Friday, August 29, 2014

Noam Sheizaf on Jung & Naiv

Berlin blogger Tilo Jung hosts a You Tube interview program.  He goes around the world asking "naive" questions of experts (in German "Jung" is young and they drop the "e" on "naive")  about primarily political and economic issues.  Many of the interviews are conducted in our international Lingua Franca:  English. Jung conducts in depth, half hour interviews that seek to explain and illuminate, not enrage. He is John Oliver to Sean Hannity; he is Vox of Germany on a shoestring.

Below is Jung in an interview with Noam Sheizaf (Israel's Ezra Klein) discussing the Gaza conflict at the beginning of August. Sheizaf is one of those young journalists who proves that long life is not a pre-requisite for wisdom. He keeps his biographical data close to his vest; for someone of his stature, you'd expect more would be readily available on the internet.  But it appears he was born in ~79, attended Tel Aviv University where he graduated with degrees in political science and French.  He spent 4 plus years in the Israeli Army and is a captain in the IDF Reserves. But back in 2002, together with approximately 500 others, he signed a statement of refusal to serve in the occupied territories (number 230 on the linked list). At the time Sheizaf was writing for the website YNet, associated with Israel's largest print newspaper Yedihot Aharonoth; he has been editor and staff journalist at Maariv (which has lost market share in recent years); he contributes to major American publications and is frequently recognized by the New York Times and Reuters as an authoritative analyst. He manages the independent web magazine +972 Magazine, which is an excellent English language source for smart and interesting analysis of the Israeli political scene.  

Here he is with Jung in Rabin Square.  Gotta love the chimney sweep microphone!


Saturday, August 16, 2014

A Chance for Meaningful Change in Gaza?

Storm clouds are lifting and spirits are rising.  Tonight in Israel, where 95% had approved of the assault on Gaza,  where fascist elements beat down scant attempts at protests during the campaign, 10,000 gathered in Rabin Square to sing the praises of peace.  
Rabin Square, Tel Aviv,  peace rally, August 16, 2014
The left wing parties, including Meretz and Hadash were in attendance; Peace Now and other left wing organizations joined in; novelist David Grossman spoke.  [I'm reading Grossman's "To the End of the Land" and book review is forthcoming]  There were demands for an end to the occupation and an end to the blockade of Gaza.  

The goal of Israel in this war, if "goal" isn't too dignified a term, was to destroy tunnels and degrade Hamas's ability to launch rockets.  The goal did not include getting rid of Hamas, and it did not include lifting the blockade.  Eliminating Hamas in house-to-house and tunnel-to-tunnel combat in the heart of Gaza City would have been too expensive (in lives lost) and unnecessary.  From Israel's point of view, any lifting of the blockade with Hamas still in power would just result in an accelerated rearming of Hamas.  So, by all appearances, Netanyahu would have been satisfied to withdraw unilaterally, as he started to do.  No negotiations needed. Return to the status quo ante.

So it was a puzzlement to Larry Derfner, why Netanyahu is participating in negotiations at all.  Yet, negotiations have been going on for a week now. Moreover, it appears that Netanyahu is speaking to Hamas directly! 

Here is Noam Sheizaf
For the past week Israel has been negotiating with Hamas in Cairo. While the Palestinian delegation to the talks includes a representative of Mahmoud Abbas, and while the Egyptians are the ones carrying the messages back and forth between the two parties, everyone knows exactly what this is all about. These are no longer talks about prisoner exchanges, but rather a first attempt to touch upon the core issues relating to the siege on Gaza and the status of Hamas as ruler of the Strip. Israel is talking to Hamas (and to Islamic Jihad, which is closer to Iran). Better get used to it.
And it appears Hamas is hanging tough in these negotiations. 

In the meantime, the European Union is putting on pressure by offering to take charge of the Rafah border crossing.  Kerry is staying mum. 
Arutz Sheva. "[T]he EU says Israel must lift its blockade to allow "a fundamental improvement in the living conditions for the Palestinian people in Gaza." The EU foreign ministers said the bloc is also prepared to prevent arms smuggling and launch a training program for Palestinian Authority police and customs officers to be deployed in Gaza. "The situation in the Gaza Strip has been unsustainable for many years and a return to the status quo prior to the latest conflict is not an option," they said, according to AP."
To be sure, if the surprising result of this war is that the blockade is lifted in any meaningful degree, and the EU were to become involved as a security guarantor, this war would have to be considered a huge success for Gazans (and Hamas), for Israel and the entire region. 

I'm rooting for Gazans; I'm rooting for the EU; I'm rooting for Kerry to exert positive pressure in the background; and, yes, if Netanyahu can bring himself to make meaningful change happen, I'm rooting for him too in this negotiation. The weight of depression is lifting ... optimism can reassert itself.  There is a chance for meaningful change.  

Monday, August 11, 2014

The Fine Line Between Comedy, Despair, and Tragedy

Robin Williams has provided us with more laughter, joy, and decency over the past 35 years than anyone I can think of.  I Never did run into him on a bike ride around Tiburon. I wish I had.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Ferry Ride to Larkspur

[The following conversation is a construct.  The setting is fictional, but the exchange is an accurate  record of email and Facebook conversations I've had with friends in response to my last blogpost about Gaza; I have edited to streamline and for clarity]

I walk out of my office on California street and stride towards the Ferry building, well in time for the 6:25 p.m. boat to Larkspur.  It’s a breezy sunny afternoon. I settle down on the upper deck, where I manage to save three seats for my friends, and watch the sailboats beating through the whitecaps towards Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge. 

Josh:  I see you’ve been blogging again.

Me:  Hello Josh. I’m not sure I like where this is heading. 

Josh:  Well I read your blogpost. When you start out, it seems that you are a "neutral," making the point that so much results from poor choices, implying that better choices would improve everyone's life. But after you make it clear that all this fighting, likely resulting in no dramatic changes, is pointless and results in so much pain and suffering, you basically give Palestinians a free pass. Many more of them die, you say, Israel is an occupier and they are fighting against that; Israel has the big guns, and those rockets are "ineffectual." 

Me:  Uh Hmm.  

Josh:  Almost all of your blog is about Israel's sins of omission and commission and you pretty much let Hamas off with a tiny scolding for putting Gazans in harm's way. 

Don:  Surely the fact that Israel is stronger is no accident. They have been at war since 1948 against a variety of leaders who have included pan Arabists, Russian supported socialists, secular nationalists and Islamic fundamentalists. Their enemies cannot agree with each other, but they agree that Israel's presence in the region is intolerable. 
The countries that have formal and informal peace accords with Israel are not subject to horrific scenes of destruction and they have agreed to accept Israel into the Middle East. If and when the Palestinian people (and their leaders) accept that their quest for "meaning" does not mean the destruction of Israel, there will be some form of peace.  Until then, the cycle will continue.

Josh: I am gravely disappointed in you. You lacerate Israel, but you say only a little about Hamas. If you were serious about unwise policy choices and you meant by that both Israel and Hamas, then I think you need to say something even a little bit critical of Hamas.  But no, you say nary a word about Hamas' tactic of storing rockets in schools and staying as closely parked to civilians as possible.

Me:  Umm…but

Josh:  The fact that rockets send people shuffling off to shelters and scare the daylight out of them is simply no big deal to you because they are "ineffectual?" Come on.  Are rockets only effective if they kill a lot of people?  I will forward to you my friend’s email who has been traveling in Europe and just recently returned to her home in the Upper Galilee. Don’t tell her that the rockets are "ineffectual." I don’t think any Israeli will understand that word.

Don:  Yes, There are many questions and no correct answers. If I were in charge in Israel I would hesitate to believe that Hamas would live in peace with the "Zionist Entity." After all, it is not uncommon in the Middle East to have simmering tribal warfare last for centuries. Is it wise social policy? No, but it does seem to be the condition of the peoples of the region.

Me:  But are you ready to condemn Israel as just another dysfunctional tribal entity? Isn’t Israel supposed to be the enlightened democracy of the region?

Don:  Speaking as one of the Jewish people, the threat of annihilation is not as remote as some people believe. It was just six years before I was born that the Nazi death camps were liberated by the Allies. I lived in a community with a high percentage of survivors.
 When a political movement in an adjacent region continually states that their belief is your destruction, when their supporters, in Europe especially, attack Jewish institutions and businesses while chanting anti-Jewish and anti-Israeli slogans, one is hard pressed not to be moved to self-defense. 

Josh:  Yes, rockets can reach lots of places.  Running into shelters and surviving just means it's your lucky day; not the day you die. If Hamas had better rockets and were better at killing Jews and non-Jews, too, would that make them worse than they are?

Marc:  Yes, the fact that Hamas is bad at killing Jews doesn't in any remote way offer the exculpation you suggest in your blogpost.

Don:  The Palestinian quest for "meaning" cannot have the destruction of Israel and killing Jews as a component. As long as it does, there won't be peace. Jews are very sensitive about being threatened with annihilation you know. Nazism has become trivialized by it being used as a synonym for groups that others oppose. Worse, it is a punch line, soup-Nazi, feminazi, the Producers. It is another "n'; word that should be confined to history books and not reimagined. To a Jew, the existential threat is not a psychiatric condition (although it could be that too), it is a recognition of history.

Me:   Guys, I have no idea what Hamas intended when they started firing rockets. But once it was clear that their rockets were not causing damage, it seems incorrect to say that "they are bad at killing Jews." That's not the purpose of the rockets. The purpose of the rockets is to be provocative and make a ruckus--and they were effective at doing that.

Josh and Marc together:  … but 3,400 rockets!  Obviously Israel has to respond to that.  No country in the world could stand by and absorb such an assault without response.

Me:  Look, the rockets carry only small warheads. About 20 pounds.  Their capacity to damage anything is pretty much limited to direct hits.  And they cannot be aimed except in a very general direction.  Israel has an effective civil defense system to cope with the rockets, which includes a sophisticated warning system, shelters, and the Iron Dome system.  The Times of Israel had a report on the latest information handed out by the IDF today.  It included this tidbit… and this strikes me as crucial…. of 3,356 rockets fired from Gaza over 29 days only 116 landed in populated areas.  116 rockets.  That’s it.  It struck me, of course, it makes sense, that’s why there’s no damage.  

Marc:  Well, I agree that Israel is required to act with as much restraint as possible when stopping them. We can debate the minutiae of Israeli tactics, but from my view - a view where if Israel chose to, they could make Gaza look like Cologne after the Thousand Bomber Night - they have acted with restraint. I'm happy to dicker over whether it's 'enough'.

Me:  Marc, Marc, Marc …. the fact that Israel could level Gaza (and kill a few hundred thousand?) but isn't doing so doesn't illustrate "restraint." It’s no more "restraint" than not committing mass murder in the mall with a semi-automatic "just because you could." Or to put it another way, it's "restraint" only if Israel were a genocidal maniac at heart. I assume we're in agreement they are not.

Marc:  The larger issue is effectiveness; whether Israel makes more terrorists than it kills. But until the international community excoriates Hamas for who they truly are, we'll just have to deal with that problem.

Josh:  Israel falls into the trap, every time, of overdoing it. Do they really try to minimize civilian deaths? I hope so. Can they possibly succeed? Not a chance. The more civilians/innocents die, the better for Hamas. They stand for only one thing- keeping themselves in power and living for the day when they can wipe out Israel. I don’t think a Mandela peace commission could ever succeed against that sort of ideology. 

Me:  Josh, when you say Hamas “stand for only one thing- keeping themselves in power and living for the day when they can wipe out Israel” I have to ask:  how many Hamas guys have you met and talked to? Had dinner with? This is like saying “Israelis stand for one thing-- … and fill in the blank.”  You know that’s bullshit. Right?  Take a look at my piece on Feiglin a few days ago; listen to the settlers at their convention for the application of Israeli sovereignty over Judea and Samaria. Does it make sense for anyone to say “Likud stands for one thing and one thing only (for ever and ever), and this is it!”  You know that’s not right.  Well, the same holds true for Hamas. 

Josh:  Both sides make poor choices each time they come to a crossroads. And all of them pay for it. More dead bodies easily make Gazans the winners in the victim sweepstakes. That's good fodder for the world to consume. All Israel gets is the short-lived, joyless sense of beating them down for a while (knock out some rocket launchers, destroy some tunnels, kill maybe 200 Hamasniks—not much to brag about, really). I think both sides each knows that they won't get very far keeping up this stupid dance.

Me: But Josh…

Josh:  You call it "this war on children". That takes a lot of chutzpah, Roland. You really think so? I saw a lot of them, and their mothers, on TV, just like you did. I never saw one single picture of a dead or injured Hamas fighter. It shouldn't have been difficult to put one of those pictures on TV. Kids are better at winning sympathy, however. But if you are really calling it a "war on children", then you have gone too far. I cannot believe that you think that is true. If you really believe that, and maybe you do because you wrote it, then your protesting about being seen as anti-Israel isn't credible.  Sorry about that.

Me:  “Kids are better at winning sympathy,” you say.  This alludes to the photogenic victims sneer that is making the rounds.  That’s what it is, this meme, isn’t it, a sneer?

Josh:  Am I trying to "justify" Israeli strikes on refuges, schools, and hospitals, of course not. But, if you mean to sound even-handed, then I think you need to be a little tougher on Hamas. You gave them a pass-the fighters against occupation (never mind their ideology). Maybe when Hamas has better rockets that can be aimed better so they can kill better (dead Jews count as much as soldiers), it will be different.  But your posting is so one-sided that it amounts to a one-way diatribe against Israel. The Palestinians get plenty of sympathy, as they should, but their despotic, tyrannical rulers get a pass. Why? They are part of the problem, but you really don’t have anything bad to say about them, except for maybe getting a lot of Palestinians killed, and I'm sure they aren't sorry about even one of them. 

Me:   Josh, when you say that you think Hamas “isn’t sorry about even one” dead Palestinian, are you listening to yourself?  Really listening?  Does it sound like you have dehumanized them?  It does to me.  

Don:  Now, now, guys…

Me:  We must take into account that Gazans have been refugees since 1948, and Gaza has been an open air prison since 2005.  Life for Palestinians has been extremely oppressive. They have been suffering from 20-40% unemployment.  No opportunities.  Hamas won an election in 2006 but Israel and the Bush administration sabotaged that election, no?  Yes, Hamas has controlled the tunnels which have provided a tax base.  You hear that they have used this to maintain power and to enrich themselves, and I believe that.  I also believe they have provided social services, employed 40,000 civil servants, etc.  How can this not be corrupt?  Of course it is.  But that’s not Hamas so much as human nature in a very difficult environment.  Do I know enough to judge the souls of these peoples individually, or collectively. No. 


I am baffled that the Western Left is so disinterested in liberating Gazans from the oppression of Hamas.

Don:  Israel knows the world cheers for the underdog. But except for rare periods in history, the Jews have been historic underdogs since the destruction of the second temple; but they have not always been the recipient of the underdog bias. The territory right next door to them fires rockets to scare/and or kill citizens of Israel. The Israeli army is in the process of degrading their capability to kill Israelis. Perhaps, this crisis will allow the Arab moderate capitalists to create sanctions against Hamas for using resources to secure offensive weapons. Or as is more likely the case, there will be a cold-blooded calculated truce until one of the many, many red lines is crossed and the war continues. 

Me:  For what it’s worth: It looks to me like the prospects for Hamas are not looking so good. Their tax revenue source (tunnels) is gone, and Egypt does not appear to be friendly to reopening them; Iran has cut back support because they are a) making nice (sort of) with Kerry, and b) conditioning aid to Hamas on Hamas support for Assad against the Sunni rebels (which Hamas can't do because of its allegiance to the Muslim Brotherhood); Qatar has cut back aid because of Assad and because the Saudi's and Egyptians are putting pressure on Qatar; and finally, Israel is going to try to put the PA back in business in Gaza.  We na├»ve optimists might say--there's an opportunity to demilitarize and open up.  Realists will say “forget it, Netanyahu won't open up, and he can't because if he loosens on Gaza Hamas in the West Bank will say ‘see we were successful--let's do it here.’"  

Marc:  Can we get a beer now?

Don:  How about those Giants?

This post was first published on August 7, 2014 at Mondoweiss

Monday, August 4, 2014

Building a Civil Society: It's not about "Justifications"; It's About Wise Policy Choices

The war in Gaza is winding down without fanfare or negotiations.  Israel's stated mission of destroying tunnels in Gaza is nearly complete.  IDF troops are beginning to withdraw.  Israel has advised Gazans that, in northern Gaza, it is now safe to return to their homes.  Netanyahu has announced some troops will remain inside the strip indefinitely.  Rockets fired from Gaza on Sunday were down to 55.  What remains is a sick feeling that nothing decisive has changed, that the status quo is affirmed and the parties are doomed to repeat this dance of death a few years hence.

Hamas will get no concessions from Israel to compensate for the price Gazans have paid in blood and destruction.  No surprise there.  At the invitation of the Egyptians, Hamas has sent a team of senior negotiators to Cairo to negotiate the terms of a durable truce. They will come back empty handed because Israelis did not show up.  Israel will end this war on its own terms.

So what has been accomplished? Has it all been foolishness?  Have war crimes been committed? Where is this all headed?

The Toll

As of Sunday, the Palestinian Ministry of Health reports 1,822 killed in Gaza, with 9370 injured, and approximately 6,000 buildings destroyed, including hospitals, UN refuge centers, schools, a power plant, and other infrastructure.  Destruction of Gaza's only power plant has left 1.7 million Gazans without electricity, running water, or sewage treatment.  Seventy percent of the casualties have been civilians. Israel has lost 64 soldiers in this war.

It's not About Justification--It's the Policy Choice Stupid!

Everyone is hung up on whether this action by Hamas, or that action by Israel is justified, or not. All manner of emotional heat and gesticulation accompany the discussion of such questions. But ultimately it's not about justification, it's about the wisdom of policy choices.

Israel has argued that its action was a justified response to rockets fired into Israel, and tunnels excavated under the Gaza wall into Israel.  Israel claims Hamas is an international terrorist organization that wants the destruction of Israel in order to establish a fundamentalist Islamic state.  Israel claims it has attempted to minimize civilian casualties by telling people to evacuate and by issuing "knock-knock" warnings.  All these things, says Netanyahu, justify his actions.  It's a popular move in Israel. After scurrying to reinforced shelters multiple times each day, ninety-five percent of Jewish Israelis have supported this Gaza war.  But really, who cares if it's justified:  is it wise?

The novelist Amos Oz is also hung up on justification. He recently started an interview with the German media outlet Deutsche Welle, with a pointed question of his own, as follows:
Amoz Oz: I would like to begin the interview in a very unusal way: by presenting one or two questions to your readers and listeners. May I do that?
Deutsche Welle: Go ahead! 
Question: What would you do if your neighbor across the street sits down on the balcony, puts his little boy on his lap and starts shooting machine gun fire into your nursery? With (this) question() I pass the interview to you.
What reaction is Oz's hypothetical designed to provoke?  Presumably something like this: "Yes, of course, we must send our snipers to take out this porch terrorist; if in the process his little boy is killed, that is terrible, but we have no choice because we must protect our nursery."   It harkens back to the Golda Meir quip: "We can forgive them for killing our children; we can never forgive them for forcing us to kill theirs."  After this war on children, this claim rings more hollow than ever.

Oz's hypothetical, of course, is misleading and incomplete.  If Hamas is the balcony terrorist, we must observe that he fired rubber bullets wildly into an open field, and that the few bullets that struck the nursery were harmlessly deflected by bullet proof glass; in addition, it was apparent to all that this terrorist would soon run out of rubber bullets.  We should also take note that the parents of this particular nursery have been oppressing their neighbor in a degrading manner for years: hassling him on a daily basis, preventing him from getting a job, repeatedly cutting off his electricity, his water, intercepting his food deliveries, all because they would like to force him from the neighborhood?

Are these niceties?  Does the fact that rockets are launched at all and, by fluke, one may cause real damage even though after a couple of thousand attempts none have, change everything?  Does it excuse killing 1,822, injuring 9,370, and destroying hospitals, power plants, hospitals, and houses?  Here is how fair minded Texan Jim Schutze feels it:
"When you put me in it, when you put Gaza in Maypearl and Tel Aviv in East Dallas, when it is my problem, then I will not agree to any tricks by which Hamas can fire rockets at me and I am not allowed to bomb the rocket launcher. None. Wherever they put the rocket launcher firing at my house, that is where I want my government to bomb. I hate it that there will be terrible collateral damage. I hate all of this. But I do not want a rocket to hit my house."
This question of moral justification has no answer.  It's true, because these rockets were in fact entirely ineffectual at causing death and destruction, nothing forced Israel to kill 1800+ Palestinians, or to bomb Gaza to rubble.  But at the same time, it's pointless to deny the emotion expressed by Schutze. It's pointless to argue about justification because the important question is not whether the reaction was justified; the important question is "Was this a wise policy choice?"

The same holds true for Hamas.  Supporters of Netanyahu's policy have complained that Hamas has pursued a strategy of creating "photogenic victims."  Hamas has surely known from the outset that its rockets were ineffectual at causing Israeli casualties, but effective at drawing Israeli fire.  Hamas also knew from the outset that its firing of rockets would likely result in untold suffering for Gazans.

Hamas's firing of rockets in the numbers they have done is a considerable accomplishment given the blockade and occupation of Gaza.  Is it immoral? Just like the visceral reaction to the launching of uncontrolled rockets in the general direction of one's house cannot be denied, the desire of Palestinians to struggle against the occupation cannot be denied.  The interesting question is not "Is this moral or justified," but rather "Is this a wise policy choice given that the rockets had no ability to cause real damage, and given the predictable response by Israel."

Has Hamas Gained Anything?

Hamas is not destroyed.  It appears that the underground command structure remains in place.  They will have the opportunity to rearm and rebuild tunnels.  Once again, the brutality of the occupation has been exposed in gory detail.  Israel's supporters have been placed in the uncomfortable position of arguing that the death and maiming of thousands is justified in order to maintain this occupation, or to respond to an ineffectual rocket barrage. It's not an easy position to defend with an untroubled conscience.

The world community is not buying it. Israel has been further isolated internationally.  There likely will be UN investigations, even as the suffering of Gazans will continue.  For now, the status quo is maintained.  If Hamas has accomplished anything, it is to make it more obvious than ever that the status quo is not acceptable.

The Road to Bosnia or Development of a Civil Society?

Back before Operation Cast Lead, in October 2008, Bernard Avishai gave a talk at Vanderbilt University.  In this talk he summarized his argument for the establishment of a Hebrew Republic as a modern civil society.  A Hebrew Republic, he argues, would preserve the Hebrew language, recognize the Jewish Holidays, provide space for (but not require) the practice of the Jewish religion, but otherwise guarantee equal rights for all of its citizens. It's the only type of state the Arab minority will ever accept, he argues. During the question period he was asked "but would the radical philosophy of Islamic Fundamentalism ever be able to accept such a secular state providing for equal rights for Jews and Arabs within a Hebrew language culture?"   

Here is Avishai's response:  
It's almost self-evident that people who do believe this way (Islamic extremist fundamentalists) have been feeding off a condition of violence and conflict in the last 25 years.  I lived in Jerusalem in the early 1970s ... (and) you could go anywhere in the West Bank, sit and talk to people.... It's just self-evident to me that this kind of mentality, this kind of ecstatic, sacrificial, violent approach to politics, feeds off a condition of frustration, poverty, violence... 
Human beings have a terrible thing about them: they want to live a meaningful life. And if they can't live a meaningful life, maybe they can have a meaningful death. But people want to be meaningful. And it's frightening, it's frustrating; I don't known if Islamic jihadist ideas can be made to dissipate over a period of time. But I have a stake in trying to make that happen.... 
If Israel thinks that the status quo serves its purpose in trying to prevent jihadism, it's completely crazy because what it's leading to is Bosnia. Where we're going now is Bosnia.  The status quo cannot be sustained.  And the people who are actually making the country rich, are going to go to Santa Clara.  It's already happening. And what's going to be left is a little Jewish Pakistan trying to hold out in a Bosnian war of ethnic cleansing on both sides. That's not a prospect that's going to ultimately lead to the consolidation of a "Jewish state." 
So ... even if you're right, that we're looking at forces that are very, very hard to control...and these genies are out of the bottle...the only possible way to mitigate them is to mitigate them the same way that people the world over have mitigated sacrificial, ecstatic, religious violence, and that's through the developments of civil societies. 
Avishai's warning seems more apt than ever in the wake of Operation Protective Edge.  And if it turns out that Israel's leaders and Hamas have collectively steered the region closer to a Bosnian-style civil war, justification or no, they will have made truly disastrous policy choices.