. I am again accused of “claiming” to have given the name Ziegler to the character played by Sidney Pollack, because I once had a (quite famous) Hollywood agent called Evarts Ziegler. So I did. The principal reason for Abrams to doubt my veracity is that my having chosen the name renders irrelevant his subsequent fanciful digression on the deep, deep meanings of the name Ziegler in Jewish lore; hence he wishes to assign the naming to Kubrick. Pop goes another wished-for proof of Stanley’s deep and scholarly obsession with Yiddishkeit.
Abrams would be a more formidable enemy if he could turn a single witty phrase or even abstain from what Karl Kraus called mauscheln, the giveaway jargon of Jewish journalists straining to pass for sophisticates at home in Gentile circles. If you choose, you can apply, on line, for screenwriting lessons from Nathan Abrams, who does not have a single cinematic credit to his name. It would be cheaper, and wiser, to look again, and then again, at Kubrick’s masterpieces.
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Is American opera in terminal condition?
At the Met, distinguished singers and conductors, mostly born and trained in Europe, appeared in theatrically conservative big-budget productions of the popular operas of the 19th century, with a sprinkling of pre-romantic and modern works thrown in to leaven the loaf. City Opera, by contrast, presented younger artists—many, like Beverly Sills, born in this country—in a wider-ranging, more adventurously staged repertoire that often included new operas, some of them written by American composers, to which the public was admitted at what were then called “popular prices.”
Between them, the companies represented a feast for culture-consuming New Yorkers, though complaints were already being heard that their new theaters were too big. Moreover, neither the Met nor City Opera was having any luck at commissioning memorable new operas and thereby expanding and refreshing the operatic repertoire, to which only a handful of significant new works—none of them, then or since, premiered by either company—had been added since World War I.
A half-century later, the feast has turned to famine. In 2011, New York City Opera left Lincoln Center, declaring bankruptcy. It closed its doors forever two years later. The Met has weathered a nearly uninterrupted string of crises that climaxed earlier this year with the firing of James Levine, the company’s once-celebrated music director emeritus. He was accused in 2017 of molesting teenage musicians and was dismissed from all of his conducting posts in New York and elsewhere. Today the Met is in dire financial straits that threaten its long-term survival.
And while newer opera companies in such other American cities as Chicago, Houston, San Francisco, Santa Fe, and Seattle now offer alternative models of leadership, none has established itself as a potential successor either to the Met or the now-defunct NYCO.1
Is American opera as a whole in a terminal condition? Or are the collapse of the New York City Opera and the Met’s ongoing struggle to survive purely local matters of no relevance elsewhere? Heidi Waleson addresses these questions in Mad Scenes and Exit Arias: The Death of the New York City Opera and the Future of Opera in America.2 Waleson draws on her experience as the opera critic of the Wall Street Journal to speculate on the prospects for an art form that has never quite managed to set down firm roots in American culture.
In this richly informative chronicle of NYCO’s decline and fall, Waleson persuasively argues that what happened to City Opera (and, by extension, the Met) could happen to other opera companies as well. The days in which an ambitious community sought successfully to elevate itself into the first rank of world cities by building and manning an opera house are long past, and Mad Scenes and Exit Arias helps us understand why.As Waleson reminds us, it was Fiorello LaGuardia, the New York mayor who played a central role in the creation of the NYCO, who dubbed the company “the people’s opera” when it was founded in 1943. According to LaGuardia, NYCO existed to perform popular operas at popular prices for a mass audience. In later years, it moved away from that goal, but the slogan stuck. Indeed, no opera company has ever formulated a clearer statement of its institutional mission.
Even after it moved to Lincoln Center in 1966, NYCO had an equally coherent and similarly appealing purpose: It was where you went to see the opera stars of tomorrow, foremost among them Sills and Plácido Domingo, in inexpensively but imaginatively staged productions of the classics. The company went out of its way to present modern operas, too, but it never did so at the expense of its central repertoire—and tickets to its performances cost half of what the Met charged. Well into the 21st century, City Opera stuck more or less closely to its redefined mission. Under Paul Kellogg, the general and artistic director from 1996 to 2007, it did so with consistent artistic success. But revenues declined throughout the latter part of Kellogg’s tenure, in part because younger New Yorkers were unwilling to become subscribers.
In those days, the Metropolitan Opera, NYCO’s next-door neighbor, was still one of the world’s most conservative opera houses. That changed when Peter Gelb became its general manager in 2006. Gelb was resolved to modernize the Met’s productions and, to a lesser extent, its repertoire, and he simultaneously sought to heighten its national profile by digitally simulcasting live performances into movie theaters throughout America.
Kellogg was frustrated by the chronic acoustic inadequacies of the New York State Theater and sought in vain to move City Opera to a three-theater complex that was to be built (but never was) on the World Trade Center site. He retired soon after Gelb came to the Met. Kellogg was succeeded by Gérard Mortier, a European impresario who was accustomed to working in state-subsidized theaters. Mortier made a pair of fateful decisions. First, he canceled City Opera’s entire 2008–2009 season while the interior of the State Theater underwent much-needed renovations. Then he announced a follow-up season of 20th-century operas that lacked audience appeal.
That follow-up season never happened, because Mortier resigned in 2008 and fled New York. He was replaced by George Steel, who had previously served for just three months as general manager of the Dallas Opera. Under Steel, NYCO slashed its schedule to ribbons in a futile attempt to get back on its financial feet after Mortier’s financially ruinous year-long hiatus. Then he mounted a series of productions of nonstandard repertory that received mixed reviews and flopped at the box office.
The combined effect of Gelb’s innovations and the inept leadership of Mortier and Steel all but obliterated City Opera’s reason for existing. Under Gelb, the Met’s repertory ranged from such warhorses as Rigoletto and Tosca to 20th-century masterpieces like Benjamin Britten’s Midsummer Night’s Dream and Alban Berg’s Wozzeck, and tickets could be bought for as little as $20. With the Met performing a more interesting repertoire under a wider range of directors, and in part at “people’s prices,” City Opera no longer did anything that the Met wasn’t already doing on a far larger and better-financed scale. What, then, was its mission now? The truth was that it had none, and when the company went under in 2013, few mourned its passing.
As it happened, Gelb’s own innovations were a mere artistic Band-aid, for he was unwilling or unable to trim the Met’s bloated budget to any meaningful extent. He made no serious attempt to cut the company’s labor costs until a budget crisis in 2014 forced him to confront its unions, which he did with limited success. In addition, his new productions of the standard-repertory operas on which the Met relied to draw and hold older subscribers were felt by many to be trashily trendy.
The Met had particular difficulty managing the reduced circumstances of the 21st century when it came to opera. Its 3,800-seat theater has an 80-foot-deep stage with a proscenium opening that measures 54 feet on each side. (Bayreuth, by contrast, seats 1,925, La Scala 2,030, and the Vienna State Opera 2,200.) As a result, it is all but impossible to mount low-to-medium-budget shows in the Metropolitan Opera House, even as the company finds it is no longer able to fill its increasingly empty house. Two decades ago, the Met earned 90 percent of its potential box-office revenue. That figure plummeted to 66 percent by 2015, forcing Gelb to raise ticket prices to an average of $158.50 per head. On Broadway, the average price of a ticket that season was $103.86.
Above all, Gelb was swimming against the cultural tide. Asked about the effects on audience development of the Met simulcasts, he admitted that three-quarters of the people who attended them were “over 65, and 30 percent of them are over 75.” As he explained: “Grand opera is in itself a kind of a dinosaur of an art form…. The question is not whether I think I’m doing a good job or not in trying to keep the [Metropolitan Opera] alive. It’s whether I’m doing a good job or not in the face of a cultural and social rejection of opera as an art form. And what I’m doing is fighting an uphill battle to try and maintain an audience in a very difficult time.”
Was that statement buck-passing defeatism, or a fair appraisal of the state of American opera? Other opera executives distanced themselves from Gelb’s remarks, and it was true—and still is—that smaller American companies have done a somewhat better job of attracting younger audiences than the top-heavy Met. But according to the National Endowment for the Arts, the percentage of U.S. adults who attend at least one operatic performance each year declined from 3.2 percent in 2002 to 2.1 percent in 2012. This problem, of course, is not limited to opera. As I wrote in these pages in 2010, the disappearance of secondary-school arts education and the rise of digital media may well be leading to “not merely a decline in public interest in the fine arts but the death of the live audience as a cultural phenomenon.”3D oes American opera have a future in an era of what Heidi Waleson succinctly describes as “flat ticket income and rising expenses”? In the last chapter of Mad Scenes and Exit Arias, she chronicles the activities of a group of innovative smaller troupes that are “rethinking what an opera company is, what it does, and who it serves.” Yet in the same breath, she acknowledges the possibility that “filling a giant theater for multiple productions of grand operas [is] no longer an achievable goal.”
If that is so, then it may be worth asking a different question: Did American opera ever have a past? It is true that opera in America has had a great and glorious history, but virtually the whole of that history consisted of American productions of 18th- and 19th-century European operas. By contrast, no opera by an American classical composer has ever entered the international major-house repertoire. Indeed, while new American operas are still commissioned and premiered at an impressive rate, few things are so rare as a second production of any of these works.
While a handful continue to be performed—John Adams’s Nixon in China (1987), André Previn’s A Streetcar Named Desire (1995), Mark Adamo’s Little Women (1998), and Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking (2000)—their success is a tribute to the familiarity of their subject matter and source material, not their musico-theatrical quality. As for the rest, the hard but inescapable truth is that with the exception of George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess (1935), virtually all large-scale American operas have been purpose-written novelties that were shelved and forgotten immediately after their premieres.
The success of Porgy and Bess, which received its premiere not in an opera house but on Broadway, reminds us that American musical comedy, unlike American opera, is deeply rooted in our national culture, in much the same way that grand opera is no less deeply rooted in the national cultures of Germany and Italy, where it is still genuinely popular (if less so today than a half-century ago). By comparison with Porgy, Carousel, Guys and Dolls, or My Fair Lady, American opera as a homegrown form simply does not exist: It is merely an obscure offshoot of its European counterpart. Aaron Copland, America’s greatest composer, was not really joking when he wittily described opera as “la forme fatale,” and his own failed attempts to compose an audience-friendly opera that would be as successful as his folk-flavored ballet scores say much about the difficulties facing any composer who seeks to follow in his footsteps.
It is not that grand opera is incapable of appealing to American theatergoers. Even now, there are many Americans who love it passionately, just as there are regional companies such as Chicago’s Lyric Opera and San Francisco Opera that have avoided making the mistakes that closed City Opera’s doors. Yet the crises from which the Metropolitan Opera has so far failed to extricate itself suggest that in the absence of the generous state subsidies that keep European opera houses in business, large-house grand opera in America may simply be too expensive to thrive—or, ultimately, to survive. At its best, no art form is more thrilling or seductive. But none is at greater risk of following the dinosaurs down the cold road to extinction.
1 The “New York City Opera” founded in 2016 that now mounts operas in various New York theaters on an ad hoc basis is a brand-new enterprise that has no connection with its predecessor.
2 Metropolitan Books, 304 pages