Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Netanyahu's Speech to Congress

Yesterday, March 3, 2015, Benjamin Netanyahu spoke to a joint session of Congress. It was quite the spectacle.  He received 21 standing ovations from a fawning Republican Congress.  59 Democrats, including Vice President Joe Biden, did not attend the speech. No Republicans skipped it (it appears).  In fact, Republicans were clamoring all over themselves to score tickets from boycotting Democrats like this was the NCAA final fours. By my math this left 301 Republicans and just 174 Democrats in attendance.

Nancy Pelosi, the House minority leader was reportedly visibly upset throughout the speech and called it "insulting to the intelligence of the United States." That is undoubtedly true. But then noone has gone broke underestimating the intelligence of the U.S. Congress recently.  This, after all, is the Congress where they toss snow-balls in the middle of winter to prove that global warming is a hoax.

Netanyahu has famously boasted that "America is a thing you can move very easily." Watching this Republican Congress react to his speech, who can say he is wrong?

Netanyahu seems to have had two purposes in mind in making this speech: 1) torpedo a potential nuclear arms control deal between Iran and the P5 +1 (U.S., Russia, China, France, Britain, and Germany), and 2) score points for his reelection campaign--elections are in two weeks.

On the election front, the 21 standing ovations he garnered from this Republican Congress has helped  him substantially. Likud and the Republican Congress, two war mongering peas in a pod.

On the international discussions for a nuclear deal with Iran, here is Noam Sheizaf, who is spot on as usual:
As far as the international debate on the deal with Iran goes, Bibi’s positions were absurd. Not only did he provide zero alternatives to the deal he is seeking to prevent, he actually asked his biggest ally [that's us] to walk out of negotiations with Iran, tighten sanctions and wait for regime change. That is not only highly impractical (even if the U.S. is convinced to adopt Netanyahu’s proposed policy, there is little chance Russia or China will do the same), but most chances are that Iran would only intensify its enrichment efforts. In Netanyahu’s playbook, this leads to the military option. Since very few people in the U.S. are anxious to go to war with Iran, Netanyahu actually made selling the deal easier, as the Washington Post was quick to point out. If even Bibi doesn’t have an alternative strategy to negotiations, the logical conclusion would be to go ahead with the deal. After all, one could always end up going to war if Iran breaks its obligations, and there is no need to do that right now.
If you want to know what a statesman should sound like, listen to a stateswoman, namely Susan Rice's speech to AIPAC, on Monday, March 2, 2015.  She was sent to explain why a deal with Iran is important to pursue, and why torpedoing these efforts is not helpful.

Rice made clear that the United States shares the goal of keeping Iran a nuclear weapons free zone.  This is a matter of national interest for the U.S., she said, not just because it would be a threat to Israel, but because it would lead to a regional arms race and potentially to an even more belligerent Iran.

By engaging with Iran, she reported, the P5 + 1 international powers have succeeded in halting Iran's nuclear weapons program and succeeded in getting Iran to give up its most highly enriched Uranium, stopped the installation of additional centrifuges, and stopped construction of the plutonium reactor at Arak. Whereas before this engagement, international inspectors had access to inspect Iran's nuclear facilities every few weeks, at best, today, the UN's inspectors have daily access to Iran's nuclear facilities.

Any deal to be accepted will have to prevent Iran from proceeding towards nuclear weapons for at least 10 years, she said.  As we know, a lot can change in 10 years, and at the expiration of that period, the international community will continue to have all options available to it, including sanctions, and (as a last resort) the use of force.

If you listen to Netanyahu and are tempted to think he makes any sense, listen to Rice.

Consider also that Israel is a nuclear power, and has been since 1967. Estimates are that Israel has approximately 100 to 200 nuclear war heads and long range missiles to deliver these to all parts of Iran. Israel has satellites in space, and its nuclear arsenal is well protected and built to survive a first strike by another power.  Israel can launch nuclear missiles from submarines. Israel has a substantial military superiority over its neighbors, including Iran. As Netanyahu said, Israel can take care of itself just fine--and frankly that would be true even if Iran were successful at manufacturing nuclear weapons along the lines that North Korea has done.

Netanyahu has been crying wolf about Iran and its nuclear intentions since 1992.  He will continue to do so as long as it gets him elected.

The fact is, Iran is not an existential threat to Israel and is not about to be anytime soon. Here is James Fallows in the Atlantic:
Is there an existential threat from nuclear weapons? Of course there is.Throughout my Cold War childhood, families in the United States and the Soviet Union were constantly reminded of the danger that we could all be incinerated in a second. My parents sanely refused to build a fallout shelter, but many neighbors gave in to the fears. On the Beach and Fail-Safe were hugely popular novels because of exactly this danger. Soon after the first use of atomic weapons, Albert Einstein wrote in The Atlantic about the danger to all of humanity. Enough nuclear warheads remain to kill everyone on Earth many times over. I support the Global Zero drive to eliminate them.

Is nuclear proliferation a problem, wherever it occurs? Of course, yes as well. Each new nuclear power makes the emergence of further powers more likely. This domino effect on other Middle Eastern countries is a very strong reason to oppose Iran's getting a bomb.

Is there a state that faces a specific existential threat right now? Yes again. That state is South Korea. South Korea has no nuclear weapons of its own, though the U.S. has extended its "nuclear umbrella." Its immediate neighbor, North Korea, does have nukes, which it tested and developed while the U.S. was distracted in Iraq. North Korea’s leaders are peculiar, to put it mildly, and have repeatedly promised / threatened to destroy South Korea in a "sea of fire" in rhetoric as blood-curdling as any anti-Israel rant from Iran. South Korea's population center is practically on the border with the North, rather than several time zones away as with Iran relative to Israel.  It would be better for everyone except North Korea if it had no nukes, but the South Korean president was not invited to address Congress during the GW Bush years to demand tougher action against North Korea.

Is Israel's situation comparable to that on the Korean peninsula—or, to use the more familiar parallel, to that of European Jews menaced by Hitler in 1938? It most emphatically is not, if you pay any attention to the underlying facts. The most obvious difference is that Israel is the incumbent (if unacknowledged) nuclear power in the region, with the universally understood ability to annihilate any attacker in a retaliatory raid. The only similarity between this power balance and the predicament of European Jewry in 1938 is the anti-Semitism. In 1938 the Jews of Germany, Poland, France, and Russia were a stateless minority with no military force of their own to protect them and no foreign power (including the U.S.) willing to step in. In 2015 Israel is a powerful independent state, more heavily armed than any adversary. 
Think of this parallel: The full-tilt U.S. slave economy of the 1850s and the police-shooting abuses of 2015 have in common racist anti-black prejudice, but they are not the same situations. One was resolved only by cataclysmic war. The other is very serious but not the prelude to north-versus-south combat. The Iranian rhetoric of 2015 and the Nazi death machine of the Reich have in common anti-Semitic hate-mongering. But the differences between them are far more obvious than the similarities. 
And is the Iran of 2015 like the Germany of 1938? Oh, please. In 1938, Germany had the strongest military in the world, and the second-largest economy (behind only the United States). Its economy was bigger than France's and England's combined. Today's Iran, by contrast, doesn't even have the strongest military in its region, and its economy is not in the world's top 25.  Hitler's Germany was an expansionist force that would grow until it was crushed. Iran makes enormous trouble for the U.S. and others, but no one serious can be proposing that it must be crushed.I lay this out not imagining that it might change a single word in Netanyahu’s upcoming speech, nor the fervor of those who support him (and will soon tell me so). And of course Israel will decide for itself whether it feels "existentially" threatened. I am writing to an American audience that must assess our next steps and long-term goals toward Iran. When we call this situation "existential," we’re either saying something that is true for everyone—in the age of nuclear weapons all of humanity is at risk—or we’re making a specific observation that is far less applicable in Israel than in many other places, starting with South Korea. It's a slogan that has replaced thought.
The slogan Netanyahu coined, responding to Susan Rice, was that the alternative to a bad deal is not war, it's a better deal.  Well, Bibi, if you think you can strike a better deal with Iran than what the P5 + 1 are currently working on--go negotiate and get it done.  Otherwise, "Get the fuck off our lawn!"

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Gerrymandering Illustrated

The effect of drawing electoral districts in different configurations illustrated.  Courtesy of Ian Bremmer.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem

Proponents of traditional marriage say to gay people "You can form a civil union, why do you need to get 'married?'" A response is that this ignores the symbolism that makes marriage special, symbolism that is tied up with a vow before man and God "to have and to hold, for better or worse, 'til death do us part."  Those words make the heart pound as we walk down the aisle whether we believe in God, or not.

It's true, we are cavalier with the promise to stay true 'til death do us part. The divorce rate in the United States is a matter of some debate, but it's safe to say that perhaps 40% of marriages in the United States end in divorce, not death.  Yet, the symbolism is clear: marriage is like the union of the United States; you enter of your own free will, but leaving involves trauma, and you may not be able to leave.  Witness the Israeli film Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem, (released 2/14 but just now coming into wider circulation).

Jews don't tempt fate with a promise of permanence.  Instead, the man declares his spouse consecrated unto him "according to the laws of Moses and Israel." Luckily for those who find they have made a mistake, the laws of Moses and Israel accept divorce as a fact of life. A man can initiate a divorce at any time, and for any reason, or no reason at all. A woman, too, can initiate divorce proceedings. But there's a hitch--she cannot obtain a divorce unless the man consents. No one said it would be easy.

Ronit Elkabetz as Viviane Amsalem
The film Gett, written and directed by Ronit and Schlomi Elkabetz, takes aim at the pain and injustice that can result from granting the husband a veto over divorce. The action in this brilliantly written and acted one hour 55 minute drama takes place in the sparsest of movie sets: an institutional  room, two tables for the litigants and their counsel, an elevated podium for the three judges. The room is harshly lit by daylight diffused through antiseptic window shades. Despite the appearance of several witnesses, no color or life from the real world enters this courtroom.

Simon Abkarian as Elisha Amsalem
The chief judge (played by Eli Gornstein) is a kindly character ready to do the right thing. He very quickly sizes up the situation. Viviane is a poised, attractive, charismatic hairdresser, faithful wife and mother of grown children, and she is utterly suffocated by her life with Elisha; Elisha is pious and Orthodox, well respected in his synagogue, but sullen and friendless, with left-over childhood issues, loveless, emotionally cold and distant, and stubborn--he adamantly refuses to grant his wife a Gett, the formal grant of freedom for his wife to marry another man.

The overly patient judge is in a tough position. The right thing to do is to grant this couple a divorce because they are obviously incompatible, and their life together is hell. But it is almost impossible for the court to do the right thing unless the husband consents. And he's not consenting.

One option is to make do. NPR had a story five years ago about Ramit Alon, a real life person in a similar situation. Faced with an intractable husband who refused to grant a Gett, she took the kids and abandoned the marriage. It' s an unsatisfactory solution, without child support, alimony, or the ability to start over with a new marriage. Such choices come with considerable social stigma.

Viviane Amsalem forces the issue. The result is a Kfkaesque trial, which drags on for five years. The lead judge is way too indecisive, much too indulgent of the husband's repeated failures to keep court dates,  refusing to issue a final decision. Michael Phillips had a nice turn of phrase in his review in the Chicago Tribune--for five years, he says, we watch these characters "trapped in the courtroom, trying to maneuver their way out of it, soul intact." Much is communicated through pauses, looks, facial expressions, and careful dialogue. Through witnesses and the wrangling of the attorneys we get glimpses into this male dominated world, some of its prejudices, and the limitations on the power of the court to act. The court indulges these parties much too long, through repeated build ups in tension and periodic catharsis. Without a hearsay rule, or other visible rules of evidence guiding the process, and no apparent clue of what they are looking for, the judges voyeuristically follow every rumor of longing, meetings in cafes, fantasies of emotional attachment to another. Without the legal tools to do the right thing, the judges seem to lack a moral compass for true justice.

Viviane ultimately gets her Gett.  The result is not uplifting.  Is it the fault of the law that empowers the husband in this case to withhold his consent, or is it the fault of the very human failing of Elisha, and the tragedy of this marriage? For what it's worth, the divorce rate in Israel is considerably lower than in the U.S.  The trials of Viviane depicted in this film are not the norm in Rabbinic courts.  There were 11,219 divorces in rabbinic courts in Israel in 2013, and the process took an average of 96 days. Do we enter into marriage until we no longer feel like it, or is there something more? Should the state establish barriers for leaving a marriage beyond the complicated business of disentangling lives entwined? Should this include some type of consent from the other? What do we mean when we imbue marriage with value over civil unions? The film presents a captivating meditation on such questions.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

The State of Human Rights: The Amnesty International Report 2014/15

You can download the just released 424 pp. Amnesty International survey of human rights in 160 countries here. 

Things are bad all over.  As UNHCR reported last June, more than 51 million people were forcefully displaced around the globe at the end of 2013.  This does not include another 3 million (mostly Palestinian) stateless persons.  Things did not get better in 2014.

Kidnappings, beheadings, drone strikes, rocket attacks from the air, torture, artillery shellings, suicide bombings....most of it directed at civilian populations.  The state of human rights around the world is awful. Syria, Ukraine, Nigeria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Gaza, Somalia, Sudan; ISIL, Boko Haram, Al-Qaeda, FARC, EPR..., the list of insurgencies, criminal movements, and dysfunctional states around the world is long.

Amnesty thinks that, collectively, we could do more.  From the Amnesty introduction:

This has been a devastating year for those seeking to stand up for human rights and for those caught up in the suffering of war zones. Governments pay lip service to the importance of protecting civilians. And yet the world's politicians have miserably failed to protect those in greatest need. Amnesty International believes that this can and must finally change. .... 
[T]ime and again, civilians bore the brunt in conflict. In the year marking the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, politicians repeatedly trampled on the rules protecting civilians - or looked away from the deadly violations of these rules committed by others. ....
Some might argue that nothing can be done, that war has always been at the expense of the civilian population, and that nothing can ever change. This is wrong.  It is essential to confront violations against civilians, and to bring to justice those responsible. 
One obvious and practical step is waiting to be taken: Amnesty International has welcomed the proposal, now backed by around 40 governments,  for the UN Security Council to adopt a code of conduct agreeing to voluntarily refrain from using the veto in a way which would block Security Council action in situations of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. That would be an important first step, and could save many lives. 
The failures, however, have not just been  in terms of preventing mass atrocities. Direct assistance has also been denied to the millions who have fled the violence that has engulfed their villages and towns.  Those governments who have been most eager to speak out loudly on the failures of other governments have shown themselves reluctant to step forward and provide the essential assistance that those refugees require - both in terms of financial assistance, and providing resettlement. Approximately 2% of refugees from Syria had been resettled by the end of 2014 - a figure which must at least triple in 2015. ....
From Washington to Damascus, from Abuja to Colombo, government leaders have justified horrific human rights violations by talking of the need to keep the country "safe". In reality, the opposite is the case. Such violations are one important reason why we live in such a dangerous world today. There can be no security without human rights.

We have repeatedly seen that, even at times that seem bleak for human rights - and perhaps especially at such times - it is possible to create remarkable change.

We must hope that, looking backward to 2014 in the years to come, what we lived through in 2014 will be seen as a nadir - an ultimate low point - from which we rose up and created a better future.

                                                  Salil Shetty, Secretary General
A call for a voluntary code of conduct by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (U.S., Russia, France, China, and the U.K.) not to veto Security Council resolutions addressing war crimes is pretty modest. It does point to the problem: the world utterly lacks an effective, credible body with legitimacy, power, and will to enforce human rights around the world. The nations of the world continue to live largely in a Hobbesian state of nature with each other. There are large blocks of nations held together by the glue of economic self-interest, but the UN is a wholly inadequate body for preventing wars, much less for taking effective steps to control local insurgencies, or to prevent the violation of human rights. Even without Security Council vetoes, the UN lacks the legitimacy, lacks the will, and lacks the power to protect human rights abuses around the world.

Effective, just, and non-corrupt government administration is difficult to come by in large and successful areas like the U.S., China, Russia, and Europe. Many countries around the world don't manage good government even on a much smaller scale: e.g., Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and most of Africa. The world is a diverse and complicated place and the achievement of a just, effective, and not-corrupt world government is a long ways off. In the meantime, human rights will continue to be a beacon for this vision.  I'm glad organizations like Amnesty International are continuing to carry that torch.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

On Being Surrounded by 400 Million who Refuse to Recognize Israel and Promote Fantasies of Its Disappearance

During a bike tour through Northern Italy a few years back, I asked our tour leader about the Italian Swiss.  Living mostly south of the Alps adjacent to Italy, they make up the approximately seven percent of the population that speaks Italian.  I asked if there was any longing by the Italian Swiss to maybe one day join Italy. He said “Of course not. They have it much better to be part of Switzerland than they would have if they joined Italy. Swiss Italians thoroughly identify as Swiss.”

This came up in a discussion I had with an Israeli academic recently.  "I don’t think Swiss Italians would feel that way," I said, "if Switzerland militarily occupied Turin, Milan, and the Po Valley and if Swiss-Italians were systematically discriminated against in Switzerland." This hit a nerve with my Israeli correspondent.  "You could have just as well told a story of how the Swiss would feel towards the Italians in general if they were surrounded by 400 million of them who were refusing to recognise their right to live in their region, considered them colonialists and crusaders and promoted fantasies of their disappearance, and how that conflict would play itself."

This narrative of Israel "in a tough neighborhood" surrounded by a sea of 400 million hostile Arabs who deny Israel the right of existence is something we often hear from Israeli leaders.  But how realistic is this narrative? How realistic is it to use this narrative of victimhood as an excuse for not making peace with the Palestinians?

The Neighborhood

According to Pew Research there are 317 million Muslims in the Middle East and North Africa.  If we look at the region, it's apparent that it is unrealstic for anyone to assert that this represents a sea of Arabs monolithically fixated on Israel's destruction. 

There are 82 million Arabs in Israel's neighbor to the south, Egypt. Egypt has a peace treaty with Israel, and Egypt has declared Hamas a terrorist organization, and Egypt has blocked the tunnels in southern Gaza.  Israel has significant economic trade with Egypt, which flourished under Mubarak, increased under Morsi, and is continuing under El-Sisi.  Egypt has clearly recognized Israel’s right to live in the region.  It’s not being realistic to suggest they have not. 

There are 74 million Arabs in Turkey.  Turkey recognized Israel in 1949. Turkey continues to have strong economic relations with Israel—there was two way trade of $5.4 billion in 2014, an all time high. Turkey is not a military threat to Israel.  Turkey accepts Israel’s right to live in the region, although the relationship is frosty over the ongoing occupation of the West Bank and blockade of Gaza. But the claim that Turkey does not accept Israel's existence is false.

There are 28 million Arabs in Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia has common interests with Israel against both ISIS and Iran. Israel and Saudi Arabia have growing trade relations, which are clandestine, but estimated in the “several dozens of millions” by the Jerusalem Post. Saudi Arabia has proposed that Israel withdraw to the ’67 borders and  has been prepared to formally recognize Israel within those borders. Saudi Arabia is no military threat to Israel. It’s not realistic to suggest that Saudi Arabia is refusing to recognize Israel’s right to live in the region. 

There are 6.5 million Arabs living in Israel's neighbor to the East, Jordan. Jordan signed a peace treaty with Israel and the two countries have agreed to recognize each other’s sovereignty and to cooperate on tourism, trade, and they pledged that neither country would allow its territory to become a staging ground for military strikes by a third country.  Jordan and Israel established industrial zones and in 2014 signed a 15 year deal for Israel to supply natural gas to Jordan. Reuters reports that 10,589 trucks crossed with goods from Jordan into Israel last year. Israel is becoming a trade hub for the surrounding Arab world—partly spurred on by the implosion of Syria.  When I visited friends at Kibbutz Ashdot Ya'akov last year—located on the Jordanian border--they remarked how peaceful that border now is. Jordan has accepted Israel’s right to live in the region. It’s simply not realistic to suggest otherwise. 

There are 33 million Arabs living in Iraq. Many of these are Kurds, and Israel has good relations with the Kurds.  The Kurds have been selling oil to (or through?) Israel contrary to the wishes of Bagdhad. The situation has changed a lot in the wake of the Gulf War. Iraq is no longer a military threat to Israel. It’s not realistic to point to Iraq as an excuse for not making peace with the Palestinians.

There are 24 million Arabs in Yemen. Yemen is a mess, but more of a concern to the Saudi's than to Israel.  It’s not realistic to suggest Yemen is relevant to Israel’s problems in an important way. 

There are 9 million Arabs living in the United Arab Emirates.  Although the UAE maintains travel restrictions against Israeli's and officially boycotts Israeli trade, as with Saudi Arabia, there are clandestine contacts. For example, there are indications of flights from Abu Dhabi to Tel Aviv, and a French intelligence organization reported in 2012 that a Geneva based Israeli owned company, AGT International, had signed a contract worth $800 million to provide Abu Dhabi’s Critical National Infrastructure Authority with “surveillance cameras, electronic fences and sensors to monitor strategic infrastructure and oil fields.” Peace with the Palestinians would greatly assist this relationship.

There are 2 million Arabs living in Qatar, but due to its oil and gas wealth, they carry some weight.  Qatar has a GDP of $200 billion--which approaches Israel's GDP of $273 billion. Qatar is hardly monolithically hostile to Israel:  Qatar established trade relations with Israel in 1996; Qatar has co-funded a soccer stadiums in Israel; Qatar has made attempts to be instrumental in negotiations with the Palestinians; in 2013 Qatar reportedly assisted in bringing Yemenite Jews to Israel.  Although Qatar acts as host to the Hamas leadership, indications are that Qatar is willing to be constructive in finding a solution for the Israel-Palestine issue.

There are approximately 3 million Muslims in Kuwait, which has a GDP of $53 billion. Last November Kuwait authorized tourism packages for Kuwaitis to visit Israel--part of a wider trend of tourism from Arab countries to Israel.  Kuwait supports the boycott-divest-sanction movement against Israel and has ceased to do business with international companies that do business with settlements in the occupied territories.  Kuwaiti law broadly bans trade with Israeli companies. Nevertheless, there is no indication that Kuwait's stance prevents Israel from making peace with the Palestinians.

There are 23 million Arabs living in Syria, which is four years into a viscious civil war. "Israel is neutral, isn’t going to get dragged into it, and the longer it goes on, the less it threatens Israeli national security," said Barry Rubin in the Jerusalem Post last summer, and this assessments seems correct.  This seems true whether the Assad regime survives, or not. Syria is not driving the Palestinian solution, nor is it standing in the way of Israel making peace with the Palestinians today. 

Iran and Hezbollah and Hamas

Israel's northern neighbor, Lebanon, has Hezbollah, a Shi'ite faction that is hostile to Israel. Hezbollah has been strongly supported by the Assad regime in Syria and by Iran.  To the extent that the Assad regime is weakened in the current civil war, this will be a set back for Hezbollah and this can only be good for Israel. Hezbollah arose in Lebanon following Israel's 1982 invasion and subsequent 18 year occupation of Southern Lebanon.  Their antipathy towards Israel as an occupying force has served their sponsors Syria and Iran: Syria because it wants back the Golan Heights, and Iran because they are seeking influence in the region through their leadership in anti-israel policies.

Israeli Military strategists see threats on the Northern border.  Amos Horel in Haaretz worries about Hamas, seemingly out of options in Gaza, looking for a strategic alliance with Hezbollah (and Iranian support). This is complicated for Hamas because Hamas is aligned with Sunni revolutionaries in Syria against the Assad regime and against Iran.  However, to the extent that Hamas can get back in Iran's and Hezbollah's good graces and convince them to support Hamas in launching attacks on Northern Israel from Lebanon or Syria, or to find a way to assist them to launch operations in the West Bank, these are threats that must be taken seriously.  Similarly, the threat posed by Iran as a nuclear power is a threat that must be taken very seriously.  Nevertheless, it seems clear that these threats do not trace back to a monolithic refusal of the Arab world to accept Israel: these threats are a direct result of the occupation of the West Bank, the blockade of Gaza, and Israel's invasions of Syria and Lebanon.

Apocalyptic talk of “we are in a sea of 400 million who hate us and want to destroy us” (as Israeli leaders are fond of saying) is an inaccurate, and very counterproductive delusion. Surely there are different strategies to debate regarding how to deal with the threats that exist.  It is plausible that threats posed by Hamas, Hezbollah, and Iran make reaching peace more difficult, but these threats provide no reason whatsoever for avoiding efforts to reach peace.

Recognition of Israel as a Jewish State

Whereas it is incorrect to say that the Arab states are united in their desire to eliminate Israel as a state (because they have accepted Israel as a political entity in the Middle East and are productively engaging with it), it is correct to say that the Arab states in the Middle East do not accept Israel as a "Jewish State." This is an important distinction. A refusal to accept Israel as an established state implies a state of war and a lack of any constructive involvement.  It's what Netanyahu speaks of when he refers to Iran and points to its most extreme rhetoric suggesting that Israel should be eliminated as a state.  A refusal to accept Israel as a "Jewish State," however, does not suggest a state of war: it is a refusal to accept Israel as an ethnocracy by and for Jews that relegates Arabs to second class status, and that privileges Jews all over the world for immigration to the country over Palestinian refugees who lived in the country. The latter is a matter of opinion; opinion about what the character of the state is, or should be.

Netanyahu telling the Palestinians that Israel won't engage in peace talks unless the Palestinians accept Israel as a Jewish state is like Soviet Russia telling the U.S. it won't enter into arms control treaties unless we accept them as a communist state. It's like Saudi Arabia telling the West that "we won't sell you oil unless you recognize us as a Wahabbist theocracy."

We have feelings about Israel as an ethnocracy that privileges Jews over all others. We have feelings about Israel permanently occupying 4 million Palestinians without giving them citizenship, the right to vote, or due process of law. We don't like it. We think Israel as a Hebrew Republic that celebrates the Hebrew language and that celebrates Jewish holidays and culture, and provides a place of refuge for Jews in distress, but that also guarantees equal rights for its minorities, is a good thing. Israel as a "Jewish state" like Netanyahu has in mind reflects the sentiments of Marine LaPen and her Front National Party in France, it reflects the sentiments of PEGIDA in Prussia, and the xenophobic policies of the British National Party and the American Tea Party. We don't like it.  

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Rawabi Still Waiting for Water

Rawabi is an $800 million dollar Palestinian financed housing project northwest of Ramallah. Construction has been underway since 2010, and more than a thousand units have been completed and are move-in ready, except for one thing.  They can't get a water hook up.

The vision is for a city with 25,000 residents when completed. The project should have everyone's support. It provides construction jobs for Palestinians, it provides business for Israeli suppliers, and it should provide much needed housing for Palestinians.

"If Rawabi fails, it's a failure for the two-state solution. It's a failure for the peace process", said Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, in a BBC article.

But, hard to believe at this stage, fail it might. Forces are conspiring to make the project fail. For some Israelis, any Palestinian success is a set back for total Israeli domination of the West Bank. Some Israeli's don't want to agree to a water hook up unless Palestinians agree retroactively to approve water hook-ups at Israeli West Bank settlements, something Palestinians are loath to do. Some Palestinians feel a successful project for the Palestinian middle-class normalizes the occupation and amounts to collaboration.

Committed buyers are beginning to back out. If the Project fails it will be another blow for entropy, chaos, and war.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

"Chabadniks Tend to be a Positive Lot"--Joseph Telushkin

The San Francisco Jewish Community Center has an ongoing quality lecture series.  Many of the talks can be listened to on video here.  It's a great place to go on a rainy Sunday afternoon.

Last September they hosted Rabbi Joseph Telushkin who came to share the book he recently wrote about "The Rebbe" Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the leader of the Chabad movement from 1951 to 1994.

Telushkin was introduced as one of the 50 best speakers in the United States today. I buy that. He is extraordinarily warm and engaging. A great story-teller. His talk was centered around seven lessons learned from Schneerson--good advice, memorably delivered:
  • Practice non-judgmental love towards others
  • Try to always stay focused on the individual
  • Develop a fearlessness in yourself which starts with an understanding that the first person you must consult is yourself
  • Learn to disagree without being disagreeable
  • Focus on what's in front of you 
  • Anything worth doing is worth doing now
  • Don't allow yourself to get dissuaded
Give a listen.