Monday, January 30, 2006

Interpreting the Palestinian Vote: The “Can’t Win” Syndrome

In the aftermath of Hamas’ surprising (at least to most of us) victory in the Palestinian legislative elections, a lot of commentators have decried the Palestinians’ supposed preference for terrorism over peacemaking, rejectionism over recognition of Israel, and so on. These pundits express disappointment at the Palestinians’ choice, and recommend a “get tough” policy with our now-confirmedly-hostile neighbors.

There’s one problem here: Most of these commentators are right-wingers who, until the last few days, frequently reminded us that Fatah was just as much a terror organization as Hamas, that Abu Mazen was basically Yasser Arafat in a suit and necktie (and with the charisma of a tree-sloth, but that’s beside the point), and so on.

You can’t have it both ways, guys. Either Fatah is a vicious terrorist organization intent on Israel’s destruction – more or less like Hamas, in other words – or it isn’t. If it is, then the Palestinians who voted for Hamas over Fatah didn’t do so because of Hamas’ pledges to eliminate Israel (since Fatah feels the same way); they voted for Hamas because Fatah was utterly corrupt and incompetent, and Hamas gave them some hope of better, more honest government.

If, on the other hand, Fatah really was a “peace partner” for Israel – meaning that voting for Hamas was a rejection of peace and coexistence, an endorsement of terrorism, and so on – then why were you guys so hostile to Fatah when it was in power?

As I’ve said before, I tend to view the difference between Fatah and Hamas, terrorism-wise, as more a matter of degree and nuance than anything substantive. While Fatah – or at least some parts of it – may be slightly more amenable to compromise and coexistence, it’s more than a little silly to pretend that Yasser Arafat’s old outfit is some sort of Palestinian Peace Now. Given this – and assuming that Palestinian voters are no dumber than the average hedgehog – it seems rather foolish and unfair to accuse the Palestinians of “rejecting peace” by voting for Hamas rather than Fatah. If neither party contesting the elections could rationally be seen as opposing terrorism and promoting a final settlement based on compromise and accommodation, the election results cannot be viewed as expressing any clear opinion on these issues.

The Can’t-Win Syndrome

According to some of my fellow Zionist opiners’ world-view, it would seem that the Palestinians, unless they roll over and play dead (metaphorically, of course – or maybe not), can do no right. Everything they do or say is viewed exclusively in terms of their conflict with Israel and the Jews, generally in order to highlight their refusal to countenance Israel’s existence, their acceptance of violence as a means to achieve their national goals, and so on. If the Palestinians choose Hamas over Fatah, the decision can be understood only as an endorsement of terrorism and irredentism, never as a choice between possibly-good administration and abysmal administration.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that Palestinian hostility towards Israel is merely a figment of the right-wing Zionist imagination. The fact that there was no significant contender in this election running on an anti-terrorism, pro-compromise platform is sad. The fact that any such contender would have been murdered at the polls – perhaps literally – is sadder. But given the choices that were presented to the Palestinian electorate, there is no valid reason to interpret the election results as having anything much to do with Israel or with terrorism.

In this light, I’d like to pose a little challenge to anyone who disagrees with me. Try to answer honestly: If Fatah had won the Palestinian parliamentary elections, would you be congratulating the Palestinian voters for “choosing peace” as loudly as you now condemn them for “choosing terror”?

(This post can also be found at the Guns and Butter Blog.)

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Sunday, January 29, 2006

A Small, Sad Change

I just made a small change to this blog’s subtitle: instead of “eleven cats for company”, there are now ten. Shandy, a very friendly young male African Wildcat hybrid, died last Thursday morning of feline distemper. His colleague Eponine, a little grey tabby kitten we rescued, got sick as well, but appears to be recovering. Pixel, Shandy’s one-eyed, slightly evil sister, and Echo, Eponine’s presumed brother, seem okay so far; all our other cats (Shunar, Ember, Cricket, Xiao Lin, Tribble, Shalva, and Meshi, in case anyone’s counting) are adults, and, we hope, less at risk than the youngsters.

I don’t normally blog about purely personal stuff; this is supposed to be a site about my thoughts and opinions, not about my private life. But in truth, the division is an artificial one: all writing is, to some degree, autobiography. I have no idea how the death of a cat affects my thinking about Israeli politics, the peace process (or whatever’s left of it), or anything else, really. Maybe having animals in my life helps to keep things in some kind of perspective: whatever’s going on in the human sphere means little or nothing to cats, dogs, and horses, as long as they are cared for, loved, and – when the time comes – mourned.

Goodbye, Shandy.
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Thursday, January 26, 2006

Enjoying History: The Birth of Hamastan

There are some days when I don’t devote much thought to the fact that I live in Israel. Those are days when I’m busy dealing with technical problems, doing pretty much the same thing here that I did back in America, in Hong Kong when I lived there, and in London when I lived there.

There are other days when I find living in Israel pretty frustrating. Usually, these are days when I’ve had to reassure Ettie at the bank; she occasionally gets nervous about my overdraft, and the one thing that one doesn’t want when one is perennially overdrawn is a nervous banker. On days like this, I think back to the salary I received before coming to Israel – a salary that was easily twice what I now earn for doing much the same work – and wonder if I’m crazy to live here.

But then there are days when I absolutely love living here – and thankfully, there are lots of them. Lying out in my hammock on a warm Saturday in November; never feeling the need for a G.P.S. system (my secret for successful navigation in Israel and the West Bank: When the signs are all in Arabic, make a U-turn); understanding the people around me (most of them slightly insane, but in nice familiar ways); or just enjoying living in a country that runs to a rhythm that doesn’t feel alien to me, I realize that I’m having a ball here, overdraft or no.

One of the things I like best about being in Israel is the feeling that I’m living through genuine history: things actually seem to happen here. And yesterday, it turns out, was one of those historic days.

I have publicly stated my somewhat grudging approval of Hamas’ participation in Palestinian elections. Now it turns out that not only did Hamas participate – Hamas actually defied forecasts and won the elections outright! This may be bad news for the “peace process”, but I suspect that it’s at least likely to be good news for the Palestinians, and it’s excellent news for Israel. (It also represents a major political milestone for the Arab world in general – how many other times has an election in an Arab country resulted in the peaceful transfer of real political power to the opposition?)

The first thing to understand about Hamas’ victory is that it didn’t really have much to do with Israel. As I pointed out back in November, a vote for Fatah was hardly a vote against terrorism; by the same token, a vote for Hamas shouldn’t be interpreted as a vote for terrorism. Fatah offered some hope of revived negotiations with Israel, but was doing an absolutely wretched job of running the day-to-day affairs of the Palestinian proto-state. Hamas offered no real chance of a negotiated peace with Israel, but has a good record of providing education, health services, and in general acting as if it cares about the lives of ordinary Palestinians. Whether this social outreach work is largely a bit of slick manipulation – which it is – is not really relevant to the beneficiaries of these services; all they care about is that Hamas provides them with services they need, and the official Fatah-run apparatus doesn’t.

By voting for Hamas, Palestinians simply demonstrated that right now, the slim hope of a negotiated settlement with Israel – which likely wouldn’t improve their lives all that much – is less important to them than their purely domestic problems. From what I’ve read of the failures, mismanagement, corruption, and dishonesty of the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority, I’d have to say that I agree with the voters.

*          *          *

Who are the winners and losers, now that Hamas has won and Fatah has lost?

Hamas is now going to be forced to face up to the problems of government without having passed through much of an apprenticeship. The organization made it very clear before the election that – while they might be willing to talk to us, if we begged nicely enough – they weren’t interested in abandoning terrorism, recognizing Israel within any borders (except perhaps on another continent), or otherwise giving up their tough-guy agenda in order to focus on fixing potholes. But as the governing party of the Palestinian Autonomy, elected on an honesty-and-prosperity platform, Hamas will be caught in a bit of a bind: Previously, they mounted terror attacks knowing full well that Israeli responses (such as closures and roadblocks) increased impoverishment and discontent among ordinary Palestinians. Impoverishment and discontent were exactly what Hamas wanted – as a force in opposition to the Palestinian Authority. Now that Hamas is going to run the Palestinian Authority, promoting Palestinian poverty isn’t going to be good politics for them – even if they blow up Israelis in the process. My prediction for Hamas: continued tough rhetoric, no disarming, but probably no actual increase in terror attacks – at least not in attacks carried out by Hamas.

Fatah has never been an opposition party before. I think they need the time off, and it appears that at least some of their leaders (who are no dummies) think so too. Every political party needs to spend a certain amount of time in opposition, or it gets soft, decadent, and corrupt. Fatah (as a political party) started out decadent and corrupt, and they went downhill from there.

Labor and Likud – both of which are reading from the same page, really – should both lose by Hamas’ victory, at least if Ehud Olmert plays his cards right. Since both parties base their diplomatic agendas on negotiations with the Palestinians rather than on unilateralism, a victory for either of them would mean years of stasis. Were the election to be decided between Labor and Likud, our only real choice would be between right-wing Thatcherite stasis and left-wing populist stasis.

Kadima should be able to come out ahead after Hamas’ victory, since only Kadima has a diplomatic stance that doesn’t require a Palestinian “partner”. (Of course, Kadima officially says that they would prefer to negotiate a settlement with the Palestinians; but I’ve never taken this claim very seriously, and I suspect that not very many other Kadimites do either.) The main goal for Kadima now is to avoid making mistakes: don’t over-react and look too right-wing, don’t offer to negotiate with Hamas and thus look too left-wing, don’t attack Iran unless the odds of success are extremely high. And whatever you do, don’t gloat, at least not until March 29th.

*          *          *

What should really be interesting – assuming that Hamas does form the next Palestinian government, and assuming that Kadima does win in March – will be watching two unilateralist, mutually distrustful movements trying hard to dance gracefully together without actually touching or talking. Who said that history isn’t fun?

(This post can also be found at the Guns and Butter Blog.)

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Thursday, January 19, 2006

Treppenwitz on Hebron

David Bogner of Treppenwitz has come up with yet another excellent post – one of the best commentaries on recent (and not-so-recent) events in Hebron that I’ve seen. Go there. Read it. If enough of you do so, maybe he’ll put me on his blog-roll.
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Article of Note: “Iran’s Redefined Strategy”

I just came across a very interesting Stratfor article by George Friedman posted over at IsraPundit. I’m not sure if I agree with all of it, but at the very least it’s thought-provoking – if not entirely reassuring. I suppose I should try to take some comfort in the thought that if Iran does succeed in nuking Israel, it will be in pursuit of a rational strategy for regional ascendancy (according to Friedman, at least) rather than merely because they don’t like us.

(This post can also be found at the Guns and Butter Blog.)

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Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Well, That About Wraps It Up for Intelligent Design (Maybe)

I’m starting to feel a little sorry for the Discovery Institute and its Center for Science and Culture. They’ve undertaken the unenviable task of promoting “the scientific theory known as intelligent design”, while vigorously maintaining that “intelligent design”, properly understood, is not a sneaky way of promoting Biblical creationism.

Now, I’m no great fan of “Intelligent Design”; I’ve even seen fit to repeat myself on the subject – something I normally never do. (Well, hardly ever.) But I imagine that the Discovery Institute’s real problem isn’t pedantic Darwinists like me; what really must annoy them is some of their “friends”.

The El Tajon, California school district yesterday agreed to scrap an elective philosophy course in “Philosophy of Design”, avoiding a costly court battle that it would almost certainly have lost. The Discovery Institute advised the school district to cave in, since what was being taught was in fact mostly Biblical (or “young earth”) creationism rather than intelligent design as properly understood.

This raises a rather interesting question, and poses a sticky little dilemma for intelligent-design proponents: Besides the Discovery Institute and a few offbeat scientific types, does anyone have any interest in “official” (or, if you like, “scientific”) intelligent design theory? If intelligent design is in fact a back-door way of promoting Biblical creationism, then it loses whatever claim it may have to scientific legitimacy; but if intelligent design in fact contradicts the Biblical account of creation, then it’s difficult for me to imagine that a lot of school boards will be in any great hurry to add it to the curriculum. After all, intelligent design (as described by the Discovery Institute, who should know what they’re talking about) would work together with Darwinism as a sort of anti-fundamentalist tag team: Darwinists say you don’t need God to create the diversity of species; and intelligent design says that even if God did create species (or helped things along by creating some of the sub-cellular “machinery” that makes life possible) it didn’t happen the way the Bible tells it.

My prediction: Intelligent design theory may survive for a while as a scientific backwater (or, to be less polite, a pseudo-scientific waste of time); but its popularity among the general public will soon fade. If intelligent design amounts to just another way of saying that the Bible is untrue, who needs it?

Oh yes, before I forget: The teacher who taught the “Philosophy of Design” course defended it as follows: “I believe this is the class that the Lord wanted me to teach.” So much for “the scientific theory known as intelligent design”!

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Medicine on the March: “Yoghurt against HIV”

As I previously announced, I wasn’t planning to do any real blog posting this week – too much “serious” writing to do, plus a fair bit of “real” work at my day job. But every so often, something comes up that must be blogged about. Today’s blockbuster story is from the Jerusalem Post, and is entitled “Yoghurt against HIV?”. (The original, more detailed article is here in; but the Post’s version is more fun to write about.)

The story is that scientists have succeeded in genetically altering Lactococcus lactis bacteria – the “good” bacteria in yoghurt – to produce cyanovirin, a new drug that shows promise in preventing HIV from infecting cells. According to the Post, the researchers say that

…the bugs might one day be incorporated into yoghurts that would deliver drug-producing bacteria straight to a woman's vagina, providing a week's worth of protection from a single dose.

Now, this is a family blog – at least in the sense that some of my close relatives read it – so I can’t delve into all the implications of the preceding paragraph. I’ll leave it to my ever-so-tasteful readers to follow my line of thinking; after all, as Vaguely Sinister Wife says, great minds travel in the same gutters. (I’ll also mention that the article doesn’t actually mention the dosing method suggested by the Post. Strangely, neither publication makes any mention of using the new technique to prevent the spread of AIDS among men; I don’t know quite what to make of that rather glaring omission.)

I hope you’ll agree that I’ve handled this story with some delicacy; when science advances so dramatically, I would hate to be tasteless.

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Monday, January 16, 2006

Crunch Week: A Pathetic Apology

It is so true as to be a cliché: the writer’s worst enemy is the blank sheet of paper. All the wonderful technology in the world hasn’t changed that; every time I set out to write something, the first thing that confronts me is a blank editor screen, which Microsoft has even graciously designed to look like a sheet of paper, untouched and threatening. I try to stare it down, but Word for Windows doesn’t have an auto-wilt feature. The blank page stares right back at me, fearless, implacable, cold, mocking. And, worst of all, empty.

This week, I fear that the blank-sheet-of-paper-surrogate will have at least a partial victory. Vaguely Sinister Wife and I are both busy writing our papers for the next IEEE Intelligence and Security Informatics conference, with a Friday deadline. My paper will be entitled something like “Rational-Choice Deterrence and Israeli Counter-Terrorism”; sadly, I’m not allowed to publish it anywhere other than the conference proceedings, which come out in a book that you won’t exactly find at your corner bookstore. (If the final result looks halfway decent to me, perhaps I’ll put up a version with enough changes to get around the copyright problems.)

We’ve had months and months to get these papers ready, so there’s been plenty of time and there’s absolutely no reason for there to be a last-minute rush. Yeah, right. Both V.S.W. and I are adrenaline junkies, and so the last week is always the time to get ourselves in gear. (Actually, V.S.W. will probably have her paper ready by some time Thursday, a day or more before the last second. I consider this highly neurotic, albeit useful – as it means I get to use our computer at home for the final bits.)

In the mean time, I won’t be able to do much blogging this week. My massive and loyal public – which, as far as I’ve been able to determine, would comfortably fit into an average-sized American family car – will have to survive without me.

Of course, a glass of warm milk and a couple of milligrams of melatonin right before bedtime are almost as effective as reading my blog…

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Wednesday, January 11, 2006

“Don’t Kiss the Dying Chicken” – News from the Frontiers of Public (and Private) Health

The Associated Press, among others, reported yesterday that one of the Turkish children who had contracted H5N1 “bird flu” apparently contracted the disease after hugging and kissing the dead and dying chickens in her backyard.

My first reaction – probably your first reaction as well, but I’m brave enough to admit it in public – was to laugh and dismiss this poor child as rather silly, even for an eight-year-old. Then I thought a bit, and realized that while I am indeed no great fan of live, not-yet-acquainted-with-Colonel-Sanders chickens (there are a bunch of them at the stables where our horses live; they steal food from Kahlua, who is not exactly the most assertive equine in the world), I am not really one to criticize, because…

Shocking Revelation: Obscure Blogger is a Bird-Kisser!!!

Yes, you read it here first – not only do I consort with horses and various furry carnivores; I have also owned parrots in the past. My first parrot was Spot, an Orange-winged Amazon. And I must admit that I did, on occasion, give him a little kiss on the beak.

As I was between twenty and thirty years old when I owned Spot, I cannot even defend my actions as having been those of a mere stripling. The only possible mitigation I can offer is that from some of “his” behavior, I gradually concluded that Spot (whose genus is notoriously non-sexually-dimorphic) was actually a female. Does that make it better? Dunno.

It would thus appear that I am an expert (or what passes for an expert in Blogland) on human-bird relationships. It behooves me, then, to offer society my thoughts on how we can prevent the spread of H5N1 to our own exalted species by reducing our exalted tendency to… um… consort with barnyard fowl.

Clearly, we need to initiate a massive advertising campaign, with resonant voiceovers and catchy slogans. The first slogan I came up with was “Don’t Kiss the Dying Chicken.” I think it has a certain je ne sais quoi (only the French can make ignorance sound so sophisticated – but I digress), but somehow it sounds more like some kind of heavy-metal mantra or Satanist chant than like the kind of wholesome motto we’d want to plaster all over our ever-so-wholesome airwaves. I continued thinking… and here it is! (Actually, here are the first and last lines. Geniuses don’t have to write middles.) I present the first great public-service advertisement of the campaign to wipe out the scourge of infected-chicken cuddling:

They Don’t Love You Back!

[I’ll leave the body of the thing for someone else to complete. Michelangelo, after all, let his assistants paint the cherubs. You’re welcome.]

The next time you hug a chicken, you could be the one who winds up in the soup!

My cousin knows James Earl Jones; I think he’d be perfect for the voiceover.

*          *          *

While I’m on the subject of health, I recall reading yesterday that one of the indications of Ariel Sharon’s increasing responsiveness (as he’s slowly weaned off the anesthetics that maintained his artificial coma) was that his blood pressure rose slightly when one of his sons spoke. That does sound like a sign of approaching normality – my kids do a pretty good job of raising my blood pressure too!

(This post can also be found at the Guns and Butter Blog.)


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Monday, January 09, 2006

History and Horse Sense: Searching for Ariel Sharon’s Legacy

Everyone and his horse is writing about Ariel Sharon’s legacy. After all, what else is there to write about at the moment?

My high-school European History teacher used to say that true historians dealt only with stuff that happened fifty or more years in the past; everything more recent than that was considered mere “current events”. (A scary thought: those very words are more than halfway to being “historical”!) So the historian in me cringes at the thought of discussing the legacy of someone still alive, even if his political career is almost certainly over. My own horse, however, insisted that I chime in despite my reservations; and so, in deference to her excellent Zionist credentials (and her poor typing skills), I’ll try to find something to say on the subject.

The Brain Behind the Blogger: Kahlua the Wonder Horse

Much of the stuff that’s being written about Sharon falls into two general categories: “Sharon the Butcher” and “Sharon the Man of Peace”. Some writers manage to combine these two seemingly irreconcilable categories into one theme: “Sharon, the Butcher Who Changed His Mind, Put Down His Cleaver, and Became a Man of Peace”. (The far-right-wing version of the latter theme goes something like this: “Sharon, the Formerly OK Guy Who Got All Wimpy Once He Started Thinking About His Legacy”.) No doubt all of these categorizations of Ariel Sharon – even the right-wingers’ version – have some degree of truth in them; but I think they all miss the essential point.

Was Ariel Sharon a butcher? Certainly his record includes enough violence to make the squeamish squirm. By Middle Eastern standards of violence, though, he really was never anything special; I think that a lot of the outrage at Sharon’s “butchery” has more to do with the fact that that he’s Jewish (and thus, presumably, meant to be above such things – or at least at the receiving end) than with his actual exploits.

So was Ariel Sharon a man of peace? This seems like a gross exaggeration at best – enough, surely, to make the squirmish scream. Sharon never proposed a final settlement to the Palestinians (or to anyone else, as far as I can recall), and indeed never seemed to show much interest in negotiating with any of our various fascinating neighbors. Even when he brought Israel’s soldiers and settlers out of the Gaza Strip – his supposed great gesture as “peacemaker” – he made no attempt to coordinate the withdrawal with the Palestinian leadership. If Arik was really such a “man of peace”, I would think he should have made at least a small effort actually to make peace with somebody.

Did Ariel Sharon see the light in the last few years? Alternatively, did he wimp out in his old age? Certainly he abandoned some of the policies he had previously – and sometimes stridently – advocated. Did the leopard change his spots? (It took me several minutes to type the last sentence; you have no idea how much resistance I had to using a Sharon-as-leopard metaphor.) I think not; and not just because I never saw a leopard that chubby. In my opinion (and I’m not alone here by any means) Ariel Sharon was never a true right-winger, any more than he was ever a true left-winger. He was always an ultra-pragmatic Zionist of the “classic” school. For him, settlements were never anything more than a way to lay claim to territory; and territory itself was never anything more than a means to enhance Israel’s security. Once he concluded that a given bit of territory represented more of a strategic liability than an asset, Sharon was quite ready to jettison it unceremoniously, wonderful settlers or no. So while Ariel Sharon can definitely be accused (and convicted, as far as I’m concerned) of changing his mind (to put it nicely), I don’t think he ever changed his fundamental values.

So if Ariel Sharon is to be remembered as neither butcher, nor peacemaker, nor leopard, what is his legacy? I think I can sum it up in one word: unilateralism.

Throughout his long career, Ariel Sharon has perhaps been most noteworthy for being the Subordinate from Hell. He seldom followed an order he didn’t like, and if the orders he wanted weren’t forthcoming, he’d go ahead and follow them anyway. I could call this habit of his remarkable independence of thought and action, but I’d probably choke on my coffee; I’d rather be honest and call it sheer bloody-mindedness. As Prime Minister, Sharon used this previously-annoying predilection to dislodge Israel from a seemingly bottomless diplomatic rut.

Prior to Sharon’s election in early 2001, Israel’s diplomatic policy had been based on primarily “European” assumptions: that we would eventually reach peace agreements with out neighbors based upon compromise and mutual trading of interests. According to this view, occupied territories and settlements were assets to be swapped – sooner or later – for concessions elsewhere. Both the Labor and Likud parties still base their policies on this “land-for-peace” paradigm; the difference between the two is more about timing and the relative value of various “assets” than about basic ideas.

Arik Sharon eventually realized that this whole way of thinking wasn’t working, and that it wasn’t going to work any time soon. While a few parts of the Occupied Territories could be sensibly made part of Israel, most of the West Bank and all of the Gaza Strip clearly would be bargained away in any peace agreement; but at the same time, there was no realistic prospect of striking such a bargain any time soon. The only thing we really want from the Palestinians is peace and security; and that’s something that no Palestinian government is able to give us. Yet while we wait for a true “peace partner” to appear, we bleed, figuratively and literally.

In contrast to traditional Israeli “Europeanism”, Ariel Sharon adopted (at least tentatively) an “American” approach: Rather than wait for an agreement that may not materialize for decades, why not anticipate some of the elements of any conceivable agreement, skip the tedious negotiations and inevitable disappointments when pretty words fail to create friendship and safety, and start gaining some of the benefits of an agreement even before negotiating the agreement? By harnessing national policy to his personal independence (splutter, choke), Sharon effected a genuine paradigm-shift in Israeli policy and politics.

Of course, there’s a lot more to be said on the subject of Israeli unilateralism; and I’ll freely admit that I’m a more radical unilateralist that Sharon – at least based on his public statements and actions. But even though he was tentative and insufficiently radical by my personal standards, he did break the logjam; from here on in, Israel knows that it can make decisions for itself and let the negotiators clean up afterwards. That’s not a bad legacy, I think.

*          *          *

As I write, Ariel Sharon is being slowly brought out of his medically-induced coma. He has shown some responsiveness and movement, at least on his right side. As his left cerebral hemisphere was apparently less affected by his stroke than his right hemisphere, there is at least some chance that he will be able to regain consciousness and speech. Like so many others, I remain hopeful that Sharon will make as full a recovery as possible; while I can’t imagine circumstances under which he’d return to politics, I for one would very much like to know what Arik Sharon himself thinks about his legacy – straight from the horse’s mouth, as it were.

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Thursday, January 05, 2006

A Post About (Recent) Posts

About 24 hours ago, I posted a humorous (or at least hopefully-humorous) piece about the most recent bribery accusations against Ariel Sharon. Just a couple of hours after I posted it, Sharon suffered a massive cerebral hemorrhage; while he remains alive as I write this, the odds of his full recovery appear small. Whether he survives to enjoy some kind of not-too-impaired retirement, or dies, or – worst of all – survives with severe brain damage, it appears that we have to get used to the idea of life without Arik as Israel’s leader or even as an active public figure.

I’ve been tempted to pull the humor piece; after all, poking fun at someone who is very likely dying is not exactly in good taste. Yaakov Kirschen, creator of Dry Bones, decided to pull a strip scheduled to run next Sunday, even though it was much more tasteful and respectful than my piece. After considerable agonizing, I decided to leave what I’d written alone. For one thing, unlike Yaakov’s cartoon, my post had already been published; to remove it after the fact would seem dishonest to me. But even more important, I don’t think it would be fair to Ariel Sharon. For me at least, part of what was special about Sharon was the fact that he seemed really to enjoy what he was doing; I never had the feeling that he took himself over-seriously, as so many politicians do.

I’m in no condition right now to offer any learned (or even ignorant) analysis of Israel’s post-Sharon political landscape. In any case, everyone else in the business is busy doing so; and most of the professionals don’t seem to have any better idea than I do as to what will happen next. So I won’t waste my time looking for an intelligent-sounding way of saying “dunno”. I’ll just say that I hope and pray for Ariel Sharon somehow to pull off a full recovery, so I can go back to making fun of him and voting for him.

*          *          *

Both Mog (of Mind of Mog) and James Na of Guns and Butter referenced my previous post, “Cancer, Correlation, Causation, and Counter-Terrorism”. Both of them (see Mog’s post here and James Na’s post here) read my post as an analogy between terrorism and cancer itself – in James’ words, “why terrorism is like cancer in so many ways”. Strangely enough, I really hadn’t intended to make that connection at all. I used cancer-prevention research as way to illustrate how difficult it can be to assign discrete causes to complex phenomena – trying to show that just as nobody has shown conclusively that adding buckets of oatmeal to your diet will prevent your getting cancer, it’s very difficult to prove that many of the measures we take against terrorism (particularly things like retaliating in order to create deterrence) really work.

It’s traditional for “experts” on any subject to try to amplify their own significance by making their subject matter seem as important – and threatening – as possible. (Scott Adams of the Dilbert comic strip brilliantly satirized the typical TV-talking-head terrorism expert: “Buy my book or you’ll all die!) Counter-terrorism, however, is a rather paradoxical field in which to be an expert, at least for those of us associated with the Institute for Counter-Terrorism. Rather than try to get people as excited as possible about terrorism, we try to get them to put terrorism in perspective – since the more panicky people are about terrorism, the more the terrorists are able to manipulate them. My favorite way to do this – and it makes me very unpopular in some circles – is to point out the lopsided ratio between traffic fatalities and deaths due to terrorism. (The cartoon refers to U.S. statistics; but even here in Terror Target Number One, traffic fatalities far outnumbered terrorism fatalities even in the worst years of the “Intifada”. Last year the ratio was ten to one.) If we can survive 450 deaths per year due to our own bad driving (multiply that by one hundred if you live in the United States), we can certainly survive a few terror attacks.

Of course, I don’t want to over-minimize (if there is such a thing) the importance of terrorism. Yes, it’s important, and evil, and disgusting, and if I didn’t think it was a serious problem I wouldn’t bother thinking and writing about it. But I’ve spent a considerable bit of my life hanging around oncology wards; I’d be very slow to compare anything in the field of public policy to cancer.

Some of my colleagues do use a medical analogy to help explain terrorism: They liken terrorism to a virus. Just as a virus hijacks a cell’s own machinery and resources to spread itself, terrorism uses its targeted society’s mechanisms – news media, political discourse, and so on – as tools for psychological manipulation. One of the best ways of fighting terrorism is to realize that when we respond to attacks with panic, and even when we respond with extreme anger and the urge to exact revenge, we are doing and thinking exactly what the terrorists want. Victory begins when we learn not to be manipulated. One of our leading experts on the subject used to say that by playing his regular Wednesday-night basketball game even when there had been a terror attack that day, he was doing his little part to fight terrorism. He eventually threw his back out and had to find something else to do on Wednesday nights, but the point stands.
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Wednesday, January 04, 2006

High Bribes: Feeling Good About Being a Sharon Voter

So the Ariel Sharon bribery case is alive again – not that it was dead exactly, but we’d managed to stop talking and thinking about it for a few weeks, which was almost as good. Now the police are saying they have new evidence that Sharon and Sons received some $3 million from the Austrian-Jewish Schlaff brothers – who sound like they should be a rather soporific gymnastic act, but are evidently big enough in some sort of business that they can spend several million dollars on a bribe and expect to make a profit on it. Of course, I have no real idea whether the new evidence is all that interesting or convincing; in case you hadn’t noticed, we’re in the middle of an election campaign, and the best tactic most of Sharon’s opponents seem to have to attract voters is to raise the possibility that The Big Guy will be running the country from (A) a prison, or (B) the grave. So maybe someone’s manufacturing the story just to hurt Sharon. Maybe it’s all really nothing. Maybe Arik is completely innocent. Maybe the next time I call the TV license office someone will actually answer the phone…

Let’s face it: Most of us do not believe that Ariel Sharon is innocent. The best that even his staunchest partisans can do is to hope that nobody will actually be able to send the guy up the river until after he’s retired from politics. It’s not that we’re stupid, or venal ourselves, or even that we don’t care about corruption in Israeli politics. We do care; it’s just that we don’t have anyone else to vote for.

So what am I, an avowed Ariel Sharon partisan, supposed to do with news like this? Avoid it? Too late. Indulge in denial? Doesn’t work in public; what feels like determined cheerfulness to oneself always seems like determined idiocy to others. Shut up about it? Nice idea, but I can’t – I’m a blogger, after all, and nobody is eager to read a blog composed of knowing – or even non-knowing – silences.

I know – I’ll explain why the Ariel Sharon bribery story is good news!

A Boost to the Economy

Arik Sharon is accused of having received some $4.5 million (two thirds of it evidently from the Schlaffs) in the “Cyril Kern Affair”. This represents a substantial contribution to Israel’s economy and foreign-currency reserves. Israel’s Gross Domestic Product is about $120 billion per year, which means that these alleged bribes constituted almost one twenty-five-thousandth of our economy in the year they were received. Now it’s easy to dismiss one twenty-five-thousandth as a trivial proportion; but after all, how much (on a percentage basis) do you contribute to the Israeli economy in any given year?

Further, these bribes – even if they were never more than a rumor – were a wonderful vote of confidence in the Israeli economy, at a time when we really needed it. Even the most sophisticated businessmen like to run with the herd, and if they start thinking that the smart (or slightly unscrupulous, which amounts to the same thing) money is coming here, they’ll happily follow it with their own. If Ariel Sharon, merely by raking in a few million dollars (most of which he spends to support Israel’s vital meat and snack-food industries, anyway) can encourage massive foreign investment in Israel, I’m all for it. And look! – just a couple of years after Sharon is alleged to have taken these bribes, our economy is in fact recovering from one of its deepest recessions. Post hoc ergo propter hoc for sure, I’d say. (Binyamin Netanyahu takes credit for this as well, of course, with about as much Latin logic. But whom are you going to believe – a current obscure blogger, or an ex-Finance Minister?)

Valuable Leadership

The $4.5 million bribe from Cyril Kern and the Schlaff brothers – if it really was given – wasn’t just a vote of confidence in Israel and its economy. It was a vote of confidence in Ariel Sharon, the man and the national leader. After all, guys like Kern and the Schlaffs didn’t get rich by scattering large bribes all over the place indiscriminately! No, they got rich by (allegedly) scattering large bribes among only the finest, most discriminating, most reliable, and most discrete of national leaders. For Ariel Sharon to be included in this elite group is a great honor for him, for Israel, and for those of us who voted for him.

For those of us with a quantitative outlook on life – and I must admit that I am such a person – it is instructive to look at this alleged bribe as a commodity transaction. Ariel Sharon’s weight was recently reported as being just a bit less than 120 kilograms; I’ll use the latter figure, on the assumption that he ate dinner after the weigh-in. At 31.1035 grams per Troy ounce, Arik weighs some 3858.09 Troy ounces – let’s call it a nice round 3900. Now the market for gold has been exceptionally strong of late; it peaked at just over $540 per Troy ounce about three weeks ago, and is currently trading at between $530 and $535 per ounce. At the latter figure, Ariel Sharon’s weight in gold would be worth some $2,064,076.39; and, of course, gold was considerably cheaper at the time these transactions were initiated. But even with the metal at an almost 25-year high, Ariel Sharon is worth more than twice his weight in gold!

There. I feel much better now.

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Sunday, January 01, 2006

Cancer, Correlation, Causation, and Counter-Terrorism

My first wife died of breast cancer in 1999. Over the seven-year course of her illness, I was forced to become something of an expert in the disease. While I no longer devote a great deal of time to the subject, I still keep a general eye on developments in the field; so I read with interest a series of New York Times articles on preventing cancer, including installments on diet, exercise, stress and the immune system, possible environmental causes, and cancer genetics. (I assume that there will be further articles in the series.) Quite apart from the subject matter – which is fascinating and important in itself – I was struck by the repeated emphasis on the difficulty of establishing the true causes of cancer, and the pitfalls in recommending lifestyle changes which have often turned out to be useless in preventing illness.

The classic tool used to search for the causes of cancer is statistical correlation: researchers examine and question large groups of people, attempting to find the significant differences between those who come down with cancer and those who do not. In some cases, this technique has been phenomenally successful – for example, cigarette smoking was identified as the single greatest cause of lung cancer long before science was able to determine exactly how smoking causes cancer. But for other potential factors such as diet, exercise, and stress, many years of correlation-based studies have failed to come up with much: according to the latest studies, neither eating lots of fiber, fruits, and veggies, nor exercising, nor chilling out, has anything like the dramatic effect on cancer risk that avoiding smoking does.

There are several reasons why it is so difficult to find effective ways of avoiding cancer. Without going into too much detail (you do remember that this is a blog about Israeli politics and the Mideast conflict, don’t you?), I’ll focus on two of them:

  1. Most epidemiological studies are retrospective rather than prospective (see also here and here, “Study Objective, Direction and Timing” definitions 5 and 6) – meaning that they are limited by the quality of medical records and individual memory. While prospective studies avoid problems like recall bias and can yield much more precise and reliable information, they are expensive to run and can take decades to complete. For practical reasons, then, researchers first conduct retrospective studies to find interesting correlations, and only afterwards design prospective studies to see if changes in particular factors really do have an effect on cancer incidence. Most of the time, the latest and greatest healthy-living advice “based on new research” is actually based on retrospective studies, and so must be taken with a grain of reduced-sodium salt substitute.

  2. Studies involving lifestyle issues and cancer must attempt to extract simple, practical propositions from an extremely complex reality. It can be almost impossible to untangle the many factors that may help to cause or prevent cancer. For example, it’s known that breast cancer rates are much lower in Japan than in the West, but second- and third-generation American immigrants of Japanese ancestry contract breast cancer about as often as other American citizens. This indicates that some environmental or lifestyle factors are involved, but given the huge number of potential variables – from micronutrients to food-storage methods to exposure to sunlight – it’s nearly impossible to isolate the ones that make a difference.
Of course, as scientific understanding of cancer improves, it’s easier for scientists to identify the factors that are likely to have an impact on cancer incidence; this doesn’t eliminate the need for epidemiological research, but it does allow the research to be more focused – yielding better answers in less time, we hope.

*          *          *

Terrorism, like cancer, is a complicated phenomenon with extremely complex – and, so far, incompletely understood – causes; but just as many of us latch onto simple “magic formulas” for avoiding cancer or recovering from it, we find it hard to resist simplistic thinking about terrorism. This is particularly true here in Israel, where terrorism, justifiably or not, reigns as Issue Number One in our political discourse. While we are arguably the world’s most sophisticated society in terms of our resilience in coping with terror attacks, and can boast one of the world’s most effective security establishments, our politicians and columnists (along with a fair portion of the electorate, I suppose) often discuss terrorism in dishearteningly primitive terms.

In reality, the level of terrorism at any given time is influenced by a wide variety of factors, including (but not limited to) the following:

  • motivation (which may be economic, nationalistic, religious/ideological, social/personal, organizational, financial, or just plain perverse);

  • capability (access to explosives and weapons, expertise, leadership, and so on);

  • political considerations in participant and “spectator” societies;

  • state sponsorship;

  • accessibility of targets;

  • deterrence;

  • and a large dose of dumb luck, which may at different times favor the terrorists or their victims.

In confronting Palestinian terrorism, Israel has a number of options:

  • It can attempt to reduce the Palestinians’ motivation to commit attacks.

  • It can try to reduce the terror organizations’ capabilities by preventing weapons smuggling, killing or imprisoning terrorist leaders, or attacking terror organizations’ physical infrastructure (what there is of it).

  • It can improve Israeli resilience to terrorism by supporting relevant educational programs, tailoring government rhetoric to put terrorism in perspective, and encouraging responsible media coverage.

  • It can attempt to eliminate state sponsorship of terrorism by exposing it to the international community.

  • It can physically separate potential terrorists from potential targets.

  • It can attempt to create deterrence on the individual, organizational, and social/national levels.

  • It can pray for a continued supply of dumb luck.

While many of these approaches have merit, few of them have a clear record of success in reducing the number and severity of “successful” terror attacks against Israel. Only physical separation (towards which I have always had mixed feelings) and “targeted killings” (which are politically costly and have only a temporary effect) seem genuinely effective to me in this regard. At the same time, much of Israeli political discourse about terrorism revolves around deterrence – which I think has more to do with our emotional reactions to terrorism than with any likelihood of success. (I plan to address the challenges of deterring terrorism in future posts. You’ve been warned.) Even when we speak about eliminating or reducing the terrorists’ capabilities – with our calls for “destroying the terrorists’ infrastructure” and our endless repetitions of the outstandingly fatuous “Let the IDF win!” – we seem to be focused as much on our need to feel empowered as on any probability that the policies we advocate will actually work.

In addition to the inordinate complexity of terrorism and the emotions that interfere with our ability to confront it rationally (analogous, perhaps, to “recall bias” in cancer studies), we are hampered by our inability to perform “prospective studies” to see what approaches work best under what conditions. For example, it has been frequently observed (usually by Netanyahu himself and his allies) that there was a relatively low level of terrorism during Binyamin Netanyahu’s term as Prime Minister, from 1996 to 1999. The implication we are supposed to draw is that Netanyahu was uniquely tough, so much so that the terrorists were afraid to carry out attacks while Israel was in his capable hands. I find this argument less than fully convincing; it seems to me that other factors were likely responsible for the reduced terrorism during the Netanyahu years. (I’ll admit that I haven’t made a detailed study of counter-terrorism under Netanyahu, so my thoughts shouldn’t be taken too seriously on this subject; I do suspect, though, that at least part of the reason for the comparatively low level of attacks during the Netanyahu years was that there was essentially no peace process to disrupt.) But since we can’t “play back” the same years with different policies in place to see what would have happened to us under different leadership, we can’t draw firm conclusions; we are stuck trying to connect nebulous causes with nebulous results.

If we – as politicians, voters, and would-be pundits – want to make rational decisions about counter-terrorism strategies, we need to realize the difficulties of conducting “research” on the subject: We have no General Theory of Terrorism, only a sketchy idea of how all the many contributing and inhibiting factors interact, tremendous emotional pressures towards choosing activist (and often violent) counter-terrorist measures, and no way to test different approaches scientifically. Like anyone trying to navigate in a fog, we would be well advised to cultivate calm, caution, and humility.
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On the Face Has a New Address!

Lisa Goldman’s wonderful blog has a new home. On the Face is now at ontheface-dot-blogware-dot-com instead of its old blogspot-dot-com address. Fix your links, folks!

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