Thursday, November 29, 2012

November 29, 1947

My father, Ben Shaicovitch, was in the visitors' gallery at the U.N. the night the vote was taken.  He was in New York "on business" and managed somehow to secure a ticket.  "When France voted yes, I knew we had the majority and I cried."

Born in Bialystok, my father was a Zionist, a Shomer Hatzair youth leader in immigrant Montreal, then the national president of the more bourgeois Zionist Men's Organization in the 1950s; as "business" prospered, socialist convictions waned. Yet he always told his children that his "great mistake" was not joining his haverim, who founded Kibbutz Kfar Menachem in the late 1930s--a mistake that always struck us as turning his children into consolation prizes, but never mind.

He died in 1971. Witnessing the U.N. vote was the most significant moment in a life he grew to think insignificant.  I can't imagine what he would have made of his younger son, conceived in May 1948, and named Ben-Zion Israel, celebrating Mahmoud Abbas's initiative and how the same General Assembly is 65 years later conferring, in effect, international recognition of statehood on Palestine. I would like to believe (but don't really) that, like many of us in Jerusalem, he would have come to see that the Hebrew cultural revolution Zionists like Ben Shaicovitch aspired to is also being celebrated in, or at least, potentially salvaged by, this resolution; that the loss of Abbas and the leadership he represents would be as much a catastrophe for Israelis as for Palestinians.

So here is a little reassurance for you Daddy, or is it now Ben, a kind of tribute to your dreams and fears: the full hour of Abbas explaining his determination to get to peace with Ehud Olmert during their 36 meetings in 2008.  The recording was made when I interviewed Abbas for an article on the subject, but it's important to hear his voice.  Obviously, I still hear yours.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Flash: Olmert Supports Abbas's UN Bid


The following is reposted from Open Zion, a featured section of The Daily Beast, where I contribute a regular column.

Tomorrow, Mahmoud Abbas stands before the U.N. General Assembly and presents a resolution to upgrade Palestine’s membership to the status of an “observer-state.” The Obama administration has signaled that it will oppose this resolution, as it vetoed a Security Council condemnation of settlements last year—putatively to emphasize the need for direct negotiations between the parties. With the Iranian nuclear program still on the horizon, the administration is loathe call its “special relationship” with Israel into question, or run afoul of a hardline Israeli consensus, of which Benjamin Netanyahu is presumably custodian.

AIPAC is mobilized, warning of Abbas’s non-violent effort as, of all things, a “flanking maneuver.” We hear much about the danger of Palestinian diplomats, newly elevated to representatives of an observer-state, bringing action in the International Criminal Court against Israeli officials and officers linked to settlements—a back-handed acknowledgement, curiously, that settlements are seen as a contravention of the Geneva Conventions everywhere but in Israel.

In opposing this resolution, however, especially in the aftermath of the recent Gaza stalemate, the administration is foregoing the chance to reinforce the very forces in Israel and Palestine that are serious about compromise. A great many Israeli leaders and military intelligence officials understand the urgency of Abbas’s timing—of strengthening his hand—and see no reason to oppose his resolution. 

The most important is former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who engaged in direct negotiations with Abbas more than any other Israeli. Why should the administration ignore their view and let the region slide into what the latest flare-up in Gaza promised, Bosnian levels of bloodshed?

“I believe,” Olmert wrote me, intending his statement to be made public “that the Palestinian request from the United Nations is congruent with the basic concept of the two-state solution. Therefore, I see no reason to oppose it. Once the United Nations will lay the foundation for this idea, we in Israel will have to engage in a serious process of negotiations, in order to agree on specific borders based on the 1967 lines, and resolve the other issues. It is time to give a hand to, and encourage, the moderate forces amongst the Palestinians. Abu-Mazen and Salam Fayyad need our help. It's time to give it.”

Is Olmert just chasing the past? Isn’t the antagonism between Hamas and the Israel’s “consensus” now the only relevant reality? Nonsense. What makes Abbas irrelevant is not Hamas “steadfastness,” but his failure to garner sufficient American backing for the principles he and Olmert worked through over 36 meetings in 2008: principles for resolving Jerusalem, borders, security and refugees consistent with the positions taken by previous American administrations, but which Netanyahu refuses to accept as a basis for new negotiations.

Abbas, as a matter of fact, is going to the U.N. with Hamas’s blessing, as the Palestinian president, and head of the PLO. And the two and a half million Palestinians he has led to peaceful state-building in West Bank cities since 2006, along with the police force and private sector cultivated by Prime Minister Fayyad, represent a development path far more promising for ordinary Palestinians than missiles and endless, mutual terrorizing. Before the last round of violence, polls showed Fatah more with more support in Gaza than in the West Bank, 40% to Hamas’s 22%.

Moreover, as I wrote here before, the inconclusive end to the Gaza violence unlocked important doors for American diplomacy to push through, the way Kissinger did after the 1973 war. Egypt’s Islamist President Morsi, like the Nasserite Anwar Sadat before him, is proving to be pragmatic on Palestine, afraid to be dragged into war over Gaza, desperate for financial assistance from the U.S. and the IMF. Nothing will deepen America’s relationship with (and influence on) Egypt like cooperation on Palestine, grounded in the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002.

But the Israeli “consensus,” too, is chimerical. As in 1973, it is dawning on Israelis, though first on their pundits, that “deterrence,” the sheer capacity to intimidate Palestinians, is no more a security strategy than Moshe Dayan’s “security borders” were after 1967. Palestinians can’t invade or defeat Israel, that’s clear. But, equally clear, Israel can’t invade neighbors either, as in 1982—not without inviting a barrage of missiles, or inflicting levels of civilian casualties on Palestinians that neither Egypt nor “the world” will accept; not without an unbridled regional violence that will eventually topple, not only the PA, but the Hashemite throne in Jordan, bring in Hezbollah, and precipitate a new Intifada across the West Bank and among Israeli Arab citizens in Galilee as well.

The administration, in other words, could start with, say, an abstention on Abbas’s resolution in the UN, or if not that, then an invitation to the White House, and move quickly to a “disengagement of forces” agreement on the Gaza front, and a call for new negotiations over borders based on, as Obama already declared, “the 1967 lines with land swaps.” That’s exactly, Olmert knows, what could yet transform Israeli politics.

Netanyahu speaks of “reestablishing deterrence.” Israelis are not impressed. Netanyahu’s merging of the Likud with Avigdor Lieberman’s ultra-rightists—along with the victory of extremists in Likud primaries—has made him seem not only a captive of the tycoons, but of settlers and Orthodox as well. He has, inadvertently, polarized the electorate instead of capturing the center, something like what Romney did in choosing Ryan.

A majority of Israelis, granted, think Netanyahu is the best leader to deal with a tough neighborhood, which they fear. But a different majority does not want a government that exempts the ultra-Orthodox from work and military duty, threatens the authority of the Supreme Court, and pours money into the West Bank settlements while Tel Aviv is clogged. The only thing all Israelis fear as much as the neighborhood is ruined relations with Washington.

In short, what the administration has to do to undermine the so-called consensus is, as Olmert says, give Abbas a hand. It is indeed “time to give it.”

Friday, November 23, 2012

As In 1974, A Diplomatic Opening

The following is reposted from Open Zion, a featured section of The Daily Beast, where I contribute a regular column.

The cease-fire is a relief in itself, but the way we got to it suggests a big opportunity for President Obama, perhaps the biggest since Henry Kissinger's "shuttle diplomacy" of 1974, after the October War, and for remarkably similar reasons. The challenge for the US is to act quickly: one can almost feel Israelis and Palestinians molting; Obama and Secretary Clinton should aim for a formal “disengagement of forces” agreement before skins harden.

What’s familiar here?

1. Egypt is the crucial Arab country. By the far the most important fact of the past four days is that Egypt's President Morsi, the leader of the Muslim Brothers, worked closely with Secretary Clinton to restrain Hamas, engage Israel, and restore quiet. According to the preliminary terms of the understanding, any violations of the quiet would be brought to Egypt for adjudication. This is not what Likud politicians and neocon strategists, railing against jihadists, would have predicted: even Avigdor Lieberman was reduced to thanking Morsi profusely at a ceremonial press conference last night.

It may be too early to grasp the full implications of this new American-Egyptian reciprocity. Morsi is not John Stuart Mill. But it is not too early for Obama to draw Morsi closer, say, by inviting him to the White House, thanking him publicly, and exploring ways of expanding areas of cooperation, from economic infrastructure to Libya. Our working hypothesis must be that Morsi, like the Nasserite Sadat in 1974, sees himself not only as a nominal leader of a pan-Arab movement, and advocate for Palestinian grievances, but as the president of a poor, difficult, yet central country, with interests that go beyond any ideology.

Without America and the IMF, Tahrir Square might soon be filling with hundreds of thousands protesting the cost of bread; the army, he knows, is still there to pick up the pieces. Morsi—just in his provisional display of pragmatism—has handed Obama an another opening to put himself on the right side of the Arab street.

2. Military force has invited a bloody stalemate. Israelis proved they could win any full-scale war, but lost the conviction that military hegemony and intimidation amount to a security strategy. For years, Israelis were convinced by rightist leaders, reinforced by military slang, that all they have to do is “mow the lawn” every few years. "Security"—that is, complacency with the status quo, the belief that Israel could dictate the terms of negotiations (if negotiations were ever really necessary)—derives from an ultimate capacity to beat Palestinians into submission and keep “Western opinion” off-balance. The models were Lebanon in 1982 and Defensive Shield in 2002-4. This week-end, in spite of Wednesday night's joyful ushering in of quiet, Israelis are waking up dismayed and confused. It's dawned on them that "deterrence"—the sheer ability to scare Palestinians—works until it doesn't. Now it doesn't.

Yes, the radio is full of government spokesmen (I just heard Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz) reassuring the public that the goal of the attack was “limited,” namely, to force Hamas to "pay a price," "restore deterrence," and destroy Hamas war-making capabilities. But people, especially in Israel’s south, know spin when they hear it: Kadima leader Shaul Mofaz, who was Defense Minister durinf Defensive Shield, pronounced Hamas the "victor" on television Wednesday night.

In any case, if the strategy is “deterrence,” a draw just isn’t good enough. And the real reason "deterrence" doesn't work is that Israeli military victory against Hamas is imaginable only if unimaginable things go with it. You can't make good on the ultimate threat without, one, reoccupying Gaza, which Israelis want as much as Americans want to reoccupy Baghdad, two, foiling American diplomatic interests in the rest of the region, when the president is no longer hostage to AIPAC, three, risking Egyptian intervention, or at least losing the peace treaty, four, igniting the West Bank and watching the Palestine Authority collapse, five, risking an Intifada in Israeli Arab towns, six, risking the collapse of Jordan, which means missiles on the Jordan, seven, precipitating missiles from Hezbollah. Need I go on?

The problem with scaring Arabs, it turns out, is not just Western opinion but powerful, infuriated Arabs—another lesson like 1973. After 1967, too, Israel's policy was hold the conquered land—what Dayan had called "security borders"—and threaten massive retaliation; the IAF even bombed the outskirts of Cairo, which brought an end to the War of Attrition. In October 1973, after weeks of bloodshed, Israel had the Egyptian Third Army surrounded and was threatening to decimate it. But for reasons not worth going into here, Israeli leaders, under firm American pressure, stepped back from that brink. "The world" would not permit this: suddenly, "the world" mattered, not only American diplomacy, and the European intelligentsia, but surprisingly, Arabs who were prepared to fight what they perceived to be injustice.

3. American patronage and pressure is the heart of any peace process. Netanyahu, and even some ingenuous pundits, are bragging about how Israel and America have never been closer. With Republican demagogues sidelined, however, the Israeli tail is no longer wagging the American dog: Netanyahu is giving Obama 29 standing ovations. The dog, moreover, has learned that if you try to bury the Middle East conflict, it will rise up and bite you when you least expect it.

Obama (justifiably) backed up Israel's right to defend itself against missiles and, if you weren't paying close attention, sounded like he was still fighting for Florida and Ohio. But this is deceiving. It was Obama who insisted on de-escalation and everybody saw this. He is clearly in the driver's seat. Netanyahu and Lieberman had inclined toward a ground invasion, for which 30,000 troops were massed, to get better terms in any ultimate cease-fire agreement; by all accounts, commanders in the field were twice notified that they'd be given orders to go ahead imminently. Obama, in these same accounts, said no. Stop shooting. Secretary Clinton flew in to reinforce the point. Leave the end-game to America; Clinton and Morsi will work out the details. Trust us—or at least don't dare cross us. Barak was the first to capitulate.

By the way, Kissinger, too, had first bought into the idea that Nixon should simply give Golda Meir's government unconditional backing, that is, prior to the fall of 1973. Then, as now, smug policy analysts told the US administration that the conflict was impossible to solve, or at least not worth presidential time. Besides, the parties had to want peace more than the US, while Israel could be counted onto advance American interests and maintain the status quo. Wrong.

4. Economic normalization brings stability; it cannot be supposed a sign of weakness. The first step forward must be the removal of economic siege. In the spring of 1973, Israel had the chance to allow Egypt to re-open the Suez Canal. Israel refused, fearing this would "reward" Egypt, insisting that the problem was Egypt’s determination to destroy the state, and signaling that Egypt would have be reconciled to Israel annexing parts of the Sinai.

Now, as in the period after 1973, Israel is agreeing to do what war could not prevent but might have prevented a war. Ironically, the Gaza crossings will be fully opened under, of all things, Egyptian supervision, with (one may safely guess) international monitors. Israel is also, by implication, engaging with Hamas as a negotiating partner.

Hamas is telling everyone how satisfied they are with the agreement and of their intention to honor it. Israeli leaders, including Likud leaders, are meanwhile going on television to defend their new "realism" and the importance of seeing beyond purely military solutions. Of course, Netanyahu and Lieberman don't have Netanyahu and Lieberman accusing them of cowardice and promising to root out the Hamas regime. But this only makes Obama’s job easier.

How, then, should Obama not miss the chance to not to miss the opportunity? True, he should continue just what he's been doing: engage Egypt, publicly provide Israel defensive means and privately show Netanyahu who's boss, speak of realizing the just demands of all sides. But there are things to do in the next couple of weeks.

Abbas is going to the UN General Assembly on November 29th., to upgrade Palestine’s status to an “observer-state,” a move the US cannot veto in the Security Council, and Abbas desperately needs to reassert his "relevance." Hamas leader Haniya has reportedly just called Abbas to encourage the move. Why, for God’s sake, should Obama not announce that he will support Abbas, at least in principle, and meet with him after the vote?

Correspondingly, Obama should find a convenient occasion to acknowledge and support for the principles Olmert and Abbas arrived at in 2008; and he should hint that US-led negotiations will recommence on that basis. He should, in parallel, appoint a new Middle East negotiator with unimpeachable credentials and international prestige—like Kissinger was for Nixon. I (John McCain, too!) suggested Bill Clinton; it has to be someone too big to fail.

He then should publicly encourage Israel to release more prisoners, and privately insist that Marwan Barghouti, the only leader capable of unifying all factions, be among them. Finally, Obama should move quickly to bring Israel and Turkey to a formula that will allow them to normalize relations. Israel and the US will need all the regional mediators they can get. If Gaza reopens to the world, what exactly are Turkey and Israel quarreling about that doesn’t pale next to their common interests?

Obama, in short, must turn the cease-fire into a formal "disengagement of forces" agreement with Hamas, like the agreement Kissinger put together on the Syrian front in 1974, while reopening the diplomatic track with the Palestinian Authority. If not him then who, and if not now, when?

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Disappearing City, And More

Gooderham-Worts Distillery Storage Warehouse, Toronto, June 1984
David Kaufman, a life-long friend from Montreal, has finally put portfolios of his photographs on the web. I say "finally" because, as visitors to his site will quickly discern, David's images are touchingly meticulous. He hesitated for many years to degrade their "aura" by putting them out in the ultimate form of "mechanical reproduction." (With the aforementioned quotes, I pretty much max-out on my deployment of Walter Benjamin.)

David's architectural photographs capture as no other visual work I know the immigrant experience in Canada at mid-century, not coincidentally the time and place of our growing up. Our Edward Hopper.
He is also a film-maker of enormous gifts, whose first film, about the Montreal poet A.M. Klein (who begat Irving Layton, who begat Leonard Cohen) is the only way I know how to cherish my childhood. His most recent film, "Song of the Lodz Ghetto," chronicles the horrors of Jewish Poland through the life of popular street-singer, Yankele Herszkowicz. It is unforgettable: I saw it screened in Toronto a couple of years ago, with a number of ghetto's survivors in the audience. They were finally understood, one elderly woman told me.

David was for many years a producer with CBC-News. That he's retired from all of that, and has given himself to his unique vision, is a relief. That he's given us a site from which to share in it is a cause for celebration.  

Monday, November 19, 2012

Playing With Fire: A Dispatch From The Front -- Of The Television

The following is reposted from Open Zion, a featured section of The Daily Beast, where I contribute a regular column.

The Gaza war, if that's the word for it, has reduced Israelis living more than 40 kilometers from the Gaza border to spectators of a kind of reality TV show: familiar contestants but no clear plot; the definition-of-victory provided by IDF generals, or pundits who were IDF generals, speaking earnestly about "degrading" the enemy's "capabilities" and "motivation"; the reality provided by videos of corpses swaddled for burial (ours), or carried by chanting crowds (theirs), and periodic interruptions announcing "code red," that is, "run for cover," in Beer Sheva or Ashkelon. More and more, this seems a competition for blood--not too much blood for CNN, God forbid--but just enough to tip some vague, fugitive strategic balance.

Each side, after all, has no espoused goal other than to retaliate against the other side yet again, only this time more shockingly, hence, instructively. Hamas's Haniya says that killing al-Jabari would "open the gates of hell" for Israel. Shas's Eli Yishai says that Gaza should be bombed back to the Middle Ages (presumably, an era Shas knows well). Israeli government leaders, meanwhile, tell us they aim to "reestablish deterrence" and go after "terrorist infrastructure." The former goal never quite passes the test of common sense, a point we'll return to. But the latter goal translates, plausibly, and with almost universal approval, into the Israeli air force pulverizing Hamas commanders and missile batteries--especially the longer range Grad and M75 types, capable of reaching heavily populated cities--as well as the tunnels through which weapons parts are spirited (and from which Hamas has been more generally profiting).

The key here, as it always is at first with air power: find "quality targets" while minimizing civilian casualties. And in the opening hours of the operation IAF commanders operated as if Judge Goldstone were looking over their shoulders, releasing videos of pinpoint strikes against missile installations and cruising Jeeps, with no damage caused to nearby homes or mosques. Yesterday, however, there were the predictable "errors," along with the usual recriminations about Hamas using Gazans as "human shields," and, horribly, the corpses of small children being dragged from rubble.

To be clear, Hamas is using human shields. Even the most ardent peace advocate does not doubt that--whatever the grievances of the Naqba and occupation--Hamas has been engaging in terrorism of the most brazen sort, which must be stopped. This brazenness is earning Israel something unusual: the near universal, if provisional, sympathy of Western nations. There can be no excuse, none, for firing hundreds of rockets into Israeli cities, aiming to kill Israelis at random, betraying a totalitarian political imagination in which the people here become mere categories ("Zionists," "occupiers"), and categories have become candidates for elimination.

In this context, the only unambiguously positive feeling about this war comes from Israel's "Iron Dome" technology, which seems to be knocking missiles out of the air almost as routinely as Larry Bird hitting free throws. (A sad irony: one of the three people killed in Kiryat Malachi reportedly did not take shelter because he wanted to record an Iron Dome hit with his smart phone--only the battery did not deploy this time.)

But back to "reestablishing deterrence," which seems an unintelligible scatter of facts and claims,  amounting, increasingly, to skepticism if not despair. Aerial bombardment, cruelly consoling as this was for Israelis at the start, has limits that quickly became all too obvious. Hamas thrives on such attacks: the more Palestinians rage, not only in Gaza, but across the West Bank and the Galilee, the more they turn to the custodians of apocalyptic steadfastness. (The person after whom the M75 missile is named, Ibrahim Al-Makadma, was a Hamas strategist, killed in 2003, who famously prophesied that every time Hamas attacked, Israel would retaliate against the Palestine Authority, and civilians in general, which would ultimately bring Hamas to power.)

So the question on every mind, and every headline, is whether Israel should forget deterrence and invade Gaza with ground forces--as Prime Minister Netanyahu is threatening, and for which the IDF is manifestly preparing. The chances for it, Israeli leaders say, are 50-50. But while 90 percent of Israelis support the operation, 70 percent oppose invasion, and not just because they fear the losses. In a way, they are intuitively more afraid of the losses they will inflict--and for good reason.

Sure, Israel has the moral authority to "defend its citizens," as President Obama automatically (and quite properly) put it. The thing is, no Israeli offensive on the ground can reimpose occupation without using what even Americans will see as disproportionate force. The thing Goldstone could never quite grasp was that no Israeli officer will fail to use tank shells against a sniper in an apartment window if this means minimizing the risk to his troops--and damn the children in the adjacent apartment.

This was the real lesson of Cast Lead in 2009, and the second Lebanon war in 2006, too. It has sunk in. The most disquieting feeling Israelis have comes from listening to generals and Likud cheerleaders repeating threats that have come to seem not wrong, exactly, but unimaginative, even tedious. If the game is chess, can you respond like checkers? What happens after you move?

So imagine an invasion, which cannot but evolve into a bloodbath like the 1982 invasion of Lebanon. Mubarak is gone. Morsi will not tolerate the slaughter of civilians projected all over YouTube and from there to Al-Jazeera. Meanwhile, the Jordanian throne could fall. Assad could try to save his skin by entering the war; Syria might prod Hezbollah to launch missiles of its own. An Intifadah could then take hold in the West Bank. Israeli Arab citizens would begin mass demonstrations. What chance will there be for turning back from a fight to the finish? What general has a PowerPoint slide with an answer?

Deep down, you see, Israelis know that their leaders are playing with fire. It is hard to believe that Obama has not been reinforcing the point, as Morsi (desperate for financial help from the US and the IMF) has been pressuring Hamas in Cairo. Yes, there are large numbers of people on both sides who would welcome bringing things to a head: a Bosnian-style chaos that would, presumably, replay the war of 1948 and "settle things once and for all."

But most Israelis, I think, are slowly coming to see that leaders stepping back from the brink, as after 1973, will itself be what ushers in a new strategic balance. People are saying things on television that would have been "outside the consensus" only last week. For it is also clear what the terms of a cease-fire will look like: formal guarantees by Egypt, the US, and possibly Turkey, the opening of the Rafa border crossing to Egypt, in effect, the recognition of Hamas as a political actor, if not a government--perhaps international monitors on the ground--something that looks like Kissinger's "disengagement of forces" agreement with Syria in 1974. In the wake of such a cease-fire, President Abbas would make one last push at the UN to gain recognition for a process leading to a Palestinian state, and who other than Israel and the US would oppose him?

And what beyond this? A former American diplomat reminded me at lunch on Saturday that there is still an American law on the books requiring the US government to defund any UN agency the PLO is admitted to. But let's dream we can step back from the brink one more step and, with Hamas and Israel in a formal cease-fire, the US government finally gives Abbas a victory, too. Let's dream, that is, that a missile does not finally fall on an Israeli kindergarten, or that a bomb does not kill Haniya. That, suddenly, we have nowhere to go but down into the fog of war.   

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Not Magic, No Picnic Either

The following was just published in the Daily Beast's 'Books'  

Philip Roth can—and, in case you haven’t noticed, does—speak for himself, but most of his friends will, I suspect, find the mournful tone circulating along with reports of his retirement a little premature. When a baseball player retires, we assume that he believes he can no longer perform at a standard he admires, and so is done with the field, but not with the game, and certainly not with the rest. When a writer retires, we assume he is, well, finished.

The thing is, a book is terrific work. You have to screw yourself into hours of intense concentration, hour after hour, month after month. You have to juggle and risk hypothetical lines of development; then submit to the discipline of a lonely relay, creating a word-baton at night to pass to yourself the next morning. You have to remember (and remember, and remember!) where you were and what you meant, if anything. You have to steel yourself for people telling you what you meant. There comes a time when the activity becomes too physically taxing and the striving no longer worth the compensations.

We all know management consultants who give up the PowerPoint and airports in their 50s, professors who give up the grading and meetings in their 60s. A writer too can retire without giving up on literature or the experiences that are turned into one’s fictions. As if mortals—as Roth would be the first to say—ever give up on their fictions.

Roth told an interviewer with the French publication Les inRocks, what he’s told many friends for the past couple of years, that he was through with the novel: “I don’t want to read it, I don’t want to write it, and I don’t even want to talk about it anymore. I dedicated my life to the novel. I studied them, I taught them, I wrote them, and I read them. To the exclusion of nearly everything else. It’s enough!” Once, he told me, there was the next book, or the next woman—eventually, there is the next nap.

But enough is not exactly enough. He admitted to the same interviewer that he’s been rereading some of the favorite novels of his youth; he’s also reviewing his own work, first to last, making notes, some quite extensive, clarifying his motives in undertaking various works, both for his biographer and himself. What could be more satisfying for a novelist who’s trained as a literary critic—and more fascinating for his admirers?

Anyway, the losses to be mourned are ours, not his. Nelson Aldrich told me when I was writing Promiscuous that he credits Roth with writing a new book anticipating “every new phase of life, just before I was about to experience it.” Ambition, eros, family love and dissolution, fame, depression, resignation, satisfaction. With Everyman we even got a phase called dying. What made Roth so beloved was this directness, a particular life threatening us with the universal, the not-knowing-what-hit-him just before it was about to hit us. What will we do without his mapping?

As for writers he’s inspired, the most precious part of his example may be the respect he’s shown the craft, including a knowledge of when to hang 'em up. The last public reading I saw Roth give, in New York in May 2011, was preceded by a panel exploring his last book, Nemesis. We finished our little papers. Roth took over the stage and stood there by himself, reading the concluding section, about his hero, an athletics teacher named Bucky Cantor, instructing his young charges in the throwing of the javelin:

When he was ready to begin, he told us what to watch for, starting with his approach run and the bounding stride and ending with the throw. Without the javelin in his hand he walked through the entire delivery for us in slow motion, describing it as he did so. “It’s not magic, boys, and it’s no picnic either. However if you practice hard,” he said, “and you work hard and you exercise diligently—if you’re regular with your balance drills, one, your mobility drills, two, at your flexibility drills, three—if your faithful to your weight-training program, and if throwing the javelin really matters to you, I guarantee you, something will come of it.

You could see each of his muscles bulging when he released it into the air. He let out a strangulated yowl of effort (one we all went around imitating for days afterward), a noise expressing the essence of him—the naked battle cry of striving excellence … None of us had ever before seen an athletic act so beautifully executed right in front of our eyes … Through him, we boys had left the little story of the neighborhood and entered the historical saga of our ancient gender.

“It’s not magic, boys, and it’s no picnic either.” When Roth finished reading, we were quiet, suspecting he was elegizing his own powers; that he was a little in awe of his past discipline, perhaps preparing his exit. “You seemed like Prospero up there,” I told him. “Whatever you think,” he smiled.

Friday, November 9, 2012

A Syrian No-Fly Zone?


While the election was reaching its climax, a number of commentators criticized President Obama harshly for not intervening in the Syrian morass, suggesting that failure to act has been a mark of the president's and even liberal fecklessness. The most condescending opinion came (not surprisingly, perhaps) from Jeffrey Goldberg:

The U.S. has the capability to efficiently neutralize Syria’s air defenses and impose a no-fly zone to ground Assad’s attack helicopters. [Or perhaps] Obama isn’t quite the brilliant foreign-policy strategist his campaign tells us he is. Of course, he has had his successes. I’m not sure you’re aware of this, but Osama bin Laden is dead (killed, apparently, by Obama, who used only a salad fork and a No. 2 pencil)... Yet Obama’s record in the Middle East suggests that missed opportunities are becoming a White House specialty. Syria is the most obvious example.

Now on strictly humanitarian grounds, the case for intervening in Syria is very much like the case for Libya, which was clearly defensible. But is Goldberg right that the U.S. has the capability to impose a no-fly zone by "efficiently neutralizing" Syrian air-defenses?

It depends what you mean by "efficiently." I spoke recently by telephone with my friend Charles Glass in London, who knows Syria and Lebanon about as well as any American, and has no love for the Assad regime (while working for ABC-News in the 1990s, he was kidnapped by Hezbollah and finally escaped; he writes grippingly about the affair in Tribes With Flags). Charlie just returned from Aleppo, where he travelled on assignment, and interviewed many of the people who should know. The terrible problem, he explained, was that the U.S. cannot "neutralize" Syrian air defenses without also neutralizing hundreds, if not thousands, of Russian technicians and instructors.

The air defense systems Russia sold to Syria are simply too complex for most Syrian military to handle--he was told, again and again--so Russian personnel secretly fill the gaps. This report from The Economist sets the scene:

Unlike the air defences of Serbia, which NATO took on with relative ease during the 1999 Kosovo campaign, Syria’s are designed to deal with a sophisticated adversary—Israel. The Syrian regime has spent billions trying to get them up to scratch. They include modern Russian systems, which Western experts expect to be highly capable. There is the SA-22 Greyhound, a mobile system with both surface-to-air (SAM) missiles and anti-aircraft guns, the SA-17 Grizzly, a medium-range missile capable of handling many different targets simultaneously, and the long-range SA-5 Gammon, which poses a threat to command-and-control aircraft and aerial tankers. Syria also has about 4,000 rockets, which, like American Stingers, can be carried around without vehicles and hoisted onto a shoulder for use: “man-portable air-defence systems”, or MANPADS. 

And then there is this from Global Security:

On March 13, 2012, Deputy Minister of Defence of the Russian Federation Anatoly Antonov stated that the Government of the Russian Federation would not halt arms shipments to Syria, acknowledging that the Government of the Russian Federation has military instructors on the ground training the Syrian Arab Army and stating, 'Russia enjoys good and strong military technical co-operation with Syria, and we see no reason to reconsider it. Russian-Syria military co-operation is perfectly legitimate.

New Russian weapons supplies, reports The Moscow Times, add to Syria’s massive arsenal of hundreds of Soviet-built combat jets, attack helicopters and missiles and thousands of tanks, other armored vehicles and artillery systems. Russia has military advisers in Syria training the Syrians in their use, repairing and maintaining them. After all, Russia's only client in the region and they are loathe to surrender it.  China's also backed the regime.

Missed opportunities, a White House specialty, Goldberg writes. But if Charlie could figure this danger out, U.S. intelligence presumably could, too. Anyway, we might want to figure things out before we seize yet another Middle Eastern opportunity.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

My Demographic--And Ours

It has quickly become operative wisdom that white male voters overwhelmingly rejected Obama. Victory came because of a disproportionately strong showing among Hispanics, African-Americans, Asians, and other (are their other?) minorities. Here is today's Times, where operative wisdoms morph into axioms:

This year, Mr. Obama managed to win a second term despite winning only 39 percent of white voters and 44 percent of voters older than 65... [M]en made up only about one-quarter of Mr. Obama’s voters. In the House of Representatives next year, for the first time, white men will make up less than half of the Democratic caucus.

There is a touching side to this wisdom, implying an America that is more diverse and global than technicolor movies conveyed. But there is also a seriously misleading, Ayn Randish implication here, which is that the "47%" Romney warned against are real, except that they are quickly on their way to becoming 51%.

If white men--historically, the pillars of the productive middle class--didn't buy Obama, while minorities (viz., "victims," have-nots, etc.) ate him up, what lessons do we learn about the ideas the candidates ran on? Romney lost, yes, but, implicitly, his ideas about the economy, the commonwealth, the family, and so forth, should be considered to have been vaguely vindicated, truths in a losing cause, associated as they are with society's allegedly most "traditional" (translate: "responsible") group. Paul Ryan's eyes still gleam. If he loses his country then it's everybody's loss.

This is pretty much what Bill O'Reilly is now saying, appealing to the GOP to be more Hispanic-friendly, scoffing at "voters who had something to gain by keeping him in office." (Go to the 5 minute mark in the video.) You can bet this is what a good many smart-alecks are thinking around the hedge funds, business schools, and investment banks who saw in Romney a kindred spirit.

Let's get something straight. Romney didn't win white males. He won poorly-educated, older white males. Nate Cohn's New Republic piece is indispensable for us now. Obama actually won, albeit narrowly, among highly educated white males, and won handily among younger highly educated white males. Oh, and his whites have to be Christian. Jews--who are white but typically highly educated--went for Obama 70-30%, though pro-Bibi Jewish plutocrats, who endow Jewish organizations, sent a strong pro-Romney message.

The point is, the more voters were accustomed to processing complex arguments about how the economy works, how we got into trouble, how history might be made, and how political institutions share power, the more they embraced Obama. The more they were motivated by fears and flocking, the more they went for Romney's witless syllogisms: the president is responsible for everything, things are bad, therefore Obama is to blame; recovery requires business investment, I am a businessman, therefore I should be president. (Incidentally, my daughter Ellie just sent me this: for what its worth, biological research into the fear centers that are typically activated in the brains of "conservatives." Intriguing.)

I'd like to believe that the talking heads would take note. But I am not hopeful.  It is just easier to portray voters, not as heads who, well, talk and decide, but as bundles of appetites, socialized preferences, demographic interests. If you assume voters think then you might have to.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Bill Clinton: Too Big To Fail

The following is reposted from Open Zion, a featured section of The Daily Beast, where I contribute a regular column

President Obama's next move in the Middle East is so obvious I almost hesitate to suggest it: before the Israeli election season completely unfolds, ask, cajole, or beg Bill Clinton to take on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Clinton understands the details and the players. He naturally symbolizes the achievements of the Abbas-Olmert negotiations, which picked up where the Clinton parameters left off.  He is extremely popular in Israel and (through Ehud Barak) very close to the Israeli defense community. He is insanely popular among American Jews.

Clinton also has enormous international prestige and his Global Initiative represents the kind of economic development and political creativity a two-state solution will need.  Should Hillary run in 2016, what could be better for her than a peace deal in process. Bill Clinton now has Obama's trust and everybody knows it.  He is too big to fail.

The appointment, if it could be made in the next month or so, will be the most subtle way to promise efficient pressure on the Israeli government, discredit Netanyahu's candidacy, and bring a saving prestige to Abbas, without distressing either the Israeli center-right, much of which will anyway support Likud, or American Jews, most of whom indeed support the parameters that bear his name. (See this latest J Street poll by Jim Gerstein, and turn to slide 36.)

President Obama has been advised to keep away from the Israeli-Palestinian issue. This is terrible advice. The status quo in Palestine will bring new and destabilizing violence more dangerous than any Iranian bomb.  The young Arab street, especially in Egypt, will never be reconciled to Obama's leadership, or the American model of democratic globalization, so long as Palestinians live under occupation.

Yet, granted, Obama has more immediate priorities. To address the Israel-Palestine issue he needs a public figure to be a lightening rod for all the hard feeling that will come out as the process evolves without forcing Obama himself to get into the weeds or risk his prestige as specific difficulties are leaked.  Another George Mitchell will not do.  Obama needs something like what Henry Kissinger was for Richard Nixon during the post-1973 disengagement shuttles.  That person has been standing by his side for the past month and has unfinished business of his own.

Wilmot, New Hampshire, November 7, 2012

Neighbors on Campground Road: The lawn signs will now come down.
And the first state in the nation's history to have a woman governor, while all members of Congress, and both U.S. Senators, are women.  Live free, period.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

What Does The Israeli Right Really Want?

By the time many readers get this post, the results of the American election will be known. The Israeli election will be largely influenced by them. A Romney victory would guarantee a Netanyahu victory. As I wrote here last time, the coalition of Israeli liberals and globalists forming against Netanyahu will never succeed if he’ll be able to claim a special relationship with the occupant of the White House. Obama’s reelection would at least revive the hope of a peace process that picks up where Olmert and Abbas left off; give people like Olmert (if not Olmert himself) a fighting chance to charge Netanyahu with foiling Israel’s relations with Washington and deepening the country’s global isolation.

Many in the Israeli peace camp, J Street, and so forth, have insisted, plausibly, that we are well down the road to a Jewish state where democratic standards are necessarily undermined. They point to the dangers of obvious demographic changes under occupation; some even speak glibly of an emerging theocracy. Romney probably thinks in these terms himself, though he and House Republicans draw different conclusions from the changes: that the worst that can happen in Israel and Palestine is a few million Arabs with no real civil liberties, you know, the same unfreedom Arabs suffer in most Arab countries.

This seriously underestimates the Israeli right. Netanyahu and his partners have a long-term vision with no demographic problem because the incorporation of “Judea and Samaria” does not just entail a few more settlements here and there. It entails the upending of the Hashemite government in Jordan, the formation of a Palestinian state in Amman, and the eventual migration—or, in the event of war, forced expulsion—of Palestinians in the West Bank across the Jordan River. (Likud politicians do not just say this, at least not to voters and journalists. But neither did Romney talk about the "47 percent" to voters and journalists. Spend an hour with even moderate Likud people and settlers and you will eventually hear why this scenario is "inevitable.")

Give the status quo enough time and the incendiary conditions laying the foundation for Netanyahu’s policies will be as irreversible as global warming. And enough time in this case means four years, eight at the most. If America reinforces Netanyahu’s position beyond this year, President Abbas will exit the stage. The Palestinian Authority will pretty much fall apart. The old Fatah leadership has already lost most of its moral prestige, having bet it on being able to deliver a state with American and European backing. Virtually no Fatah candidate won election in recent municipal elections across the West Bank. Four more years of Netanyahu and Hamas will be the only force in Palestine left standing.

Remember that when Ronald Reagan took office there were perhaps 10,000 settlers outside of Jerusalem. When he left office, there were 100,000. American elections, as it is said, have consequences.  Obama's defeat would mean that Israel's fearful, grieving, hegemonic Jewish national community would continue to evolve without countervailing liberal pressures from Washington, something like the deep south without pressures from Washington.

Not that the rightists’ policy can succeed, at least not in the way they imagine. The Hashemites will not just surrender power and abscond to South Kensington. West Bankers will fight to stay in their homes, even if the richest among them also keep a home in Amman or Qatar.

Indeed, imagine Likudish fantasies coming true. Should Palestinian forces take power in Jordan, it will be after a period of bloody radicalization, following a corresponding process in Syria. Israel will find itself surrounded, with a Balkan-like insurgency forming in the territories, and a million-and-a-half Israeli Arabs growing sympathetic to a cause promising to remove a self-defined “Zionist” state that treats them like second-class citizens by design. The occupation-cum-settlement project will engender a vicious war, with ethnic cleansing on both sides, Tel Aviv technology entrepreneurs getting out, and the government of Egypt jumping in—a five foot leap over a seven foot chasm, an Intifada stretching from Nazareth to Hebron.

Netanyahu insists that America should focus on the Iranian nuclear program. But it is illogical to ignore the direction of the occupation if Iranian power is really the danger. Irrespective of how or why America should seek to stop the Iranian bomb, progress on the Palestinian issue will make confronting Iran easier, for it will make it easier for Arab countries to engage with American leadership. Obama knows, what Romney has denied, that strength against Iran requires strength against Netanyahu’s annexationism.

Romney slyly told his big donors in Florida that, aside from giving up on the 47 percent, he would kick the Palestinian can down the road. He was mirroring Netanyahu but doing Israelis no favor, nor Jordanians, or Palestinians, for that matter. The Middle East, alas, kicks back.