Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Is Abbas The Palestinians' Mandela?

Some of the following, my first new post on TPM, is borrowed from my post last week.

The question may seem fatuous on its face. In his lifetime, Mandela had to insist he was not a saint, but a sinner. Abbas has no doubters. Mandela was the leader; Abbas, the follower; yet Mandela poured your tea, while Abbas presses a buzzer to have an aide light (and ration) his cigarettes. In his death, Mandela filled a stadium with global leaders and common people. For Abbas, a legacy of this kind seems improbable: a negotiator is not a liberator.

Moreover, the question suggests parallels between Apartheid and the Occupation that are, at best, forced. Israel, even Greater Israel, is not a privileged minority enriching itself on the labor of a racially despised majority. On the contrary, the Zionists worked from the start toward separation, to revive the Hebrew language; settlement hurt Palestinian workers as a by-product of the drive toward economic self-sufficiency. To this day, if most Israelis could just saw their land and global technology businesses off from Palestine, and float out toward Cyprus, they would. Their racism, if that’s the word for it, derives from generations of violence.

But all of this is beside the point, now. The real question is whether Abbas, with Mandela-like courage and grace, was prepared to both confront the Occupation and yet renounce terror, face down his own nationalist radicals, and advocate for diplomatic pathways and (mainly) non-violent resistance.

In this sense, Abbas has been deeply underestimated. Abbas—an impoverished refugee from Safed—began as a student in Damascus and then became a PLO cadre. He was romanced by Soviet ideology and blandishments; but by 1977, he was calling for meetings with Israeli peace forces. He turned to reconciliation with the Gulf states and the West. In a way, this kind of thing was harder to dare when at large, surrounded by terrorist assassins, than in prison.

Once the PA was formed, and he began negotiating in its name, Abbas was prepared to demand for Palestine only what he was prepared to give. He focused on building state institutions. Consider his 1995 deal with Yossi Beilin, signed the week before Yitzhak Rabin was killed, which could still be a model for a final status agreement. This record of compromise continues.

Last week, Palestinian negotiators directed by Abbas were said to have rejected General John Allen's security proposals for a Palestinian state. But, broadly speaking, what would any reasonable security arrangements look like if you were concerned about past Palestinian violence? Palestine would have to be "nonmilitarized"—a strong police force, to maintain law and order, but no heavy weapons at all: no tanks, missiles, etc., or any way of acquiring them.

But there would be much more. The Palestinian border with Jordan, through which missiles and heavy armaments might be smuggled, would have to be patrolled by international forces, probably from NATO, with a strong contingent of Americans. Third, there would have to be a procedural guarantee that no foreign army would be able to enter Palestine, and its government would not be permitted to enter into any military agreement with a country that does not recognize Israel. Fourth, Israel would have the right to defend itself beyond the borders of a Palestinian state—say, against land forces massing on the eastern side of the Jordan River.

There is more still. Israel would reserve the right to hot pursuit of terrorists across the new borders. Israel would be allowed access to airspace over Palestine; overflight would be essential for training and reconnaissance. Seventh, the Israel Defense Forces would have rights to disproportionate use of telecommunications spectrum (though commercial rights would be equalized under international law). Finally, Palestine and Israel would have to cooperate in a greater Jerusalem municipality and in sharing information regarding terrorism on both sides of the border.

In fact, Abbas already agreed to all of these things, in his 2008 negotiations with Ehud Olmert. “We don’t need a Palestinian army,” Abbas told me emphatically. “We don’t want an air force or tanks or rockets.” He insisted that the whole matter had been worked out with Gen. James Jones, who eventually became Obama’s national security adviser. “The file on security was closed,” he told me. “We do not claim it was an agreement, but the file was finalized.”

Nobody outside of the negotiations can know yet just what Allen proposed. But I invite you to listen to my January, 2011 conversation with Abbas in its entirety, and judge for yourself if Israelis can expect a partner more committed to reciprocity. Indeed, the real question is not whether Abbas is the Palestinians’ Mandela, but whether Netanyahu, who skipped Mandela’s funeral, can rise to the occasion provided by John Kerry and become Israel’s de Klerk—and if not, whether the various Israeli de Klerks waiting in the wings have a reasonable shot at regaining power.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Exclusive: Olmert Slams Bibi On Iran, Palestine

This appeared yesterday in The New Yorker website

“The attacks on the Administration’s action plan about Iran are certainly premature,” Ehud Olmert, the former Prime Minister of Israel, wrote me in a series of e-mails, not long after the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany (known as the P5-plus-1) struck a deal with Iran, trading some sanctions relief for a suspension of its nuclear program. One of those attacks came from Olmert’s successor, Benjamin Netanyahu, who called the agreement a “historic mistake.” Olmert disagreed. “It’s too early to pass any judgment on how this understanding will be implemented. The use of force should always be the last resort, and we are very far from it.” And, he added, in a clear reference to Netanyahu, “the personal attacks against President Obama and Secretary Kerry are totally unacceptable.” 

Olmert has been out of power for nearly five years now, but he represents a resilient bloc in Israeli politics that even thoughtful American journalists tend to ignore when depicting Netanyahu’s response to the Iran deal as a standoff between the Israeli government and the White House, as if Israel had no strong voices supporting the Obama Administration. Groups advocating for Greater Israel certainly want to see Obama’s Iran initiative fail, and are eager to treat him as naïve if the mullahs’ regime and its centrifuges are left standing; when regional threats seem imminent, settler activity seems merely defiant.

But equally powerful groups advocating for Global Israel—business, academic, and professional leaders who fear, not implausibly, that the occupation will leave them globally isolated, not unlike the Tehran bazaar—want the Obama Administration to succeed. Indeed, the leaders of Global Israel believe that picking a fight with Obama and the P5-plus-1 is a bigger strategic danger to Israel than an Iranian nuclear program. Over seventy percent of Israelis believe the P5-plus-1 deal will not end Iran’s drive for nuclear weapons, but seventy per cent also say that America is still “Israel’s most loyal and important ally.”

Olmert knows something about the “tough neighborhood” Netanyahu likes to claim as his patrimony. Olmert also knows about preëmpting a neighbor’s nuclear ambitions. During his tenure, the I.D.F. launched a number of military operations: against Hezbollah, in Lebanon, in July, 2006, soon after he came into office; against Hamas, in Gaza, just as he was leaving, in December, 2008. In September, 2007, Olmert ordered his Air Force to bomb what Israel had determined was a plutonium reactor in the Deir al-Zour region of Syria. Secretary Kerry is in Jerusalem today, presenting Netanyahu with General John Allen’s proposals for security arrangements in the Jordan Valley, should a Palestinian state arise. Olmert worked with General James Jones on just such an American plan in 2008.

But Olmert is also a former Likud politician for whom Netanyahu’s strident reaction to the Iran deal was a familiar play: you mobilize AIPAC and its congressional allies because any defrosting of American relations with Iran undermines Netanyahu’s claim to regional vigilance and indispensability. Acknowledging the relaxation of an “existential threat” might lead the Americans to focus on other sources of regional instability, like, say, the occupation of the West Bank. Netanyahu fancies himself the new Churchill. To Olmert, he sounds more and more like Madame Chiang Kai-shek.

Read the entire article on The New Yorker site 

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Abbas Rejects U.S. Security Proposals--Or Not?

According to Reuters, Palestinian negotiators have rejected General John Allen's security proposals for a Palestinian state. What would reasonable security arrangements look like?

First, Palestine would have to be "nonmilitarized"--a strong police force, to maintain law and order, but no heavy weapons at all: no tanks, missiles, etc., or any way of acquiring them.

Two, the Palestinian border with Jordan, through which missiles and heavy armaments might be smuggled, would have to be patrolled by international forces, probably from NATO, with a strong contingent of Americans.

Three, there would have to be a procedural guarantee that no foreign army would be able to enter Palestine, and its government would not be permitted to enter into any military agreement with a country that does not recognize Israel.

Fourth, Israel would have the right to defend itself beyond the borders of a Palestinian state—say, against land forces massing on the eastern side of the Jordan River.

Fifth, Israel would reserve the right to hot pursuit of terrorists across the new borders.

Sixth, Israel would be allowed access to airspace over Palestine; overflight would be essential for training and reconnaissance.

Seventh, the Israel Defense Forces would have rights to disproportionate use of telecommunications spectrum (though commercial rights would be equalized under international law).

Eighth, Palestine and Israel would have to cooperate in a greater Jerusalem municipality and in sharing information regarding terrorism on both sides of the border.

Could Palestine possibly agree to such far-reaching proposals? For the record, President Abbas already has agreed to them, in his 2008 negotiations with Ehud Olmert.

“We don’t need a Palestinian army,” Abbas told me emphatically. “We don’t want an air force or tanks or rockets.” He insisted that the whole matter had been worked out with Gen. James Jones, who eventually became Obama’s national security adviser. “The file on security was closed,” he told me. “We do not claim it was an agreement, but the file was finalized.”

Nobody outside of the negotiations can know yet what Allen proposed. But let it not be said, as Israel's "friends in Washington no doubt will say, that Palestinian bargaining to get to a reasonable deal with Netanyahu is proof of bad faith.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Another Anniversary

This blog is marking two events this week. The first is an anniversary of sorts. I began at the start of the Annapolis Conference, in November of 2007. Since then, the blog has seen six years, 529 posts (if this one counts), and 109,803 unique visitors (though not all at once, to be sure). It is humbling to think about so much connection--also about the privilege of living at a time when desktop technology magically enables it. Writers like to pretend that they expect to be paid attention to. I still find this wonderful.

The second event is the closing of Open Zion, to which I have devoted most of my incidental writing and surplus attention for the past couple of years (and my gratitude to Peter Beinart for his tireless work and crack leadership).
Some of us considered trying to keep that site going; but I've decided to return my attention to this space, which feels more intimate and allows for shorter takes and greater eclecticism. I shall be, again, asking guest writers to contribute, especially from Jerusalem, to which I return in a couple of weeks. I shall also be posting most political commentaries simultaneously on Talking Points Memo's "TPM Cafe," which Josh Marshall has just revived with the steady hand that's made TPM the default home for undogmatic Democratic liberals.

So if you've been a subscriber to this blog in the past, but have given it up because my posts seemed redundant to Open Zion, I invite you to try it again--and share this invitation with anyone you feel would be interested in it, too. 

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Uh, Follow Me on Twitter

I am, I know, late to this party. I've approached this blog from the start as place to share what I might have otherwise sought to publish. I quipped (in an article about Orwell back in 1984) that the danger from computers was not that they'd get as smart as we are, but that we'd agree to meet them halfway. When Twitter was launched, I thought that day had arrived. I could not conceive how anyone not Republican could convey an opinion in 130 characters.

I was wrong, or at least unimaginative. Clearly, Twitter can brighten our days in ways I hadn't considered: a wise-crack, a recommendation from a trusted source, a sounding. I have a serious friend who says that Twitter is his morning newspaper.

Anyway, I have just planted a "follow me on Twitter" widget to the right on my blog site. Or if your are getting this as an email, you may follow this link.  If you click either, I promise to bother you only if I have something I think is worth your time. And I invite you to let anyone you think would want to hear my periodic "tweets" to do the same.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Kennedy Shot Dead

I was in suburban (i.e., Jewish) Montreal, writing a ninth-grade history exam at a public (i.e., Protestant) high school, when the music teacher, a normally cheerful Scot, Mr. McGee, came into our classroom around 2 PM and whispered something serious in my home room teacher's ear. The latter, Mr. Waterman, was lanky, awkward, mustachioed--a lower-rung Brit or Australian--anyway, a teacher of English literature with a Commonwealth accent, which seemed good enough for us. He was obviously taken aback ("Really?") by what McGee had told him, but then looked, now that I think about it, a little like a John Cleese character being successfully contradicted: a faint-fake smile, implying, but failing at, imperturbability.

At 3 PM, when the exam was over, Mr. Waterman immediately hushed us to attention and said half-apologetically, as if crossing a boundary by bringing American "current events" into a Canadian high school: "I don't know if you all think this is important, well, I do: President Kennedy was shot dead today in Texas."

The phrase "shot dead" still feels tactless. Villains are shot dead. Liberty Valance was shot dead. John Kennedy seemed to me above that: my first impulse was that this was a strange Mr. Waterman cruelty, like Shakespearian drama. I could at first not absorb the idea that President Kennedy's body could be wounded. Oh, I knew he had hurt his back planting a tree in Ottawa. But that was a sign of his will, his vigor (that perfect word). He seemed to me--going on fifteen, a fat kid who had willed himself to leanness--corporeal only in the sense that you needed a body to embody virtues, save buddies on PT-109, pat a child's head, or wink and smile through a press conference.

My Bialystoker father, self-taught, driven, but also tortured by failures and not much around, had been no match for Kennedy--or Koufax or Cronkite, Beliveau or Parr. These men, too, seemed to me more manhood than men. For my father, Kennedy was his father's invention and Joe Kennedy was no friend to the Jews. But I didn't need another moral from our lachrymose history. I needed to grow. I had studied Kennedy like someone preparing for a role.

Back in 1960, I had watched the first presidential debate, determined that, yes, free men should defend to the death Kimoi and Matsu; I won a sixth grade essay contest, recapitulating Kennedy's presidential victory, comparing his moves to a chess game. By the fall of 1963, I had read Theodore White's version, faked sickness to stay home to watch his Berlin speech, and knew Vaughn Meader's recording by heart. ("Now, let me say this about thaht.") To say that I could not love him because I was a Montrealer was like saying I should not love elegance. Kennedy had given me ideas pretty much the way Angie Dickinson had.

I left school in a daze, boarded my bus home, and sat in a quiet panic. In the front of the bus sat the local bully, Lenny Dubrofsky, whom I was mostly afraid to mess with. He was, true to form, but still, stupefyingly, joking about the assassination the way he might about a television farce. I was seized with an ecstatic fury I had never known. I pounced on him, trying, not very successfully, to wipe that smile off his face by strangling his overcoat. By the time we were pulled apart, I realized that bravery was overrated. I had defended what seemed sacred, but Lenny was still there, and Kennedy was still shot dead.

I came home and my mother was there, as ever, simple, lost, heavy with sincerity. She was usually no comfort. But this time she said, quietly, "Such a shame." I put my head on her shoulder and wept from the soles of my feet for what seemed many minutes. I thought: I am crying, even on my poor mother; it was for the last time, as things turned out. Then I started watching CBS News, my new birth parents.

That night, I went to my father's apartment for Friday dinner, and we watched some more. "He'll go down in history," my father said, knowingly, as if history was what mattered. Later, Lyndon Johnson emerged before the cameras: "I ask your help--and God's." Ugly, I thought. History is ugly.

Friday, November 22, 2013

The Senate: An Inherent Check On Majorities

New York gets two Senators. So does Wyoming. California gets two. So does Mississippi. Yes, Texas gets two, and so does Vermont, but on the whole, Senate majorities are inherently skewed toward the old Confederacy and homes where the buffalo roam. This is no accident. The Senate was devised to greatly privilege rural states over more citified ones and, as things turned out in the early 19th. century, keep the slave states in the union as the northern industrial states eclipsed them. In its 21st. century incarnation, the Senate is a kind of great, big work of Republican gerrymandering. 

Just look at the states' population figures here and reasonably conclude that conservative Republicans do not have, at least, a built-in, ten seat advantage in the Senate (not to mention a corresponding advantage in the electoral college). Hendrik Hertzberg, typically, cogent on the subject here, once estimated that forty Republican Senators could represent as little as about twenty percent of the population. Imagine a French National Assembly that had to depend on Jean-Marie Le Pen to pass anything.

Keep all of this in mind when you read or hear inane talk about how, in ending the filibuster, Senator Reid showed insufficient consideration for the interests of minorities, a "strong-arm move by Senate Democrats," according to Jonathan Weisman in today's Times. The Senate is inherently an overabundance of consideration for the interests of (bigoted, evangelical, gun-slinging, etc.) minorities. The filibuster just reinforced their power ridiculously.

The Senate, in other words, is the last place Republican minorities should get the extra consideration of a super-majority. I fear Senator Carl Levin may be right to fear that, when Republicans eventually win back a majority, which given their contrived advantages, and without statehood for the District of Columbia, they well might. Then, it will be the urban majorities that will be lacking the protections of a super-majority. So be it. Better give government the means to work.  As Hertzberg says, the real check on power is an election.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Olmert At Dartmouth: Bluntness

Ehud Olmert appeared at Dartmouth College on Tuesday. It's hard to remember a blunter defense of John Kerry's peace process, or statement of impatience with the Netanyahu government, than Olmert's talk, which is worth spending some time with. You can see the entire event here.

Olmert reiterated to me that he is determined to challenge Netanyahu the next time around; he is waiting for the Israeli courts to clear him of charges in outstanding cases against him.  Many things would have to fall into place for a challenge to be plausible--about which, more later. But Olmert listed, in private, an impressive array of people who'd be with him if things do fall into place. So if you've been skeptical of him in the past--and who hasn't?--this lecture will be of particular interest. 

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

The Opportunity Cost Of Conflict


This has just been published on The New Yorker website 

John Kerry is back in Israel, to push for progress on Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. The American government has revealed little about what Kerry has said, but if his past comments are any indication, he may discuss the importance of peace to the Palestinian economy. He’s less likely to talk about the importance of peace to the Israeli economy.

Israel’s G.D.P. per capita was more than thirty-three thousand dollars in 2011, and the country attracted more than ten billion dollars in foreign direct investment last year. The Bank of Israel is flush with reserves, almost eighty billion dollars, with which it can stabilize the shekel. Newly discovered gas fields are estimated to be worth billions of dollars. Last year, Israeli companies exported about sixty-two billion dollars’ worth of goods. And Israeli entrepreneurship is justly famous: in June, Google announced it had bought the Israeli mapping startup Waze, reportedly for a billion dollars. 

No wonder CBS’s “60 Minutes” last year ran a swooning report about greater Tel Aviv, describing it as “Miami on the Med.” “The recession has passed Tel Aviv by,” the leftist Israeli journalist Gideon Levy told Bob Simon. It appears many on the Israeli left doubt that a continued occupation will lead to economic harm. During the summer of 2011, when hundreds of thousands took to the streets to protest social inequalities, organizers generally elided mention of the conflict. Palestinians, for their part, insist the occupation is boosting Israel’s companies at the expense of Palestinian ones. 

The Israeli right seems even more convinced that the occupation hasn’t hurt the economy. In 1998, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told me in an interview for Fortune that Israel’s military research, along with immigration to the country by Russians, would lead inexorably to prosperity. “Peace would be a useful, additional condition,” he said, “but it is not the primordial, necessary condition, which is, anywhere, economic freedom.” Last year, Dan Senor, an American writer and political adviser who has promoted Israel as the “Start-Up Nation,” took Mitt Romney—his candidate (and Netanyahu’s)—on a pre-election trip to Jerusalem. Romney said Israel’s economic progress provided a “model for others throughout the world.” 

The problem is that it is difficult to determine the opportunity cost of the conflict. How well might the Israeli economy have done if the conflict hadn’t taken place? 

Now, Yusaku Horiuchi, my colleague in Dartmouth College’s government department, has applied a fascinating new method for deriving just this. Imagine, Horiuchi explained to me, that we could take a pool of countries similar to Israel in various respects—exports as a percentage of G.D.P., urban population, mortality rates, consumption, government expenditure as a percentage of G.D.P., and so on—and then use that pool—call it a “donor pool”— to create a “synthetic Israel” that we could track alongside the real one. To do this, you could use known statistical methods to combine these countries’ economic records, so that the weighted average record of economic performance in the pool tracked with Israel’s record over, say, a generation. 

True, crucial characteristics in other countries would not be like Israel’s. Other O.E.C.D. countries are bigger; they do not have ultra-Orthodox communities; they don’t have, per capita, as many edgy scientists—or drivers. But when you track the real Israel against synthetic Israel, their economies behave quite similarly, and that’s what matters to the analysis. This isn’t a completely new method of analysis: Horiuchi is applying to political economy an approach similar to what some asset-management companies apply to investing. 

Now imagine a catalytic event that affected Israel but not synthetic Israel—an event with long-term ramifications, like an eruption of the violent conflict with the Palestinians. We could then compare Israel to synthetic Israel and see if any divergences in economic performance seem attributable to this event and its aftermath. If a demonstrable gap opens up, and is never closed, we would have a sense of the opportunity cost of the conflict’s exacerbation. 

I could not resist. We experienced precisely such an event in the early aughts, the Al Aqsa intifada, which disrupted a long period of hopeful normalization and kicked off a decade of tension and periodic war. As it happens, this was precisely the decade in which the “Start-up Nation” was said to have come into its own. 

I suggested that we track Israel’s G.D.P. per capita from 1980 to 2000—which in spite of the 1982 Lebanon War, and the comparatively nonviolent intifada of 1988, was a relatively peaceful, even hopeful, time—and then build a synthetic Israel for the same period. Couldn’t we then determine what Israel’s G.D.P. per capita might have been, if that relative peace had continued during the decade that followed? 

Imagine, in other words, that Ehud Barak and Yasir Arafat had come to terms at Camp David in 2000, rather than ending direct talks in frustration and mutual recrimination. How would Israel’s economy have looked in 2010? What have Israeli citizens been missing? 

Horiuchi and a Dartmouth student, Asher Mayerson, ran this analysis. First, they built a synthetic Israel made up of real countries: 3.7 per cent Belgium, 22.9 per cent Finland, 38.3 per cent Greece, 9.6 per cent New Zealand, 11.2 per cent Singapore, and 14.3 per cent Turkey. From 1980 to 2000, the growth of per capita G.D.P. of synthetic Israel tracked with Israel’s almost exactly—from about fifteen thousand dollars per year (in 2005 dollars) to about twenty-three thousand dollars. Both were entered into a graph.  

Then, in 2001, the first year after the outbreak of violence, comes a startling break in the lines on the graph. By 2004, the per capita G.D.P. for Israelis was $22,637, while the comparable figure for synthetic Israelis was $25,942. The gap then widened slightly and never closed. (The possibility that this deviation was the result of chance is under five per cent, Horiuchi shows.) 

There could, of course, be other reasons for the divergence. Likud officials have insisted that Israel’s unimpressive growth rate in the aughts had to do not with the conflict but with the bursting of the dot-com bubble. But at least a couple of the countries that make up synthetic Israel—Finland and Singapore—had larger high-tech sectors than Israel’s in 2001, as measured by the countries’ high-tech exports as a percentage of total manufactured exports. Yet Finland and Singapore saw their G.D.P.s grow more between 2001 and 2008 than did Israel—and so, too, did synthetic Israel. The 2000 intifada, meanwhile, had such a profound impact on Israel that it would appear to have been the most significant reason for the gap between real Israel and synthetic Israel. Cumulatively, from 2001 to 2010, Israel’s per capita G.D.P. was $25,513 less than that of synthetic Israel’s. 

What is $25,513 per capita in the grand scheme of things? A great deal. For an Israeli family of four, even after income taxes, it might have meant a down payment on an apartment, a college education for a child, or a couple of new cars. Because tax rates in Israel are generally around forty per cent, there are implications for the government, too: based on conservative estimates (assuming, for instance, that only a third of the revenue goes to taxes), the lost G.D.P. could amount to nearly sixty billion dollars going to the government—a big proportion of the country’s annual budget. Horiuchi’s analysis ends in 2010, but if the trends have continued since then, the lost G.D.P. would have grown. 

That is no small matter. We are talking about a government that has been cutting desperately to cover a deficit. This is a country where only about sixty-four per cent of the adult, non-elderly population participates in the labor force (a figure that is fourteen points below that of the Netherlands and four points below that of Greece), and where forty per cent of children are, according to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, “in significant risk of falling below the poverty line,” about double the O.E.C.D. average. 

The boasts from Israel’s promoters also obscure tremendous inequalities in the country. In Sweden, which has progressive taxation and social-welfare policies much like Israel’s, the share of income held by the top percentile was seven per cent in 2011. In Israel, it was nearly thirteen per cent. At Israel’s poverty rate of about twenty-one per cent is the highest in the developed world. The repercussions are felt throughout the country: Hebrew University has made massive cuts, especially in the humanities and social sciences, to try to cover an operating deficit of about fifty-five million dollars. The Taub Center, a Jerusalem-based research institute, reports that for every ten tenured or tenure-track faculty members at Israel’s colleges and universities, there are nearly three Israelis filling similar positions in the United States. Gershom Gorenberg argued in The American Prospect that this is “a rate of intellectual exodus on a greater scale than that of any other country in the world.” 

Israel should be thought of as several countries in one: Tel Aviv, an advanced, global hub, could be compared to Singapore, while dozens of less developed towns, like Yerucham, have more in common with Turkey. Peace in Israel would mitigate the social tensions between the country’s rich and poor. But beyond that, the rapid growth engendered by peace would allow Israel to improve social relations even more—especially as so many of the poor are Arabs. 

“We can grow without progressing toward peace,” Stanley Fischer, the former governor of the Bank of Israel, said back in 2007. But he added that with peace, growth would be much higher: “We are talking about the difference between four percent growth a year and growth of five to six percent a year.” 

Imagine, in other words, if Israel looked more like its synthetic counterpart. It would not have to invest so much more of its national budget on defense than what other O.E.C.D. countries spend, freeing up funds for social programs and infrastructure. Investment in its academic institutions and hospitals would likely mean an early return to Israel of scientists and physicians; the gain in intellectual capital would prompt expanded innovation. 

Consider, also, the boost to tourism. (Jerusalem, in a good year, gets about three million tourists. Florence gets ten million.) An improved tourism industry, as with industries like construction, retail, and food processing—precisely those industries that a growing Palestinian state will need—would translate to jobs for Israelis who live in parts of the country that are least like Singapore. 

Nor should the prospect of continuing conflict be considered a tolerable steady state. Even in the most high-tech industries, very few Israeli companies make consumer products like Waze’s app. They tend, instead, to solve problems for other companies, which entails building relationships with product-development groups around the world. Venture capitalists worry that, should Israel become a political pariah, many global corporations—potential customers for their portfolio startups—would write off dealing with Israelis as just too much trouble. On the other hand, imagine Israeli businesses, with Palestinian partners, building customer networks in Saudi Arabia and the Emirates. 

That’s why some of the very people Bob Simon interviewed for “60 Minutes,” including the high-tech guru Yossi Vardi, later organized a conference in Amman to push for peace, under the auspices of the World Economic Forum. “We come from the field, and we’re feeling the pressure,” one participant told Haaretz. “If we don’t make progress toward a two-state solution, there will be negative developments for the Israeli economy. We’re already noticing initial signs of this. The future of the Israeli economy will be in danger.”

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Tony Lewis, American, Jew, Remembered

Anthony Lewis will be remembered at the Kennedy Library in Boston on Monday evening.  The time of tributes and obituaries has past; this is the time of missing.

For about 15 years, Tony was a regular at a lunch group we started, just around the time Reagan was first elected.  It was a moment when Boston-based writers and journalists felt that we were going into a kind of internal exile.  Tony hardly missed a meeting; that's because, if he couldn't make it, we'd usually find another time.

Partly, of course, that was because he was the great veteran and carried the charisma of the Times. But the latter wore off after a while; and Tony's humility (which is distinct from modesty) made his presence a simpler pleasure than we younger writers could imagine at first. We wanted him there because our conversation needed a gyroscope. And in the months since his death, it's occurred to me often that he was that for his readers, too.

Tony was the writer you took for granted because his voice and temperament were so blended with America's foundational principles that you didn't really look to him for surprises. Rather, you looked to him for courage. If he was for it, no matter how fringe, then you could be. This mattered especially when the position was about Israel and fringe to American Jews, about which more in a moment.

I hasten to add that fringe was really not his style. He had the temperament of one who held things together because things fall apart: whatever was radical about his instincts intended politics to be brought ever closer to institutions and laws that promised stability: for family and privacy, for property (but not too much) and enlightenment. You felt that he wrote for Times readers because he could not write letters to Madison, his column a way to imagine the Federalist Papers up to date. 

Enlightened liberalism, you see, entailed a certain courtesy, precision, evidence, reasoning. Wackiness (you didn't mention "Guys and Dolls" if you didn't want to change the subject) was for private spaces; public passion might be shown, but mainly in campaigns against those who would undermine the legal structures or cultural achievements out of which liberalism grows: campaigns against McCarthy, Communism, Jim Crow, Apartheid, empire, evangelical Reaganism.

And occupation. Tony sniffed out the illiberal drift of Israeli policy early on, especially when Yitzhak Rabin first took office in the spring of 1974, and it suddenly seemed clear that Golda Meir's petulant justifications for settlers and force had hardened into a consensus that outlasted her and the October War; portended the rise of a rightist bloc that would eventually put Israel's very existence at risk. In column after column, Tony implied but did not just say that applying the lessons of liberalism--rights, secularism, bourgeois moderation, etc.--to the Palestinian question would not only not compromise Israeli security but were the very things to make Israel resilient.

Among Palestinians, too, he sought out lawyers. For Tony, ordinary human rights meant political guile. That's because ordinary unfairness meant rage, rage meant cynicism about law, lawlessness meant violence, and being on the wrong side of indignation meant eventual defeat.  Peace, Spinoza said, is not the absence of war but the presence of justice. He saw this in the South, in South Africa, in Europe. Israel was making a mistake that, when Tony wrote about it, could only be called "classical."

Going around the West Bank with Tony meant seeing things plain, from a kind of historical distance: the felt-tip pen writing, the flip-page notebook, quotes piling up. Then, that signature sighing smile that said, "This will be bad."

I hasten to add that, though Tony had a deep affinity for Israel, he had no particular knowledge of, or interest in, Hebrew culture. He'd come to your child's Bar Mitzvah, but his interest in synagogues seemed anthropological. But Israel was on his mind. At our lunch group, Israeli policy always got its due, usually because Tony brought the subject up. Why? I never really asked. There was, I assumed, something about Tony's generation of American Jewish liberals that kept Israel in its sights: the holocaust, the kibbutz, the valiance and folk-songs, the euphoria of 1967. The country's fate was interesting.

But I think there was a peculiar kind of Jewish Americaness also in that fascination with constitutional law and legal exegesis. I often thought of Tony as a kind of secular Jew in the high sense, like Brandeis, or Louis Nizer, an original, responsible mind disciplined by a sense of working in a definite tradition; a man whose Torah was the constitution and Bill of Rights, and whose inspiration was prophetic--that is, a man who denounced injustices especially when the letter of the law got in the way of its (in this case) democratic spirit--and who poured his creative powers not into private art but public interpretation. No law was sacred, but the right to interpret law most certainly was.

Indeed, the law defined us: no bad apples, just bad barrels. Tony spent a good deal of time on foreign policy, but that could be misleading. His primary concern was, I think, how should a democracy behave in the world? How far can we go in understanding the strange other? That instinctive tolerance could get one into trouble. It could make you rationalize the likes of Robert Mugabe.  But most of all, it made you decent, like Dr. Rieux in Camus' The Plague.

I like to think that, in another time and place, a person with Tony's sensibilities--his love of law and disgust with arbitrary power--would have been a Talmudist defying the Inquisition. Or at least he would have thought defying, elegant thoughts. For he also loved life itself, and would not have thrown it away in a hopeless show of resistance. In the absence of that love, what good is law?

Monday, October 14, 2013

Why CEOs Are Overpaid Too Much

The New Yorker's James Surowiecki's column on executive pay suggests that corporate boards are falling victim to what Keynes called "animal spirits," flocking behavior, which more transparency will do little to dampen. I reflected on this problem during the 2009 recession; Surowiecki may well be right, but there is another fact of the "knowledge economy" he might factor in, namely, the astonishing enrichment of young entrepreneurs enabled by global software.

The most interesting chart showing the connection between executive compensation and company performance--also, I suppose, the arguable importance of executive retention--is the one I saw proudly displayed on a bulletin board at Motorola corporate offices in Schaumberg Illinois in 1994. George M.C. Fisher, the company's widely admired Chairman and CEO, had resigned without warning a few months before to take over at Eastman-Kodak. By all accounts, Motorola had paid Fisher about $5 million and Kodak offered him $100 million in salary and stock options. He was known as a technologist who was also subtle about people and talent--a good man all round. Nevertheless, Motorola's stock price hardly budged at the announcement of his departure and had recovered completely by the time I was there. "If one leader could matter that much," I was told, "then the leader could not possibly have done his job right."

Investors, like the Motorola executives I talked too, were shrewd to shrug off Fisher's departure, much as some regretted losing his friendship. It would be a great mistake to look at Motorola's subsequent difficulties and attribute them to his leaving any more than attribute Motorola's meteoric ascent in the late 1980s to his taking over from (the more justifiably legendary) Bob Galvin. Make no mistake, I admired Fisher a good deal and liked him personally so far as I knew him. One of the reasons he was widely admired was that my fellow Harvard Business Review editor Bill Taylor and I had published an in depth interview with Fisher in 1989. (He spoke about Motorola becoming interested in an IPO. I joked, lamely, that it was curious why Motorola would bother with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. But he laughed and laughed anyway.)  

Anyway, largely because of the Galvin family's legacy, Motorola was very much a place of team play. The corporate culture celebrated, without apparent cynicism, practical engineering, customer service, employee development and cosmopolitan openness. You walked around the Motorola cafeteria wearing a gold identity badge if you accumulated patents; Motorola was mentoring the public schools. By 1989, the company's various people had all but invented the cell phone industry, the corporate university, six sigma quality, and were the first to open up the Chinese telecom market. Fisher had contributed to all of these things but was by no means responsible for them. Even as CEO, he sat in a "two-in-a-box" relationship with the COO, Gary Tooker, who took over from him within hours of his departure. Nobody (as Bill Taylor later put it) is as smart as everybody. 

And Fisher's subsequent run at Kodak was not distinguished.  He probably did better than some other leaders would have, given how the advance of digital technology creatively destroyed Kodak's photography business (much as it destroyed the market for Motorola's analog phones, by the way).  But Fisher certainly did not "turn the company around."  Four years later, his $100 million had shrunk to less than half because of the decline in Kodak stock--a decline that forced him to cut thousands of jobs, but not, revealingly, his own salary.  Fisher is now, and has been since 1996, the most powerful director on the board of General Motors. Enough said.  


I'VE BEEN THINKING of Fisher's record, what with the dust-up over AIG bonuses. Okay, who hasn't wondered if America hasn't become what Bedford Falls would have become if George Baily had just taken Mr. Potter's money. Then again, Potter offered $20,000 a year, not $2 million.

I have no doubt that Fisher remains an honorable man, as fascinated now about how things work as he was back in Bell Labs in the 1970s, when he toiled away, ahead of its time, on the video-phone. He was probably less drawn to the money than to proving himself, that is, without the Galvin family's prestige blowing at his back. Still, there was a hubris here that feels somewhat beyond Frank Capra's imagination. How did a decent man leading an inventive, collaborative company, someone already earning a hundred times what a public school teacher earned, get up one morning and tell himself he was actually worth 2000 times this?

Ideas about ordinary Mephistophelean bargains seem unimaginative here, for somebody was willing to pay him. This was not just about his weaknesses for power. Greed shmeed.

The real question is, how did we get to a public standard that considered business talent in this way? Wall Street, Sinclair Lewis knew, was always just an exaggerated version of Main Street. So how did Main Street--or even HBR readers--get comfortable with the idea that most every senior business executive should be earning something like, say, Mick Jagger?

I know this is complicated, but I think that little acronym IPO is relevant here.  I remember Ted Levitt, HBR's chief editor, coming into my office one day back in 1989, brooding as usual, but also chewing on an insight, the revolutionary qualities of software. Suddenly, he said, the brain's logic can simply be embodied--"externalized," he said--in film full of electrons. You make it for one, and you've made it for a million. The "marginal cost" of adding a customer, he might have added, is more or less zero. Need I add that this was the time Microsoft stock, and Bill Gates' net worth, was beginning to make MBAs drool? 

And Levitt's vision was prophetic in its way. Launching a software company, or a product with a large component of software, paid you back much the way a hit record did.

Suddenly Peoplesoft took off.  Suddenly we had Siebel and Netscape. And then Yahoo and Google and Pets.com. What this meant for the business class was that young people did not get just rich. They got hyper-rich. You made it for one and you were making it for a million--or a billion, if you included China and India and Brazil. Twenty-somethings were making more than the entire management of a Fortune 500 company put together. 

TO BE SURE, Tom Wolfe had already written Bonfire of the Vanities, and Michael Milken had already copped a plea. So it was not as if we lacked other, less savory models for enrichment. But I don't believe that George Fisher, or AIG executives for that matter, really saw themsleves as masters of the universe, trading and trading, making cut after cut on mega deals. I think they saw themselves as selling "products," indeed that they were making the world more stable. But I think they also assumed that, in joining the heights of the business class, they had entered a kind of magical kingdom spreading east from Silicon Valley; the top centile which a "new economy" decreed was worth the bottom 99; a place where, as in a successful IPO, a million gets you 100 million, where exponents replace multipliers.    

It may be time to start radically increasing marginal tax rates above, say, Fisher's original $5 million. It may be time to start capping the management salaries in public companies. It may be time to stop permitting stock bonuses for performance spanning less than, say, four years. It may be time for transparency and shame. But the blockbuster logic of software and entrepreneurship and IPOs will, if anything, get stronger as the web becomes ever more pervasive.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

A State Of Its Citizens?

Last Sunday, at the J Street Conference, I participated in a panel on “How Israel Can Represent All Its Citizens While Staying True to Its Jewish Character.” My interlocutors were Amal Elsana Alhjooj and Ruth Calderon. I decided to speak extemporaneously rather than deliver what I prepared.  The latter appears below.  

Should Israel be a state of its citizens or a Jewish state? We often hear this question. We also hear, even in the written promotional materials for this J Street session, that a Jewish state might aspire to be “a light unto the nations.” Perhaps we should just learn from the nations for a change.

Israel, it is said, is a nation-state, legally, in fact, the “Jewish and democratic state,” a phrase adopted in the Basic Law of Human Dignity, whose meaning is hardly self-evident. The first formal expression implying “Jewish and democratic” was in the Biltmore Program of May, 1942, calling for a “Jewish Commonwealth integrated in the structure of the new democratic world.” The UN Partition Resolution of 1947 called for a Jewish state and Arab state, including strict democratic protections for minorities in each state. It also called for an economic union, but never mind.

For most Israelis and American Jews, the “Jewish” part of the phrase “Jewish and democratic” implies many things, which don’t necessarily work together: a Jewish majority, political representation for world Jewry, the incorporation of Jewish law into civil affairs, an historical attachment to the land of Israel, which is magically transformed into an "historic right," whatever that is.

Ask Israelis on the street and most will just default to the idea that a Jewish majority justifies privileges for Jews, individually as well as collectively, though nobody who voted for Biltmore thought a “Jewish Commonwealth integrated in the structure of the new democratic world” meant that the Jewish state would give privileges exclusively to individual citizens, legally designated as Jewish owing to rabbinic decree or J positive blood.

Yes, the Zionists who mattered at the time of Biltmore may have anticipated something like the Law of Return, a peculiar necessity in its time, which adopted the principle that anyone Nazis would have hunted according to the Nuremberg Laws would be welcome. But Zionists mostly took for granted that Israel would be a Jewish state in the sense that it would be place of Hebrew culture, what Ahad Haam had called the "Hebrew national atmosphere." When Yediot Aharonot put a headline on its story celebrating the UN partition resolution of 1947, it read Kama Medina Ivrit: “the Hebrew state rises.”

Alas, things did not work out as planned. For reasons too familiar to repeat here—reasons largely having to do with implementing the Law of Return in conjunction with the Jewish Agency—the Jewish state apparatus came to recognize two forms of legal status: citizenship and nationality. Israeli citizenship entitled you to civil privileges: equality before the law in courts of law, the right to vote, etc. Jewish nationality entitled you to exclusive material privileges, privileged access to state controlled lands, housing in Jewish settlements, optional state-sponsored orthodox education, national service, a burden, to be sure, but also, in a small economy, an important career move. Jewish nationality also made you subject to the ministrations of a state-sponsored national-orthodox rabbinate overseeing marriage, burial, and divorce.

What makes you a citizen as opposed to being a Jewish national? Again, Israel’s legal strictures are too convoluted to go through here. Suffice it to say that nationality has depended on exclusive notions of Halachic commitment and/or achieving the right bloodlines:

If you are born to a Jewish mother, then you are, by law, a Jewish national and a citizen. You are also a Jewish national, and subject to immediate citizenship, if you are an immigrant who has not renounced the Jewish faith and are descended from at least one Jewish grandparent. If you are born in Israel to a Jewish father only, then you are a citizen—but can only become a Jewish national by sincerely converting to Judaism, usually according to orthodox standards. A non-Jew can also become a Jewish national by converting, like the child born in Israel to a non-Jewish mother, but unlike that child, cannot be a citizen without converting.

Arabs and other nationalities born in Israel to a mother and father who are citizens are also citizens. But if only one parent is a citizen, and the other is from Jordan, say, the child may not be accepted as a citizen. Arabs born outside the country, and who may want to immigrate, say, to marry and Arab citizen, may do so in rare cases, but are unlikely to be granted citizenship. Then again, if you live in Israel long enough, and petition the interior ministry persistently enough, the ministry can make you a citizen. Clear?

All of which raises the real question the term “Jewish and democratic” begs: not what a Jew is, but what a democratic state is. If we were clearer about the latter, we might not be so tortured about the former. And here is where Israel can learn much from other states that have struggled with reconciling nationality with democracy, states like Canada, or states of the European Union.

A person, Kant tells us, is crooked timber from which no straight thing can be made. Why then expect straightforward laws of citizenship? Because a democratic state is not a person. Neither is it a super-sized family or congregation. It does not claim to embody any particular values, save for the value of providing its citizens the room to compete in establishing values. It should certainly not aspire to define its citizens in terms of a singular national identity the way people do, or at least the way teen-agers think they do.

On the contrary, a democratic state, including Israel, should provide its crooked timber—its individual citizens and voluntary groups—the means to pursue their lives according to their consciences. A democratic state has no business telling you whom or how to love, what is beauty, or how to conceive of the divine. It cannot declare a book as sacred. It can only declare the right to interpret books as sacred.

Ah, but what then would be Jewish about it? Don’t nation-states have national majorities; and don’t majorities have the prerogative to protect national identity and pass laws to protect what engenders national identity? Yes and no, mainly no, but the yes is a very big deal.

The thing is, the Zionist generation of partition was right: Kama Medina Ivrit. The only part of national identity democratic states justifiably legislate is that which is immanently inclusive of all citizens and immigrants, namely, the national language.

So when Israel insists on being recognized as a Jewish state, it should make clear that this means the home for Jewish national culture, Hebrew culture—that the state will continue to make Hebrew the primary official language of education and transactions with the state apparatus, though for obvious, pragmatic reasons, Israeli schools should also teach all of its citizens Arabic and English as well.

Put this another way. A democratic state is not a person, but it may have personality. Languages give us distinctive worlds. The inclusiveness of Hebrew is its virtue in this context; learning it does not entail legal discrimination. On the contrary, Hebrew provides all Israeli citizens the keys to Jewish civilization without taking other keys away. How individual citizens search for locks is their own business.

You want to form an orthodox congregation? Great. Where would you rather do this but in a Hebrew-speaking society? You want to advocate for including a precept of Jewish law in civil or criminal law? Fine. Where would a justice be more likely than in Israel to run across an arguable precept. If Arabs want to set up private schools teaching primarily in Arabic and valorizing Islam, that is their concern.

But at the same time, Sayed Kashua can groove on Shoteh Hanevuah, the way I, the son of a Bialystoker in Montreal, grooved on Gilles Vigneualt. Jewish civilization is not made poorer by Kashua’s novels and the Quebecois were not made poorer by my folk-singing.

A last point, which returns me to the first question—a pretty stupid question when you think about it. A democratic state is, by definition, a state of its citizens. It can only be a state of its citizens. Israel must simply stop discriminating against, or in favor, of individual citizens on the basis of religion or biology. It must graduate from the Law of Return to a proper immigration law based on naturalization; it must separate the rabbinate from the state apparatus; it must end public support for confessional schools the way Quebec did; it must privatize land and stop including exclusively Jewish institutions like the JNF in long term state planning.

But this does not mean a state of its citizens cannot have a Jewish character. Of course it can. It can protect the "Hebrew national atmosphere." It can also have holidays and symbols that accommodate what most citizens will celebrate.

What it cannot do is cross that boundary—not a geographical boundary for once—beyond which a democratic state has no business. It should not be a state of its citizens to sacrifice Jewish interests to those of its Arab minority. It should be a state of its citizens because that's what democratic states are. They have no right to tell citizens how to live our perverse, hybridized, sinful, erudite, globalized, psychoanalyzed, modern, post-modern, mortal, tragic lives. Israel does have the right to insist that our lives be lived in, or also in, Hebrew. That’s it. The rest is commentary.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

One State Illusions: From Quebec To Palestine

The Citadel,  Quebec City
The following was just published on The New Yorker website

During much of 1837, the French Catholic population of Lower Canada—still thickly settled in seignorial landholdings along the St. Lawrence River—was roiled by rebellion. The underlying conflict with British imperial rule had no obvious end. Ever since the conquest of 1759, when Quebec was bombarded with forty thousand cannonballs, the defeat had been remembered reverentially. Almost twelve thousand members of the French population of Acadia—renamed, as if to rub it in, Nova Scotia—had been exiled to Louisiana, where Acadians became “Cajuns.” To this day, Je me souviens (I remember) appears on Quebec license plates.

So New France felt not so much like a bygone place as an occupied territory, wedged uneasily within British Upper Canada. Quebec’s Citadel housed the 22nd Regiment. What was left of French peasant life was aided, and tightly controlled, by ultramontane priests. Educated French élites felt the ambient pressure of British culture, now spreading across the American continent. A succession of English governors gave preference to English settlers, including loyalists after the American Revolution. French hopelessness was mitigated somewhat by a British-mandated, elected legislative assembly. But especially in Montreal, British colonists grew into a plutocracy, the Château Clique. English and Scottish entrepreneurs ran the banks, timber harvesting, and the rest. In the eighteen-twenties, James McGill, the fur trader and land baron, endowed an English-language university.

By 1837, then, even moderate French leaders, feeling the spirit of the age, had had enough. The demand was independence; some took to the streets. Groups of French patriots rose in a pathetically spontaneous insurgency, inspired by the self-rule appeals of Louis-Joseph Papineau, a cultured politician who had earlier engineered full civil rights for Quebec’s Jews. The British governor, ending the sedition, crushed the revolt and began hanging its leaders. Papineau fled for his life to the United States.

All of which brought Lord Durham, John George Lambton, to Canada, in 1838. The Crown appointed him to investigate the violence and propose a solution. The Durham Report, tabled before the end of the year, aimed at confronting the disturbances without illusions. “I expected to find a conflict between the government and the people,” Lord Durham famously wrote. “Instead, I found two warring nations within a single State; I found a struggle, not of principles, but of races. And I realized that it would be pointless to try to improve the laws or institutions without succeeding in extinguishing the mortal hatred which now divides the inhabitants of Lower Canada into two hostile groups: French and English.”

What could be done about this mortal hatred? Durham’s solution was radical. The nations should be united: Upper and Lower Canada should be forced to share a single area, with a single legislature. Because they could not stop hurling extreme nationalist claims at one another, granting each nation (read, the French Canadian nation) genuine autonomy would be unrealistic. One state, Durham implied, would end the illusion of two nations. It would mean that French Canada, a people “without a history and without a literature,” would gradually assimilate into the larger, English-speaking continent.

It is hard for an old Montrealer to read Ian Lustick’s lavishly promoted Op-Ed in the Times this past Sunday, “Two-State Illusion,” without thinking about the Durham Report’s odd legacy.

Lustick gives us a hard-edged analysis about how the two-state solution is finished. Why? Because Islamist trends make Palestinians more likely to choose a jihadist struggle against Israel than a small, secular state. Besides, even moderate Palestinians imagine the return of refugees, the evacuation of almost all settlements, and East Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital, which Israelis are unwilling to deliver. Israelis, for their part, have been in the grip of a destructive, madly captivating settlement movement for forty-five years, which America might have stopped, but never mind. It is a movement that has sprung, tragically, from Zionist forces.

What does this leave us with? In Lustick’s view, “one mixed state emerging from prolonged and violent struggles over democratic rights”:

Secular Palestinians in Israel and the West Bank could ally with Tel Aviv’s post-Zionists, non-Jewish Russian-speaking immigrants, foreign workers and global-village Israeli entrepreneurs. Anti-nationalist ultra-Orthodox Jews might find common cause with Muslim traditionalists. Untethered to statist Zionism in a rapidly changing Middle East, Israelis whose families came from Arab countries might find new reasons to think of themselves not as ‘Eastern,’ but as Arab. Masses of downtrodden and exploited Muslim and Arab refugees, in Gaza, the West Bank and in Israel itself could see democracy, not Islam, as the solution for translating what they have (numbers) into what they want (rights and resources). Israeli Jews committed above all to settling throughout the greater Land of Israel may find arrangements based on a confederation, or a regional formula more attractive than narrow Israeli nationalism. 

I’ll come back to that word “confederation,” which Lustick yanks in without saying much about its implications. But, first, notice what this logic boils down to: the fight has been going on so long, the nations hate each other so much, and past mistakes have piled so high that civilized compromise has become impossible. So, hey, let’s go straight to making one state out of them.

Once “the two-state-fantasy blindfolds are off,” politics “could make strange bedfellows.” Secular Tel Aviv residents will connect with Ramallah types, Israeli Sephardim will remember that they are Arabs, and yeshiva bochers will share wisdom at madrassas. Presumably, all will speak a nicely accented English, like Pierre Trudeau and René Lévesque, debating each other in the Toronto studios of the CBC. 

This is hardly the first article of this kind. When it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Durhamism has become positively hip. Nathan Thrall, writing in The New York Review of Books; Ben Birnbaum, in The New Republic; Gideon Levy, in Haaretz—I could add others—have made essentially the same point Lustick did. Given Likud’s annexationist momentum, together with the Palestinian Authority’s feebleness and lingering commitment to the “right of return,” prospects for a negotiated settlement have become pitiable, so let’s imagine one state instead.

The trouble is, Durham’s plan was less a plan than an expression of exasperation. It proved utterly unworkable, and was quickly forgotten. The “warring nations,” which continued to be at odds, and might always be, did not forge modern Canada that way. Instead, by 1867, a new generation of leaders, John A. Macdonald in English-speaking Canada and George-Étienne Cartier representing the French population, found the formula for the only possible civilized solution: a Canadian confederation, which was careful to leave to the provinces all the powers that Quebec, in particular, needed to preserve French-language education, religious liberty, and civil law. In effect, Canada, at its inception, was two states for two nations, with French Quebec flanked by a combination of English-speaking Ontario and Maritime provinces, sharing what might be shared and exercising sovereignty where necessary. If it looks like one peaceful country now, it got there because of leaders negotiating as if there were two.

Much like Durham, Lustick confuses exasperation with remedy. He is so impatient with the “peace process industry”—“legions of consultants, pundits, academics and journalists”—that he seems oblivious to how the very reasons he advances for the end of a two-state solution make one state not just unlikely but absurd. Imagine a single legislature trying to come up with funding for the Hebrew University, or for resettling Palestinian refugees before compensating Jews expelled from Baghdad.

What’s unspoken, I suspect, is what Durham at least had the courage to say. For post-two-staters, it would be no tragedy if one of these nations essentially disappeared. Jews aren’t really a nation, are they? Just listen to the national-religious settlers, who see themselves as messianic messengers. Jews may be driven to solidarity by the pathos of historical persecution, but this doesn’t mean they need to remain separate—not when Jon Stewart enjoys America the way he does and Benjamin Netanyahu steals West Bank land the way he does. Maybe Israelis, once they realize that their “Zionist project” is producing “isolation, emigration and hopelessness,” will go down the same path in the Middle East that Durham imagined for the French in North America.

Lustick does not actually say this. But more and more of the “secular Palestinians in Israel and the West Bank”—whom he obviously admires—do. They speak, often sincerely, about Judaism as a religion that could continue to be practiced in a secular state that looks like some idealized Palestine before Zionism spoiled things, with no Hebrew, no history, no literature, no Yehuda Amichai poetry, no Yehudit Ravitz songs—none of that national culture that Quebecers learned long ago requires a state apparatus to protect, and which the provinces shrewdly kept within their jurisdictions. As Peter Beinart says eloquently in the current New York Review of Books, one can also find any number of Jews who deny that Palestinians constitute a nation, and who expect them graciously to disappear from the Land of Israel and assimilate into Jordan, Syria, and the Arab world in general.

In fact, advocates of a two-state solution are not a bunch of naïfs unwilling to see how badly the peace process is doing. They are terrified citizens, trying, against hope, to avoid Bosnia—that is, a terrible, engulfing violence in which memories of the fighting of 1948 will be eclipsed by much greater atrocities, which will leave us with exactly the same problem we had at the start: namely, Canada’s problem. How do you reconcile the fierce desire for national distinction—and the fear of national extinction—with civil rights for all?

Lustick is surely right that many supporters of the two-state solution ignore what seems too painful to acknowledge: that the Palestinian desire to return cannot simply be finessed; that hundreds of thousands of Israeli settlers, many of them armed, could make the O.A.S. of Algeria’s pieds noirs look tame. I have argued myself (in The New Yorker, back in 1995) that two states cannot be separated the way those who call for a “divorce” suppose. The two states would need to be developed, almost from the start, along confederal lines. Together, these projected states are about the size of greater Los Angeles, and share a single urban infrastructure and business ecosystem, with a need to coöperate to a very high degree on security—in the face of terror undergrounds armed with sophisticated weapons—on roads and bridges, water and sewage systems, telecommunications, public health and epidemiology, banking and currency policy, tourism, and so on.

None of this means, however, that the step of negotiating two states can be skipped, or that negotiators can sidestep confederal principles if and when serious talks progress. We’ve already seen this in practice: when Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas negotiated over Jerusalem, they quickly realized that their respective desires to have a capital in the city, with access to the Old City, required confederal solutions—two sovereignties, but a single municipal government for the greater city, with an international committee of states to act as custodian for the Holy Basin.

Lustick might have advanced the idea of a confederation, not as an afterthought but as the culmination of the two-state approach. Confederal ideas have emerged, as in Canada, as the product of—not as a substitute for—prolonged, serious negotiations over preserving two distinct cultures, two sovereign peoples. Sadly, arguments for a two-state solution bore most of us to death. And they may be losing as badly as arguments for gun control in America, although advocates for what I and others have called “global Israel” are at least as numerous as advocates for greater Israel—each can claim about forty per cent of Israeli voters—and the more that Israel finds itself diplomatically isolated, the more trenchant globalist voices sound.

But one argues for a two-state solution even if success seems unlikely at the moment, even if it seems unlikely within our lifetimes. One argues for it not because such arguments pay but because they are just. A just cause can lose. But, eventually, as in Canada, it can also win.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Mr. President: Use The Vote To Reengage Putin

A short follow-up on Syria. President Obama's decision to take his intended military action to Congress is constitutionally satisfying, and politically shrewd, for all the obvious reasons.  But it has another virtue, if Obama and Kerry have the wit to exploit this.  As Haaretz's Barak Ravid argues in this deft and largely ignored column, it reopens the diplomatic window, which is the only way Obama can contribute to the least of bad outcomes in the Syrian chaos.

The heart-breaking fact of Syria is that the regime will commit atrocities to avoid defeat. When you have the power, and the dread of being undone, you act with otherwise unimaginable cruelty; Thucydides knew this, Hobbes knew this, and no doubt Obama's read Thucydides and Hobbes. Egyptian generals just killed almost 1500 people to thwart the Moslem Brothers and Israel killed almost 1500 (and 400 children) in Gaza to try to end missile strikes in 2009. Chemical weapons are worse than phosphorous bombs, presumably, but mainly to bystanders.

The question is, how to curtail the violence that produces more desperate violence? The McCain-Graham answer is that, ultimately, you end violence by killing violent people and supporting peace-loving people to victory. There is a grain of truth here; Grant's armies committed atrocities in defeating the South and Eisenhower's armies committed atrocities in defeating Nazism. McCain and Graham want us to believe that, while the Free Syrian Army, General Idris, etc., do not represent established democracies, they and their forces have democratic principles in mind--and can win. Just for the sake of argument, let's pretend that we never heard of Kanan Makiya and Achmad Chalabi.

So, will Obama's strike preempt or curtail worse violence? Maybe. But maybe it will precipitate a Hezbollah strike on Israel, or an Iranian-sponsored act of terror against American "assets." It is hard to see how when you strike at Assad, but limit the mission to something short of toppling him, you can then avoid being drawn in to toppling him. If your prestige is at stake when Assad crosses your red line line, how can it not be at stake when he retaliates or simply refuses to lose? Then again, can Assad's Shi'a forces ever simply lose anymore than Saddam's Sunni forces or Bashir Jamayel's Maronite forces simply lose, without, that is, taking down what's left of their civil societies with them?

Yes, Obama can attack and throw the dice. He's been lucky before. Much better, and much more Obamaish, would be some kind of diplomatically engineered transition, which allows Assad to save face, his life, and allows his regime to reinvent itself with guns silenced--something like the ugly peace in Lebanon, where everyone is unhappy, except when they compare the result to fighting starting up again.

Make no mistake. President Putin is the key to this diplomatic process. He may just be cynical enough to go along--if he believes that Obama is serious, that is, a little dangerous.

And here is where the Congressional vote comes in. Putin is certainly cynical enough to doubt that Obama, of all people, has the political will to hang in militarily if he finds himself isolated in his own turf. By mobilizing Congress, Obama is buying himself (initial) credibility with Putin, and maybe with Assad, too. If Obama goes on the attack, he does so with "the American people" behind him. Hey, are you sure you want to mess with an empowered Obama and the Sixth Fleet?

Obama, in other words, will be in just another quagmire if he attacks, but he'll never again have as much diplomatic leverage as he will in the first couple of weeks after a Congressional vote.  He's scheduled for a G-20 Summit in St. Petersburg this week. Now is the time for the president and Secretary Kerry to invite Putin to direct, sustained talks, and press for a formula that he might be impose on Assad, and which might be imposed on the FSA by the Saudis and Qatar.

Remember, after Bush dispatched 100,000 troops to Kuwait, in the very weeks leading up to the invasion, Hans Blix insisted that "Saddam Hussein and the Iraqis were cooperating with U.N. inspections, and in February 2003 had provided Blix's team with the names of hundreds of scientists to interview."  I've always wondered how different the Middle East would look today if Bush had used the troops as a lever rather than a sledge-hammer.  I've wondered if the invasion came simply because Bush, unlike Obama, thought he had to be a man.

Published also in Open Zion, a feature of The Daily Beast, when I have a regular column.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Kerry: Sending A Message To Whom?

Secretary Kerry's trenchant, rallying speech laid out the case, but he and President Obama surely know that attacking Assad in ways constrained by their corresponding principles of action--"no boots on the ground," "limited in scope," or, as Ivo Daalder put it on the PBS Newshour, "a punitive strike...to send a message to the regime that this kind of behavior is unacceptable"--is something like trying to stabilize the picture on an old TV by smacking it.  What good it does bears no relationship to how good it feels.

Anticipating Kerry's speech, I checked in again last night with my friend Charles Glass in London, a reporter who knows Syria and Lebanon as intimately as any American. A graduate of American University of Beirut, he's covered the region for 40 years; he was once held hostage by Hezbollah, accompanied the invasion of Iraq, and reported from Aleppo last year. He was preparing to fly to Damascus as we spoke.

And I came away from our conversation believing what Kerry surely understands, that there are essentially two strategic choices for the US, the first diplomatic, the second, significant armed intervention. Neither presumes that a limited military action is a "message," unless, that is, the intended recipient is, not Assad, but Lindsay Graham.

Let's get things straight. Syria is now fractured into zones controlled by 1) Assad, armed by Russia and backed by Iran, 2) Hezbollah, backing Assad's Alawite Shi'a sect, 3) the Kurds, always looking for ways of unifying the Kurdish homeland on the Iraqi border, 4) an insurgent Sunni-Islamist group, Jadhat al-Nusra--admiring (if not loyal to) Iraqi Al-Quaeda--and, 5) a (more or less) secular and (more or less) puny Free Syrian Army, the heart of an opposition ("maybe 1200 free floating groups") backed by Qatar, and led ("this month, anyway") by Ahmad Jarba, with ties to Saudi Arabia.

The war has seen 100,000 deaths; it is not to the credit of journalists that we can write such words and keep our equanimity. The economy outside of Damascus is in a state of almost complete collapse. The war has moreover taken on an increasingly religious-sectarian caste, as it had in Iraq; the Shi'a extremists of Hezbollah have entered to preempt the Sunni extremists of Jadhat al-Nusraf; but in Iraq the Sunnis were in the minority and in Syria they are the overwhelming majority, though Assad's Shi'a have overwhelming firepower, especially around Assad's capital.

Which is another way of saying the parties are fighting for their lives and the war is stalemated. Assad can never win back country-wide legitimacy. But it is not clear the forces of his failed state can be defeated. Israelis will not panic if Assad holds out, and will certainly not engage in military action to defeat him, since his regime is the devil it has known for two generations. Israelis know that whoever attacks Assad for real will have to neutralize his air force, and that means attacking his anti-aircraft batteries, which also means attacking Russian advisors.

But Israelis do care if Iran, trying to defend is client, puts boots on the ground near its border; and it cares if Assad gets too comfortable using chemical weapons, which could ultimately fly into its own cities. Then again, Israel also fears that any insurgents who'd defeat Assad would be dominated by Jihadist terror groups linked to Iraqi extremists. It would be a nightmare if they gained access to Assad's chemical weapons, too.

Whatever happens, a clear-cut winner in Syria might well try to rally the divided country by confronting the Zionist enemy. Turkey, for its part, would like to see Assad gone, and the Kurdish areas quieted, since a separatist spirit there might spill over the Turkish border. About half a million refugees are now in Jordan, just under half million in Turkey, and well over half a million in Lebanon. Continuing war may ignite Jordanian insurgents, too. On all sides, ordinary civilians want an end to violence more than any victory; but they are also afraid of the other side's massacres.

SO IF AMERICA intends to make a difference, it can do either of two things.  It can try harder to contain the violence, hence, madness, by working with the Russians to pressure Assad, and with the Qatar and Saudi regimes to pressure the insurgents; the only plausible objective is a transitional agreement ("...just let Assad serve out his term, which ends next year, then have an election and take the consequences"). Alternatively, America could declare Assad and his regime war criminals, and use overwhelming air power to try to kill him, or, as in Libya, degrade his Air Force and heavy weapons, which he uses to advantage over the insurgency.

Anything else may "make Americans feel better," but will change nothing on the ground, Glass says.  Assad is fighting for his life, cares nothing about global standards, and does not fear more punishment. "And how much better will Americans feel if a cruise missile hits an apartment building?"

Diplomacy may not immediately resolve much on the ground, that's true. "As in Lebanon, this kind of fighting can go on for 15 years," Glass says. But some kind of provisional agreement might turn the fighting into a low grade conflict; and one can count on the widespread revulsion ordinary people have for war to keep a messy peace. "Kerry tried this last spring; Putin seemed able to deliver Assad's people to Geneva, but Kerry did not sufficiently pressure the Saudis and Qatar to deliver the heads of the FSA and other opposition groups." The latter is fragmented, but an agreement signed by even a small leadership, inside and outside of Syria, would carry moral weight. "You give them guns, you have leverage."

And what if America did here what was done to Gadaffi? "This will not end the bloodshed, in fact, it will ramp up the violence in the short run, for Assad will feel less confident about holding territory and many opposition groups will be emboldened." Again, the Lebanon experience seems the only relevant one. Besides, a large scale American attack will almost certainly activate a Hezbollah attack on Israel, to try to unify the forces of Allah against the most commonly hated enemy.

The saddest thing, Glass agreed, is that if we know all of this, Obama, Kerry, and Ambassador Ford do, too. (Actually, I was in a room last spring in which Ford framed things out pretty much in this way.) There really isn't much that can be done militarily unless we are prepared to change the regime and risk the consequences, including an Alawite insurgency--meaning a Lebanon style mess instead of a Syrian style one.

Intervening with force to reestablish international standards regarding war crimes may seem noble; but in some contexts, the use of a machete is war crime. And the idea that American power is degraded by a president who doesn't make good on one threat confuses power with momentary prestige.  The world is not high school.

Short of taking down Assad's regime, then, the only serious strategy is diplomacy and Putin is the only serious partner. Once the smoke clears from the "limited attack," this portion will be, at best, what Obama and Kerry are left with. They may assert, as Kerry gingerly implied in his speech, that an attack will hasten such diplomacy. Perhaps, though getting past Edward Snowden would have hastened this, too. Anyway, I wonder if Kerry is not now on a plane to Moscow because he fears being called indecisive by the kind of Kissingerian gamers who kept him in Vietnam. And I wonder what new messages Assad is preparing in return.

Published also in Open Zion, a feature of The Daily Beast, when I have a regular column.