Archive for September, 2008

Democracy in action

Thursday, September 18th, 2008

Tzipi Livni votes in Kadima primaryFor those who are confused, here is a simplified summary of how Israel’s Prime Minister is chosen:

Israelis vote for a party, not for a person. The parties — through internal mechanisms such as primary elections — choose a list of candidates, starting with the party leader and working down. After a  general election, the Knesset is formed by giving each party a number of seats (there are 120 in total) in proportion to the votes they receive. So if a party gets, say, 10 seats, the first 10 candidates on their list get to be members of the Knesset.

Then the fun begins. If a party were to get a majority, its leader would become PM. But of course this never happens, so it’s necessary to form a coalition. The President first asks the leader of the party with the most seats to try to form a coalition, and she has 28 days to do this; if she fails, then the President asks someone else.

Coalition-making is the quintessential smoke-filled room process, involving every kind of horse-trading. Once a coalition is in place, the PM forms a cabinet (also called a ‘government’) which includes members of the coalition parties chosen in the smoke-filled room.

Ehud Olmert succeeded Ariel Sharon as PM when Sharon had his stroke, and then his Kadima party won the election in 2006. The present coalition includes Kadima, Labor, Shas — a party representing ultra-orthodox Sephardi voters — and the tiny “pensioners” party (don’t ask). The ideology of Shas is complicated, but many Israelis feel that it is primarily oriented toward government benefits for its constituency.

Tzipi Livni has apparently won the Kadima primary — I say ‘apparently’ because her margin was so narrow (431 votes) that her major opponent, Shaul Mofaz, made noises about asking for a recount — and if Olmert goes through with his promise to quit (or is indicted), and if she can find coalition partners — probably she will reach a modus vivendi with the extortionists of Shas and with Labor — she will be the next Prime Minister of Israel, at least until the scheduled elections of 2010.

Actually, given the threats facing Israel today from Hezbollah, Hamas, Iran and Syria, I would prefer to see a kind of unity government that would include the Likud instead of Shas. But at least so far there seems to be no chance that the Likud will join a coalition with Kadima.

There are reports that Likud’s Binyamin Netanyahu is negotiating with Labor’s Ehud Barak to bypass Livni. This would be interesting, since Labor is theoretically further left than Kadima. Both Barak and Netanyahu are former Prime Ministers who did very poor jobs and who are ethically challenged. Personally, I would prefer to see Livni get the chance. Either Barak or Netanyahu could probably be competent defense ministers, if held on a tight leash by a tough PM (and we don’t know if Livni could be such a PM).

Do you see a lot of democracy in action here? I don’t.

Meanwhile, here in the US, news reports of her primary victory invariably included “…and she is expected to continue negotiations with the Palestinians”. If only she would surprise us!

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Assad’s contempt is showing

Tuesday, September 16th, 2008

Recently, Israeli PM Ehud Olmert said that

This is the time to push for peace with both the Palestinians and the Syrians. If we know how to do that, other Arab countries, which are yet to acknowledge us in public, will soon follow. — YNet

Here is his answer, at least from Syria. Here is what Israel can expect to get from negotiating with Bashar Assad:

Amid speculation over the status of indirect negotiations between Damascus and Jerusalem, Syrian President Bashar Assad said on Tuesday that he does not intend to cut his country’s ties to Iran, Channel 10 reported.

“Syria will stand with Iran on all the major strategic issues,” Assad said during an interview with a local television station which was aired on Channel 10.

“Only one situation would distance Syria from Iran, and that is if Teheran sided with Israel, and if America sided with the Arabs,” he said, laughing…

Commenting on negotiations with Israel, the Syrian president said that classifying the talks as “negotiations” was too strong a term.

“What’s happening today is not negotiation, but they are called ‘negotiations’ in the media,” Assad told the interviewer. — Jerusalem Post

As Barry Rubin has pointed out (see, for example, “Self-evident — and wrong!“), while Assad would certainly take the Golan if he had to give nothing in return, a real peace agreement is not in his interest. And his relationship with Iran is much more valuable than what Israel or the US could give him for abandoning it.

Meanwhile, Assad has made use of the negotiations that are not negotiations to reestablish his legitimacy with the West. As Caroline Glick wrote,

Since the early 1990s, Syria has recognized that intermittent, fruitless discussions with Israel about the Golan Heights are the best means of maintaining or reestablishing its acceptability in the West. After Assad ordered the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri in February 2005, he immediately turned to Israel to pull his fat from the fire by offering to renew negotiations regarding a surrender of the Golan Heights. Israel held out for two and a half years and during those years, Assad wasted away in international isolation. With even the UN breathing down his neck, Assad and his regime were hanging on for dear life.

But then suddenly, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert came to the rescue.

As a result, says Glick, the murder of Hariri and Syria’s attempt to build a clandestine nuclear reactor with the help of North Korea seem to have been forgotten, as Syria signs a billion-dollar contract with the French oil company Total. And now Assad is telling Israel to go to hell.

It’s unclear what Olmert thought would be gained from talking to Syria, but it illustrates a point to which US politicians as well should  pay attention:

Sometimes not talking is a much better strategy than talking.

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Understanding the Mideastern theory of truth

Monday, September 15th, 2008

I’ve said before that the Arabs invented a postmodern theory of truth long before it became fashionable. But while a penchant for bending reality to political purposes may help recruit the uneducated (or, in some cases — viz. academic boycott movements — the overeducated), it also limits a culture’s economic, political and social advancement.

Method in Their Madness
By Barry Rubin

One evening you’re walking down a street. A robber jumps on you to steal your wallet. You fight back and after a protracted battle you injure him enough so that he flees the scene.

The next day newspapers report that you assaulted a poor innocent man to mug him. From pulpits, religious leaders denounce you as a bad moral example that should be punished. Politicians urge that the forces of the law be deployed against you. Your attempts to defend yourself are ignored and dismissed as lies and excuses. Most people never even hear your version.

And then after all that, someone explains: “You know the reason why people don’t like you? It’s the way you behave; after all you assaulted that poor man.”

That, my friends, is another way for saying that your policy is the cause of your problems.

Of course, the parallel outlined above is too simple — deeds have been done, mistakes made, conflicts occurred — and yet it does convey something essential about the Middle East and the September 11 attacks, as well as being part of a much broader pattern of how much of the area deals with the United States, Israel, and the West in general.

For example, the most outrageous lies and exaggerations are told in the Arabic-language world about Israel. This material then serves as a basis for explaining that Israel is hated, under constant terrorist attack, and targeted for genocide because of what it does.

But the question remains: does according to whom?

Or consider this question: What’s the main lesson the Middle East has drawn from September 11? That terrorism is bad? Don’t mess with America? Radical Islamism is dangerous and irrational?

Surely, some have done so. Yet probably the dominant idea is that the United States is responsible for the attack on itself. The less “sophisticated” idea, though common among the well-educated, is that the event was a direct conspiracy; the more “educated” notion is as a response to U.S. actions. And this latter concept itself comes in two versions: the more radical (you had it coming to you) and the more moderate (regrettable but necessary).

Just because the Middle East refuses to learn from the experience, however, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t.

First, we should understand that a sphere of dictatorship requires a surrounding universe of lies to protect it. Of course (being a Western thinker requires I engage in self-criticism), that doesn’t mean Western democracies are perfect by any means. But they do try hard, and their systems seek to correct themselves when they make mistakes because democracies have numerous independent people and institutions protected by freedom of speech who can challenge and correct each other, presenting different viewpoints.

In Arabic-speaking states, diversity means a choice between agreeing with the dictatorship or being even more extreme in misrepresenting reality.

Second, this situation is not just a matter of repression or regime misinformation to be corrected by either regime change from outside or massive apologies and concessions. There is a popular base of support for the system based on culture, history, and interpretation of religion which makes such ideas appeal to the masses.

As Tarek Heggy, the most incisive contemporary Arab intellectual, wrote in 1998, “Even the most outlandish statement, if repeated often enough, can…be accepted as true…in a society in which half the population is illiterate and the other half displays only a very modest standard of education…” This situation provides, “A fertile breeding ground for the most untenable, demagogical and unfounded assertions to take root and flourish.”

The only solution is to set different goals and interpretations of the world through rethinking, reform, and education. Western glorifications of the Middle East’s status quo — these are customs which must be preserved, how dare you criticize people’s beliefs and offend their sensibilities? — will merely ensure another century of bloodshed, dictatorship, and poverty.

Third, just because you’re nice and tolerant doesn’t mean you’re wrong. Otherwise, you’ll never understand that just because it is the “other” doesn’t mean it’s wise. No amount of apology or concession will change those who hate you on the basis of ideology and need to hate you to preserve their political, ideological, and cultural system.

Or as former Syrian information minister (note the significance of his past job) Mahdi Daklallah explained recently regarding his regime’s philosophy, “But who cares about the truth?” His words, claiming the United States planned the September 11 attacks, apply much better to the worldview in which he exists: “What is important, always, is the use of the events in order to carry out a strategy planned in advance…”

Fourth, politics happens. The Islamist upsurge is no more a mere reaction to what foreigners have done in the Middle East than was the French revolution (Austria did attack France), Russian Revolution (World War One undermined the Czarist regime), Nazi revolution (the Versailles treaty and indemnities punished Germany and angered its people), and so on.

The point in discussing the distortion of September 11 in the Arabic-speaking world is that the vast majority of issue discussions there are dominated by lies and nonsense. What is needed is to understand the intellectual preconceptions and social-political structures that create this situation.

Reform-minded Arab intellectuals have repeatedly made these points and been ignored, or vilified, for doing so. Shortly after the first anniversary of September 11, the Egyptian writer Abd al-Moneim Said explained the response “was to deny that the perpetrators were Arab and that the event had any connection with Arab society and culture.” Wild conspiracy theories were spread precisely because to confront the tragedy’s implications would require examining real problems “which Arab societies have been so assiduously avoiding.” The more Middle Eastern terrorism spread globally, “the greater was the rush to look the other way.” Five years later, that statement is all the more true.

We hear endlessly that the problem is the West doesn’t understand the Middle East. The truth is the exact opposite: the Middle East doesn’t understand the West and, by the same token, doesn’t understand what it needs to do to get out of the hole it has dug for itself.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), with Walter Laqueur (Viking-Penguin); the paperback edition of The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan); A Chronological History of Terrorism, with Judy Colp Rubin, (Sharpe); and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley). To read and subscribe to MERIA and other GLORIA Center publications or to order books, visit

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Short takes: Palestinian cruelty, bunker-busters, Olmert’s wishful thinking

Sunday, September 14th, 2008

Palestinians enjoy twisting the knife

News item:

Kidnapped IDF soldier Gilad Schalit is not only alive and well, but is being treated to annual birthday parties which include “cake, candles, and music,” a report published by The Sunday Times quoted a leader of the Gaza-based Doghmush clan as saying.

“He’s not being kept in a closed room all the time – this would not be healthy. He can go out and take fresh air,” Abu Katab Doghmush, one of the clan’s elders told the British newspaper. “Every year, a party is held to celebrate his birthday. Yes, there is a cake and candles, music, everything” …

“The only faction that controls his life now is Izzadin Kassam [Hamas’ terrorist militia],” he said. “But I can tell you that Schalit is living in a paradise. Our religion of Islam demands that we look after prisoners even more than we do our own people.”

How many times will I need to repeat myself? If it’s not possible to rescue him, then make Hamas pay a price that is too much for them to bear.

US attitude toward an Israeli preemptive strike improves, maybe…

News item:

The US Department of Defense has notified Congress of a potential sale of 1,000 small diameter bunker-buster missiles to Israel, which would likely be used in the event of a military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities.

The notification of the possible sale to Congress was made over the weekend by the Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA), the branch of the Pentagon responsible for evaluating foreign military sales. The bunker-buster missile Israel has asked for is called GBU-39…

The DSCA announcement came amid growing concern in Israel that the Pentagon was not willing to sell Israel advanced military platforms such as bunker-buster missiles in an effort to dissuade Jerusalem from attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities. Bunker-buster missiles are a vital component of a potential airstrike since many of the Iranian facilities, such as the Natanz uranium enrichment facility, have been built underground in heavily fortified bunker-like facilities.

This is a welcome development, and may show a change in the US attitude toward an Israeli preemptive strike on the Iranian nuclear program.

There will undoubtedly be voices raised in Congress against this sale. But US policymakers must understand that they cannot keep Israel from acting in the event that an Iranian attack becomes imminent. The best way to prevent conflict is to defuse the Iranian threat with real, punitive sanctions; limiting Israel’s capability will only tend to make Israel’s strike less effective, a poor outcome from the US point of view.

Olmert misses the point

At a cabinet meeting today, PM Ehud Olmert argued that withdrawal from most of the West Bank and a ‘peace’ agreement with the Palestinians was the only alternative to the end of the Jewish State. He said,

I used to believe that everything from the Jordan Riverbank to the Mediterranean Sea was ours. After all, dig anywhere and you’ll find Jewish history. But eventually, after great internal conflict, I’ve realized we have to share this land with the people who dwell here – that is if we don’t want to be a binational state…

We can argue about every single detail, but when we finally hash out an agreement we may find we no longer have the international community’s backing, or a partner for that matter. We’ll be left with nothing but the feeling that once again, as for the past 40 years, we were right…

I’m not kidding myself. I know the change I’m talking about won’t rid us of all the threats. We’ll still be facing Palestinians [sic] threats across the security fence, since they have no real security establishment, but we can deal with all of that and we would be better off dealing with it than cementing the notion of a binational state in the international community’s mind…

This is the time to push for peace with both the Palestinians and the Syrians. If we know how to do that, other Arab countries, which are yet to acknowledge us in public, will soon follow.

This would be persuasive if we thought that the Palestinians — any Palestinians — and the rest of the Arab world want a Palestinian state alongside Israel and a ‘peace’ agreement as an end in itself, and not simply a means to get closer to what they really want, the end of Israel.

Olmert has replaced realism with wishful thinking.

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A Jewish charity that helps delegitimize Israel

Friday, September 12th, 2008

Grand Duchy of LuxembourgThe world seems full of people and organizations who do their best to oppose the state of Israel. This is somewhat unique for such a small country. Compare, for example, the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg (which is actually a parliamentary democracy). OK, it is one-twelfth the size of Israel with about a half million inhabitants, but it is infinitely less controversial.

Anyway, Israel has Hamas and Hezbollah, Syria, Iran, and most of the Arab and Muslim world aching for its demise; it has boycott and divestment movements throughout the world; and the United Nations and possibly hundreds of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) constantly beating up on it for alleged human rights violations.

The NGOs, unlike Hamas, do not try to appear bloodthirsty. They aspire to represent civilization at its most highly evolved, altruistically helping the oppressed and disadvantaged. But in many cases they act as auxiliaries to the terrorist militias, chipping away at Israel’s legitimacy and setting the stage for her physical destruction.

Accusations of ‘apartheid’, exaggerated accounts of human rights violations, and ignoring the context of the continued terrorist war being waged against Israel are part and parcel of the ‘Durban strategy’ to delegitimize Israel and force it to make concessions — like total cession of the West Bank and accepting Palestinian ‘refugees’ — that would lead directly to the conversion of Israel into another Arab state.

The Durban strategy (which refers to the 2001 Durban conference against racism which was turned into a anti-Israel hatefest by pro-Palestinian NGOs) is the political struggle, whose weapons are boycotts and divestment, public censure, legal action, and so on that works side by side with the military ‘resistance’ of Hamas and Hezbollah. The efforts complement one another.

What is shocking is that in many cases the NGOs are funded by organizations like the EU or the UN which are theoretically opposed to aggression against legitimate nations. And what is even more infuriating is when they are funded by…Jewish charities.

Take the New Israel Fund (NIF).

  • In 2006-07, two NIF grantees entered Israel’s national debate over a constitution with their own proposals: Adalah: The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, with its “Democratic Constitution,” and the Mossawa Center’s “An Equal Constitution For All?”. These two groups propose a “binational” state that would couple an unlimited “right of return” for Palestinians with abolishing the Jewish Law of Return. Some Israeli Jews advocate a binational state, but the overwhelming majority of Israelis views it as tantamount to eliminating the state’s Jewish character and adamantly opposes it. In addition, some NIF-Ford grantees weighed in on a third such proposal, the “Future Vision of the Palestinian Arabs in Israel” which appears to oppose Israel being a Jewish state.
  • In March 2007, eight groups that promote human rights for Israeli Arabs and Palestinians who live under Israeli occupation successfully petitioned the Israeli High Court of Justice against what it labeled the “Apartheid order” to create an “Apartheid road” on which Israeli police would restrict Palestinians from traveling in Israeli cars in the West Bank. The petition did not mention Israel’s justification for the directive, which it said was to prevent the transport of possible terrorists. Seven of the petitioners were NIF grantees: Yesh Din, Bimkom, Machsom Watch, HaMoked: Center for the Defense of the Individual, the Association of Civil Rights in Israel, Physicians for Human Rights-Israel and the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel.
  • In March, The New York Times quoted a lawyer for the Association of Civil Rights in Israel — a flagship grantee of the NIF and a prime recipient of its funding — explaining, “There is already a separate legal system in the territories for Israelis and Palestinians … With the approval of separate roads, if it becomes a widespread policy, then the word for it will be ‘apartheid.’ “
  • Adalah’s April 2008 newsletter contains an article by the group’s general-director, Hassan Jabareen, titled “The Israeli Regime of Hafradah (Separation in English and Apartheid in Afrikaans).” With no mention of Palestinian attacks, Jabareen alleges that Israel “aims to redefine the Jewishness of the state.” Also in April, five Adalah board members joined an Israeli Arab delegation to South Africa in a visit the group itself portrayed as commiserating with fellow victims of apartheid. — JTA

In addition to its solicitations to liberal Jews (I’ve received NIF literature, probably because of my membership in a Reform congregation), the NIF has received large grants from the Ford Foundation (a $20 million 5-year grant in 2003 which is being renewed this year). The Ford Foundation has a history of being associated with anti-Israel causes, having funded many of the NGOs at the 2001 Durban conference.

The NIF, along with J Street, Tikkun, and other similar Jewish groups represent people of Jewish extraction who have set aside their Jewish identity — except perhaps for laughing at jokes about Ashkenazi Jewish-American food — and have found a different one based on principles of democracy, rule of law, human rights, fairness, tolerance, helping the disadvantaged, non-violence, peace, etc.

All these are wonderful things, but their naive Jewish champions are being cynically exploited by those — like Hamas — who are extremely violent, intolerant and undemocratic.

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