Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The West Bank Through Chinese Eyes

Listening to CEO Bassim Khoury at Pharmcare 
Beginning this week, and with this post, I'll be writing a bi-weekly column for The Daily Beast's "Zion Square," appearing Mondays. The blog is edited by The Daily Beast's senior political writer Peter Beinart and aims to reshape discussion of Israel and the Palestinian conflict for American readers.
Three weeks ago—just while Benjamin Netanyahu was preparing for his Palestineless AIPAC speech—I accompanied a team of about thirty Chinese businesspeople on a visit to the West Bank, led by a former Duke colleague, Liu Kang, now also the dean of the Institute of Arts and Humanities at Shanghai’s Jiao Tong University. It was kind of tour d’horizon for uninitiated but intrigued foreign investors—“some billionaires,” Kang assured me—shoe and leather manufacturers, toy exporters, equity-fund managers, people by now accustomed to seeing the world as their market, if not their oyster.

They trouped obediently to one bus-ride after another, shuttling from Ramallah’s Movenpick (“our velvet prison,” as one Palestinian entrepreneur calls the hotel) to the territory’s leading businesses, hearing welcomes and lectures from executives of, among others, Paltel, the nearly billion dollar telecom company, Padico, the large holding company, the Palestine Investment Fund, the sovereign wealth fund, Pharmacare, the generic drug manufacturer, and leading banks, exposing themselves to various (in some cases, superb) executives I have known for some time and written about before. The PowerPoints were sharp, the numbers, not-too-shabby, but weakening, the message: invest, partner, help.

You squint, and you can almost see what the Palestinians’ state would look like—that is, if Palestine’s managers and entrepreneurs could pursue more or less freely the larger national goals implied by their organized commercial efforts—not always free of petty corruptions and influence peddling, to be sure—but the spine of Palestine’s civil society, rooted in the rule of law and government regulations, disciplined by genuine competition and international partnerships and standards of practice.

 The problem comes when you stop squinting and let in the ambient facts—the incipient regional violence, and worse, the reality of occupation. The World Bank just released its latest report on the Palestinian economy, called “Stagnation or Revival.” The trend is discouraging. The PA is in an unprecedented crisis, in need of $1.5 billion in donor support for its public sector and raising only about $800. Private sector growth slowing and cannot make up the difference. Fayyad tried to close the deficit by raising taxes—which all sides around him rejected. The PA is less and less able to pay what it owes the private companies it’s contracted work from and yet also pay its police and teachers.

Netanyahu speaks of “economic peace” laying the ground for eventual compromise, but the PA’s fiscal crisis can be laid at his door.

Fayyad may eventually squeeze more out of Norway, etc., but the only sustainable way out of the crisis is a rapid expansion of Palestine’s private sector, which desperately needs what Israel got in the 80s and China in the 90s, direct foreign investment from global companies—not just money, but know-how and know-about—and, even more important, the free movement to Palestine of talent from the US and elsewhere, the back-and-forth movement of ex-pat managers from partnering companies, the movement of supplier components and finished goods, if only through Jordan.

There are over $12 billion in Palestinian bank deposits in Jordan, and another $8 billion in the territories themselves, never mind the tens of billions is in sovereign wealth funds in the Gulf. But Palestine needs greater bandwidth so that Paltel can finally set up the 3G data network it’s been lobbying for. It needs an unobstructed transportation corridor to move goods and people internally.

But Netanyahu’s government has, if anything, made these conditions for growth more remote than ever, severely controlling access to the PA’s territories. And, meanwhile, the IDF enters its towns with impunity, looking for and jailing “militants,” making Fayyad and the PA seem like Quislings. As one Chinese investor put it, “financial capital exists, but intellectual capital is choked.”

Netanyahu says that he wishes, sincerely, to work toward a Palestinian state, just not one that will endanger Israel’s “security.” But behind the PA is a kind of bourgeois revolution Israel should encourage—and does not. The business class lives mostly in the political background, and their wealth can be as much resented as admired, depending on how fairly it is assumed to have been accumulated, and how productively it is put to the nation’s use. Yet they project a demonstrably plausible development path for Palestine, one that mirrors what Palestinians are already creating in Jordan—another miracle in the desert, a steadily growing Arab economy not based on oil.

Fayyad’s state-building in the private sector is, in other words, a net gain for Israeli security as much as for Palestinian hope. The two countries, together, will be city-states about the size of greater Los Angeles. Palestinian businesses are part of a single commercial ecosystem, and promise to give employment to young people (Palestine’s median age is nineteen) who would otherwise be unemployed and only nursing furious national grievances. Palestinian businesses have the potential to partner with Israelis on everything from tourism to regional telecom. Israelis may bridle at the vision of a Palestinian state which looks like militias riding in on Jeeps and firing-off rifles. But what about businessmen riding out in sedans and firing-up laptops?

Why, if Israel were serious about an eventual two-state deal, would Netanyahu (and AIPAC, for that matter) not do everything—conspicuously, symbolically—to help these businesses succeed? The facts on the ground not created by Palestinian businesses are obstacles to peace just like the facts created by settlements are.

“The world will eventually turn against you,” one Chinese equity fund manager told me. “The Arab world can wait you out, the anger over Palestinian poverty and suffering will isolate you.” One would think such cautions would be obvious to Israelis, of all people, whose globalized economy depends so completely on international goodwill, knowledge networks and open access. One would think Israelis would understand the opportunity cost, and moral hazard, of denying these things to Palestinians.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

The Hubris University of Jerusalem

Like A.O. Scott, Sidra and I only just saw Joseph Cedar's film "Footnote" ("He'arot Shulaim"), which I suppose makes us the last couple in (West) Jerusalem to do so. The film supposedly centers around a father-and-son academic rivalry, but it really centers, or gravitates, around the psyche of the father, a Hebrew University philologist, who seems intractably angry about having been ignored while his son is celebrated, but who may well be suffering from Asperger's--though he is a Hebrew University philologist, so how would you know?

I can go into all the reasons to admire the film: the turns of plot (the father uncovers his son's conspiracy to award him the Israel Prize--an award originally, mistakenly bestowed on the father, but meant for the son--by, of all things, analyzing his son's phrases in a contrived awards letter), the well-observed touches (son with a Yarmulke, father without), the mock-documentary innovations, the satiric blows.

The film captures very well how secular Jerusalem is a kind of company town, where social and professional connections consume you and are barely told apart; how cases for tenure or honors are righteously defended over coffee, all hedged about with references to scientific rigor or, failing this, demonstrable international "importance." I never felt a moment of boredom watching the film, that is, a moment when the scenes didn't shift intriguingly or seem familiar.

Yet I didn't feel the movie was ever quite true either, and I wonder if there isn't something peculiar to its Israeliness that explains why. I don't mean true in the sense of mistakes in plot details, or miscasting of actors. I mean it in the old sense that fiction must be truer than non-fiction, more psychological subtle, which the solar plexus judges more directly than the brain does. The closest thing to the story's climax has the father giving an interview to Haaretz, in which he tries to publicly humiliate his son, destroy his career, and thus presumably elevate himself and his methods. Is this remotely plausible even in the narcissistic atmosphere Cedar evokes?

"FOOTNOTE" HAS ITS moments, to be sure. Like everybody else, I particularly liked that scene in a claustrophobic committee room, in which the son is passionately appealing to keep the mistake secret, and the committee discusses the way committees discuss and do what committees do. But the passion in the moment is linked to a relationship, a very poignant empathy, and this is where the film fails. Where did this empathy come from and in what sincerity is it nested?

I am not saying fathers and sons could never be alienated from one another, God knows, but this father and this son in this place? Yes, the former is introverted and narcissistic and steeped in a particular tradition of scholarship. Yes, the son is a kind of antithesis, more his mother's son than his father's, though not so much more that he fails to enter his father's profession. Yes, fathers can lose their tempers and shame sons in private, as the son does with his own son. Yes, little Oedipuses can try to trump their fathers, especially by entering their fathers' professions.

But this case is emotionally unlikely nevertheless. The father is trying to trump his son publicly, a son who clearly wants his father to be more celebrated than he's been. He hungers for his father's affection, even as he takes a different, more gregarious and open-spirited path to textual interpretation. He praises his father at a ceremony in his own honor. They both live in a small city walking distance apart. Would a father of such a son return the favor by endeavoring to destroy his son's reputation, even in a moment of sanctimonious abandon?

SCOTT SAYS THE the film showcases "an intergenerational tzimmes worthy of Shakespeare, Freud or the more melodramatic portions of the Hebrew." But knowledge of Shakespeare, Freud, the Bible--for that matter, of Willy Loman, Don Corleone and Kim Il-sung--suggests that to think of narcissism in this way is to misunderstand perhaps its strongest impulse, especially in the case of a father who thinks himself embattled and unappreciated. Such a man would much more likely dramatize his son's importance, revel in it--claim him and unleash him. (Forget the binding of Isaac, or the Good News of Gospels: jealousy was irrelevant there.)

At some point the film slyly mocks this truth by recalling a dictum in The Ethics of the Fathers, the one about how fathers are never jealous of sons and teachers never jealous of students--recalling it just before the father turns the knife. The mocking is meant to imply that Cedar thought of this and, in reversing our expectation, has earned a right to ignore its force. But that is like saying implausible protagonists become plausible just by acknowledging their own creepiness. Anyway, I know something about fatherhood, teaching--and narcissism--and to disprove the dictum, you have to have a character more warped and distant than this father. But then would he recruit this son's kind of love?

Indeed, it is the sharply truncated ending of the film, before residual love would bring some messy but sympathetic denouement, that is most disappointing. It is as if the filmmaker is saying: "Sorry: such endings are for sissies and would be disingenuous; this is really real life; love hurts, when it is not just a sentimental fraud, which can even be true between fathers and sons."

Let's just say the point is not proven. The father's actions, and attitudes, are fictionally asserted, just not believably or enduringly conveyed. Envy is for brothers. It is terrible, unnatural, for a father regarding his son: supposing envy to be a reason for him to ruin his son is like supposing it enough to show a mother ambitious when she drowns her baby. The hardest part for Cedar would have been working out an ending in which a father's love and remorse work through his other emotions. This Cedar, for all his obvious brilliance, refused to undertake.

THE QUESTION MIGHT be asked: how then did Cedar suppose he could make the story stick? I don't know him, or if he'd even feel the need to ask the question, but I suspect the answer has something to do with what often seems a prevailing Israeli style, which is to presume one is being deep by making characters numb, or just acknowledging numbness as pervasive and even vaguely manly. Israel, in this style, is a country of people who'd refuse to smile for snapshots. You get this from Cedar's earlier film, "Beaufort," and in such other recent hits as "Good Morning, Mr. Fiddleman." It's become a kind of thing. Just look at television news anchors smirking through reports.

Perhaps this is the inevitable effect of living so long without trusted horizons, of being unable to let down one's guard. Perhaps it is an atmosphere of military violence. Perhaps it is a kind of old Zionist impulse, personified by Moshe Dayan--who was no kind of father, but whose children felt wrecked because of his narcissistic public indulgences, not public humiliations--to scoff at affection as a luxury, if not a fraud, that Jews cannot afford in a hard world. Numb is cool.

I fear that Cedar is trying to prove an ultimate thing--sort of the way Portnoy's Complaint tried proving the ubiquity of desire by making Jews libidinous, or "Brokeback Mountain" proved the ubiquity of sexual repression by making cowboys gay. It is that love is a bit of a fraud, seeing how solitary and selfish human beings are--and thus how cynical artists must be. How better to prove this than through a story that purports to expose how a father--raging, and without inhibitions--will destroy his own son to acquire honors and advance his own truth? I don't buy it. They don't call the book "ethics of the fathers" for nothing.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Iran: What Barak Doesn't Know

"Our only hope...lies in making our own choice of operations, not in waiting passively for whatever the enemy chooses for us." Ehud Barak warning about Iran? Amos Yadlin in today's Times? Actually, Field Marshall Alfred von Schlieffen warning about France.

THE THING ABOUT generals is that we pay them to imagine the worst. We want them to agonize over it, prepare for it. Inevitably, we invite them to promote the added value of preemption. When they say things like "our only hope" is to strike first we feel a vague shudder of apocalyptic ecstasy and tribal gratitude. (Well, if our only hope is attack the enemy before he annihilates us, then, hell, what do we have to lose?)

But we read von Schlieffen's words today because he was a kind of imbecile. Yes, he knew that attacking (and, presumably, quickly neutralizing) France in a great flanking maneuver--his dying words in 1913, "keep the right flank strong"--might well allow Germany to avoid a two-front war, what amounted then to an existential threat. Nor could he imagine France not eventually attacking, since Germany occupied Alsace-Lorraine, and could it be manly to leave things there?

What von Schlieffen did not know--everything from the power of machine guns to the sense of duty in the British working classes--helped precipitate a war that continued until 15 million were dead and 20 million wounded (also a generational madness that would lead to an even more deadly war and, among other catastrophes, the flattening of Berlin). He did not know, moreover, that the German occupation of Alsace-Lorraine would seem quaint just 50 years after his death, with Strasbourg the home of the Council of Europe--the European Union another product of the horrible war perhaps, but probably inevitable in some form for economic reasons von Schlieffen could hardly anticipate. Could anyone?

"THERE IS NO way to prevent some damage..." Barak told Israeli radio. "It will not be pleasant. There is no scenario for 50,000 dead, or 5,000 killed – and if everyone stays in their homes, maybe not even 500 dead." Really. No scenario. As if he knows what thousands of missiles might mean if a dozen get lucky, or, say, the response of the public if a Scud hits a school.

Barak actually has no idea if an attack will bring regional war, though it is plausible that the unpopular regime in Iran would seize on an attack to try to mobilize an alienated population. He has no idea if war will lead to an all-out escalation, missiles vs. bombs, or what it means to confront a country of nearly 80 million people, one with a growing influence in Iraq, and the ability to disrupt navigation in a Gulf named after itself. He has no idea what Egypt will do if, responding to missiles from Gaza, the IDF tries to start bombing Gazans again.

Barak has no idea what the Syrian regime will do to try to save itself by whipping up hatred for Israel. He has no idea what will happen in the West Bank, and Umm El Fahm, for that matter, if an apocalyptic moment seems at hand. He has no idea what the near term losses to the economy will be when global corporations start concluding that Israelis--with the settlements and self-serving complaints about the world--are too much trouble. He has no idea if Israel's economy will implode, or what relations will be like with Europe or Russia if Israel is branded an aggressor in a war that leads to a severe spike in fuel prices.

Barak, in short, knows only that he is prepared for sacrifice and that the agonal Israel is his own. ("If I were a Palestinian at the right age, I would have joined one of the terrorist organizations," he once told an Israeli journalist.) He proposes that we throw the dice and enter a world of chaos in which, just by the way, he and his officers become the center of our attention, trust, order and gratitude.

BARAK IS NOT alone, of course. Netanyahu would have us look back to the 1930s. But look back to just three years ago. The attack on Gaza in 2009 achieved virtually nothing; but it poisoned the attitudes of even Palestinian moderates toward Israel for a generation and helped discredit the Mubarak regime. It precipitated unprecedented diplomatic isolation. Men make history, Marx once wrote, but they do not do so "as they please."

For God's sake, the Munich Agreement did not teach us that violent preemption is forever a more responsible course than pursuing a non-violent alternative. Common sense, if not history, teaches that Iran's regime is not going to risk incineration of Iranian cities for the (arguably considerable) pleasure of incinerating Tel Aviv--no more than the USSR risked nuclear war, or Pakistan, or North Korea. Barak himself once conceded that Iran had reasons to acquire the bomb that had more to do with the reason Israel acquired one--to prevent invasion--than with threatening "the Zionist entity." If Americans can live with nuclear stalemate for two generations, then Israelis can, too.

Yadlin, a pilot who bombed Osirak, writes that a nuclear Iran could lead to something far worse that regional war, what he calls, sweetly, "destabilization," as if the current Middle East is stable, and an attack is just the reassuring movement of a world-historical gyroscope. He writes: "a regional nuclear arms race without a red phone to defuse an escalating crisis, Iranian aggression in the Persian Gulf, more confident Iranian surrogates like Hezbollah and the threat of nuclear materials’ being transferred to terrorist organizations."

But why would Hezbollah be more "confident" (read, reckless) with a nuclear Iran any more than the East German regime was with a nuclear Soviet Union? Nor did we have a hotline between Washington and Moscow until after the sides stepped away from the brink. If nuclear materials are the issue, why not attack Pakistan? This is all being thought through the way Israeli drivers think through passing on the right. Does anybody think it would have been a good idea to attack the Soviets in 1949 as General Curtis LeMay, an inarguable hero-pilot of WWII, proposed?

I don't mean to imply that Israel's military is some obvious villain. Ironically, the military engineers and strategists who've given Israel a second strike nuclear capability make it possible for citizens like myself to say that living with a nuclear Iran will be, on the whole, far better than living with the war to prevent a nuclear Iran.

My point is that Barak's attack and counter-attack scenarios are sane only in the precincts of IDF war-games. They are otherwise insane. Okay, insane talk has its uses as the US tries to seduce or cajole Iran into an inspection agreement. But there is something about Barak's talk that doesn't sound merely instrumental to Nixon's old "madman" strategy of negotiation anymore. Given the war rhetoric pumped up by the Republican primaries, and the upcoming AIPAC conference, one gets the impression that Barak's views are being circulated and amplified to a dangerous degree.

This is school-yard positioning parading as foreign policy guile--what Israelis call psychologia b'grush, "penny psychology"--a high-school game of chicken with potentially catastrophic consequences. It is dangerous not to know that big things cannot be known, the more dangerous to imply that only sissies refuse the dare. Who, if not citizens, will put a stop this?