Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Daniel Levy at TPM Cafe serves up a good summary of the latest small steps toward renewed negotiation in the Israel-Palestinian-Arab conflict. These include the agreement of Hamas and Fatah to form a unity PA government, an IDF tribunal ordering the release of 21 imprisoned Hamas parliamentarians and US Secretary of State Rice's praise of Syria for foiling an attack on the US embassy in Damascus. Secretary Rice's remarks indicate the continuing American interest of wooing Syria away from its alliance with Iran. As this blog noted before, Syria is warming to the idea and has signaled interest in moving toward negotiations with Israel.

There are two general points worth making about these developments. First, wars between Israel and its neighbors that end inconclusively are followed by brief flurries of peace-making talk and efforts. This is because the war proved the situation before the wasr was very explosive but did little to change it. The participants or bystanders therefore need to seek some diplomatic means to prevent or mitigate another imminent war. Second, any initiatives for peace by Palestinans or Arabs would be very inopportune for Israel at this time. Such moves could require Israel's government to express what territories it would give and what risks it would take for peace. With the recent war having shaken Israel's self-confidence and created an ongoing political crisis, it is impossible for the government or public to reach an agreement on these points.

Monday, September 11, 2006

A report in Haaretz quotes an IDF rocket artillery officer on Israel's use of cluster bombs in the war with Hezbollah: "We carpeted entire villages with cluster bombs. What we did was crazy and monsterous." The officer also cited his commander as saying that during the war IDF shot over 1800 multiple rockets containing 1.2 million cluster bombs. IDF used these weapons, despite their being highly inaccurate. They are frequently classified as non-discriminating weapons whose use is outlawed in civilian areas. Perhaps as many as 40%, of the shells failed to explode and consequently became anti-personnel mines that litter southern Lebanon. Since the end of the war, twelve Lebanese civilians have been killed when they stepped on or handled one.

Israel's cluster bombs include American-made ones, for which Israel requested expedited delivery during the war. The US Department of State announced a week ago that it was investigating Israel's use of such bombs during the war. Although IDF spokespeople maintain that the bombs are acceptable under international law, a secret agreement with the United States restricts Israel's use of them.

Gunners in the armor corps have reported that IDF also fired phosphorous shells, which, according to many experts, are outlawed by international treaties

Crawling toward the Starting Line

Freud's notion of the narcissism of small differences affects politics and ideology. Ideologically differentiated groups within the same camp often need to make concessions to one another in order to create a common front. They often consider their concessions enormously painful. Yet outside observers often see these changes as small and inconsequential. Hamas leaders of late are struggling to make such concessions to Fatah, but no one else seems to care.

Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazzan), Palestinian Authority (PA) Chairman, and Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas agreed today to form a unity government. This step implies indirect recognition of Israel by Hamas and its willingness for the PA to participate in a "peace process," guided by a "roadmap." That, however, threatens the Jewish settlers in the West Bank and their supporters. Any approximation of peace between the Palestinians and Israel would involve Israel's removal of the "illegal" settlements and some "legal" settlements as well -- more extensively than would Olmert's abandoned program of consolidation. Any approximation of peace would also diminish the settlers' status in the West Bank, where they are a law unto themselves, or, as Israel likes to say regarding others places, "a state within a state."

The reasons for Hamas's amenability are evident: a) the failure of the Hamas government to rescind the sanctions from western countries and aid donors; b) insufficient replacement aid from Iran and other Muslim sources; b) the economic collapse and virtual cessation of government services as consequences of the sanctions; d) the rapid loss of support for Hamas among the Palestinians; e) Israel's continued punishment of Gaza and Hamas's inability to respond. Hamas leaders also learned how easily the world (including this blog) coud forgot the Palestinians' plight while the war between Israel and Hezbollah raged. Finally, it is possible that Israel's targeted killing of mid level Hamas militants has diminished internal opposition to a more pragmatic approach to Israel. Quite expectedly, Israel offered no encouragement for this ministep by Hamas. Foreign Minister Tsippi Livni decried it as insufficient . She added that what mattered was whether the proposed unity government met the West's three conditions for restoring aid. The conditions are recognizing Israel, renouncing terror and abiding by previous Palestinian Authority agreements with Israel.

Meanwhile other bases for dealing with the Palestinians are being publicly advocated in Israel.
MK Effi Eitam (National Religious Party - National Union) raised a storm of outrage on Sunday when he called for West Bank Palestinians to be transferred and for Palestinian Israelis to be ejected from politics. Eitam is a candidate for Minister of Defense should a right wing government under the leadership of Netanyahu come to power. Speaking at a memorial service for a soldier killed in Lebanon, he said "We will have to expel the great majority of the Arabs of Judea and Samaria. It's impossible with all those Arabs, and it's impossible to give up the territory." In regard to the Israeli Palestinians, he added, "We will have to take another decision, and that is to sweep the Israeli Arabs from the political system. Here, too, it's clear and simple. We've raised a fifth column, a league of traitors of the first rank. Therefore, we cannot continue to enable so large and so hostile a presence within the political system of Israel." Now that makes fascism's difference quite clear.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Update on Speaking Truth to Power

In the entry below, "Speaking Truth to Power," I wished that Israel emulated the Biblical precept of equal application and enforcement of the law for people under its control. A report to be issued today by Yesh Din, an Israel human rights group, tells me to continue wishing. The West Bank is still very much the Wild West Bank. According to the report, a total of 90 percent of the complaints filed by Palestinians in the West Bank against Israeli citizens for violent attacks have been closed without charges being filed. However, at least one (and there are more) group in Israel, namely Yesh Din, has emulated the prophet Nathan in speaking truth to power. And in view of the continual deterioration of the Palestinian economy, the story that Nathan told David can be applied literally to the situation in the West Bank.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Speaking Truth to Power

The Bible, by which out of habit I mean the Old Testament, is a saga or family history, full of difficult births and sibling rivalries. It has obvious importance for the current territorial and political conflicts among Israel and the Palestinians. Israelis and Jews base their claims to the Land of Israel on biblical promises and history. On the other hand, for many Christians and Muslims these claims are moot, because they regard their own religions and books as supersessions of the Old Testament and its god. This adds a theological dimension to the Jewish fear of being expendable or sacrificial. By the way this fear has reappeared in the discourse over the Iran crisis. Some Jewish commentators believe that the United States and Europe will eventually do a deal with Iran at Israel's expense and endangerment. Put another way, most Christians and virtually all Muslems will have no religious objections to the disappearnace of Israel. That is one reason that Israel has so firmly embraced the Christian fundamentalists who think that Israel is a necessary part of a world ordered according to divine inspiration. Never mind that some of them also believe that the return of the Jews to Israel is a prelude to an End Time that would include their conversion or annihilation. The sense of the fragility of the Biblical promise of land might also explain why some Jews so stubbornly insist on settling the entire land, even if Palestinian and other Arab responses to that can make Israel's existence more precarious.

It is unfortunate, perhaps devastating, for Jews that the reenactment of settling the land and cultic practices associated with it have nearly excluded reenactments of any other Biblical messages that have counterparts elsewhere in the universal library. I refer, for example, to the insistence of Hebrew prophets on social welfare and justice. There is also the precept about the same laws and judicial diligence applying to both the Jews and the "strangers" in their midst. Such a standard has been sadly lacking over decades of Israel's dealing with its own Palestinian minority, with the Palestinians in the territories and even with guest workers.

Another Biblical episode is particularly relevant now as the penitential season in the Jewish calendar approaches and Israel also debates what commissions of inquiry could adequately investigate the conduct of the latest war. The story (Samuel 2, 12:1-13) encapsulates the idea of speaking truth to power. The prophet Nathan visits King David after David had engineered the death of his soldier Uriah in order to take Uriah's widow Bathsheva as his wife. Nathan told David about two men living in the city. One was rich and had many sheep. The other was poor and had only a small ewe lamb to provide milk, but the man loved that lamb and raised it as one of the family. A traveler visited the rich man, but the rich man did not kill one of his own flock for the welcoming feast. Instead he stole the poor man's lamb, slaughtered and served it to his guest.
And David's anger was greatly kindled against the man; and he said to Nathan, "As the Lord lives, the man that did this thing deserves to die. He shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity." And Nathan said to David, "You are the man."

Nathan then explained that God had saved David from being killed by the previous king. God had given David that king's wives and possessions. Nevertheless, David had arranged the death of Uriah so he could take Uriah's only wife Bathsheva. (Note women = chattel was a sign of the times.) David most remarkably for a political and war leader of that period acknowledged his sin.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Governor Mitt Romney has ordered Massachusetts state agencies to withhold all support for former Iranian president Mohammad Khatami's appearance at Harvard University this coming Sunday. Romney's order speaks more to his ambitions to run on the Republican ticket for president in 2008 than to his understanding of Iranian politics. He depends, correctly, on most Americans having an unnuanced and negative image of Iran. So any rebuff of an Iranian past or present official will ingratiate him with them. To wrap himself more firmly in the flag, Romney condemned Harvard's invitation to Khatami as "a disgrace to the memory of all Americans who have lost their lives at the hands of extremists.”

Whether on purpose or through ignorance this view focuses on Khatami as a symbol of a hated Iran than on him as a figure of the recent past in a complex political landscape. As President of Iran from 1997 - 2005, he tried to introduce reforms that would broaden freedom of expression and asssociation in Iran. Inspired by German sociologist and philosopher Jurgen Habermas's work on the public sphere, Khatami worked to strengthen public debate and civic organizations as counter weights to the dictates of the mullarchy and the state institutions. The conservative-controlled Iranian parliament blocked his efforts, and Khatami seemed to lack the resolve to rally the Iranians against it. He might best be characterized as a well-intentioned loser.

However, his critics in the US, like Romney, point to acts that happened on his watch and statements by him that indicate his support for destabilizing the Middle East. These includes arms shipments to Hezbullah and questions about Israel's right to exist. But the critics' real worry is that the visit to Harvard and other places in the US can give the American publlic a view of Iran other than the one that looks ready to be bombed. The debate on the propriety of the Khatami visit looks like a mirror image of the 2001-2002 controversy in Germany over Habermas's
visit to Iran at the invitation of the Center for Dialogue Between Civilizations, organized by Khatami. Habermas's visit was criticized as lending credibility to Iranian claims to being a democracy at a time when Iranian security agencies were cracking down on liberals and intellectuals.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

The odds worsened today for the political survival of Israel PM Ehud Olmert. State comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss called for a criminal investigation of Olmert over suspicions regarding political appointments by Olment, when he was Minister for Industry, Trade and Employment. Specifically, the comptroller submitted a report to the State's Attorney that alleges that Olmert used improper processes to give members of his political party jobs for which they were unqualified. These are essentially the same type of charges for which Tsahi Hanegbi, the former Minister for the Environment now awaits trial. Leadership in Israel is rather baleful these days, with the figurehead President an alleged rapist, the Prime Minister allegedly corrupt, the Chief of Staff an alleged war criminal and the Defense Minister more than allegedly incompetent. It's enough to drive honest folks into the street to demand "off with their heads." In another sign of the grim political situation, Speaker of the Knesset and member of Olmert's party Dalia Itzik asked the right wing parties and the small Zionist leftwing Meretz to join the government in forming an emergency national coalition government. Predictably, all refused. They prefer to the see the government collapse on its own rather than be associated with it. This strategy will better serve them in the next elections, which Likud officials believe could come as early as next spring.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Iran and Israel

Few people outside of Israel realize how much Iranian President Ahmadinejad's remarks over the past year have dismayed Israelis. It makes little difference to them whether his mentions of eradicating Israel are in the subjunctive -- ah, that Israel were eradicated -- (as Prof. Juan Cole parses them) or in the imperative. For Israelis putting Israel and its eradication in the same sentence, together with Iran's nuclear ambitions are enough to raise the spectre of the Holocaust. To be sure, in Israel that spectre is never far away. In Israel, someone wisely put it, "the Holocaust is still memory, not history." This is one reason why the response to the provocation by Hezbollah, which most Israelis see as a proxy for Iran, was so severe and so broadly supported. Now after the conduct of the war further shook Israel self-confidence, some Israelis have have called for a strategic reassessment: Israel must regard Iran as its foremost enemy. In addition, the neoconservative term "Islamic-fascist" has entered Israel discourse. Except there it has the more pointed meaning of "Islamic Jew-killer."

The calls for new strategies do not necessarily demand greater Israel aggressiveness. Veteran military writer Zev Schiff thinks a regional balance of power coud emerge if Syria were split off from Iran. That could be achieved through a Syrian-Israel deal based on land (the Golan Heights) for recognition and peace (of Israel). He also raises the need to reach an enforceable peace with the Palestinians in order to defuse the ideological conflict between Israel and the Arab world. On the other hand, Schiff recognizes that US and Israel interests are not identical. He urges that Israel make clear to the US the "red lines" regarding its security that cannot be violated in a US or UN deal with Iran.

It is a good idea for Israel to rethink its needs and priorities in dealing with its neighbors. However, Schiff and others who work this vein have several shortcomings. Foremost is their undifferentiated image of Iran. They have no insight into the structural role that Ahmadinejad plays as an individual and the nuclear ambition plays as a value in the politics of Iran. Rather they seem driven by the false idea that the Europeans in the 1930s did not take Hitler seriously. (They did, but for other reasons could not get their act together to stop his aggression.) But it would be helpful to know, as do Iran analysts Ali Gheissari and Vali Nasr, that Ahmadinejad is a hardline conservative, whose populism helps prop up a mullarchy and state institutions. These have been losing touch with the Iranian lower clergy, middle class and some of the working class. Similarly, the nuclear ambition is a military, nationalistic value. Such values were invoked in the past when the state apparatus could not deliver on its economic and social promises to the Iranians. These distinctions do not imply that Iranians will reject Ahmadinejad's apparent effort to turn Iran into the regional power, but they do qualify his room for maneuver. For that reason, the threat of sanctions or even of Iran's isolation by the rest of the world can be potent weapons.

On a bleaker note, those who want Israel to play "balance of power" at the regional level should ask whether the pan-Islam movements have superseded the traditional games of states. To be sure, how the Islamic revival shapes institutions and collective choices is being determined within each state, sometimes in struggle with countervailing instutitions and interests. Yet, there is the strong possibility that the revival can set priorities for states that differ from the traditional national interests of territory, security and wealth. Put less abstractly, the Alawi "heretics" who rule Syria may find Muslim objections blocking their path to a deal with Israel.

One more point: The recent support of Hizbullah in the Arab and Muslem worlds suggest that most observers overrate the enmity between Sunni and Shia, at least during the current Islamic revival. On the other hand, they also tend to ignore the ethnic differences of Arabs and Persians. In the mid term future these might thwart Iran's pretensions to dominate the region. A scholar I know studies long term, territorial conflicts, the average of which is three hundred to four hundred years. I once asked him what was the longest in his database. He replied immediately, with a smile: "Over the Shatt al-Arab; about 3500 years."

Friday, September 01, 2006

Will the Cease Fire Hold? Syria and Iran

Syrian and Iranian compliance with the arms embargo under Resolution 1701 are vital for sustaining the cease fire. Syria’s President Bashir Asad may be coming around to the idea that his country’s compliance could win it some points (or carrots). Last week he said the deployment of UNIFIL troops along the Lebanese-Syrian border to enforce the embargo would be a hostile act. Shortly thereafter, the Itallian Foreign Minister said the embargo would be enforced by some means. Today, after Asad met with UN General Secretary Kofi Annan, his government said he had promised to stop any shipments across the border. Furthermore, Syria would be prepared to give full diplomatic recognition to Lebanon. That move would reverse Syria’s long time insistence that, at least in theory, Lebanon is part of Syria, and thereby void any justification of its arming Hizbullah as, say, an auxiliary to its own military forces.

Some Lebanese and Israel were unimpressed. Today, Walid Jumblatt, leader of the Druse Party and an outspoken opponent of Syria, claimed that last Saturday night (August 26) Syria shipped arms to Hizbullah with the connivance of Lebanese customs officials. The Israel Defense Ministry said that yesterday it showed Annan proof of continuing Syrian shipments. The government official added that based on Syria’s recent behavior, Asad’s promise is not credible. Instead UNIFIL should patrol the border. Nevertheless, they demanded that Syria use its influence on Hizbullah and Hamas to expedite the release of the captured Israeli soldiers. The Israel government is under tremendous pressures from its public to get the soldiers back. Syrian help in that matter could let the government take more of a wait-and-see attitude regarding Syrian compliance on the arms embargo.

At this time, however, Syria’s public commitment is the best that the other interested parties to the cease fire have. The Lebanese government has stated that it will not allow UNIFIL to deploy along the Syrian border.

Annan this Saturday (September 2) will be in Tehran and intends to bring up the arms embargo with Iranian officials. Iran’s current position is that it gives Hizbullah political, economic and moral support, but no arms. That position of course did not stop Hizbulah's using Iranian made weapons in the recent war. Iran obviously has a larger issue to haggle over with Annan and the UN Security Council, namely its refusal to stop its uranium enrichment program and the possibility of sanctions. So it might publicly commit to the arms embargo to gain some negotiating capital. It only needs to promise to stop what it says it does not do.

Drama and Narrative

A colleague complains how little people and professors understand the dramatics of politics, especially world politics. He insists that leaders are frequently trying to enact their favorite stories in imaginative spaces they try to recreate in reality. The Bard knew something when he had Jacques declaim “All the world’s a stage…” And perhaps our only comfort when tyros and tyrants seize that stage is the knowledge they too will sink into me oblivion, “sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.”

Given the impulse of leaders and their followers to pose heroically and preen, I feel that realist theories of international relations miss a lot of what goes on the world’s stage, at least at the descriptive level. I would like to believe that groups of people combine into states to better compete against one another for scarce resources, including security, and tell themselves stories about past heroes and future idylls only to overcome their present fears. If that were the case, we folks might eventually create enough wealth and allocate it wisely enough to satisfy everyone. That of course was the dream of Freud, who wanted to get rid of surplus repression, and Marx, who wanted to get rid of surplus. But I can hear my son saying “boring” to such a reality and he is only eight. And even if the hero stories that motivate many people these days are a response economic despair and social dislocation, they rapidly acquire lives of their own. The attract those for whom the mundane or absurdity of life it too great a challenge.

A remarkable set of apocalyptic myths and imagined reenactments haunts today's Middle East. Gilles Kepel observes that the Sunni jihadists, from Bin Laden and Zawahiri down, imagine they are recreating the early days of Islam, when Muhammad took on the infidels to establish his faith. The Shiites, Nir Rosen explains, imagine they are experiencing and resisting the same injustice, personified in Yazid,that killed their hero Hussain. Today's Yazid is the United States and Israel. Some Shiites -- perhaps, including Iran's Ahmadinejad -- believe the struggle with this Yazid can hasten the advent of the Mahdi or Messiah. The Jewish settlers on the West Bank believe they are redeeming the patrimony of Abraham; some connect their struggles with the “birth pangs” of a Jewish Messiah. Jews throughout Israel believe they are reexperiencing the threat of Holocaust, but are determined it will come out different this time. The United States has a president who wants to be both a Christian soldier and Winston Churchill fighting an "Islamic fascism." Maybe he expects the Rapture to attend victory.

In such a world of Manichean dramas, where the sons of light and dark struggle, good writers are terribly needed. They have the courage to stare at other people and recall that those who puff themselves up to cosmic proportions also shrink and shuffle off the stage sans everything. Their view is not cynical, but perhaps the contrary: a down-to-earth celebration of the shades, shapes, flavors and follies of humanity, devoid of metaphysics. After the dramas are played, they can write the narratives. The death this week of Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz reminds us how much the Middle East needs writers of his taste and courage. He looked long at the unraveling tapestry of Egyptian life and dared hope that education and science could repair it. The Islamists hated him for that.

So I am distressed at the ambivalence of A.B. Yehoshua, one of Israel’s best writers, about the appropriate narrative for the Israel-Hizbullah war. Soon after the beginning, he, Amos Oz and David Grossman, like many in the Israel left detected the transcendentally evil Iran behind Hizbullah’s provocation. In a message of support for the war, they feared a new Holocaust was in the making, proclaimed the war's just cause and voiced only minor concern about IDF’s disproportionate force. Ten days later, when the UN finally moved toward a cease fire, Yehoshua, Oz and Grossman about faced; they demanded that the government accept the proposed cease fire, instead of expanding ground operations. The government of course does not listen to writers. It expanded operations; tragically,Grossman’s own son was killed in that last phase of the war. Early this week, however, Yehoshua reversed himself again. He told a reporter that indeed the war was good and successful. Like many Israelis, he was surprised by Nasrallah’s confession of having miscalculated the size of the Israeli response. They took Nasrallah'sregret for this as a sign that Israel had reestablished, rather than diminished its deterrent power. Alas, this reading lacks the needed nuance that Nasrallah's statements warrant.

But it is unclear whether Yehoshua still thinks Israel was engaged in conflict against a transcendent evil. If he is, it would be a disappointing sign that the decades of conflict experienced have corroded his sensibilities. Yehoshua is typically social and historical, rarely metaphysical. His novels excavate the ordinary to discover below the extraordinary, macabre, sometimes even the Gothic, Middle Eastern style. He published, decades ago, a collection of essays that discusses Israel's mission as trying to build a floor over the abyss of the past, and called it For the Sake of Normalcy.

So is he now declaring a victory over evil or putting things into a more mundane perspective? Perhaps his latest narrative for the war is a strategic choice: “If we say we won and meanwhile get some diplomatic gains, there is no need to prove our military superiority in a second round. If we say we won, despite all the mistakes our leaders and generals made, the government will not fall and the extreme right will not come to power. Then maybe we can go back to trying to be normal.”