Sunday, December 14, 2014

The Two-State Solution 2.0

I have written so often in the past about the inevitability of confederative models if the two-state solution is to have a chance of working, that this may feel like piling on. But here are two short videos to watch, and spread, if you find them compelling. The first is from IPCRI, or Israel Palestine Creative Regional Initiatives, making the argument for greater integration: "two states in one space," they call it. The second is this round table on TV Ontario's "The Agenda with Steve Paikin," in which I make the pitch along with two Palestinian interlocutors. The crux comes at about minute 19:00. 

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Netanyahu's Inflammatory Bill

This was published on the New Yorker site just before the government actually collapsed, hence the hedged language.  

As a symbolic gesture, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s proposed law establishing Israel as a Jewish nation-state is gratuitous at best, but not exactly new. It is making the same aggressive point to Israeli Palestinians that Netanyahu made to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas during the peace negotiations conducted by John Kerry last year: the Jews are here; they must, as a society, be tolerated; get over it. But it is not merely symbolic. It is a law that aims to govern other laws: a “basic law,” which will have something like constitutional standing. And it is so charged, so offensive not only to the Arab citizens of Israel but even to some members of Netanyahu’s ruling coalition, that is it likely to collapse that fragile alliance and result in new elections.

The Israeli press, including Haaretz and Ynet, have reported that Netanyahu clashed with a key coalition member, Yair Lapid, the head of the Yesh Atid party, over the law, as well as other issues, including construction in Jerusalem and various tax measures. But it was the “Jewish nationhood” bill that was at the center of the late-night debate and the potential implosion of Netanyahu’s coalition. So what is at issue?

This takes some sorting out, since it is not clear exactly which draft of the Jewish nation-state bill that Netanyahu will present to the Knesset. The original bill, drafted by the ultra-rightist coalition partner Ze’ev Elkin, and which the cabinet approved in a fourteen to seven vote, defines Israel as “the nation-state of the Jewish people”—not, pointedly, of its citizens, a fifth of whom are Arabs. It demotes Arabic from being an official language to having some sort of special status. Minorities, by implication, would have no right to communal expression, though presumably their rights as individuals would be assured. All state symbols would be Jewish ones. Only Jews would have the right to immigrate freely and receive citizenship. The state would cultivate only Jewish heritage and traditions; Jewish law would serve as “inspiration” for laws. Former President Shimon Peres has said that the law would “destroy Israel’s democratic status at home and abroad.” Netanyahu has insisted that he merely wants to require all Israel schools “to teach the history, culture, and customs of the Jewish people.” In fact, he clearly sees a conflict between democratic standards and Jewish national privileges, which, in his view, needs to be resolved in favor of the latter. The judiciary—governed by democratic standards, and unconstrained by a legally binding national purpose—is his real target. His unstated argument is that the courts advance an abstract concept of citizenship, which, unchecked, will erode the concept of Jewish national self-determination. “The judiciary, which recognizes Israel’s democratic side, will also have to recognize that Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people,” he said, in a statement about the bill, at a recent cabinet meeting.

If this law were, as Netanyahu mostly seems to want the public to believe, only about collective rights, it would be superfluous, irritating to the Arab minority, perhaps, but not inconsistent with democratic norms—and not even preëmptive of confederal relations with a future Palestine. Democracies everywhere protect their distinct national cultures and languages. The point is, however, that this new law is not really about conserving collective cultural rights, but rather about confirming individual legal privileges. Israel’s democratic freedoms are real, to be sure, but they coëxist with legalized inequalities between Jews and Arabs.

Read on at the New Yorker

Friday, November 21, 2014

Crisis In Jerusalem

Again, Palestinians armed with whatever was at hand attacked Jews in Jerusalem, killing four citizens and fatally wounding a police officer before achieving martyrdom. Again, the Netanyahu government demanded that President Abbas denounce the murders and end incitement. Abbas, again, has repudiated “all acts of violence against civilians,” distinguishing himself from Hamas and bowing to American pressure but implying—as if he needed to—that the Israeli Army, police, and settlers have committed atrocities of their own. Again, the State Department has issued its condemnation in a tone of mandatory righteousness. In Jerusalem, anxiety is mounting. “I know why they do it, and I know why we do it,” my wife, Sidra, once said to me. “And I don’t know what to do.”

Last week, it was an attack on a rabbinic zealot at the Begin Heritage Center, across the street from the Cinematheque, where the remaining Jerusalemites with secular tendencies take in a film by Mike Leigh or Denys Arcand. The place is a ten-minute walk from our home, in the German Colony. A block away is the former Café Hillel, which was bombed in September, 2003. Across the main street, Emeq Refaim (The Valley of the Ghosts), is another café, Caffit, where two suicide bombers were foiled on two separate occasions. At the summit of the gentle hill overlooking the valley, near Terra Sancta, in the Rehavia quarter, another café, Moment, which was bombed in 2002. Walk another ten minutes, into the city center, and you come to a pizzeria that was bombed twice. The nearby Ben-Yehuda Street mall was bombed. When I draw an imaginary circle of a couple of miles around our neighborhood, it encompasses the sites of five bus bombings. The cafeteria near Sidra’s office, at the Hebrew University, on the ridge above the entrapped neighborhood of Issawiya, was bombed. You remember the pattern and—if you are not family—forget the names.

Robert Brym, a sociologist at the University of Toronto, studied all hundred and thirty-eight Palestinian suicide bombings between September, 2000, and mid-July, 2005. He concluded that they represented less than a quarter of the attempted missions—most were foiled by Israeli forces—and that the vast majority of the Palestinian youths who killed, whatever their ideological predispositions, had themselves lost a friend or a close relative. During those five years, Israeli forces undertook some two hundred assassination attempts, eighty per cent of which hit their targets, often causing, Brym writes, considerable “collateral damage.” This time, in the suburb of Har Nof, three of the four victims were rabbis; their murderers are said to have been enraged by the rightists in the Netanyahu government agitating for access to the Temple Mount, also the Muslims’ Noble Sanctuary. Yeshiva students walk around Jerusalem wearing T-shirts with an illustration of a crane removing the golden dome from the Mosque of Omar. (The caption says, “Sometimes, it is permitted to remove the kippa,” the Hebrew word for both a dome and skullcap.) At the news of the murders, some residents of the East Jerusalem suburb of Jabel Mukhaber set off fireworks. There is vague talk of the national conflict turning into religious war.

Read on at The New Yorker

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Netanyahu's Misguided Prophesy To The Nations

Yom Kippur, the Day of Repentance, which fell this week, makes the Book of Jonah its liturgical centerpiece. For many, Jews and non-Jews alike, the connection of this text to repentance is all too clear. Perhaps the most famous sermon on the subject, certainly the most paradigmatic, is that of Father Mapple in Moby Dick, whom Ishmael hears just before he first sets sail:

Shipmates, it is a two-stranded lesson; a lesson to us all as sinful men, and a lesson to me as a pilot of the living God. As sinful men, it is a lesson to us all, because it is a story of the sin, hard-heartedness, suddenly awakened fears, the swift punishment, repentance, prayers, and finally the deliverance and joy of Jonah. 

Mapple continues, explaining why Jonah ran away.

All the things that God would have us do are hard for us to do - remember that - and hence, he oftener commands us than endeavors to persuade. And if we obey God, we must disobey ourselves; and it is in this disobeying ourselves, wherein the hardness of obeying God consists. With this sin of disobedience in him, Jonah still further flouts at God, by seeking to flee from Him. He thinks that a ship made by men, will carry him into countries where God does not reign but only the Captains of this earth. He skulks about the wharves of Joppa, and seeks a ship that's bound for Tarshish. 

Father Mapple, en passant, ferrets out of the Book of Jonah Jonah’s own idea of what a Hebrew is, someone who knows God’s power, and who knows better than to expect mercy when sins are great:

'I am a Hebrew,' he cries- and then- 'I fear the Lord the God of Heaven who hath made the sea and the dry land!' Fear him, O Jonah? Aye, well mightest thou fear the Lord God then! We know what happens next. Jonah, admitting that the roiling seas are his fault, is tossed overboard by terrified shipmates. 

Then Mapple reaches his climax:

He goes down in the whirling heart of such a masterless commotion that he scarce heeds the moment when he drops seething into the yawning jaws awaiting him; and the whale shoots-to all his ivory teeth, like so many white bolts, upon his prison. 

Jonah calls out to the Almighty. The fish pukes him up. Mapple says:

And Jonah, bruised and beaten- his ears, like two sea-shells, still multitudinously murmuring of the ocean- Jonah did the Almighty's bidding. And what was that, shipmates? To preach the Truth to the face of Falsehood! That was it! 

That was it. The challenge is to preach the truth in the face of falsehood. To brave the fight, and scoffers be damned. The world is made up of people who know the truth and people who either don’t know it or resist it. And the way to get people to be good, or afraid to be bad - and what’s the difference? - is through a kind of permanent regime of deterrence: We warn like Father Mapple, warn like Jonah eventually did. And we will preach a force that will find you anywhere, idiot. All the things that God would have us do are hard for us to do.

I thought of Father Mapple watching Benjamin Netanyahu explaining the struggle against militant Islam from the UN’s podium this past week. “To protect the peace and security of the world, we must remove this cancer before it’s too late,” he said. As with Father Mapple, Netanyahu warned of two kinds of people, the peace-loving and the bloody-minded. Israeli leaders must therefore do something hard but inescapable: Bring a message of deterrence, preach the truth in the face of falsehood, bomb if you have to and the New York Times be damned. “Israel is fighting a fanaticism today that your countries may be forced to fight tomorrow.”

I felt, I confess, sadly embarrassed for Netanyahu, our sanctimonious impresario of settlements--of "mowing the lawn" in Gaza--the way I imagined Ishmael feeling a little ashamed for Mapple, whose righteousness so clearly cut against his grain. Jews have had Yom Kippur longer than we’ve had the Likud. Was this really what the Book of Jonah taught? Why, really, did Jonah run?

Actually, the people of Nineveh are not the real villains. They are not very bad: One perfunctory warning from the prophet and even the cattle are put into sack-cloth. No, it is Jonah the book is warning us about, that we should not be like him: Angry, hungry for the punishment of crime, incapable of managing ambiguity. Jonah finally admits to us, or God, the real reason why he ran, but only after God forgives Nineveh:

I pray Thee, O LORD, was not this my saying, when I was yet in mine own country? Therefore I fled beforehand unto Tarshish; for I knew that Thou art a gracious God, and compassionate, long-suffering, and abundant in mercy, and repentest Thee of the evil. Therefore now, O LORD, take, I beseech Thee, my life from me; for it is better for me to die than to live.' And the LORD said: 'Art thou greatly angry?' Then Jonah went out of the city, and sat on the east side of the city, and there made him a booth, and sat under it in the shadow, till he might see what would become of the city.

Jonah’s melancholy, you see, has nothing to do with fearing God's mission. It has everything to do with fearing God's compassion. You sort of get the feeling that Jonah builds the booth to look out onto the city in the forlorn hope that God would incinerate the sons of bitches after all. He obviously feels more comfortable far away from the people he was notionally saving—that he cares about humanity more than mere humans. He would rather die than live with the confusions brought into the world by forgiveness.

Jonah, in other words, is hardly the hero in the book. God is. What’s missing from Netanyahu’s speech, and Father Mapple’s sermon is a kind of critical self-consciousness, which is the real lesson of God’s actions. The heart to be transformed is not in Nineveh—it is Jonah’s: God acts as a kind of cosmic therapist. God then sends a plant; Jonah falls in love with it—or at least with the shade it provides. God causes the plant to wither—not to prove his power some more, but because he realizes that, as with a numbed child, you can teach compassion only step by step. God asks Jonah if he is aggrieved by the death of the plant. Again, Jonah is so aggrieved he says he would rather die than live. God asks, finally talking past Jonah’s neurosis, so then how am I to feel about the people of Nineveh, who “do not know their right hand from their left”?

Terrorism is not tolerable - that’s true. Members of my own family have been its victims. Still, the God of Jonah teaches, first and foremost, the renunciation of Manichean visions, this notion that life presents us with heroic struggles against evil forces—the idea that goodness rests merely, or even mainly, on the terrible power of good forces to intimidate the bad. How would God help Israel’s prime minister to see, to paraphrase the novelist David Grossman, the little Hamas in oneself? I suspect the future of what Jews mean by Jews will depend very much on the answers we provide to these questions.

I have spent a good deal of time with another prime minister this past year, nobody’s hero now, who himself launched two wars against “the missiles.” He can speak for himself, but my impression of Ehud Olmert is that he is not at all certain in retrospect that Israelis saw enough of what Jonah’s God would have wanted us to. When I asked him about his proudest moment of statesmanship, he told me this:

Olmert had sat in on meetings in which Ariel Sharon had treated Abbas as the representative of a defeated, insurgent enemy that needed to be intimidated. This often made Olmert cringe. So when he assumed office, and tried to set appointments with Abbas, he was not surprised that Abbas kept putting him off, determined, Olmert surmised, to avoid more humiliation. Finally, they set an appointment for a Thursday evening, and again Abbas cancelled at the last minute. So Olmert got him on the phone and said: “I understand why you might want to insult me, but why insult my wife?” Abbas was taken aback and said he did not understand. Olmert said: “When Aliza found that you would be coming, she spent the last 24 hours preparing your favorite dishes for dinner. What shall I tell her now?”

Abbas came, eventually met with Olmert 36 times, and the two came closer to a comprehensive agreement than any previous leaders. This is not the kind of approach to truth and power Father Mapple, or Netanyahu, would have respected. But I like to think that the Book of Jonah's God would have been relieved.

This article appeared in Haaretz online.  It is adapted from a Yom Kippur sermon delivered to the Harvard Worship and Study Congregation in 2011.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Is Liberal Zionism Impossible?

A couple of Sundays ago, the Times published an opinion piece by Antony Lerman that seemed calculated to prompt a moment of truth. Lerman writes that “liberal Zionists,” or “liberal Zionism,” or “Jewish liberals” in the diaspora (he never quite narrows this down) are, thanks to the latest Gaza war, facing an unprecedented crisis. The time has come to choose between Jewish loyalties, which tend to boil down to “Zionism,” and human rights. Lerman comes by this moment honestly. He’s worked for British Jewish organizations for thirty years; he’s come to believe that it’s futile to try to persuade most diaspora Jews—who are often liberal in spirit, but who have made “unquestioning solidarity with Israel the touchstone of Jewish identity”—to press for fairness to Palestinians and democratic reform in Israel. Conspicuous American Jewish liberals, such as Peter Beinart, Roger Cohen (who, like Lerman, is originally from England), and the leaders of J Street, the advocacy group set up as a counterbalance to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, lament that “what Israel is doing can’t be reconciled with their humanism.” Yet, he says, they fail that humanism by remaining “Zionists,” by which he means remaining supporters of “the two-state solution,” where one state is Israel.

Lerman believes that serial Israeli governments have made that two-state vision impossible. Benjamin Netanyahu effectively rejected it; the Israeli left is “comatose.” “The only Zionism of any consequence today is xenophobic and exclusionary,” he writes, and it is carrying out an “open-ended project of national self-realization to be achieved through colonization and purification of the tribe.” Indeed—and here is Lerman’s real point—Zionism has always forced Jews to decide between “the dictates of religion and political ideology” and liberal principles. The Jewish state was founded on injury to Palestinians, Lerman writes. “Liberal Zionists” have, with hypocritical regret, justified this historic injustice as necessary. But Gaza is so grotesque that they have now been pushed “to the brink”—or should be. The brink of what? Lerman is not entirely clear. He wants the threads of his argument to braid into a case for a new movement: a partnership with Palestinians “to achieve equal rights and self-determination for all in Israel-Palestine.” At the same time, he insists, liberal Jews should feel free to rethink whether they need to be committed to the existence of any Jewish state at all: “Jewish history did not culminate in the creation of the state of Israel.”

One could pick at Lerman’s threads. Is anything but a two-state solution, complemented by ordinary confederal arrangements, really conceivable? Is the Israeli peace camp really composed only of exhausted leftists—is the country’s business community not getting mobilized? Yet the most striking thing about Lerman’s argument, with its focus on whether the Zionist idea can be reconciled to the liberal imagination, is how provisional he takes Israel to be. He seems consumed with historic Zionism’s veiled essence, yet he’s oblivious to its obvious achievement: namely, a home for Israelis that has a reality other than as a cause for diaspora Jews...

Read on at The New Yorker



Friday, August 15, 2014

Gaza 'Without Illusions': A UN Mandate

Israel’s Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, has made his reputation telling what he imagines to be hard truths that others shrink from. He says that he sees the world “bli ashlayot”—without illusions.

In 2001, he said that if Egypt stationed troops in the Sinai, Israel should respond “strongly,” by, say, bombing the Aswan Dam, on the Nile. He has said that Israeli Arabs who don’t swear loyalty to the state should be stripped of citizenship. He has even argued that Israel should negotiate with the Palestinian Authority’s Mahmoud Abbas on the basis of a (demographically agreeable) land swap, whereby Israel would annex large West Bank settlement blocs while handing over to the Palestinians three hundred thousand third-generation, Hebrew-speaking Arab citizens in towns near the pre-1967 borders.

Since the beginning of the latest Gaza operation, Lieberman, unsurprisingly, has done to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu what Netanyahu did to his predecessor, Ehud Olmert, in 2009: outflank him on the right by insisting that no ceasefire be considered until Hamas is vanquished. The current ceasefire is still provisional, and Lieberman has declared that Israel will not coöperate with any war-crimes investigation by the United Nations Human Rights Council.

It was surprising, then, that when Lieberman testified before the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee last week, he suggested that Israel and the Palestinian Authority might consider turning control of Gaza over to a United Nations mandate.

Read on at The New Yorker

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Let's Blame Kerry

This has just been published by TheWorldPost, a partnership of The Huffington Post and the Berggruen Institute on Governance 

By the second week of the Gaza war, Israeli media were decided that Secretary of State John Kerry’s diplomacy was fatally inept. Presumably, much of the subsequent suffering on both sides might be laid at his feet. The most serious—certainly the most caustic—claims were advanced by Haaretz’s Ari Shavit:

Kerry ruined everything. Very senior officials in Jerusalem described the proposal that Kerry put on the table as a ‘strategic terrorist attack.’ His decision to go hand in hand with Qatar and Turkey, and formulate a framework amazingly similar to the Hamas framework, was catastrophic…The man of peace from Massachusetts intercepted with his own hands the reasonable cease-fire that was within reach, and pushed both the Palestinians and Israelis toward an escalation that most of them did not want…If Israel is forced to ultimately undertake an expanded ground operation in which dozens of young Israelis and hundreds of Palestinian civilians could lose their lives, it would be appropriate to name the offensive after the person who caused it: John Kerry. 

The “proposal” Shavit was referring to was a draft ceasefire plan which Kerry sent from Paris to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on July 26; it was the product of a meeting he convened with European foreign ministers that included Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and Qatari Foreign Minister Khalid Al Attiyah—both in more or less steady communication with Hamas’s political chief, Khaled Meshal. The proposal called for a cessation of all violence, to be followed within forty-eight hours by meetings in Cairo between Israel and “all Palestinian factions.” It would “secure the opening of crossings, allow the entry of goods and people and ensure the social and economic livelihood of the Palestinian people living in Gaza, transfer funds to Gaza for the payment of salaries for public employees and address all security issues.”

What Shavit considered the “reasonable cease-fire that was within reach”—before Kerry allegedly began his clumsy meddling—was an earlier proposal, from July 14th., advanced by Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. This had called only (and vaguely) for talks in Cairo about opening the Rafah crossing from Egypt into Gaza, which Sisi had closed—in part because he regarded Hamas as an off-shoot of the hated Moslem Brothers. Netanyahu had accepted the Egyptian proposal, and began bombarding Gaza in response to Hamas’s missile attacks. Meshal, speaking from Qatar, insisted that the fight was to the death, if necessary. “We will not accept any initiative that does not lift the blockade on our people and that does not respect their sacrifices,” he said. By the time of Kerry’s proposal, casualties in Gaza were climbing to over a thousand, and over thirty Israeli soldiers had been killed. Shavit was convinced that, had Kerry simply reinforced Netanyahu’s threats, Sisi’s pressure, and used Qatar to leverage Meshal, Hamas would have cracked then and there.

No wonder, Shavit implied, Kerry’s draft was decisively rejected by the Israeli cabinet. Nor was Shavit alone. The proposal was leaked and criticized the following day by Haaretz’s diplomatic correspondent, Barak Ravid (“What was he thinking?,” Ravid, normally an acerbic critic of the Netanyahu’s policies, fumed), at which point public scorn for Kerry in Israel was wall-to-wall. Curiously, now that a cease-fire is finally taking hold, the terms of Kerry’s July 26 proposal don’t seem so ruinous. In fact, they seem much like the ones on everyone’s mind, including such different members of the cabinet as the centrist Tzipi Livni and the rightist Avigdor Lieberman: the Israeli security quid for the Gazan development quo. Was the American Secretary of State really so ham-fisted by suggesting them early on? Or should we just forget the carping, chalk it up to taut nerves, and move on?

This would be a serious mistake, I think, for it would mean ignoring the tortured strategic logic that helped propel the Israeli government into this war—and earlier ones. What’s been vexing for Israeli officials and commentators alike, you see, is that Kerry interfered in a game of regional brinkmanship Israelis imagine themselves masters of and the only ones with the nerves for. In this game, Israel’s forces must bring something like decisive victory, or the perception of having decisive power, if “deterrence” is to be reestablished—the only security strategy the Netanyahu government has been offering the Israeli public.

I have sat through many intelligence briefings in which Israeli officials fill PowerPoint presentations with assessments of Palestinians’ power: their “motivation” and “capabilities.” But press these officials and they almost always define motives in terms of capabilities—if Palestinians can hurt us, they will want to. The desire to eliminate Israel goes back to the Naqba, presumably. It cannot be allayed, only (naively) appeased. Talk of occupation is a distraction, a propaganda victory for them. So Israelis cannot imagine deterring Palestinians unless they make them feel defeated. Might makes, of all things, right.

The war did little to undermine this logic. The unexpected death of so many soldiers—sons looking back cheerfully in newspaper pictures, pulled from their classes, hook-ups and trips to Nepal—endowed “deterrence” an elevated sense of pathos. In social media, at least, the tunnels pushed many Israelis to hysteria. Another veteran journalist, Akiva Eldar, wrote soberly in Al-Monitor that grief had transformed tunnels into a symbol for Israel’s darkest fears. Polls show that the war is overwhelmingly popular. Facebook and Twitter, Eldar laments, are lit up with discussion of “a horror scenario,” in which the tunnels provide Hamas with an infrastructure for a ground invasion: thousands of Hamas troops, dressed in Israeli uniforms, could fire hundreds, or even thousands, of rockets into the center of the country. Eldar quoted a wildly popular blogger who wrote, “Under those circumstances, Israel would potentially have to contend with tens of thousands of casualties, the paralysis of all its systems and the need to create defensive measures for individual neighborhoods and even for streets.” The blogger went on, “Counter-attacks by the air force won’t help when everyone is dug in deep underground, laughing all the way to Jerusalem.”

Kerry’s folly, then, was to imply flexibility, a willingness to respond to manifest grievances, when the game called for convincing ruthlessness. Perhaps one would wish to rehabilitate Gaza; former defense minister Shaul Mofaz has called for a fifty-billion-dollar redevelopment plan, after all. But if Hamas was for it, Kerry was “reckless” not to be against it. If only he had pressured Hamas just a little harder, Hamas’s will would have been broken. Hey, didn’t Qatar just buy eleven billion dollars in defensive missiles from the U.S.? Instead, Kerry squandered American authority. He was in over his head, sinking beneath the surface of Israel’s tautology.

The point is, you dig into this Israeli media criticism and its rests on these flimsy assumptions about the psychological state of the Hamas leadership. They understand only force. Inflict pain, secure “quiet.” Moreover, to criticize Kerry for working with Qatar and Turkey is to demand he remove from play American channels to, and leverage on, Hamas’s diplomatic supporters—the very ones Israeli leaders are now counting on to achieve a more permanent quiet—even the “demilitarization,” which Netanyahu now insists on.

In retrospect, one might conclude that Hamas was in no way on the verge of breaking: that Hamas leaders saw the casualties rising through the fog of war and assumed that many deaths on both sides worked to their advantage; that the very frame of mind that makes them terrorist also makes them cynically apocalyptic, suicidal, carried away by solidarity; that they knew very well how more Israeli bombardment could play into their hands, provoke international condemnation, possibly a new Intifada in the West Bank, a rising in Israeli Arab cities, missiles from Hezbollah, riots in Amman, or all of the above; that Hamas was about to lose its tunnels in any case and could not maintain its moral prestige among Gazans without making a stand to “break the siege.”

More reasonably, Kerry’s Paris proposal assumed that next diplomatic steps would take place in Cairo, under Egyptian auspices—as, indeed, they are now, since Egypt still controlled Rafah, the first imaginable crossing to open. “All Palestinian factions” was an obvious euphemism for the united government of the Palestinian Authority which the U.S. had already tried to work with and Israel tried to break Abbas away from. This government had already agreed to participate in an international effort to monitor the crossings, work on Gazan development and pay the salaries of Gazan officials with funds committed by Qatar. Israel, meanwhile, will discuss “all security issues.” It will also sit down with this government, though not with Hamas directly—again, just what Kerry expected.

None of this means that Israeli journalists who’ve mocked him will stop doing so. They’ll accuse him of childishness for insisting a comprehensive deal is necessary to improve on an unsustainable status quo. Yet they’ll parentalize him and the American presidency—assume that violence against Israel is the result of totemic American fumbling. It is not a bad to career move—as various neocons have proven—to declare that the Obama administration’s weakness is responsible for every attack from the world’s awful people. Yet, hopefully, Kerry will press on. Soon enough, Israelis will be carping also at themselves.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Dread And Wishful Thinking

A conversation with John Cassidy about the miserable war, on The New Yorker "Political Scene" podcast.  Jeffrey Toobin moderates.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

An Open Letter To Philip Weiss


Dear Phil,

I understand that, in Weissworld, it is considered a compliment to be singled out as a representative of the mainstream media, someone “finally” alienated from Israeli policy—and, as an additional commendation, to be credited with having termed Israeli attacks in Gaza as a “war crime.”  I think that anyone who bothers to read the whole article—to which you curiously provide a link—will immediately see how seriously you’ve flattened my views.  I write, among other things:

Familiar, finally, is the posturing and the doublespeak, Hamas’s Big Lie countered by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s half-truths. A senior Hamas official told Haaretz, “When Israel started operating against our people, some decided it was time to act and show that we are one people and one nation that must defend our people in the West Bank.” As if Hamas defends its people by provoking luridly photogenic attacks on Gazans; as if launching Iranian-made missiles, acquired through its Sinai tunnels, does not appear to justify the Israeli siege that Hamas says it is trying to break; as if Hamas has not consolidated an occupation regime of its own, plunging Gaza into a parochial horror in which almost ninety per cent of adults live in poverty.

“The difference between us is simple,” Netanyahu says. “We develop defensive systems against missiles in order to protect our civilians, and they use their civilians to protect their missiles.” That’s a good line, and even a true one. But it’s also true that the Israeli government knew the kidnapped teens were almost certainly dead when, in an alleged desperate effort to save them, it began a crackdown that resulted in hundreds of Hamas supporters being thrown in prison. More plausibly, it took this opportunity to crush Hamas as a political force. Netanyahu and Israeli military tacticians openly consider all homes of known Hamas officials or fighters to be part of Hamas “infrastructure.” Bombing these homes every few years—“mowing the lawn,” as one commander put it before earlier Gaza operations—demonstrates that Israel will not shrink from inflicting hundreds of random civilian casualties, through which it hopes to discredit Hamas. If you don’t think this is a war crime, talk to your Palestinian friends.

Justice Goldstone established what war crimes are. I won’t compete with him here. Let us say neither Hamas nor the IAF are doing credit to the human species, whose record wasn’t great to begin with. I clearly meant that both sides are cynical about civilian casualties in Gaza, tolerating them, even using them, for alleged strategic gain. Where, in your blog, is a post about how missile attacks ought to distance us from Hamas? Anyway, even if Israeli strikes can be vaguely justified as a response to them, you need to be incapable of compassion, or devoid of Palestinian friends, to refrain from seeing the bombing as criminally cavalier.  This is what I argued, which is not really what you insinuate, is it?

I also consider that “finally” condescending. You write: "It is just a matter of time before some liberal Zionists (who are merely the most amenable voice inside a reactionary American support community) begin to jump off the Zionist tank.” Presumably, people like myself, otherwise reactionary liberal Zionists, are finally summoning the courage to come around to your principled alienation. This isn’t the place, either, to explain all the ways I find your views about historic Zionism misinformed, even crude, and your political analysis one-sided. But some of us, in and out of Israel, have been willing to take the unpleasant consequences of non-conformity, criticizing the occupation and its consequences—including arguably just wars that might nevertheless have been avoided—since the time of Golda Meir. However queasy we may feel about Weissworld’s tribute, we certainly weren’t waiting for its spine.

Best, Bernie

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Watching Gaza

We may think we have been here before, but we haven’t. The images of escalation are the same: exhaust tracing through Israeli skies; Gazans frantically picking through rubble; Israelis glued to their televisions, reduced to observers of spectacle, some poised to run for shelter but most affecting readiness, protected by rocket science and probability, fascinated by the deadpan proficiency of military officials whose mission may confuse them but to whom they suppose they owe their lives.

And the circular ultimatums are the same, as are the grim tallies that supposedly establish advantage: we stop bombing if you stop launching, we stop launching if you stop laying siege, we stop the siege if you give up your missiles, we can’t give them up as long as you occupy us and have the means to bomb us. As in 2008, the I.D.F. is prepared for a ground invasion. About fifteen hundred Hamas targets have been hit by Israel, more than five hundred largely homemade Qassam missiles have been launched by Hamas, and more than two hundred and twenty Palestinians have been killed. Just since yesterday morning, more than a hundred rockets and mortars have been fired into Israel, the vast majority intercepted by the country’s Iron Dome defense system. One Israeli man was killed at the border. The fresher grievances turn the older ones vague: three hitchhiking Israeli teens were kidnapped, two protesting Palestinian youths were shot dead two weeks before, there was a revenge murder by a rogue group of Israeli fanatics—you can unspool this vendetta back to the Balfour Declaration, in 1917.

Yesterday morning promised a break in the cycle, but this, too, seemed merely familiar. At Secretary of State John Kerry’s urging, the Israeli government announced that it had accepted Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s terms for a ceasefire, which looked a great deal like the terms offered by President Mohamed Morsi in 2012, which the Israeli government accepted at Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s urging. Both sides, according to the latest Egyptian terms, would stop their attacks; indirect talks, to be held in Cairo, would take up opening Gaza crossings to Egypt, though the agenda for such talks is vague; and Hamas would restrain underground groups like Islamic Jihad. Again, Hamas would seem to have achieved nothing for the Palestinian lives lost, which is why it rejected the deal and why Israeli planes resumed bombing.

Familiar, finally, is the posturing and the doublespeak, Hamas’s Big Lie countered by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s half-truths. A senior Hamas official told Haaretz, “When Israel started operating against our people, some decided it was time to act and show that we are one people and one nation that must defend our people in the West Bank.” As if Hamas defends its people by provoking luridly photogenic attacks on Gazans; as if launching Iranian-made missiles, acquired through its Sinai tunnels, does not appear to justify the Israeli siege that Hamas says it is trying to break; as if Hamas has not consolidated an occupation regime of its own, plunging Gaza into a parochial horror in which almost ninety per cent of adults live in poverty.

“The difference between us is simple,” Netanyahu says. “We develop defensive systems against missiles in order to protect our civilians, and they use their civilians to protect their missiles.” That’s a good line, and even a true one. But it’s also true that the Israeli government knew the kidnapped teens were almost certainly dead when, in an alleged desperate effort to save them, it began a crackdown that resulted in hundreds of Hamas supporters being thrown in prison. More plausibly, it took this opportunity to crush Hamas as a political force. Netanyahu and Israeli military tacticians openly consider all homes of known Hamas officials or fighters to be part of Hamas “infrastructure.” Bombing these homes every few years—“mowing the lawn,” as one commander put it before earlier Gaza operations—demonstrates that Israel will not shrink from inflicting hundreds of random civilian casualties, through which it hopes to discredit Hamas. If you don’t think this is a war crime, talk to your Palestinian friends.

Read on at The New Yorker

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Slipping The Terror Trap

On Thursday, Israeli secret-service officials finally released the names of the Hamas militants from Hebron, Marwan Qawasmeh and Amar Abu Aisha, whom they’ve alleged are responsible for kidnapping three hitchhiking yeshiva students—Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Shaar, and Eyal Yifrah—on the night of June 12th. Their belief in Hamas’s involvement seems to have been reached by process of elimination—Qawasmeh and Aisha have gone missing—but, in a way, the Netanyahu government needn’t bother producing evidence that is more conclusive. Hamas’s leaders would be incompetent if they rejected responsibility, so well have events since the kidnapping played into their hands. (As if on cue, Hamas’s chief, Khaled Meshal, told Al Jazeera that he cannot confirm or deny the organization’s involvement, but, he added, “I congratulate the abductors, because our prisoners must be freed from the prisons of the occupation.”)

Continue reading at The New Yorker

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Republicans, Likud, And The Big Con

Just a coda to my post yesterday in The New Yorker regarding Abbas's unity deal--more specifically, about why the Netanyahu government is rallying opposition to it--claiming this is Abbas's capitulation to violent rejectionism--when it so clearly represents Abbas's provisional victory of over Hamas, and more generally for a non-violent, internationalized political process in Palestine.

The answer, I fear, is that the specter of Hamas's growing power always worked nicely for the Likud. And there is an analogy here to congressional Republicans:

If you are the party of laissez-faire and American plutocracy, you cannot say so. There is no majority for this. So you say, rather, that you are simply living with no illusions, being tough-minded, the party of government-is-the-problem. Then you resist or sabotage every government program or presidential initiative, people start saying “Washington is broken,” and you, of all people, seem vindicated—for American politicians, the Big Con, perfectly executed.

The same is true of the Likud, which benefits incrementally from the Occupation. Netanyahu’s government can’t just say it is committed to Greater Israel, theocracy-lite, and settlers—there is no majority for this. It merely claims to be tough-minded, not naive--as Avigdor Leiberman says, "bli ashlayot"--the government of we-have-no-partner. And this leaves in place a condition of spreading settlement, and army repression (to "keep the peace"), that is bound to produce periodic eruptions of violence and movements like Hamas (which. by the way, didn’t emerge before the first Intifada in 1987). The violence and the movement prove that we have no partner.

In either case, the strategy is not to spread ideology but sow cynicism. It works the same in every country.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Abbas: 'Winning On Points'

On Tuesday, the State Department announced that the Obama Administration intends to work with the new Palestinian unity government of President Mahmoud Abbas, which now includes Hamas, the militant organization that has ruled Gaza since 2007. To satisfy critics, the United States said that the new government would have to adhere to a set of international stipulations, agreed upon in 2006: it must recognize Israel, reject terror, and honor previously signed agreements. Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, told the Associated Press that he is “deeply troubled” by the Administration’s decision to maintain ties to the unity government, and added, “The United States must make it absolutely clear to the Palestinian President that his pact with Hamas, a terrorist organization that seeks Israel’s liquidation, is simply unacceptable.”

Hamas, for its part, has never recognized Israel’s existence or renounced violence. Intriguingly, two of Netanyahu’s coalition partners, Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu and Naftali Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi, reject the principle of Palestinian statehood and have never accepted restrictions on settlement contained in such past signed agreements as the 2003 Roadmap, but they supported Netanyahu, skeptically, through the recent negotiations mediated by Secretary of State John Kerry.

Netanyahu’s own party, the Likud, has routinely taken a heads-I-win-tails-you-lose attitude toward Abbas. When Gaza and the West Bank were split—Hamas expelled Abbas’s Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority officials in 2007—Likud leaders charged that Abbas’s rule was illegitimate, weak, and incapable of representing a divided Palestinian populace. When Abbas sought to reunite the Palestinian territories, he was accused of cavorting with terrorists. He was not a “partner” in the peace process.

Of course, Hamas has engaged in despicable acts of terror, from training and dispatching suicide bombers to launching missiles into Israeli civilian population centers. It has advanced a totalitarian Islamist vision and a Manichaean view of Jews. So Tuesday’s reunification agreement suggests one of two things. The first is that Abbas—who is seventy-nine and concerned about his legacy after Kerry’s unsuccessful nine-month initiative to broker peace—has decided to get out in front of the mounting anger in the Palestinian street about the failure of the talks and adopt something like Hamas’s harder line. The second is that Abbas simply has beaten Hamas at its own game, forcing it to recognize his authority and to accept his nonviolent, internationalist strategy. Both conclusions may be true to some degree, though most Israelis impulsively jump to the first. Which is truer?

“Abbas has not knocked out Hamas, but he is winning on points—he has the opportunity to extend the umbrella of nonviolence to Gaza,” Mohammad Mustafa, the Deputy Prime Minister responsible for the economy, told me in Ramallah. A central player in both the old and new Palestinian governments, Mustafa, a former World Bank official, is also the head of the billion-dollar Palestine Investment Fund. “This is an agreement for real,” he went on. “Hamas’s situation has changed. The biggest factor is regional—especially Egypt. Hamas lost their alliance with Syria some time ago. But they had alternatives. Morsi”—Mohamed Morsi, the deposed Egyptian President—“made them feel comfortable. Tunisia, Turkey was a big ally, Iran was coming their way. Now there aren’t really many friends for Hamas.” He added that the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt had “convinced Hamas that they really lost.”

Continue reading at The New Yorker

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Words That Belonged In The West Point Speech

Here’s my bottom line: America must always lead on the world stage. If we don’t, no one else will. The military that you have joined is, and always will be, the backbone of that leadership. But U.S. military action cannot be the only -- or even primary -- component of our leadership in every instance. Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail. .....

And let me be even clearer. Military force is now not nearly as hard a form of power as what my critics imply; and global economic power, reinforced by institutions of personal liberty, is not nearly as soft. Because of unprecedented changes in the ways we create wealth in our age of burgeoning global networks, the power of economic sanctions by advanced democracies, acting in common, is a far greater force than the power of any military--though sanctions are not as photogenic as bombs when feeding the 24/7 cycle.

Consider this: When President Putin moved troops into the Crimea, Russian forces also massed along the Eastern Ukraine. Under my leadership, the US and its European allies responded, strong and united, with preliminary sanctions. The fate of the Ukraine is still uncertain, and the America and its allies are vigilant. But a month later, Russian the troops have been withdrawn and President Putin is making clear that he wants to settle matters diplomatically, which we welcome. Secretary Kerry, for his part, said at the time of Russia's action that Mr. Putin was employing 19th. century methods of power in a 21st. century world. Secretary Kerry was mocked for this by some.  But the sanctions are clearly working. What did Secretary Kerry mean? Why, in the 21st. century, do such things as economic sanctions act as such a powerful deterrent?

Let me put things simply.  The United States and Western democracies together are a zone of free enterprise with a combined GDP of approximately $32 trillion. Add Japan, our close ally, and we are $38 trillion. Add China, whose interests do not always accord with ours, but whose financial institutions and domestic corporations are fully integrated with ours, and we are at $46 trillion. This zone is not without inequalities and crises, which we will have to mitigate. But we know how to create unprecedented wealth. In 1975, a television cost the average worker about 60 hours of work. Today, about 6 hours of work--and the TV today can stream YouTube, and virtually everything ever thought said and done, for the cost of a wireless connection.

But that is not all.  The companies that produce our wealth are vastly changed from what they were just two generations ago.  In 1975, the tangible assets--the cash, buildings, raw materials, and so forth--of the Standard & Poors 500 largest corporations constituted about 80% of their market value, while the intangible assets--the collective know-how--were about 20% of value. Today, those proportions are reversed.  Intangible assets, the knowledge, are 82% of what produces wealth and tangible assets, the stuff, is 18%.


This knowledge knows no borders. Nor can knowledge know boundaries. That's because, unlike money and other assets, the person who gives you knowledge still has it. Our companies create wealth and advance continually because they are largely integrated in shared networks, which are more and more valuable for all--the more that skilled, ambitious entrepreneurs and scientists join them. Cut yourself off from these global networks, or fail to access them, or just make yourself distrusted in them, and you condemn your people to poverty.  It is just this world the people in the streets of Kiev have been determined to join.

Now let's look at Russia's economy. Out of its $2 trillion GDP about $1.2 trillion is oil and gas--mostly companies that are 80% stuff. Mr. Putin can dare to use the Russian military to expand and defend oil and gas deposits, as it did in the Crimea. That's what armies have been good for since ancient times, to secure the geographic boundaries around a tribe's or a nation's control of its stuff: so that their laborers can farm, and mine, and drill, and assemble in peace. That's why in the 19th. century, and even up to the middle of the 20th., kings and tyrants thought they could enrich their nation by making imperial war--after all, a huge, organized form of theft.

But war in the 21st. century is a little like one power station in a grid making war against another power station in the same grid: you resort to violence and threaten to bring down the whole network upon which your welfare depends. Mr. Putin may have thought that moving onto the Crimea secured him a better reserve of oil and gas and a better way of exporting it. Perhaps it did in the short term; perhaps the people who profit from oil and gas are satisfied with his action.

But what about the people not directly enjoying profit from drilled stuff. What about the much larger number of Russians who, like the protesters in Ukraine, want to join global wealth-creating networks and will now see foreign companies pull back and foreign investment drop off. During the crisis, the Russian stock exchange immediately dropped over 10%, a loss of more wealth than the cost of the Sochi Olympics. Curious, is it not? that what seems an expansion of Russian power caused even domestic investors to short the Russian economy.

In short, we have to redefine what we mean by international power. Getting expelled from the global system is hard power; military power is, in addition to being tragic, comparatively soft. It gets you nowhere. It is destructive. It leads you to places you cannot foresee. Writers about foreign affairs who have not digested the new realities can scare us with absurd scenarios, like this particularly hysterical writer in a recent issue of The New Republic:

"Could the United States survive if Syria remains under the control of Assad or, more likely, disintegrates into a chaos of territories, some of which will be controlled by jihadi terrorists? Could it survive if Iran acquires a nuclear weapon, and if in turn Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Egypt acquire nuclear weapons? Or if North Korea launches a war on the South? Could it survive in a world where China dominates much of East Asia, or where China and Japan resume their old conflict? Could it survive in a world where Russia dominates Eastern Europe, including not only Ukraine but the Baltic states and perhaps even Poland?"

The implication is that, somehow, American military power could have neatly toppled Assad, or that Iran is not itself looking to join the world, or that North Korea could act with impunity. But notice also the silliness of speaking in this context of Chinese "domination" of the Far East and the reversion to conflict with Japan, as if the Chinese are some kind of huge island, and not dependent on the global system. And the idea that a second-rate power like Russia could dominate Eastern Europe and Poland, members of NATO, and racing ahead of Russia in terms of development--well, this kind of talk is beyond silly.

Which brings me to a final point about military force--why I prefer to organize international diplomatic responses to common acts of aggression. Some, like this writer, will interpret my strategy of patient sanctions as opting for appeasement rather than timely preemption. Demagogues always say this kind of thing. In his History of The Peloponnesian War, Thucydides noticed how certain people "altered words to suit their deeds." "A moderate attitude," he writes, "was deemed a mere shield for lack of virility, and a reasoned understanding with regard to all sides of an issue meant that one was indolent and of no use for anything."

My critics often mock my foreign policy in just this way. Given America's military superiority, they say, virtually any global problem is presumably the result of my failure to deter evil: the Syrian civil war, Iran's nuclear program, frictions in the South China Sea, Egypt's military coup, Russia's annexation of the Crimea.  If only, critics say, I were more credible in my willingness to use force. Which means actually using or threatening military force in virtually every case, if only to prove my willingness to use it.

Thucydides adds, "One who displayed violent anger was considered eternally faithful." Now as then, passion can be mistaken for courage and determination. Now as then, blaming leaders for not being intimidating enough is a nice career move.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Piketty, Intangibles, The Inequality Of Nations

The economist Thomas Piketty is on the defensive for some of the data imported into Capital in the Twenty-First Century. The rich—so The Financial Times asserts—cannot be shown to be getting richer on the slope Piketty’s graphs depict. Actually, that the top ten percent of Americans owns around seventy percent of national wealth is not disputed. So this challenge to his spreadsheets will prompt superfluous debate about whether he’s exaggerated inequality by presenting an arguable trend in how fast capital is amassed. What it will also do, unfortunately, is preempt another debate: whether he (like much of the economics profession) underestimates inequality by ignoring an inarguable trend in what capital is. I am speaking here of the growth in the proportion of corporate assets that are a kind of collective knowledge—assets accountants reckon as “intangible.” 

Piketty claims, without really justifying this, that the inequality within nations is more “worrisome” than inequality between nations. But the latter inequality is troubling enough.  Anyway, the most arresting way to see the importance of the growth in intangible assets in all economies is to consider whether investments by global corporations in poor countries contribute to, or help mitigate, their poverty. I take up the point in the following post in The New Yorker.

For years, development economists have suggested that, when companies from the developed world invest in poor countries, it helps to mitigate international inequality. Early in his book “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” the economist Thomas Piketty expresses skepticism about this idea. The owners of corporate assets tend to pocket most of the income generated by those assets, he points out, so a foreign company operating in a poor country levels the field about as much as a rich person opening a sweatshop in a slum. He writes:

None of the Asian countries that have moved closer to the developed countries of the West in recent years has benefited from large foreign investments, whether it be Japan, South Korea, or Taiwan and more recently China. In essence, all of these countries themselves financed the necessary investments in physical capital and, even more, in human capital, which the latest research holds to be the key to long-term growth.

It’s clear that Piketty admires governments that encourage domestic companies to produce products and provide services. Typically, these governments also educate an élite group of potential managers and scientists, acquire (or ignore) licenses and patents, and organize capital to fund domestic firms. And they insist that foreign companies looking to do business enter into joint ventures with domestic partners.

Those who advocate for this method as a better alternative to foreign investment seem to assume that a company’s assets are made up primarily of physical stuff; Piketty, for his part, defines corporate capital as “land, dwellings, commercial inventory, other buildings, machinery, infrastructure, patents, and other direct owned professional assets.” But there’s a problem with this assumption. Capitalism isn’t really about physical property—not anymore.

In fact, in the twenty-first century, intangible assets, such as the knowledge shared by employees, dwarf physical holdings. (Elsewhere in the book, Piketty acknowledges that a company’s value is also determined by the knowledge contained within the corporation, not just its patents but “its information systems and modes of organization.”) “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” is studded with charts illustrating changes in commercial life over the past century. (On Friday, Chris Giles, in the Financial Times, questioned some of the data regarding how inequality has changed over time.) But Piketty doesn’t include any charts showing the growth of intangible assets in major global corporations over the past several decades. The trend can be seen, vividly, in this chart. It shows, over time, how much of the combined market cap of companies on the S.&P. 500 could be attributed to intangible assets rather than tangible ones:

Continue at The New Yorker

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Rivlin: The Next President And The Last Pope

Rivlin, second from the left
Reuven "Ruby" Rivlin is positioning himself to be the next president and he may well succeed. I thought--since Pope Francis just left, and Rivlin is giving interviews--to repost the following, which I wrote about Rivlin's reaction to the last papal visit exactly five years ago.  But first watch Shimon Peres's remarks greeting the Pope a couple of days ago, imagine Rivlin in his stead, and tell me you don't feel a prospective sense of loss. 

Pope Benedict XVI is not a man to feel sorry for himself, or even think his pronouncements just those of a man. Yet it is hard not to extend him some sympathy for braving a trip to Jerusalem this week. The mission was delicate from the start, stepping as he was into the middle of a blood feud between Israeli Jews and Palestinian Muslims. As the world's most famous neither-of-the-above, he was bound to be seen as a some kind of proxy for the conscience of the world--something like what the stately Notre Dame complex has come to represent among the buildings of Jerusalem: a neutral place where Israelis and Arabs go for "dialogue," while Christians listen, encourage--remind. The Pope's silence would have been interpreted, not as tactfulness, but as cowardice. Who in the middle of a quarrel does not imagine, well, an audience?

At the same time, of course, the Pope represents the great rival tradition whose dogmas and power have inspired both ghettos and crusades. Both sides want him in a state of apology, or at least vaguely official regret. And here is where missions become impossible. Dwell on Jewish suffering from European anti-Semitism, and you invite a reprimand from Palestinian nationalists and Muslim clerics that you are implicitly justifying the Naqba. Dwell on the occupation of Palestine, and you are inviting a reprimand from Zionists and Rabbis that you are justifying attacks on the national home. Fail to dwell on either, however, and you are accused of not assuming the church's indirect responsibility for both catastrophes: the Jews will say you are cavalier about the Holocaust, the Muslims ditto about colonialism. Both will say the old suffering of Jews led to the new suffering of Palestinians. Who in the middle of a quarrel does not also wish for a third party to blame? Habemus Papam, no?

All of this explains why this pope more than others has needed to rely, if not just on photo ops, then speech writers with an over-sized delete button. Indeed, this pope of all popes, a writer in his own right, has almost certainly developed a strong propensity to (as Nabokov put it) "kill your darlings." He tried to get fancy about the sources of The Western Tradition and found himself skewered for Orientalism. He thought to reinstate those he did not need to reinstate, retreated, and wound up making his infallibility seem rather hypothetical. So if anyone has learned the value of Rashi's aphorism, "kol ha'mosif gorea," ("he who adds substracts"), it is Benedict XVI. Which brings me to Reuven Rivlin, the Speaker of the Knesset--"Ruby" to his friends.

RIVLIN WAS NOT happy with things left out of the Pope's speech at Yad Vashem. He had already boycotted the Pope's arrival ceremony, even the visit to President Peres' residence. But Rivlin did go to Yad Vashem on Monday evening. By Tuesday morning he was all over the airwaves. "He came and told us as if he were a historian, someone looking in from the sidelines, about things that should not have happened. And what can you do? He was a part of them," Rivlin told Israel Radio. "With all due respect to the Holy See, we cannot ignore the burden he bears, as a young German who joined the Hitler Youth and as a person who joined Hitler's army, which was an instrument in the extermination":

I came to the memorial not only to hear historical descriptions or about the established fact of the Holocaust. I came as a Jew, hoping to hear an apology and a request for forgiveness from those who caused our tragedy, and among them, the Germans and the church. But to my sadness, I did not hear any such thing.

(You may read the Pope's Yad Vashem's address here and judge Rivlin's complaint for yourself.)

WE SHOULD UNDERSTAND who is talking here. Ruby Rivlin, 70 years old, a lawyer by training, whose undistinguished legal career amounted to advising and managing Betar Jerusalem's football team. He graduated, in other words, from Menachem Begin's Herut youth movement into a party job, and from there into party politics. He postures as the scion of a great sage's family, but he has been, really, the product of a club-become-party-become-job.

And since the party he joined was more or less fanatic, he became a fanatic, too. Rivlin never met a settlement he did not like or a war he did not think "existential." He opposed the Oslo process, bad-mouthed Yitzhak Rabin (even after his assasination), and mocked any movement toward a two-state solution. He railed against Aharon Barak's Supreme Court's efforts to bring in protections for elementary human rights. Even Ariel Sharon, whom he had sucked-up to for a generation, proved not hawkish enough for him in the end. He split with Sharon over the Gaza operation, not on security grounds, but because he did not think Jews should drive Jews "from their homes."

And while I'm on the subject, Rivlin is a notorious glad-hander. He thinks his smile, which is zealously sweet, makes up for any excess or offense. He is blushingly plump and uncomfortably chummy. He thinks that gravitas means saying a little louder than others what is perfectly conventional. He teared up when, after running for the presidency against Peres, he withdrew so as not to lose by a mile; he declared his withdrawal "statesmanship." Imagine a cross between Hubert Humphrey and Sean Hannity .

SO THE REAL question that Rivlin's morning after interview evokes is this: where does a hack like him get the nerve to attack the Pope in this way, after all, the head of a church of a billion and a half Christians, and your guest, for Christ's sake? How could this kind of talk seem so conventional, so approved, that a person so lacking in erudition and moral authority as Rivlin feels that it's safe, even cool, to treat a Pope's visit to Jerusalem the way, say, Pat Buchanan might be treated at an AIPAC convention?

Just to be clear: the young Ratzinger never joined Hitler Youth (though all youth like him were added to it rolls automatically). His father was bitterly anti-Nazi; his retarded cousin was taken away and killed by the SS. He was drafted into an anti-aircraft battery at 16 and soon thereafter deserted. And as Tel-Aviv Univeristy's Dina Porat gingerly put it (on the radio the following day), we need a little perspective--kzat proportzia--here. In 1904, Pope Pius X told Theodore Herzl: "The Jews have not recognized our Lord, therefore we cannot recognize the Jewish people. Jerusalem cannot be placed in Jewish hands." No sooner had Pope Benedict XVI landed at Ben-Gurion Airport than he expressed the wish that "both peoples may live in peace in a homeland of their own, within secure and internationally recognized borders," and then he added: "It is right and fitting that, during my stay in Israel, I will have the opportunity to honor the memory of the 6 million Jewish victims of the shoah... [and] pray that humanity will never again witness a crime of such magnitude."

True, virtually all of my Catholic friends think Pope Benedict a kind of Church Likudnik, dogmatic, imperial, allergic to dissent. But that is hardly the point for Rivlin or is implied by the loose talk. For this Israeli government in particular, the Pope's squelching of Vatican II's energies fits nicely with their own orthodoxies. What they want is more about the Holocaust, more contrition.

Funny, in the early 1960s, Israeli elites saw the Jewish state so much as a pioneering adventure--the culture of Hebrew labor, the dignity of self-defense--that they tended to bury talk of the Holocaust, which seemed to them a symbol of Diaspora Jewry's woeful path. Ben-Gurion staged the Eichmann trial just to correct what he took to be Zionism's aloofness from the suffering of Holocaust survivors. Foreign dignitaries, meanwhile, were taken to the kibbutz, or the Hebrew University. Today, guests are whisked off so quickly to Yad Vashem that they cannot tell the difference between its gloom and their jet-lag. Their speeches must include a syllogism in which the "Holocaust" forms the first part and "the Jewish state" the second. They cannot just express their fellow-feeling. They will be graded for levels of sincerity, from "cold" to "understanding." Mention Iran and you get extra credit.

MY LATE FRIEND, Ilona Karmel, who barely survived the Plashow death-camp (and like the Pope was an avid reader of the theologian Karl Rahner), once described American Jews who kept bringing up the Holocaust to her as people with "scars but no wounds." It is like they are trying to get a moral pass in advance of any moral action, she said. Israelis do have wounds, of course, and Holocaust Remembrance Day has now been so braided in with Passover, on one side, and Memorial Day and Independence Day, on the other, that it is seems officially necessary to forget where wounds stop and scars begin.

Still, one listens to Rivlin and cannot help but wonder what, if anything, he learned from the 20th. century other than the need to serve his movement more fiercely and to say "mine" more loudly; to take the territories promised by his movement and be holier than you know who. You also have to wonder if his arrogance, which blends all too easily into Israel's political background, does not suggest a new fundamentalism. If many Jewish Israelis, like many Christians before them, are not trying to achieve innocence simply by identifying with the scars of the innocent murdered, by means of a passion play of their own, with a gospel of their own, only the Romans are the Nazis, and "the Jews" are Poles (Ukrainians, Hungarians, etc.).

Alas, as Rahner might have said, innocence is overrated. He did say, unremarkably, that "self-realization...embodies the result of what a man has made of himself during life." Presumably, this is true of nations, too. Does Rivlin really need Hillel and Jesus to know that passion is not justice and apology is not permission?

Monday, May 26, 2014

The Europeans Vote, The Israeli Press Analyzes

Israel is trending right, we often hear, but this is misleading. Hard-core Greater Israel types are stuck somewhere between 30-35% of the population, which is about the same level the pollster Khalil Shikaki tells us Hamas supporters in Palestine are stuck. The real trend, and danger, is a kind of collectivist cynicism that's taken hold, nuanced by neocon-like codes, and spread by what passes in Israel for the mainstream media--especially Reshet Bet, the public radio service that virtually all of us turn to for news.

This morning was a case in point. The Pope is visiting; presumably, the platitudes could wait. The wake-up show host, Arye Golan, led with a report on the French vote that propelled Marine LePen's party into first place in yesterday's vote for the European Parliament.  LePen got about 25% of the vote, while pro-EU parties held their own almost everywhere else. To sort things out, Golan asked Tel Aviv University's Avi Primor--a former ambassador to Germany and the EU--to join the conversation.

This was an earthquake, was it not?, Golan began, perhaps the beginning of the end of the EU. (Decoded: Strong nationalist ties are inevitable and will always trump liberal dreams such as the EU; which is why Israelis have to privilege national solidarity--the "Zionist" principle--over any peace agreement, whose cosmopolitan ideals cannot be trusted, right?)

Primor, perhaps the country's most seasoned expert on the EU, was determined to cloud the issue with facts.  No, he said, this was not an earthquake.  Only around 45% of the French electorate voted, and LePen's voters were the ones that tended to be mobilized. Her party, like other proto-fascist parties across Europe, always gain ground when unemployment is high and growth is slow.

Ah, Golan replied, but the EU's economy is doing well now. (Decoded: Stop with the materialist explanations you academics always drag out. People are rich enough but naturally bigoted. So why do they always blame Jews for their desire to do for themselves over others?)

Actually, Primor responded, the economic recovery has not been felt in the lower rungs yet, and may not be for some time.

But--Golan reached for his ace--the vote still implies a reversion in Europe to its traditional anti-Semitism, does it not? (DecodedDeep down, they hate Jews, and will always hate Jews, right? Anti-Semitism is surging in vile new forms, so isn't EU criticism of the Israeli occupation just a false front on implacable sentiments? They are just looking for ways of delegitimizing us, and LePen's victory tears the veil off, right?)

There is surging anti-Semitism, Primor answered, but the Semites it is directed to are mainly Arab Muslims.  The party of the right tends to adore Israel, in France as in the US.

But still, the EU's architecture must be in danger. (Decoded: Oh, come on. How can such a borderless system hold together when ordinary people are naturally suspicious of those beyond their borders.)

No, Primor insisted, the EU will always have some problems, including local nationalist excesses, but its architecture reflects globalist processes that are in many ways irreversible.

Well, anyway, Golan ended things, "Thanks for an optimistic interview." (Decoded: You are terribly naive. )

You see, the problem is not the ideology of the right, but the defensive and slightly creepy ways media personalities valorize Bibi's status quo: by relentlessly implying that liberal principles are un-Zionist, foreign criticism is hypocritical, and positive proposals for diplomacy are vaguely feckless. Primor was cogent. Golan wasn't buying it; he doesn't want to look like a fool.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Independence Day: Choosing Words Carefully

It has been a week since John Kerry apologized, with a certain recalcitrance, for having suggested, in an address to a closed-door meeting of the Trilateral Commission, that Israel was at risk of becoming “an apartheid state.” While Israel prepares to celebrate its Independence Day on Tuesday, the White House has declared a “pause” in its peace efforts, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) has rallied lawmakers to admire “the lone stable democracy in the Middle East,” and Martin Indyk, the chief U.S. negotiator, has returned to Washington. Susan Rice, who was known to be skeptical of Kerry’s gambit, is coming to consult with Prime Minister Netanyahu about the Iranian nuclear negotiations. It seems as if Israel has managed to ditch the talks while keeping its friends.

Israelis who seek a stable democracy, however, are feeling betrayed by the Obama Administration’s hasty retreat, and they are regretting Kerry’s expression of regret not because they like the word “apartheid” but because they don’t like American effeteness. These Israelis have been heartened by Kerry’s strong drive to achieve two states (which Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon dismissed as “messianic”)—and to mobilize a democratic Israeli majority against a fierce minority who take occupation for granted. In clarifying his original statement, Kerry insisted, “I will not allow my commitment to Israel to be questioned by anyone.” But one cannot simply have a “commitment to Israel”; one must be committed to one or the other vision of Israel’s future—to one group of Israelis over another.

This idea remains difficult for people outside the country to grasp. The risk for the future is not that the Green Line separating Israel from the West Bank will disappear, and the Israeli majority—and hence Israeli democracy—will be compromised. The risk is that the forces of “settlement” are winning. Over time, these forces—whom Netanyahu has drawn into his coalition, and with whom he probably sympathizes but cannot easily control—have assumed commanding positions in the Likud Party, in key ministries, in the Army, and in the legal system. It would be insensitive, given the horrors of Jewish history, to call these people fascists. So let us say that they include ultra-nationalists who traffic in xenophobic grievances, religious messianists who are unashamed of racist claims, militarists who regard liberal Tel Aviv as decadent, proponents of civil solidarity who scoff at legal constraints, wards of the state who depend on a command economy, and acolytes of authoritarian “spiritual leaders.”

Read on at The New Yorker


Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Child's Play: A Lost Zionist Passover

About a year before he died, in the fall of 2000, I attended a reading on the Upper West Side of Manhattan by the great Jerusalem poet Yehuda Amichai. It was the week before Passover, in a not-really-filled synagogue basement hall—intimate enough for him to lapse into a recollection of the bedikat hametz, the search for crumbs of bread and such, in his childhood home in Würzburg, Germany, on the morning before the seder.

Jews are forbidden to eat leavened bread on the eight days of the holiday. Ashkenazi rabbis, presumably pleasing God by outdoing Him, interpreted this to mean no contact at all with leavened foods of any kind (including, alas, beer) or even grains, like rice and legumes, that swell up in water. So the morning before the seder, Amichai said, he and his father would prowl around the house searching for forbidden stuff, a feather in hand, blowing into corners, and sweeping up the dust balls, looking hopefully for crumbs. The piles would be slowly nudged together and added to leftover bread. Then the whole lot would be taken outside and burned in a newspaper. Amichai’s father would chant exotic Aramaic words, feather still in hand, asking to be forgiven for any crumbs still lying around, potentially despoiling the kashrut—the purity and fitness—of the home. Amichai looked at the audience wistfully. “Child’s play,” he said.

Childhood memory is often indelible, but historical memory is potentially lost with every new child. The point of not eating bread—Passover is all about making points—is the transmission of a great ethical claim to each new generation. Jews are enjoined to dramatize for their children the preciousness of freedom by ritualizing how quickly our ancestors seized theirs, escaping Pharaoh’s slave pits: so quickly that their bread did not have time to rise. The point here is not to refuse bread the way Jews who observe ordinary kashrut laws refuse, say, milk with meat. (Those ordinary laws encourage awe before the divine by prohibiting something arbitrary, and, in a way, the more arbitrary the better; were it not for “the Law,” Maimonides writes, eating milk with meat “would not at all be considered a transgression.”) No, the point on Passover is the positive act of eating unleavened bread, matzot, to emphasize the good of freedom.

And yet Amichai knew better than to leave things there. Children aren’t so crazy in the end about the uncertainty that comes with getting their way. They need games, rules to conform to (the banning of all bread products for eight days) and incantations to assure forgiveness (the prayers that accompany cleaning the house), sensuous pleasure and pageantry (the intricate rituals of the seder). Children—Amichai can’t just say this, but can imply it—are cute little Fascists. They’ll take the father over the freedom anytime:

I shriek like a child, feet swinging on high: 
I want down, Daddy, I want down, 
Daddy, get me down. 
And that’s how the saints all ascend to heaven, 
like a child screaming, Daddy, I want to stay up here, 
Daddy, don’t get me down, Our Father Our King, 
leave us up here, Our Father Our King! 
(From “Open Closed Open: Poems”) 

So all the rituals of Passover—what Amichai calls child’s play—do not necessarily communicate the notion of freedom they were devised to transmit. The play can become more uncannily precious than the ideas it is meant to put across. Better to have the smells of the seder meal filling the senses than disturbing ideas about bondage and release into the desert filling the talk; better to be a good Jew than a Jew worrying about how to be good. Moses himself learned this the hard way. When he ascended Mount Sinai to search out ethical grandeur, the Children of Israel, left to themselves, built an idol to worship. Hell, they were prepared to return to Egypt for a taste of the garlic they craved. They couldn’t handle the desert’s boundlessness.

Continue reading at The New Yorker 

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Where Is The Kerry Peace Plan?

On Tuesday, when Secretary of State John Kerry appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the questioning from his former colleague John McCain was surprisingly mocking. Kerry and McCain are both Vietnam veterans (and failed Presidential candidates), and had been known to be friendly. But McCain said he was “gravely concerned about the consequences of America’s failure to lead in the world.” Israeli-Palestinian negotiations had collapsed; McCain chalked up their failure, and that of diplomacy with Syria and Iran—what he called Kerry’s “trifecta”—to weakness. Kerry was “talking strongly and carrying a very small stick.”

Kerry responded, sighing, that everything looks failed when it is half done. The Israeli-Palestinian talks, he said, were thrown into crisis because of Israel’s refusal to release a last batch of Palestinian prisoners, prompting President Abbas to apply for membership in fifteen United Nations agencies and conventions, to which Israeli Housing Minister Uri Ariel responded by announcing seven hundred and eight new apartment units in East Jerusalem—at which point, poof, negotiations collapsed. Neither party had been constructive, yet both continued to ask for intercession. Kerry told McCain, “You declare it dead but the Israelis and the Palestinians don’t declare it dead.” McCain had his opening: “It’s stopped. It is stopped. Recognize reality.”

McCain knows that, whether or not the talks actually end, there is never a political penalty for claiming that an international crisis is the result of Democrats not showing sufficient strength—a proposition that can never be falsified. Still, you have to wonder if McCain is right to ask if Kerry and his President have the will to follow through, by which I mean in the only way that can succeed: by offering an American plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace and rallying the world to it, while challenging, or even shattering, Netanyahu’s fragile coalition.

Kerry has “gone as far as he can as mediator,” a senior American official said last week. Precisely. The question is whether he’ll move the parties to something like binding arbitration, stop speaking about psychological breakthrough, and start implementing American policy—more Dr. Kissinger, less Dr. Phil.

Continue reading at The New Yorker

Thursday, March 27, 2014

John Judis On Truman And Partition: Book Review

President Truman and advisor Clark Clifford 
“The history of Palestine and of Israel’s founding cannot be changed,” John B. Judis writes at the end of Genesis, “and it is silly to play games of what-if. But it is not silly to draw lessons from the past that are relevant to the present and the future.” Judis is a keen political observer, and the many lessons offered in his new book deserve our attention. But he divines some of them, in spite of his better judgment, by asking “what if,” insinuating the possibility of a better presidential decision and exploring why it was not taken—much as Gar Alperovitz did in The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb.

At its best, Genesis is this kind of imaginative mulligan. And the decision Judis would want to do over is also Harry Truman’s, namely his determination to bury the Morrison-Grady plan during the summer of 1946, which led, Judis argues, to an unworkable partition, the premature recognition of Israel—and endless war.

You probably haven’t heard of the Morrison-Grady plan, but you may have read angry denunciations of Genesis in The Wall Street Journal, The Jerusalem Post or Commentary claiming that Judis questions the legitimacy of Israel. This is wrong and, given Judis’s obvious empathy for Israelis as well as Palestinians, also reckless. What Judis explores in the Truman administration’s serial decisions about Palestine is an illuminating analogue to the record of, most recently, the Obama administration’s approach to the peace process. What’s “relevant to the present and the future” is Judis’s supposition that any Israeli-Palestinian settlement will require American steadfastness, and that presidential fairness toward the Palestinians, as with Truman, may be foiled by the incessant agitations of the Israel lobby, promoting Zionist excesses.

The danger for any historian writing with these ambitions is that the more intentional the analogy, the more calculated the history. To tell a story for the sake of its moral is to tell it slanted. The latter part of Judis’s book constitutes a detailed, absorbing study of Truman’s attempts to deal with the interests of American Zionist organizations and their leaders, and the electoral politics and Cold War pressures of the late 1940s. Here and there I thought Judis rash in his criticism of American Zionist leaders or obstinate about the importance of the back-room pressures they exerted—but never mind. Had these chapters stood on their own, they would have formed a provocative, learned, even masterful book.

The first part is another matter. Judis wants to explain the prehistory of these pressures, so he describes the origins of revolutionary Zionism and the record of the British Mandate, up to the time a more vicarious American Zionism took root in the 1930s. Judis offers some fine portraits of early American Zionist leaders like Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis as well as a reasonable summary of the growing war between the Zionist colonists and the Arabs of Palestine, a conflict precipitated by contradictions in British policy. But on the whole, his version of Zionist ideas, congresses and settlement policies—the disruptive force in this history—serves his argument about Truman rather too
conveniently.

Ironically, Judis’s presentation of Zionism suffers from some of the same imaginative limitations he attributes to the American Zionists. He assumes that leading advocates for the Jewish “national home”—from Chaim Weizmann, president of the World Zionist Organization, to David Ben-Gurion, the preeminent founding leader of Labor Zionism and Israel’s first prime minister—were intent all along on founding an exclusivist “Jewish state,” one that justified itself by claiming a world of intractable anti-Semitism and that required, almost by definition, the suppression or expulsion of Palestine’s Arabs.

By implication, Israel’s democratic deficiencies and post-1967 occupation were prefigured by the Zionist movement’s original intent: every Zionist leader of note had a little Sheldon Adelson inside struggling to get out. This part of Judis’s story, as Marx said of the Young Hegelians, supposes that men drown because they are possessed of the idea of gravity. It is a charge he can’t prove in an indictment that would have been stronger without it.

Read on at The Nation