Monday, July 31, 2006

Undoing the Holocaust -- Part I

The figuration of the Holocaust is always close to the surface in Israel. One popular understanding, even there, is the creation of this state was more due to Western powers compensating survivors for the murder of six million Jews than it was the realization of a nationalist movement’s practical work. Another understanding is that others surrounding and inside Israel want to finish Hitler’s Final Solution by destroying Israel and its Jews. The idea generates warnings against any concession to the others. Since the Palestinians, other Arabs or fundamentalist Muslims have this transcendent goal, nothing short of its achievement will satisfy them. Any concession will incite the others to press harder on Israel and weaken Israel’s ability to resist them. These thoughts can and have been repressed, sometimes for long periods, like the years following the Six Day War, or the 1990s. However, they resurface when a security surprise occurs, some concession is contemplated or someone appears to have exploited a concession.

These anxieties have a substantial geneology: 2000 years of Diaspora, of defeat and displacement, commemorated and re-enacted, taught Jews to grieve, but gave them concepts, liturgies, metaphors, stories that were insufficient to measure the Final Solution. Of course, there are other genocides. One thinks immediately of the Hutu doing it to Tutsi, Indonesians to Timorese, Turks to Armenians, arguably the US government to Native Americans in the 19th century. But the Holocaust is unique in the devotion of so much wealth, organization and time to the methodical killing of a people. The mind boggles; in some sense, it feels demeaning to be a survivor or inheritor. This feeling or trace, known but unexpressed in the public imagination, gives birth again and again to a desire to undo the Holocaust.

Sometime during the Vietnam years, General Lewis Hershey, director of the US draft, said he a received a letter explaining the writer's resistance to the draft. The writer would gladly serve if the war were against Hitler, but Vietnam was a different matter. General Hershey wrote back, expressing his regrets that he could not supply a war against Hitler. The war in Vietnam was the only one he had available. Israel has dealt with a similar situation by imagining that every war it fights is against Hitler. This is not just for recruiting purposes or consolidation of popular support for the effort. It is trying to undo Israel's not being there, when Hitler was available.

Two vignettes, featuring Israeli leaders, can make the point clearer. About 1975, a radio interviewer asked Golda Meir to describe the feeling of Jews in World War II Palestine, once they were aware of the Final Solution. She answered: “Furious impotence.” In 1982, with IDF armor columns and jets attacking Beirut, PM Menahem Begin said he felt like a bomber pilot on his way to bomb Berlin.

The casting of the present enemy as Hitler and defeating him – the undoing of the Holocaust – has resonance on both the psychological and ideological levels. It erases the trace of impotence. It also resolves the paradox of Israel as the solution for the Jewish problem that came too late to save the bulk of Jews for whom it was intended.

The inclination to rerun the drama and produce a different outcome became irrepressible given Hizbullah's provocations. Israelis perceive Hizbullah as an understudy for the best suited to play Hitler -- Iran. Its president Ahmadinejad has repeatedly denied the Holocaust, while embracing the idea of Israel's annihilation.

Olmert to Rice: Buzz Off

Israel PM Ehud Olmert today took the risk of alienating Secretary of State Rice by telling the Israeli people and the world there is no cease-fire, partial or otherwise, in Lebanon and there will be no cease-fire, until Israel achieves its aim of significantly degrading Hizbullah’s armament and crippling it as an organization. Trying his best imitation of Churchill, he warned this would take weeks and it would cost Israel more pain, tears and blood. This message came a day after Rice had wrung from Israeli leaders an agreement to suspend bombing in southern Lebanon for two days and also said the UN Security Council was likely order a cease-fire by the end of the week.

In dissing Rice, Olmert counts on support from his friends in the White House, who are no fans of Rice’s efforts to have foreign policies, rather than spin international adventures, and, of course, from the Middle-East ignorant Bush himself. They all just lap up memes like Defense Minister Amir Peretz’s “Israel’s fight with Hizbullah is the frontline of the war with Iran.” Whether he wants to align himself so tightly with them is another matter. Olmert himself appears less unilateralist, extreeme and pretentious than they, but regardless of preferences, he has to press defiantly on. He is fighting for his political life. The wide scale operations to which he so hastily committed Israel have not yet realized their promised results.

They eventually will, he asserts. This is to reassure the Israelis in the north that the rockets will one day stop falling on them and to reassure the world that on the same day Israel will stop killing Lebanese civilians who are in the way. Meanwhile, no one should try to teach Israel morals. After all, we invented them.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Bush or was it Rice Tells Israel to Stop the Shit

Israel has agreed to suspend its aerial bombardment of southern Lebanon for 48 hours, effective immediately, to allow for an investigation into Sunday's bombing that killed 54 civilians, a U.S. State Department official said early Monday.

Both The New York Times and LA Times emphasize Rice's insistence and Israeli leaders adament resistence on this concession, during several hours of conversations after the news of the bombing. Apparently Olmert and Peretz cannot accept how badly they blew it. Maybe someone should tell them that Rice still remembers the murder of four young girls, including a friend of hers, in the church bombing of Birmingham Sunday (September 15, 1963).

There is no indication that Bush called in. According to the Washington Post, he and his White House advisors still dream on of a New Middle East arising from the ashes of Lebanon.

Putting Things in Perspective -- Middle East Style

As a term of art, perspective originally meant to look through a window with one eye closed. In the Middle East, perspective usually means to look at a wall with both eyes closed. That way one’s memory and imagination can project the scene one wants or one cannot repress without reality interfering.

Israel says it does not deliberately target civilian populations on the enemy side, although who is a civilian might be a matter for debate. If it did, the number of civilians it killed would be much larger. Israel targets people whom its soldiers believe are enemy combatants. That might include kids throwing stones, people who appear to be carrying weapons, people in cars that try to evade check points, officials of militant organizations, etc. Sometimes the soldiers make mistakes, sometimes they miss and hit innocent people, sometimes innocent people get in the way. Because IDF targets many combatants and has a lot of firepower, many civilians among the enemy are killed. Because of this intention of self-defense or preemption, but lousy execution, Israel’s killing of civilians is, according to some moral calculi different from that of Palestinian and other Arab militants, terrorists or whatever you want to call them. They shoot and bomb to kill as many Israeli Jews as possible, with no thought of distinguishing between soldier and civilian. They apologize when they kill Palestinian Israelis. Because they have less sophisticated weapons than the Israelis, over the last 30 years, Israel has killed between five to ten the number of civilians on their sides than they have killed on the Israel side. The ratio is even higher for children under eighteen. This is evidence of Israel's technological superiority. I fail to see how it evidences Israel's moral superiority.

Several narratives of the current Israel-Hizbullah conflict:
  • Israel Narrative 1 (Amir Peretz): We are fighting on the front line of the war with Iran. Iran, Hizbullah and Hamas are evil. We are making an exception of Syria this week.
  • Israel Narrative 2 (Ehud Olmert): We are fighting a tough local enemy and need to degrade it, so it will not be any threat in the future. We need more time to do that. Too bad if more innocent people get killed.
  • Hizbullah (Hasan Nasrallah): We are proving that we can stand up to the Israelis and give as good as we get. This has nothing to do with Iran. The Israelis should stop listening to the United States and bargain. I don't understand why they don't trust us.
  • George Bush: This is a great chance to turn things around and create a New Middle East. Israel can go on smashing Lebanon, just tell it to be careful not to destabilize the government, destroy the infrastructure or kill too many civilians, especially children.
  • The international community (Kofi Anan): Bush should get on the phone with Olmert or whomever and tell him to stop the shit.
Update: It looks like Bush just did. Adam Ereli, Rice's spokesperson has just announced that Israel has agreed to stop its air campaign against Lebanon for the next 48 hours. During the time the bombing at Qana will be investigated and the inhabitants of southern Lebanon will be allowed to leave the area.

Qana: A Tragedy Worse than a Mistake

I mourn and condemn Israel's slaughter of innocent men, women and children this morning at Qana. It is tragic in itself, part of an ongoing tragedy and an uncanny reminder of a wretched past. In 1996, Kfar Qana sufferred an IDF attack aimed at Hizbullah that killed about 100 civilians, and galvanized international pressure against Israel’s 1996 Grapes of Wrath operation.

For Israel, this bombing is worse than a mistake; it is a blunder. I would like to believe it was a deliberate act by IDF command to prevent a cease-fire that involved the ceding of Shaba Farms and hence could be interpreted by some as victory for Hizbullah. More likely, its timing and location result from operational stupidity that approaches autism -- the reduction of everyone else to objects. More generally, these reflect the callousness among Israel's leaders toward the suffering of Arabs, a callousness that is nourrished by Israeli Jews' own sense of victimization and self-righteousness. In any case, Israel's political leadership must hold the Chief of Staff Dan Halutz accountable and fire him immediately. Defense Minister Amir Peretz should also resign. He has clearly been in over his head since the beginning of the conflict.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Samson's Columns

The war in Lebanon has pushed the situation in Gaza into the background. This is unfortunate, because a tragedy in humanitarian terms is unfolding there as well. The IDF operations in response to the capture of Cpl. Gilad Shalit by Hamas militants more than three weeks ago have killed over 100 Palestinians. Relative to the population of Gaza, this is about the same as the Lebanese dead, although the percentage of combatants among the Palestinians is higher. Moreover the various diplomatic efforts to secure Shalit's release have taken a back seat to the diplomatic efforts over Lebanon. Weirdly, the IDF code-named its latest operation in Gaza Samson's Columns. The name refers to the Biblical strongman pulling down the temple in Gaza upon himself and thousands of Philistines as he uttered the wish to die with them. The related term Samson Complex has been used to describe a syndrome of uncontrolled, near suicidal rage, fueled by a sense of betrayal. The name could reflect the rage that many Israelis felt over the abductions of Cpl. Shalit and the soldiers on the Lebanon border. This rage also has a feeling of betrayal, because Israelis feel that their leaving Lebanon and Gaza should have removed the grievances of people there against them. On the other hand, maybe the code name is just the work of a remarkably inept junior officer at IDF's General Staff.

Deterrence vs. Destruction

Secretary of State Rice has reportedly told Prime Minister Olmert there will be a cease fire by the end of this coming week. That is probably more an order than a prediction. So it is now time for Middle East players to remember the difference between deterrence and destruction. Destruction is a strategy to eliminate an enemy’s threat by eliminating the enemy. It requires preponderant force that rapidly reduces the enemy’s capability to retaliate and then reduces the enemy to a disorganized, powerless mass. It also requires some vigilance to prevent that enemy’s reappearance in one form or another.

Deterrence is a strategy of meeting a threatening enemy with one’s own threat. The idea is to make the enemy think twice about attacking you and then a third and fourth time. And so on, until it gets to thinking about something else. Effective deterrence has three requirements: The threat must be understood by its recipients, it must be potent and it must be credible. “Potent” means the punishment you can inflict upon the enemy, if it attacks, is more than the enemy wants to pay for its expected gain in attacking you. “Credible” means the enemy can believe you might punish it, despite your costs for administering the punishment and for possible retaliation by the enemy. This calculus of deterrence was formalized in the 1950s and 1960s; to the extent it was internalized by the US and USSR, it helped stabilize the Cold War.

During the past two weeks, Israelis living in the northern villages, towns and cities have done a tremendous job in assuring the credibility of Israel’s future threats. They continue to support the war on Hizbullah, despite IDF’s failure to stop the rocket attacks on them. The public knowledge of this result increases the probability that Israel leaders in the future will enforce a threat, even if the enforcement exposes their civilian population to prolonged attack.

The civilian population in Lebanon, more than Hizbullah itself, now knows how potent the Israel punishment can be. Their suffering might eventually cost Hizbullah something, when they have opportunities to express their disgust at the organization having invited Israel to go wild at their expense. Clueless about this possibility twenty days ago, when he ordered the abduction of the Israeli soldiers, Hassan Nasrallah is belatedly coming to its recognition. In a speech today, he told the Lebanese that Hizbullah would free the last bit of Lebanese soil held by the occupier – a reference to a possible deal over Shaba Farms – and would become part of Lebanon. In other words, it would stop reaming other Lebanese for its own sake. How refreshing! Still the Israeli responses to its provocation has cost Hizbullah directly: Several hundred dead and wounded fighters, a few dead middle managers, a depopulated southern Lebanon, destroyed housing and facilities, overwhelmed social services, criticism in the Arab world, perhaps a dressing down from its patrons Syria and Iran, probably a refusal of any rearmament for the present and a commitment by every outside power that Hizbullah fighters will be pushed back from the border with Israel.

Yet, Hizbullah can claim some deterrent power of its own. Its forces have killed a significant number of Israeli soldiers as well as civilians, maintained operations and communications, while under attack, and sprung some surprises on the IDF, like the shore-to-ship missile that crippled an Israeli corvette. Also Nasrallah appears to be playing a very skillful escalation game, pausing at each stage to indicate a willingness to escalate further or to deescalate. This is very surprising, because the abduction of the soldiers demonstrated an ignorance of the international game, seemingly as profound as Ahmadinejad’s denial of the Holocaust or Saddam’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait. Perhaps even more surprising, Israeli leadership seems to have gotten the message.

In the looking glass world of strategic logics, mutual deterrence is not the balance of fear or terror established by strategies of destruction. It is more a grudging exchange of respect. If Israel and Hizbullah have begun to approach that, they can each declare victory and start talking.

A Personal Note

My writing is more critical of Israel and the United States than of Hizbullah, Hamas, other Palestinians, Arab states and Iran. This is because I best know and care most about Israel and the United States. Their politics and societies most directly affect me, despite globalization. Over the last forty years, I spent a lot of time in Israel and the United States working with others to change certain Israel policies and American support for them, because I believed they were unjust, needlessly cruel and not in Israel’s best interests. The policies included the colonization of the territories captured in the Six Day War, the invasion of Lebanon in 1982, collusion with the apartheid regime in South Africa, the brutal response to the first intifada, failures to enact a settlement freeze, building the security wall, assassinations and incursions into the morsels of Palestinian territory. I have also been critical of Palestinian and other Arab policies that have been cruel, stupid, corrupt and counterproductive, that have undermined trust in their own communities and betrayed peace groups in Israel and elsewhere.

I and kindred spirits are often accused of holding the US and/ or Israel to a higher moral standard. First, I believe the United States should be held to some moral standard shared by the international community and not just to its own convenient notion of morality. Second, as the world’s only superpower, a.k.a. global empire, the United States has a responsibility to join with other states in trying to create a more stable, peaceful milieu for the conduct of international relations. Too often it has acted unilaterally through policies of "regime change" to satisfy its interests, with the Bush administration’s behavior being the latest and most egregious case in a sorry history.

My reply with regard to Israel is more complex. First, I cannot accept the evasions by Israeli governments over the last forty years of resolutions for Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians and through that with the Arab world. Their failures cannot be excused by Arab recalcitrance or the traumas of Jewish history. They are primarily due to many Israelis’ having fallen in love with the territories and their influence on fractious Israel governments. Second, what moral standards is a significant issue in Zionism, Israel’s founding ideology that still has some claims on its people and supporters. On one hand, Zionism wanted a state where Jews could live normal lives, make their own collective history and not be at the mercy of others. On the other hand, this state was to be exemplary, a “light unto the nations,” a redeemer of both land and people.

I do not believe Jews are or expect them to be ethical supermen. I do not believe they have special genes for fighting injustice or natural immunity to fascism. However, I think Jewish communities have a tremendous tradition of self-criticism that demands we do the right thing. That tradition, for me, is a source of courage and hope.

“Hope,” the poet Seamus Heaney recently said, “is not optimism, which expects things to turn out well, but something rooted in the conviction that there is good worth working for.”

Friday, July 28, 2006

Sleepless over Seattle

News of the shootings at the Jewish Federation Building in Seattle horrifies and saddens me. According to early reports, the assailant was a lone gunman who said he was upset about what was "going on in Israel." This is not the first time the hatred that bubbles up between Jews and Muslims in the Middle East has lethally spilled into the United States. Yet it puts another crack in an illusion I want to keep. I want to believe there are some places in the US and elsewhere that are like half-time at brutal (American) football games. These are where the antagonists and their partisans act civilly toward one another; where the rules of engagement are different. Others also want to keep the illusion. The Council on American-Islamic Relations in Seattle has already issued a statement condemning the incident in no uncertain terms. Many Jewish organizations, when they condemn the incident, will also urge their members to be calm and repudiate any calls for revenge by extremists. Nevertheless, the murder and woundings in Seattle shake me. Enough to ask about the security arrangements at my son's Hebrew school.

Haim Ramon's Big Mouth

A United States State Department spokesman denounced Israel Justice Minister Haim Ramon for having said publicly what everybody in the Middle East believes: The Bush administration greenlighted an Israel invasion of Lebanon. Ramon is presumably in the know, so his statement supports the belief being true. Ramon is known in Israel for having a big mouth. The Israel police say he could be indicted for another inappropriate use of that organ. The indictment for commiting a vile act would be based on the police investigation of a complaint by a female government secretary that Ramon recently kissed her against her will and "even stuck his tongue into her mouth."

Update on another leader: IDF Chief of Staff Dan Halutz was hospitalized and examined today for two hours, after he felt ill. He was released without any restrictions and returned to work. A former head of the air force, Halutz is notriously callous about civilian deaths in IDF bombings and missile attacks. At the beginning of the current war he bragged that the air force could turn Lebanon back fifty years, quickly deplete Hizbullah's store of rockets and deal it a decisve blow. Since events have demonstrated that Halutz is even more incomptent than arrogant, today's episode suggests he might be considering death as a career move.

A Welter of Opinions

This morning's Haaretz, Israel's leading liberal newspaper, reflects a diversity of views on the objectives and conduct of the war. IMHO, Ze'ev Sternhall's Let's Declare Victory and Start Talking is especially worth reading. Sternhall is a professor of political science at the Hebrew University and studies political ideologies.

A Confusion of Objectives

Are Israeli leaders confused? Their various, changing statements of war objectives and the means to achieve them have by now confused most observers and some insiders. This Wednesday, an unnamed cabinet minister complained that there is no authoritative leadership for the war and security efforts. Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres, who has a half century of experience in managing Israel’s security, then told his cabinets point blank: “You have to decide. Either you cease fire and negotiate with Hizbullah for the captured soldiers, or you make an all out war with them.” Yet Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz have been tap dancing. While they have not been able to resist or even question the demands of their generals, they are halting in meeting them, perhaps sensing the conflict can spiral totally out of control. So Peretz talks about creating a narrow, free-fire, buffer zone on the Lebanese side of the border, while having the army prepare for an invasion of the entire area south of the Litani and perhaps further.

If they are confused, there are good reasons. First, Israel’s version of “shock and awe,’ an air campaign that was supposed to cripple Hizbullah, destroy its supply of rockets and reestablish Israel’s deterrence has not worked. The bombs mangled Lebanon’s infrastructure, destroyed its economy, created 500,000 refugees and so far killed 600 civilians, but it has not stopped Hizbullah rockets from hitting Israeli cities and killing Israeli civilians. It has not forced Lebanon, as IDF Chief of Staff Dan Halutz pompously promised, to “vomit out the cancer of Hizbullah.” So, to force most enemy rockets and fighters out of range of its northern border, Israel will have to commit ground troops to a wide war in southern. Israeli leaders are reluctant to do that. It proved costly in the past; ground engagements have proven costly in the present. A full scale invasion is also liable to draw Syria into the war – mainly to prevent Israel’s presence on a second border. So is the alternative to threaten this, and make nice about a proposal for an international peace keeping force in southern Lebanon, once Israeli air and artillery strikes have sufficiently weakened Hizbullah?

Second, Israel’s leaders did not expect the fighting to continue this long. The superpowers, when there were superpowers, usually responded to cross border fighting by demanding cease fires. Then some political process would ratify a small change from the initial situation. When the United States became the sole superpower, it continued to follow the script, since it had clients on both sides of the conflict. The Bush administration, however, has thrown out that script. It has put the war in a larger drama, more to its liking. Israel’s assault on Hizbullah can be the turning point for their efforts to transform the Middle East. What 150,000 American troops in Iraq failed to do, Israel’s capture of a Lebanese village and leveling of a high rise in Beirut will achieve: humble Iran, split Syria off, and voila! democracy flourishes Perhaps, the American and Israel plan to save Lebanon’s democracy is to turn Lebanon into a country of one man with one vote.

So George W. sets no time table and gives the green light to any invasion of Lebanon. Condi Rice tells the civilians on both sides to be proud they are dying for a New Middle East and blocks efforts by the rest of the international community to demand a cease-fire. These moves have put Israeli leaders in a quandary. For the last several years they have been pressing the US and Europe to get on Iran’s case, because it wants Israel to be destroyed. It is trying to build nuclear weapons and missiles that could do the job and it sponsors Hizbullah. Now the US is saying to Israel “If you want to fuck Iran, bash Hizbullah.” The wiser Israeli leaders, I think, want to say, “Hey that’s the wrong end of the dog,” but probably dare not.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

What's Wrong with this Picture?

An Israeli artillery crew during a lull in in Southern Lebanon

: One of the soldiers has looped the t'filin strap around his forearm only six times, instead of seven.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Buffer Zone Revisited

Today, Israel Defense Minister Amir Peretz stated that Israel will create a free-fire zone in Southern Lebanon, if an international force is not stationed there.

Our principal effort is to create a security zone that will be under the control of our forces, if there is no internastional force that enters the zone and deploys along the borders -- an international force with sufficient power to impose its will. We will direct fire against anyone who approaces that wide zone. Anyone who approaches it will know they are liable to be hit.

As noted here, the creation of this zone is the main reason that Israel is pushing out the Lebanese south of the Litani. So Peretz and the army are not likely to let them return. Certainly not in the absence of an international force, and not soon, even if such a force is deployed.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Save Your Gelt for Kinky

Kinky Friedman’s campaign for governor of Texas has set new standards of brilliance for low cost, candidate advertising on the web. The cartoons and video announcements at his site are easily the equal of JibJab’s riffs on the last presidential campaign and of the finalists in MoveOn’s Save Social Security contest. This will not surprise those who have followed Kinky’s genre-bending over more than thirty years. For the few who have not, Friedman is a song and mystery writer, who in the 1960s and 70s led the socially-conscious, country music band “Kinky Friedman and The Texas Jewboys” (a name spoofing "Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys"). The band played mostly Friedman songs like An Asshole from El Paso, a take-off on Okie from Muskogee. Another song They Don’t Make Jews like Jesus Anymore is an up tempo ballad that recounts Friedman’s flattening a redneck who taunted him with racial epithets. A few bars from the song’s end, the band suddenly shifts to the close harmony of white gospel. Like this work, Friedman’s political messages blend good-humored parody, sly appropriation and sharp satire.

The messages superbly met three apparent goals. They presented Friedman as a serious, independent candidate (notwithstanding his quip that if elected, he would immediately ask for a recount). They explained what people needed to do to get him on the November ballot, and they overcome the apparent handicap of his being a smart-ass Jew running for the highest office in a heavily Christian fundamentalist state. The messages emphasized his Texas upbringing, recalled a Texas tradition of independent thinking and expressed his disgust that collusion among Republicans and Democrats, or politics as usual, had put Texas at the bottom in education and well being. Given the wusses who have run the state and are depicted in the cartoons as even stiffer than the other cardboard figures, the rationale for Kinky’s campaign “Why the Hell Not?” easily follows.

In his video announcement, Friedman more effectively expresses the seriousness of his candidacy and also dissolves the Jewish issue. After speaking about his Texas roots, he segues into a light-handed preaching style to invoke the conservative Christian image of the good governor. He mentions that he had just attended the funeral of an old Texas friend, where the Presbyterian minister talked about the Good Shepherd. He is the one who protects his sheep at all time and especially in times of need, when the hired hands run away. Friedman remarks that his Republican opponent in the race for governor already has hopes of leaving the state by being the vice-presidential candidate on a successful Republican ticket in 2008. He, on the other hand, is interested in being governor of Texas. Kinky then repeats the theme: The Good Shepherd looks to his flock, the Hired Hand runs away. It’s a masterful performance. One forgets that this aging guy in a black shirt and cowboy hat, who is waving a big cigar and looks a bit like my late uncle George, is a Yid. Or if someone remembers, she thinks he is one hell of a smart Yid; just what we need. Indeed, the second cartoon plays to the last idea by noting that Friedman accomplished the near impossible by founding in 1960s Texas a socially conscious, Jewish country band.

The third cartoon hilariously hijacks another conservative Christian theme. Made during the petition drive, its purpose was to tell people not to vote in the Republican or Democratic primaries, because they would then be registered to those parties and ineligible to sign a petition for an independent candidate. They need to abstain and “to save themselves for Kinky.” That becomes the recurrent line in a ditty sung by some Texas country music stars to the tune of The Yellow Rose of Texas. In case some one misses the allusion, the Dixie Chicks (an in-your-face move by the Kinkster here) sing in one verse “save yourself for Kinky and save our friggin’ state.”

Several of the bumper stickers spoof other conservative Christian pieties: My governor is a Jewish cowboy and He’s not Kinky, he’s my governor. The second slogan follows the saccharine he’s not heavy, he’s my brother, a line in the 1938 movie Boys’ Town, that some folks believe is in the Bible. These are not derisive lampoons, but good-natured, even respectful parodies, which show that the candidate knows whom he is speaking to.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Buffer Zone or Ethnic Cleansing?

Israel is trying and mostly succeeding in clearing Lebanese civilians out the area south of the Litani. It intends to create a buffer zone there. Is this ethnic cleansing?

The long answer is Probably yes, but not for the usual purpose.

Ethnic cleansing is commonly understood as the removal of some group, defined by a ethnic, religious, political, racial or social category, from a particular geographical area. Its purpose is to enable or increase the power and homogeneity of the remaining population in that area. The expulsion and mass murder of Bosnian Moslems during the collapse of former Yugoslavia is the episode for which the term was coined, but it can equally apply to earlier episodes such as the expulsions of German ethnics from eastern Europe, after World War II, of Palestinian Arabs from Israel in 1948, and of Jews from Arab countries in the early 1950s. As a category, ethnic cleansing covers a range of explicit or implicit policies ranging from forced population transfers, as in the partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1948, to deportations and genocide as in the Holocaust. Most public opinion considers any of these policies contemptible, inhumane and illegal. They are banned by internal treaties.

Israel has already induced the Lebanese to leave the area south of the Litani through radio announcements, leaflets, bombings and privation caused by the destruction of the infrastructure there. Israeli army units will probably act soon to drive out those who have not yet left – about 30% of the original population. Israel leaders and generals intend these measures to depopulate completely the area and turn it into a buffer zone which can be monitored by Israeli ground patrols and air reconnaissance. Israel probably cannot drive all the Hezbollah fighters out of the area, without sustaining very costly losses itself. But under this policy, it does not have to. When almost all the civilians have left, anything moving in the area will be assumed to be Hezbollah units and open to attack.

Israel will claim the creation of the buffer zone is legitimate self-defense. It will deny that it is ethnic cleansing because it will not involve an Israeli occupation of the territory itself, much less the introduction of Israeli settlements and perhaps not even the permanent garrisoning of Israeli troops. On the other hand, the United States probably cannot accept the permanent depopulation of this entire area. So these allies are likely to haggle over the depth of the buffer zone.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

The Great White Hope

Israel's becoming the great -- or at least midsize -- white hope (GWH) of the Bush administration discomforts me. I use this disgusting sports metaphor intentionally. It both captures the desire of the administration that Israel give a good thrashing to Hezbollah, a surrogate for Syria and Iran in its view, and alludes to racist underpinning of much American policies toward the Middle East. I am speaking of the crude stereotypes and simplistic analyses to construct the people out there as mostly evil savages. These, I think, are less products of an Orientalism in service to imperialism, but of American exceptionalism and nativism. When, I wonder, did the Jews become white. They weren't a century ago. Perhaps American Jews' becoming white has been their greatest gift to Israel. So American Marlowes have no difficulty in seeing Israel as "one of us."

What the Bush administration could not do through its failed adventure in Iraq or its neglect of an initial victory in Afghanistan, Israel is now seen as doing. The hoped for dismantling or permanent crippling of Hezbollah is the fanfare for the rescue of democracy in Lebanon and its spread throughout the Middle East. Don't believe me? Just read what Sean McCormack, US State Dept. spokesman said in his press briefing to day.

As I said, we are seeing this great transition within -- in the Middle East in which you are seeing the beginnings of the end of an old order and the start ofa new order. And there are those who have an interest in preserving the old order; groups like Hezbollah, states like Syria, states like Iran. And this is a case where those in the region are choosing which side of the line they're going to be on. And we have been quite heartened by the fact that essentially, every state in the region other than Iran and Syria has chosen the side of positive change, as opposed to the side of preserving a status quo, which meansonly more violence, more tension, more instability.

Israel's leaders have been playing the GWH role, right on cue, especially in their emphasis of Tehran and Damascus as the axis of evil and enemy of the new order. Whether they completely believe their lines is not as important as Americans hearing them speak it, because the strength of the alliance depends on (perceived) ideological similarity as well as a convergence of national interests. Of course, it is no coincidence that the US and Israel share rhetorically this vision of the Middle East. After all, the neo-conservatives who developed this vision sold it to both Bush/ Cheney and the Likud, Olmert's former party.

The GWH, however, is not an enviable role: Mostly gladitorial, celebrated when he wins, relegated when he losses, expected to take a punch and punishment, but also be nimble and creative, demonstrating the advantages of superior intelligence over brute strength and animal cunning. And that's the benign version. Other versions are no more welcome in polite society than is the hired gun after the big fight.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Maimonides vs. Bolton on Civilian Deaths

The US ambassador to the UN, John Bolton tells us that there is a difference between Hezbollah’s killing of civilians in Israel by rockets and Israel’s killing of civilians in Lebanon by bombing and artillery. Hezbollah shoots its rockets to kill civilians, just any civilians in Israel. Israel drops its bombs to destroy bridges, roads, airports, ports, other infrastructure, trucks, Hezbollah fighters and Hezbollah leaders. The other civilians are just in the way. Israelis had no intention of killing them.

The medieval Jewish philosopher and legal scholar Maimonides would not buy the distinction. In his discussion of the prohibition of work on the Shabbat (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Shabbat, ch. 2), he notes the general principle that acts intended to transform the state of being of an object are forbidden. If such a change arises as a by-product of some other act, one has not violated the prohibition. He flags, however, one major exception to this principle: If the change is an inevitable consequence of the act, the act and its agent violate the Shabbat. The classic example, already mentioned in the Talmud, is of the man who wants to give his son a chicken’s head to play with on the Shabbat, so he chops it off the chicken. The Talmud asks rhetorically: “Does he think he can off the head and the chicken will not die?”

For Maimonides then agents are responsible for the inevitable consequences of their actions. These consequences can be imputed to their intentions. John Bolton is not likely to know or care what Maimonides thinks. Neither do most Israelis.

Notes on the Latest Middle East Crisis

The killings and capture of its soldiers, first by Hamas and then by Hezbollah, gave Israel the need to respond, but left it the choice of how. Israel leaders took each case as an opportunity to destroy, dismantle or, at least, permanently cripple an enemy. On this view, the question is not whether Israel chose disproportionate force to coerce the return of its soldiers. Rather, can Israel achieve its larger ambitions and how much will civilians on all sides suffer for its attempts?

The Israel strategy is relatively simple: Degrade and deter the enemy through assassinations and bombing; make life hell for the other inhabitants, so they will turn on the enemy. In the meantime, no negotiations with anyone, but encouragement for people on the other side to start civil wars. In terms of a purely self-interested calculus, the first problem is that this strategy seldom works and sometimes backfires.

So far, the attacks on Hamas have not destroyed its capacity to launch its low grade, homemade rockets against Israel’s Negev. The attacks have sometimes missed their targets and instead wiped out innocent Palestinians. Such tragedies and their increased miseries have rallied almost all the Palestinians in Gaza to Hamas. Support has vanished for the more accommodating Abu Mazan, ironically confirming the Israelis’ earlier dismissal of him as politically impotent.

The present situation in Lebanon recalls the 1970s, when Israel repeatedly bombed that country to coerce its government to dismantle the “state within a state” that the Palestinians had created in southern Lebanon. From there the Palestinians launched attacks on Israel. The bombings, however, created several hundred thousand refugees, who poured into Beirut. The refugee problem overwhelmed the weak, laissez-faire government, undermined the shaky political system and aggravated other processes that were leading the country to civil war. When the war came, Israel hoped in vain for a victory by the Christian forces that would lead to the expulsion of Palestinians from Lebanon. Instead, in 1982 then Defense Minister Ariel Sharon saw a need for Israel to intervene in the war and do the job directly. Although Israel succeeded in expelling the Palestinian leadership and dismantling the Palestinian base, it found itself in a quagmire of low intensity conflict with Hezbollah. It took Israel eighteen years, several hundred dead soldiers and countless dollars to get out of Lebanon. By then Hezbollah had build its own state within a state and was ready to join the Lebanese political system.

Earlier outcomes like these prompted Levi Eshkol, an Israel Prime Minister of the 1960s, with a profound sense of irony, to call his country a “hapless Samson.” I think, however, they also reveal two fundamental flaws in Israel’s strategy: First, to coerce the other side to curb your enemy, someone there has to have the capability or will to act. Today, as before, Israel wants a weak Lebanese government to take strong action against Hezbollah, but it has neither accepted the weakness of that government nor done anything to strengthen it. On the contrary, Israel’s bombings of civilians and Lebanese infrastructure can only further weaken that government. Similarly, Israel while wanting strong action from Abu Mazan, dismissed him as weak and offered him no payoff for such action. Second, to be deterred by threats, people must have something of value to lose. Unfortunately, Israel has not cared whether the Palestinians in the territories or the people of southern Lebanon have a quality of life they would want to protect by acting according to Israel’s wishes when Israel threatened it.

These lessons about the mixed motives and social relations of conflict, which Nobel Prize winner Thomas Schelling taught nearly fifty years ago, seem particularly lost on the present Israel government. Claiming the legacy of former Prime Minister Sharon, Ehud Olmert and Amir Peretz were already committed to unilateral courses of action, as if decisions about the future of Gaza and the West Bank can be made by Israel alone. As an editorial in The Forward just remarked, it seems for them war is the continuation of unilateral diplomacy by other means.

This is not to deny legitimacy in Israel’s use of force – even disproportionate force. By some objective standards and certainly in the eyes of most Israelis, the withdrawals from Lebanon and the Gaza Strip removed almost all the grounds for grievance of people there toward Israel. What right then do the sub-national groups, Hamas and Hezbollah, have to attack Israeli civilians and soldiers? Why did the governing authorities not stop them? How can the governing authorities deny responsibility if these groups are part of the governing authorities?

Yet in the Middle East legitimacy has helped nations less in getting what they wanted then have the intelligent use of force, some restraint and a little help from friends. In the past, the rapid escalations, like those we see today, did not entirely destroy the ongoing game. Before they spiraled into regional conflagration, they were capped with incremental gains and losses, by the intervention of the superpowers. Because the United States and the Soviet Union feared being dragged into direct confrontation by their clients, they set limits on what each client could lose or expect to gain. The situation is scarier today. There is only one superpower; its decision makers are distracted by the misadventure in Iraq and deluded by the idea that regional and global politics are zero-sum games. Linking everything to monolithic terrorism, George Bush looks forward to Israel putting Hezbollah out of the game and hopes to give it enough time. That would put Syria, Iran and more generally Islamic fundamentalism on notice.

Given the green light, Olmert and Peretz have lost no time in responding appropriately in word, as well as deed. In the Knesset today, Olmert identified Tehran, Damascus, Hezbollah and Hamas as an axis of evil. But what about the mid and long range effects of their decisions? Will they lead Israel to reoccupy the Gaza Strip and southern Lebanon, when that has already proved unbearably costly for Israel? Will decapitation and destabilization of the other sides assure there is no one to talk with, when the United States finally says “enough.” Will there be no Israeli solution for Gaza and southern Lebanon other than emptying them of inhabitants and sowing the earth with salt?