Monday, July 29, 2013

Talks Resume, Think Sewage

Talks resume tonight and Middle East commentators are back in business: delayed justice, sublime cities, global pressures. But you won't find a more sensible starting point for thinking about what's at stake than this curiously moving piece by my friend Glenn Yago, about the sewage that pollutes the Kidron Valley, and the urgent opportunity both sides have to cooperate in the clean-up:

"Most of the sewage," Yago writes, "can be converted to useable agricultural water. [A projected] facility will not only purify the sewage, it will return purified effluent back to the farms of the valley for agricultural and tourism development. Using proven wastewater recycling technology will solve this problem; Israel already recycles 85 percent of its wastewater. Technology transfer to the Palestinians will mean they can stop pumping scarce groundwater for agriculture needs and have greater resources for economic growth, food exports, and new jobs from tourism. Cooperative work by Israeli and Palestinian experts and local officials have already documented how this could work by setting up a sub-sovereign integrated water basic management district that would benefit all enhanced economic activity in the region without compromising eventual border issues. More than 14 major Transboundary Rivers like the Rio Grande, Danube, Elbe, the Mekong and many others are all managed in this way that minimizes conflicts through integrated water basin management."

Yago is looking at the problem from the ground-up. And he is seeing what anyone would whose head is not in the clouds: a two-state solution evolving, if at all, from one urban infrastructure. As I've argued here before, Israel is no longer the state envisioned in 1948—and not only because in 1967 it bit off, without quite swallowing, what was left of Arab Palestine. In 1948, the area was sparsely populated with Arab agricultural villages and Zionist collectives, and rivalries erupted over hilltops. Today, Israel and Palestine exist together as a globalized, networked, densely populated, citified land: approximately the size and scope of Greater Los Angeles or Chicago—less than 10,000 square miles; an arc-shaped, Hebrew-speaking megalopolis of about 6 million Jews, from Beersheba to Haifa and on into the Galilee; a string of hybridized Israeli Arab cities—home to another million and a half people; and, across the Green Line, an Palestinian Arab state-in-the-making of 3-4 million, more with returning refugees, increasingly integrated with the economic life of Tel-Aviv and Amman.

The main obstacle to building an entrepreneurial base in Palestine is the occupation. There are not enough freedoms and mobility to develop talent or scope markets, and so forth. But this does not mean negotiators should be preparing to separate the populations. They could not do so even if they wanted to; and their problems are actually easier to solve when they recognize that independence for Israelis and Palestinians must anticipate, and eventually celebrate, infrastructural integration and political interdependence—regionally and globally.

Israelis need intense cooperation with Palestine and the US to assure that its population centers, airport, etc., are not vulnerable to high tech terror.  Palestinians will need intense cooperation with Israeli businesses to avoid economic calamity. The percolation of know-how into Palestine from Israel and Jordan will eventually matter more to Palestine’s urban development than any financial capital it may receive from Western Europe or the Gulf States. Israel has as much to gain from Palestinian know-about, from regional economic partnerships with Palestinians and Jordanians, and from drawing, say, medical tourists from Saudi Arabia, Dubai and Qatar.

Or just think about toilets, where the vanities of “self-determination” find their most obvious limits. Israel and Palestine, interlocking (city-) states will have to reciprocate when it comes to security cooperation and Jerusalem. But there will also have to be reciprocal, even confederal, institutions for sharing water, bandwidth and telecom, tourism, health delivery and control of epidemics, labor law, certification and integration of tourist services, banking and currency controls, roads and bridges, railways, construction standards, and so forth. This is the deceptively pedestrian vision negotiators should be keeping in mind, along with flags, passports, and historical grievances.

"The good news," Yago writes, "is that technology and economic development can solve this problem and increase the opportunities for growth that make co-existence much more likely than endless conflict. By restoring the Kidron Valley, a unique, internationally significant heritage district will increase the number of Christian, Muslim and Jewish pilgrims, eco- and archaeological tourism, and spur agricultural development throughout the Kidron to Jericho and throughout the Jordan River Valley in both Israeli and Palestinian territories."

Life is more than material decency, Yago implies, but it begins in material decency. He might have added that land is only one source of the wealth of nations, and unless you are a Physiocrat, hardly the most important.

 Published in Open Zion, a feature of The Daily Beast, where I have a regular column.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Let's Stop Patronizing Kerry

“It’s not an agreement—it’s an agreement to have lengthy negotiations,” writes the dean of Israeli columnists, Nahum Barnea, in Yediot Achronot; and negotiations “have been part of our life for a very long time.” Nathan Thrall, from the International Crisis Group, is even more skeptical. "Kerry, like his predecessors, has concentrated on 1967 issues such as borders and security, showing few signs that he has learned from past failures," he writes in The New York Review. "One hopes that he is not under the mistaken impression that Olmert and Abbas were inches away from a real agreement."

Look, as long as "one" is hoping, how about for political writers who think their job is not to condescend to Secretary Kerry but imagine his logic? Kerry has not spent dozens of hours in meetings with President Abbas, Prime Minister Netanyahu, Jordan's King Abdullah, and the leaders of the Arab League, talking about the shape of the negotiating table.

Kerry is no stranger to the history of this conflict, or to the pathos of combat, for that matter. Let's assume he's explored with both principal leaders their visions, fears, political dangers, views of how past negotiations foundered and current red lines. He is also aware, no doubt, of their neurotic ticks. If he thinks he is holding decent cards, what might they be?

Netanyahu is boxed-in. The prime minister is a hybrid: regional hawk, Zionist statist, techno-globalist, neo-conservative, and Greater Israel fantasist. Since the 1967 war, he thought these tendencies could coexist and propel him. Suddenly--or so it seems to more and more Israelis--they feel contradictory. Talking about Israel's "rightward" shift is an over-simplification.

Young people may be skeptical of Palestinians, even racist toward Arabs, but they expect to fly off from Ben-Gurion Airport and land, accepted, in the Western world. They know democratic standards are table-stakes; the prospect of Israel being forced to become a binational state is finally sinking in. So has the the fear of Europe (and American techno-progressives) engaging in a widening, implicit boycott. Meanwhile, settler-fanatics like Likud Chairman Danny Danon have hijacked the Likud apparat. The insurgent centrist du jour is Yair Lapid. Olmert is in the wings.

So Netanyahu's best play, against character, is statesmanship. He cannot, with other leaders rising, become Washington's foil. Labor's Yachimovitch is promising parliamentary rescue if Likud splits apart. But Netanyahu's announcement that he'll submit all agreements to a referendum is a sign of weakness. It's what buys him time. Kerry, no dope, can see this.

Nor is time working for Netanyahu, even in America. Iran's president is no longer a cartoon; the second season of "Homeland" not withstanding, Americans have no patience for another Middle East war or for having Israel impose one on them. Everyone knows Kerry's and Obama's ideas for building peace are closer to those of Shimon Peres, even Abbas, than to those of Netanyahu--why else appoint, as reported, Martin Indyk as representative? But Obama's visit and Kerry's secretive diplomacy have, for now, neutralized Israel's neo-conservative "friends." Kerry is positioned to put an American thumb on the scales discretely, with the president's support.

Security fears can be finessed by regionalizing solutions. Netanyahu insists that Abbas recognize Israel as "a Jewish state" (though who can define that?); he's told Israelis for years that this condition is the way to preempt Palestinian claims to a "right of return" that is really a means to call into question the Jewish character of Israel and leave the conflict unresolved. Abbas won't comply; he cannot imply that Israeli Arabs should have fewer rights than Jews. At the same time, Netanyahu wants a demilitarized Palestine. Abbas would have difficulty offering this today, with Hamas (and some peace pundits, ironically) scoffing at an "emasculated" Palestine. He'll want not to appear to be betraying Muslim rights in Jerusalem.

These are complex feelings but, as Carlo Strenger has been telling us, they boil down to insecurity in the face of the other's historic animosity. Kerry is clearly, and shrewdly, trying to trump Israeli insecurity by offering regional recognition of, and normalization of relations with, Israel by the Arab League. (Netanyahu cannot say there is no "end of conflict" if the entire Arab world recognizes the peace.) Similarly, with the Syrian violence threatening to spin out of control, Kerry is obviously working toward regional collective security with Jordan, the Gulf (led by Qatar), and, when the smoke clears in Cairo, Egypt. Peace in Palestine fits. Abbas, for his part, will not fret over a deal on Jerusalem that the Saudis accept or reject military arrangements, say, on the Jordan River, guaranteed by American forces. Actually, he already accepted such arrangements in talks with Olmert and General Jones.

Hamas can lose its moral prestige. The presumption that Palestinian Islamists, brothers of Egypt's Moslem Brothers, are a rising force seems increasingly weird. The region is being roiled by religious fanaticism; Palestinians read the papers. The Morsi government, which vaguely backed, negotiated for, and then tried to control Hamas, has collapsed in a popular uprising. Syria's own Sunni Islamists, Jihadists, for all the blood shed against Assad, have lost ground to a Shiite Islamist group, Hezbollah, backed by Iran, which by strange coincidence also backed Hamas. Okay, all Islamists are bound by a hatred of "the Jews." But the ideological positioning of the Gaza government has become incoherent on its own terms. Caliphate, shmaliphate.

Abbas may no longer be personally popular and the Palestine Authority may seem nothing but a shadow at this point. But Hamas's greatest claim was its incorruptibility and armed struggle. You can't run the Gaza tunnels without collecting conspicuous "taxes" and you can't stop firing missiles and keep your reputation for militancy. Polls show Hamas's popularity stuck at around 30% across Palestine. Abbas must know that only the outright failure of his negotiations can raise it.

Abbas and his circles, it is true, are a kind of dictatorship of the Palestinian bourgeoisie: secular, Western-educated, recognized by the world, and capable of delivering, in fits and starts, significant international donor money. Like all people of wealth and accomplishment, the leaders of the Palestinian private sector are resented, especially when the PA runs out of funds to pay teachers and police. But they also command a certain respect--so long as the economy is growing and wealth is spreading. Palestinians don't need Abbas to make war, and don't need Hamas to make peace.

So if Kerry, as promised, comes through with a significant package of aid, Abbas can at least claim a development path for Palestinian civil society that Hamas cannot match. If, as reported, Kerry can get Netanyahu to start with a significant release of prisoners, Hamas claims to have earned releases through kidnapping will tarnish. 

Negotiations can be buttressed by dramatic acts of (American) pragmatism. Kerry can do important things to provide a manifest demonstration that there really is a Palestinian state in the making.  He's spoken of a kind of Marshall Plan for Palestine; he is reportedly working with one of Palestine's most sharp-minded economic leaders, deputy prime minister Mohammad Mustafa, former head of the Palestine Investment Fund, to keep the PA afloat and stimulate the private sector.

But this is not enough. Support for entrepreneurship has to be matched by a large public construction project that would facilitate commerce in general. Now would be the ideal time for Kerry to get behind building Palestine's transportation corridor, along the lines of what Rand Corporation proposed with its ARC project. An announcement of this kind, which stitches Palestinian hubs together with trains and buses, would be electrifying. American diplomacy is promising two-states that are a prelude to justice and economic growth. Palestinian and Israeli centrists are both thinking, "Show me, don't tell me."

A final matter. The most patronizing thing to say about Kerry, which Thrall says, is that Kerry presumes Abbas and Olmert almost finished solving the puzzle and the only piece missing is himself.  In this view, Abbas and Olmert were actually never close, and Kerry is anyway misguided to focus on the leftovers from 1967 when the real conflict is over the clash of national claims from 1948. So we ought to make do with "cease-fires" and "further unilateral withdrawals."

Really? Withdrawals by what leader, from where, and under what conditions that do not send us back to the big questions? And how does fiddling with the status quo do anything but ensure a permanent crisis for the International Crisis Group, one bound to degenerate into the ethnic cleansing of Palestine and the international isolation of Israel? Anyway, one does not avoid the claims of 1948 by focusing on the aftermath of 1967. One opens to them. And if Olmert and Abbas made no real progress, why did Abbas demand that negotiations with Netanyahu start where he and Olmert left off?

Thrall is right to imply that the Olmert-Abbas principles were a only start and there is no guarantee that starting is succeeding. I've argued here myself that Olmert and Abbas anticipated (by other names) follow-on confederal institutions to make progress on core issues actionable: shared administration of municipal Jerusalem, joint security cooperation with the US, an international commission on refugee claims, and, crucially, shared urban infrastructure for what are, at best, interlocking city-states.

But Kerry cannot get the parties to acknowledge each other's suffering, or create the necessary institutions to make the two little states reciprocal, in one leap; these things will suggest themselves as new problems emerge from the larger compromises--land swaps, an international Old City, compensation for and resettlement of refugees, residency rights (perhaps without citizenship) for two interpenetrated populations, and so forth.

The point is, negotiations have a logic of their own. Clausewitz once argued that once war begins, nobody knows where it ends; a commander in the field will commit almost any atrocity to avoid presiding over a defeat; and once the violence spreads, the logic of the war shifts.  He didn't say so, but something very like this is true with peace talks. Who knows what happens when a leader raises the expectation of normalcy and makes himself hostage to another leader's humanity?

For these leaders in particular, who resisted negotiation for four years, and are now coming together with fanfare and the prestige of the American administration on the line, the alternative to success is oblivion. Abbas and Netanyahu now need each other if they want to become something other than historical losers. This is an ugly reason to rekindle hope, but let's take what we can get.

Published in Open Zion, a feature of The Daily Beast, where I have a regular column.  

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The European Commission: Getting Personal

The European Commission's decision to condition Brussels future agreements with Israel on the recognition of East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights as "occupied territory" is a major event, not because of what it does, but for what it dramatizes.

The new guidelines do not impinge on the free-trade agreement or other agreements governing cultural and sports exchange; for now, Israeli football teams can still play in Barcelona (if they can stand the boos) and Hebrew University professors can still go to conferences in Paris.

Since the time of Ehud Olmert in the Ministry of Industry and Trade, in the mid-2000s, the EU mandated that produce from the territories be marked as such (a move that Olmert advised the government to go along with, which earned him the hatred of Likud rank and file, thus helping to precipitate the founding of Kadima). Right now, there are not many projects initiated from or individuals living in the territories that rely on, or even hope for, funding from granting agencies of  European Union.

But the specific strictures and precedents miss the point. Even if the guidelines do not apply to the actions of individual member states, it sends them a clear signal: a boycott of people, projects, and companies from the settlements is, if not mandatory, then welcome. And given the difficulty of determining just where the boundaries are for Israeli people, projects, and companies, questions might well be raised about all Israelis, and questions are enough to get in the way.

Commerce in technology advanced countries, you see, is no longer an impersonal exchange of goods. It is a building of relationships. One does not have to boycott Israeli "products" to prejudice Israel's economy; where most value is created by scientific interchange, it is enough for a European not to trust, or just not want to hang with, Israelis; enough to have a key member of a marketing or research team who does not want to visit Israel for meetings.

Phillips or BMW products development teams can still strike deals with an Israeli Israeli components maker or software design house. But why would they if it means extra static?  There are plenty of places in the world to get smart engineering.

Natan Linder, a former student, the founder of Samsung’s Israeli technology center--and now at MIT's Media Lab--once put it to me this way: “Israel’s real demographic problem is in India and China. What is their top ten percent— 200 million people? Assume real geniuses are just one percent—that is 20 million people. They have four times more geniuses than we have people. So how does Israel survive in this scenario?"  The point is, distinguishing yourself is hard enough.  You don't need to come up to the plate with a strike against you.

True, if Israelis come up with innovations that nobody else has--great GPS mapping, or new ways of treating diabetes--fewer questions will be asked. But the $40 billion a year "in trade" that Israel does with Europe represents tens of thousands or transactions that are, in the end, personal.

If before the head of a company's product development team (or head of a university department, or technology institute, or medical trial team, or granting non-profit) takes a meeting with you, he or she automatically starts to wonder about where you live, or your key people live, or what the key people on his or her team will say, you just get to be too much trouble. If Prime Minister Netanyahu insists on blurring the border with the territories, ordinary Europeans cannot be blamed for doing the same.

Is this enough to wreck Israel's economy? Not yet. But it is enough to make the difference between growing at 3.5 percent rather than 6 percent, or 7.2 percent unemployment rather than 6.5 percent.  And that difference is enough to account for the difference between a budget surplus or a 40 billion NIS deficit, thus universities that are cutting rather than hiring, thus an innovation engine that revs down, thus people like Linder staying in Boston rather than returning to Herzliya.  As I said, personal.

From Open Zion, a featured section of The Daily Beast, where I have a regular column.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

David Brooks' Liberal List

Tel Aviv, Summer 2011
David Brooks has a point, but isn't he forgetting something?

If you are a political theorist, or a political columnist with a head on your shoulders, events in Egypt are a kind of pedagogic gift. How better to explain the distinction between democratic process, culminating in free elections, majority rule, and the peaceful transfer of power, and, democratic values--more precisely, the classically liberal values usually associated with Western democracy--the separation of religion and state, civil protections for conscience, freedom of the press, the freedom of enterprise, an independent judiciary, etc.? Yesterday's killings of Morsi demonstrators suggest how the distinction can become a fatal contradiction.

Brooks is eager to explain, not without evidence, that repression of this kind has been the other way around. Especially in the Middle East, real liberals, the people advocating for what he calls democratic "substance," have suffered from the people claiming to be the victors of mere democratic "process." In Egypt, Turkey, Iran, Gaza, "and elsewhere" (I suppose Brooks means Iraq), we have seen the election of populist, religio-nationalist movements, whose leaders, often demagogues, claim to be overturning the corruptions of an entrenched elite; and once elected--Brooks doesn't quite say, but implies well enough--these leaders have have turned around and stifled secular conceptions of citizenship.

Thus, they've used state power to extend their precious ideas of holiness, sought control of public media, and threatened academic freedom in universities. They've privileged religious law and inserted judges and courts to interfere even with such civil rights as marriage. They've turned from normalizing the state apparatus to defend all, and pursued an agenda aggressive and inflammatory toward minorities, thus regional neighbors, that put liberals into a kind of internal exile. They've infiltrated the officer corps of the armed forces. They reject "modernity." Brooks writes:

World events of the past few months have vindicated those who take the substance side of the argument. It has become clear — in Egypt, Turkey, Iran, Gaza and elsewhere — that radical Islamists are incapable of running a modern government. Many have absolutist, apocalyptic mind-sets. They have a strange fascination with a culture of death...  Islamists might be determined enough to run effective opposition movements and committed enough to provide street-level social services. But they lack the mental equipment to govern. Once in office, they are always going to centralize power and undermine the democracy that elevated them.

And so: Middle Eastern societies where democracies are half-completed; countries that have experienced the debasement of democratic values by a majority in the thrall of an absolutist, apocalyptic, death-shadowed "mindset"--a majority of undereducated urban poor, swayed by economic resentments, and corrupted liberal "substance." Egypt, Turkey, Iran, Gaza, Iraq. Oh, and isn't there one more for the list?

What makes Brooks' column so infuriating is the smug presumption that Israel is the embattled model while there is some kind of Islamic failing (some lack of "mental equipment") that makes Egypt and all Arab states peculiarly susceptible to fanatic majoritarian tyrannies. He has made an important point about developing countries and the uses of democratic process, which is not discredited because Egyptian generals have debased it, or more likely, simply proved unable to appoint junior officers who don't get spooked by hostile crowds. But if Brooks lived in West Jerusalem, instead of in the "higher Jerusalem" of his Talmud class, I suspect he'd also be day-dreaming about a coup against Israel's Likud organized, say, by the leaders of the hundreds of thousands mainly liberal citizens who marched down Rothschild Blvd. two summers ago. Anyway, I do.

Look, I do not presume to know what Egypt needs. I assume, perhaps misguidedly, a hypothetical country of over 80 million people, whose only natural advantages are a shipping canal and tourism, a little gas, generation after generation of college graduates lacking entrepreneurial experience, and an army that owns 20% of the economy in various ways. I look at Asia, and assume that a country of this kind needs direct foreign investment--that is, foreign intellectual capital--more than anything else; that it would almost certainly see the army deeply involved, protecting its own stake, and aiming for stability above all. Whether or not this country was a democracy in the sense of majority parliamentary rule would seem a rather marginal question as compared to whether it is an open-enough society for serious economic development in a global system.

At the same time, I do presume to know what Israel needs; the last thing is influential foreign voices feeding the hubris of its demagogues. Really, if I believed there was an elite group that could, through the magic of martial law, do what Israeli liberals know we need: end the settlements, curtail the fetishization of Jerusalem, abolish the official Rabbinate, abolish all laws defining "who is a Jew," privatize public lands, end the semi-official role of old Zionist institutions like the JNF, transform the Law of Return into a proper immigration law (one entailing naturalization), institute civil marriage, create a single secular secondary school system for Jews and Arabs alike, end grants to religious parties, end draft exemptions for ultra-orthodox, end the politicization of public TV and radio, reduce defense spending and expand education--in short, turn democratic "substance" against democratic "process," I can't say I would oppose it. I would settle for Israel adopting whatever constitution Mohamed El-Baradei settles for.

Alas, however, I don't believe in magic. So it would be reassuring to know that, in its absence, people as smart and internationally well-positioned as Brooks would write what would help us change things in Israel over time--yes, through mere democratic process--instead of implicitly cheer-leading our purveyors of cultural superiority: Likudniks and theocrats in their persistent majority who conceive of Muslims as unusually despotic and a "state of its citizens" as something vaguely seditious.

From Open Zion, a feature of The Daily Beast, where I have a regular column.