Wednesday, April 30, 2008

School Daze

A naive part of me wants to think of the US as a chill-out zone for combatants in the Israel-Palestinian conflict. That same part wants to believe that the US can be a pluralistic society where the politics of identity are left behind for a struggle over economic justice. These thoughts/ hopes explain why a recent New York Times article especially depressing. It reviewed the controversy over the effort to establish a school in the New York City public school system that would offer instruction in Arabic to children of Arab and other ethnic descents. Despite the support of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the agreement of school system officials, the leadership (designated school principal) of a talented, moderate Arab woman, her partnership with a well regarded organization providing social services to Muslim communities in New York, and buy in from other ethnic groups, the effort quickly ran into opposition from elements of the Jewish community. These included "outside [New York] agitators," such as Daniel Pipes, head of Campus Watch, who also played a role in the attempt to deny tenure to Columbia University professor Nadia Abu al-Haj. They had questions and accusation, repeated in the tabloid press, about the school's would be principal and curriculum, textbooks, etc., based on the assumption that anything in Arabic would inevitably be sympathetic to jihadists and hostile to Israel. But support the designated principal Deborah Almontaser received from other Jewish group led some Arab-Americans to question her loyalty to them.

The shit really hit the fan when the opponents of the school wrongly linked Ms. Almontaser to an Arab-American that has used the slogan Intifada NYC. The New York Post then distorted Ms. Almontaser's comments about this slogan, so it appeared that she supported jihad in New York. The school system officials then disowned her and forced her to resign, by threatening to not open the school otherwise. The school opened, survived a rough first year, but attracted far fewer Arab-American students than anticipated. The Arab-American communities might have been estranged by having little input in the planning, by the interim principal being a Jewish woman who knows no Arabic, by the controversy, perhaps even by the school being named for poet Khalil Gibran, a Christian. Meanwhile, Ms. Almontaser is suing the school system for reinstatement as principal, a case she is unlikely to win.

This case, like several tenures battles in the past year, bespeaks the intense politicization of US education of all grades over Middle East issues. On one hand, it resembles the struggle over "intelligent design" with the Jewish vigilantes in the role of the anti-Darwinian evangelicals. On the other, it seems a throwback to the Cold War days, when people who tried to create institutions to accommodate pluralism were accused of being pawns of a international conspiracy to subvert the young. (One might remember Socrates was convicted and executed on that charge.) But there is also some resonance with the nasty Oceanside-Brownsville battles between the New York teachers' union and the local communities, power struggles that paraded under the banners of the "canon" and multi-culturalism.

Of course, Jewish groups being pissed about people saying bad things about Israel or good things about Arabs, Palestinians in particular, is nothing new. For decades, American Jewish leaders have been denying any Israeli responsibility for the flight of Palestinians in 1948 or the suffering of Palestinians in the occupied territories, notwithstanding the historical records and their research by Israel historians, e.g., Benny Morris. They have denounced, boycotted and blacklisted people and media that have said differently, because they are more concerned with current public relations than truth in the past. And for the past two or three decades they have been formidable. A difference in today's battles is people of little stature and no followings have organized the campaigns against the offending Arabs -- more facilitators than leaders. Their success testifies to the Internet's power to arouse people and lower the costs of their participation over a wide catchment.

But what motivates individual Jews to join these campaigns on the basis of meager, one-sided information, without almost no thought. First, because people think in stereotypes, Americans and especially New York Jews are likely to identify Arab-Americans as threats, linked to the perpetrators of 9/11 and those militants lobbing rockets into Israel. Second, as Nation columnist Eric Alterman suggests, some join these campaigns to prove they are good Jews. This points to a spiritual and educational poverty that many Jews in the US experience, their own guilt regarding about it and the belief that unquestioning support of Israel is a basis of Jewish identity. Third, these small battles give their participants opportunities to lead or, at least, to feel they can make a difference. They do not need money or arguments, but rather passion and a some resentment at having been shut out of decision making. For such reasons, politics around school boards, hiring and curricula have been the most passionate in the United States.

The anthropologist Levi-Strauss defined neurotic conflict as grievance looking for a target. I think the definition applies to most Middle East conflicts and their recent extensions in the United States.

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Monday, April 28, 2008

A Dismal Science

The fighting in Gaza this morning produced another round of charges and counter charges between Hamas and Israel. Six unarmed Palestinians were killed this morning, including a mother and her four children. According to Hamas, they died when an Israeli tank shell crashed through the roof of their house as they were eating breakfast. According to an Israeli army spokesperson the tank shell hit two Palestinian gunmen who were carrying a large amount of ammunition. The ammunition exploded and killed the civilians. Almost any observer realizes that whatever the truth, both sides are liars or, to use Harry Frankfurt's useful distinction, bullshitters. Neither cares what the truth is, but will say whatever suits its purpose. The Israel army and government care no more about the deaths of Palestinians than Hamas cares about those of Israelis when its militants fire rockets at Israeli settlements.

Perhaps in this context, it is petty to be annoyed by the screeds of right wing Israelis who want Israelis to emulate Palestinian terrorists and suicide bomb Palestinian buses and restaurants. Don't these lunatics realize that Israeli has much more surgical and effective means, which result in a balance of deaths greatly in its favor.

Unfortunately, this lack of interest in the other's welfare -- the self regarding that is supposedly normative for groups on the realist view of international relations -- will continue to put a mutually acceptable accord beyond reach. Only a minimum of such interest can stop the perpetual whining of each side about the concessions it would have to make to get peace.

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Sunday, April 27, 2008

The Right for a Right of Departure

It is no secret that Palestinian Israelis (or Arabs who are Israeli citizens) suffer systematic social and economic discrimination and that many Israeli Jews regard them as a fifth column. Lately, however, the religious and right wing leaders in Israel have renewed their questioning whether they have a place in Israel at all. At the beginning of March, Efi Eitam, a leader of the National Religious-National Front Coalition, warned Arab members of the Knesset who protested the Israel army's incursions in Gaza: "A day will come when we will expel you from this house [the Knesset] and the national homeland... we have to expel you to Gaza. The people that are fighting us live there and you belong there."

This past weekend, members of the National Religious and National Front parties, West Bank rabbis and other rightists had a conference in Ramle that examined the relationship of Israel to its minorities and the "stealthy conquest by Arabs of Israeli cities with mixed population," such as Jaffa, Haifa, Lod and Ramle. (Is it a sign of amnesia that once predominantly Arab towns are described as now being conquered by Arabs?) One of the speakers, M.K. Uri Ariel, emphasized Israel needs to encourage the voluntary emigration of Arabs. How nice, when the Palestinians' insistence on a right of return [to Israel] is a major obstacle to a peace deal, the folks at the conference are thinking about a Palestinian right of departure.

M.K. Ariel also called upon the government to develop programs that would make the mixed cities more attractive to Israeli Jews. In other words, using state resources for the benefit of only its Jewish citizens. But such notions about one sided allocation of resources is not peculiar to the right and religious, but shared by many people in the center. After all, Israel is the Jewish state. So when ex-President Carter said in his visit to Israel that he wanted to call attention to Israel's discrimination against its Palestinian citizens, the Israel ambassador to the UN called Carter a bigot. It was not a matter of Carter making false accusations, although Israelis perhaps rightly bristle at his use of the apartheid to describe results of administrative practices rather than legal codes. Rather his bigotry was to ignore the special right of the Jewish people in Israel.

Of course as the percent of Palestinians in Israel gets larger, more vocal and visible, to say nothing about the percent of Palestinians in the area west of the Jordan River, it is increasingly difficult for Israeli Jews to claim their system is also democratic. Hence Eitom, Ariel and their colleagues have a certain repugnant honesty: Keep the state Jewish and democratic by throwing anyone else out.

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Saturday, April 26, 2008

Judgements of Histories

On the eve of the US invasion of Iraq, I remembered Thucydides's account of Athens's catastrophic expedition to Syracuse. Daniel Mendelsohn's brilliant New Yorker review of an annotated edition of Herodotus's Histories suggests to me that other Greek historian (and Thucydides's predecessor) had a better template for the Iraq expedition. In Mendelsohn's reading, Herodotus's point was not to gossip or celebrate Greek courage, but to recount the rise and fall of the great Persian empire. The empire fell because of a rash ruler's effort to expand it beyond its natural limits. That puts a nice socio-biological twist on hubris, the motor of Greek tragedy, and echoes Dirty Harry's line that "a man should know his limitations." In concluding his review, Mendelsohn lays the template thickly over the present case:

Then, there is the story itself. A great power sets its sights on a smaller, strange, and faraway land—an easy target, or so it would seem. Led first by a father and then, a decade later, by his son, this great power invades the lesser country twice. The father, so people say, is a bland and bureaucratic man [Darius], far more temperate than the son; and, indeed, it is the second invasion that will seize the imagination of history for many years to come. For although it is far larger and more aggressive than the first, it leads to unexpected disaster. Many commentators ascribe this disaster to the flawed decisions of the son[Xerxes]: a man whose bluster competes with, or perhaps covers for, a certain hollowness at the center; a leader who is at once hobbled by personal demons (among which, it seems, is an Oedipal conflict) and given to grandiose gestures, who at best seems incapable of comprehending, and at worst is simply incurious about, how different or foreign his enemy really is. Although he himself is unscathed by the disaster he has wreaked, the fortunes and the reputation of the country he rules are seriously damaged. A great power has stumbled badly, against all expectations.
Max Rodenbeck, the Economist's Middle East correspondent, also uses a book review to deliver a similar judgement of the Iraq expedition's effect on the American empire. He finds much wrong with Robin Wright's Dreams and Shadows: The Future of the Middle East, especially her assuming that Middle East societies can easily adopt civic culture and democratic values. However, he agrees with her that the invasion of Iraq and its aftermath helped put an end to such efforts earlier in this decade.

As numerous interlocutors in the region tell her, not only did the debacle promote extremism and further isolate pro-Western liberals, it alerted people to the terrible risks of toppling tyrants. The Iraq adventure, in Wright's view, may have been the biggest American policy failure of all time. It could yet prove to mark the end of an imperial America's influence in the region, much as France and Britain's catastrophic invasion of Egypt in 1956 demolished the colonial powers' standing and dangerously boosted the fortunes of Egypt's reckless leader, Gamal Abdel Nasser. That is surely a sound judgment.

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Friday, April 25, 2008

Too Short Views

Israel's quick rejection of Hamas's truce offer reflects too short a view. A spokesman from the Prime Minister's office dismissed it as an attempt to buy time for Hamas to regroup and rearm. Put another way, Israel believes it has Hamas at bay and sees no gain in callling off the chase now. That is consistent with zbang ve-gamarnu, the Israeli version of "shock and awe," those crushing displays of power which are supposed to reduce populations to acceptance, but never seem to work as planned. The problem for Israel is that treating Hamas and its supporters only as targets and objects, rather than as a political player and people will not make them disappear, just more obstinate and vengeful. Israel will never reach an effective, durable agreement with the Palestinians, without admitting Hamas at some point, in some capacity to the discussions for it. So if Israel wants an accord, it should respond more encouragingly to any signs of reasonableness from Hamas.

Hamas's alter ego PA President Mahmut Abbas (Abu Mazan) fared no better with George Bush. He came to Washington with the hope of getting Bush to tell Israel to stop building settlements on the West Bank, a requirement of the "road map" and, on the Palestinian view, a very major obstacle to peace. Instead his meeting was just another opportunity for Bush to display his lack of reality regarding the Middle East. He ignored the settlements issue, saying that he wanted to focus on the big picture "how to define a state that is acceptable to both sides," as if he were writing a term paper for a first year course in political science. If Abu Mazan was disappointed by Bush, he was angered by Secretary of State Rice, who is supposed to know something about the Middle East, the interests of the Palestinians and facts on the ground. In his discussion with her, she did not include the 1967 borders as part of the context for negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. The Administration's was saying to him, in other words, "Take what we give you and shut up about the particulars."

So he returns home less confident about reaching an agreement with Israel whenever and probably less confident about his having a home.

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Thursday, April 24, 2008

Round Up

Today's big news in the Israel-Palestine perspective is Hamas's offer/ acceptance of a six-month truce over the Gaza Strip. Puts in the shade
  1. UNWRA's stopping distribution of food in Gaza, because it lacks gasoline;
  2. George Bush expressing his confidence that an agreement on a two state solution will happen before he leaves office (another "Mission Accomplished" statement? Or is he planning a coup that will declare him president for life?);
  3. CIA officials identifying North Korea and Syria as part of a nuclear axis of evil;
  4. Iranian president Ahmadinejad warning Syria against closer ties to the U.S. and Israel;
  5. declarations by Israel settlers on the Golan Heights that they will not leave, regardless of any Syrian-Israel agreement that requires their removal.
Not your typical day, not even in the Middle East.

The Hamas offer comes after negotiations with Israel through Egyptian intermediaries and perhapas after a nudge from Syria. It does not extend immediately, as Hamas wanted, to the West Bank, so the Israel army will be free to hunt Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other militants there. The move is undoubtedly motivated by short term desperation -- Hamas's realization that it cannot provide welfare for Gaza, amid its low intensity conflict with Israel and the economic blockade. The announcement by UNRWA demonstrates as much and has forced Hamas to promise UNRWA some of its own stockpiled gasoline, a move that will reduce Hamas's very limited military capabilities . The offer is a grudging acknowledgment that the blockade itself is mainly a response to the rocket attacks it orders or sanctions upon the Israeli periphery of Gaza. It is a step on Hamas's part toward political realism.

Israel will likely agree to the offer with some minor modifications. Even if it does not include Hamas's commitment to stop smuggling arms and rocket makings into Gaza, a truce would provide quiet in the south for Israel's celebration next month of its 60th anniversary. Also Israel maintains an upper hand: The offer does not demand that it end the economic blockade. Instead it will consider the security conditions that are achieved under the truce and ease the blockade accordingly. Somewhere in Saul Bellow's late novels, a character, asked what he has learned, replies "Sydney Smith, an English clergyman's advice: short views." Not bad advice for Israel and the Palestinians now.

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Digging Up the Past - 2

The arrest of Ben-Ami Kadish on charges of spying for Israel from 1979 to 1985 is a matter of the FBI settling old scores. The charges might also diminish Israel credibility in US eyes for several reasons. First, when Pollard was arrested in 1985, Israel claimed Pollard was its only spy in the US. Second, Israel's commitment at that time to no more spying in the US seemingly included no further contact with other spies there -- if such existed. Yet according to the allegation of obstruction of justice included among the charge, an Israel government official recently helped Kadish concoct the story he told FBI investigators Third, Rafi Eitan, who headed the agency that "ran" Pollard and Kadish, happens, for entirely unrelated reasons, to be a minister in PM Olmert's cabinet. That might be too great an irony for American officials at a time they are increasingly aware of the discrepancy between what the Israel government says it is doing to improve conditions for West Bank Palestinians and what the Israel army, housing ministry and other agencies are actually doing.

Of course, one wonders why the FBI saw fit to bring charges against an 84 old, stemming from activities that ended 23 years ago. Israel journalist Yoel Markus believes it both part of a long time FBI campaign against Jews in sensitive US security positions and a move that assures George Bush does not release Pollard next month as a gift to Israel on its 60th anniversary. He does acknowledge, however, that Kadish, who worked for free, even more than Pollard, who was paid, provides evidence for FBI suspicions of American Jews' having dual loyalties. Given the post 9/11 paranoia, Kadish's exposure is likely to discomfort American Jews even more than Pollard's.

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Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Digging Up the Past

Archeology in Israel, besides being a national pastime, has been a continuing source of contentions. Since the creation of the state in 1948, the government, universities and even private institutions have sponsored numerous digs with the primary purpose of uncovering the physical evidence of earlier Jewish life in the land, especially in the Biblical and Mishnaic periods (10th century BCE to 3rd century CE). Some digs have neglected, even damaged earlier and later strata evidencing non-Jewish habitants. Since the Land of Israel is highly contested resl estate, archeology poses the question whose history is being dug up and the secondary one of who owns the findings.

The digs might be obstacles to peace at several levels. The historical narratives that have been woven around or extended by the artifacts tends to strengthen some Israelis commitment to the entire land of Israel, making any territorial division a very painful idea. That is particularly true of the excavations in and around Jerusalem and the controversies over the ancient city's size in Davidic times. A more pragmatic matter is the control of digs, since 1967, at numerous sites in what would likely be the territory of a Palestinian state and the status of artifacts removed from those sites to Israel government and museum collections. A recently publicized initiative started five years ago by Israeli, Palestinian and American archaeologists provides a basis for answering these questions. The group has secured records of over 6,000 excavations and the tens of thousands of artifacts found there. It has proposed that the artifacts be repatriated to the future Palestinian state, with museums and laboratories be built to house them. It proposes with regard to Jerusalem, a zone up to the city's 10th century CE boundaries, where excavation sites would be accessible to anyone and research would be fully transparent.

Although there will be many problems for this plan, including that of funding, should Israel and the Palestinians reach a two-state solution, initial responsea from communities of Israeli and Palestinian archaeologists has been polite to favorable. The wonder is that a plan was reached at all. As could be expected where identity and cultural rights are the issues, early meetings of the group were described as tense and sometimes needed professional mediators.

A less productive struggle related to archeology in Israel concerned Nadia El-Haj's battle for tenure at Columbia University. El-Haj, the daughter of a Palestinian American, is a professor of anthropology whose dissertation turned into an award winning book Facts on the Ground: Archaeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society(U. of Chicago, 2002). The book analyzes how the findings at sites are woven into historical narratives that validate the Jews' right to various parts of the Land of Israel. When El-Haj came up for tenure in 2006 at Columbia's Barnard College, an American Jewish West Bank settler and graduate of Barnard organized a petition drive against her. The petition claimed El-Haj's work was an academically worthless, anti-Israel screed. The petition gained considerable support from Jewish Columbia students, graduates and faculty, many of whom were totally unfamiliar with El-Haj's material and methods. It also attracted the attention of outside agitators who fancy themselves the arbiters of informed discussion of Israel in university campuses, viz., David Horowitz, Daniel Pipes and Charles Jacob, the head of the David Project. Many of El-Haj's colleagues, within and without Columbia, rallied to her support and she was awarded tenure in November, 2007. This battle continued a series of controversies and interventions by fired up Jewish groups regarding Palestinian scholars and advocates at Columbia, dating back to the late Edward Said's publication of Orientalism. By the way, El-Haj's title Facts on the Ground is a tremendously rich, mordant multiple entendre, based on the popular Israeli Hebrew expression Kve'at 'Uvdoth. Its choice attests to El-Haj's' knowledge of Hebrew, understanding of scientific practice, insight into the politics of culture and wariness of Israel.

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Syria - ous Discussions

Per the Los Angeles Times, CIA tomorrow officials will brief tomorrow several congressional committees on the Syrian installation which Israel bombed last September. They will confirm what has been suspected since the bombing -- that Syria with North Korean aid was building a nuclear reactor that could produce plutonium for nuclear weapons. This disclosure will also confirm the extremely close cooperation and convergence of interests between the United States and Israel in planning and conducting the raid.

The closed briefings are sure to raise lawmakers' and pundits' questions about the Bush administration's current willingness to ease sanctions against North Korea in return for further accounting by the latter of its nuclear program and evidence of its dismantling. There will also be more questions about the effectiveness of current efforts to stop Iran's nuclear development program, especially since many observers saw the raid on Syria as a rehearsal for raids of suspected Iranian nuclearinstallations. On that issue, Iranian President Ahmadinejad reiterated today that Iran would continue its nuclear program, while the International Atomic Economic Agency (IAEA) announced it had received a note from Iran promising cooperation in clarifying whether the nuclear program was involved in the development of weapons. Iran has maintained the program is for only peaceful purposes and the US National Intelligence Estimate on Iran, issued earlier this year, partly supported that assertion.

Another question about the CIA briefing: Why is it coming now, after months of intense secrecy and stonewalling. One answer would link the timing to possibly serious developments in the Syria-Israel relationship. A Syrian official disclosed on Monday that President Bashir al-Asad and Israel PM Ehud Olmert have been discussing through Turkish intermediaries the resumption of peace negotiations. A semi-official Syrian source yesterday said that Olmert had stated Israel's willingness to withdraw from the Golan Heights in return for a full-peace with Syria, including security measure like demilitarization. Al-Asad has said he wants open negotiations with Israel, but since his and the ruling Baath Party's prime interest is the return of the Golan Heights to Syria, there are not huge obstacles on the Syrian side in getting to "Yes." Except, maybe, reluctance in selling out its Hezbollah and Hamas clients and breaking with its ally Iran.

The disclosure now of Syria's febrile nuclear efforts might prod Syria to make nice in public by seeking peace negotiations with Israel. Lacking Iran's energy resources and vast population, Syria is more vulnerable to international pressure and more likely to get it. However tying the CIA briefings tomorrow to a shift in US policy, currently that of shunning Syria, probably attributes too much agility to the Bush administration.

Indeed if the administration and its neo-con coteries are still intent on attacking Iranian nuclear installations before W. leaves office, it would not want to be distracted by peace negotiations between Syria and Israel or have such confuse its Manichean vision of the Middle East. The probability that the administration will push for such an attack increased today, with the appointment of Gen. David Petraeus to head the US Middle East Command. In contrast to his predecessor, who was fired for considering Iran an essential player in the Middle East and urging diplomatic engagement with it, Petraeus has a one dimensional view of Iran. In his recent testimony to Congress, he assigned it major responsibility for the instability in Iraq and appeared to favor confrontation in dealing with its clients and operatives there. He is unlikely to be less hawkish when dealing with Iran in a wider context, especially knowing what moderation cost his predecessor.

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Tuesday, April 22, 2008

He Said, She Said and She Said

Secretary of State Rice today said the Bush Administration explicitly warned ex-President Carter not to talk to Hamas leaders. Rice did not say who in the administration warned Carter, but was apparently not referring to herself. Rice did not take exception to Carter's remark that he had spoken to her before he left for Damascus and she had not warned him about speaking to Hamas.

Rice, who has been meeting with Arab leaders in the Gulf region, implied that Carter had damaged United States's credibility in the Middle East. It caused some Arab diplomats to wonder whether the US was still committed to shunning Hamas and might instead be making back door preparations for a shift in policy.

Meanwhile Hillary Clinton joined the war of words between Israel and Iran. On the morning of the crucial Pennsylvania primary, seeking to enhance her image of toughness and perhaps her share of Jewish voters, she stated that were she president and Iran attacked Israel with nuclear weapons, the United States would obliterate Iran. Her statement seemingly contradicts earlier ones that it is unwise to publicly discuss US responses in hypothetical scenarios dealing with Iran.

The shrill, escalating rhetoric about who will obliterate whom fits the stereotype of Bedouin battles. Members of the warring clans line up on their camels at opposite sides of an open space and hurl insults at one another for several days.
This will either arouse enmity to such an extent that each side will heedlessly charge the other or it might exhaust them, so they drift away from the would-be battleground.

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Monday, April 21, 2008

The Never Ending Story

Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri might or should be looking for a new job. The day after he blasted the idea that Palestinians vote in a referendum on any peace deal, ex-President Carter, in Jerusalem, and Hamas executive committee head Khalad Meschaal, in Damascus, said that Hamas leadership would agree to such a step. Carter was reporting on his conversations in Damascus with Hamas leaders. When asked on NPR radio about the spoke person's statement, Carter replied he did not know who Abu Zuhri was, but that he had been talking to the top Hamas leaders, including some from Gaza and they had taken time to give him a carefully worded answer. Meschaal's remarks were murkier. He said Hamas was ready to give truce to an Israeli state within the 1967 borders, that also permitted the Palestinians a right of return. These are three non-starters for Israel. On the other hand, Meschaal said that "Hamas would respect the Palestian people desire [regarding an accord with Israel], even if it contradicted [Hamas's] tenets."

Carter's remarks highlighted other ambiguities in Hamas's positions and his own role. He reported the Hamas leaders wanted direct negotiations with Israel over the exchange of the Israeli prisoner in Gaza for Hamas and Fatah prisoners in Israel, but they rejected any stop in firing rockets at Israel from Gaza. Asked about his own role as an intermediary, Carter emphasized that he was acting as a private citizen, but denied that the US State Department, despite its public statements on his trip, had discouraged him from talking to Hamas leaders. He suggested that the State Department might want to maintain a public image of no contact with Hamas, while attending to less public interactions.

That would be diplomatically sensible. Unfortunately, the State Department like other parts of the Bush administration does not do nuance. Assistant department spokesman Tom Casey proclaimed at the beginning of his office's daily press briefing there was nothing new in Carter's and Meschaal's statements. Hamas still refuses to recognize Israel, it is a terrorist organization, etc. When asked about Carter's claim that he was not advised against speaking to Hamas, Casey in effect called Carter a liar.

Amidst the talking, Hamas gunmen mounted several attacks against Israel units at the border crossings from Israel to the Gaza Strip. The soldiers repulsed these attacks, killing several of the gunmen. Subsequent Israel air strikes killed several more Hamas militants, leaving, as usual, a very lopsided body count in Israel's favor, even when the inevitable civilian casualties are not counted. Yet a Hamas spokesman -- not Sami, this time -- described the recent attacks were just rehearsals for larger. Such encounters and promises will likely further reduce the supplies that Israel allows into Gaza for humanitarian purposes. Because of Passover and the attacks, it is now a trickle.

In this context, does it matter that Hamas leaders might have inched a bit toward acceptance of Israel and readiness to negotiated? Is the refusal of the US and Israel to consider that possibility disappointing? Yes to both questions. Hamas is an ideological organization with little proven skills in pragmatic politics. The support it receives from Muslims abroad and followers within appears based on maintaining ideological purity, as well as holding the Gaza Palestinians willing hostages. Therefore Hamas leaders in changing their political program risk internal opposition and loss of financial support. If they want to change their tune they must do it incrementally, slowly, ambiguously. That does not mean that Meschaal's current rhetoric actually indicates change, but the blunt rejection of his words does not help. Instead demands for clarification and seeking other opportunities to get their focus on the "peace process" would be more constructive.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Irrational Politics

Irrationality characterizes politics in the Middle East, perhaps more than politics anywhere else. The name of this blog admits that. It comes from the hoary story of a frog that is ferrying a scorpion across the Jordan River. The frog was initially reluctant to do that, explaining to the scorpion, "you will sting me in mid river and I shall die." The scorpion had answered, "that would not make sense. If you die, I shall die with you, since I cannot swim." And impressed by that argument the frog agreed. Halfway across, the scorpion stung the frog. As it died, the frog said, "we agreed that would not make sense." The scorpion replied, "Yes, but you forgot this is the Middle East."

Hamas, perhaps driven by desperation, incompetence or raw emotions, appears to have set a new example of irrationality, so mundane and instant as to be laughable -- were it not also symptomatic of the dead ends of efforts to limit violence, suffering and hate in the Middle East. Hamas spokesperson Sami Abu Zuhri today rejected a proposal by the Egyptian Foreign Minister. That proposal called for a cessation of rocket attacks by Hamas on Israel, an end of Israeli targeting of Palestinians, the exchange of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners for the Israel soldier Gilad Shavit and a referendum among Palestinians to decide the principles for negotiations with Israel. The spokesman particularly objected to the referendum, proclaiming that sacred national rights of Palestinians, e.g., Jerusalem, the right of return, could not be subject to a vote. At the same time he took exception to the foreign minister saying that Hamas in a Palestinian government would increase the difficulty of negoations with Israel and demanded a retraction. What is the man thinking and whom is he trying to fool?

Thursday, April 17, 2008

¡No Pasaran!

A sad irony is that Israel's celebration of Passover, the Festival of Freedom, includes blockades of Palestinians in the West Bank as well as the continuing blockade of those in the Gaza Strip. The Israel Defense Ministry announced earlier today that starting this evening until the end of Passover, Palestinians would not be allowed to pass through army checkpoints, except for the most urgent of humanitarian reasons. While it is thoughtful of Israel's government to include Palestinians in its holiday plans, this measure will have the effect of reducing yet further the trickle of traffic among the fragments of territory under Palestinian control in the West Bank. Such blockades are typically part of Israel's celebrations of its major holidays and are a significant aspect of the humiliations and discrimination that Palestinians suffer under Israel occupation. The traffic of Jewish settlers in the West Bank will, of course, not be restricted during the holidays.

Such legal discrimination brings up an interesting issue, related in another way to Passover. The Torah enjoined the Israelites to consider strangers and sojourners among them as their legal equals, reminding them that they were once strangers in Egypt. "You should have one law for yourselves and the stranger amongst you." (Exodus 12:49; Leviticus 24:22) This argument for equality seems based on empathy and the idea that people would choose that all be treated equally, if they did not know what fate held in store for them, viz., the choice under philosopher John Rawls's veil of ignorance. However over the decades of Israel occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, Israel doves and human rights activists have rarely quoted this Biblical claim to the settlers and annexationists. Even such a selective reading of the Bible would on its face support annexation and invite responses with the Biblical verses that proclaim the entire Land of Israel the patrimony of the Jews. Besides it is rather absurd to call the Palestinians strangers in the land. The doves see Zionist polemicists who have argued that case as preparing the grounds for further expulsions of the Palestinians from west of the Jordan -- the ethnic cleansing that Israelis euphemistically call transfer. So the lesson of Passover, which has come in many places and traditions to symbolize freedom, cannot be applied unambiguously to the case of the Palestinians whose freedom has been denied by Israel. That leaves a bitter taste in my mouth.

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Wednesday, April 16, 2008

No Animals were Harmed in these Episodes

During the first intifada, Israel humorist and songwriter Dani Litani noted that the Palestinians must have a very large air force, because every time the Israel military spokesman reported that Israel soldiers were firing only into the air to break up demonstrations, five or six Palestinians fell down dead. Today it seems that many armed Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip have the magical power of turning into unarmed civilians once they are struck by Israeli bullets, shells or missiles.

After a brief lull two weeks ago, militant groups in Gaza and the IDF have resumed ratcheting up the violence. Today's series of incidents took the lives of three Israel soldiers, and, at least eighteen Palestinians, the majority of them unarmed civilians. The series began in the early morning when two armed militants, by approaching the border fence near Kibbutz Bari, drew an Israeli army unit into an ambush which killed the three soldiers. The Israelis replied with machine gun and tank fire, killing some Palestinian gunmen. Tanks and helicopters later fired shells and missiles at a nearby refugee camp, killing fifteen civilians. The Israel spokesman reported this shooting was directed at the source of the earlier fire. The Palestinians reported that the targets were actually two apartment buildings and a mosque and the dead included children and elders.

The sad truth is both sides long ago stopped caring how many Palestinian civilians get killed. Israel looks upon them as having gotten in the way of its soldiers killing as many Palestinian militants as possible, under current rules of engagement. Hamas and other organizations consider the civilian dead as both a recruiting tool and a reason for public opinion to sympathize with its cause.

Israel's overkill today might have also been meant as a "fuck you" to ex-President Carter for his hobnobbing with Hamas leaders. This is the Middle East, after all.

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Tuesday, April 15, 2008

War of Words

Today's editorial in the usually dovish Haaretz evidences the deep fear in Israel regarding Iran. In effect, the editorial implores George Bush to order US air and missile strikes -- "shock and awe" redux -- on Iranian sites where Israel believes nuclear weapons are being developed. The occasion for the editorial was the Iranian deputy chief of staff's response yesterday to last week's warning by Israel cabinet minister Ben Eliezer. Mr. Ben Eliezer said Israel would destroy Iranian society, if Iran attacked Israel. The Iranian said that if Israel tried, it would be destroyed. The editorial writers at Ha'aretz point to the many Iranian activities that undermine Israel's security to argue that these words should be taken seriously, whereas Ben Eliezer's can be ignored as empty rhetoric.

The editorial fears that nations in Europe and elsewhere, for their own reasons, will avoid sanctions on Iran for failing to open its nuclear program to inspection. They will excuse their inaction by citing the US National Intelligence Estimate that judged Iran stopped its weapons program in 2002 -- a conclusion that Israel vehemently rejected. In Israeli eyes, George Bush, while not a perfect policeman, is apparently the only one willing and able to stop Iran. True, the American army in running on fumes, but the US air force with its abundance of planes and missiles is enough to get the job done.

The editorial reflects the fears of Washington neo-cons, as well as many Israelis, that time is running out to remake the Middle East in Israel's and the US's favor. Hawkish Shmuel Rosner, the paper's Washington correspondent and a willing trumpet for the neo-cons, may have had a heavy hand in its writing. In any case. its proposal is insane, according to the popular definition that insanity is repeating an action with the expectation that the outcome will be different. The neo-cons failed to learn from Israel's experiences in the territories and Lebanon that invading a country is much easier than bringing it under control. Now Israelis, as represented by Haaretz, seem unable to learn from the US failures in Iraq that "shock and awe" bombing would not make Iran comply with US or Israeli wishes. It will just increase instability in the region. To be sure, most Israelis do not especially care about stability in the future. They have lived with instability and prefer their current anxieties be relieved by the destruction of the the suspected nuclear installations.

The editorial also signals the widening gulf between Israel's interests and US interests, at least as the American public perceives the latter. That public has no desire to extend the Bush crusade in the Middle East to Iran. It knows such action would be costly, bloody and fail. If Bush ordered an attack on Iran, Congress would likely start impeachment proceedings against him. Haaretz's ignorance and indifference to these conditions amount to a miserable failure on its part.

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Friday, April 11, 2008

What Goes Around Come Around

Considering the Bush administration's bad mouthing of Iran, Im sometimes tempted to think kindly of the Iranian government. That would be a mistake. It is an oppressive, often murderous regime that suppresses dissenters through jailing, intimidation, including death threats, beatings, deprivation of livelihoods, denial of licenses to print and perform. It abuses human rights, supports and arms clients that oppose peaceful settlement of conflicts, viz., Hezbollah and Hamas, and it ignores international demands to open its nuclear program to inspection. The Iranian government also lack a sense of humor and how ludicrous is its posturing. Instead it displays nauseating, self-righteous narcissism and a hideous lack of empathy for anyone except its supporters.

The latest evidence of character flaws is a complaint by the Iranian ambassador to the UN. He complained about Israeli cabinet minister Benjamin Ben Eliezer's public statement this week that, if Iran rocket attacked Israel, Israel would destroy Iranian society. Ben-Eliezer plays the buffoon or court fool in Israel politics; he says aloud what others whisper in the back rooms. So he was probably echoing current Israel government discussions about Israel's options in the event of an attack on its major cities. It is no secret that Israel has the means and apparent will to use a nuclear option as a last resort, but it is not nice to rub the other guy's nose in that.

However, Ben-eliezer's remarks follow several years of the Iranian President Ahmadinejad's promising/ predicting that Israel would soon be wiped off the map. In Israel, such statements are rather provocative because a) Hitler's similar "predictions" were not taken seriously enough, and b) they provide a motive for the acquisition of nuclear weapons, which Israeli intelligence thinks Iran still pursues. Israel has repeatedly protested such threats and other Iranian behaviors that suggest a desire to destroy the Jewish people, e.g., hosting a Holocaust deniers' conference, blowing up a Jewish community center and embassy in Buenos Aires. The protests have not chilled Iran. Maybe the Iranian Ambassador was just playing tit-for-tat, but from a distant he looks like a stupid, arrogant clod.

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Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Nation Building

Iraq is a great place to practice nation-building, especially for an administration whose head wanted no part of it and whose skill set is consistent with that desire. That was clear from the testimonies today by David Petraeus and Ryan Crocker to the Senate Armed Forces and Foreign Relations Committee. Despite their efforts to simplify and talk up a complex, dismal situation, the complexities and fluidities in the Iraqi political landscape were evident from their words. So was their inability to see beyond a very narrow scope and the utter lack of visibility of what happens next. This is not surprising: there are numerous layers of regional, ethnic, linguistic, religious, tribal, economic and political faults in Iraq and very little shared tradition of living in a unified state. Ambassador Ryan's citing as a major accomplishment the creation of a new Iraqi flag and its being flown in all parts of Iraq --next to the Kurdish flag in the north -- was pathetic, but maybe that is all that can be expected. Crocker nearly referenced arguably the best model for understanding the politics and violence of current Iraq, when he projected the Lebanonization of Iraq in the event of US withdrawal. But not the Lebanon of today, to which Crocker indeed referred, casting the Mehdi Army in role of Hezbollah and Iran in the role of Iran and Syria. Rather the Lebanon of nearly 35 years ago, at the beginning of the civil war. Some features are different, to be sure, but there are similar fragmentations of power, corruption as standard government practice and militias doubling as political agents and extortionist gangs.

Lebanon's civil war lasted fifteen years, 1975 - 1990, and involved occupations of Lebanese territory by two neighboring powers, Syria and Israel, thirty and eighteen years, respectively, which outlasted the war itself. The US occupation was much shorter but costly. Recall the Marine Barracks bombing in Beirut. The civil war and the interventions killed at least 100,000 Lebanese residents, permanently injured another 100,000 and caused over 250,000 to emigrate, out of population of about 5 million, including the Palestinians. The civil war was not continuous fighting but broken into phases, separated by attempts at political reconciliation and the suppression of some violence by the occupying troops in league with one or more of the political factions. If Lebanon is the model, even if Iraq has already had five years of civil unrest or war, the end is still far off. To measure progress over months rather than years is foolhardy, to predict victory -- whatever that means and for whom -- is insane.

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A Change of Mind

At the height of the recent fighting in Basra, Tahseen Sheikhly, a high profile Iraqi government official and a Sunni, was abducted from his home in Baghdad by Shiite militiamen. He was held in Sadr City and released unharmed several days later. In an interview on NPR, Sheikhly said he was surprised by the depths of poverty he had seen in Sadr city. He now recognizes that the government must relieve some of this poverty, if it hopes to achieve greater security in Iraq. His words suggest 1) members of the al-Malaki government are awfully detached from the plight of common folks in their country; 2) new manuals on counter-insurgency notwithstanding, the strategy the US and the Iraqi government to achieve security is still largely that of killing or capturing insurgents and criminals, rather than winning over the people that support them. Sheikly's change of mind -- his questioning that strategy -- reverses the cliché that a conservative is a liberal who has been mugged. Perhaps a voluntary hostage program by members of the Malaki government and the US command might help change their strategic thinking, like Sheikhly's was changed. Such human shields in Sadr City and other Mehdi army strongholds might also encourage the Malaki government to honor the cease fire it struck with Sadr that presumably included Baghdad as well as Basra. It would have the side benefit of reducing the bloodshed -- the killing of three bodyguards in Sheikhly's case -- that often initiate the guided tours of Shiite militia strongholds; it would also raise the probability of the tourists getting home alive and whole.

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Monday, April 07, 2008

Congratulations to Prof. Saul Friedlander on winning the Pulitzer Prize in the general non-fiction category for his masterful The Years of Extermination: Nazi Germany and the Jews, 1939-1945. The book is the second volume of a general history of the Holocaust that deals with its various motivations and executions (pun unfortunately inevitable). With the first volume that covers anticipations of the Final Solution during Hitler's first six years of power, it sums up a lifetime's research into and a quest for understanding the events that shaped his own life, Israel where he found refuge, world Jewry and contemporary thought.

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Sunday, April 06, 2008

Not Yet Time for War

Last week brought a bit more than the usual tensions in dealings between Israel and its neighbors to the north, Lebanon, Hezbollah and Syria. On Wednesday, the inner Israel cabinet that deals with security announced for this coming week a large, unprecedented exercise to test military and civilian readiness for an attack on the homeland. Another announcement said gas masks would be distribute to Israel households in the near future for protection against possible chemical missile attacks. These announcement and the actions are partly taken in response to renewed threats by Hezbollah Secretary Nasrallah to avenge the killing, presumably by Israel operatives, of his military commandeer Imad Mughniyeh in February in Dasmascus. Since Israel PM Olmert has already warned that Israel will punish Syria and Lebanon as well as Hezbollah for any such act, the security cabinet seems to have deemed likely a new, rapidly escalating edition of the Second (2006) Lebanon war, triggered by a high profile Hezbollah action. Perhaps a suicide bombing during Passover or next month's celebrations of Israel's 60th anniversay. The estimate might have been raised by a report, later discredited, of an unusual mobilizations in the Syrian army, as if Syria knew from its client Hezbollah that the trigger was going to be pulled.

The Lebanese government was understandably nervous and somewhat dubious that Israel would await provocation to go after Hezbollah. It is still beset by the stalemate over choosing a new President and unable to curb Hezbollah. Prime Minister Siniora expressed his fear of an Israel attack to the UN, US and world opinion. The situation in Syria, once the troop movement report was discounted, appeared calmer to Israelis. Nevertheless, Israel signaled that the combined military-civilian exercise was no prelude to an attack on Syria or anyone else. By week's end the tensions had subsided and Syrian President Assad even allowed that peace with Israel was an imaginable strategy for his country's security. That was consistent with the reendorsement at the Arab League meeting just concluded in Damascus of the Saudi 2002 proposal of peace, once Israel withdrew to the 1967 boundaries. In the meantime, attention in Israel began shifting to another aspect of its complex relationship with Syria: the prospect of fuller disclosure later this month about the Israel Air Force's bombing of some installation in northern Syria, last September. The rumor is the Bush administration will publicize material provided by Israel that confirms the installation was technology purchased from North Korea for purposes of nuclear weapons development.

According to Zvi Barel in Haaretz, the Israel government feared Syria might miscalculate Israel's intentions and drag both sides into a war that neither wants at this time. However, since the relationship between the two states is based on deterrence, arguably any step one side takes to reduce its vulnerability can be read by the other side as aggressive and encourage the other side to preempt before the vulnerability is reduced. On the other hand, if no effort is made to reduce the vulnerability, the other side may also be tempted to attack. So absent MAD capabilities and the will to use them, deterrence is likely to be a fumbling, unstable relationship. No wonder the Second Lebanon War left Israeli strategists brooding about Israel having lost its deterrence strength and what it must do to regain it. But, Barel notes, the brooding might be a waste of time, since both Israel in 2006 and Syria in 1973 showed they can start wars without considering their costs. He suggests the real problem instead is the strategists do not see much benefit in peace with Syria in its present condition. Neutralizing Syria would diminish, but not eliminate the threats from Hezbollah, Hamas and Iran. They would prefer peace only after certain conditions have been met: repudiation of Hamas and Hezbollah, a break with Iran, an isolated Syria without any strategic capabilities. In other words, peace would be reward for Syria rather than an opportunity for Israel vis a vis the Middle East and for Syria vis a vis the West.

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Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Eyeless in Gaza, Toothless in the West Bank

In the wake of US Secretary of State Rice's visit last weekend, the Israel government has removed one of the fifty road blocks it promised to remove from the West Bank and announced it would build 1400 housing units in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Meanwhile the IDF launched several raids into Gaza that resulted in the killing of several alleged Palestinian gunmen. These actions need not indicate deception on Israel's part in dealing with Rice or the customary Israeli foot dragging on matters of peace. They point instead to the weakness of Israel Prime Minister Olmert and the power of the IDF and goverment offices to pursue own policies. As Le Monde correspondent Benjamin Barthe recently observed, while Olmert repeatedly expresses his desire for peace based on Israel's longer term interests, IDF focuses on local security in the immediate present. Consequently every army officer or non-com in charge of a checkpoint, village or region in the West Bank can execute his own foreign and security policies. These policies do not aim to build trust among the Palestinians or reduce their grievances toward Israel, but rather to suppress violence toward the occupation and Jewish settlers that are the source of most of the Palestinians' grievances. The restrictions and privations suffered by the Palestinians, symbolized in large by the security fence and in small by the checkpoints, raids, infiltrations, webs of informers, etc. are credited by the army with reducing the number of attacks on Israelis initiated from the West Bank and Jerusalem. Given their focus on the immediate, the army commanders do not see these measures as intensifying grievances to the point of triggering a third intifada. IDF's power to ignore the Prime Minister's words, to replace one removed checkpoint with another, to explain as necessary the endless disruption of Palestinian life, to dismiss as unimportant settler violence, has made the Prime Minister, with his talk of peace, a ridiculous figure for Palestinians.

The story is similar with regard to the powers of local councils, regional planning councils, the housing ministry and Olmert's coalition partners to force through expansion of settlements in the West Bank and Jewish neighborhoods in and around East Jerusalem. Such moves leave the government with casuistic explanations as to why they are not violations of the freeze on settlements. These outcomes strongly suggest that few, if any, people in or near power in Israel care enough about peace to seek a top-down implementation of Israel's declared policies, whatever the risk to their careers. This corruption of the political process is paralleled by a hypocrisy of refusing to acknowledge that Israel's actions are not consistent with the promises and commitments government has made.

Of course, a similar and more bleak appraisal can be made of the Palestinian Authority. Abu Mazen is even weaker than Olmert and more dependent on the goodwill of officials under his nominal control. Although some progress has been made to reduce the corruption, self-dealing and duplicities that were rampant in Arafat's era, the PA does not have the resources and personnel for effective, consistent social and security services. So to unite Palestinians with him for the cessation of terrorism and the ideological demobilization that Israel demands, Abu Mazen would need to get significant concessions from Israel. But Israel is loathe to do that.

The loathing accounts for some Israelis, including Defense Minister Barak, talking up the Syrian option, as soon as Secretary Rice left the area. Such talk is a standard recourse when there is pressure on Israel to deal constructively with the Palestinians. On this option, Israel would make peace with Syria first by returning to some form of Syrian authority most or all of the Golan Heights. Presumably, that would satisfy Syria's grievances, remove it as a military threat to Israel and greatly reduce any threats from Syrian clients Hezbollah and Hamas. The Palestinians would be isolated, with little choice but to settle the conflict on Israel's terms.