Monday, January 31, 2011

The Devil We Know

In the New York Times, Ross Douthat writes that we actually don't really know what will be next in Egypt, or what would be in America's (or Israel's) best interest. I rarely agree with the conservative Douthat, but I do this time.

One of the things he is right about is that it is quite possible that Mubarak's regime radicalized members of the Muslim Brotherhood who moved on to Al-Qaeda, like Ayman Al-Zawahiri. The big question now, though, is whether or not the people who remain in the Muslim Brotherhood are the ones who didn't become radicalized.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Fear of an Egyptian Islamic Revolution

Hosni Mubarak is a dictator. He is not good for his people. As a liberal, I should be delighted at the prospect of his overthrow, but I'm not. Who will replace him if the mass riots bring his downfall? Probably not the mild-mannered Muhammad El-Baradei, former chief of the International Atomic Energy Ageny. He isn't very popular in Egypt, despite the fact that he's the opposition leader who is most prominent in Western media. The most popular movement in Egypt is the Muslim Brotherhood, the undemocratic fanatically Islamist older brother (or father) of Hamas.

Having Hamas ruling Gaza is bad enough. Having a Hamas-like movement ruling all of Egypt, together with the prospect of Hezbollah ruling Lebanon, is quite a scary idea for us Israelis. But in a way, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt would be worse for Israelis than Hezbollah in Lebanon. We don't have a peace agreement with our northern neighbors anyway. With Egypt, there is a risk of this important Arab country rejoining the ranks of our enemies, and actively arming Hamas against us.

Egyptians, if you get rid of Mubarak, please don't replace him with religious zealots!

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Ian McEwan's Response to Boycotters

From the Guardian's letter section (Jan. 26):

I write in response to the letter you published from the British Writers in Support of Palestine (BWISP), which I have read with care (Letters, 24 January). I have my own concerns about Israel and the situation of the Palestinians, which is worse than ever. The recently published leaks to al-Jazeera/the Guardian are depressing, the present outlook for negotiations is bleak. Many Israeli writers feel this way too. But BWISP and I disagree on what one should do. I'm for finding out for myself, and for dialogue, engagement, and looking for ways in which literature, especially fiction, with its impulse to enter other minds, can reach across political divides. There are ways in which art can have a longer reach than politics, and for me the emblem in this respect is Daniel Barenboim's West-Eastern Divan Orchestra – surely a beam of hope in a dark landscape, though denigrated by the Israeli religious right and Hamas. If BWISP is against this particular project, then clearly we have nothing more to say to each other.

As for the Jerusalem prize itself, its list of previous recipients is eloquent enough. Bertrand Russell, Milan Kundera, Susan Sontag, Arthur Miller, Simone de Beauvoir – I hope BWISP will have the humility to accept that these writers had at least as much concern for freedom and human dignity as they do themselves. Their "line" is not the only one. Courtesy obliges them to respect my decision to go to Jerusalem, as I would theirs to stay away.

Ian McEwan


Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Report on the Flotilla Fiasco

The Turkel Commission published the first part of its findings today. In summary: Israel did everything by the book, and its actions in stopping the IHH-led "Free Gaza" flotilla in May 2010 were justified. There were problems in the intelligence-gathering and planning stages, but those will be the focus of the second part of the report, due to be published in about a month.

Although I completely agree with the findings, I'm still uncomfortable. The absolute affirmation of Israel's right to enforce a blockade on Gaza and of its claim of self-defense seems rooted in the facts at hand, but I doubt it will be accepted by the world. Perhaps, if the commission had not been a government commission, but rather the highest form - a national commission (or, if the term "ve'ada mamlachtit" is translated directly - a royal commission) whose members are appointed by the chief justice of the Supreme Court, it would be taken more seriously internationally.

Prime Minister Erdogan of Turkey has already said he doesn't believe the report, because an internal inquiry isn't worth anything. Funny, since Turkey had its own internal inquiry into the Mavi Marmara incident and reached opposite conclusions, as did a commission appointed by the dictatorship-dominated UN Human Rights Council.

I look forward to Part B of the Turkel Report, and to a report being prepared by Micha Lindenstrauss, Israel's State Comptroller. Lindenstrauss will supposedly be more critical of the IDF and the government, though he'll focus on bad preparation and probably won't find anything illegal.

Israel needs to learn from its mistakes so another fiasco like this won't return. An international investigation is a waste of time.

Temporary Borders: Foolish and Dangerous

According to Ha'aretz, Avigdor Lieberman is preparing an Israeli offer to recognize a Palestinian state immediately. This state would have temporary borders, and would be made up of just half of the West Bank, would not include East Jerusalem, and its establishment would not require any evacuation of settlements, though it would require a military withdrawal. The permanent borders of the state would be determined in the future final agreement.

This proposal sounds great, except that it isn't really new, and won't be accepted. Proposals for a state with permanent borders have been made, unofficially, in the past. Palestinians rejected them, fearing that in the Middle East, the temporary tends to become permanent. They have also refused the idea of more interim agreements, insisting that what must come next must be the final status treaty. I can understand them. Having just half the West Bank would put them in a kind of limbo, where some Palestinians are independent, while others are still under occupation.

There's also another reason I don't support Lieberman's plan. In a way, I'm more suspicious than the Foreign Minister: If the Palestinians have a state before agreeing in writing that they don't have any more demands from Israel (and in fact, in Lieberman's scheme, Israel agrees that it might give more to Palestine eventually), the world may find it legitimate for the new state to launch a war against Israel if its demands aren't met. For the first time in its military battles against the Palestinians, Israel would be dealing with a sovereign nation, and so would be bound by very different rules. What would we do in such a scenario?

Friday, January 21, 2011

The Skeptical Left

Einat Wilf, one of the four Knesset Members who left Labor with Ehud Barak, said that their new Independence Party is to the left of Likud and to the right of Kadima. It's a party for the people on the skeptical left who would like to see peace but aren't so sure it is possible, and do not blame Israel as the sole party responsible for the lack of of progress in peace negotiations.

First of all, it's interesting that Independence is to the right of Kadima. Is the party of Ariel Sharon and Tzippi Livni a leftist party? And a "blame Israel first party" (BIFP)? Of course it isn't. Is what remains of Labor a BIFP? Not in the slightest.

Second of all, as a member of the skeptical left, it would seem I should be a supporter of Barak. I think the Palestinians have their share of responsibility for the failure of negotiations. I am not at all convinced they've completely given up the idea of fighting for a one-state solution even after the Palestinian State is established. However, I'm not blind to our responsibilities, and I don't think we should be providing excuses for the Palestinians. Settlement construction and the demolition of Palestinian houses in East Jerusalem and the West Bank should not be taking place - most of all, because they're wrong, but also because they are excellent excuses for the Palestinians to refuse to talk to us.

The government needs to do something that would test the Palestinians' will to negotiate. Freeze settlements, give them more control over greater areas. If after big gestures like these they'll still be unwilling to negotiate, the egg will be on Mahmoud Abbas's face, not Netanyahu's.

Barak, Wilf and the other three Independence munchkins aren't pushing the government towards the bare minimum required to shift responsibility to the Palestinians. In fact, they're allowing it to go ever more rightward, toward Lieberman's abyss of racism and paranoia.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Barak Improves Labor By Leaving It

Ladies and gentlemen, the Labor party no longer has a measly 13 seats in the Knesset. No, it has an even measlier 8, after Defense Minister Ehud Barak and four loyal MKs split from Labor and created a new faction, with the pathos-filled name "Independence". The quality of the Labor MKs just rose, though, because the best ones stayed. I'm mainly referring to Avishay Braverman, the outgoing Minister of Minority Affairs, and Shelly Yechimovich.

Barak is pulling an Ariel Sharon -  a major cabinet member (prime minister or defense minister) who leaves the party of which he is the chairman with a bit more than one third of the delegation in order to create a new party that would allow him to carry out his policies. Barak's direction, however, is the opposite of Sharon's. Sharon left the Likud in order to be freed of right-wing extremists. Barak is creating a new party, which would basically be a subsidiary of Likud, in order to be freed of supporters of the two-state solution who believe Barak and Labor shouldn't serve as the right-wing extremist government's fig leaf.

Former Meretz chairman Yossi Sarid predicts the Independence Party will merge with Likud. He might be right. I doubt they'll be able to muster enough votes to get into the Knesset in the next elections.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Netanyahu and the Negev

Ari Shavit, who is considered close to both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, has this to say in today's Haaretz (Hebrew/English):

"[Netanyahu] will not give up sovereignty in settlement blocs in the West Bank, he will not compromise on Israeli presence in the Jordan Valley and he will try to spare the settlers. On the other hand, as far as land exchange goes, he will display readiness to go far."
This can only mean one thing. Settlers in the West Bank are much more important to him than the citizens in Israel proper, those living in areas that have been recognized as legitimate Israeli territory since 1948. He will give up a lot of Israeli land, possibly uprooting non-settlers, to keep West Bank lands and appease settlers.

He is most likely to give up lands in the Negev. Instead of telling the colonizers of the West Bank to move to Israel's southern region, he will betray the northeastern Negev. Southerners must understand this and advocate for themselves immediately. Make it clear to Netanyahu - if we must choose between Ariel and Ein Gedi, we'll choose Ein Gedi.

Of course, he might not be thinking of the Negev, but rather of Arab-populated towns on the Western side of the green line. That's Lieberman's wet dream - getting as much of the Arab-Israeli population to live in Palestine. The Israeli Arabs, the Palestinians and the international community will never agree to this, and I doubt Netanyahu would even dare bring it up.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

More Guns? Less Guns?

Following the mass murder in Tuscon, each side on the debate about gun control saw the event as proving its point, just like the response to previous shooting sprees. Second Amendment zealots say that the more people have guns, the better, since crazies and terrorists can be subdued more quickly by armed law-abiding citizens. Proponents of gun control, on the other hand, say that less guns are the answer - or more precisely, making it harder to obtain them.

I side with the second group, the gun control advocates. However, in places where gun laws are not restrictive enough, it would be better for more law-abiding citizens to have guns. I mean that in places like Arizona, where every crazy son of a bitch can get assault weapons, more normal people should have guns for self-defense. On the other hand, where it is difficult for the wrong people to get guns, the "right" people don't need them as much, anyway, because there are many less armed and dangerous people to worry about.

Why Boycotting Ariel Isn't the Answer

Here's an opinion piece from today's Haaretz, which I agree with. Boycotting Ariel College will not help anybody, and will not promote peace, just like BDS against Israel proper won't, either.

The voice of despair (Hebrew here)

By Avirama Golan

Academics from many fields, mainly from the exact sciences, signed a declaration last week to the effect that they are unwilling to take part in any academic activity taking place at the college in Ariel, known as the Ariel University Center of Samaria. The reason: Ariel is an illegal settlement in occupied territory, which is flourishing alongside Palestinian communities that are suffering intolerable living conditions and are denied basic human rights.

It's true that the college in Ariel was conceived and born in sin. Like the entire settlement enterprise, it bypassed the law, and in its case the Council for Higher Education, which opposed its establishment for clear academic reasons - it was done at the expense of shrinking the academic pie. With the help of Defense Minister Ehud Barak, a unique status was invented for it: "a university center."

The right rushed to label the signers of the declaration with the usual epithets: delusionary, alienated, extremist. However, a perusal of the list reveals that although some of them do sit in the scientific ivory tower and deal with abstract theories (not something to be condemned, of course ), most of them are familiar with Israeli society from up close - and work within it out of profound involvement and commitment.

Still, the declaration arouses unease. Unlike the actors, who were forced by the theaters to perform in Ariel, nobody forces these academics, who are among the most respected scientists and intellectuals in Israel, to teach there. Those who are forced to do so are doctoral students, researchers and assistants; in the absence of job slots at Bar-Ilan University they go to Ariel, as did others who desperately needed a job and were given attractive offers.

These junior academics are like the young couples who moved to the "non-ideological" settlements, because only there one could find apartments and convenient mortgages, plus better and cheaper services than those disintegrating within the Green Line. They are victims of Israel's policy. We can understand that they are unable to sign the declaration.

For that reason, this is a verbal declaration without a price tag, and therein lies its weakness. And this weakness stems from another, which is more regrettable. The signatories are also those who are more exposed than others to the threats of a boycott against Israeli academics by their colleagues abroad. Their declaration seems directed less at the Israeli public and more abroad, at the boycotters, as if to say: We have nothing to do with the settlements. In other words, we are the "good guys," not the "bad guys."

That's a shame. They of all people are very familiar with the nature of the boycott from meeting at international conferences the BDS activists - those urging boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel. For the boycotters, the very existence of Israel on what they see as Palestinian territory is illegitimate, and therefore the "university center" in Ariel is a petty matter, which is no different from the Hebrew University on Mount Scopus in Jerusalem, just as there's no difference between the colonialism of the late 19th century and the occupation of 1948 and that of 1967.

On the other side of the coin, the settlers are, in effect, making the same claim: Ariel is the "spearhead" of Zionism, like the wall and stockade of the hastily built kibbutzim under the British Mandate, and anyone who claims that the settlers are not legitimate is necessarily including Hanita and Ramat Aviv as well. This dangerous obfuscation, which has turned into government policy, is one of the main causes for the rejection of Israel in recent years.

It is doubtful whether most of the signatories to the declaration are interested in the fact that it pulls the ground from under the feet of Israel in general, including themselves and their work. But the voice that calls from their declaration is the voice of bitter despair - of those who no longer believe that Israel can recover and change, and are turning outward, to the world. That is the source of the unease aroused by the declaration. We can and must expect of these academics, of all people, who are genuinely anxious about the fate and image of Israel, not to despair; not to stop channeling efforts inward, to the society in which they live. Despite the very gloomy present, change, if and when it occurs, can come only from within this society and with their help.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Israel's McCarthy Committee

Last week, the Knesset took the first step toward creating an investigative committee that would look into the sources of human rights groups' funds. Faina Kirschenbaum of Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beitenu Party and Danny Dannon of Likud, the two people behind the initiative to create such a committee and who are both vying for its chairmanship, claim they're only looking into groups that are targeting the IDF and promoting the prosecution of Israeli soldiers abroad.

Lieberman said today that this isn't persecution of the left, since they aren't looking into organisations like Peace Now. Peace Now is legitimate, he said, while the others are not. Odd, since even Peace Now technically fits the bill of organisations that publish unfavorable information about the IDF, such as how settlements continue to grow under the watchful eye of the army, which is legally the sovereign in the West Bank.

Anyway, I hope this committee will not be created. There are still two more votes left where this horrible idea can fail - in the Knesset Committee and in the final vote before the whole Knesset. In the original vote, only 41 Knesset members voted in favor of a committee, but because very few opponents were present that was enough. Now that both Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin of Likud and Opposition Leader Tzippi Livni have denounced the decision, I am much more hopeful that maybe there will be more "no" votes than "yes" votes when the final roll call comes up.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

We Deserve a President in Jail

Yossi Beilin, the former head of the left-wing Meretz Party, says ex-president Moshe Katsav should receive a pardon from President Shimon Peres. He's no fan of Katsav. As a liberal defender of human rights, he doesn't believe Katsav's actions are excusable. The only reason he thinks there should be a pardon is because he's our former president, and "Israel doesn't deserve a president in jail".

Well, Dr. Beilin, Israel does deserve a president in jail, both as a punishment and as a reward. Israel deserves to be punished for having a political system in which rapists can be elected to the highest office for political reasons. In 2000, when he was elected president, politicians knew Katsav was a sexual predator, a man prone to sexual harassment at the very least. Haaretz reported this week that when Katsav was still just a member of the Knesset, Ariel Sharon warned a young female journalist not to go to Katsav for a report on politicians courting the Russian vote. The guy is too dangerous for a woman to visit, but he can be elected president?

Israel also deserves to be rewarded for eventually bringing the truth to light, despite Katsav being the head of state and the national embarrassment that came with the revelations. Israel needs to show itself, as well as the world, that nobody is above the law.

More important than all this, though, is the fact that Moshe Katsav himself needs to be punished. Some claim that his public service should be taken into consideration, leading to a reduced sentence. It is the exact opposite. Katsav abused his public offices through the years, and thus should be punished more severely.

PressTV: Unbelievable (Literally)

Some serious people in the West take the Iranian news organization PressTV as a reliable source of information about the Middle East. Though it is funded by the Iranian government, they claim it is totally editorially independent. Is it?

Would any serious organization blame Israel's Mossad spy agency for the attack on a Coptic Christian church in Cairo, Egypt? Would any serious organization publish an article where the main argument supporting this claim would be that Muslims never attack Christians, that "it goes without saying that no Muslim, whatever their political leanings may be, will ever commit such an inhumane act"? This is an obvious falsehood, with plenty of evidence of previous Muslim violence against Christians and other groups.

The claim that Mossad did this, because it can't be Muslims who did it, is what PressTV is running with. The same article pretty much blames Israel and the United States for every internal problem in the Middle East, from Sudan to Lebanon. There's a disclaimer that this opinion piece is not the opinion of PressTV, but what kind of organization publishes crazy conspiracy theories in its opinion section? Publishing this may not be a full endorsement, but it reflects the thought that it is a valid view.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Utopia 2010: A Look Back

In January of last year I wrote a post titled "Utopia 2010", with four things I hoped would happen during that year. None of them did, unfortunately:

  1. Avigdor Lieberman has not been indicted yet. The police and State Attorney have recommended an indictment, but it's taking Attorney General Yehudah Weinstein ages to decide whether or not he agrees. Hopefully, the indictment will come in 2011, destabilizing the awfully stable coalition.
  2. There were some protests in Iran recently, but they didn't amount to anything. I notice I've become more modest in my aspirations: Last year I hoped a new democratic form of government will be instituted in Iran, replacing the Islamic Republic. For 2011, a more moderate president under the current form of government would be enough.
  3. I had no doubt that this one will not come true: A peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians. We have a government in Israel that is incapable of this. Also, Hamas would never agree to recognize Israel.
  4. I'm still trying to figure out how to reach where I want to be professionally in the future.

2011: Year in Preview

Happy new year!

Let's hope that this year will be better than the last, though I'm not very optimistic. Here are a few things I hope (but don't necessarily believe) will happen by January 1, 2012:

  • The Labor Party will finally understand the Netanyahu government is a bad one and will withdraw from the coalition. A disargreement between the ultra-Orthodox Shas and the secular Israel Beitenu will lead to the breakup of the rest of the government and new elections. Avishay Braverman will be elected chairman of the Labor Party, and he'll make gains in the elections, ultimately becoming Prime Minister Tzippi Livni's main coalition partner.
  • Prime Minister Livni will reach a settlement with Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad, creating a Palestinian state. 
  • Israel and Syria will reach a peace deal. Syria will cut its ties with Hizbullah.
  • Following an increase is gas prices, a new revolution will sweep through Iran, bringing a new moderate government to the country, which will also cut its ties with Hizbullah.
  • Cut off from all funding and support from Iran and Syria, Hizbullah will no longer be the all-powerful terrorist militia that it is and will be forced to disarm. Hizbullah will resist at first, but a newly empowered Lebanese Army will squash any resistance. Hassan Nassrallah will be executed for treason against Lebanon.

That's what I hope will happen. Here's what I think will happen:
  • The Labor Party will indeed withdraw from the coalition, but the government won't fall. Shas and Avigdor Lieberman may have opposite views on some core religious issues but their mutual right-wing views and their love of their government positions are more important to them than anything else. 
  • Despite attempts to hold leadership elections in the Labor Party, Ehud Barak will manage to delay a vote.
  • The Netanyahu government will not reach any kind of agreement with the Palestinians. There may be another war with Hamas.
  • New peace negotiations might start with Syria, but Netanyahu's unwillingness to give up the Golan Heights, as well as Assad's unwillingness to give up his ties with Iran and Hizbullah, will lead to failed talks.
  • The Ayatollahs may get rid of Mahmoud Ahmedinejad because he's a horrible president, but the new government won't be much friendlier towards the United States, Israel or the West, and it definitly will not stop aiding Hizbullah.
  • Hizbullah's stranglehold on Lebanon will only increase this year.