Wednesday, February 27, 2008

More Than A Friend

It would be understandable if Barack Obama were frustrated by responses to his candidacy in parts of the American Jewish community. Last Sunday, he met with a hundred communal leaders in Cleveland. He used the occasion to clarify matters, speaking with both characteristic grace (“we need tikkun olam in Washington”) and, at times, the kind of syntax you produce when straining to sustain characteristic grace.

(You can read the remarkable, if rough, transcript of the Sunday meeting here; it was released by the Obama campaign to the Jewish Telegraph Agency.)


Obama decried “guilt by association.” He distanced himself from Zbigniew Brzezinski, who endorsed his Iraq policy, but who also endorsed the Walt and Mearsheimer book on the Jewish Lobby, which Obama does not endorse (“I’ve had lunch with him [Brzezinski ]once, I’ve exchanged emails with him maybe three times”). He distanced himself, more affectionately, from his retiring pastor, Jeremiah Wright—a man “from a different generation”—who has expressed admiration for Louis Farrakhan (“hey, don’t any of you have an uncle who says shvartza?”).

Last night, in his final debate with Hillary Clinton in Cleveland, he reaffirmed America’s special relationship with Israel and denounced Farrakhan’s anti-Semitism yet again. Then he added, letting in more fresh air:

“You know, I would not be sitting here were it not for a whole host of Jewish Americans, who supported the civil rights movement and helped to ensure that justice was served in the South. And that coalition has frayed over time around a whole host of issues, and part of my task in this process is making sure that those lines of communication and understanding are reopened.”

None of this should obscure the novelty in Obama’s comments to the meeting in Cleveland last Sunday. He asked if we can hope to move peace forward or secure Israel if we cannot look for solutions that are “non-military or non-belligerent.” He said he admires the debate in Israel, where views of the Palestinians are often “more nuanced” than in the US. “I think there is a strain within the pro-Israel community,” Obama lamented, “that says unless you adopt a unwavering pro-Likud approach to Israel, that you're anti-Israel. And that can't be the measure of our friendship with Israel.”

YOU’D THINK OBAMA’S stance would be welcomed in Israel, and by the peace camp especially, but even the liberal Haaretz can’t hide its anxiety. The paper’s Washington correspondent, Shmuel Rosner, is exercised by Obama’s insinuation that he would, of all things, find it difficult to work with Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, whom most of the paper’s columnists otherwise revile. It could be interpreted “as meddling in Israel's internal politics,” Rosner wrote, immediately adding (and as if to add to the incoherence of his misgivings) that Bill Clinton had problems with Netanyahu, too, while Israelis have themselves meddled in American electoral politics.

But this reflects a more general disquiet, which is not simply about a suspect foreign policy team, or the allegedly tortured relations between African-Americans and Jewish Americans. For most Israelis, even liberal Israelis, things have always boiled down to a single question which their politicians and diplomats have posed since Harry Truman recognized the Jewish state over the objections of his Secretary of State, George Marshall. Is this American a friend of Israel?

THIS QUESTION IS meant in a particular way, reflecting how Israelis view the attitudes of gentiles more generally. Israeli political culture understandably preserves a memory of European anti-Semitism the way America preserves the king’s suppression of liberty. Israeli writers and journalists instinctively project a world in which American gentiles do not like Jews deep down, the way boardrooms do not like insurgents, and jocks do not like book-worms. (The fact that evangelicals say they “love” Jews is hardly reassuring on this score.)

Besides, Israel’s journey to political power was at least as “improbable” as Obama’s movement has been. Zionism, too, had to change Western minds in the shadow of unspeakable racism; some of Zionism’s gains meant losses to others. So Israelis take for granted that to sympathize with its dilemmas, one has to feel the justice of Israel’s founding in one’s gut. They assume that sympathy does not come naturally to others—especially not since 1967, and not to those who may have historical grievances of their own against Western prejudices.

Nevertheless, the question—are you a friend of Israel?—was never a particularly good one, and Obama is right not to be suckered by it. He did not quite say so, but he is shrewd to imply that if friendship means unconditional support it has become positively dangerous for Israelis and Palestinians both: it means, in effect, being a friend of the Israeli right. The more serious question for any incoming American president is, rather, are you a friend of peace? And are you prepared to act as if peace in the region is an American interest, which it inarguably is?

TO UNDERSTAND THE danger, you have to understand a peculiar dynamic in Israeli politics—something I have written about often before, but cannot be emphasized enough. First, although details still need to be worked out, the contours of a peace deal are not really mysterious. Bill Clinton’s bridging “parameters,” along with Arab League proposals of 2002, resolve the core issues: borders, Jerusalem, security guarantees, recognition, and refugees. Almost two-thirds of Israelis endorse this deal.

But, second, the Israeli right-wing that opposes the deal is deeply implicated in the settlement project, either as settlers, or as ideological supporters of Greater Israel, or as ultraOrthodox acolytes of Jerusalem. The Jewish residents of Jerusalem are overwhelmingly in this camp. If a referendum on the deal were put to Israelis, it is likely that the vast majority of greater Tel Aviv would vote for it, while an even larger majority of greater Jerusalem would oppose it. It is widely understood that thousands of settlers would resort to violence, if necessary, to resist the kind of evacuation we saw in Gaza.

Third, Israelis understand this threat to their social fabric and are appalled by the prospect. Indeed, the same polls that show a majority for the peace deal, also show this majority collapsing when you have to split the country to get it. No Israeli prime minister will be accorded the personal authority to precipitate divisions of this kind. Imagine how much harder it will be for a political fixer like Olmert to stand up to his opposition for the sake of a Palestinian leadership that can so easily be discredited as insufficiently popular, or not trustworthy, or (in some cases) connected to past terror attacks.

WHICH BRINGS ME to the main point. The only way to get us out of this conundrum is to get American sponsorship for the deal itself. America (along with the EU) need to stop saying that they cannot want peace more than the parties themselves. America certainly needs peace between Israelis and Palestinians if it is going to rebuild its relations with the Islamic world as it is exiting its misadventure in Iraq.

But just as important, if America shows itself first and foremost a friend of peace, it will actually strengthen the Israeli leadership. It should be clear to all Israelis that this is American policy, and that opponents of the deal are risking relations with Washington—that the risk of temporary disunity is less than the risk of ultimately alienating American public opinion.

If what you mean by being a friend of Israel, in other words, is that you remain reticent regarding what a just outcome looks like, or, say, refrain from putting pressure on the Israeli government to accept international forces in Palestine, then you really mean that you are a friend of the status quo, which will bring the Likud back to power. A president who is a friend of peace will also be a friend of the majority of Israelis who are trying, at last, to bring change. This is Obama’s promise, it seems, and long overdue.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Equal But Separate


There can be no question of the good faith behind Interior Minister Meir Shitreet’s announcement this week that Israel would establish a new city for its Arab population in the Galilee. There can also be no question of its weirdness.

The city’s mandate, if that’s the word for it, is to compensate Israeli Arabs in some measure for the way they have been boxed in during the past 60 years. The plan is particularly aimed at providing affordable housing for young Arab couples.


“It will be a modern city,” Shitreet said, “where young couples can afford to buy property and live just like in any other city in the world.” And the matter of residency is particularly fraught. Arab citizens make up about 20 percent of Israel’s population (and are still disproportionately engaged in agriculture), but they live on perhaps 5 percent of the land. As a rule of thumb—and while being mindful of the exceptions—you may assume that the state has spent on Arab citizens, per capita, less than half of what it’s spent on Jews.

Public lands of all kinds, managed by the Israel Lands Administration, are over 90 percent of Israel’s territory within the Green Line. Management, according to the ILA’s charter, is meant to recognize “the special relationship between the People of Israel and the Land of Israel and its redemption.” Israeli Arabs have successfully, if fitfully, sued the state to be able to live on land once belonging to the Jewish National Fund (upon which most veteran Israeli towns were established).

Still, the state has not actively enforced these judgments and most public land is, in effect, closed to non-Jews. (I explore this subject in depth in my forthcoming book, The Hebrew Republic.) It is hardly any wonder, then, that the idea for a new city for Arabs originated with an Arab politician, Hadash MK Hanna Swaid, and that Israel’s only Arab member of the government, Sports, Science, and Culture Minister, Ghaleb Majadele, strongly endorses the plan. Many Jews do too. The proposal was endorsed by “18 left-wing members of Knesset as well as right-wing MKs.”

I presume that left-wing, in this case, means Israeli MKs from former socialist parties who, like (now fugitive) Azmi Bishara think there is a material gap to be closed, an Arab bourgeoisie to be reconstituted, and a separatist Arab culture to be surrendered to. There is also, among Israeli Jews, a measure of what Arthur Koestler once called “claustrophilia.”

THE PROBLEM HERE is that when you actually ask Israeli Arabs what they want, you are reminded of the liberal freedoms and hybridized identities that, come to think of it, cities were created to engender. You also wonder how—given the knowledge economy we live in—anyone could possibly think Israeli Arab professionals or entrepreneurs could thrive without integrating into Israeli cities, enterprises, and communities of practice. And the person who, for many years, has asked Israeli Arabs what they want is Professor Sammy Smooha, the Dean of Social Sciences at Haifa University, who threatens to give empirical sociology a good name. Here are some of his findings:
  • 75 percent of Israeli Arabs between the ages of 16 and 22 support voluntary national service;68 percent would be willing to live in a Jewish neighborhood, and 80 percent would like Arabs to enjoy parks and share swimming pools with Jews;
  • Over 53 percent feel rejected as citizens of Israel;
  • Almost 75 percent of Arabs support the return of refugees only to a Palestinian state; 45 percent said that they feel closer to Jews in Israel than to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza;
  • Almost half support “comprehensive integration into the Western world.”
  • Only 13 percent would be willing to move to a Palestinian state, from which one may infer that they would also be unwilling to move to an Israeli Arab city.As for Israeli Jews, over 75 percent said they would hesitate to enter an Arab town.
THESE FINDINGS GIVE reason for hope. Also dread. My Israeli Arab friends leave no doubt about how they cherish democracy, which has come to them in Israel's Hebrew version. Israeli cities have given them the language, broadly, to speak of individual freedoms, sexual desire, the foibles of fathers, scientific doubt. In many courses of study at Haifa University, Arab students make up more than half the class. Tel-Aviv means you can be a part of the global thing. South Tel-Aviv means you can be bad. Yet to promise equality to young Arabs, teach them Hebrew, introduce them to classical arts, give them broadband, unhinge them from traditional families, dangle Intel and Google workplaces before their eyes—and then tell them they are not really wanted in the Jewish state—is to invite what Smooha calls, with characteristic tact, alienation. The polls show only about 3 percent would entertain the use of violence. That is 35,000 people; the Islamists are biding their time.

Jews, by the way, might well remember the violent feelings prompted by an impulse to modernize that was thwarted by a civil society only half-open to them. They might remember, that is, Trotsky, Zinoviev, Kamenev, and Radek—remember that in the first Soviet Central Committee, only Lenin and Stalin were not Jews? If Czar Nicholas had turned around and promised Odessa’s maskilim a city of their own, what do you think most would have called it?

A footnote: Last night, a Shabbat evening when Jewish Jerusalem goes quiet, my (step-) granddaughter had high fever and I drove her and her anxious parents to the Magen David Adom emergency clinic. An Arab doctor healed her. Today, my master fuse shorted. An Arab electrician fixed it. In both cases, the diagnoses and blessings were given in Hebrew; the professionalism was palpable. The city, today at least, seems promising.

(Photo Credit: Lisa Katz, Israeli Arab town of Mashad)

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Peace Now, Now

Last Saturday evening, I attended a memorial for Peace Now activist Emil Grunzweig, a young scholar of democratic theory who was killed by a disturbed rightist’s grenade in February, 1983, at a demonstration in front of the prime minister’s office. Ten years ago, the fifteenth anniversary of his death, hundreds came. This time, a few dozen, perhaps. Many have noticed the decline in the profile of Israel’s peace movement during the past 20 years. What could be expected when Israelis are so obviously spurned in the region and under attack by bombers and missiles? Does it not seem unrealistic to expect a peace movement to get traction without a change in Arab attitudes?
 Imagine, if you can, the electrifying effect of an Arab leader coming to the Knesset today and making something like the following speech:



Ladies and gentlemen, any life that is lost in war is a human life, be it that of an Arab or an Israeli. A wife who becomes a widow is a human being entitled to a happy family life, whether she be an Arab or an Israeli. No one can build his happiness at the expense of the misery of others; nor does peace based on justice proceed from a position of weakness. 


On the contrary, there is no alternative to the establishment of permanent peace based on justice, peace that is not swayed by suspicion or jeopardized by ill intentions. How can we achieve a durable peace based on justice? I declare it to the whole world, from this forum, the answer is neither difficult nor is it impossible despite long years of feuds, blood, faction, strife, hatreds and deep-rooted animosity. 


 You want to live with us, in this part of the world. In all sincerity I tell you we welcome you among us with full security and safety. 


 This in itself is a tremendous turning point, one of the landmarks of a decisive historical change. We used to reject you. We had our reasons and our fears, yes. It is also true that we used to set as a precondition for any negotiations with you a mediator who would meet separately with each party. 


Yet today I tell you, and I declare it to the whole world, that we accept to live with you in permanent peace based on justice. We do not want to encircle you or be encircled ourselves by destructive missiles ready for launching, nor by the shells of grudges and hatreds. What is peace for Israel? It means that Israel lives in the region with her Arab neighbors in security and safety. Is that logical? I say yes. It means that Israel obtains all kinds of guarantees that will ensure these two factors. To this demand, I say yes. 


 It is inadmissible that anyone should conceive the special status of the city of Jerusalem within the framework of annexation or expansionism. It should be a free and open city for all believers. The holy shrines of Islam and Christianity are not only places of worship but a living testimony of our interrupted presence here. Politically, spiritually and intellectually, here let us make no mistake about the importance and reverence we Christians and Moslems attach to Jerusalem. In all sincerity I tell you that there can be no peace without the Palestinians. It is a grave error of unpredictable consequences to overlook or brush aside this cause. Conceive with me a peace agreement based on the following points. 


 Ending the occupation of the Arab territories occupied in 1967. Achievement of the fundamental rights of the Palestinian people and their right to self-determination, including their right to establish their own state. The right of all states in the area to live in peace within their boundaries, their secure boundaries, which will be secured and guaranteed through procedures to be agreed upon, which will provide appropriate security to international boundaries in addition to appropriate international guarantees.Commitment of all states in the region to administer the relations among them in accordance with the objectives and principles of the United Nations Charter. Particularly the principles concerning the non-use of force and a solution of differences among them by peaceful means. Ending the state of belligerence in the region. 


Ring the bells for your sons. Tell them that those wars were the last of wars and the end of sorrows. Tell them that we are entering upon a new beginning, a new life, a life of love, prosperity, freedom and peace. 


Some will have guessed by now that these are excerpts from the speech Anwar Sadat actually gave to the Knesset on November 20, 1977. Notice, apart from the stirring compassion, Sadat’s approach to the so-called “core issues,” now ostensibly being negotiated under the Annapolis framework. They are, more or less, the lines of policy one has heard for years from the Palestine Authority and from the Arab League’s 2002 initiative.

WHICH BRINGS ME back to the Israeli peace movement. The waning of interest in Peace Now seems much more the result of its belated success than its failure. Why take to the streets when the government, and the broad center—Tel-Aviv, professionals, the more educated—now espouse your approach, if only in principle? How different are Peace Now’s ideas—and Sadat’s, for that matter—from the approach Ehud Olmert’s close friend Vice-Premier Haim Ramon has hinted at in various interviews? Menachem Begin, remember, responded to Sadat with a vision of a region in which “we shall all live together—the Great Arab Nation in its States and its countries, and the Jewish People in its Land, Eretz Israel—forever and ever.” 

This was code for the Likud’s platform. (Here is Begin’s whole speech: judge for yourself.) There was no occupation to acknowledge in Begin’s response. Israel would deal with the Arab states, not with the Arab stateless. Jerusalem, too, belonged to the Jews; other religions would have access to their holy places. Nor was there a Palestinian people. (“I invite genuine spokesmen of the Palestinian Arabs” to come along with King Hussein, etc.; I remember distinctly that Begin used the Hebrew phrase Arviyeh Eretz Yisrael, “the Arabs of Eretz Yisrael,” though it is translated differently here.) “We took no foreign land,” Begin instructed Sadat; “We returned to our Homeland. The bond between our People and this Land is eternal.”

Oppose this way of looking at Jewish history, Begin went on, and you were being cavalier about the holocaust. The key to all of this was settlements. Eretz Yisrael still beckoned. Then, the number of Jewish settlers beyond Jerusalem and Gush Etzion was only about 2000; by 1979, 6000. Today it is a quarter of a million. I remember thinking that Sadat’s face said it all: listening to Begin, he looked as stricken as many of us felt. And it was in response to Begin’s response that 348 junior officers signed a letter imploring the prime minister to seize the moment. Their letter launched Peace Now, and prompted demonstrations that numbered in the hundreds of thousands in the late 7os and eraly 80s.

PEACE NOW'S EFFORTS did not save the ensuing peace process, which foundered largely on the settlements policy. Settlements precluded any implementation of the Palestinian autonomy plan that Sadat and President Carter extracted from Begin at Camp David. They were the reason why Sadat refused to travel to Oslo with Begin to collect the Nobel Peace Prize. They were a major reason for the collapse of Oslo. Olmert has claimed to have stopped settlements, too—though not within the extensive boundaries of Jerusalem. His policy is too little and far too late.

The real problem, now, is nothing Peace Now activists can do anything about. They have won the battle of public opinion in Israel, at least among those who are not in the third of the country for whom the process of forming opinions is itself suspect. But what the peace negotiations need, at least for now, is not just a clear head but a strong hand. Olmert knows what he must do eventually, but he likes his job, and does not like enraging the residents of Jerusalem, who support the settlers, and who make up a good many of the third in question; he continues to develop Jerusalem’s suburbs across the Green Line and pander to Shas, his rightist coalition ally, while undermining the already shaken reputation of Mahmud Abbas. He has asked, and apparently got, assurances from Secretary Rice that the US will back his desire to leave this problem of Jerusalem “to last,” as if there is a first that can be negotiated without including East Jerusalem in Palestine’s borders. As if blurriness about US policy and interests helps him.

Haaretz chief editor David Landau, for one, had enough a little while back. He told Rice in Jerusalem that his ”wet dream” would be that the US “raped” Israel, that is, simply imposed a settlement. Landau may have broken protocol (and also revealed the repressed state of mind of former British yeshiva students). Anyway, he lost his job last week. And the US—still unable to grasp that in getting tough about the shape of a deal it is actually strengthening Israeli leaders who claim the need for peace now—is getting hustled for the 30th. year in row.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Small World After All

“Different circumstances call for different talents, different sensibilities, different approaches to power,” Leon Wieseltier writes in the New Republic, making the case against the case for Barack Obama. What his supporters seem not to understand, Wieseltier writes, is “that we are heading into an era of conflict, not an era of conciliation”:

It is not ‘the politics of fear’ to remind Obama's legions of the blissful that, while they are watching Scarlett Johansson sway to the beat, somewhere deep inside a quasi independent territory we might call Islamistan people are making plans to blow them to bits. (Yes, they can.)

Wieseltier is just getting warmed up:

Jihadist terrorism is only one of the disorders in an increasingly disordered world. The most repercussive fact of our time is surely the transformation of China. The "metrics" are all staggering. Quantities, quantities, quantities. China already has the power to wreck the American economy. However many tanks and fighters it has, its hoarding of American dollars is itself a kind of arsenal … Meanwhile the authoritarian Putin has punkishly succeeded in restoring Russia to its inglorious heritage, reminding the world of the old formula that capitalism plus state power equals fascism.

There is more, about Pakistan, Iraq, Palestine, Darfur, and “Latin America” (“where the failures of liberal economics have sullied the reputation of liberal politics”). You may read his whole column here.

IF A NEOCONSERVATIVE is a liberal who thinks that he, alone among his friends, has grown-up, let’s just say that Wieseltier’s lament is not unfamiliar. He wants “hardness” from his president. He wants the necessary. So he is willing to patronize people he otherwise thinks fondly of to stave off disaster, like Michael sadly kissing off Fredo to get on with the olive oil business.

And implicit in Wieseltier’s fear is a geo-political logic about as old as the olive oil business, Plato to NATO, as they say—a logic for why national power must be hard and presidents, commanders-in-chief. It is, indeed, this very logic that makes liberal economics “sully the reputation” of liberal politics. Roughly, it goes something like this:

Our compounded material needs (“quantities, quantities”) add up most quickly to the national interest; the mind wants unpredictable things, but not, alas, the body. And material needs are grounded in ground. You’ve got to conquer it to own it, and own it to drill it. Or harvest it. Or exploit (the euphemism is “employ”) the cheap labor living on it. Or if you are America since 1900, open doors to its “consumers” everywhere.

A talent for conciliation is all fine and well for an era of conciliation: the pleasure principle draws us to hopeful talk. But the reality principle takes cannon. Read, for starters, John Hobson, the Edwardian liberal turned realist who inadvertently instructed V.I Lenin on the inevitability of imperialism. Today, just read jihadist web sites, or Exxon’s annual report.

So we need, Wieseltier fears, to project military power and the nerve to use it. Against quantities, quantities, there must be toughness, toughness. Otherwise, cannot jihadists deny us crucial resources when they are not, deep in Islamistan, plotting to blow our mosh pits (and, we may well extrapolate, our civilization) “to bits”? Cannot Hugo Chavez deny us a continent? Worse, cannot China, if we cross it, use its hoard of American dollars to wreck the American economy? Cannot, soon enough, Russia?

NO, THEY CAN’T. But to appreciate why, you need the humility to learn how our own “different circumstances” may be different from, say, Neville Chamberlain’s.

This is hardly the place to explain the extraordinary changes we’ve nicknamed “globalization” in recent years—changes in the technologies of production, architectures of companies, and the terms of competition—that have transformed what we mean by capitalism. (If you are reading blogs like this, you probably know a good deal about them.) Anyway, to believe that Chinese officials and entrepreneurs—“China”—can gain anything by using its power to wreck American companies and households—“the American economy”—you have to believe that General Motors thinks it might gain from wrecking IBM, or MIT, for that matter.

There are exceptions (about which more in a moment), but what mostly creates wealth these days is intellectual capital—scientific know-how and market know-about—exchanged in global networks. We live in an infinitely more integrated world system than the one we were born into. Major players cannot hurt it without seriously hurting themselves; the phrase peer-to-peer is not a false hope.

Nor is intellectual capital a scarce resource in the zero-sum sense. If Hitler took Ukrainian grain fields, then Stalin no longer had them. But when IBM gave Lenovo the know-how to make laptops, this did not mean that IBM no longer had it; the transfer of technology gave IBM the chance to exit a comparatively unprofitable business and move on to higher value services—with cheaper laptops. You do not make yourself dumber, or your prospects in the world poorer, by teaching others. The fact that corporate knowledge makes up 80% of corporate value creates a crisis for the accounting profession, but not for imperial powers. It makes a nonsense of justifications for imperialism.

Actually, if you really want to understand what China can and cannot do, to and with the American dollar, you might want to read James Fallows’ excellent recent report from Shanghai. China’s quantities are a sign of deeper problems that need to be addressed gradually and collectively: China’s reliance on an undervalued currency to drive labor-intensive export manufacturing, America’s underinvestment in education, which keeps some of its children from knowledge work (and from stores other than Walmart). Too many Americans are ignorant and they save too little. The last thing we need is another president who tells others they are with us or against us while telling Americans to go shopping.

Sure, one zero-sum resource looms large these days, and some Americans cannot seem to stop defining the national interest in terms of who gets to refine it. Leaders of the organized American Jewish community, like its chairman Malcolm Hoenlein, think that any hint of a d├ętente with Iran should be worrying to Israel’s friends. But military actions, or even their threat, will not work so well as patient globalism to resolve what now seems dangerous. A few weeks ago, George W. Bush warned Iran about its weapons’ program from, of all places, Hanoi. Get it? And so what if, owing to Chinese demand and Russian supply, oil prices go out of sight? So what if Exxon will lose its monopolies? Food will cost more. Trips will. This will only hasten the market forces and technological cooperation we need to cool the atmosphere.

Indeed, the globalization of our “platform” has liberated people once thought peripheral to the developed world to join it. I include up-and-coming people “deep in Islamistan,” as in Dubai, Amman, Ramallah, and Tripoli (where I myself taught 200 promising executives last year); people whose brains and dignity make epithets like Islamistan seem not just ugly but stupid.

ARE WE HEADED into an era of conflict? Of course. We are the human race. But that is different from saying, as Wieseltier does, that the world economic system is generating irresolvable conflicts of interest. We need a president who will be comfortable among equals—Europeans, Chinese, Russians, Latin Americans—pursuing inherently common interests; someone who might also be an inspiration to people in Africa and the Middle East who, like the kids on Chicago’s South Side, want to believe they are respected and can make it. Such a president would know how to lead all sides to custodianship of what is quickly emerging as a global commonwealth.

Barack Obama may not have fully figured out how to get there—who could?—but he’s had the brass to say that we need to rebuild not just the Atlantic alliance but the United Nations, too. He is signaling, strongly, that his most important job would be to coordinate with other world leaders a general defense against shocks to the emerging world structure: shocks of terror, to be sure, but also shocks that come from, say, currency imbalances, or the persistence of nuclear stockpiles—shocks that America cannot possibly handle alone. More power to him. The key is to keep the peace, from which the developed world cannot lose.

Which brings me, finally, to the talent for conciliation. I have never actually experienced an “era of conciliation” and cannot really imagine one—not as an historical era, anyway. It is another matter in personal life. Most people I know do get more conciliatory as they grow older, for they come to understand how commonplace are the ordinary foibles of people everywhere; how much big ideas pale next to the love we have for our families, and how little control we have, at times, over the excesses and posturing of our leaders. Older people also come to fear how little they know. The best fear, really.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Gaza: Parting Shot

The New York Times's Steven Erlanger, about to decamp for Paris, has written (for the International Herald Tribune) this trenchant analysis of Israel's complex but not impossible choices in Gaza. Erlanger has been here over three and a half years and almost always provides what people in crisis need but don't always get from their analysts: empathy, to be sure, and a patience for the details, but also a graceful sense of irony. His humanism and dogged professionalism will be missed here. (So, may I say, will his person.)

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

All My Sons

It is getting harder and harder to find leaders in the Kadima-Labor government who are not calling for a massive invasion of Gaza. Here, in this heartbreaking video, is Israeli Interior Minister Meir Shitreet, responding to the latest barrage of Qassam rockets in Sderot. An 8-year-old boy, Oshri Twito, and his 19-year-old bother, Rami, were critically injured. The pair were walking in the street on a Saturday evening (and imagine, if you can bear it, the affection with which an older brother watches over his little brother on a Saturday evening). Oshri lost his leg and is still in intensive care; his big brother’s legs were seriously damaged; their parents are being treated for shock.

Shitreet, for his part, is a longtime Likud centrist, himself from the south, a decent man who supported the Oslo process, and joined Kadima to back Sharon’s withdrawal from Gaza. He is now calling for leveling neighborhoods from which Qassam rockets originate—albeit, after warning their inhabitants to clear out. Tzahi Hanegbi, the chairman of Kadima and head of the Knesset’s Foreign Policy and Security Committee, spoke on Israeli radio Monday morning. The proper response is a full-scale war, like the one Shitreet hinted at—and not some dithering invasion like the belated one against Hezbollah in the summer of 2006, he said.

Even Haim Ramon, Olmert’s closest adviser in the cabinet—somebody who’s said in the past that he opposes this kind of action—is telling the press that the combination of steps against Hamas in Gaza will bring an end to the Hamas regime in Gaza. “It might take a few months,” Ramon said, “but the Hamas regime in Gaza will not last.” As for the rightist opposition, there is support for invasion wall-to-wall.

PRESUMABLY, A MILITARY operation would root out Hamas and destroy terrorist cells—surgery followed by chemotherapy. Israel would enter Gaza in force and engage Hamas fighters on the ground. It would kill as many Hamas leaders as it could find and destroy the factories that make the rockets. Israel would then allow, even encourage, donor nations to invest in rehabilitating Gaza infrastructure. And in that context, Hanegbi concluded, Israel would probably agree to a sizable multi-national force, like the one in southern Lebanon, to enter Gaza and monitor the cease-fire.

Which raises a question. Why not try to get to a general cease-fire and multi-national force without the intervening bloodbath? Hamas, as it happens, has been asking for exactly this. To entertain the question, so the argument goes, is to overlook how Hamas is bent on Israel’s destruction, with Iran’s backing, and would use the time to get even stronger. Fine. Leave aside Hamas's aims, which seem more nationalist than jihadist to my Palestinian friends, and stick to the strategic problem. Hamas would of course use the time to increase its capabilities. But the same could be said about Hezbollah in the north, which Israel has concluded a cease-fire with. Nobody imagines that either Hamas or Hezbollah, even strengthened, would ever dream of successfully invading Israel. Their threat is the pain inflicted by their rockets, which a reciprocal cease-fire would stop.

There are a few other things advocates of an invasion are overlooking. Attacking Gaza cannot root out Hamas any more than attacking in south Lebanon rooted out Hezbollah. When guerrillas are the product of a broad based resistance to occupation, and they have nothing to offer but a fight to the finish, attacking them only strengthens them. They throw sucker punches all the time. Besides, Hamas leaders can go underground or escape to Egypt; if you manage to kill them, they will quickly be replaced. How long did it take for Ismail Haniyeh to replace the assassinated Abdel Aziz Rantisi?

The rocket factories will never be shut down, anymore than the tunnels to Egypt will be closed. The only way Israel could ever make a difference on this score is if it would reoccupy Gaza block by block; this would only make Israeli soldiers sitting ducks for suicide bombers. The soldiers could then do what Shitreet says, what enraged people dream of doing, which is to level every block fire is coming from. This is exactly what rightist leader Rehavam Zeevi, himself eventually assassinated in the mounting violence, said at the beginning of the Al-Aqsa Intifada in 2000.

But then you’d have to start leveling virtually all the housing stock in the Gaza Strip. You’d almost certainly have to maim hundreds of children like Oshri, whose torment would be played again and again on televisions around the world. How long, in that case, could such a sickening operation continue? How long, if it did continue, would Abbas’s government survive in the West Bank without repudiating peace negotiations? Abbas, after all, is claiming to be negotiating with a proxy from ordinary Gazans who, in their desperation, will see him as a collaborator. Then again, how long could the Egyptian peace treaty survive an invasion? How long before Hezbollah opened a second front in the north? How long before the boards of global companies started steering investments away from Israeli companies?

BUT THE BIGGEST thing Shitreet is overlooking is that the soldiers who will be ordered into Gaza are children, too. So are those who will happen to be walking near a Hamas commander when the helicopter gunship blows him apart. So, probably, will be the Hamas commander. And so will be the thousands of “wanted militants” whom the army will detain in its various sweeps.

Fifteen year-old Mohammed Salem Al-Harbawi from Hebron is a case in point. According to the Defense for Children International, he was arrested in the beginning of July of 2003 and taken to Atzion detention centre. Like many other prisoners, the report continues, Al-Harbawi was visited by a lawyer, but was unable to see or communicate with his family:

The unhygienic conditions in this centre mean that most inmates, including Mohammad, have contracted skin diseases, including boils. By July 28, 2003, Mohammed was affected so badly that he was taken for hospital treatment. After the doctor had examined him, Israeli border guards took him back to the prison. On the way, the guards stopped the jeep and started to attack him inside the vehicle. The five guards beat him to such an extent that he lost consciousness.

I stumbled over this report of his stay in prison when I Googled Al-Harbawi’s name. Last Monday, now a child of 20, he blew himself up, along with Lyubov Razdolskaya, 73, in the streets of Dimona, which precipitated the intensified wave of targeted killings, which prompted the intensified Qassam barrage, which wounded Oshri Twito.

(Illustration by Susan Avishai)

Thursday, February 7, 2008

The Ghost Publisher

The first time I heard the name Sheldon Adelson was on a plane to Tel Aviv in the 1990s. I sensed that I was surrounded by a great number of people who vaguely knew each other and had started to party without me. I soon learned that this was indeed one extended family, that Sheldon Adelson’s wife was having a birthday, and Adelson had pretty much requisitioned the plane to fly scores of cousins, many of whom she barely knew, to Israel to join in. He had made his money in Las Vegas, the second cousin sitting next to me told me; the world’s biggest computer show, COMDEX, was his baby. As a former HBR technology editor, and someone who could barely afford first cousins, I was (and that was the point, I suppose), impressed.

Adelson, now 74, has become the third richest American, a hotel mogul of hyper-Hiltonian proportions, famous for putting up the Venetian in Las Vegas, and the one million-square-foot Sands Macau, the first casino in the People's Republic of China. Recently, he won the right to put up a new casino in Singapore. It seems he is almost single-handedly responsible for outsourcing America’s last assembly lines to the Far East, where rows of benumbed people pull levers dawn to dusk, in this case losing the minimum wage every hour. Adelson, in consequence, is said to wake up every morning millions richer.

And Adelson is a serious Jew, which means (more and more these days) that he’s taken a serious interest in the Jewish state. He is married since the early 1990s to a younger, Israeli born doctor, Miriam Adelson, a specialist in addiction (though not gambling addiction, apparently). I imagine he’s picked up some Hebrew words from her, that his feelings are deep, his trips, frequent. But you also get the feeling that Adeldon retains the prejudices of a Western “Zionist” of a certain generation—something like what Duddy Kravitz picked up in the shvitz. You look at what he’s funded, after all, and you sense primordial images of what the Jewish state means: $25 million to Yad Vashem, the holocaust memorial, unspecified millions to AIPAC, $30 million to Birthright, which brings Jewish teens to Israel for free. Adelson has also funded what he takes to be pro-Israeli (and pro-mogul) politicians like George W. Bush.

I’ve never hit him up for money, but if I did, I bet that telling him that Israel lives in a tough neighborhood, that it needs to be strong and hit back hard and early—that there are new Hitlers all over the Muslim world, and new Chamberlains all over the West—would be, well, table stakes. No surprise, really, that Adelson’s second biggest beneficiary in Jerusalem, after Yad Vashem, has been the Shalem Center, a rightist think-tank in a paradise of a building a block from my home. Former chief-of-staff Boogi Yaalon and Natan Sharansky are senior fellows. Both think Jerusalem is for world Jews, the peace process is for appeasers, and Israelis who condemn settlements are needlessly washing dirty linen in public. They are getting $4.5 million in chump change to pursue “strategic studies.” This means writing (or hiring ghost writers to write) articles and staging conferences to warn the West about Iran, advance the global war on terror, and so forth.

BUT IF YOU are accustomed to putting up 7000 room resorts, why not think really big? Bibi Netanyahu is the Israeli Adelson seems to admire most strongly, for reasons that are almost too obvious for words. It’s a Jewish state, right, and you are a Jew with, thank God, the means to contribute. Arcadi Gaydamak—another good Jew with a weakness for Netanyahu, and more millions than Hebrew vocabulary—has been buying the votes of Jerusalem’s hoi polloi by pouring money into Betar football. Why not go him one better? Come to think of it, why not just buy public opinion? It is swing, centrist voters who will determine any new election, and they tend not to be the most educated people. If a major daily tabloid adopted (and were able to rebrand) Netanyahu, this could be enough to put him, and his rightist coalition, over the top.

There is a problem. Yediot Aharonot is Israel’s dominant tabloid and it hasn’t been much kinder to Netanyahu than the liberal Haaretz. The paper is also too profitable to be up for sale. Adelson tried and failed to buy the moribund, family-owned Maariv. So last summer he simply started a tabloid of his own. The paper is called Yisrael HaYomIsrael Today—and immediately bought the services of writer-celebs such as Dan Margalit; its goal is to reach a circulation of 300,000 in the major urban areas, where swing voters (Russians, Mizrahim) tend to live. Indeed, Yisrael HaYom is, ironically, hoping to achieve instant credibility by republishing the main business stories from Haaretz’s morning business report, The Marker.

Oh, I forgot to tell you, Adelson is giving every paper away for free. His business plan, if that’s the word for it, is to lose money until his tabloid—or Netanyahu—is the last one standing. Recently, in an editorial published in the wake of Winograd Report, writer Gonen Ginat said the commission cited “more than 150 instances in which Olmert failed in his handling of the war.”

THIS IS NOT the first time that rightist foreigners have bought papers, or Israeli papers, for that matter. Rupert Murdoch, when he was still considered an Australian, became arguably the most influential British, then American, media boss. Conrad Black, a gambler who lost big-time, bought the Jerusalem Post in the 1990s. Like Adelson, Murdoch and Black have had an “agenda.”

But the latter were serious newspaper tycoons who wanted, among other things, to make fortunes for share-holders. Adelson is a garden-variety American Zionist—somebody who sends his money to Israel since living here himself would be superfluous. He is trying to bend a culture he can barely understand. And he thinks losing a fortune to support the kind of politician he can understand is no more than his duty. What is worse, I think, is how natural this has come to seem to so many Israeli Jews; people in the centrist elite who think that Adelson’s sentimental influence is not at all curious and could be lucrative.

When I first came here in 1967, American philanthropists were honored, of course, but they were also condescended to for choosing to miss out on what was thought the cultural revolution of their lifetime. Now, Israelis seem to take for granted that American Jewish philanthropists will be, not citizens of their Hebrew-speaking democracy, but something like super-delegates to an international Jewish convention.

HOW COULD THIS happen? One critic has tried to explain. The Western Jew is “unhappy,” this critic writes, because he feels not quite accepted where he lives. But he “has already grown accustomed to a broader social and political life”; and, on the intellectual side, “Jewish cultural work has no attraction, because Jewish culture has played no part in his education from childhood.” So “he turns to the land of his ancestors,” and pictures to himself how good it is that a Jewish State be established there. The critic continues:

Of course, not all the Jews will be able to take wing and go to their State; but the very existence of the Jewish State will raise the prestige of those who remain in exile…[T]he mere idea of it gives him almost complete relief. He has an opportunity for organized work, for political excitement… [H]e feels that thanks to this ideal he stands once more spiritually erect, and has regained human dignity, without overmuch trouble and without external aid. So he devotes himself to the ideal with all the ardor of which he is capable … [I]ts pursuit alone is sufficient to cure him of his moral sickness, which is the consciousness of inferiority; and the higher and more distant the ideal, the greater its power of exaltation.

This is not Mearsheimer and Walt discussing Adelson’s gift to AIPAC in 2007. It is actually Achad Haam, Zionism’s Emerson, explaining his antipathy to some of the people he met at the First Zionist Congress in 1897—Western Jews like Herzl who hijacked the word Zionism; who were drawn to the movement by its promise of political grandeur, but who refused to see the transformational nature of secular Hebrew culture, its democratic instincts, its grassroots idea of political responsibility. A couple of years ago, A.B. Yehoshua made something like this classically Zionist criticism of certain American Zionists. But how many newspapers does he own?

Monday, February 4, 2008

Connect The Dots #3: The Ghost Writer

Exhibit One. The following is excerpted from a recent column in Haaretz. The “he” in question is Philip Roth, whom the columnist met for the first time last week in a New York restaurant.

“So, what do you want?” he asked.

I didn't know where to begin. What do I want? For him to autograph my copies of his books, to tell me everything about Portnoy, about Zuckerman, about Operation Shylock, about Mickey Sabbath's theater, about how he got started, about how it was with Saul Bellow. What do I really want? I know very well what I want. I want to know what it's like to feel like a public enemy, how a writer copes with attacks from the very people to whom he belongs. All I really wanted was for him to tell me how to deal with that kind of criticism, how to live with the feeling that the people who are closest to you have become your persecutors. I wanted to ask him how he had felt when the entire Jewish-American leadership attacked his work. What had he done then, and what's it like now? But how do I even begin, I reflected, embarrassed when he shattered my deep, tongue-tied consternation.

“So what do you want?’ he repeated, and I was about to open my mouth and ask fateful questions when he interjected, They have very good breakfasts here. Do you want one?”

If you guessed that the “I” in question is a young Hebrew novelist, educated to Israel’s old Zionist culture, yet punky, erudite, marginal, and self-ironizing—steeped, now, in American Jewish literature—you’d be right. If you think he feels out on a limb, writing his heart out, you’d be right. If you think that, like Zuckerman going to Lonoff, he is seeking not just literary affirmation but literary courage, you’d also be right. The writer is, Sayed Kashua, Israeli and (have you guessed?) Arab.

Exhibit Two. The day Kashua’s column was on the stands—while the country was preoccupied with the fall-out from the publication of the Winograd Commission—20,000 Israeli Arabs marched in protest in the town of Sakhnin. Their action was prompted by Attorney General Menachem Mazuz's decision earlier this week not to seek any indictments in the case of police officers involved in the deaths of thirteen young Israeli Arabs during October 2000. Back then, Arab towns were inarguably in turmoil, and some youth were described as “rioting in solidarity with Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.” Police opened fire with live ammunition. The Justice Ministry’s Police Investigations Unit subsequently exonerated the police officers charged with using excessive force—and it was this decision that Mazuz decided not to overturn, pleading evidentiary difficulties in bringing indictments.

After the violence subsided, incidentally, Ehud Barak’s government appointed a commission of inquiry, led by Justice Theodor Or, and including Professor Shimon Shamir, the highly respected expert on Arab affairs, who wound up becoming the primary author of the report. The commission met for twelve months and heard 349 witnesses; their report, published in September 2003, pointed to glaring inequalities in land rights and infrastructural budgets, and also cast doubt on areas thought to be trending toward equality, employment and education. As for the decision of the Police Investigations Unit, Shamir responded, “A situation where 13 people are killed and no one is indicted is one that is hard to grasp.” By the way, 78% of Israeli Arabs voted in the 1999 election that brought Barak to power, and a majority voted for him; he turned around and shut them out of his government. Just after the tragedy in question, in February 2001, there was a crucial national election. Only about 18% of Israeli Arabs actually voted; about 60% participated but most cast blank ballots.

Question: How many of the young Israeli Arab protesters who marched last Friday prefer Hamas websites to Haaretz?

Extra Credit: How long before even Israeli Arab intellectuals—living in a state where foreign Jews who cannot speak, let alone write, Hebrew have privileges they do not—will ditch Herzog and discover The Fire Next Time?

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Snow job

Israeli commentators will no doubt be suspicious of a leaked description of the wily Ehud Olmert being “moved to tears” while perusing key parts of the Winograd Commission Report, but I don’t doubt that this was true. Ever since the Lebanon war of 2006, more and more attention has been focused on its last 60 hours, when the IDF launched a ground operation and 33 soldiers were killed—including, notably, Uri Grossman, the writer David Grossman’s son. Many people have charged that the ground operation was so obviously too little and too late, that the United Nations resolution stipulating the terms of the cease-fire was already formulated—that the only possible explanation for this final action was to advance Israeli lines just enough to give Olmert the means to spin public opinion and claim a kind of victory.

For any Israeli leader, the charge that he or she knowingly sacrificed the lives of young soldiers for political gain would be devastating—if it could be made to stick. Recently, at a public awards ceremony, Grossman pointedly refused to shake Olmert’s hand. Had the report not, in effect, exonerated Olmert of the specific charge, retrospectively endorsing the authorization of a ground operation as “inevitable,” it is quite possible that this snub is how Olmert would be remembered. Olmert must have known this and it must have stung.

None of this means that Olmert will survive as prime minister; nobody knows yet whether the Report’s Lasswellian euphemisms (“failed decision-making by the military echelon,” accountability that is “normative in the political echelon”) has given him a reprieve, as he reassured his aides. He will try to survive: dangle the prospect of “talks” with the Palestinians, hold on to his centrist coalition by stoking the (plausible) fear of Bibi Netanyahu, show-off his friendship with Bush, pump the economy—and hope that some ultimate peace deal could be worked out with Abbas (probably, in secret) and give him something to run on in 2009.

And survival does not just depend on Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s verdict, which we should have in a day or two. The Israeli street (grieving parents, army officers, newspaper columnists, political allies who suddenly become rivals) has a way of yanking away the Mandate of Heaven, after which leaders, if not coalitions, die by a hundred cuts. Most originally thought Moshe Dayan and Golda Meir would survive the Agranat Commission Report in 1974. Meretz leader Yossi Beilin, whose parliamentary support may prove crucial, is already calling for Olmert to save the peace process by simply swapping jobs with his more popular foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, whom the Report actually praised.

What can be known already, though, is that the Report has given a reprieve to a style of thinking typical in (what Lasswell might have called) the Israeli “consensus,” where the only power worth taking seriously is military, and the only response to violent actions by rejectionist radicals is an even more violent attack on the states or authorities that unwillingly harbor them. This was the response against Jordan in Qibya in 1953 and Samu’ in 1966. This was the response against Lebanon throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s. This was the response against Fatah since the beginning of the Al Aqsa Intifada, especially when Sharon took over in 2001. The key is to make Israel’s “deterrence” credible: attack Israel and you will be hit tenfold; always checkers, never chess.

The main question the Report seemed to think worth asking was whether the tasks politicians gave generals actually succeeded—and if they did not, who is to blame for failures of decision-making and communication. The Report called the Lebanon War, of all things, “a missed opportunity,” yet another euphemism for the principle that when the government declares war it had better win it. Most of its recommendations were for the IDF.

HERE ARE THE questions the Report did not consider. Did any of these reactions get Israel anything but the alienation of the moderate forces it needed as counterweight to radical groups? Did they not strengthen radical groups, while causing revulsion among citizens of Western countries and in the Arab world as a whole—ordinary people who see, most vividly, the corpses and the rubble?

My God, was it not foreseeable that by retaliating massively against Hezbollah, Israel would be attacked with thousands of missiles, but that the missiles would be launched from buildings Israeli could not destroy without killing hundreds of civilians; that CNN and Al Jazeera would be on the scene and international reaction would force the air force to desist? That, in any case, another occupation of Lebanon would be impossible, and that Hezbollah would redeploy no matter how many losses it sustained—that Hezbollah, which would not even exist but for Israel’s twenty year occupation, cannot lose a war any more than win it, though it can most certainly lose a peace, which is why it will always sucker Israel into war?

Nor does the Report speak of how the consensus was turned into what one friend called ecstasa shel b'yachad, an ecstasy of togetherness. We like to forget this now, but Olmert’s popularity was at its height during the first week of the war, when in response to Hezbollah’s vicious ambush, the IDF responded by bombing Beirut’s airport, bridges, and oil installations, killing scores of civilians, creating tens of thousands of refugees, and fouling Lebanese beaches. When the Katushas started falling, and my wife and I protested (from New Hampshire) to Israeli friends that this was action was going to get us nowhere, one dear friend told my wife: “We have all moved, and you have stayed in place.”

MOST PEOPLE READING this blog did not watch Israel’s Channel One the night the Report was released. That is unfortunate, for the talking heads, for once, did not just shout each other down. The journalist Gideon Levy and former Labor Party and Knesset speaker, Avrum Burg, got the chance to ask the questions asked here, a hint the consensus may be shifting, if only subtly. “Why do we always think about the military first,” Burg asked; “why don’t we try negotiation, why don’t we try diplomacy, why don’t we sit down with the people attacking us.”

But an even more revealing moment was to follow. Vice Premier Haim Ramon, a confidant of Olmert’s, was asked why the “political echelon” simply gave in to the army brass and did not ask any of these strategic questions themselves? Ramon smiled. “All the politicians are afraid of the professionals,” he said; you are in a crisis, the defense professionals tell you they have a contingency plan. “Who dares to be the one in the papers contradicting them?” And it is not just with defense issues, he said. The same is true when you sit down to talk about the budget. You live in a world made by professionals, he implied, and they have been living in the post-1967 consensus for two generations.

The next morning, Jerusalem woke up to a blanket of snow. I flipped on the radio to find out what was open and what was closed. “Route 60 is closed from Shiloh to Jerusalem,” the people at the traffic control told us, a simple, proficient announcement that neglected to tell us that Shiloh is a tiny settlement on the other side of Ramallah, and Route 60 is a by-pass road used mainly by Jews (I drove it last week) to connect Ariel to Jerusalem; a road that would obviously be thought to connect Ramallah to Jerusalem if the people of Ramallah, now freezing and more cut off than ever from East Jerusalem, had not been so professionally effaced from Israeli consciences.