Monday, November 30, 2009

Two Years Old

The blog is two years old today. To say I feel grateful does not do justice to the privilege of connecting with so many readers, and writers, around the world. And (as a smart shrink once put it) how do you know what you think until you hear yourself say it? If you are moved to write a note, or a suggestion, I'd be pleased to receive it: bernardavishai@gmail.com. And you might consider sending friends an email subscription, or subscribing yourself if you have not already done so. It is really the best way to keep up with posts, which may become less frequent as I get down to a new book project. (Just write your or your friend's email address in the box to the right.)

Here is a little present to mark the blog's birthday. It is Matti Caspi's song about a dove that spreads its wings and flies, on and on, over the hills of Gilboa.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Israelis Fear Obama. That's The Point.

Barack Obama can do virtually nothing to halt the mounting fear among Israelis that he is hostile to them: no visits, no speeches, no jets. If you need proof, and don't know Hebrew, just look at the body language of Ben Caspit, the populist-journalist host of the very widely watched "Journal" program on Channel One, Friday nights.

Caspit fancies himself the voice of the common people, or at least its conscience, sort of like Chris Matthews. He may, God help us, be right, at least for the moment. This past Friday, he was (let's call it) interviewing two relatively moderate members of Knesset, one from Likud, and one from Kadima, both of whom support the settlement freeze, both of whom insist that this is not just a sham, for all of its qualifications. Kadima's Gideon Ezra, the former deputy director of the Shavak (the state security services), even insisted the freeze was very late in coming, for all the obvious strategic reasons; he implied that Kadima might well be prepared to join the coalition if Netanyahu required their support to pursue a deal with the Palestinians.

Both of these responses might have raised the antennae of an interviewer. Caspit was having none of it. Instead, he wanted to talk about the public statement Friday by Likud's Limor Livnat, a formidable minister in Netanyahu's coaliton, that the freeze only proves Obama is anti-Israel, that "we have fallen into the hands of a terrible administration."

The MKs tried to finesse her statement. Caspit decided to answer his own question. (You can watch him by clicking here and sliding the time bar to about 13:40.) "But in essence," Caspit said, "she [Livnat] said courageously what most of us think. The Americans--this administration--and I don't fear them because I am not, lucky for all of us, a minister--is really an administration that burdens us, and is awful and terrible for Israel." Nobody contradicted him. Later (at around 17:10) Caspit said: "What, and soon we'll have to freeze in Jerusalem? This is unprecedented." Gideon Ezra protested that, for example, starting a new settlement in Nof Zion--"which is really Jabel Mukaber"--is an absurd provocation; that the key is to strengthen moderate forces among the Palestinians. Caspit's answer in the form of a question (21:30): "So we will have given up 10 months of settlement for nothing, just so the goyim will say we are okay."

I won't dwell on the pathos of Caspit's rhetoric. Let's just say that when Theodore Herzl wrote his play "The New Ghetto" he was not anticipating the journalists of "The Jewish State." (For an antidote, read Gideon Levy's exasperated column from today's Haaretz.) Yet if Caspit was right to claim that he speaks for a majority of Israelis just now, what should Obama do about it? How to respond to the ways Caspi's talk embodies virtually everything Israelis fear in an American administration?

HERE"S THE THING. Instead of trying to allay this fear, Obama should use it. For what Caspit's outbursts really imply is the slow transformation of Israeli politics, where the fear of messing up relations with Washington slowly burns in; and Israelis, like Palestinians, are growing hungry for a "political horizon." Nobody really believes anymore in the "lets-give-them-land-and-maybe-they'll-leave-us-alone" school of peacemaking. But nobody but the hard right believes either in the plausibility of indefinite occupation. Caspit is afraid of change, and for all of his bravado, afraid of isolation. He may not realize this, but he's actually softening Israelis up for something creative from Washington.

The fear is there, and growing, you see. To pressure less will not earn Obama less animus. The point is to fill the vacuum the fear creates; refocus the conversation not only on what Israelis should stop doing, but on positive steps that make concrete what positive steps the world community--goyim--expect Israelis and Palestinians to take.

Here, for example, are three things the Obama administration can do to help reshape the conversation here:

First, it can state--now, in response to the "freeze"--that American policy is to pursue a deal based on the Taba Agreements of 2001. The "Clinton parameters" were at the heart of those negotiations. Senator Mitchell and Secretary of State Hilary Clinton might well enlist the former president to lay out those principles in a joint press conference. Mahmoud Abbas has virtually said he will immediately resume negotiations if Netanyahu will agree "to restart talks where they were left off." Abbas was referring to his months of meetings with Ehud Olmert, but those talks were themselves based on variations of the Taba plan.

Second, the Dubai economic crisis could be a huge boost for Palestine, in the ironic way the Gulf war of 1991 was a huge boost for Amman. Then, as now, the press was full of dire warnings about Palestinians losing their jobs in the Gulf and, hence, remittances back to families drying up. But, actually, the return of thousands of Palestinians (100,000 work in Dubai as engineers, instructors and in technology-related professions) to the West Bank would be a great boost to Palestinian intellectual capital. The Obama administration should publicly call for the return of qualified people, and task the American consul in Jerusalem with reviewing applications and monitoring Israeli responses to them. As I've argued in the past, Palestinians do not lack financial capital to develop their private sector. What they lack is access to their own talent and the capacity to execute their business plans under the burdens of the occupation. If Israel is serious about a peace partner, this is an extraordinary chance to help develop one.

Third, assuming Marwan Barghouti will indeed be released, Senator Mitchell should meet with him. The symbolic impact would be resounding.

These are all doable. Again, Obama will get no credit from Israelis by refraining from doing them.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

The Real Meaning Of The 'Freeze'

Benjamin Netanyahu's announcement "falls short" (in George Mitchell's words) on so many dimensions, reasonable people will conclude that it is simply a piece of theater, meant to appease the Obama administration, and public opinion around the world, particularly in the wake of the Goldstone report:

The freeze allows for the completion of 2,500 partially-built housing units and the construction of 492 new apartments. It does not apply to buildings like schools and synagogues. It does not take into account that the actual drivers of new settlement are not in the government, but fanatic settlement organizations that have been acting more or less independent of government decisions for years, and which the state does not have the manpower (or the army, the stomach) to confront with military force. The freeze does not apply to East Jerusalem, a greatly expanded zone (70 square kilometers) in the heart of the West Bank--historically, Palestine's biggest city, commercial hub, and the site of the mosques. Oh, and the freeze will only last ten months.

In effect, Netanyahu has followed the route of Sharon and Olmert before him on "Judea and Samaria," running like Menachem Begin and governing like Golda Meir: at first refusing to budge, then offering to take a five foot leap over the eight foot pit. No wonder the PA's Saeb Erakat announced almost immediately that the Israeli government's step was "unsatisfactory." No wonder, almost immediately, Avigdor Lieberman told Israel's Reshet Bet early this morning, "the response of the Palestinians is the last consideration the Israeli government's order of priorities." The point, he said, was mainly to attend to relations with Israel's friends, the (so he says) "17 countries" around the world that have supported Israel on the Goldstone report but have otherwise been drifting into hostility. (When you have Lieberman in the government, leaks are superfluous.)

AND YET LIEBERMAN'S admission is precisely what should get our attention. The question was never what Netanyahu would do for the Palestinians. The question was, what could the Obama administration make him do for it. And the critical move Netanhayu made for America here was to affirm, pretty much explicitly, that making critical moves for America was Israel's most important strategic priority; that, by implication, the idea that Israel could simply get what it needed from America by sicking AIPAC on the Senate is nonsense. You can feel the diplomatic isolation here growing everyday. And what government will resume settlements openly against American wishes?

As I've insisted before, the real divide in Israeli politics is between the party of Greater Israel and the party of (let's call it) Greater America; between the people who see Israel from the holy land up, and people who see it from globalization down; between the nut-jobs who take diplomatic isolation for granted, and the elites who fear diplomatic isolation will be followed by economic isolation. Netanyahu has always tried to keep a foot planted in both worlds, or at least run in the former and govern in the latter. This move suggests he is finally admitting his lean toward globalization.

Proof positive is the reaction of Uzi Landau, the biggest nut-job in the cabinet, and the (largely orthodox Mizrahi) Shas Party, who look at Israel's elites a little like the way Sarah Palin looks at Warren Buffet. Landau, alone, opposed the vote, while Shas absented itself. The West Bank Council will meet "in emergency session" later this afternoon.

NO ONE CAN say whether Netanyahu's "freeze" will be enough to bring Mahmoud Abbas into negotiations, but something is happening here, and I'm not at all sure Abbas is that relevant to it. By all accounts, we will shortly have a deal for Gilad Shalit, and among the prisoners to be released is Marwan Barghouti--or so he says. Barghouti will assuredly run for president, is close to Hamas and is the only Fatah figure who can unify Palestinians--a people with globalist elites and "religious" sociopaths of their own. By indirectly negotiating with Hamas for Shalit's release, Netanyahu is handing Hamas a big concession, too. The short-fall of his "freeze," and deal with Hamas for Shalit, both make Abbas look bad.

On the other hand, if all of this were a chess game, the board is not looking so bad for Obama just now, even if the situation on the ground has never looked more explosive. Shalit's release would not only bring Barghouti into play--that is, allow for the creation of a united negotiating partner committed to a two-state solution--but also open up the possibility that the siege on Gaza will be lifted, giving room for West Bank businesses and international organizations to reengage there. The Syria track, or at least Turkish mediation, seems to be opening again. Meanwhile, Israeli politicians will almost certainly realign, too. The closer Netanyahu moves toward America, the closer he comes to bringing Tzipi Livni and Shaul Mofaz's Kadima party into the coalition. The closer he comes to conceding his need for America, the greater is the Palestinian incentive to get back into negotiations.

PERHAPS IT IS foolish to say that the catalyst for all of this movement was the Goldstone report, but on the whole the report has seemed a marker along the path that got us here. As my friend David Shulman pointed out in this very thoughtful post on the New York Review's blog, the Goldstone report, for all its (largely rhetorical) flaws, has driven home to Israel's government that a great many of Israel's erstwhile friends are sick of Israel's own crimes; that they will see even acts of Palestinian terror as a function of occupation--that the occupation will be seen as a chronic provocation. Which means that any actions by Israel to counter genuine terror--especially its inevitably asymmetrical actions: tanks against guns, planes against missiles--will only deepen Israel's isolation.

Or perhaps the report simply reinforced, what we all know in our bones, that there is so much blood on so many hands by now that the very idea of "moral high-ground" mocks our condition. That peace is the only idea that isn't boring.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Gratitude, Again


Jim Carroll's column (or poem, or blessing) for Thanksgiving. It is too lovely to link to. Here are his words in full:

THANKSGIVING IS THE preferred American holiday not just because it is free of commercial pressures, denominational exclusiveness, and the insatiable longing of children. A month shy of the winter solstice, it is also less prone to inflict seasonal affective disorder, but that does not explain its appeal either. Nor does its distance from the frenzy of New Year’s. Thanksgiving’s place at the center of national good feeling might seem to derive from the sweet, if ahistorical, morality tale of amity between Pilgrims and native peoples. As the universal occasion of family reunion, what else is needed to account for its sanctity?

Sanctity: there’s the clue. Even a secular age desires holiness, and religious people, for their part, want holiness shorn of the normal hypocrisies of organized religion. At Thanksgiving, the secular and religious impulses, usually taken to be antagonists, salute each other with respect. Their spheres overlap. The holiday is built around gratitude, which is nothing less than the great human opening to transcendence, however defined.

What do we talk about, to paraphrase Raymond Carver, when we talk about thanks? Awareness begins when a person grasps the single-most basic fact of existence, which is that existence is given.

The most important aspects of each human’s condition, from physical makeup to intelligence to family connections to cultural legacy, are accidents of birth. The givens of life do not begin with us. How we make use of what we are given is something else, but givenness is the starting point. Self-consciousness is the recognition that we ourselves are not the source of our most precious selfhood. A religious view makes the instinctive leap from the given to the giver, calls it “God,’’ and offers gratitude as the essential form of worship.

But there is a secular equivalent to this impulse, even if it assumes no particular “giver,’’ no intelligent designer - nothing personal. The accidents of birth may have been shaped by a set of temporal precedents - driven, say, by cold dynamics like natural selection and random mutation. But what we are left with is the sacred experience of being, when there could have been nothingness. Awe, wonder, fear, and trembling - these define the spiritual response of the human person, who not only exists, but is existence conscious of itself.

Gratitude is built into that consciousness, needing no specified object, much less a named benefactor. Gratitude extends simply to all that went before, and all that sustains. Grateful to parents, and all ancestors; grateful to the fragile web of nature; grateful to the very air. As Americans, we can be grateful to particular traditions that protect our freedoms, and press us to expand them. As creatures, we can be so grateful to creation as to refuse the urge to make it stand for something else - even a Creator. We can say thanks without saying thank you. Gratefulness is open-ended.

An intense awareness of what is given assumes the like awareness that it will be taken. There was a time when the bounty of life that we celebrate by feasting did not exist, and a day is coming when it will be gone. Knowing that the feast will end is the precondition of true festivity.

No accident, therefore, that Thanksgiving comes as the climax of autumn, the season of mortality, when the vital abundance of nature harvests itself in one last flame-out of red and gold. The December holiday is all about nostalgia, a dream of the past. The New Year’s holiday is all about anticipation, resolutions for the future. Thanksgiving is the holiday of the present tense. We celebrate what we have and who we are - right now.

When religious folks take proper note of the transcendent gratitude of those for whom “God’’ is not necessary, believers, too, can be more open to the deeper meaning of Thanksgiving. One can leap too quickly to the other world, shortchanging this one. The overflowing banquet table is nothing if not worldly, gloriously so. Giving thanks to and for the ones with whom we gather is thus a profoundly secular act. But the great religions all say that such rare heartiness is enough - that loving gratefulness among humans is the only thanks that God ever wanted in the first place.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

J Street And The Jewish Tradition

The Jerusalem chapter of Search for Common Ground, along with the Washington Post's "On Faith" section, asked me to contribute 800 words on how Jewish values animated participants in J Street's October conference in Washington. So--not without hubris--I did:

During the first night of the J Street conference, when delegates were just getting settled, a half dozen speakers -- activists, rabbis and students -- unexpectedly poured their hearts out. The 1,500 people in the hall, the speakers insisted, were not only gathered to represent the majority of American Jews who think U.S. policy should put its weight behind bringing about a two state solution. We were gathered also to redeem "Jewish values." You heard a good deal of the phrase "Tikkun Olam," the repair of the world, that night. And I confess to cringing at times. Was social improvement a peculiarly Jewish desire? Could Tikkun Olam, a kabalistic concept turned into a leftist cliché, cancel out the fact that the Occupation is advanced by zealots of Jewish law, or that rightist, neoconservative ideas are particularly strong (so polls show) among the quarter of American Jews who attend synagogue at least once a month?

And yet something in the claim of these J Street speakers seems vaguely true. After all, 78 percent of American Jews voted for Barack Obama. Why, as the neoconservative Commentary Magazine complained in 1969, do Jews not just vote Republican and advance their class "interests?" Wasn't McCain a more avid "supporter of Israel?" Sure people who have been pushed around as much as Jews might be expected to be for the underdog, including Palestinians under occupation. But suffering, though ingrained in Jewish literature, is not uniquely Jewish either; nor does it necessarily make you peaceful or empathic. Are we to believe then that this desire for social improvement springs from Jewish tradition and if so, can it be redeemed by, of all things, J Street's American liberalism?

Actually, this begs the question, not of who is a Jew, but what is a tradition. Take the most solemn and widely observed Jewish practice, the Yom Kippur liturgy. Jews read the portion from Leviticus in which a stringent atonement fast is commanded. Right after, we read a portion from Isaiah in which people who afflict themselves with starvation are mocked: "No, this is the fast I desire: to ... untie the cords of the yoke," and so forth. In the afternoon, we chant the book of Jonah, in which God uses a parable to teach compassion to his own prophet, a man who -- much like neoconservatives -- says he would rather die than accept a world in which sinful people are not identified and punished.

So what is the tradition? The law commanded by Torah? Or is it the prophet's gloss on the law? Or another prophet's sublime lesson in humility? (or the Talmud's commentaries on the limits to humility?) The point is: the texts are not monolithic and mere humans have made choices about what commandments to perform, in what spirit; what interpretations to bring, and what texts or melodies to juxtapose. Before "modernity," rival rabbinic councils were the ones to choose; their implicit foil was the dogmatic uniformity of the Church. But at least since Napoleon marched the enlightenment into Poland, there was a new question: who gets to make the choices for Jewish "citizens" of a republic? This is where the liberal impulses circulating at J Street come in.

The phrase "Jewish values," you see, makes sense only to people who assume a world of (what we used to call) "free will." You have to believe that, generally, people have intellectual personality, individual sovereignty, and moral erudition -- that more sacred than the Book is the right to interpret books. Incidentally, this enlightenment insight not only marked Jews for successful acculturation into America, but arguably launched Zionism, too. If every Jew was going to be his own rabbi, then Jewish civilization had best be held together by a common language and territory.

So if Jews can be said to have stood for anything traditionally, was it not this allergy to dogma -- this breaking of idols? Did we not see democratic rights as, well, commanded? And, tragically, have not the land of Israel and Jewish military power themselves become idols for American Jews since 1967 -- or at least for leaders who spoke for the "community," while liberals remained aloof from its parochialism? Anyway, J Street says, "No more." Occupation and settlements justified by isolated passages of scripture debases the way Jews justify anything. Jews are not, or not only, an interest group. It is now Palestinians who have a "yoke" to "untie."

In his 1934 preface to the Hebrew translation of Totem and Taboo, Freud asked: when you eliminate Hebrew, the "religion of one's fathers," and "nationalist ideals," what "is left that is Jewish?" He answered: "A very great deal, and probably its very essence." Perhaps.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Jerusalem Syndrome


Akiva Eldar hits the nail on the head:

What could they possibly want from us? That was the combined reaction of the president, the mayor, the cabinet ministers and the head of the opposition. After all, they said, Gilo is at the heart of the Israeli consensus. What does that consensus mean? Reminder: In June 1967 Israel annexed to Jerusalem some 70 square kilometers of West Bank territory, including 28 Palestinian municipalities and villages that were never considered part of the city. When Jordan controlled Jerusalem, it was six square kilometers, including the Old City, whose territory is no more than a single square kilometer.

Since 1967, some 30 percent of East Jerusalem land has been appropriated for the construction of new neighborhoods for some 200,000 Israelis. Indeed, there is consensus among Israelis that in a peace agreement that would include exchange of territory, Gilo would remain under Israeli sovereignty. But not in a unilateral step that would not be recognized by any other country. Around the world, there is wall-to-wall agreement that East Jerusalem is at best disputed territory; in the Arab world, the consensus is that it is occupied territory.


Read his whole column about the status of Jerusalem, from today's Haaretz.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Intel Inside? Prove It.

Here is a thought experiment. It is Sunday, and various employees of Intel's R&D and consulting facility in Chantilly, VA, just outside of Washington, are working through the week-end. The facility is suddenly surrounded by several thousand evangelical Christians--mainly educated at Regent University, and led by the aged Pat Robertson--who demand that the company shut down the facility, so as not to violate the holy Sabbath. Windows are shattered by rock throwers. State police move in, but do not disband the mobs.

So Intel's senior management go into a huddle. They authorize the local management team to meet with Robertson's representatives, along with representatives from the Virginia governor's office, now in the hands of rightist Republicans. At first Intel threatens to pull out of Virginia. But finally they approve a compromise agreement. The facility can stay open, the agreement states, but the shifts will be reduced. Also, on Sundays, only non-Christians can work there.

Imagine, in this fantasy, what the Intel board would face at the next shareholders' meeting. Or imagine the employee emails the corporation's global "Director of Diversity," Rosalind Hudnell, would be fielding the next morning.

IF YOU HAVEN'T already heard, something quite like this just happened in Jerusalem. A week ago Saturday, Intel's facility on Har Ha'Hotzvim--a technology park in a belt of land near (but not at all in) the burgeoning ultraOrthodox neighborhood of Sanhedria--was surrounded and vandalized by acolytes of various Haredi rabbis, most notably, the leader of Eda, Rabbi Yitzhak Tuvia Weiss. Intel met with representatives of the Haredi groups, facilitated by Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat and Knesset Speaker Ruby Rivlin--both rightists tied to Haredi voters. The Sabbath shift, so the "compromise" stipulates, will be cut from 120 employees to 20. None of them will be Jews. (By the way, this absurd agreement may have satisfied most, but not Rabbi Weiss. His mobs were back yesterday demanding a complete shut down.)

What can Intel's leadership possibly be thinking? Have they lost all sense of who they are, let alone what Intel has meant to Israel? Intel's global sales are roughly equal to Israel's GDP. Intel's billions of dollars of investments in Israel have not only made it the country's largest high-tech employer, but have engendered dozens of entrepreneurial businesses, from software to clean-room building.

Even more important, perhaps, Intel has been something like Israel's most important business school, putting thousands through management and quality training over the years. Its impact on Israel's business culture has been something like MIT and the Sloan School on Cambridge, Mass. It is because they experienced companies like Intel that a new generation of cosmopolitan managers (people who, unlike their parents' generation, know how to listen) has grown up in the "Silicon Wadi" of Tel-Aviv, Herzliya, and Haifa. Indeed, Intel-Israel's former CEO and founder, the legendary Dov Frohman, has a briskly selling book on leadership. My God, if Intel will not stand for ordinary secular norms of human rights in Israel, who will?

PERHAPS THE MOST depressing thing about this affair is the way Intel's management seems to have concluded that this is the price you pay for operating in a Jewish state. Intel's employees chant, "Bum-bum-bum-bum"; employees in the Jewish state are now and then forced to add, "Cheery-beery-bum!" Okay, this may not be the place to go into it, but Intel's decision implicitly capitulates to the notion, so casual among many clueless American Jews, that Israel is a something like a big shtetl, run to a great extent by Halachic rules, rationales, and rabbis. This capitulation is dangerous: to Israeli Arabs, to Palestinians, but above all to Israel's secular citizens who mostly consider themselves Jews in a wholly different way.

Look, last week, on a glorious Friday morning, my wife and I drove to Tel-Aviv and participated in a lively seminar to celebrate a new Hebrew translation of Freud's Moses and Monotheism; in the afternoon, we saw a brilliant, elegiac show about the settlements of the Valley of Jezreel by the Kfar Yehoshua artist, Eli Shamir--our budding Andrew Wyeth. This Hebrew version of the global thing, including a Hebrew version of Intel, is the real reason for this country. You can have Shabbes in Teaneck.

Which is not to say that Intel executives should take sides in a Kulturkampf to decide the historical reasons for Zionism. It is to say that Intel should just have the guts to be itself: to stop pandering, to stop thinking that it shows its tolerance for diversity by surrendering to diversely intolerant people. In fact, a majority of Israelis are counting on the conscience of the world to help them muddle through against Hamas on the one hand, and, on the other, the one-third (and growing) part of the of the Israeli population who want, say, the national orthodox assassin of Yitzhak Rabin to be released from prison. Intel, and all global companies operating in Israel, should be a pillar of (here, I'll say it) Western values. Allow fanatics to push out this pillar, and our souls will die with the Philistines.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Realists

I understand the desire of New York Times columnists to appear realist. Writers who advocate for US intervention to induce Israeli-Palestinian peace, in column after column, month after month, can get to look, well, idealist. Writers are assumed to be wimps anyway.

Still, something strange is happening. On two occasions in as many weeks, columnists who have written passionately about the US pushing peace have argued, in effect, that the Obama administration should just disengage. Last week, Tom Friedman wrote that it’s "time to call a halt to this dysfunctional 'peace process,' which is only damaging the Obama team’s credibility." Today, Roger Cohen sees Tom Friedman's bid, and raises him, quoting Israel's most widely respected political scientist to boot:

Obama, who has his Nobel already, should ratchet expectations downward. Stop talking about peace. Banish the word. Start talking about détente. That’s what Lieberman wants; that’s what Hamas says it wants; that’s the end point of Netanyahu’s evasions.

It’s not what Abbas wants but he’s powerless. Shlomo Avineri, a political scientist, told me, “A nonviolent status quo is far from satisfactory but it’s not bad. Cyprus is not bad.”


I have abiding admiration for Shlomo Avineri (and Friedman and Cohen as well), but there is something in this realism that lacks common sense. For it assumes that the status quo can remain peaceful, especially if "we stop talking about peace." That Palestinians can pursue some under-the-radar economic evolution, or that Israelis and their "security wall" can force things to remain quiet when they have to; that Obama and America are better off letting the sides pursue detente, not peace--as if "some non-violent status quo" will hold; as if only idealists like Obama are making the great the enemy of the good.

LOOK, THIS IS all dangerously wrong--and familiar. Moshe Dayan, too, had proposed an "open bridges" policy--in effect, the status quo occupation, in which Palestinians accommodate to economic peace, while Israel does its thing in Jerusalem and with settlements--and the 1973 War blew it up. This has happened again and again since. And today, too, the status quo is a powder keg, and the blasting caps are, among other things, "what Lieberman wants" and "what Hamas says it wants." Is a realist someone whose purchase on reality is so great there is nothing to learn from experience?
  • The wall has made a pathetic ghetto of the nearly 300,000 Arabs of Jerusalem. A couple of nights ago, a gang of youths from East Jerusalem had some fun--so my young friend, the journalist Benjamin Joffe-Walt, told me--attacking night-clubbers in Nachalat Shiva, right in front of his apartment, with electric cattle prods. The last two terror attacks against Jews in Jerusalem came from neighborhoods within the wall. South Central LA anyone? Do we even need more disturbances on the Temple Mount to get things to blow?
  • Nor, as I've argued again and again, can the Palestinian economy grow at nearly the rate it needs to--certainly not "like Cyprus"--if the occupation is not ended. IDF presence is largely meant to secure settlements in Area B and C--belts of land that surround Palestinian towns. So the occupation is a kind of antibiotic against Palestinian entrepreneurship. The Palestine Authority is much more likely to just collapse, or fold up, than engage in some "detente" with an ongoing occupation, with its closure regime. Read Shaul Arieli's urgent piece in today's Haaretz, which argues that the status quo, leading to the PA's "disintegration," would open the door to Hamas; or read Steven Cook's thoughtful piece in, of all places, The New Republic.
  • IDF units sympathetic to Greater Israel are already showing an unwillingness to follow any orders to evacuate settlements. This tendency will only grow.
  • If the West Bank blows, so will the Arab towns of Israel's little triangle, which Lieberman has already defined as alien to Israel (unless its residents, who have committed to Hebrew, also swear to uphold Israel as a "Zionist-Jewish" state). And when these towns blow, we will be in a Balkan-like civil war, with all the trappings: sniping, ethnic cleansing, terror on all sides.
  • Oh, and remember Hezbollah's and Hamas's missiles? If the Mubarak regime in Egypt falls to Islamist rioters, will that be good for America, let alone Israel? No doubt, such riots will have a formal cause in Islamist attitudes toward the West; but will not the efficient cause likely be yet more pictures on Al-Jazeera of Israeli bombs dropping on civilian buildings where missiles are launched? Will Mubarak protect the Israeli embassy yet again?
I could go on, but enough is enough. Leave this monster alone, and its violence will destroy the people who live here; and, meanwhile, the things Israelis do to avoid destruction will destroy everything Obama is trying to achieve in the Islamic world.

And as for Shlomo Avineri's sense of things, a little history. When I first got to know him, as a grateful graduate student in 1972, he chastised the peace movement that advocated for a Palestinian state. No, he said, Dayan's "open bridges," preserving the status quo, was the only realistic way to go. When Avineri was Director General of the Foreign Ministry under Yigal Allon in 1976, President Sadat sent Israel his first direct message that he was interested pursuing a comprehensive deal. The foreign ministry (among others in Prime Minister Rabin's government) rejected the overtures, since the National Religious Party, which was part of the coalition, had threatened to bolt if the West Bank would become a focus for any negotiation. Avineri, among others, supposed Sadat's initiative was unrealistic.

There is, in other words, a kind of realism that you can never look stupid peddling. It basically assumes the present exercise of force is always better than the prospect of making peace with political enemies, because the other side can never be trusted; that, Hobbes or no Hobbes, it is vain to try to conceive of institutions in which trust is hedged about by policing, clear commitments and simple justice. I am not sure why we need "political scientists" who do not help us conceive these very institutions, especially in the face of violence and threats. In any case, the only psychological force more powerful than realism seems to be repetition compulsion.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Holy, Holy, Holy


Harvey Cox, Mary Gordon, and Cornell West.

For those of you who think you've heard the last of God, listen to these three at the Boston Public Library, interviewed by the indispensable Chris Lydon, and broadcast on his Open Source webcast.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

What Can Obama Do About Palestine, Meanwhile?


My old friend Danny Rubinstein, who has covered the West Bank pretty much since the occupation began, came over Friday afternoon. He had covered this week's expulsion of Palestinian residents from their disputed home in Sheikh Jarrah. He had just come from conversations with Palestinian journalists in East Jerusalem, and was not in a cheerful frame of mind.

One gets the feeling that things are coming to a head, he says, what with Mahmoud Abbas' announcement that he would not seek reelection, and Netanyahu headed to a Washington whose Congress had just denounced the Goldstone Report. The Israeli government is doing what it can to defend the status quo. But the status quo engenders a disaster, and the Obama administration is understandably distracted.

The question is not whether time is running out on a two-state solution, as if one state, like South Africa, could ever happen here. The real question is whether we are going to prevent the kind of general violence that will turn Israel and Palestine into a Balkans-style conflict, with Jerusalem a kind of Sarajevo, and the Israeli Arab villages of the Little Triangle a kind of Bosnia. Without palpable outside action to move Israel off the status quo, especially from the Obama administration, the streets of the West Bank will blow. But Obama has no desire to pick a fight with any senators just now, not until 60 of them vote to end the inevitable Republican filibuster.

ABBAS, YOU SEE, is not the point. He has been a force for reconciliation, perhaps the best partner Israel could ever have (or so former Labor minister Ephraim Sneh writes in today's Haaretz), but his personal prestige was never very great. That he is threatening to withdraw from politics is a symptom of danger, not a danger in itself. For Abbas has always been a kind of national working hypothesis: that Ramallah's secular bourgeoisie was a natural leadership to bring forth a state, and that its power to create the rule of law, and its prospects in the regional economy, justified patience; that the continuing flow of money from the international community justified having a person in the (albeit diminished) Palestinian Authority that outsiders could trust.

But when ordinary people in the streets of the West Bank start to believe that this leadership cannot be trusted to deliver--that donor money is meant to palliate them during a silent ethnic cleansing of Jerusalem and the annexation of their land by settlers--Hamas will appear the only game in town. We seem to be in a race between the vote on healthcare in the Senate and the outbreak of riots around Al-Aqsa.

THE OBAMA ADMINISTRATION cannot just sit on its hands, and seems to know what it needs to do in the long run. But what exactly can it do in the short-run to reassure Palestinians without inciting a public backlash among senators eager to prove their "friendship" to Israel. The dispute over a "settlements freeze" has proven a dead end, since everybody (including leaders of the PA) have been working on the assumption that at least some of the citified settlements will be annexed to Israel, while Palestine would be compensated with a land swap. Neither could the Obama administration endorse the Goldstone report, which Palestinians justifiably regard as a touchstone of others' empathy for them, without laying itself open to charges that it is cavalier about missiles falling on Israel.

Somehow, then, the administration has to signal that it is not only serious about pursuing a Palestinian state but that it has a pretty clear understanding of what that state would look like, where its borders will be, and so forth--and that it is not simply a cheerleader for negotiations that will, under present circumstances, prove fruitless. But how do you buy time without appearing to endorse the status quo? How do you signal the outlines of the state without presenting the whole plan for a state?

ALL OF WHICH brings me back to Rubinstein. Perhaps the most depressing thing he told me confirms apprehensions I wrote about in Harper's last month, that while the Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad is trying to build out the foundations of a Palestinian state--say, through massive construction projects in and around Ramallah--he is being thwarted in all kinds of ways by the occupation authorities and the IDF. Almost no developments in Area A (the cores of Palestinian cities), for example, can fail to encroach on Areas B and C where the IDF controls the roads and airspace--more than 60% of the West Bank. "He is trying to break ground on the Al-Ersal project and he is suddenly up against a road the settlers use only for themselves in Area C. This is so called 'state land,' the Israeli government has taken from Jordan and calls its own."

But here, precisely, is an opportunity for the American government, is it not? Suppose the Obama administration were to commit, say, $50 million to this project and use its public influence to seek its construction. If the Israeli government gets in the way, then it is obstructing a joint Palestinian-American project. If the question comes up whether parts of Area B or C around the project are ultimately going to be part of the Palestinian state, then the American administration can signal--that is, in advance of any negotiation--that it is siding with the Palestine authority over the interests of the settlers.

The point is, we have to move away from statements of principle to manifest demonstrations of intention. America has to become Palestine's partner not only in training police, but in expanding the foundations of commerce and statehood. Just as important, the Obama administration needs to prove that, unlike its predecessor, it will not become an inadvertent tool of the settlers.

And if while it's focussed on its domestic priorities the administration can't avoid a fight with AIPAC's favorite politicians, let it be over something the vast majority of Israelis, let alone Americans, would support. I mean the peaceful development of Palestinian civil society in parts of the West Bank where cities are growing and, border or no border, settlers have crossed all bounds.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Connected Cars: The 'Killer App' For The Smart Grid--And The New Driver of Growth

Job figures are lagging indicators but nobody feels reassured right now. It is hard to imagine Americans returning to something like the full employment of the 1980s and 1990s without new industries like telecom and computers engendering a vast new ecosystem of entrepreneurial businesses; companies in which American technological talent can distinguish itself; companies that either require local workers for infrastructure projects, or, design and manufacture products and components whose labor content is too small for managers to consider outsourcing to the Far East.

The good news is that the electric car is around the corner. The bad news--which is the best news of all for the economy, ironically--is that the electric grid cannot begin to cope with the electric car's demands and possibilities. Layering in all the network technology that will smarten the grid, and preparing electric cars to communicate with it (and each other), will transform our economic and physical landscape. These changes will require a new role for government--something the Obama administration seems to understand. I explore the new ecosystem and its implication in the current Inc. Magazine:

At ground level, electric cars like GM's Chevrolet Volt -- due to be launched in November 2010 -- are pretty much everything the U.S. economy is banking on. The cars promise innovative engineering and a resurgence of the American auto industry. They mean an America that is manufacturing things rather than just bundling financial instruments. Cosmically, electric cars mean green technologies that will migrate to China, India, and Brazil, where they will allow for Western styles of personal freedom yet not threaten to overheat the earth.

And you don't have to be George Clooney to want one. Electric cars may be vaguely cool, but GM executives are counting on drivers with nothing more than a householder's logic, something like the good sense to refinance a mortgage when the 30-year-fixed drops more than 2 percent. Jon Lauckner, GM's vice president of global product planning, tells me that his team set out to trump gas-powered cars as a matter of straightforward economics, especially as economic recovery pushes the price of gas back over $3 a gallon. "At that level," Lauckner says, "the cost of running a Volt in full electric mode will be about one-sixth that of a gas-driven car of the same size, 2 or 3 cents a mile rather than 12 to 15 cents a mile. We figured that, for most people, this means a savings of about $1,500 a year." Sticker prices will be high; the suggested price of the Volt will be about $40,000. But federal tax rebates are anticipated to be as much as $7,500, not to mention various state incentives. So the actual price will probably be closer to $30,000 -- not a bad deal, given that borrowing costs will be low for some time.

When he speaks of "full electric mode," Lauckner is acknowledging another barrier he expects the Volt to take down, namely range anxiety, the fear of getting stuck with rundown batteries while driving in a snowstorm, bumper to bumper, on a 150-mile trip to the in-laws'. The Volt will come equipped with a small gas engine, unlike its forthcoming competitors: the smaller Nissan Leaf, BMW's plug-in Mini Cooper E, and Ford's electric Focus. This engine will not drive the wheels, as with the hybrids now on the market (actually, GM likes to call the Volt an "extended range electric car," not a hybrid), but will act as a dynamo to supply the electricity for the car after 40 miles of running on stored power.

The Volt's designers assumed, per Department of Transportation data, that nearly 80 percent of Americans drive 20 miles or less to work. This is why GM was able to make the technically true but sly announcement that the Volt earned a 230-mpg rating for city driving from the EPA. "Most drivers will hardly ever use this engine," says Tony Posawatz, the Volt's line director. "We may have to educate people to change their oil because it hasn't been used for a year! Anyway, when the range-extending engine kicks in, drivers can go up to 300 miles, like a conventional car. In a pinch, they can make use of the existing gas-station infrastructure."

And so, assuming these cars prove safe and reliable, American consumers will almost certainly consume them. U.S. auto companies will make them, and that's good for the planet, right? Yes, but.


Continue with the article here.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Palestine Economy: Update


I spent the day in Ramallah yesterday, attending a meeting of information technology and telecom entrepreneurs, and catching up with some of the folks I reported on in last month's Harper's: Palestinian business leaders who are, slowly but surely, laying the ground for Palestinian civil society; people fighting the limitations of occupation at every turn just to keep their businesses afloat, while the Netanyahu government boasts about "economic peace."

I reported, for example, on the stalled efforts to launch Wataniya, the Palestine Investment Fund-backed cell phone provider, which had been promised 4.8 megahertz of spectrum by the Israeli government. (Wataniya was conceived by the PIF to compete with Jawal, in effect, the monopoly provider that had been started by the dominant PALTEL, and which now has a million and a half subscribers.) It is important to understand that Wataniya would be stiffening the spine of the Palestinian economy as a whole by inducing competition, and bringing down prices, for services every emerging business desperately needs.

Wataniya--so its Chairman, the PIF's head, Mohamed Mustafa, told me--was organized to offer Palestine's first 3G network. When I wrote my piece, Israel had released only 3.8 megahertz but kept the rest without explanation, suggesting Jawal share what it had. Mustafa was threatening to bury the entire deal, rather than launch Wataniya with one arm tied behind its back. Anyway, Wataniya finally launched a couple of days ago, a "soft-launch" Mustafa told me, not without good cheer, practicing his elevator speech. The company would not be able to offer all the services it had prepared for; it would focus instead "on customer service" while offering 2.5G services like text and messaging.

It is hard to imagine a management more persistent or forward-looking. The conference was buzzing with hopes engendered by the PIF's various investments, not only in telecom, but in commercial office parks and micro-lending. Yet PIF investments are hamstrung by, among other things, its being shut out of Jerusalem. One feature of competition in Palestine's telecom industry is customer poaching by Israeli providers. (Palestinian companies have exclusive rights in Area A, the centers of Palestinian towns and cities where the Israel Defense forces tend to stay out; but in Areas B and C, where the army and settlers operate freely, and in East Jerusalem--altogether, in two-thirds of the Palestinian territories--Israeli cell phone companies operate illegally but with impunity.) In East Jerusalem, Palestinian providers have no access whatsoever.

WHICH BRINGS ME to increasingly ominous economic trends in East Jerusalem, the once and historic hub of all West Bank cities, including Ramallah. The former economics minister of the Palestinian Authority, Bassim Khoury, recently sent me his summary of depressing data ferreted out of Israel's Central Bureau of Statistics. The conclusions suggest why Ramallah's business class may well lose the race to preempt a Bosnia-type violence that may engulf them and Jerusalem both:

Per capita income of Arabs in Jerusalem is less than half of Jews, who are on average the poorest in Israel. Unemployment among Arabs is 25%, 10% higher than in the West Bank as a whole. Infant mortality is almost double that of Jews, though the birthrate is about the same. About 85% of the municipal education budget goes to Jews, 15% to Arabs, though Arabs are about 30% of the grade school population. 50% of Arabs live under the poverty line, while 25% of Jews do so. This means both Arabs and Jews have about 125,000 people officially defined as "impoverished," but the Jews get 88% of the welfare budget. The city of Jerusalem spends about five times more on Jews than on Arabs per capita for municipal services of all kinds (sewage, garbage collection, etc.). Jews get 98% of the "cultural" budget.

Remember, East Jerusalem is now separated from the other West Bank cities by a wall. The idea was to fence out deadly violence. But the trajectory of social relations in the city suggests violence is only being fenced in. (This was predictable.) Last week's disturbances at Al-Aqsa suggest how it will start, which is pretty much the way violence has started in Jerusalem since 1920. Considering the Jewish people's past, it would be rude to call East Jerusalem a kind of ghetto. So let's just call it a walled-in, patrolled, increasingly impoverished enclave for people with diminishing political rights and unlimited encouragement to leave.

Yasir Barakat, among the most established merchants in the Old City, tells me he knows "nobody whose educated children are not planning to leave Jerusalem if they can." Yasir is one of my oldest friends in Jerusalem. He is not sleeping well. His daughter is now in Dubai, a son is studying in England, and another son, with a degree in network security from England, is working (for now) in Ramallah. “Let’s be honest. There is no give-and-take anymore. The Jews think this all belongs to them and that’s that.”

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Peacemakers: Palestine's Business Class

For those of you who wanted to read my piece in the October Harper's on Palestine's business class, but were deterred by having to buy a Harper's subscription to access current articles, you may now download the pdf. here.