Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Happy Israeli Independence Day!

Israel's 61st Independence Day began at 8 PM tonight and will continue tomorrow. My family will celebrate with a "mangal", a BBQ, but unlike most Israelis, we'll do it in our own yard instead of in a public park.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Social Scientists Behaving Badly

I sure am glad I joined the "Social Science-IL" mailing list. A fascinating and hypocrisy-ridden debate is raging there between university professors from the left and right accusing each other of stifling freedom of speech, McCarthyism, and the destruction of Israeli higher education.

It all started when Prof. Daniel Bar-Tal, a psychologist from Tel-Aviv University, published a reasonable call to fight "Campus Watch"-type organizations and not to allow letters using unacceptable language against ideological opponents to be sent to the mailing list. What followed was a debate where about half the e-mails wouldn't have been published had Bar-Tal's suggestion been implemented.

Dov Shinar, a Mass Media professor, accused right wing professors of not even knowing Hebrew. David Levi-Faur, a political scientist from Hebrew University and the moderator of the list, implied that Steven Plaut was responsible for the attack against left-wing professor Zeev Sternhall a few months ago. Prof. Gerald Steinberg accused leftist professors of furthering their anti-Israel agenda instead of conducting real academic research.

Both sides are right on some points and wrong on others. On the one hand, right-wing "Israeli Academia Watch" and its sister "monitors" are disgusting organizations dedicated to smearing anyone who doesn't agree with them, often crossing the line into libel. It is entirely plausible that someone who reads these websites will be motivated to take violent action.

On the other hand, many left-wing lecturers abuse their positions to preach instead of teach. Academic freedom doesn't mean you're free to stuff your ideology down your students' throats. Also, while university hiring is officially politically neutral, candidates who are either leftists or whose views are not widely known have an easier time getting hired than right-wingers.

I would have cut and pasted the whole debate (or at least the interesting parts) if I had the time. Alas, you will miss this quite unintellectual discussion between distinguished social scientists.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

At Least They're Inconsistent

I was just about to blog about the Netanyahu government's flip-flopping when I saw this Kishkushim post:

"One day Lieberman "cannot see Syria as a real partner for any kind of settlement" (see previous post), and the next he is "willing to negotiate," albeit "without preconditions" (Ha'aretz). This is diplomatic silliness. It looks we are going to see a lot of instant reversals with this new government. If you play hard to get on Saturday, you can't suddenly drop your skirt (or pants) on Sunday. The Prime Minister's Office has been strangely silent. Maybe they are hoping that Lieberman will render himself irrelevant."
Nice to know I wasn't the only one who noticed. First, Netanyahu says he'll negotiate with the Palestinians only if they recognize Israel as the Jewish homeland. Then he drops all pre-conditions. Then Lieberman says Syria has to stop its support of terrorism before negotiations with Israel can continue, and the same day Ha'aretz publishes that comment, he takes it back.

Both these flip-flops are of the better kind. In both instances, the government moved in a positive direction. The question is, though, why start out with foolish policies that you'll have to end up modifying?

I hope Netanyahu will also flip-flop on his position opposing the two-state solution. And his position regarding the budget. And healthcare. And, well, just about all his policies.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Palestinians' Self-Determination

Israel can try to get the Palestinians to recognize Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state, but should not insist. Recognition of Israel's existence and a commitment not to fight it, as well as an end to the call for the right of return, should be enough. However, any peace treaty that doesn't recognize Israel's right to exist should not recognize the Palestinians' right to self-determination. Just like the Palestinians accept Israel because that's the only way to achieve peace, that is also the only reason Israel agrees to the creation of a Palestinian state.

Without a mutual recognition of rights, the agreement should only include mutual recognition of existence. The Palestinians can't demand that Israel will be the only party to recognize the other side's rights.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Shut Up About Ahmedinijad Already!

Yesterday was Holocaust Remembrance Day here in Israel. It seemed like current geopolitical threats were on the minds of Israel's leaders more than the genocide perpetrated by Nazis 65 years ago. I didn't listen to any of the speeches, but from the quotes I've read it seems like every single one of them mentioned Mahmoud Ahmedinijad, his Holocaust denial and the threat of Iranian nuclear weapons: President Shimon Peres, Prime Minister Netanyahu, Vice Prime Minister Sylvan Shalom and Knesset Speaker Rubi Rivlin are just a few examples.

My dear leaders, shut the fuck up! Yes, Ahmedinijad is a Holocaust denying, nuke-building son of a bitch who would like nothing more than to annihilate Israel. This is definitely a problem we have to deal with, but it shouldn't be exaggerated either. If you're whining hysterically in public, you're probably not really getting things done behind the scenes diplomatically.

Also, who the hell is Ahmedinijad to take over all of our discussions of the Holocaust? Sure, his speech at Durbin II on the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day didn't help, but there are more important things to learn from the Holocaust, like how we should treat Holocaust survivors or the new survivors of the genocide in Darfur who now live in Israel as refugees.

How about asking ourselves whether "never again" only applies to Jews. The answer should be an unequivocal no. "Never again" should apply to all peoples and the genocides that have occurred before and after the Holocaust should also be addressed without minimizing the horrors of the Nazis, who ran the most efficient, meticulous, calculated and well-planned, as well as largest scale, genocide of all time. We should especially bring attention to the genocides taking place right now and the lack of international effort to stop them.

Maybe in August, around the 64th anniversaries of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, if Ahmedinijad is re-elected president of Iran and the Obama administration doesn't seem successful in thwarting Iran's nuclear ambitions, Israel's leaders will speak about this favorite subject of theirs again.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Al-Zahar Doesn't Mean It

Reuters reports that Mahmoud Al-Zahar, foreign minister of the Hamas government in Gaza, came out of hiding for the first time since January:

"We cannot, we will not, and we will never recognize the enemy in any way, shape or form," Mahmoud al-Zahar, one of the two leaders, said in a mosque sermon broadcast on the Islamist movement's radio station, referring to Israel.

Wow, now I'm finally convinced by all those who say that Hamas in power is no longer the irresponsible terrorist organization it used to be. It has clearly morphed into a pragmatic, peace-loving political party Israel and the world can do business with. When Al-Zahar says he will never recognize the enemy, he clearly means that as long as Israel is the enemy, they will not recognize it, but once it is no longer the enemy there will be no problem. See, interpretation is key!

Also, he doesn't recognize Israel because he hasn't seen it. How can you recognize something without seeing it first? Imagine someone telling you to give him a call if you see Israel Israelov, but you've never seen Mr. Israelov before, so how will you recognize him if you run into him? We need to arrange a tour around the country for the leaders of Hamas so they'll be able to recognize it next time around.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Thomas Friedman: Age of Pirates

In the Age of Pirates
By THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN, The New York Times

I’ve been thinking lately of starting a new school of foreign service to train U.S. diplomats. My school, though, would be very simple. It would consist of a single classroom with a desk and a chair. At the desk would be a teacher, pretending to be a foreign leader. The student would come in and have to persuade the foreign leader to do something — to pull this or that lever. At one point, the foreign leader would nod vigorously in agreement and then reach behind him and pull the lever — and it would come off the wall in his hands. Or, he would nod vigorously and say, “Yes, yes, of course, I will pull that lever,” but then would only pretend to do so.

The student would then have to figure out what to do next.

I’m wondering if President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton aren’t those students, trying to deal with the leaders of Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran and North Korea. I say that not to criticize but to sympathize. “Mama, don’t let your children grow up to be diplomats.”

This is not the great age of diplomacy.

A secretary of state can broker deals only when other states or parties are ready or able to make them. In the cold war, an age of great powers, grand bargains and reasonably solid client states, there were ample opportunities for that — whether in arms control with the Soviet Union or peacemaking between our respective client states around the globe. But this is increasingly an age of pirates, failed states, nonstate actors and nation-building — the stuff of snipers, drones and generals, not diplomats.

Hence the déjà vu all over again quality of U.S. foreign policy right now — the sense that when it comes to our major problems (Afghanistan and Pakistan and North Korea and Iran), we just go around and around, buying the same carpets from the same people, over and over, but nothing changes.

“We are dealing with states and leaders who either cannot deliver or will not deliver,” notes the Johns Hopkins University foreign policy professor Michael Mandelbaum. “The issues we have with them look less like problems that can be solved and more like conditions that we have to manage.”

The ones who can’t deliver — the leaders of Afghanistan and Pakistan — are the ones who promise to do all sorts of good things, and pull all sorts of levers, but at the end of the day the levers come off the wall because the governments in these countries have only limited powers. The ones who won’t deliver — Iran and North Korea — time and again tell us: “Yes, we need to talk.” But at the end of the day, their hostile relationships with America or the West are so central to the survival strategy of their regimes, so much at the core of their justifications for remaining in power, that it is not in their interest to deliver real reconciliation, but just to pretend to deliver it.

The only thing that could change this is a greater exercise of U.S. and allied power. In the case of Afghanistan and Pakistan, that power would have to be used to actually rebuild these states from the inside into modern nations. We would literally have to build the institutions — the pulleys and wheels — so that when the leaders of these states pulled a lever something actually happened, and the lever wouldn’t just break off in their hands.

And in the case of the strong states — Iran and North Korea — we would have to generate much more effective leverage from the outside to get them to change their behavior along the lines we seek. In both cases, though, success surely would require a bigger and longer U.S. investment of money and power, not to mention allies.

Instead, I fear that we are adopting a middle-ground strategy — doing just enough to avoid collapse but not enough to solve the problems. If our goal in Afghanistan and Pakistan is nation-building, so they will have self-sustaining moderate governments, we surely don’t have enough troops or resources inside devoted to either. If our goal is changing regime behavior in Iran and North Korea, we surely have not generated enough leverage from outside. North Korea’s defiant missile launch and Iran’s continued development of its nuclear capability testify to that.

So, in sum, we have four problem countries at the heart of U.S. foreign policy today that we don’t have the will or ability to ignore but seem to lack the leverage or the allies to decisively change. The big wild card — a critical mass of people who share our aspirations inside these countries, rising up and leading the fight, which is ultimately what tipped Iraq for the better — I don’t see. As such, I fear we are sliding into commitments in Afghanistan and Pakistan without a real national debate about the ends or the means or the exits. That is a recipe for trouble.

Given all that is on his plate, you cannot blame President Obama for looking for a middle ground — not wanting to abandon progressives and women in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but not wanting to get in too deeply. But history teaches that the middle ground can be a perilous place. Think of Iraq before the surge — not enough to win or lose, but just enough to be stuck.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Happy Passover!

I had a great time last night at the Seder. My nephew and niece participated very nicely. My nephew read quite a bit of the Haggadah himself. He reads very well, and the Haggadah is more complicated than regular Hebrew because of its mixture of biblical and Talmudic Hebrew and Aramaic. He laughed when he read the part where it says that God himself saved the Israelites from Egyptian slavery, and not through an emissary. The Hebrew word for emissary, Shaliach, is the same as the word for deliveryman. He joked that if they'd use a deliveryman maybe we'd eat pizza for a week instead of Matzah. My niece sang the Four Questions song very nicely. It is the part that the youngest person at the Seder is supposed to either read or sing.

Although it was nice, boy, am I happy that there is only one Seder in Israel. For one thing, I ate too much (though I'm sure I'll keep eating too much as long as there are leftovers). Also, being with my sister's kids until 10 PM is tiring.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Hamas and the Jews

I totally agree with the following op-ed by Shlomo Avineri (Hebrew, English):
What to speak with Hamas about
By Shlomo Avineri

Recently, more and more voices have been heard saying that the only way to reach an Israeli-Palestinian accord is by talking to Hamas. These voices are not only in Europe but also in the United States. New York Times columnist Roger Cohen, for example, and Brent Sowcroft, who was national security adviser to the first president Bush, have said that without a dialogue with Hamas there will be no peace between Israel and the Palestinians. And if Israel refuses to do so, the Europeans or the Americans should begin a dialogue with Hamas.

Similar statements can also be heard in the margins of Israeli politics.

I believe they are right, but not for the reasons they cite. The question is what to talk to Hamas about. It is clear we have to talk with them - and Israel indeed does speak with them indirectly - about freeing kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit and achieving calm.

I believe we must talk to Hamas about other things too, like about what is written in their founding covenant. Most Israelis, as well as the Europeans and Americans, know that Hamas espouses the destruction of Israel. What most of them do not know is that Hamas' founding document includes a much more comprehensive attitude, not merely to Israel and Zionism, but to the Jews.

The prologue to the covenant states that Hamas' aim is a war - not against Israel or Zionism but against the Jewish people at large, since the Jews, and not merely Israel and Zionism, are the enemies of Islam.

And in order to remove any doubt, the entire chapter 22 is devoted to detailing the iniquities of the Jews.

According to Hamas, the Jews are responsible for all the ills of modern society - the French Revolution; the Communist revolution; the establishment of secret associations (Freemasons, Rotary and Lions clubs, B'nai B'rith) designed to help them gain control of the world by secret means. They control the economy, press and television; they are responsible for the outbreak of World War I, which they initiated in order to destroy the Muslim caliphates (the Ottoman empire), to get the Balfour Declaration and set up the League of Nations with the aim of establishing their state. They also initiated World War II in order to make a fortune from selling war materials; they use both capitalism and communism as their agents.

Sound familiar? Yes, some of it is taken directly from "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion," and some, particularly the parts dealing with the world wars, is original.

Don't tell me that these are merely words and Hamas must not be judged only on the basis of its covenant. Would anyone dare say that if a similar movement were to arise in Europe or America and, in addition to statements like these, was busy killing Jews?

Compared with what is written in the Hamas covenant, Austria's Joerg Haider and Jean-Marie Le Pen in France are moderates.

It is clear that if a movement like this were to come out of Europe, no one would even imagine proposing that negotiations be held with it, or that it be asked to join a government. It would not merely be declared illegal but denounced by humankind. An abomination like that has no place in any political discourse.

But perhaps it is nevertheless worthwhile talking to Hamas - not about its contribution to peace but rather about what is stated in its covenant. Perhaps those who espouse the view that we must talk with Hamas will first talk with it about these subjects? Who knows, perhaps it will change its principles? I do not expect this to happen exactly, but I am certainly curious to know what those who think Hamas is the key to peace in the Middle East will say about these things.

And perhaps they are actually correct, perhaps Hamas is the key. If that's the case, it's difficult to expect that peace can be established in our region.

Mitzi Nostalgia

Does Plinky permit more than one response to each prompt? We'll find out now, as I post a follow-up to a previous answer where I chose "Miss Nelson Is Missing", but also mentioned various other children's books, including "Tell Me a Mitzi".

There was something strangely enjoyable about these physically ugly characters. I don't remember what the hell the story was, but I remember I loved the drawings.

Fond Memories of Viola Swamp

Here's a fun prompt: name a children's book that makes you nostalgic. Just one? I could list a lot: Curious George, the Berenstain Bears, Mitz Petel (about a lion and a giraffe wondering how the mysterious Mitz Petel [Rapberry Juice] looks), Dira Le'haskir (apartment for rent), Clifford the Dog, An American Tail (which I first knew in book form - I'm not sure if I ever saw the movie), the Arthur books, Tell Me a Mitzi (with the ugliest human beings in children's literature) and on and on and on.

But I had to pick just one, and "Miss Nelson is Missing" by Harry Allard and James Marshall is it.

I loved this book, in which a substitute teacher that looks like a witch makes the students appreciate their regular teacher, Miss Nelson. At the end of the book it is revealed that Viola Swamp, the substitute, was actually Miss Nelson in disguise.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Breaking News: Lieberman Pressures Netanyahu Into Peace Deal

JERUSALEM (AFP*) - In his first full day in office, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agreed to a peace deal with the Palestinians. The deal was reached during an overnight marathon negotiation between several ministers headed by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman on the Israeli side and President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) and Hamas leader Khaled Mashal on the Palestinian side. Netanyahu was reluctant at first, but was convinced by the liberal Mr. Lieberman of the necessity of a just peace.

According to the peace agreement, the State of Palestine would be formed on the entirety of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, with East Jerusalem as its capital. All refugees will be allowed to return to both Israel and Palestine. Such refugees will not require a loyalty oath to Israel, which only Jews will be required to take. Also, Gaza will be ruled under Islamic Sharia law and retains the right to lob missiles at Sderot, while the West Bank will be ruled under secular law.

"I could not have done this on my own," said Lieberman. "The fact that we have so many different ministers with overlapping responsibilities made us ten times more efficient in this negotiation." He commended the ministers of defense, strategic planning, negotiations, diplomatic maneuvering, minority affairs, regional development, and peace in our times, as well as the deputy minister of covering up settlement activity, for their work on this historic document.

In related news, Shas and United Torah Judaism declared their support for a separation of synagogue and state, while Meretz leaders forced Nitzan Horowitz to resign from the Knesset after they found out he was gay.

* April Fools Press, not Agence France-Presse