Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Ask A Stupid Question

Like most of us, I've been following a great deal of the presidential "coverage," and like most fervent supporters of Barack Obama, I am starting to have that sinking feeling. This has little to do with the candidate, or even his campaign, and a lot to do with what Obama's called "the silliness." Philip Roth once said that when he was in graduate school in the early 50s he assumed that the score would be University of Chicago 22, Popular Culture 6. The most serious reason for queasiness is that I assumed, well, serious reason could squeak out a victory this time.

What's Obama's problem? Bill Maher--whom MSNBC rolled out for the opening of its convention coverage, and then seems to have taken out back and shot--caught the mood (or, at least, mine) when he remarked that, with every election, the talk seems to be getting dumber, and the country will no doubt get the leaders it deserves. Maher then threw a left hook at Mormonism, as he has at all religions (Mitt Romney came up and, lucky for Jews, not Joe Lieberman) which prompted Chris Matthews to reassure his viewers that he--or was it the management of MSNBC?--considered Mormons "a great religion," an endorsement that seemed in tone and trenchancy about right for a Chevy, and was really (Maher no doubt thought) more of the disease that presumes itself the cure.

YOU CAN'T SAY we weren't warned. John Stuart Mill wrote in 1861 that representative government might be a necessary feature of liberal commonwealths, but also that educated people should have disproportionate voting power. He assumed that the franchise was not a right, but a trust; that discriminating choices could only be made by people who understood scientific methods and, hence, valued the rules of evidence and the pursuit of truth. He assumed that uneducated people could not really be trusted to make the most of their liberties. He actually pointed to American presidential elections, and lamented how campaigns were decided by those "most timid, most narrow-minded and prejudiced, or who cling most tenaciously to the exclusive class-interest."

Mill failed to see that ordinary voters could now and then outdo themselves (Lincoln had just taken office, for God's sake). But he also failed to see that--if, indeed, educated people assumed that most of the population was "timid," "narrow-minded," etc.--then our conspicuously, inescapably educated people, that is, journalists, would eventually busy themselves with one science only, what business schools lovingly call Marketing.

Journalists would not much question whether leaders were telling the truth (which was, to be sure, the work of an elite and, at best, a provisional thing). Journalists would prove themselves, rather, by showing they were (presumably, like political leaders) successful in anticipating the manipulation of the poor shmucks who looked for, as pursuers of happiness will, "red meat."

What is starting to bug me particularly is that even NPR, which we pay in advance, seems utterly wrapped up in whether Obama can "close the sale." Yesterday, to take just one example, I heard a report on a talk-show I otherwise admire (have appeared on, and will not name, so that I can appear on it again) about why Hillary voters were still "angry" about "the process": One person interviewed told the host that giving Michigan's "undecided" votes to Obama was, in effect, an example of the party bosses cheating Hillary. The host might well have asked why Hillary alone had broken her promise, made along with all the other candidates, not to compete in Michigan, which violated party rules. But that would have implied that the story was whether Obama, or any candidate, was honorable. The story, silly me, was whether Obama is as competent a con as Hillary.

I GUESS MY real fear (and pride) is that Obama cannot compete on these terms. That he will have less trouble refuting McCain than bobbing-and-weaving around a press that sees itself as the arbiter of this disgusting, democratic competence. Can Obama prove to the "white working class" that he is not "an elitist"? Can he be "commander-chief"? Can he prove he is not "just a celebrity" who "speaks well"? Can he get people to stop seeing him as black or male or young or brilliant?

Listen for these stupid questions, or variations on them, especially on NPR, the best of the best, and ask yourself if any decent person will ever get elected again. OK, so the press pre-killed a liar's book this time. And somewhere around October 20, it will start tsk-tsking how the election is not about "issues." But the problem is not really Karl Rove and the Republican attack-machine. It is a press that seriously defines its job as the judge of who lies best, which commercials work, that is, in ways hired consultants like Rove cannot resist.

I HAVE A suggestion. Instead of using the money we've contributed to buy more ads, which nobody who's watched hundreds of thousands over the years believes anyway, perhaps Obama should run against the junk-culture itself, of which this kind of press "coverage" is a part. Why not just buy television time for open town-meetings, and speak also about the way we do politics? If he can speak honestly about race, can he not tap into our buried despair about a political culture run by cons and a press handicapping their performance? Is the long-term damage from warming air really of greater concern to ordinary citizens than the relentless closing of sales on the airwaves? Watch, again, Jon Stewart's (no relation to Mill) grilling of Chris Matthews, and ask yourself if this won't bring change we can believe in.

Anyway, Obama was never so inspiring as when, on Father's Day, he told a crowd in a black church that it was time for parents to shut the televisions. At least it is time to say why.

Monday, August 25, 2008

A Beggar In Jerusalem

While eyes are on Denver, Secretary Rice has slipped into Jerusalem for the seventh time since November, in an apparent effort to advance an Israeli-Palestinian peace. The goal is a so-called "shelf agreement," which would sketch out the broad lines of a comprehensive treaty (something diplomats and lawyers could presumably finish up).

Rice, writes Haaretz's Aluf Benn, "will have to pave the way between the contradictory viewpoints of her hosts in Jerusalem." It would be truer to say that she has to choose between her hosts' contradictory viewpoints about Jerusalem. For--make no mistake--Jerusalem is the problem, and no amount of patient mediation can advance what an arbitrator's power must. Other core issues, like refugees and territory, are not simple, but they are actually more or less dependent on a larger conundrum, which "Jerusalem" subsumes. Saying that the only problem left for the diplomats is Jerusalem is like saying that the only problem left for a divorcing couple is custody of the children.

THE PALESTINIANS VIEW Arab Jerusalem--its history and charisma--as the organizing symbol (or, at least, the indispensable differentiator) of Palestinian nationalism. They see the ancient mosques, which sit on the Noble Sanctuary, as the focus of their religious piety; many educated Palestinians are secular, but most still look to the local mosque for consolation and pride. As important, Palestinians view the city as the economic hub of West Bank towns--Ramallah, Nablus, and Jenin to the north, and Bethlehem and Hebron to the south--which are really Jerusalem exurbs. Since Palestinians see future economic development as largely depending on tourism, the claim to Jerusalem is also pragmatic. Palestine without return of (read, return to) Jerusalem is unimaginable.

Most Israeli Jews living in and around Jerusalem see their city in almost precisely mirrored ways. About 65% of Jewish first-graders in Jerusalem are ultraOrthodox, and 20% are National Orthodox. They link organically to new Jewish suburbs, where 250,000 Jews live, and to the nearly 175,000 West Bank settlers, about half of whom are either National Orthodox or sympathetic to their rightist parties.

Most of these Israeli Jews see Jewish nationalism as threading back through ancient texts to the birthplace of Jewish law and rites (they see the mosques as a kind of tromp d'oeil for the ancient temple). Like the Arabs, they regard Jerusalem as the hub of a state-within-a-state--many now call it Judea--whose own West Bank towns--Ariel to the north, Kiryat Arba to the south--will wither quickly if the Israeli government stops throwing money at "settlements," and while the Arab city and its exurbs become the places to which 2-3 million Palestinian refugees return.

THERE IS NO compromise possible here. Either Palestine will rise, and Judea will be thwarted, or Judea will continue, and Palestine will be still-born. Orthodox Jewish Jerusalemites feel much like traditional Palestinian Arabs on the coastal plain in 1947, when they saw Zionist towns and villages rising around them and heard leaders preparing the ground for a couple of million or more Jewish refugees.

The difference between now and 1947 is the State of Israel, however. The vast majority of educated Israelis do live on the coastal plain, thanks to the Zionist pioneers, the heroics of the 1948 war, and (let's face it) to the Naqba, what Palestinians call the post-1948 period when hundreds of Arab towns were effaced. Most Israelis, however much they value solidarity, do not really share the aspirations of, well, Judeans. Most are secular. They see their nationalism in terms of a Hebrew revival, not the Orthodox religion. They work, increasingly, in businesses that have global reach, and cultural institutions that absorb Western values. Most of my friends in Tel-Aviv and Haifa find Jerusalem suffocating and don't much visit anymore; they have no desire to see their kids patrolling the settlements for the sake of countrymen they regard as fanatic.

And yet they certainly do not want to fight Judeans for the sake of Palestinians--certainly not without strong international backing, even pressure, to do so; not without the commitment of international forces and investment to help make the lines of division in Jerusalem permeable and the unemployed of Jerusalem hopeful. They know terrorism will continue whatever happens. They have to see peace as something that means an inspiring, over-arching gain worth fighting for, a way of joining the with the world--or of not being shunned by it--not some temporary respite they get by "giving up" territory or, worse, fighting other Jews to force them to give up territory. Arguably, they tried this in Gaza--anyway, they can't go it alone anymore.

So Rice can put away her copy of Getting To Yes, and take out her copy of The Prince. We need more Dr. Kissinger, less Dr. Phil. Of course, we can also wait until we have a new prime minister and a new president. But it won't be any different for them.

Stand On Guard For Thee

Canadian, eh?

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

'The Great Illusion' Illusion

Paul Krugman is understandably concerned about Russian actions in Georgia and questions, as many have, whether this portends an end to an era of peace among the great powers:

[O]ur grandfathers lived in a world of largely self-sufficient, inward-looking national economies — but our great-great grandfathers lived, as we do, in a world of large-scale international trade and investment, a world destroyed by nationalism.

Some analysts tell us not to worry: global economic integration itself protects us against war, they argue, because successful trading economies won’t risk their prosperity by engaging in military adventurism. But this, too, raises unpleasant historical memories.

Shortly before World War I...[the] British author, Norman Angell, published a famous book titled The Great Illusion, in which he argued that war had become obsolete, that in the modern industrial era even military victors lose far more than they gain. He was right — but wars kept happening anyway.

It's that phrase, "as we do," that should stop us. As David Remnick writes in his commentary on Putin's Georgia gambit, “Every thing is what it is, and not another thing.” Georgia in 2008 is not Prague in 1968. He might have added that global integration in 2008 is not like "international trade" in 1908. Then, integration was the product of (more or less) free exchange of goods among a dozen or so great nation-states. Today, it comes from (more or less) open, cosmopolitan networks within a thousand or so great companies. Think of an intellectual power-grid, into which you plug, or don't; and if you don't, you cannot produce much of what others will want.

THERE ARE EXCEPTIONS, of course. If every company in the world looked like Exxon or Bechtel or Archer Daniels Midland then the kind of national frictions Krugman implies would be, if not inevitable, then certainly more likely. Any reasonably competent nationalist demagogue, arguing for expanded territory, would hold a terrible advantage and make terrible sense; the only thing holding us back from tearing up the global system--that is, surrendering to the selfish national ends we might satisfy immediately in war, which is, after all, an organized form of theft--would be some long-term (and rather effete) conception of our international interest in peaceful trade.

Another book written before World War I, Imperialism: A Study, by John Hobson, pretty much predicted how the international system of free trade--which Hobson's hero, Richard Cobden, had helped establish--would fall apart, because national economies, built on pyramids of monopolized raw materials and the "division of labor," would suffer crises of "underconsumption." That would propel the great powers into ruinous fights for colonies.

THE POINT IS, advanced national economies don't look much like this anymore. Maybe the Democratic Republic of the Congo does. The US, European, Asian, and major Latin American economies don't. And how could they? A computer is made of oil and minerals but is 90% made of science. The software is 100% science. Accountants are going crazy today because the market value of major companies is 70-80% intellectual capital. And the most important thing about intellectual capital--an algorithm or a management principle--is that (unlike an oil-well, silver mine, building, pipline, or wheat-field) your having it does not mean denying it to me or anyone else. You may have it first and take a premium for a while. But you actually have a long-term interest in sharing it and expanding the population of the rich and the smart.

Exxon is America's sometimes biggest and most profitable corporation. But look at our GDP. At most 5% of the US economy is attributable to the value-added of all agricultural and oil businesses combined. That's less than a fifth coming from the combination of businesses in information technology, professional services and sophisticated manufacturing. The global economy is dominated by knowledge businesses like PwC or Siemens or HP or Toyota. These are really swarms of problem-solving teams: teams that are increasingly composed of people from all over the world, whose markets are global, whose supply-chains are global, and sources of know-how are global.

"One lesson of the Soviet experience," Remnick writes, "is that isolation ends in poverty." That is a lesson Putin can try to throw out, and will, when he feels that his regime's interests in petro-dollars is compromised. (We "freed" Kuwait, remember.) But the idea that Russia can long defy or entirely withdraw from this global system of science-based production and exchange--in other words, detach Russia from the power-grid--in order to advance "nationalist" ends is to misunderstand what even Libyan managers I've taught understand. What was China's heart-stopping opening Olympics ceremony, conducted with extreme national pride, if not a paean to the globalization that has made China a power?

I need not add that Krugman is one of our indispensable voices in public policy. That he, of all people, gets something this important this wrong suggests that economists in general are suffering from a pervasive, and in this case dangerous, intellectual virus. Luckily, there are anti-bodies in garden-variety business journalism.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Georgia On Our Mind

My wife's extraordinary daughter-in-law, Christina Ezrahi, has been a student of Russia and the Caucasus for many years. Born in Munich to a pan-European industrial family, she recently completed her doctorate in Russian history at the University of London, writing about Communism's political uses of classical ballet. A few years back, she worked for the United Nations in Moscow, and traveled often to war-torn Chechnya.

Christina sent us this email this morning, in despair about Western coverage of the Russian conflict with Georgia:

The whole situation makes me weep. But Russia's actions don't any more than Georgia's. It is too early to really know what's been going on. But Condoleezza Rice is using dangerous, completely inaccurate historical analogies which will not contribute to solving this crisis. On the contrary, Rice's comparison of Russia's move into Ossetia to the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 is so wrong that it almost gave me a heart attack. It certainly made me (once again) extremely cynical about the rhetoric of American foreign policy which, at least under this administration, is setting a world record for combining moral arrogance with complete ignorance of history; for a disregard for the complexity of reality, especially in an ethnically diverse region like the Caucasus.

The last thing I want to do is to justify Russian actions which have definitely gone too far. But Saakashvili went into South Ossetia first. The Russians are nationalistic and xenophobic, but so are the Georgians. When the Soviet Union collapsed, South Ossetia (which had been an autonomous region within the Georgian republic, and which even enjoyed brief independence in the 1920s) wanted to join Russia. North Ossetia is a part of Russia, and 98% of the population in the south voted in favor--especially as the Georgian regime after the collapse of the USSR operated under the strongly nationalistic slogan "Georgia for the Georgians," seriously threatening ethnic minorities like the Ossetians. Georgia then marched into South Ossetia and razed much of it to the ground. After an international agreement, the Russians were appointed peacekeepers, but the situation continued to be a ticking time bomb.

I know the US loves Saakashvili because he was educated in the US and speaks good English, but he is anything but a little democratic lamb. He also ran on a platform to regain full control of separatist regions like South Ossetia and started to build up troops there. The situation further deteriorated since the international acknowledgment of Kosovo's independence.

Watching all of this, I can't help thinking that the US clearly applies the principle of self-determination very selectively. If Georgia were Russia, and Russia were Georgia, the US would call for the world to accept South Ossetia's right for self-determination. Again, I am not in favor of what Russia has been doing, but I am appalled by the US rhetoric because it will only contribute to further escalation. Why can the US never see shades of grey, but instead has to use the rhetoric of black vs. white, good vs. evil?

The US understandably cares about the balance of power in the Caucasus, but why does it need to evoke 1968 and throw oil on the flames? This is not the moment for warped rhetoric and sound bites, but for astute diplomacy. And as always, the civilians in both South Ossetia and Georgia are the ones who'll suffer.

'War And Peace' And Indignation

Yesterday, I passed along an email I received from Chris Lydon, whose reading of Tolstoy leaves him riled at the thought of an Israeli attack on Iran, and even at the thought that the thought should be seriously entertained. Another brother-friend, Sheldon Schreter, living in Ra'anana, sends me this in response:

The fatuousness, arrogance, condescension and sheer stupidity of this piece are hard to take. I'm at a loss to understand why you circulated it.

So sorry for belonging to the primitive Neanderthals who actually live near the center of the bullseye drawn by those sweethearts who proclaim their intention to wipe me and my ilk off the face of the earth, while steadily acquiring the means to do it, and mocking the pathetic diplomatic attempts to delay them. So sorry for failing to recognize that we shouldn't take all the rhetoric seriously, that the Iranian regime is hardly suicidal, that Tolstoy has already said everything worth knowing on the subject, that anyone who considers war as an option is a monstrous criminal. So sorry for having to express contempt for the superior wisdom of my intellectual betters, whose personal risk in this discussion is nil, and whose reaction in the unlikely event that they are wrong, and some maniac actually nukes central Israel before we can deter or second-strike, will be: "Whoops!" or "Oh-oh!" What happened to patience and time, those venerable heroes? That's a pose.

I wish Mr. Lydon long life and good health in his superior irrelevance and cavalier dismissal of what is at stake here. At least you and Reza Aslan attempt to assess the actual situation and real options. I pray you are right. I doubt Israel will hit Iran preemptively, and the saber-rattling verbiage strengthens that hunch. It doesn't look as though the U.S. will sanction and cooperate, nor the Iraqis, which makes the idea impossible to implement in any case. So Iran will sooner or later acquire nuclear weapons capacity. Anyone who denies how serious a problem that will be (already is) for this region and way beyond it, is just burying their head - or ours - in the sand.

Like the majority of Israelis, I don't need Tolstoy or his interpreters to convince me that war is bad, and moreover, that we need to terminate the occupation of the West Bank. I do need to know how we can avoid war and separate from the Palestinians when Iran and its proxies aren't interested, to put it mildly, in anything less than reversing the Nakba, i.e. destroying Israel. You don't have to be a Darwinian to appreciate that anyone who can't or won't defend themselves is dead meat, at least in this general neighborhood. (Georgia, on my mind....)

Of course I'd rather co-operate harmoniously with our neighbors in optimizing the common good via active, joint participation in the global economy, but for that you need to be alive.

Curious how, when you come down to it, both Chris and Shelly are arguing for the same course of action by Israel, which is to refrain from attacking Iran, pursue a peace with Palestine and Syria, and learn to live with an Iranian bomb, should one materialize--while working with the Western powers to contain and seduce the Iranian regime over time (what Reza Aslan and I stated or implied in our Washington Post article).

The argument, which can be fierce, seems to be over the efficacy, or (let us call it the) moral status, of military power itself. I'll have more to say about this, but for now I think Shelly's attitude, which many Israelis share, should be slept on.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

'War And Peace' And Time And Patience

This, from my brother-friend, Christopher Lydon, in response to Reza Aslan's and my Washington Post article about a possible Israeli strike against Iranian nuclear sites:

Israel is in an existential crisis every day (so am I!) and she'd better think of better ways to ease it than war with giant countries that could hurt her bad. What you don't say in the Post, what you would surely say in any direct conversation with anyone, is: are you out of your fucking mind? There are too many logical, emotional and political absurdities in the formulations around war on Iran (yours too) to make rationalistic analysis even very interesting.

I am under a strong influence as I type: War and Peace, with about 75 pages to go in the Epilogue. Netanyahu and Ahmedinejad, and Putin and Bush-league, surely McCain and Barack, for a quick review, should read Tolstoy's epic denunciation of Napoleon, a thug and an outlaw, a conman and a stone killer, and of all these insanely self-stroking pols and generals and policy dudes who are encouraged to believe they are mastering reality and making history when in fact they are pathetic, insignificant little bugs threading nonsense words and sentiments together to justify killing people for no real reason whatsoever.

This Tolstoy boy is one majestic writer and thinker, and his book should have been the last word necessary on the
idiocy, the self-deception, the privilege, the wasted thinking, not to mention the cruelty and unfairness and staggering loss of war.

THERE ARE CONTEMPORARY figures and lessons all through it, but one in particular leapt out at me: a General Pfuel on the Russian staff who sounds like all our Neocons and especially Wolfowitz, or Douglas Feith or Richard Perle. Here's Tolstoy's version of ethnic humor.

"Pfuel was one of those hopeless opinionated, arrogant men who would go to the stake for their own ideas, self-assured as only a German can be, because only a German could be self-assured on the basis of an abstract idea -- science, the supposed knowledge of absolute truth. A Frenchman is self-assured because he sees himself as devastatingly charming, mentally and physically, to men and women alike. An Englishman is self-assured on grounds that he is a citizen of the best-organized state in the world, and also because as an Englishman he always knows the right thing to do and everything he does, because he is an Englishman, must be right. An Italian is self assured because he gets excited and easily forgets himself and everybody else.

"A Russian is self-assured because he knows nothing, and doesn't want to know anything because he doesn't believe you can know anything completely. A self-assured German is the worst of the lot, the most stolid and the most disgusting, because he imagines he knows the truth through a branch of science that is entirely his invention...Pfuel was one of those theorists who love their theory so dearly they lost sight of the aim of all theory, which is work out in practice... He positively rejoiced in failure, because failure was due to practical infringements of his theory, which went to show how right the theory was..."

The last line in the sketch makes him even more like Wolfowitz in Fahrenheit 911: "...This was eloquently confirmed by the uncombed tufts of hair sticking up on the back of his head, and the hurriedly brushed locks at his temples."

Tolstoy made up a lot of the wisdom he attributes to General Kutuzov, but I adore Kutuzov not a mite less, the old general who knew everything about war and made a triumphant strategy of avoiding it. "There's nothing stronger than those two old soldiers -- time and patience." And later: "Patience and time, these are my heroes of the battlefield."

I say we'll rue the day that the society allowed so many people to talk war, war, war as if it were a parlor game.

Actually, I read War and Peace in Jerusalem in the dark fall of 1973, just after the October War, and have a vivid memory of dreading that all the grand declarations and military moves and terrible grief I was reading about in the newspapers and watching on television--and feeling in the parlors of friends--would amount to nothing but material for some Tolstoy to "tsk, tsk" about fifty years hence. It is now 35 years later, and if Chris's admonition is any indication, we seem to be on track.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Do They Think We're Children? Aren't We?

It is hard to think of two more different elections than the Kadima Party primary and the American presidential election, which is why the parallels in insurgent rhetoric are so fascinating.

Both Shaul Mofaz, who is running against Kadima favorite Tzipi Livni, and Labor leader Ehud Barak--not actually running against her, but positioning himself to form the next government--are telling voters that they are fit to command because of their military backgrounds. This is, in case you haven't noticed, what John McCain is saying. Polls suggest the rhetoric is working.

Ironically, the Winograd Commission condemned Ehud Olmert's whole "political echelon," with the notable exception of Livni, for not challenging the military's strategic narrow-mindedness in the second Lebanon war. Most Americans agree that McCain's enthusiasm for the Iraq war was hardly to his credit. But irony, too, is for sissies. Mofaz and Barak are saying we need a military leader at the head of the government, presumably to coordinate with military leaders, while McCain's fitness to lead seems a function of his claim to know "how to win" (well, survive) wars started in a reckless unleashing of imperial force.

The problem is that this impulse to trust leaders who seem--how did Michael Corleone put it?--"strong for the family" can be exposed as misguided time after time. And yet it reasserts itself time after time. We say we need to know what leaders stand for, but we secretly look for signs that they stand up. Something in us wants to be tucked in.

THERE IS A lesson here for both Livni and Obama, and it is not to try to compete with their rivals on how to sound like a military commander-in-chief. What both have to prove, actually, is their wrath in the face of militant simplifiers, their brass to fire commanders-in-chief, if necessary, to get to larger peace agreements. We need to feel their indignation, their power to answer the logic of naked power.

"Does he think we're children?" Livni should be angrily denouncing Mofaz's posturing, as Obama should be denouncing McCain's. Their logic will work because we are not children, their anger will (ironically,) because we are.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

The Threat Of Attack, Again

A couple of weeks ago, after Benny Morris laid out the case for an Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear sites in the New York Times, I posed some questions that needed answering before anything of the kind might even be entertained. I then got in touch with my friend Reza Aslan, the author of the remarkable No God But God--a prominent Iranian-American liberal (and critic of the Mullahs' regime)--to try to answer them. Our article appears in the Washington Post's Outlook section.

We will continue to hear that an Israeli attack is somehow inevitable, especially from Shaul Mofaz, who is making his hawkishness the centerpiece of an effort to capture the leadership of the Kadima Party and become prime minister. You can read Dan Sagir's exposure of Mofaz's opportunism here.

Friday, August 1, 2008

My Breakfast At Ehud's

Ehud Olmert's career has come to a sad end. He has announced that, in light of the continuing allegations against him, he'll step aside in September. This is a good thing for both the country and the peace process. He likely broke the law; he allowed rich foreign Jews to overindulge him too much. I have argued here before that Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni is the Israeli center's best hope for keeping Benjamin Netanyahu's grotesque coalition from power. A recent poll would seem to reinforce the point.

But people who've known Olmert over the years understand what a tragic result this is for a man of high intelligence, natural warmth, and genuine worldliness--in a way, the first Israeli prime minister who was cosmopolitan enough to see his country as others do. He was also a pro.

"I have to say I could never bring myself to dislike the guy," Ambassador Alvaro de Soto, the former UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, and (since his resignation) a harsh critic of many aspects of Olmert's performance, wrote me earlier today: "He may have been a dismal commander-in-chief, but he articulated the depth of the challenge facing Israel with astonishing candor. When it becomes clear to all that Israel is becoming, in Tom Friedman's words, 'permanently pregnant with a stillborn Palestinian state in its belly,' people might recall that he told them so."

OLMERT'S GREATEST FAILURE was his inability to stand up to generals in the cabinet room after soldiers were kidnapped on the northern border in the summer of 2006; generals with contingency plans, maps and reassurances. Political professional that he was, he was loathe to be thought outside the consensus established by military professionals--also by outdated Zionist institutions, American Jewish moguls, and a tabloid press. He told some journalists after the Lebanon war that this was his Bay of Pigs, implying that he had been ensnared by an inherited security establishment. He said he would need three years for people to forget the debacle and credit his peace moves. Alas, he is no Jack Kennedy.

Anyway, I interviewed Olmert for my book in February of 2007. He and his wife Aliza had prepared a lovely breakfast at his residence, and he talked, on the record, for about 45 minutes as he prepared to go off to a reunion of his first-grade class from Binyamina. He was already being investigated, and the Winograd Commission was still deliberating (hence, the little joke about the sudden importance of Prof. Ruth Gavison). But he was still projecting hope for a diplomatic process with the Palestinians. I thought the conversation was unusually interesting, and could get little of it into my book.

It is, in any case, most revealing to hear him unfiltered. Among other things, it may help us understand what he'll be leaving his successor. The entire conversation can be heard here.