Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Say It Again

If you haven't seen this column by David Landau, the former editor of Haaretz, it is worth a moment, especially his final paragraphs:

As history, both ancient and more recent, teaches us, there is another vital component in the inculcation of a whole society with xenophobia. It's the big lie, repeated over and over until ordinary people inadvertently come to regard it as truth. "Go and worship your God," Pharaoh pretended to Moses, time after time. His own people no doubt believed him.

In our own case, this past year, Netanyahu has incessantly repeated his mantra that he's merely doing in Jerusalem "what all my predecessors have done for 43 years." The purpose of this pretense is to erase from the public mind, at home and abroad, the fact that two of his predecessors negotiated with the Palestinians and the Americans over dividing the city. The purpose, too, is deliberately to blur the hugely significant difference between building in the Jewish neighborhoods that have been developed over decades and forcibly inserting Jewish settlers into all-Arab neighborhoods like Sheikh Jarrah. The purpose, basically, is to obliterate any chance of implementing the "Clinton parameters" - Jewish areas to Israel, Arab areas to Palestine, Holy Basin to God [or an international consortium representing Him] and thus reaching a fair compromise on Jerusalem.

The demonstrations taking place on Fridays at Sheikh Jarrah offer some smidgen of hope that not everyone has been duped and silenced. The Naomi Chazan front was abandoned. The "Nakba Law" front was lost without a fight. The battle line in Israel's war of survival as a Jewish and democratic state now runs through the Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem. There, alongside the few brave Israelis out demonstrating, the president of the United States has planted his pennant, too. Is that the line, at last, where Israel's decline will be halted?

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Didi's Generation

I had lunch with my friend Didi Remez a week ago Wednesday in Tel Aviv. We had been working on a document, remotely and fitfully--and given that it is a kind of democratic manifesto, a little hubristically--and figured we were due for a little face time.

When we parted, Didi told me, among other things, he would be going to the West Bank towns of Bili'in and Nabi Saleh on Friday, where protests had been mounted for months: Bili'in over the route of the security fence, and Nabi Saleh over the appropriation by Jewish settlers of a local spring needed for farming. The army was trying to curtail the demonstrations by declaring the towns a closed military zone. "I'm going to go and dare them to arrest me," Didi said.

I hadn't heard from him since the weekend, and he owed me a draft, so I decided to call him this morning. "I'm sorry I've been late with the document," Didi said, a little sheepishly, "but I've been convalescing. Actually, I was shot last Friday. Plastic bullets in the groin and the back of my leg." He had had his arms raised, he explained, but was shot anyway. "There seems to be a new policy."

I was ashamed that the shooting had escaped my attention much as it now shocked me. None of the newspapers had covered it. Didi had decided not to make much of it on his widely read (and indispensable) blog, Coteret, though it was on his Facebook page, and mentioned on Philip Weiss's blog. "I felt I shouldn't make a big deal," Didi said, "because I was the 25th. person shot, and the soldiers aimed at my legs. They aimed higher at the 24 Arabs and others, and they are in much worse shape."

THE HUMILITY COMES with a pedigree, and the empathy with experience. Didi, or David, Remez is the great-grandson and namesake of the David Remez, one of David Ben-Gurion's closest friends, and the state's first minister of transportation, then education. His grandfather, Aharon Remez, was the (second) commander of the air force, and his father, Gideon, a veteran foreign affairs journalist. He is a scion of the country's labor aristocracy and knows its obsolescence but is also, in a way, the best of what's left of it.

Didi was himself a combat officer, and is still haunted by some of the actions he commanded in occupied territory a generation ago. He lived some years in the US (was actually a student at the Shady Hill School in Cambridge when his father was at Harvard) and flirted with emigrating, but came back, moth to flame, to "make a difference." Since then, he has been a managing partner of BenOr, Israel's hippest strategy consulting firm for NGOs operating in the region, whose clients include the World Bank. He is also a close advisor to Jeremy Ben-Ami at J Street, and to the young leaders of the Sheikh Jarrah demonstration committee. He doubts he is really making a difference, but I rarely see him without a smile.

JUST BEFORE I called Didi, I had gone on a mission of my own, to a local synagogue where a sweet young man stood in front of a boiling vat of water, and carefully dunked our pots to make them fit for Passover. I have written here last year about the child's play (as Yehuda Amichai called it) that typifies Passover preparations, the growing disconnect in this country between the rigors of Passover ritual and its meaning. Let's just say that talking to Didi made me feel fit for Passover.

In every generation, the Haggadah says, it is incumbent upon us to stand at Sinai ourselves. Didi knows something about standing, and generations, but also about the power of telling the story, especially in our generation. "The army withdrew from Bili'in when they saw the cameras and the crowds," he said. Didi won't make it tomorrow, but hundreds of us will be at Sheikh Jarrah, with the cameras and crowds and cautious cops, privileged to be led by young people.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

AIPAC Agonistes, Part 2

"Dear Bernard," Ira Chernus, a professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder, wrote me today; "That's such an important question you asked in your latest post, a question far too few people explore. When I came to the end, I was eager to learn your answer. What exactly is that 'hole in the heart'? What created it? What else might fill it? So I was disappointed that your piece ended abruptly. You've lived your whole life among these people, I suspect, as I have. I'd love to hear your answers. I hope you'll consider today's post Part I, and give us the rest very soon."

Professor Chernus, I suspect, has important thoughts about this himself, and is flattering me just a little, to see if my views accord with his own. Fair enough, but who can really explain the curious way so many American Jews have made Greater Israel, of all things, the focus of what they call "identity" in, of all places, America? Anyway, I took a crack at this subject in this post of a couple of years ago, about Jews and Obama, and this post from last year, about the gambling magnate and Bibi sidekick, Sheldon Adelson. Perhaps the most sustained piece I wrote about the subject was over thirty years ago, in the New York Review of Books, which I would not change much of today: a review of Hillel Halkin's then much lauded book, Letters to an American Jewish Friend. Here is the review, and also an exchange on American Zionism with Halkin and Leon Wieseltier. We were all younger then, but obviously also gelled.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

AIPAC Agonistes

I confess feeling a twinge of pathos when I heard on Reshet Bet radio this morning how Benjamin Netanyahu told his AIPAC audience in Washington that the Jewish people were building Jerusalem 3000 years ago, would continue doing so today, and then hearing the crowd roar its delight.

These are not stupid people. They are serious people. They know, surely, that the construction in contention is in East Jerusalem neighborhoods that threaten to entirely cut off 300,000 Palestinians from their families and commercial opportunities in the West Bank. They know that any effort to keep these neighborhoods, or preserve the status quo, will result in Bosnian style violence. They know that this violence would further undermine American interests in the region.

They know that 41% of Israelis (its professional elites, disproportionately) oppose this construction, even if a slightly larger number favor it, so that, at best, continuing Netanyahu's policy will tear the country apart. They know that Israeli governments have wasted $17 billion on a settlement project that might have been invested in Israel proper, including West Jerusalem. They know that Israel has no way of remaining a democracy if settlements continue and a peace deal, including partition of Jerusalem, is not forthcoming. (Kadima's Haim Ramon followed the report of Netanyahu's speech on Reshet Bet and made all of these points himself.)

They know that, as Ehud Olmert told me himself, he and Palestinian President Abbas had already held advanced discussions over a formula for sharing Jerusalem; that his formula entailed keeping the city physically intact, but allowing Palestinian neighborhoods to revert to the sovereignty of a Palestinian state, while the Holy Basin fell under the custodianship of Israel, the United States, and Arab countries, including Palestine. They know that Jerusalem would, ideally, be a capital for two highly interdependent states; and that whether or not Jerusalem will be an international city in any formal sense, its security in the long run will require the presence of international forces.

They also know, finally, that American Jews have about as much in common with King David's iron age Israelites as American Chinese have with the Shang Dynasty. They know that it was the fanaticism and corruption of Judean kingdoms that lost Jerusalem. They know that, since then, normative Judaism has seen Jerusalem as a moral ideal, like Utopia, not a material place; and that Zionism was meant to valorize a modern Jewish nation, not an ancient land. They know that the Passover festival begins next week, and Jews everywhere will explain to their children why freedom is a universal principle. So what exactly were they cheering?

I do not mean to ask this question cynically. There is some kind of hole in the heart that backing Netanyahu over "Jerusalem" seems to be filling. There are intelligent and decent people gathered at AIPAC, and many young people who are eager to stand for something. What is it, other than the insistence that they, who "didn't do anything," fiercely admire Israelis who did something?

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Keep The Heat On, A Translation

My last post, with slight alterations, appeared today in the global edition of the New York Times. Gideon Levy's column in Haaretz today makes the same point, bare-knuckled. So far, the Obama administration seems to be playing things about right, reinforcing a commitment to Israel's security (translation, not to its settlement project), and waiting for answers from the Israeli government that will prove its seriousness regarding peace talks (translation, a public commitment to suspend construction in East Jerusalem). Obama singled out the Shas Interior Minister, Eli Yishai, as responsible for precipitating the "disagreement": "The actions that were taken by the interior minister in Israel weren't helpful to that process. Prime Minister Netanyahu acknowledged as much and apologized for it," he said (translation, America would like to see a new Israeli government, with the more pragmatic, if hard-line Kadima, replacing fanatics and nut-jobs). Obama said that there is no crisis (translation, there is). Michael Oren, Israel's ambassador to the US, insists that the Netanyahu government is only doing what all previous governments since 1967 have done (translation, this is Israel's internal affair). That's true (translation, it's not, and never was).

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Keep The Heat On

There are only two political parties in Israel, really, the party that dreads the loss of Greater Israel, i.e., the party of settlements, and, the party that dreads the isolation of global Israel, i.e., the party of America. Think of the country as paradigms, the first focused on Jerusalem's fire, the second on Tel Aviv's cool. The Likud is mainly in the first party, as are all of Netanyahu's coalition partners, save Labor. But the prime minister supposed he could keep a leg in both, or at least preclude the need for Israelis to choose, by focusing everybody, including American diplomats and generals, on the dread of Iran--also by activating neoconservative allies in the United States to downplay settlement activity in the face of Islamist violence.

Netanyahu's stance, or ploy, finally came unraveled last week, not only because of the dustup with Joe Biden about new construction in East Jerusalem, but because Gen. David Petraeus finally weighed in with a statement of the obvious, that America's long acquiescence in Israel's occupation "was jeopardizing U.S. standing in the region." Netanyahu is trying to pretend that the crisis with Washington was precipitated by bad timing. That's a little like saying the announcement of AIG's bonus pool was bad timing. Nobody's really buying it, and with Petreaus in the mix, the neocons can hardly sell it. We have come to a moment of truth that is long overdue. The Israeli media is, gratefully, growing preoccupied with its implications, not the least of which is just how divided the country is, and how its citizens must indeed choose.

REVEALINGLY, BIDEN'S GOOD speech at Tel Aviv University last week spent a good deal of time anticipating (or preempting) Netanyahu on Iran, reassuring Israelis-in-general about their existence-in-general. But this sounded more like a preliminary hymn than the necessary sermon. The university is ground zero of the America party. Biden looked a little surprised when he found that his only strong applause line was an unequivocal condemnation of new Jewish settlements, which would further "prejudice the result of negotiations." This caused Knesset Speaker Ruby Rivlin, the hack conscience of the settlers party, to issue a condemnation of his own, namely, of the Tel Aviv University audience.

The point is, there is a culture war in Israel now, and the only way the liberal side of it can mount an offensive is if America keeps the heat on. It is futile to treat Israel as if it were the embodiment of some big Jewish psyche in need of reassurances to trust the world. In fact, Israeli governments refuse to depart from the status quo because a large and hardened minority, perhaps a third of Jewish Israelis, regards peace as an end to the divinely self-enclosed way of life they have established in and around Jerusalem. The squishy, declining, more cosmopolitan and secular majority is unwilling to confront them for the sake of Palestinians, that is, not unless they have to. Israelis have to see that there is something to lose.

NOBODY HERE KNOWS how violently the Israeli right would be prepared to defend the settlement project against the Israeli state itself. To the extent that Israeli politics are merely electoral politics, the fight is clear, however. It is over swing voters: immigrants from the former Soviet Union and their acculturated children, better educated Mizrahim, traditionalist Jews drawn to orthodoxy but who have traveled the world. In recent years--what with the collapse of Oslo, the suicide bombings, the rise of Ahmadinejad, etc.--these voters have swung sharply toward the settlers. A recent poll of high school students reveals that over half would deny Arab citizens of Israel the right to vote. To be for peace, you see, is to be naïve, trusting of "the Arabs."

The global party can win back the initiative, but this means giving swing voters something new and more urgent to be not naïve about, something like reliance on Likud, AIPAC, etc., to deliver America. Reports of Clinton dressing down Netanyahu on the phone were just a beginning. Labor's dissident former leader, Amir Peretz, was on Reshet Bet radio this morning sounding charged up for the first time in two years. He told listeners it was time to "grow up." There are rumors that Kadima's Tzipi Livni has sent Netanyhau a message that she'll join the government if he gets rid of Shas and Leiberman, in effect, if he is prepared to try to drag the whole of the Likud to the party of America, even if this means he loses absolute control over the cabinet. This is his moment of truth. If Washington lets up, critics of government policy will slump back into their corner.

THE NEXT TWO weeks may prove critical. Netanyahu is coming to Washington, or is at least scheduled to, to address the AIPAC convention. Meanwhile, Obama's international prestige will be riding on his final push to get healthcare legislation passed. The EU's foreign minister, Catherine Ashton, has rebuked Israel and strongly backed Clinton's stand over Jerusalem construction. Kadima is waiting for an answer. The Arab League is meeting in Tripoli later this month, and who knows if their 2002 offer of full regional peace with Israel, in exchange for the 1967 borders and a resolution of the refugees issue, will be renewed?

Meanwhile, in Jerualem, plans are proceeding to have Ruby Rivlin rededicate an ancient synagogue in the old city today. Arab men under 50 are being kept away from the mosques, and everyone is bracing for the closures of the Passover holiday. The anticipated proximity negotiations of George Mitchell have been deferred. There is talk of a temporary general strike. There are fresh riots at Birzeit University in Ramallah. The region, in short, will not be the same a month from now. Even the effort to reimpose the status quo ante Biden will seem a provocation.

Like all administrations since Ronald Reagan, Obama's will be tempted to have representatives to AIPAC mollify what seems the natural leadership of American Jews, though AIPAC is not anything of the kind. The temptation must be resisted. Perhaps this was inadvertent, but there is now an expectation across the West Bank, and the Israeli political class, that Washington has, in effect, finally told Israel to stop all settlements, period, even in East Jerusalem. If ever Obama needed the realism and nerves that Eisenhower had when he told Ben-Gurion to vacate Sinai, this is the time. Peretz told the radio that the government has "dried the brush," so that any match can light a wildfire. Obama's return to business as usual, that is, to the inertia from which only the Israeli right gains, can itself provide the spark.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The Real Hope Of Economic Peace

(The following article has just been published on the new Middle East Channel of Foreign Policy Magazine.)

Everybody knows the core issues between Israelis and Palestinians, except for the one that will matter the most and can be acted on immediately, before any comprehensive deal; the one where Israel's concessions will not compromise its security but enhance it. I am speaking of Palestine's economy, specifically, its private sector, the driver of civil society and spine of any future state. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu talks about "economic peace," but seems to mean little more than giving Palestinian laborers more jobs in Israeli agriculture and construction projects. What Palestinians need, rather, are entrepreneurs, managers, and professionals with the freedom to build a growing node in an urban and global network. The latter have made a remarkable start, but the occupation is thwarting them in ways few outsiders appreciate.

Yes, land claims, especially the division of sovereignty in Jerusalem, compensation for Palestinian refugees, etc., have great symbolic importance to both peoples. Yes, Jewish settlements confound efforts to draw borders and should be frozen; yes, moderates on both sides confront "whole land" fanatics they would rather not fight for the sake of the other side. Still, if we ever get to a deal, the size of each territory will quickly seem trivial.

Israel and Palestine, together, are about the size of greater Los Angeles; the distance from Nablus to Tel Aviv is something like San Bernardino to Santa Monica. The West Bank and Gaza, Palestinians say, is only 22 percent of historic Palestine. But that is about the size of the territory most Israelis live on. In fact, the corridor from Ashdod to north of Tel Aviv--where 40 percent of Israelis live, and at least half of Israel's GDP is generated--is about the size of the Gaza Strip. Can we get real about what "two states" will look like?

Each side will be a culturally distinct city-state, building upwards, integrated with the other in a business ecosystem extending to Jordan, and sharing everything from water to currency, tourists to bandwidth. Over 80 percent of Palestine's trade is with Israel. What won't seem trivial is the capacity of Palestine's economy--currently one-fortieth of Israel's--to create employment. The mean age of Palestinians in the territories is about 19 years old. If we assume normal rates of growth, and the return of only half of the refugees to a Palestinian state, Palestine would soon become an Arabic-speaking metropolis of perhaps 6 million to 7 million people, radiating east from Jerusalem, and facing off against the Hebrew-speaking metropolis, anchored by Tel Aviv. Olive groves, picturesque as they are, will seem beside the point. So will military notions like strategic depth.

The good news is that the Palestinian private sector, though small, is prepared for a take-off. There is a tight-knit, highly competent Palestinian business class already running enterprises from pharmaceuticals to supermarkets, telecommunications to software solutions. Palestine's billion dollar sovereign wealth fund, the PIF, has been investing strategically in construction and wireless telecommunications; it is transparently run by Mohammed Mustafa, a former World Bank official, close to Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad--in effect, the Ramallah bourgeoisie's chairman of the board. The Palestinian stock market lists companies worth only about $2.5 billion, but it has been growing at over 20 percent a year. Palestinian universities graduate 1,200 computer scientists annually.

The Palestinian Authority gets about $2 billion from donor countries a year, a large portion of it wasted on patronage jobs. Part of what has stifled entrepreneurship is old Fatah cadres running monopolies from cement to petroleum. But public sector salaries, along with remittances from family members working abroad, at least wind up in bank deposits. Bank of Palestine CEO Hashim Shawa estimates that about $6 billion in total deposits are available for investment in genuinely competitive ventures. At least twice that amount is in Palestinian-controlled banks in Jordan. Regional investors know Palestinians are relatively well educated and need one of everything.

Which brings us to the bad news. Revealingly, Palestinian banks have been unable to lend more than $1.5 billion to credit-worthy business plans. For when you look at all of the things an ordinary businessperson takes for granted--mobility, access to markets, talent, suppliers and financial services--you see the frustrating effects of an occupation designed to advance the settlers, not Palestinian development.

Problems of mobility are most widely reported: over 60 percent of land in the West Bank is so-called Area C--controlled by the Israeli army to secure Israeli settlements, but turning Palestinian cities into economic islands. Try growing a supermarket chain when your just-in-time logistics system has to deal with 600 roadblocks; try planning meetings to open a new store. The drive from Ramallah to Jerusalem should take about 12 minutes, but with the checkpoints, it's normally an hour, and that's if you have permission. A Palestinian businessman routinely waits a half day just to collect an Israeli permit to enter Jerusalem and begin the journey. The World Bank estimates that, in spite of a projected 6-7 percent growth, per capita GDP is falling and unemployment may be as high 20 percent.

But other problems are just as serious. Businesses need world-class managers, who have to be able to travel freely. Entrepreneurs from the Palestinian diaspora, if born abroad, have to fight for years to get residency permits. The handful who succeed cannot then use Ben Gurion Airport or come to Jerusalem, but suffer the same restrictions as locals. Components for Palestinian manufacturing are routinely held up in Israel ports, waiting for long security checks. (One Palestinian aluminum window manufacturer, denied a coating material that could be used to make explosives, offered to pay for IDF soldiers to supervise the entire process.) Palestinian banks cannot park their cash reserves in Israeli banks, losing tens of millions of dollars in interest. They also cannot set up branches or even ATMs in East Jerusalem, where unemployment is over 25 percent and 50 percent live under the poverty line.

I visited Ramallah's $350 million Palestinian cell phone company, Jawwal, now facing real competition from the PIF-funded Wataniya. The CEO, Ammar Aker (recently promoted to run the $900 million parent company, Paltel), took me to the roof of his modern building and showed me what he sees. On one hill to the north is a settlement in Area C brandishing the tower of an Israeli operator, Cellcom. To the south is another settlement with another tower. Cellcom gets about 10.5 megahertz of spectrum; Jawwal about 4.8 (spectrum, too, is a "security" asset). To get 3G and continuous coverage--what every Palestinian entrepreneur needs--you need to add a plan from an Israeli carrier.

Prime Minister Netanyahu has been bragging about Palestine's growth. But under current conditions, the resilience of its private sector seems little short of heroic. Surely, he must know there are things that must be done now. Israel should be inviting, not prohibiting, Palestinian entrepreneurs to come to the West Bank and invest. It should be greatly expanding the number of permits for businesspeople to come to Jerusalem. It should be allowing banks to operate here, thus stopping the city's brain drain to Amman and Dubai. It should be assigning security forces to work with PA forces to expedite Palestinian supply chains. It should be authorizing the development of a secure, north-south transportation corridor linking Palestinian cities, perhaps picking up on the Rand Corporation's brilliant idea of an "arc" of bus and rail lines. It should be releasing more bandwidth for Palestinian telecom, and restricting Israeli competition in Area C.

Netanyahu could do all of this today without endangering Israelis or even removing settlers yet. With so many Palestinians under 20, the economic disparities so great, and the territory so small, what can be more dangerous than continued stagnation?

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Sheikh Jarrah: We Have Lift-off

I am traveling, and so missed the remarkable demonstration in Sheikh Jarrah last night. Official estimates were up to five thousand people, who turned out after the Israeli Supreme Court upheld the right to protest against police efforts to curtail dissent. The court's decision is timely and courageous, given both the atmospherics in the country, and how dangerously the status quo engenders violence in Jerusalem. Read my friend Didi Remez's full report here and here.