Thursday, September 23, 2010

Ariel: The Time-Bomb Goes Off

This week-end, the so-called settlements moratorium runs out, and the talks face--so the argument goes--their first moment of truth. Today, at the UN, President Obama called on Israel to extend the moratorium and, pushing on an open door, is rallying international opinion, the Quartet, etc., to this position. His fear, clearly, is that Abbas will walk out of the room. Netanyahu's fear is that Leiberman and/or Shas will walk out of a different room; and so his US Ambassador is trying to rally organized American Jews to prepare for the prospect of "pressure."

I don't mean to underestimate the importance of this moment. The issue of settlements has become symbolic of whether or not Netanyahu, bowing to American diplomacy, and the looming threat of economic isolation, will be prepared to move from the status quo. Nor should anyone doubt that the status quo works in favor of the settlers and their supporters, freeze or no freeze. But as I have said in this blog before, the issue itself, at least as it is posed most commonly, is overblown and even a little misleading.

THE REAL QUESTION is whether Abbas and Netanyahu can quickly get to an agreement in principle on a new border, since various negotiations over the past 10 years have gotten everyone used to the idea that the major settlement blocs around Jerusalem and Gush Etzion will be incorporated into Israel; and that a future Palestinian state will be compensated, one-for-one, with territory that is now part of Israel.

Moreover, we are talking about two city-states that are--I know I have said this often, but we can't hear it enough--about the size of greater Los Angeles: one business ecosystem, commercial relations built on networks and knowledge, not agriculture; and urban planning that will be building up, not out. (Read what Salaam Fayyad says about this at this year's Clinton forum.) This means that once we finally get to a border, nobody will much care where it is. It will have importance in determining where you vote; it will have little importance in determining how you live.

The big a stumbling block, however, is the town of Ariel. Unlike the various settlements scattered across what Greater Israel types like to call Samaria, this is a town of about 15,000 people, and Israeli leaders have simply not prepared the Israeli public for its evacuation. Even the handing over of the neighborhoods of East Jerusalem to a Palestinian state poses less of a problem. When I spoke with former Prime Minister Olmert about where his own talks with Abbas broke down in 2007, he confirmed that the issue of Jerusalem could be resolved with various formulas for internationalizing the Holy Basin, but that "no Israeli Prime Minister could return Ariel."

The Palestinians, for their part, could never be expected to live with it. The problem is not just territorial contiguity. Ariel is a serious potential disruption of the kind of urban planning people like Fayyad would have to undertake to resettle hundreds of thousands of refugees and build infrastructure (rail, telecom, water, etc.) for a future economy. The Israeli government would expect to send forces to Ariel to protect its residents, say, from the periodic attacks that would surely come from radicals who are not reconciled to peace. This means that the territory from Israel to Ariel, like the current Area C, could not be consolidated under the control of Palestinian police. Indeed, this isolated town disrupts the only transportation corridor Palestine has from Jenin and Nablus to Ramallah.

Make no mistake, nothing particularly exotic is going on behind closed doors. The positioning, on the Israeli side, is political: Netanyahu's ideological blinkers, which may or may not be falling away; or the fear of inflaming settlers who simply don't want to be moved; or the grotesque but common strategic assumption that, if Israel can get Palestinians to swallow a certain unfairness, this means that regional "deterrence" is working.

In any case, we're going to be hearing more and more about Ariel over the next several months, and wondering where the poor benighted town came from. Just remember, this is an ectopic pregnancy of a town, with no commercial hinterland or proximate cultural neighbors, the ultimate hubris of Ariel Sharon, who expanded it greatly by dumping a few thousand Russian immigrants here straight from the airport--a town with a "university" whose accreditation most Israeli academics question, and a large performing arts center where hundreds of Israeli artists refuse to perform. Still, ectopic pregnancies can be fatal when they are not dealt with early.

I suggest you acquaint yourself with Ariel, and all the facts on the ground in the Palestinian West Bank, by means of this marvelous app just released by Peace Now. Start by looking at Ariel, its size and location as compared to other settlements, and in relation to the rest of Palestine. Breathe deeply, zoom in, then look again.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Point Of Origin

My wife, the Hebrew University literary critic, Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi, was asked by Harvard's Worship and Study Congregation to share reflections in response to the Torah reading during Yom Kippur services at this past weekend. Sidra noted that tshuva, usually translated as "repentance," means "return"--and asks, return to what, exactly?

The danger, she stresses, is the yearning to return to a kind of primordial innocence, a "sweet nostalgia" that becomes "vengeful." I thought readers of this blog might like to give her sermon some time. It is hard to think of a more piercing critique of the extremist tendencies that have gripped Jews over the past 40 years, but in a language, and with sensibilities, we once called Judaism:

I want to talk about teshuva. As we all know, the word that connotes repentance in Hebrew literally means return. I’ve long been fascinated by the notion of return to some pristine state—‘renew our days as of old’ (hadesh yameinu ke-kedem) and wondered what the collective voice is pointing to when it invokes this something called "Kedem." This is of course not limited to the High Holiday liturgy. In one of the seven wedding blessings recited under the chupah, the wedding canopy, we allude to the primordial harmony of lovers fresh with the joy of their Divine manufacture in the Garden of Eden from "Kedem."

שַמֵח תשַמח רעים אהובים כשַמֵחַךָ יצירךָ בגן עדן מקדם

Is "Kedem," קדם, then, a place–the eastmost point, the cradle of our existence, what we once would have referred to unselfconsciously as The Orient, our ultimate point of orientation—or is it a time, the very first moment of time? In any case, as a time/place or chronotope, it is a reference to the very beginning, that Edenic millisecond in our mythical consciousness before the temptation and the deception and the discord and the punishment. So what does it mean to invoke that brief glimmer of utter innocence as the time/place to which we, weary with life and history, desire to return? And the corollary to that question is: what is the difference, if any, between personal and collective teshuva, between the idea of return as a personal point of reference and as a collective object of desire, the eschatology of return to the point of origin?

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Settlements Or Economic Peace: An Interim Report

Readers of this blog know the importance of Israel cultivating, or at least getting out of the way of, the Palestinian private sector. Without an evolved civil society, subtended by sustainable businesses, the prospect of a Palestinian state at peace with Israel and itself is purely hypothetical.

Two reports have been released today, one by the World Bank, the other by PalTrade (sponsored by the Norwegian government), which ought to give us pause. Both point to genuine progress, but progress that is neither fast enough to outrace social discontent, nor fast as it would be if Israel got out of the face of Palestinian entrepreneurs--that is, without policies designed to protect the settlement project.

Keep these reports is mind as you read press coverage about the snags in the final status talks as we approach September 26, when Israel's settlement "freeze" is set to expire or be extended. Settlements are not just little communities that may, or may not, be allowed to stay in place owing to land swaps. They are destroyers of Palestine's business ecosystem.

First, the World Bank report summary, focusing on macroeconomic conditions:

Washington: September 16, 2010 -- Economic growth in the West Bank and Gaza is likely to reach 8% this year but largely thanks to external financial aid while the critical private sector investment needed to drive sustainable growth remains hampered by restrictions on movement of people and goods.

The report, released ahead of the AHLC meeting scheduled for September 21 in New York, emphasizes the need for strong institutions and private sector-led growth to underpin any future Palestinian state. The report also applauds the efforts of the Palestinian Authority in institution-building and delivery of public services. Starkly missing, however, says the report, is the sustainable economic growth required for the PA to reduce its donor dependence.

“We commend the Palestinian Authority for recent results under its reform agenda,” said Shamshad Akhtar, Vice President of the Middle East and North Africa Region. “These include increased efficiency of the social safety net system that is now one of the most advanced in the region, improved fiscal standing through greater revenue collections and a decrease in recurrent expenditures and an improved security situation in the West Bank.”

The West Bank and Gaza economy continued to grow in the first half of 2010 and is likely to reach 8% this year. But external financial aid is its primary driver. Private investment, particularly in the productive sectors, has yet to increase significantly. This is attributed to important Israeli restrictions still in place: (a) exports from Gaza remain prohibited; (b) access to the majority of the West Bank’s land and water is severely curtailed; (c) East Jerusalem – a lucrative market – is beyond reach; (d) the ability of investors to enter into Israel and the West Bank and Gaza is unpredictable; and, (e) many critical raw materials to the productive sectors are classified as “dual-use” (civilian and military) and their import entails the navigation of complex procedures, generating delays and significantly increasing costs.

“Action can, and should be taken to remove the remaining obstacles to Palestinian private sector development,” said Mariam Sherman, World Bank Country Director for the West Bank and Gaza. “Our analysis highlights important areas holding back private investment and we hope our work in this report can provide some momentum to address these challenging – but surmountable – issues. Without this, economic growth will not be sustainable growth, the PA will remain donor dependent and its institutions, no matter how robust, will be unable to underpin a viable state.”

The PA is making steady progress in implementing its reform including controlling the growth of the public payroll, reducing electricity subsidies and improving public financial management, said Nasir. The World Bank is committed to supporting the PA’s reform agenda but its ultimate success depended upon the PA carrying out promised reforms, the Government of Israel relaxing closures to allow private sector growth, and the international donor community providing full support for the PA’s recurrent budget.

Second, the PalTrade report summary, focusing on the information and telecom sector:

Ramallah: September 16, 2010 -- The Israeli restrictions retarding development of the Palestinian private sector remain a central obstacle to the establishment of an economically viable Palestinian state. Public spending, largely financed by donor aid, is the primary driver of the recent rebound in the West Bank economy. Remaining Israeli limitations on access to markets, on exploitation of natural resources, and on imports of critical raw materials continue to discourage the private investment required for sustainable growth.

Pending a political solution to the conflict, the outlook for the permanent easing of many of these restrictions remains uncertain. Throughout the interim period following the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1994, and especially after the tightening of the closure regime over the past decade, development agencies have sought to encourage industry that is relatively less dependent on Israeli policies.

At first glance, Information and Communication Technology (ICT) appears to meet this criterion because it requires relatively less physical infrastructure and is particularly suited to telecommuting. But the role of ICT in the Palestinian economy remains marginal, making up just 4.9% of total Palestinian GDP. This share grew by only 1.9% since 1999, despite a sharp increase in public sector computerization, relatively high rates of household internet penetration and the launch of a second cellular operator. A comparison with Jordan underscores the untapped potential of this sector: ICT share of the Kingdom’s GDP is 14%, compared with 10% in 2005.

A new report by PalTrade -- the Palestine Trade Center -- asserts that Palestinian ICT is underdeveloped because the basic network infrastructures it requires remain absent. Expansion and development of these is vulnerable to some of the Israeli restrictions retarding the development of other industries: Impediments on access to natural resources and on imports of critical materials. Israel has not met its commitments to release sufficient frequencies and continues to limit construction in Area C (60% of the West Bank) of the physical infrastructure required for efficient exploitation of the limited bandwidth currently available to Palestinians. In addition, import of telecommunications equipment is severely restricted.

These conditions position Palestinian ICT firms at an extreme disadvantage compared to their Israeli competitors. The latter have unfettered access to advanced wireless broadband networks and their coverage extends to most of the West Bank’s population centers.

According to the report, improvement of the current policy environment requires intensive and regular Israeli-Palestinian cooperation. The only institution with the authority and capacity to facilitate cooperation -- the Joint Technical Committee – has not met since 2000, however.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Dark Winter: Reprise

A couple of years ago, I posted this little notice about my daughter Ellie Avishai's song, "Dark Winter," which she wrote during the week immediately after 9/11. Nothing evokes the morning of the attack for me like this gentle song, and I thought I might share it again, especially for the hundreds of readers who were not following this blog in 2008. The song has continued its career, while the songwriter has focused on building an educational consultancy with the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Business. And Ellie got married this past Sunday, to her partner of many years, Brian Studniberg. For that day, at least, it was hard to imagine any winter not being brightened considerably by a daughter's eyes.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Re-launched Talks: The PowerPoint

Why they started
  • Abbas: No other reason for power; Hamas makes war, Fatah makes peace, brings donors
  • Netanyahu: Fears international isolation, breach with Washington; possibly, aware of historic role, like Begin, Sharon, and Olmert before him
  • Obama: Needs Arab (Muslim) street; pillar of foreign policy: engagement, collective security, globalization; avoid being maneuvered into showdown with Iran
  • World is watching; sick of violence in Middle East; oil shocks disrupt recovery
  • Jordanian, Egyptian regimes need resolution
What they have going for them
  • Palestinian economy growing, middle class leaders dare not fail, fear Islamist vise
  • Israeli economy needs global markets; business/professional class fears "South Africa," neo-orthodox ethos of the settlers, increase of "parasites," emigration of their educated kids
  • All leaders raising stakes, failure will precipitate violence—“last chance”
  • Best leaders either side likely to have: Fayyad best to win over Israeli center, Netanyahu best to win over Israeli right
  • Obama administration, Petraeus, understand urgency; willing to rally Europe, Arab League
Where they will break down
  • Status of Jerusalem; East Jerusalem part of Palestine? Moment of truth for "Kingdom of Judea"
  • Status of Ariel; town of 15,000, part of Israel, or dismantled?; really, ectopic pregnancy
  • Timing and placement of international forces; need to expand "Area C" for Palestinian market development
  • Other issues—border, refugees—tractable
  • Settlements freeze unfrozen? Never completely frozen; Netanyahu will not defy Obama over this, precipitate Abbas walkout
When they will break down
  • Netanyahu fears staking political future on opposition support, splitting Likud
  • Israeli--really Jerusalem--streets violently oppose any agreement; Netanyahu refuses to put state above "Zionist" values
  • Renewed war with Hamas and/or Hezbollah
  • Attack on, by, Iran (highly unlikely)
Why they may succeed
  • Appropriate context for Obama to put thumb on the scales; knows the issues intimately;
  • Obama cannot afford to lose; throw away leadership of West; go into presidential election unpresidential
  • War fatigue all around; new generations looking for change; all but fanatics disdain status quo
  • Nothing to do with methods of “effective negotiation”; all core issues known; but inertia of diplomacy brings matters to a head
What consequences if fail
  • East Jerusalem explodes; then... you don't want to know

Thursday, September 2, 2010

The Goldberg Variations

For the past couple of weeks, Jeffrey Goldberg has been telling or implying to everyone who will listen, from NPR to Stephen Colbert, that it would be a misreading of his Atlantic article to assume he himself favored an attack on Iran--or at least an attack "now." He has also been insisting, what no reader of the article would easily conclude, that the Obama administration has been handling Iran just about right. All he did was report what Israeli leaders were thinking, and draw out the consequences.

It is clear that Goldberg is spinning, but never mind. What journalist has not tried to both say something sensational and pretend to have been responsible, or keep his dinner party invitations coming from all sides of a public debate, or genuinely regret not having written what seemed obvious to say only after the damn thing was in print? Goldberg's piece was indeed interesting only insofar as it reflected what his Israeli interlocutors were saying. As Colbert once famously said, this is what journalists do: leaders decide, and journalists "type those decisions down."

The problem, that is, is with what Israeli leaders are thinking, not with what their insider journalists are spreading. There is a logic here, which needs to be engaged. Reza Aslan and I attempt to engage it in this short article, published in today's International Herald Tribune (the Global Edition of The New York Times). The key issue, which doesn't get quite enough attention, is the curiously seductive and fatuous notion that an Iranian bomb provides a "nuclear umbrella" for jihadists.