Monday, November 28, 2005

Stolen Lions and Jewish Suckiness

I read yesterday that four masked gunmen stole a lion, along with two parrots, from a Gaza Strip zoo. Now I’m not an expert on lions, but as someone who lives with 11 cats, I can claim to have some familiarity with the family Felidae; I have also owned some good-sized parrots in the past. I’ve been extensively bitten and clawed by both parrots and cats, and have developed a healthy respect for the destructive powers of both types of critter. Lions, of course, are rather larger than housecats, and are even less tamable than our familiar fuzzy feline fiends. (And no, the last word isn’t missing an ‘R’.) We’re talking about some pretty serious fangs and claws here, folks, along with an enthusiastic willingness to use them.

Which leads me to a not-very-original question: What the hell were these guys trying to accomplish? I can’t, for the life of me, think of any desirable goal in the pursuit of which obtaining a live, disgruntled lion is a rational step. I am at a loss, Dear Readers; if you have any suggestions as to a possible motive for this crime, please let me know. In the mean time, I will make one observation: Stories like this tend to strengthen the belief (held by many people living outside our happy little region) that we Middle Easterners are all completely insane.

*          *          *

Of course, oddness is hardly unique to Israel and Palestine, even if it is something of a local specialty. Another story in yesterday’s news was that Michael Jackson, reputedly no stranger to idiosyncrasy, was caught on tape making some rather anti-Semitic remarks.

Rarely nowadays to we see such a classic scenario played out: Wealthy yet financially clueless figure (preferably living in a castle) employs one or more Jews to help manage his financial affairs, presumably in the anti-Semitic (albeit somewhat complimentary) belief that Jews, as a race, possess the business acumen that he sorely lacks. Said Jews attempt to do their jobs, but Wealthy-Yet-Clueless objects to the fact that their skills are a matter of arithmetic rather than magic – in short, they put their boss on a budget, expect their salaries to be paid, and fail to spin gold out of straw. The clash between expectations and reality ultimately causes the relationship to break down, leading to unpleasantness (summary execution in the good old days, endless litigation in our debased times) and mutual recriminations.

Mr. Jackson has played his part with admirable historical accuracy, including some of the accusations he made against Jews in general and his ex-advisors in particular: He claimed that Jews are leeches, deliberately conspiring to drain the coffers of the wealthy-yet-feckless. This is all classic anti-Semitism, regrettable yet uninteresting – particularly when propounded by someone who is not taken terribly seriously as an arbiter of societal normality. (The previous expression is my attempt to say that Mr. Jackson is seriously weird, without being dragged into court. Please don’t sue me, Mike – I love you very much, cross my heart.) One element of his remarks, however, is new and rather disturbing; in most versions of the story, Mister Moonwalk is quoted as saying that the Jews “suck”.

Given Mr. Jackson’s eminence, I fear this accusation will reverberate. I fully expect to see learned and semi-learned (and, for that matter, semi-literate) disquisitions on whether the Jews indeed suck, and – if so – how much, why, and what. No doubt our Palestinian neighbors will add the new accusation to their list: not only do we fire uranium bullets at little old ladies and distribute drugged candy to promote licentiousness, we also suck! Be prepared for the monumental Syrian miniseries The Eternal Suckiness of the Jews to be the next Ramadan blockbuster. My mind boggles; and if yours doesn’t, it should.

But the worst part of the story is that Michael Jackson is now living in – oh dear – the Middle East. I hadn’t known this before; but apparently after his most recent acquittal, he moved to Bahrain, a small kingdom on the Persian Gulf. Thanks a lot, Michael. So much for convincing the world that we Middle Easterners are really just normal, rational people who happen to steal dangerous animals from the zoo and kill one another on occasion.

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Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Dear Arik – An Open Letter to Ariel Sharon

Dear Arik –

So you’ve finally done it – split off from the Likud and formed a new political party. Congratulations! This was a move that a lot of us have eagerly awaited. You’re no doubt getting a lot of professional advice already, but I’d like to contribute a few suggestions of my own. As someone who has never run for political office, I am perhaps not the best-qualified to offer you advice; but I’m not charging for it, so at least you’re getting your money’s worth.

What’s in a name?  I’ve heard two different possible names for your new party: National Responsibility and Kadima (“Forwards”, or perhaps “Advance”). Both are acceptable, but of the two, I much prefer “National Responsibility”. It has a nice ring to it, promoting the idea of competent, patriotic, pragmatic leadership without committing you to any specific policy path. “Kadima” sounds a little too gimmicky, and is too easily parodied (as in “Retreat”, for example). Whatever you decide, though, make the decision and stick to it. Changing the name around will make it look like you’re focusing on trivialities and marketing at the expense of issues and policies.

Be for real.  Many voters are reluctant to invest their votes in a “disposable” party that exists only to serve the short-term interests of a few politicians. At the same time, there has long been a huge gap in the center of Israeli politics; we voters have had to choose between politicians blinded by right-wing ideology, other politicians equally blinded by left-wing ideology, or sectarian parties that wouldn’t know the national interest if it bit them in the butt. If you can convince us that National Responsibility is a real party with a real and distinct philosophy, a party that will exist long after your own retirement, then we’ll believe that voting for you is more than just a tactical move; we will feel that we are helping to create a new and important force in Israeli politics. So don’t let the new party consist only of ministers, Knesset members, and other VIP’s. Start recruiting ordinary members as soon as possible. There won’t be time to create a full set of “grass roots” before the next elections, but you should at least begin the process of making National Responsibility into a genuine political movement.

Soft-pedal economics.  Nobody particularly thinks of you as an economic genius, and as such nobody is expecting you to come up with any exciting, doctrinaire plans for Israel’s economy. In any case, the marketplace for economic panaceas is already crowded, with Bibi Netanyahu apparently poised to assume leadership of the Likud and Amir Peretz at the helm of Labor. Let the two of them fight it out; and if anyone asks, say reassuring things about tempering Netanyahu’s Thatcherite economics with a greater social concern without going overboard into radical Peretzian union-dominated socialism. Your goal here is to be moderate and reassuring, and let both Netanyahu and Peretz scare voters into voting “Responsibly”.

Don’t be shy about your accomplishments.  At this moment, you are Mister Disengagement – the man who got us out of Gaza after we bled there for 38 years. Your voters think that getting out of the Gaza Strip was a good thing, and most of them, I believe, would also like to get Israel out of substantial parts of the West Bank. There is no point in declaring that there will be no further unilateral withdrawals under a National Responsibility government; nobody will believe you even if you believe yourself, and your voters actually like the idea of unilateralism. Your voters want you to do what’s best for Israel, and if negotiating with the Palestinians won’t get us there, that’s the Palestinians’ problem. Oh, yes, one other thing: Get started on clearing out the illegal outposts now, if possible. The people living there weren’t going to vote for you anyway.

Go for the secular vote.  Shinui’s success in the last Knesset election shows how many voters despise the status quo on religious issues. Both Labor and Likud have a long record of making deals with the religious parties at the expense of the general public, and an awful lot of voters feel hugely frustrated by the extent to which our lives are controlled by an extremist minority of the electorate. By all means let Shinui take the radical anti-religious positions (and let Shinui take the flak for them); but you should promote a quieter, less strident version of the same ideas. Come out strongly in favor of civil marriage and the abolition of exemption from the draft for yeshiva students. You’ll gain at least some votes, and (as long as you don’t overdo it) the only people you’ll alienate despise you already.

Be yourself.  Let’s face it: you’re not running as Mister Clean. Your voters know that, and we’re willing to ignore a few scandals as long as you get the job done. Your opponents are going to make a lot of noise about corruption; ignore them as much as possible. Defending yourself won’t accomplish anything; nobody is voting for or against you because of your ethics or lack thereof. Oh, by all means do a few low-key things to clean up (or at least maintain) your image; for example, if Omri is actually in prison at the time of the elections, you might want to move him a few positions down on the party’s Knesset candidates’ list. But avoid making any really dramatic gestures on the ethics front; they’ll just look hypocritical and possibly even desperate.

There’s a lot more unsolicited advice where this came from, of course; but let’s keep it short and simple for now. Good luck, Arik!
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Monday, November 21, 2005

Administriva: Imshin Returns, More New Links, and My Gadget Collection

She’s back! Imshin, mistress of Not a Fish, has begun posting to her blog again, after a hiatus that I suppose lasted a few weeks but seemed like an eternity to me. Imshin was the first blogger to link to me when I appeared on the scene; she also offered me wise and helpful advice on how to survive and thrive in the blogsphere. It’s wonderful to see new stuff on her blog again.

In addition to restoring my link to Not a Fish to active status, I’ve added Iraq the Model to my blogroll. This Iraqi blog – which just celebrated its second birthday, thus earning semi-official “granddaddy” status – joins Into the Wind from Jordan and Rantings of a Sandmonkey from Egypt on my short-but-growing list of excellent blogs from the Arab world.

Gadget Collecting

I appear to be something of a technophile. I’ve always thought of myself as eminently sane and normal, but others (including Vaguely Sinister Wife) seem to disagree. Although I feel like just a regular guy to myself, I do notice that I’ve been accumulating a lot of “gadgets” on this blog: visit-tracking stuff, directory stuff, and so on. At some point I suppose I’m going to have to trim away some of these doodads – probably just so I can make room for even more new gadgets. Here’s what I’ve got so far:

Guestbook by Bravenet: So far, I’ve gotten a couple of “spam” entries and no genuine entries from actual readers. If nobody “real” shows any interest in signing the guestbook, I’ll ditch it, eventually or soon after.

Link Exchange by Bravenet: I commented out the code for this “feature” a few weeks ago. While it did bring some traffic to the site, I suspect that none of the people unwittingly brought in (via annoying “pop-under” windows) were actually interested in it. For those who had pop-up blockers, the whole thing was moot; and for those without pop-up blockers, I think the whole thing was just an irritation.

Blog Directories: I’ve got links to Blogarama, Blog Catalog, BlogStreet, and Jewish Blogging. As far as I can tell (and that’s pretty far – see below), none of these directories has brought any visitors here. (Jewish Blogging may have brought one a few weeks ago – I forget.) Does anyone actually use any of these directories?

Blog Rings: I applied to join the Jewish Bloggers Ring before the holidays; my membership was pending for weeks, and was finally approved after Succot. So far I think I’ve had one visitor from this Ring. I get more traffic from Link2Blogs, but I can’t really tell how many of these visitors are “serious”.

Link Counters: I’m not really sure what to call these. I’ve signed up to Technorati and The Truth Laid Bear, both of which keep track of who links to whom. I must admit, there’s something addictive in this: I was thrilled to graduate from “Flippery Fish” to “Crawly Amphibian” in the TTLB Ecosystem, and I’m enthusiastically struggling to make “Slithering Reptile”. Watch out, “Large Mammals” and “Playful Primates” – I’m on your tail, if you still have one.

Traffic Counters: Believe it or not, I’ve signed up to five of these – I suspect that never in the history of blogging has so little been measured so much. Sitemeter is the counter I use the most; it works in “real time” (or close to it) and gives a good basic picture of what’s going on. However, it lacks (at least in the free version) things like referrer ranking and tracking of which pages people have actually looked at, and how long people lingered on different pages; so I find myself using additional trackers to fill in the gaps. Bravenet is good for tracking returning visitors versus newbies; its graphs are quite nice, but show only one week’s history. Otherwise, it doesn’t add too much. Extreme Tracking does some pretty good graphing of traffic volume, and provides halfway-decent referrer tracking; however, it’s not as close to “real time” as one might wish. Webstats4U (formerly known as Nedstat Basic) has a slick interface and gives some good reports; my worst complaint about it is that because it doesn’t offer cookie-based exclusion, I can’t prevent my computer at home from registering as a “visitor” to my own site. And finally, Google Analytics is new, slick, powerful, and promising – if they could actually get their data-gathering to start working properly. Apparently the word about this service got out before Google was really ready, and demand was so heavy that their server(s) got swamped. As a result, they’re at least four days behind on reporting “new” data – and while they don’t anticipate being a real-time service, their lag is supposed to be one or two hours, not a hundred hours! Supposedly Google is taking steps to get this service working properly; I’d very much like to see some good results.

Trackbacks: “Trackback” is a rather elegant feature that is unevenly implemented in Blogland. Trackback allows Blogger A to comment on his/her blog about stuff that’s been posted on Blog B, and give a link on Blog B (the trackback, that is) pointing to the comment on Blog A. (This sounds more complicated than it is; to see what I mean, go to this article on Lisa Goldman’s site and click on the “Trackback” link. You’ll see a pop-up window with a trackback pointing back here, where I posted an approving comment on Lisa’s article.) (a Google subsidiary), which hosts this blog, does not provide a trackback service – or at least not one that supports links from outside Blogger. (I should say that other than this, I am very happy with Blogger’s service.) So I signed up for HaloScan’s Trackback service; so far, it seems to work well.

All these “gadgets” are free – which, of course, makes them very tempting. On the other hand, they add “weight” to the page, making it somewhat slower to load and adding visual clutter. Some selective streamlining would seem to be in order – especially if I can find some even cooler stuff to replace some of what I’ve already got.

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Sunday, November 20, 2005

Treif Crembos and Kosher Dolphins

No time today for a proper blog post. I’ve been stuck all day – and a large part of yesterday, the Sabbath, which is almost unheard-of for me – helping out with a major database conversion project. Tomorrow, I hope, will be easier.

In the mean time, I did notice one news story today which simply demands comment: According to Reuters, Israeli border-control officials inspecting goods entering Israel from Gaza intercepted a shipment of “crembos” – basically, Israel’s answer to Mallomars – with forged certifications of kashrut. The crembos were sent back where they came from.

Despite its seeming triviality, I find this story rather interesting. For one thing, why would someone ship fake-kosher foodstuffs to Israel from the Gaza Strip? The Strip, remember, is now judenrein; who exactly would certify anything cooked in Gaza as kosher? Why would anyone smart enough to run a bakery be dumb enough not to figure this out? Could these crembos be part of some sinister plan to render our border-control officers complacent? Probably not, but conspiracy theories are almost always more interesting than grubby, stupid reality.

But the most interesting thing for me was that this story was reported on the first page of Haaretz’s website. Now admittedly, Haaretz has a pretty crowded home page – so there’s room for a lot of stories there. Still, on a day with lots of local political news, a fair bit of international blood and gore, and lots of other “hard” news, it would seem that a story about chocolate-covered marshmallow cookies was a bit – forgive me for this – fluffy. And yet the editors of Haaretz, a news organization that is not known for its dedication to Israel’s religiously-observant population, saw fit to give a fair bit of prominence to a story about kashrut.

Probably I’m reading too much into this; perhaps Haaretz sees its home page as a sort of New York subway car, where there is always room for one more story. But I’d like to think that this is one of those silly little things that make me love living in Israel. The fact that treif crembos are actually news here – that details of Jewish life are a matter of national concern – is a sign that despite all the internal divisions, despite all the security worries, despite all the other crazy aspects of life here, Israel really is a Jewish state. Hey, Herzl, you were right! Hey, Ben Gurion, look! We’ve done it! We’ve got a country in which stuff like this is news! We may not know exactly what to do with a Jewish state, but at least we’ve got one.

And, on the same home page, I read that Israel is buying two more Dolphin-class submarines from Germany – submarines that are capable of carrying nuclear arms, if perchance we happen to have any lying around. Imagine that! I wonder if they’ll serve crembos on board?
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Thursday, November 17, 2005

Lisa’s Roots

Lisa Goldman has come up with yet another of her beautiful little vignettes – a short, vivid slice of life with a great “punch line”. I won’t give away the plot. In fact, I won’t tell you anything except to click over to her site and read it.

Man, I wish I could write like that!
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Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Happy Thought For Today: Global Terror vs. Global Warming

Seth Cooper over at the Guns and Butter Blog takes issue with Al Gore’s statement that “on a long-term global basis, global warming [and not terrorism] is the most serious problem we are facing.” Here is most of his post:

I disagree with Gore. On a long-term basis, we are faced with a far more serious threat by a global network of radical utopian terrorists who are carrying out a declared and actual war of terrorism against the civilized nations of the world. Through acts of horrific violence, they have launched reprehensible attacks upon the defenders of freedom and upon innocent civilians in hopes of imposing a worldwide, repressive theocratic regime.

Does anyone actually think that public pronouncements like Gore's help to further our struggle against global terrorism?

Well, I don’t know if anyone actually paid much attention to Gore’s statement, so I can’t be sure if it had any real impact; but to the extent that messages like this do get out and are taken seriously, then yes – I think they do help us fight global (and local) terrorism.

Terrorism is a form of psychological warfare. Its goal is to attract attention to its perpetrators and their cause, and to disrupt the targeted society. By maximizing the threat of terrorism, we quite effectively play into the terrorists’ hands by increasing our level of fear; we adopt the terrorists’ agenda in place of our own. When we make terrorism out to be the biggest threat to our civilization – or, for example, refer to suicide bombers as “genocide bombers” – we are telling the terrorists that they are succeeding, and giving them every reason to continue and escalate their attacks. (I prefer to call suicide bombers “human bombs” or “walking bombs”, by the way – but that’s another post.)

I believe (and I’m joined here by some pretty high-powered experts on the subject) that one of the best things we can do to counter terrorism is to put it into perspective and not let it disrupt our normal lives. One of my favorite ways of doing this is to compare deaths due to terrorism with deaths due to traffic accidents: In Israel, one of the world’s leading terrorist targets, at least 500 people per year are killed in traffic accidents, and a much larger number are injured. Even in the worst years of the current “Intifada”, fewer than half that many were killed by terrorists; this year the ratio will be much more lopsided in favor of automotive death. So if I’m not frightened (or not very frightened) of driving to work every morning, why should I be frightened of terrorists?

*     *     *

I don’t pretend to be an expert on global warming; and I’m not sure that even the experts are all that certain as to what will and won’t happen over the next decades. But from what I’ve read, there are legitimate reasons for concern: We might well see large-scale flooding of low-lying countries (some of which, like Bangladesh, are quite populous); crop failures (particularly in places like India and Africa); huge population migrations which could easily turn violent; and other dramatic, massive disruptions. Potentially, we could be talking about the death of millions of people, or even of many millions. Compare that to the numbers killed by terrorists: a few thousand victims even in a bad year. Of course, some of those killed by terrorists are citizens of Western countries, while those who will suffer the most from global warming are poor Third World residents; but that isn’t supposed to matter, is it?

Of course, there are lots of complicating factors in comparing global terrorism to global warming; I don’t think that such a comparison is all that meaningful, or that it can be made with mathematically precise results. And factors like nuclear-armed terrorists would certainly alter the equation! But the fact remains that – to the extent that the comparison has any real meaning – Al Gore’s “pronouncement” looks pretty accurate to me.
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Sunday, November 13, 2005

Election Countdown: Upper Lips and Hissy-Fits

And so, a new week begins. Shimon Peres, as I didn’t predict (but did accept as a possibility, sort of) managed to lose last Wednesday’s Labor Party primary after all; the new Labor leader is Amir Peretz. Until now I’ve never bothered to learn much about what Mr. Peretz stands for. Now I suppose I’ll have to study his policy positions and his record, so that I can write conscientious, detailed analyses of the prospects of a Peretz premiership. I'll do it as soon as I can figure out how to whip up some motivation to do so.

Not yet having done my homework, I really have no right to snipe at Peretz. I’m not actually promising to be well-behaved, you understand – I’m just admitting in advance that for now, anything derogatory I say about our new Labor leader will be a cheap shot, “cheap” in this case referring to making points at someone’s expense without investing any effort in learning about the victim. (Actually, now that I’ve defined what a cheap shot is, taking cheap shots sounds like a pretty good idea. This is how yet another blogger succumbs to the temptations of the Dark Side...)

While I’m admitting things, I’ll tell you, Beloved Readers, one of my dark and dirty secrets: When contemplating Amir Peretz, I suffer from severe moustache envy. I’m not normally prone to feelings of inferiority, but viewing the luxuriant moustaches of Middle East figures like Mr. Peretz and Saddam Hussein has always made me feel like a lesser man. I write about these giants of the upper lip with trepidation, then, for I fear my objectivity will be compromised. What if I were to write some biting critique of Amir Peretz’s political record, only to realize upon later reflection that all my seemingly reasoned arguments were really just the whinings of a scraggly-faced moustache midget trying to trim his betters down to size? With my massive and influential following, I could well alter the course of history, ensuring yet another election victory for Mister Richter Scale – who not only makes me feel better about my own weight problems, but is comfortingly clean-shaven. I’ve got nothing against playing irresponsibly with the fate of the world, of course, but I'd hate to be caught doing so because of facial-hair insecurity. The mind – or at least my mind – boggles.

*     *     *

As I wrote last week, I firmly believe that most, if not all, of the election-fever news stories with which we’re being bombarded can be safely ignored. But as a writer (okay, a so-called writer) I must admit that this stuff is awfully difficult to avoid when you’re faced by a blank editor screen and you have to fill it with something. So despite the utter insignificance of the event and of any comment I might make upon it, I will point out something slightly interesting I heard on the radio this morning: Amir Peretz will, apparently, cause our current national-unity (hah!) government to fall this Wednesday, on what is almost surely the flimsiest pretext in the history of Israeli poltics – Ariel Sharon’s failure to return Peretz’s phone calls.

Yes, I know that Sharon’s offense went beyond not talking to Amir Peretz on the phone; he also planned to meet The Moustache on Thursday instead of earlier in the week. Still, it seems like a pretty minor slight; after all, not returning telephone calls is Israel’s national sport, and most of us couldn’t get an appointment with the Prime Minister at all, much less within a few days of when we wanted it. Why make such a big deal over so little?

The answer is obvious: Amir Peretz promised to take Labor out of the government immediately if he became the party’s leader, and he is making good on his pledge. The move makes tactical sense: the junior party in a national-unity government never wants the coalition to last until mandatory elections, since playing second fiddle to the dominant party is not a very good way to make the junior partner look like a viable alternative ruling party. “Vote for us – we’re loyal lap-dogs” somehow doesn’t inspire the electorate. So when elections start looking close, the best thing to do is suddenly to discover that the ruling party espouses policies which your party has always found totally repugnant, bring down the government, and hope that in the intervening months before elections, the voters will forget anything they might have heard about collective responsibility. Peretz is in an especially good position to use this ploy, as he wasn’t (and isn’t) part of the Cabinet, and his One Nation faction never fully acceded to the government line on economic issues.

So Peretz has every reason to take Labor out of the coalition, and can do so without even the usual degree of hypocrisy and opportunism. Only one thing bothers me: why is he bothering to find a pretext? I would have thought that it would look better simply to admit that leaving the coalition is a standard tactical decision (taken, of course, for purely patriotic motives – peace and social justice and all that sort of thing) rather than make the move look like a hissy-fit thrown by someone who – with a great moustache like that – really should be above such things.
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Friday, November 11, 2005

Adloyada on History and Narratives: Recommendation and Response

Judy at Adloyada has come up with yet another great post (and no, I’m not trying to be sycophantic!), on history versus “narratives” in the Israeli-Arab conflict. Although Judy raises a number of excellent points, I don’t fully agree with her blanket dismissal of narratives that are demonstrably false or unverifiable; even when a narrative is not true in the objective sense, it nonetheless remains “true” in a very important sense when a large number of people believe it and aren’t going to be persuaded otherwise. Narratives have a life of their own, and if we dismiss them from our thinking because they are “untrue”, we will fail to understand and deal effectively with those who do believe them. In the Middle East, at least, the false can be very real.

I’ve got a fair bit of historical training under my belt, and as such I would certainly be happier dealing with a single, objectively true and verifiable account of events in our part of the world – especially if everyone else involved would accept the same set of facts! But while we can and should try to correct blatant falsehoods where we can, we also need to understand that our adversaries’ narrative is not going to go away, even if we disprove substantial parts of it. (We also need to apply the same sort of critical historical judgement to our own narrative as we apply to our adversaries’; objectivity cuts both ways!)

In my view, the real goal – for each side! – is not to fight for “our” narrative at the expense of “their” narrative. If we’re ever going to resolve the Israeli-Arab conflict, we need to get beyond narratives entirely: Israel needs to allow some acceptable resolution of the Palestinians’ problems even if we inwardly believe that the Palestinians are a “phony” ethnic group; and the Arabs need to accept that Israel is going to remain here as a Jewish state in the Middle East, even if their narrative denies our identity as returning descendants of indigenous inhabitants of the region. In other words, we need to stop arguing about whose version of history is more authentic and which side’s claim to “native peoplehood” is more accurate, and accept that we are all living here, we are all “real” whatever our antecedents, neither side is going to disappear en masse, and we all have real problems that need to be addressed.
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Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Election Season and Pulling Teeth

Putting yourself in a position where you are expected to write on a regular basis – worse yet, where you are expected to write something that someone else might actually want to read – is a rather odd thing to do, especially when you aren’t being paid for it. You can’t just go on living your life in the normal way: it’s difficult, after all, to remain nonchalant when you haven’t posted anything to your stupid blog in two days and your readers – all seventeen of them – will give up on you if you don’t come up with something interesting and brilliant in the very near future. So everything that happens in your life, every news item you read, every thought that passes through your brain, is processed through a little mental filter: How can I use this as something to write about? The most unlikely things become metaphors: a problem getting a computer fixed becomes an example of all that's wrong in the Middle East, simply because otherwise what’s there to say about a broken computer?

So it comes as something of a relief when two things connect in such an obvious manner that you don’t have to strain for a metaphor; when events in your inner life so perfectly mirror events in the greater world that the words flow effortlessly. I’m talking, of course, about This Week’s Great Coincidence: the semi-official beginning of Israel’s election season, and my impending wisdom-tooth extraction.

Just thinking about it is breathtaking: at around 10:30 this evening we will hear – barring the kind of surprise defeat that has become a sort of personal specialty – that Shimon Peres will be the Labor Party’s candidate for Prime Minister in our next election; and a mere ten hours after that, out comes Mister Lower-Left Back Molar.

Dental work and Israeli politics have more in common than pain, of course: For example, just as I know that I have only so many teeth in need of various forms of dental torture, we Israeli voters know that our next elections must take place some time in the next three hundred sixty three days. At the end of the process, we’ll have a new Knesset that will be… that will be… I think I need some more Novocaine, please.

Writers who are paid for their labors have even worse problems than I do, of course; many of them even have worse teeth than mine. Having to write to keep the wolf from the door means that they need to come up with endless articles any time an election looms: exactly when will the current government fall, what parties will compete, who will split, who will merge, what will Ariel Sharon call the new party that he may or may not form, and what new and exciting sixty-year-old geniuses constitute the New Generation of Israeli politicians? Yes, I think I’d like to rinse and spit now.

Thankfully, I don’t need to write to keep the wolf from my door; my wolf already lives inside the house. (Actually, he’s a Canaan Dog – essentially a wolf with a couple of mutations that make him goofy rather than fearsome. He’s got good teeth, too, the son of a bitch – but I digress.) So I can reveal a secret or two that the professional reporters probably won’t tell you:

  1. You can safely ignore all news reports about when the next elections will take place. After all, what are the possibilities? The last date for elections (based on when the current Knesset was elected) is November 7, 2006; and even if our government falls tomorrow, the earliest likely date for elections would be in April or May 2006. So all the hoopla about timing is really a waste of ink and effort; what’s six months more or less?

  2. You can safely ignore all reports about Ariel Sharon splitting off from the Likud (or, rather, given their relative sizes, about Ariel Sharon forcing the Likud to split off from him). Of course, I'm in favor of a Likud split; but it’ll happen when and if it happens, and Arik (who, like the off-screen Soviet leader in Doctor Strangelove, loves surprises) is hardly going to let us mere voters know his inner thought processes. We should accept that everything we read on the subject from now until the split happens or doesn’t happen is chicken-feed – that is, “news” released by an interested party in order to further an agenda or distract us from something else.

  3. You can safely ignore reports about mergers and splits among Israel’s various right-wing parties. I’m not saying that mergers and splits won’t take place, of course – heaven forbid! I’m just saying that it really doesn’t matter. Every election season, the Israeli Right decides that the reason for its inability to seize control of the country is because of some technicality: either there are too many right-wing parties splitting the vote, or there are too few, or they need a charismatic new leader, or whatever. Every election season, somebody comes up with a scientific opinion poll showing how Magic Merger X will result in thirty Knesset seats for the far-Right, and yet somehow it never seems to work out that way.

  4. While it would be nice if it mattered who runs the Labor Party, it probably doesn’t.
Once we know when the elections will take place, which parties are actually running and what they claim to represent, and what’s happened in the real world in the mean time, we can start paying attention again. We actually will get to vote at some point; and when we do so we should vote responsibly, if we can find anyone responsible to vote for. I may even come out with some endorsements; that plus a few million dollars from foreign sources could easily put my favored party into fifth place.

And the result? After the elections are over and a new governing coalition is formed, we will once again discover how Israeli politics is different from dental surgery: after the tooth comes out and my gums stop bleeding, I fully expect that my mouth will be in better shape than it is today.
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Tuesday, November 08, 2005

French Riot Stuff

I've avoided commenting on the ongoing riots in France, for the very good reason that I have nothing to say on the subject that’s worth reading. Judy at Adloyada does, however; as usual, her article is thoughtful, informative, and replete with lots of links to sources of additional information and opinion. (You might also want to check out Neo-Neocon's post on whether this is or isn’t the great Clash of Civilizations in action.) Enjoyez, mes amis!
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Sunday, November 06, 2005

The March of Democracy: Mom, Apple Pie, and Kassams

Here in the Middle East, we like our political problems to be complex enough to keep us happily (if not fruitfully) occupied for years on end trying to work them out. One of our most successful techniques is to construct situations that have no simple “correct” solution, and then to argue incessantly over which potential not-quite-solution is less wrong than the others. It’s endless fun, and provides wonderful excuses for not actually doing anything constructive.

Our latest controversy (the last time I checked) is over whether Hamas should be permitted to participate in upcoming Palestinian legislative elections. Opponents of Hamas’ participation – including Israel’s Prime Minister and our Foreign Minister – believe that by taking part in electoral politics, Hamas will gain an undeserved level of protection for its leadership; after all, as fellow devoted democrats, we can hardly assassinate candidates for public office on their way to a baby-kissing session! Further, should Hamas win the elections (or come close enough that it is needed to create a governing coalition), it will achieve a level of legitimacy completely at odds with our view of it as a terrorist organization. If the leader of Hamas becomes “the democratically-elected leader of the Palestinian people” – particularly if he does so in genuinely free and fair elections – we will certainly face some pressure to engage in negotiations with him, despite our utter rejection of all he represents.

As a blogger, I’m supposed to express strong, unequivocal opinions in brief, snappy bits of prose. Sadly, I’m not terribly good at being brief and snappy; and this time I’m afraid I’m going to be wishy-washy as well. Despite the fact that I disagree with Ariel Sharon and Silvan Shalom on this issue, I must admit that their arguments against Hamas’ acceptance as a Palestinian political party are cogent ones. I can hardly feel ecstatic about allowing Hamas to participate in the elections, but I believe that banning the organization from competing (or obstructing the elections because of Hamas’ participation) would be even worse than letting the elections proceed with Hamas as one of the competitors.

Imaginary Distinctions

My first objection to the exclusion of Hamas is a simple one: Treating Hamas as a pariah while accepting Fatah as a legitimate political movement overstates the differences between the two organizations, and effectively weakens Israel in its dealings with Fatah-led Palestinian governments. It may be true that Fatah today is less active as a terror organization than Hamas is, particularly if we classify the Martyrs of al-Aqsa as being more of a local Hizballah front these days than a part of Fatah; but Fatah has yet to repudiate terrorism in any convincing way. Mahmoud Abbas (a.k.a. Abu Mazen) has frequently objected to terror attacks as “harmful to the Palestinian cause”, but he (along with the rest of the Fatah leadership) has never taken a clear stand against terrorism as a categorical evil that can never be accepted as part of the Palestinian national struggle.

By objecting to Hamas while accepting Fatah as a legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, Israel’s government whitewashes Fatah’s incontrovertibly terrorist past and ambiguously terrorist present. I believe that we’d be better off were we to make it clear that we consider both Fatah and Hamas to be heavily “tainted” by terrorism (to put it mildly). This would not only reduce Fatah’s leverage as an adversary at the bargaining table; it would also encourage the creation or evolution of genuinely anti-terrorist political voices among the Palestinians. (What’s sad, of course, is that there is still no significant Palestinian political party that completely repudiates terrorism. The Palestinian voter concerned about this issue is still faced, at best, with a choice between “Yes!” and “Mmmmmaybe.”)

Imaginary Elections

Another objection to excluding Hamas from Palestinian legislative elections is that with Hamas sidelined, Fatah would be left to run almost unopposed. Independent candidates and other opposition parties do exist, but without Hamas as the principal opposition party there is no chance of a strong challenge to Fatah’s dominance in national-level Palestinian politics. Without an opposition that has some realistic chance of gaining power, elections are a meaningless charade; so by keeping Hamas out of the elections, we would postpone the development of genuine Palestinian democracy. If we believe that it’s easier for one democracy to make peace with other democracies, we should be encouraging the democratization of Palestine rather than suppressing it.

Real Elections, Real Consequences

Of course, it’s equally true that if Palestinian voters are allowed to make genuine choices, they can and should be held responsible for those choices. (Even Islamic scholars accept the responsibility of voters in a democracy for the choices they make; but sometimes they tend to go a bit too far.) If Hamas is allowed to run in the next Palestinian elections, Israel and its Western allies must make it very clear in advance that a Hamas victory, or even a result that led to Hamas sharing power with other parties, would lead to a complete cessation of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, with full Western support for this stance.

The pitfall that must be avoided – and this, I think, is a large part of what worries many Israeli leaders – is that many otherwise intelligent and well-meaning Westerners labor under the mistaken belief that winning a fair, contested election (or sometimes even winning an essentially uncontested election, as Yasser Arafat did every time he faced the voters) confers legitimacy on the winner. This is the result of a rather fuzzy-headed liberalism that believes that The People are always right. A more realistic and hard-headed form of liberalism recognizes that The People sometimes make a right hash of things, and that the principal achievement of democracy is not that the voters choose their leaders wisely; the great thing about democracy is that the voters get a chance to repent of their last mistake, kick out their current rulers, and replace them with new ones. (Of course, for this to work, a strong institutional structure must exist to ensure that the winner of today’s election can’t create a dictatorship and effectively prevent the next election. Who knows what might have happened had Germany remained a democracy after Adolph Hitler won the 1933 elections?) When elections are won by the wrong contestant – Hamas, Hitler, or whoever – it's not the winning candidate who is legitimized, but the electorate that is besmirched, at least until the next election.

So by all means, let Hamas run for office. If Hamas wins or comes close enough to share power, freeze all contacts with the Palestinian Authority and continue Israel’s current course of unilateralism. And let the Palestinian electorate decide what to do next.
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Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Iran's Kulturkampf

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s speech to the “World Without Zionism” conference last Wednesday is already old news – and in many ways, it really wasn’t news in the first place. After all, Iran’s Islamist government has held fast to a virulently anti-Israel stance since it was founded in 1979; nothing really has changed, except that (A) Ahmadinejad’s speech came in the middle of a confrontation with the West over Iran’s alleged efforts to build nuclear weapons, and (B) this time the regime’s policy was stated by the President himself (as opposed to a “spiritual leader”), with no nuance or parisology.

Of course, everyone with a keyboard has been scribbling away (or whatever the equivalent of scribbling is when you’re writing with a computer) since Ahmadinejad’s speech. (By the end of this article, I’ll be able to touch-type “Ahmadinejad” without hesitating or looking back to remember the spelling – and who says blogging is a waste of time?) What’s there to say on the subject that hasn’t already been said five times over? Not much, I suspect, but I’ll try anyway:

First, I see Ahmadinejad’s speech as a message of hope to all of us who have secret fantasies about running the world. Whatever else you say about the affair, giving this speech at this time seems like a remarkably inept bit of statecraft; if this guy could become President of Iran, who knows what jobs the rest of us might find for ourselves? Today I feel much better about my own chances of achieving despotic power than I did two weeks ago.

Second, a little reading between the lines of the speech tells us a lot about the Middle East conflict. Ahmadinejad devoted much of the speech to encouraging Palestinian nationalism in its most extreme form: the complete replacement of Israel by the State of Palestine, presumably ruled by Islamists. But at the same time, it’s very difficult to reconcile support for the Palestinian cause – in any form – with a nuclear weapons development program of which Israel is the presumptive first target. You can’t nuke Israel without killing and sickening an awful lot of Palestinians; and while a post-nuclear Palestinian state might gain some territorial contiguity, it would lose any potential viability it might have. I can think of a few possible explanations for this apparent contradiction:

  1. Iran’s nuclear program is really just a peaceful effort to generate electricity without contributing to global warming. I can also enhance my mating potential by purchasing various fine products I read about on the Internet.

  2. Iran wants nuclear weapons to enhance its position in the world and deter others from attacking it (even as it continues to sponsor terrorism), but doesn’t intend to use them against Israel unless attacked first. This could actually be true, but I wouldn’t want to bet the family farm on it. (Hmmm… Now that I think about it, I actually have bet the family farm on it – since I live in Israel and work in Tel Aviv, a.k.a. Ground Zero.)

  3. Ahmadinejad, whose name is now tripping off my fingers quite fluently, doesn’t have a blog of his own and thus hasn’t bothered to figure out the implications of his own remarks. This is also quite possible; I’m not getting the feeling that this guy is real big on achieving full understanding of a policy’s implications before espousing it.

  4. Ahmadinejad, and presumably other members of Iran’s ruling establishment, would actually be happy enough to wipe Palestine off the map if that was the price to be paid for eliminating the “blot” of Israel. One gets the impression that at least a few Palestinians feel some concern in this regard.
The fourth possibility is an interesting one. For one thing, it would pretty much eliminate one of the reasons we have for not panicking about Iran’s effort to develop The Bomb: the belief that the Palestinians are, to a degree, Israel’s “human shields”. Second, if this is really the way the Iranian rulers feel about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, the Received Understanding of the Middle East permacrisis as essentially a territorial dispute needs to be radically revised.

Parts of Ahmadinejad’s speech support such a revision. According to MEMRI, Ahmadinejad said, “This occupying country [i.e. Israel] is in fact a front of the World of Arrogance [i.e. the West] in the heart of the Islamic world. They have in fact built a bastion from which they can expand their rule to the entire Islamic world... This means that the current war in Palestine is the front line of the Islamic world against the World of Arrogance, and will determine the fate of Palestine for centuries to come.”

Our first reaction to this may be to dismiss Ahmadinejad’s fears of Israel as a “bastion” for Western conquest of the Islamic world as mere paranoia; after all, Israel is hardly in a position to conquer countries many times its size, and most of the West is vehemently opposed to anything it can interpret as “Israeli expansionism”. Further, the vast majority of nations and citizens in the West have no intention of waging a war of conquest against the Islamic world; even those who strongly favor the U.S.-led campaign in Iraq see the presence of foreign troops there as a temporary necessity rather than as a permanent feature of the landscape.

So what is Ahmadinejad talking about? Is he (along with the rest of Iran’s leadership) crazy? I think not; fanatical they may be, but they aren’t crazy, not quite. The war the Iranians are fighting – along with al Qaeda, Hamas, and the rest of the Islamist crowd – is primarily a Kulturkampf, a cultural struggle, rather than a military one. Israel’s significance in this struggle is not that it sits on “Islamic land”, or even that it causes the Palestinians to suffer. Israel is important because it functions – potentially for the most part, at least so far – as a conduit for Western culture, ideas, habits of thought, and other insidious intangibles. The Iranians and the Saudis and the rest aren’t really afraid of Ariel Sharon and the Israeli army. What really frightens them is Shimon Peres (with his “New Middle East”) and Buffy the Vampire Slayer – that is, the whole notion of Israel, with Western culture and values (such as pretty young women who kick ass, whom I for one certainly value), as an integral part of the region. Such an integration of Israel into the Middle East would sooner or later – and I’d put my money on sooner – spell the end for most of the current regimes in the region; Iran’s government would likely be one of the first to go.

It’s important for anyone trying to promote peace in the Middle East to understand this Kulturkampf. As long as the real objection to Israel’s presence here is a cultural one, no amount of territorial compromise will help resolve the Mideast conflict; a small Israel is just as scary as a large Israel. And to Iran and the rest of those fighting Western cultural influence here, the Palestinians are almost as frightening as Israel is: after all, they can easily serve as part of the bridgehead for the West’s cultural invasion. Western ideas can all too readily pass from the outside world to Israeli Jews, to Israeli Arabs, to Palestinians, to the rest of the Arab/Islamic world. Certainly this is why Saudi Arabia and Iran back organizations like Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which want Israel to be entirely replaced by an Islamist Palestine. Perhaps it would also account for Iranian willingness to nuke the Palestinians along with the Jews: the only thing safer than an Islamist Palestine is an incinerated Palestine.
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