Monday, December 29, 2008

Quo Vadis, IDF?

As a number of commentators are pointing out, "Operation Cast Lead" has reached a critical point. It looks like the air force is starting to run out of significant targets to hit. Israel has destroyed Hamas's major above-ground military installations and has bombed the known tunnels. The trouble is that rockets are still flying, and with more effect than before the war. Have Minister of Defense Ehud Barak and Chief of Staff Gabriel Ashkenazi sufficiently absorbed the lessons of the Lebanon war to maintain the initiative against Hamas? 

If the IDF proves incapable of staying on the offensive, it may as well push for an improved cease fire now. Otherwise, it can only be Lebanon all over again: a tentative ground operation, with many casualties, that fails to make a dent in the enemy's rocket-firing capabilities. Granted, the air force has inflicted significant casualties on Hamas and, at least temporarily, disoriented its leadership and troops. Israel also did well to prepare its citizens for a potentially lengthy engagement, that may see many of them confined to bunkers. 

But the tide can turn quickly. Should Hamas score a major hit against a civilian site, prove successful in defending against Israeli armor, or ambush a reconnaissance platoon, Israel will be drawn into a media contest similar to the one waged against Nasrallah in 2006. 

A ground operation would have to train overwhelming force on strategic sites and persons, and move with rapid speed. The truth is that we do not know Hamas's defensive capabilities. No doubt, the group has carefully studied the Hizbullah playbook. Accordingly, we could expect to see heavy use of anti-tank weapons against armor as well as infantry, and IEDs along the lines of those used to stop the tank pursuing the kidnappers of Gilad Shalit. 

The question is what the objectives - understood in a more limited, tactical sense - of a ground operation would be. What sites can be seized and held with purpose? Does it make sense to land troops from the sea, in addition to entering the Strip with tanks and infantry from the north and east?

More important, of course, are the larger strategic objectives of "Operation Cast Lead." The foolish comment by Haim Ramon, which formulated the objective as "bringing down Hamas," does not bode well. It sets Israel up for failure. 

Russian Academic: US Will Disintegrate in 2010

Igor Panarin, a former KGB analyst, predicts that in 2010 the U.S. will collapse, as a result of economic and moral decay. China will take over the West Coast, Canada will seize the Midwest, and Mexico the South. The East Coast will join the European Union. Oh, and Russia will grab Alaska (WSJ).

His analysis provides a very interesting view into the mind of post-Soviet Russian nationalism.

Meanwhile, the Russians are running into some economic troubles of their own, as Nobody points out. 

Victims of Hamas

I wonder if the Knesset members from the Arab parties will mention these victims of Hamas's rocket attacks in their speeches:
One Israeli was killed and fourteen others were wounded by a Palestinian Grad missile which exploded near a construction site in the coastal town of Ashkelon.

Most of the victims were construction workers from the Galilee village of Manda and the Bedouin town of Rahat. Five were considered in serious condition, four sustained moderate wounds, and five suffered light injuries. 

The man who was killed was named as 27-year-old construction worker Hani al Mahdi, from the Bedouin village of Aroer (Ha'aretz).

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Invading Gaza?

Video: Israel's Foreign Ministry Addresses the People of Gaza

Let's assume that Hamas is a rational political actor. What did the organization hope to achieve with the barrage of rocket, mortar, and missiles that it has fired at Israeli civilians since the conclusion of the cease fire? There are two separate but linked strategic aims that the Hamas government in Gaza is pursuing:

1. maintaining control over and legitimacy among the Gazan population against the challenges of other terrorist factions and Fatah

2. deterring Israel from attacking Hamas's fighters, political leadership, and infrastructure.

In order to maintain both control and legitimacy, Hamas has to reconcile two contradictory objectives. First, it has to ensure that the border crossings which deliver food, oil, and other supplies into Gaza stay open. Second, it has to prove its military superiority over other factions and local strongmen, by being at the forefront of the terrorist struggle against Israeli civilians and attacks on soldiers.

As far as Hamas's strategic objectives go, I am increasingly convinced that protecting Gaza's civilian population from being injured or killed by Israeli air force strikes and ground operations are not a priority. In fact, Hamas wants to draw Israel into bombing operations or incursions that will lead to dramatic footage of dead Palestinian "martyrs" being aired on Al Jazeera and other Arab television networks. Such deaths hardly seem to hurt Hamas's legitimacy, as they tend rather to stoke feelings of revenge and mobilize civilians to put aside dissatisfaction with their government in favor of unity against the enemy.

The calculus for Israel, on the other hand, looks different. The Israeli government's main aim is to protect its citizens from terrorist attacks - whether in the form of rockets or suicide bombings. Because of Hamas's commitment to armed struggle against Israel and its rejection of peace negotiations, the state of Israel has viewed Hamas's removal from power as a means to safeguarding Israel's security.  A cease fire of limited duration, while providing some relief to Israeli civilians, is clearly not a viable long-term solution. The problem is that assuming Israel succeeded in dislodging Hamas from power, it is hardly realistic to expect Fatah to take over and stop rocket fire on Israel. 

Israel's best bet, therefore, seems to me, to threaten Hamas with destruction - of its legitimacy and control in Gaza - while simultaneously holding out a deal by which Hamas might stay in power if it ceases its rocket attacks on Israel and other terrorist operations. 

All this is easier said than done, of course. On the military front, the following is precisely what Israel does not need:
"If the Qassam [rocket] fire does not stop, the Israel Defense Forces will fight you with the same might with which it fought Hezbollah during the Second Lebanon War," said Hanegbi (Kadima), speaking to Army Radio (Ha'aretz).
Hanegbi wants a repeat of the Lebanon War? I.e., a hundred plus rockets raining on Israeli civilians every day for a month and many dead soldiers? The truth is that we do not know whether the IDF will be able to restrain Hamas's rocket attacks even if it embarks on a major ground operation. Might is not enough. The IDF will have to demonstrate a significant improvement in its rocket hunting capabilities in order to prevent a repeat of July 2006. 

Beyond the military option, Israel must create as much diplomatic space as possible to maintain a crippling embargo on Gaza, should the Hamas government continue to terrorize Israeli civilians. It has come to the point where all measures ought to be on the table - including cutting off Gaza's power and certainly closing all crossings. Israel's message to Hamas and its supporters must be unambiguous: stop your terrorism in words and deeds, and you can live in peace and perhaps even prosperity.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Dutch May Boycott Durban II

Photo Credit: Buitenlandse Zaken (Dutch Foreign Ministry)

Earlier today, Maxime Verhagen, Foreign Minister of the Netherlands, threatened that his country would not participate in the planned UN Anti-Racism Conference, which is to take place in Geneva in April 2009. 

Verhagen said that 
Nederland zal er niet aan meewerken dat deze top, net zoals de vorige, ontaard in een antisemitische hetze (Foreign Affairs press release).

The Netherlands will not take part if this conference, like the previous one, turns into antisemitic agitation [my rough translation - Dutch speakers, please correct mistakes!]
He objected to a draft that accused Israel of committing genocide against the Palestinians. The minister has also opposed moves by Islamic member states to issue a declaration against "blasphemy" at the conference, and he has initiated a UN declaration calling for a decriminalization of homosexuality. 

A Dutch boycott of "Durban II" would be a significant blow to the conference and may result in boycotts by other European nations. At a talk about the conference that I attended recently, one audience member, who had recently interviewed Verhagen, expressed skepticism about the likelihood of the Dutch delegation walking out of the conference. Hillel Neuer of UN Watch, on the other hand, suggested that it was a real possibility. 

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Some Hasidish Thoughts on the US Presidential Election

Essex and Grand St., January 2008

Overheard at a bakery on the Lower East Side:

Owner: Oy. Gesheft [business].

Customer 1 looks at him.

Owner: A lot of simonim [signs] that moshiach is coming.

Customer 1: Which ones? Do you know any that we don't?

Owner: The world ... the Zoyher [Zohar] .... 

Customer 1: Yes, I read.

Owner: It says someone will become melekh [king] who is not fit to be melekh.

Customer 1: Yes, yes. 

Customer 2 [objecting in some way]: I'm not saying he's good but ...

Customer 1: He has no more qualification to be president than you!

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Richard Falk on Gaza

Yesterday's statement by Richard Falk, the UN "Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights on Palestinian territories occupied since 1967" and a former Princeton professor,  on the situation in Gaza:
Last week, Karen AbyZayd, who heads the UN relief effort in Gaza, offered first-hand confirmation of the desperate urgency and unacceptable conditions facing the civilian population of Gaza. Although many leaders have commented on the cruelty and unlawfulness of the Gaza blockade imposed by Israel, such a flurry of denunciations by normally cautious UN officials has not occurred on a global level since the heyday of South African apartheid

And still Israel maintains its Gaza siege in its full fury, allowing only barely enough food and fuel to enter to stave off mass famine and disease. Such a policy of collective punishment, initiated by Israel to punish Gazans for political developments within the Gaza strip, constitutes a continuing flagrant and massive violation of international humanitarian law as laid down in Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention.
This man appears to be stuck in the same dream he was dreaming when he predicted that the Iranian revolution would provide a "humane model of governance" for the Third World. Who exactly are these "cautious UN officials" to which Falk refers? Are they the same officials who have made careers out of attacking Israel and defending some of the world's vilest dictatorships simply because they are "anti-Western"? 

As for the Gaza siege, the Hamas government has a very simple solution at its disposal: stop the rocket attacks and recognize Israel.

Murder and Torture

It took the New York Times a while to state with certainty that the Chabad Center in Nariman House was targeted by the plotters of the Mumbai attacks because it was a Jewish site. Now, the paper is reporting news that have been circulating since the end of the Nariman standoff; the victims were brutally tortured before being murdered:
Some of the six people killed at the Jewish center in the city had been treated particularly savagely, the police said, with bodies bearing what appeared to be strangulation marks and other wounds that did not come from gunshots or grenades.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Durban II

Hillel Neuer (l) of Geneva-based UN Watch and Aaron Jacob of AJC (r)  in New York, December 2008

The last UN Conference against Racism in Durban, held in late August 2001, quickly turned into a disgraceful spectacle of Israel-bashing and downright antisemitism. Anyone interested in a personal, though occasionally melodramatic account, of the conference, should check out the "Durban Diaries," by a member of the European Union of Jewish Students who attended it as part of a large delegation of the NGO. A follow-up to the Durban conference, which was actually the third UN Conference against Racism, will be held at the end of April 2009. 

On Monday, December 8, Hillel Neuer of the Geneva-based NGO UN Watch briefed a small audience of AJC Access members in New York on what happened at Durban I and what might happen at Durban II. It does not look good.

The first Durban conference consisted of the actual governmental conference attended by UN member states, an NGO forum, and a series of street demonstration in the South African city. It was at the NGO forum and street demonstrations where some of the worst excesses of the "anti-racism" conference took place. But even the governmental conference involved a protracted fight by the US, Israel, and some of the European countries, against a declaration that specifically accused Israel of apartheid, crimes against humanity, and genocide, without mentioning any other states. This particular part of the declaration had been formulated at the Asian regional conference in February 2001.

At the 2007 preparatory conference for Durban II, Libya was chosen to chair the 2009 conference against racism. The 19 vice chairs chosen included Cuba and Iran. Worse, the current draft declaration includes a verbatim copy of the 2001 Tehran wording. 

Neuer outlined 3 categories of problematic language in the declaration proposals so far - a longer review of the document has been published in a report titled "Shattering the Red Lines." UN Watch has expressed concern in
  1. specifically anti-Israel language, including the charge that the Law of Return is inherently racist
  2. broadly anti-Western material
  3. a campaign by the Islamic states  to import anti-blasphemy provisions and legitimize them in international law under the notion of “defamation of religion”
The latest draft proposals hammered out at the preparatory conference, by no means final, nevertheless testify to the direction in which Durban II might be headed.

So far, only Canada has announced that it is not attending the conference. Israel will be making a decision soon, and the U.S. will do so after the inaugaration of Barack Obama as President. Meanwhile, the Europeans have pledged to maintain certain red lines that, if crossed by the conference, will compel them to walk out of the process. However, it remains to be seen whether they will act on this. 

I hope to post more details later.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

The House of Contention in Hebron

(Image Source: Wikipedia)

UPDATE - LATEST REPORTS: Masked Jewish youths set fire to a Palestinian house in Hebron, as "revenge" for the evacuation. The total number of the residents evacuated from the House of Contention was 250; they were dragged out one-by-one, and police used stun grenades and tear gas to overwhelm the occupants. Protesters inside the house resisted using various means; some police officers were pelted with rocks, eggs, and, in one case, acid (leading to the injury of one officer). Reports of Jews (civilians) shooting at Palestinians in Hebron; also of Palestinian militants shooting at Israeli security forces (YNET). 

In the last two weeks, there has been a great deal of coverage about the "House of Contention" (בית המריבה), as most of the media call it, or the "House of Peace" (בית השלום) as the settlers and their supporters have dubbed it. Earlier today, to everyone's surprise, Israeli police forces forcibly removed the occupants of the building (see coverage here). There were 25 wounded, including one police officer, in the confrontation that ensued between the occupants and the security forces. Following the forced removal of the people inside the house, the entire area of Hebron was declared a closed military zone, to prevent right-wing protesters from flocking to the site. Meanwhile, demonstrators blocked the entry roads to Jerusalem.

The debate around the House of Contention/Peace has been understandably polarized. The settlers and right-wing have accused the media as well as the state of leading a campaign of persecution against them. The judicial sphere and politicians on the center, center-left and left have expressed frustration about the seeming state of anarchy reigning in Hebron. All this has been compounded by a number of riots staged by Jewish youths in Hebron, usually targeting Arab stores and houses, as well as a Muslim cemetery. The settlers and others on the right-wing have lashed out at what they perceive as a lack of concern for their rights. They argue, for example, that human rights organizations would rally to protect Palestinians from being evicted from their homes, and that the law is being instrumentalized in order to punish the settlers and "de-Judaize" Hebron. 

The polarized nature of the debate has obscured the legal background to the decision to evacuate the house. Instead, the whole affair has been rendered as Gush Katif Part III (Part II beingthe evacuation of Amona). But the legal issues in this particular case are quite different from either Gush Katif or Amona. The House of Contention/Peace has become a symbol for both the left and the right. I want to de-symbolize it, by stripping away the significations that have coalesced around it, and returning to a legal, procedural rather than substantive discussion of the issues. 

Here is an attempt to sort through some of those legal matters. The structure in question is close to the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, and is generally known as the "Brown House." On March 19, 2007, a group of settlers came to the house and occupied (or took up residence in) it. They claimed that they had purchased the house from the Palestinian owner, in a videotaped cash transaction. The owner or the person who sold it, however, appealed to the police, arguing that the house was still in his possession and that the occupants had "invaded" (this is the technical legal term) it by force.  

On November 16, 2008, Israel's High Court issued one decision on the matter of the House of Contention. The case before it, however, was not actually about the ownership of the building. Rather, it concerned the question of whether it was legal for the State of Israel to forcibly remove the current occupants of the structure. The court ruled that the state was allowed to remove the current residents. By law, if someone lives in a house more than 30 days unchallenged, they have certain rights to the residence and cannot be easily removed, but in this case, the owner/seller appealed to the police on the same day of entry and declared the entry unlawful. The court did NOT rule on the question of ownership. It simply said that even with the ownership under debate, the structure could be evacuated, and returned to the person who owned it before the entry of the residents. Here is the relevant part of the court's verdict; Ayala Procaccia wrote the opinion. A full translation will follow in the future.

. 43        בעיקרו של דבר, הראיות המינהליות שבידי המדינה נותנות בידיה עילה לעשיית שימוש בכוח הנתון על-פי צו סילוק פולשים לסייע למחזיק כדין להחזיר לעצמו את החזקה שנתפסה שלא כדין על-ידי העותרות. די בראיות מינהליות אלה כדי לבסס את התנאים הנדרשים לצורך עשיית שימוש באמצעי של סילוק "פולש טרי", הניתן למחזיק המנושל על-פי צו סילוק פולשים. בירור שאלת "החזקה כדין" של המחזיק המנושל לצורך עשיית דין עצמית מחייב בדיקה סבירה ברמת הוכחה מינהלית בלבד, כנדרש לצורך הגנה אפקטיבית כנגד פלישה (מיגל דויטש קנין א 420 (1997); ויסמן בספרו, שם, עמ' 113-114). בשימוש בכוח לסלק פולש טרי ניתן ביטוי לאינטרס הציבורי בהגנה על החזקה, ומודגש הצורך בשמירה על הסטטוס-קוו בשטח לבל יותר מצב של כל דאלים גבר. בסילוק "פלישה טרייה" מסייעת המשטרה למחזיק כדין לממש את הגנתו מפני פולש (ענין סוכובולסקי, שם). בכך מקיימת המשטרה את חובתה להגן על שלום הציבור, ולמנוע שימוש בכוח כאמצעי לאכוף טענות בדבר זכויות (בג"צ 418/78 אבנר לוי ורפאל לוי חברה לבנין ולהשקעות בע"מ נ' שר הפנים והמשטרה, פד"י לג(2) 108 (1979)). בנסיבות הענין, היה על העותרות לפנות לערכאה שיפוטית לצורך הוכחת זכויותיהן למבנה, ולהימנע מעשיית דין עצמית בדרך של נטילה חד-צדדית של החזקה בניגוד להסכמת המחזיק. שיקולי סדר ציבורי עומדים מאחורי הכלל לפיו מחלוקות בענין זכויות קנין מקומן להתברר בערכאות שיפוט, ולא בכוח הזרוע בין הצדדים היריבים. מי שמשנה מצב קיים שלא בהסכמת המחזיק נתפס כמפר סדר, ולכן ראוי להחזיר סדר על כנו על-ידי הוצאת הפולש מן הנכס, והפנייתו לבית המשפט לשם בירור זכויותיו (ויסמן בספרו, שם, עמ' 113-114). חובתה של המשטרה היא לסייע למחזיק אשר נושל מחזקתו, כאשר הפלישה היא טרייה, וזה המצב בענייננו (פרשת טל השקעות ובנין, שם, השופטת נאור).


44.         בירור הזכויות המהותיות בין הצדדים אכן מתקיים עתה בערכאות המוסמכות. בירור זה אינו מייתר את הצורך להחזיר את המצב בשטח לקדמותו עד להכרעה שיפוטית בשאלת הזכויות לנכס על מלוא היקפן ומורכבותן. אין צריך לומר, כי בעתיד, על הצדדים יהיה לפעול על-פי ההכרעה המשפטית הפסוקה החלוטה שתינתן במחלוקת ביניהם. למותר לומר, כי אין אנו מביעים כל עמדה במחלוקת המהותית בדבר זכויות הצדדים בעקבות עיסקת המכר שנקשרה ביניהם.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Qassams on Gaza and the Dream of Palestinian Statehood

Image: Map Showing Entry Points into Gaza (Source: Palestine Trade Center)

Once in a while, we read accounts of qassam rockets landing inside the Gaza Strip. Today, a mortar shell apparently hit a power cable that provides electricity for the Hamas-ruled territory. Unlike the April 9, 2008 attacks, which deliberately targeted the Nahal Oz fuel depot used by Israel to transport gas to Gaza, this latest incident appears to have been an accident. But many of the Palestinian mortar attacks and cross-border raids into Israel have struck precisely those points through which the territory receives supplies crucial to its inhabitants' lives. How can Hamas seriously complain about fuel or food shortages when its own actions directly threaten the infrastructure used to provide these necessities to Gazans?

Of course, in a larger sense, every qassam attack on Israel is an own-goal by the Palestinians. The rocket attacks that have plagued southern Israel since the withdrawal from Gaza in August 2005 as well as the cross-border raids such as the one that led to the kidnapping of Gilad Shalit on June 25, 2006, imperil the likelihood of a future withdrawal from the West Bank more than anything else. The Gaza evacuation showed that both Israel's leadership as well as the majority of the Israeli population support a withdrawal from much of the territory captured in 1967. But no responsible leadership can authorize such evacuations, when it results in more attacks on Israeli citizens inside the country's recognized borders. 

The Palestinians and their supporters will argue that settlement expansion and the IDF's actions in the territories have had a similar effect in undermining Palestinian trust as the qassams (and the suicide bombings before them) have had on Israelis. This kind of argument might fly in academia, but it is a dead end, especially for anyone who is serious about Palestinian statehood. Israel is in a position to grant Palestinians the land that they need for an independent state in the West Bank and Gaza. It depends on Israel to realize these ambitions. But the Palestinian dream of statehood requires the Palestinian organizations to demonstrate their trustworthiness to Israel, not vice versa.

The best analogy might be that of a lender and a hopeful borrower. Even if the lender has failed to repay debts to other people or to the would-be debtor himself, s/he is still the one with the capital that the debtor hopes to borrow. In order to procure the loan, it is incumbent upon the debtor to demonstrate to the lender ability to return the principal and interest in the future. Everything else is irrelevant. 

I hope that my analogy, which equates Israel with a lender and the Palestinians with a debtor will not occasion yet another self-righteous diatribe on the alleged immorality of the Zionist enterprise. Those who believe that Israel does not have a right to exist or to be a "lender," are living in a dream world. They may continue idling away their time with stirring, moralistic pronouncements. But they would do well to remember that no state has been created on moral claims alone - not even the State of Israel, which, post-WWII had a stronger claim to a moral right for its existence than any other country in the world. Statehood is achieved by those who combine moral vision with pragmatic politics and, most importantly, attention to the contingencies of history and the vagaries of fortune.

Monday, December 01, 2008


The attacks on Mumbai last week are depressingly familiar in many respects. Once again, Islamist terrorists managed to sow chaos in a major urban center and to exploit, with determined evil, the liberties held dear by open, democratic societies. Once again, the failure by intelligence agencies to prevent these attacks was primarily one of the imagination. But there is another sense in which these attacks are familiar. They represent a problem, going back at least as far as June 28, 1914, that the international community has been unable to solve until now. 

On that date  a Serbian terrorist assassinated the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, Franz Ferdinand. The Habsburg empire at the time ruled over Bosnia-Herzegovina, which the assassin and his colleagues hoped to see united with Serbia proper, the relatively new nation-state of the Serbs. But Gavrilo Princip did not act on behalf of the kingdom of Serbia. He and his fellow conspirators were non-state actors. As Austria-Hungary and many others at the time suspected, however, it was difficult not to assume some kind of link between Princip and the state organs of Serbia. Furthermore, it seemed highly likely that Serbian citizens residing in Serbia had aided in the attack. In order for the killers of the archduke to be brought to justice, Austria-Hungary needed the help of Serbia. Unfortunately, however, relations between Serbia and Austria-Hungary were extremely hostile. 

My point here is not that India and Pakistan are on the brink of unleashing another world war, although such an outcome takes hard work to avert. I am pointing rather to the problem posed by the non-state actor with deep state connections. The investigations carried out by Indian authorities so far (see The Hindu for the best round-up) have revealed the involvement in the Mumbai attacks of Pakistani citizens, trained in Pakistan. Locked in a long state of war, the two nuclear powers now again appear to be on a collision course. 

India has long complained about the alliances between Islamist terrorists and Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI). Setting aside the links between the ISI and Osama bin Laden, the U.S. is growing increasingly antsy about the threats that ISI-supported Islamists are posing to NATO troops in Afghanistan. But so far, Pakistan's rulers have rebuffed American pressure to get at the roots of the problem inside their country. 

It may very well be true that Pakistan is too weak to purge itself of the al-Qaeda-inspired enablers of terrorism that pervade its state.  Furthermore, the U.S. clearly cannot afford to see Pakistan disintegrate into mayhem. But neither can it turn a blind eye to the Pakistani shipping labels on the attacks in Mumbai and in Afghanistan. In both cases, we are seeing a state incapable of reining in its attack dogs. 

Obama raised eyebrows during the presidential campaign when he  spoke about his willingness to attack targets inside Pakistan "with or without approval from the Pakistani government." A month later, NATO and US ground troops entered Pakistan to attack a Taliban stronghold. Pakistan's ongoing protests about these violations of its sovereignty by outside actors ring hollow when it is unwilling to enforce a monopoly of violence inside its own borders.

We will see how the policy of the president-elect and his impressive national security team evolves in the coming weeks.

The Future is Now

With the US presidential campaign behind us, it's worth revisiting a question often raised over its course, particularly on the day the President-elect officially announced his foreign policy and national security team: what will an Obama administration mean for Israel? For those who encountered the insinuations of Clinton surrogates during the primaries, floating here and there around the Internet, that Obama isn't the friend Hillary is to the Jewish state, today's announcement of her nomination for Secretary of State, I think, is a reminder of the cynicism of such campaigning. By surrounding himself with Clinton, Biden, a cadre of establishment generals, and by retaining the services of Defense Secretary Bob Gates, Obama isn't giving any indication that the "special relationship" is subject to the "change" we all eagerly anticipate. For the time being, at least, he'll have silenced the fear-mongers in the American Jewish community. Provided that his reorganization of the American defense budget doesn't cost Israel, if he maintains the status quo, Obama will inevitably be seen by some as "good for Israel." And isn't that what this is all really about? Will he be "good for Israel?" What we should consider, then, is what that really means: what is good for Israel? Roger Cohen's opinion piece in today's Times urges "tough love." Cohen riffs off of Ehud Olmert's Yediot interview from September, now translated and excerpted in the New York Review of Books. In the interview, Olmert takes a hostile stance toward the military leadership in discussing a legacy that he's clearly ambivalent about. What the generals and the demagogues don't understand, the PM argues, is that the Golan is going back to Syria, (this or that hilltop is "worthless"), and almost all territory conquered in '67, minus a few bits that will be exchanged for territory currently within the Green Line. Jerusalem will have to be divided. As I recall, Olmert's proposal for the compensatory land is mostly Negev desert that will be used to provide a link between Gaza and the West Bank in the future, final Palestinian state. I'm curious to hear what people think of Cohen's column -- or Olmert's proposal. I can't find much in the column that is, to me, objectionable. When I consider all this, I ask myself whether the Obama administration can provide what John McCain called a "game changer:" a new element in the stale mix of fear, resentment, demagoguery, and domestic political imperatives that prevents a breakthrough in Israeli-Arab relations. Will the preternaturally calm President who is an out-and-out friend of a Palestinian intellectual change the dynamic with his very demeanor -- all his freshness? Freshness will fade, but, alas, there's hope. Or will a second Clinton profit from the lessons learned by the first? And what's wrong with tough love? What else will persuade a government led by Bibi in coalition with right-wing religious parties to crack down on the illegal settlement activity that American diplomats and American power have in recent years so miserably failed to rein in?

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Shared Problems

Coin of Herod the Great as seen tonight on Ebay going for $9.95 before tax and shipping.

The current issue of National Geographic spotlights the trade in illegal antiquities that is flourishing in the West Bank. The piece is worth checking out for the photos, but also for the explanation of the process by which the cultural loot makes it to market. As it turns out, the Persian Gulf isn't only to blame for purchasing a large part of the ancient treasure on the black market, it also provides a kind of laundry service for Israeli dealers. The objects are smuggled out of the West Bank to the Gulf, whence they return to Israel with official export licenses -- in other words, ready for legitimate sale.

The disastrous state of the Palestinian economy and the patchwork legal and security framework, we're told, render this state of affairs all but inevitable. The PA's official and the Israeli Antiquities Authority archaeologist attached to the IDF in "Judaea and Samaria" seem resigned. Political and military imperatives weigh against enforcement of the the 1978 Antiquities Law or the PA's own rules -- which are what exactly? And what is the status of the Israeli Antiquities Law in the territories? Apparently, you need an export license to transfer antiquities from Hebron to East Jerusalem; so said the Israeli courts in Ruidi and Maches v. Military Court of Hebron.

Indeed the situation seems chaotic. But I would argue that traffic in illegal antiquities in the territories isn't only a product of the breakdown of the peace process and the dearth of the Palestinian economy. It's also related to the curious, confusing Israeli stance on the entire issue of antiquities. Today Israel countenances an enormous amount of illegal excavation and sale within its 1967 borders. By one count, 11,000 of the 14,000 sites within the Green Line have been looted. The root cause is often related to a simple contradiction in policy. The Antiquities Law effectively nationalizes any artifact that surfaces. They're all state property. And yet, the antiquities trade is legal -- whereas in many neighboring nations, it's not. With strong demand from museums (some internal) and collectors large, small, and sometimes powerful (see Moshe Dayan, Yigal Yadin, and Teddy Kollek), pressure to increase supply is constant. You might get the idea that the anarchic West Bank is the perfect playground for rich collectors. Ironically, the dubious legitimacy of an Israeli export license may attract more of them.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Peres Silences Palestinians ... by Being Present

I was amazed by the strange logic of this letter, which was sent to the Angry Arab, on the occasion of Shimon Peres's appearance at Oxford:
We, the Oxford Arab Cultural Society and the Oxford Students' Palestine Society, alongside the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and concerned members of the public, held a demonstration outside starting over an hour before the talk, and lasting - audibly - throughout Peres' speech. Some of us attended the lecture and, at intervals, nine students got up and made loud statements beginning 'I represent all the Palestinians who...' One such student was bundled out of the lecture hall. Peres was visibly fazed by these interruptions and the sound of the protestors outside, while the audience were thus made aware of the point of view being stifled by Peres' presence today in Oxford, and every day in Palestine.
I think this is what happens when people take their literary theory too seriously and start viewing people as texts, which are said to repress subalterns by their presence. It is also rather insidious. What exactly are we supposed to do when someone's mere existence is said to marginalize another person's or people's point of view? 

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Obama, Emanuel, and Israel

"Rhambo" has Obama's ear (Photo: AP)

Is Barack Obama's choice of Illinois Rep. Rahm Emanuel as chief of staff a message to Israel? Is it an attempt to beat back attempts in the campaign's waning days to portray the President-elect as lukewarm on Israel -- the kind of guy who pals around with Palestinians? This is what Fox News is suggesting. However, I would speculate that Obama's choice of Emanuel, a former non-combatant member of the IDF, is even less predicative of American policy on Israel going forward than the Senator's friendship with Rashid Khalidi. It's only possible to think that the selection of Emanuel amounts to a statement about Israel by placing undue weight on a few details of the man's biography and ignoring his record and the political imperatives of the day. Obama went out and got an operator, not an ideologue. Or is it a signal to Turkey? Rahm was the most powerful member of the House to oppose the Armenian genocide resolution! One could chalk up all the hubbub about Rahm's Israeli connection to a kind of ethnic and national pride. But in light of the bizarre readings of the American political tea leaves out there right now -- see Amos' post below on one bizarre Greek commentary -- it seems less than innocent to inflate this aspect of the story right now. Fox News is guilty of significant exaggeration here: Ha'aretz "noted his deep Jewish roots." What? As far as I can tell, only Rahm's Zionist/Israeli ties were aired in the Israeli daily: "Emanuel is the son of a Jerusalem-born pediatrician who was a member of the Irgun (Etzel or IZL), a militant Zionist group that operated in Palestine between 1931 and 1948." For what it's worth, I've seem Emanuel address his Jewishness twice on television. He was more or less ecumenical with Bill Maher, a "worried Jew" with Charlie Rose.

Wishful Thinking

I'm curious what exactly Amr Hamzaway is talking about:
US policies in the region are in the grip of a severe credibility crisis. I am not talking about the campaign to spread democracy, to which the Bush administration had hardly adhered before the Hamas victory in the Palestinian legislative elections in 2006 and that it abandoned entirely afterwards. Rather, I am speaking of the conventional role that Washington has played since the end of World War II, which is to protect its allies -- Israel above all -- and to steer the collective security arrangements in the Gulf in order to safeguard the flow of oil. Many of America's allies have begun to question the efficacy of Washington's polices and, in some cases, now believe these policies cause more problems than they solve.
What kind of role does he expect Washington to play? Is he really so delusional as to think that anything meaningful will come of Arab flirtations with other (rather mysterious) powers? The "allies" to whom he is referring may believe what they like. They have long been free to do so. The more important question is, what are they going to do about it?

Obama will pursue a different kind of foreign policy in the region than Bush. But he will certainly not stop protecting Washington's allies or the flow of oil.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

European Antisemitism: Stupidity, Malevolence, or Both?

I wish one could laugh at the stupidity of this headline, which the editors of the Greek daily Avriani saw fit to print yesterday, and which came to my attention via the American Jewish Committee:
The anticipated victory of Obama in the U.S. elections signals the end of Jewish domination. Everything changes in the USA and we hope that it will be more democratic and humane.
If only it weren't so evil, in addition to being completely out of touch with reality.

Perhaps the headline of my post, which refers to "European" antisemitism is misleading. But I happen to think that there is a significant minority of Europeans who share the sentiment of Avriani but are still too cautious to articulate it in public. Granted, antisemitism in post-war Greece, on both the left and right, which is one of those phenomena that seems to defy rational explanation, is especially virulent. But didn't the talk of Jewish neo-cons and lobbies strike the biggest chord in virtually Jew-free Europe?

I fear that pointing out the overwhelming support for Obama among American Jewish voters (77%!) is the wrong strategy for handling this nonsense. And alerting Avriani's editors to the biography of Obama's rumored pick for chief of staff might be similarly counter-productive. The great champions of "democratic and humane" values would do well to examine themselves more closely.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Knesset Elections 2009 - Early Trends

Foreign Minister and Kadima chairwoman Tsipi Livni is no longer wasting time on Ehud Barak. She is interpreting the election campaign as fight between her and Likud chairman Benjamin Netanyahu (English, Hebrew). Having watched the Likud gain several high-profile additions from the right these past few days, Livni went on the attack. She challenged Netanyahu and his supporters to formulate a platform with a vision of the future rather than a series of negations - no to negotiatons, no to territorial concessions, no to a Palestinian state. 

If Livni proves able to stay on the offensive, to challenge Netanyahu to present his own plan for securing Israel's safety and prosperity in the long-term, the Israeli public might ultimately side with her. The truth is that Israel's democratic right has no vision. It offers no solutions to the current impasse, other than a continuation of the status quo, with which most Israelis (rightly or wrongly) are deeply unsatisfied. 

Of course, "creative" policy proposals are plenty on the anti-democratic right, which believes that peace can be achieved by offering the Palestinians a menu of delectable choices, ranging from  forced expulsion, to voluntary transfer, to second-class citizenship. Even someone as cynical as Netanyahu, however, is unlikely to embrace such policy proposals.  He will be hard-pressed to devise a clear and plausible policy sufficiently different from Livni's for centrist voters to choose him over her.

Ehud Barak, in the meantime, is pursuing the bankrupt strategy that has bedeviled  the Labor Party since the end of Barak's last government. His political games are squeezing out the vision and experience that the party's committed parliamentarians and ex-ministers could bring to the art of government. Unless he changes tack, Barak will lead his party to the impotence predicted by current polls.  If they become too fed up, those on the left of the party may join Meretz, while those on the right will jockey for positions in Kadima.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Let the Campaigns Begin

With the U.S. presidential election campaigns drawing to a close and Americans waiting eagerly for its outcome, Israeli political machines are in full swing organizing for a showdown of equally historic proportions. It is of course far too early to call the Israeli elections, which will be held on February 10, 2009, but the outlines of the campaigns that the major parties will run are already visible.

The Likud, led by Benjamin Netanyahu, is convinced that it will make a major comeback and determined to sweep to power in convincing fashion. Current polls, have the party running neck-to-neck with Kadima, while they predict that the Labor Party is headed for a devastating defeat. But it is not at all clear whether Netanyahu would be able to form the kind of government that the Israeli right is dreaming of. To be sure, his campaign will attempt to capitalize on widespread discontent in Israeli society about the lack of progress achieved since Sharon's withdrawal from Gaza. Furthermore, the religious and secular right is regrouping around a united Jerusalem and the protection of the West Bank settlements. 

Such a platform, however, will make it difficult for the Likud to bring in Ehud Barak's Labor Party or Tsipi Livni's Kadima into a coalition government. Hence, Netanyahu has two choices: to win at least 40 seats (out of the 120 seats in the Knesset) and to form a coalition with Shas, United Torah Judaism, the National Religious Party, and Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beitenu, or, to back-pedal immediately on all those slogans and bring the Labor Party into the government. 

There is no telling what the next three months will bring to the Middle East. While progress on the Palestinian front appears hopelessly stalled, we may see slightly more movement on the Syrian track. The latter will depend on the policies that the president-elect of the United States decides to adopt. Olmert, as head of the transitional government, has the legal authority to continue negotiations. Will the Syrians take these talks seriously? Will they prefer to wait for a (potentially more right-wing) new government to form in February, or do they believe that they could grasp the most favorable settlemetn now?

While Bibi today looks like the man to beat, Tsipi Livni has distinct advantages over her challenger from the Likud. Netanyahu's government, like Barak's, is not remembered as an especially successful one. Both of these politicians' styles alienated some supporters of their parties. They will have to invest in overturning these perceptions. Livni, on the other hand, does not have such liabilities, despite boasting considerable experience in the executive branch of the government. She remains somewhat enigmatic in the eyes of many voters, but they may respond very favorably to her messages when she devotes herself fully to campaigning.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008


Graffiti in Paris' Belleville district (photo: gillesklein)

Steven Erlanger wrote a perceptive piece on Muslim-Jewish relations in Paris' 19th Arrondisement in today's NYT, which contains much of the kind of quotidian testimony one must take into account when discussing Europe's "New Anti-Semitism." Erlanger's picture is Brooklynesque: hipsters, immigrants, Lubavitch, aggressive teenagers, and a darling park where they all meet up. In recent months, a couple of religious Jewish boys have been involved in altercations with young blacks and Arabs. When 17 year-old Rudy Hadad was beaten into a coma in June French President Nicolas Sarkozy publicly shuddered at the specter of anti-Semitic motives. But what's really going on in this neighborhood?

In 2002, when worries about anti-Semitism in France were peaking, I was hanging out with a Tunisian Jewish friend of mine on these very streets, the Rue de Belleville to be exact. Alex worked in jewelry manufacture. He had attended a local technical high school where he would have interacted quite often with non-Jews, many of them Muslim immigrants from North Africa. According to the article, Jews are fleeing such schools. Along the avenue, Alex pointed to phone card signs advertising rates for Morocco-Mali-Togo-Chad. "Would you ever think this was France?" he asked, incredulously. He was French, he wanted me to see. He was different. In fact, I often felt he was desperate not to be taken for an Arab, for a "Beur" in argot slang.

Erlanger's article chalks up much of the tension between young Jews and Muslims in the 19th to simple group-think and bravado. What happens in Israel bears little on whether or not two cliques of different faiths scrap in the park. I'm very sympathetic to this viewpoint. Some of the interviews here also raise the possibility of class grievances manifesting themselves in Muslim on Jewish violence. I think one has to be very careful with such explanations. For the Jews I knew in Belleville, Jewishness was the epitome of classy; something the more well-to-do Parisian Jews, with their Arab friends and cosmopolitan attitudes, laughed at over drinks on Sunday afternoon in the Marais. What do these brawlers in the 19th think? Who knows. Maybe they just want to fight.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

A Mysterious Resignation

Shaul Mofaz, Israel's current Minister of Transportation, former Defense Minister as well as retired Chief of Staff announced his "temporary withdrawal" from politics today. He made this resignation in the wake of his very narrow defeat to Tsipi Livni in the Kadima primaries, which Mofaz, contrary to the exit polls released yesterday. lost by less than 500 votes; pollsters had predicted a 10% margin of victory for Livni. Mofaz's sudden withdrawal makes little sense. He could have easily challenged it, or at least brought pressure to bear on Livni to demand a cabinet post. It is all quite fishy, to say the least. 

There were two sets of rumors circulating before and after the vote yesterday. As with every election and party primary, there were allegations about vote-buying and electoral irregularities in the Arab sectors, where particular communities or towns often vote en bloc for one candidate (see for example this story on Ghajar). Perhaps more importantly, the state comptroller is apparently investigating fiscal improprieties in the Mofaz campaign (Ha'aretz Hebrew). Apparently, the Mofaz campaign accepted donations in excess of the allowed sum per donor, which is set at 40,000 NIS. According to Ha'aretz, Mofaz received the following donations from four American businessmen:

$99,970 from Allan Meder (?)
$100,000 from Lucian Salls (sp?)
$50,000 from  Yakov Menahem
$18,000 from David Amrani

I couldn't find anything on these individuals - I'm sure that more will emerge shortly.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Day after the Kadima Primaries

People have been wrongly predicting the downfall of Ehud Olmert for two years now. Has his reign finally come to an end?

If exit polls for the Kadima primaries prove accurate, Tsipi Livni will be elected leader of Olmert's Kadima Party tomorrow. Prime Minister Olmert has previously announced that he would tender his resignation immediately following the results of the Kadima primaries. But there is a chance that we will be seeing Olmert on the throne for quite a bit longer. Both the legal (by which I mean the Basic Laws, not the possible indictment of Olmert by the Attorney-General) and political situations are complicated. 

According to Israel's Basic Laws on the Government 30 (c) (Hebrew, English), 
A Prime Minister who has resigned shall continue to carry out his functions pending the constitution of the new Government. If the Prime Minister has died, or is permanently incapacitated, from carrying out his duties, or if his tenure was ended because of an offense, the Government shall designate another of the Ministers who is a member of the Knesset and of the Prime Minister's faction to be Interim Prime Minister pending the constitution of the new Government.
Thus, when Olmert resigns, he can continue to run the country as head of an interim government until new elections are called. 

The Jerusalem Post claims that
Should Olmert resign after the primary, the cabinet also resigns and the government becomes a transitional government, with Olmert at its head, that remains in power until a new government is formed. This could take least a few weeks, but might only happen after a general election, probably in the spring.

By law, no minister or party may leave a transitional government. Thus, even if he is subsequently indicted, Olmert would be locked in as head of the transitional government, whether he - or anyone else - likes it or not.
I am not sure on which article of the Basic Law on the Government this interpretation is based, but if true, we may be seeing a lot more of Olmert.

Meanwhile, the political situation is dynamic, with the Labor Party threatening to leave the government, Shas trying to extract concessions in return for staying, and the opposition, led by the Likud, renewing calls for elections. 

Elections would not be held until the spring, at which point many things can change dramatically. In the next few days, we should see whether Olmert decides to stay on as interim Prime Minister or whether he will suspend himself from his post and let her take the reigns until elections are called. 

Thursday, September 11, 2008


South Ossetia and Abkhazia

Speaking in Sochi and appealing to the "world Jewish community" and to Israel, the president of South Ossetia, Eduard Kokoity blamed Georgian troops for destroying the Jewish cultural center in Tkhinvali, the separatist region's capital. He also claimed that a "genocide" had been committed by the Georgians in South Ossetia (Ha'aretz Hebrew).

The Russians, South Ossetians, and Abkhazians appear determined to perpetuate the allegations that the Georgians engaged in deliberate killings of non-Georgian civilians. Of course, Russia has given almost no access to independent organizations for the verification of these claims, and the main victims of ethnic cleansing are the thousands of Georgians who used to live in South Ossetian villages. 

Notwithstanding the idle rhetoric of the West, the integration of South Ossetia and Abkhazia into the Russian Federation is quickly advancing. It now looks very unlikely that these territories will be restored to Georgian sovereignty any time soon. The president of Abkhazia, Sergey Bagapsh, is imagining a similar status under Russian auspices for his country as the one enjoyed by Taiwan under U.S. protection. 

Israel, in the meantime, appears determined not to antagonize the Russians and is directing Israeli military contractors to freeze business in Georgia. Russia's message has reached Jerusalem loud and clear. Israel will not risk retaliatory Russian arm sales to Syria, Iran, and others. Meanwhile, the precise nature of Russian-Israeli relations since the Georgian crisis awaits further elucidation. 

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Gaza and World Heritage

Philip 2 of Macedon and I, Thessaloniki

Is nationalism good or bad for archaeology? I can't say I'm entirely certain. There is much hand-wringing about it in and around Israeli archaeology, though the Israelis are hardly alone in the wider Mediterranean world in that they look for themselves in the remains of Antiquity. I've recently returned from Thessaloniki in "Greek Macedonia." I had an incredible archaeological tourist experience there, both in the regional hub's sophisticated and luxurious National Museum, and in the countryside, where sites that seldom receive visitors are displayed beautifully. All this because of a tepid struggle with the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia over who "owns" the legacy of Philip II and Alexander the Great -- the very name "Macedonia" -- and a vague sense on the Greek side of latent Bulgarian dreams of a Mediterranean port and the question of an unrecognized "Slavic" population in northern Greece. Now, I certainly wouldn't in all cases apply to the objects displayed in these places the interpretations one finds there on their museum placards, but I was thrilled to see them at all, and in any case, much of the material is displayed with little regard for nationalistic sentiment.

The UK newspaper the Independent ran this profile on Saturday of Jawdat Khoudary, a Gaza construction magnate with a keen interest in archaeology. This man is pouring money into an archaeology museum to house Gaza's prolific ancient heritage, but fears locals won't support his efforts. I take it that he means they won't visit the museum, and that looting will continue unabated (as apparently it did in the aftermath of the '67 war, no doubt with Moshe Dayan's approval and participation). What's the solution here? Khoudary, who seems to recognize that transnational cooperation is also crucial, hopes to pique the pride of his countrymen. It's common sense: get people to take ownership of heritage, and they'll protect, promote it, etc. Call that the "Macedonian model." But will that work in Gaza? In East Jerusalem? Unfortunately, the archaeology of these places is often at cross-purposes with a number of political, military, and economic objectives. That's why in certain cases, I'm sympathetic to a different model, that of "world heritage." This, loosely, is one of the major lines of defense mounted by former colonial powers' against repatriation of ancient artifacts. The Elgin Marbles in the British Museum belong to everyone, so the argument goes, not just the Greek state -- though of course nationalist excitement of a different kind helped bring the stuff to London in the first place. James Cuno, former curator at the Art Institute of Chicago and at Harvard, has just written a book called Who Owns Antiquity: Museums and the Battle Over Our Ancient Heritage, in which he argues that the interests of world heritage should always trump national interests in archaeology or in the management of heritage. I fear that we won't be able to purify archaeology as Cuno might like. In fact, if Macedonia and Gaza are any indication, maybe we shouldn't.

The Destruction in South Ossetia

Ethnic diversity in the Caucasus (Source)

The Russian devastation of Georgian positions in the break-away region of South Ossetia, Abkhazia, and, now, the Caucasian country's heartland signal a new reality not only in this part of the world but in Russia's role elsewhere.

As so many commentators have pointed out, this was the first time that we have seen Russia's military confront regular armed forces, as part of an international conflict, since its 1979 invasion of Afghanistan. One could nitpick and point to the fighting in Chechnya, but here Russia faced a separatist insurgency carried out by irregular though effective bands of fighters. Russia's performance in that earlier conflict, however, was interpreted by many as a symptom of its military's disintegration.

Now, Russia has asserted its supremacy, before its doorstep - in the air, sea, and on (the rather treacherous) land. It faced down a modern fighting force by a small but rising power, whose army has been supplied by Ukraine, the US, and Israel (until recently). Interestingly enough, although the news showed up only on a few tickers several weeks ago, Israel suspended its arms shipments (primarily UAVs) to Georgia - probably after Russian pressure.

After the diplomatic defeat in Kosovo, which the Russians have always argued should also mean a green light for Abkhazian and Ossetian independence from Georgia, Putin and Medvedev have upped the ante - they are talking about an outright annexation of these regions to Russia. The South Caucasus, in retrospect, was a red line for Russia, beyond which it would not allow any more encroachments. With Georgia's foolish decision to launch a preemptive attack on the separatist positions in South Ossetia, Russia has seized the opportunity to take an even larger bite.

The implications for the former Soviet republics are clear - states from Turkmenistan to Ukraine (and their would-be allies in the West or elsewhere) must now own up to the fact that whatever support is delivered to them from afar better be significant if they are to assert themselves against Russia. For the weaker states among these republics, this will mean toeing a more neutral line between Russia and the West. The belligerent factions in Azerbaijan pressing for a renewal of hot war with Armenia, over control of Nagorno-Karabakh, may have been served notice. This would be a dramatic reconfiguration of the South Caucasus, with the the "TBC pipeline powers" folding their cards to Gazprom - though it remains to be seen how Turkey, another state whose current military capabilities in international conflict are still untested will react this state of affairs. To be sure, the reduction of Georgia to a rump state around Tblisi would be good news for the other resource-poor state in the region - the Republic of Armenia.

For larger former Soviet republics, such as Ukraine, Russia's actions will accelerate coalition-building with the West and investment in their armed forces. Apparently, the Ukrainian navy is not standing idly by as Russia attempts to blockade the Georgian coast, to prevent Ukrainian arms dealers from shipping weapons there. But it remains to be seen how much force, if any, Ukraine will be able to wield against Russia in this round.

Beyond its immediate sphere of influence on its frontiers, Russia has made explicit its rejection of an international system that it perceives as stacked in the West's favor. It has also made the Western European powers preaching to it look like paper tigers. Although much of Russia's rhetoric in this conflict has been directed at the US, which it blames for inciting Georgia's attack in the first place, it has become clear that the Americans decided early on that Georgia was not worth an overt confrontation with Russia. No doubt, this will bring joy to many Russian analysts and to others riding the bandwagon of America's decline. They should be careful not to overstep the new borders demarcated for them.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

McCain's Jewish Card

Sen. Joe Lieberman (Photo: Huffington Post)

This morning on NBC’s Meet the Press, the McCain campaign deployed independent Democrat Joe Lieberman, the Connecticut senator and former vice-presidential and presidential candidate, to combat the negative press flung at their candidate for airing an ad that likens Barack Obama to Britney Spears and Paris Hilton. He’s a celebrity, they’re celebrities; you wouldn’t want them running the so the “argument” goes. Joe may have had an easier time of it after Obama’s own controversial comments this week. The Illinois senator told a Missouri audience he anticipated being attacked with charges of “‘He’s not patriotic enough, he’s got a funny name.’ You know, ‘He doesn't look like all those other presidents on the dollar bills.’” The McCain camp pounced: “Barack Obama has played the race card, and he played it from the bottom of the deck.”

Most will readily concede that the Republican strategy against Obama has of late played increasingly upon the deep-seated fears of ordinary Americans that “he’s not like us.” That, of course, was what Obama was responding to, but he slipped and gave his opponent a tactical opening when he contrasted a) his face, and b) a dollar bill. He slipped because in pointing up the difference between his skin color and George Washington’s, by so casually disassociating himself from a national symbol, he appeared to assert multiple identities: black, American, outsider, insider. While I think the outsider appeal can get him some emotional traction, the idea that he somehow secretly harbors a distinct, separate, even primary identity that most Americans don’t share is very dangerous. For what it's worth, the simultaneous presence of these various identities in a single soul is, to my mind, entirely unobjectionable, and actually renders Obama all the more American.

Contrast Obama’s tightrope act on the issue of his race with Lieberman’s freewheeling comments about his Jewishness on Meet the Press. Lieberman displayed, not for the first time, his utter lack of compunction about calling attention to his minority identity. First, Tom Brokaw asked, “Do you think running a campaign ad in which you feature Britney Spears and Paris Hilton with Barack Obama is respectful?”

Lieberman: “I do. First off, you know, we all ought to relax a little bit. It's, it's a bit of humor. It's a way to draw people into the ad. Incidentally, the McCain campaign has another ad up in which they seem to be comparing Obama to Moses. So, in my book, that's about a good comparison as you can ask for. I should say, in ‘The Book,’ it's about a good a comparison as you should ask for.”

It’s remarkable how Lieberman comes off as both pious, correcting “my book” to “the Book,” and ireverant, comparing, by means of the old transitive property, Moses to Britney! I suppose we’ve come to a point in American culture where the claim “I’m Jewish” is also a claim along the lines of “I can joke around in ways that border on the inappropriate.” The genius of Lieberman is he’s also signaling in very sober terms to America’s church-going population that he’s “just like them,” only fiercely loyal to his book.

Later, Lieberman returned to his Jewishness in a defense of McCain’s tolerance. After all, Joe pointed out, McCain and his wife adopted a girl from Bangladesh – and they love her! What’s more, Lieberman seemed to imply, so quickly did he move from the issue of the adoption to the issue of their personal friendship, the presumptive Republican nominee for president has been pals for twenty years with (gasp) – a Jew.

Lieberman: “Let me just add a final word, Tom. In 2000, Al Gore gave me the extraordinary honor of being the first Jewish-American to run for national office, and Al Gore said he had confidence in the American people that they would judge me based on my record, not on my religion. And I urge Barack Obama to have the same faith in the American people that they will judge him on his record, or lack of record, certainly not on his name or his race.”

Lieberman’s use of his Jewish identity is devastatingly cynical. He wants to be the macho minority, kicking some tail as a trailblazing Jew, only to revert to the American Everyman when he’s done bragging. Unlike Barack Obama, who will rarely ever choose the battle fields on which his black identity will be subject to the various pressures of public life, Lieberman is quite well positioned to inject his Jewishness into the mix when it’s politically expedient. In fact, I dare say Lieberman seemed to be taking advantage of the fact of his Jewishness to lend legitimacy to his attack on Obama for the gaffe. For McCain, Lieberman was the perfect operative for the week’s controversy. He played the Jewish card in order to denounce Obama for “playing the race card!”

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The Syrian Front

Some very brief, related and unrelated thoughts on the news from today about peace talks with Syria.

1. Contrary to the claims of Shelly Yachimovich this is not a diversion. Neither the talks nor their acknowledgment have been orchestrated to save Olmert's political career. If anything, these talks put Olmert in an even more precarious position domestically than he is now.

2. We do not know what the Americans think about all this, but the agreement goes entirely against the spirit of Bush's policy since 2003. Did the Turks keep the Americans apprised of developments in the process?

3. These negotiations cannot extract Syria from the Iranian embrace. They will not deliver Hizbullah or Hamas to Israel. All they can aim at is the formalization of the relative calm that has existed on the Syrian-Israeli border since 1973 - in itself hardly be an insignificant feat.

4. The recent Doha agreement, engineered by Qatar, formally delivered Lebanon into the hands of Hizbullah and the Iranian-Syrian-(Qatari?) axis. It diverges radically from the US-Saudi policy on Lebanon that has endured until now.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Ha'aretz's (Poor?) Coverage of Lebanon

Walid Jumblatt, Leader of the PSP (Photo: Wikipedia)

Like most of the Western media, Ha'aretz has done a very poor job of covering the events that transpired in Lebanon last week. With Hizbullah having imposed a de facto blackout early on in its coup attempt, few people inside or outside the country were in a position to gain a sense of what was happening on the ground. Hizbullah's own media war has added to the confusion, so that it is not at all clear who won, if anyone. Thus, I was more than a little annoyed by the coverage of Zvi Barel, who seems to have bought the line that Hizbullah scored a major victory:
Sad and tired, wearing shabby clothes and with tears in his eyes, Druze leader Walid Jumblatt stood on the veranda of his luxurious home in Beirut's Clemenceau neighborhood and explained his decision to television viewers. A few hours before the interview, he had called his political rival, Talal Arsalan, and asked him to coordinate with Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah the cessation of the fighting in Mount Lebanon, Aley, Chouf and the Maten region, the power centers of the Druze. In return, Jumblatt ordered his people to lay down their arms and hand them over to the Lebanese Army. Within the framework of the well-planned battle Hezbollah is conducting with the aim of changing the balance of power in Lebanon, the Mount Lebanon struggle, involving rival Druze families, might constitute Nasrallah's most important victory.

Contrast this with Tony Badran's (fiery) analysis over at Across the Bay:
Hezbollah had another thing coming. For three days of intensive fighting in the Shouf, and contrary to the lying info ops and disinformation of Hezbollah water carriers like this clueless Hezbollah willful tool (on whose propaganda for Hezbollah I've written in the past and will soon be ripping to shreds once again), not a single village in the Shouf fell to Hezbollah. Not Niha, like that Hezbollah watercarrier MacLeod wrote, not anything.

Quite the contrary. According to the PSP and other local sources, more than three dozen Hezbollah fighters were killed and a number of their vehicles were destroyed. The fact that they had to introduce artillery and vehicles (mounted with heavy machine guns, like so, and recoilless rifles, like so) only showed that they could not make advances into the villages.

Not just that, but Hezbollah's attack has led Talal Arslan's fighters to switch and fight alongside the PSP against Hezbollah, undermining Hezbollah's tiny Druze ally -- which is precisely why Jumblat put him in the forefront from the get go (it was not, as shrill commentators and dishonest flacks read it, a sign of "weakness." It was a shrewed move by a master tactician.).

At the end of the day, the PSP maintained control of the strategic hills of the Barouk to the east and Ras al-Jabal west of Aley, overlooking the Dahiyeh.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Countering the Qassam

Photo: Amos Yadlin (IDF)

The capabilities that the Palestinians demonstrated with yesterday's rocket attack on Ashqelon are impressive. Despite the limitations placed on them by the blockade and by occasional IDF operations, the terrorist groups in Gaza have consistently upgraded the range and power of their missiles. In comments to Ha'aretz today, Amos Yadlin, head of AMA"N (Military Intelligence Department), warned that two years from now, even Be'er Sheva might become a target. He did not announce any specific initiatives to forestall this threat.

The aims of Hamas and the other groups rocketing Israel's southern communities are various. One of the goals seems to be to pressure Israel into a truce that would result in lifting the "siege," whose effects have of course been greatly exaggerated by Hamas propagandists. Paradoxically, the Palestinians are trying to achieve this by demonstrating their ability to bomb Israeli civilians and by blowing up crossing points designed for the delivery of food and fuel.

Another aim of Hamas, which Yadlin also acknowledged in comments to the press, is to create deterrence against Israel comparable to the deterrence that Hizbullah achieved. Just like Hizbullah, Hamas wants to be able to strike at will deep into Israeli territory, turning Israeli civilians into its hostages in order to ensure that the IDF does not attack Hamas's fighters and leadership in Gaza.

These two aims suggest a number of different responses.
  1. Israel might agree to a truce and to the conditions imposed by Hamas, in return for an end to rocket attacks (diplomatic solution)
  2. Israel might acquiesce to Hamas's regime of deterrence and cease attacking its forces, in the hopes of quiet
  3. Israel can opt for its own policy of deterrence (military and economic)
  4. offensive operations to destroy the Palestinians' rocket-firing capabilities (military)
  5. defensive measures to limit the impact of the rocket strikes (military)
The problems with these options are as follows:
  1. Gives Hamas time to build up its forces for the next round; given the organization's ideology and support/pressure from Syria and Iran, it will not be turned into a pacific neighbor
  2. Same as above without even a formal set of protections; liable to break down at any moment.
  3. Hamas does not care if Palestinian civilians die as a result of IDF operations; in fact, images of civilian deaths or injuries aid its cause.
  4. the IDF has so far proven unable to do this; its efforts in this area during the Lebanon War of 2006 were unimpressive.
  5. expensive and so far ineffective
As I have said before, none of these options are particularly appealing or likely to be effective in ensuring the long-term interests of the state and its population. For this reason, I do not anticipate any changes in Israeli or Palestinian policy over the next 2 years but rather a continuation of the type of attrition that we have observed since the withdrawal from Gaza. I also doubt that we will see the release of Gilad Shalit anytime soon.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Ashqelon Hit Hard

The katyusha or Grad rocket attack on Ashqelon today surely marks a new chapter in the war between Israel and the Palestinian terrorist groups in Gaza. Since the disengagement from Gaza, we have seen a steady erosion of red lines, as more and more Israeli civilians have come under fire from Hamas and other armed Palestinian groups in the Strip. It may be important at the political level to distinguish among the various factions carrying out the rocket attacks and to evaluate particular motives. For the military, however, these kinds of considerations are irrelevant. What matters is that Palestinian terrorist groups have acquired and preserved the means to strike major Israeli population centers, despite a much-maligned "siege" of Gaza and numerous air force as well as ground operations. And even though the latter have often claimed the lives of many Palestinians - civilians and fighters - Israel has not been able to establish effective deterrence. Neither diplomatic nor military means have so far been able to protect Israeli civilians from these attacks. Despite countless announcements about an imminent truce this past year, we seem no closer to calm on the southern border than before. With Prime Minister Olmert's political career in limbo and Defense Minister Ehud Barak (Labor) possibly facing challenges from inside and outside the party, we may end up seeing the kind of major ground operation that the Israeli right has been agitating for. Such an operation may also be accompanied by assassinations of Hamas's political leadership.