Thursday, May 15, 2003
Images, Politics, Death

In the second day of the Intifada, Palestinian demonstrators throwing rocks and molotov cocktails backed by armed Palestinian security personnel showed up at an IDF outpost in the Netzarim Junction in the Gaza Strip. During the violent demonstrations which ensued, Jamal al-Dura and his 12-year-old son Mohammed took refuge in front of a building across the street from the outpost. In the exchanges of fire, Mohammed al-Dura was shot and killed.

A camera crew working for a French news station caught the event and the image of Mohammed al-Dura cowering behind his father quickly became the visual icon of the second intifada. The Palestinians made quick political hay of the footage and within days the little boy became a martyred hero throughout the Arab world. Streets and squares were named after him.

Inside the PA itself, the image of Mohammed al-Dura was used to inspire childrens' aspirations to martyr themselves. Meanwhile, the IDF made a hasty enquiry into the incident, took responsibility, apologized, and waited out the attendant shit storm.

In the intervening two and a half years the question of what happened that day at Netzarim has become much more complicated. A number of people, including a German film team and an Israeli researcher began to analyze the available evidence. A large number of film crews were at Netzarim that day. As a result, there was a lot of raw footage of the events leading up to the incident and afterwards. The researchers reviewed this footage. By analayzing the position of the soldiers in relationship to the structure where the boy was killed, as well as ballistics marks, the light of day, and other factors, the researchers came to the conclusion that the soldiers could not possibly have shot Mohammed al-Dura.

The researchers, however, have two problems. One is the tendency to take their conclusion to the next level: if Mohammed Al-Dura wasn't shot by the IDF, who did shoot him, and why? This leads them to a series of increasingly problematic conclusions: that the Palestinians shot the boy (quite possible), that they killed him deliberately in order to create a piece of propaganda gold (questionable, and impossible to prove), and even that the boy wasn't actually killed and the whole thing was a clever setup (time to get out the tinfoil hats and call Oliver Stone).

The second problem is bigger: even if they can prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that the boy was not killed by the IDF, it still doesn't matter. The Arab world won't believe anything coming from Israeli or Jewish researchers. And in any case the damage is done. The image has been burned into peoples' minds; you can debunk it from now until Tuesday and it won't do you any good.

The IDF itself won't cooperate with any of the independent investigations, and with good reason. They realize that the claim will never be proven in the court of public opinion. All that would come from raising the issue is seeing the footage of the kid getting killed over and over again. They'd rather keep the whole issue quiet.

A few days after Mohammed al-Dura was killed, three Israeli reservists took a wrong turn while driving in the West Bank and ended up in Ramallah. There, Palestinian security forces took them and gave them over to a Palestinian mob who brutally lynched them. As with the al-Dura case, there was video footage of the lynching as well. In an act which can only be described as a duel between political snuff films, Israel tried to use the images of the lynching to counter the damage done by the footage of al-Dura. They met with very limited success.

Such is the nature of postmodern warfare. The image is more important than the reality, and the image more often than not conforms to preexisting biases or narratives. In the case of Mohammed al-Dura, the French footage was more than likely edited to fit the story of poor defenseless Palestinians facing up to evil Israeli occupiers (I say "most likely" since the French news team may not have released all the raw footage they shot).

In a game like this, all you have is the support of your amen corner and the belief that you're right, even if you can't convince the rest of the world.

Not Optimistic 'bout the Road Map, part 110

The reports keep coming in that despite the new leadership in the Palestinian Authority squat all has actually changed. Arafat still maintains control over much of the security apparatus, Arafat cuts the checks, Arafat gives the orders. And the Palestinians scream that Israel is not doing enough to help Abu Mazen establish his control.

Possibly. But what we have here is the same destructive chicken-and-egg game that we've had all along with the Palestinians: Israel says "show us that you'll bring your terrorists to heel and then we'll talk and give you concessions"; the Palis say "give us concessions and we'll try to do something about the terrorists." The fact that Arafat -- the guy who greenlighted all the terrorism in the first place, then sat back and watched it happen -- is still calling the shots does not fill anyone with confidence that the Palestinians can or want to re-establish security. Meantime the terrorists are still running around, the IDF is going after them. Hence the screams that Israel isn't doing enough to help Abu Mazen.

In short: no trust, lots of hate. I estimate the road map will be shelved and gathering dust within a month.

Wednesday, May 14, 2003
More on Bad Analogies

And continuing the train of thought a little further, Lileks has a great story today about listening to an anti-war caller on the radio screaming that America is already a totalitarian state. At the grocery store, he espies a woman wearing a Bush t-shirt reading "Will Kill for Gas" and holding a baby. He then wonders when the jackbooted thugs will run in and beat her down:
Maybe the brutes were chastened by the tiny infant she had in a carseat. The infant that kept its little eyes on President Bush, whose face was right over her starboard mammary, and whose face would soon be yanked up to reveal the Most Blessed Spout.

That kid’s going to grow up loving George Bush, and never realizing that his face was imprinted from birth. Uncle Milk! It’s Happy Uncle Milk!

Building vs. Defending

Carrying on a bit with the "bad history" debates of yesterday, I ran across this essay by Michael J. Totten which OpinionJournal re-ran yesterday. (It originally appeared a little while back on his website). It's a nicely written piece which attempts to examine the differences between the Liberal and Conservative outlooks regarding the war.

Totten's thesis is this: Liberals are builders, in that they want to build a better society. As such, they are more inward-focused, more interested in what is going on in their own neighborhoods than overseas. Conservatives, on the other hand, are defenders. They want to defend what is good in society. Since the dangers tend to lie outside, Conservatives become outward-focused.

According to this view, the problem with people who hold up posters saying Bush=Saddam is not that they don't understand Bush; they just don't understand Saddam, because they are too focused on America's activities in Iraq and not at all focused on Iraq itself. The same applies to the Bush=Hitler crowd.

Tuesday, May 13, 2003
Bad History

Next week CBS will air Hitler: The Rise of Evil, a miniseries about Hitler's rise to power. The New York Observer's Ron Rosenbaum has been tracking the project for a while now with some interest. Rosenbaum is the author of Explaining Hitler : The Search for the Origins of His Evil, one of the best books I've read in recent years, in which he analyzes a wide range of theories and historical approaches to Hitler in an attempt to try and understand the monster. The producers of the Hitler miniseries originally approached Rosenbaum to serve as a consultant after historian Ian Kershaw (whose two-part Hitler biography is also excellent) dropped out. Rosenbaum declined to participate, but has been keeping an eye on the proceedings.

And it turns out the miniseries was not without controversy. Ed Gernon, the producer of the Hitler movie, gave an interview to TV Guide in which he said the movie was designed to draw comparisons between the rise of the Nazis to the situation in post-9/11 America. Gernon was then fired from his job.

Rosenbaum, who recently watched a review copy of the Hitler miniseries, comments on both the movie and the scandal around Gernon. First, the movie. He criticizes specific parts of it where historical dialogue has been retrofitted with anachronistic and/or questionably translated references to "terrorists" and "the administration" in order to make sure that even the dimmest viewer gets the Bush=Hitler analogy.

At the same time, he thinks Gernon's firing on obvious free speech grounds is also scandalous. (Yes, just like Chomsky coming to the aid of Holocaust deniers; Rosenbaum, however, does actually think there's a problem with what they do even if he defends their right to do it.)

More interestingly, Rosenbaum notes the lack of screaming coming from the Hollywood left:
I’ve heard no outcry from the bold Hollywood defenders of free speech against the "chill wind" of repression. Were they too busy trying to shut down Web sites that made fun of anti-war celebrities such as to care about Ed Gernon’s case? Is it because it involves the mighty CBS? Or is it because, in his clumsy way, Mr. Gernon was expressing the embarrassingly simplistic and reductive nature of the politics you saw in the signs in the anti-war marches reading "Bush = Hitler"?

It’s true that The Progressive magazine noted the Gernon firing in its "McCarthyism Watch" (and Los Angeles Times TV writer Howard Rosenberg criticized the move), but The Progressive isn’t going to be pitching any sitcoms to CBS in the near future. Where are Tim and Susan, Moore and Gore (Vidal)?

The Islamic Movement Goes Down

Israeli police arrested 14 members of the Islamic Movement in Israel overnight on suspicion that they had helped funnel millions of shekels to Hamas using charities to cover the money trail. Among those arrested was the movement's leader Sheikh Ra'ed Salah.

Some background here: There are in fact two Islamic Movements in Israel, or rather two branches of the movement. The Southern branch, led by Sheikh Abdullah Nimr Darwish, is fairly moderate and advocates an Islamic lifestyle within the framework of the State of Israel and runs candidates in local and national elections. The Northern branch of the movement, led by Salah, is extremist, rejects the State, boycotts involvement in Israeli politics, and calls for jihad against the unbelievers.

A number of political and security figures have agitated for the outlawing of the Northern branch of the movement, arguing that it poses a threat to the state. So far, the government has refrained from taking any extreme steps against Salah and his boys, not wanting to unnecessarily agitate the already strained relations between Israeli Arabs and Jews. However, after an intensive two-year investigation the Shin Bet has gathered enough information of ties between the Northern Islamic Movement and Islamic terrorist groups to warrant last night's raid.

It's a pretty heavy move, especially when you consider recent history. In the first days of the current intifada large numbers of Israel's Arabs came out to protest in favor of their Palestinian brethren. These protests soon turned ugly and the police used extreme force (critics say recklessly) to put them down. At the end of it, 13 Israeli Arabs were killed and the general mood of the Arab community towards the state turned sullen.

So, now we're in duck-and-cover mode waiting for the repercussions of the raid. The security forces are on alert, probably with orders not to shoot unless things spin way out of control. The political system is also on edge waiting to deal with this. Darwish, the moderate Southern branch leader, was interviewed this morning. In a resigned tone, he pointed out that this isn't the first time that Israeli Arabs have been arrested on suspicion of involvement in terrorism with all the bells and whistles in the media only to be quietly released afterwards. He said he hopes the charges aren't true.

I was much less impressed with some of the other mainstream Israeli Arab leaders. MK Mohammed Barakeh, head of the largest Arab party in the Knesset, ranted on the radio how the news media was going to use this story in order to tar the Arab community as terrorists. This charge is an outright lie. If anything, the news shows bent over backwards to emphasize that the Islamic Movement makes up a small part of the Arab community, most of whom are peaceful and law-abiding. This kind of shit-stirring on Barakeh's part is nothing short of reckless, since it is designed solely to stir the passions of his constituents. As a whole, the leadership of the Arab Israeli community tends to be much more extremist and intemperate than most of the community.

I'm personally waiting for the official protests from the EU.

Quote du Jour
Frankly I was relieved to hear from Tam Dalyell, the venerable British MP who serves as Father of the House of Commons, that Tony Blair is secretly controlled by a cabal of Jewish advisers.

Cabal-wise, that takes the heat off George W. Bush, who's secretly controlled by so many cabals he must be juggling his schedule as frantically as Jack Lemmon in a 1960s sex comedy.

Mark Steyn on Bush and the Jews, fundamentalists, neoconservatives, and Canadians who secretly control him.

Monday, May 12, 2003
Noam Chomsky is an Ass

The New Criterion has a nice little analysis of Noam Chomsky, the Jabba the Hut of the loony left. The piece takes his public stance for truth and freedom and compares it to his track record of defending notoriously gruesome Third World murderers.

I still haven't figured out how Chomsky attained his status of "America's Most Important Intellectual." I can see how his highly reductive philosophy speaks to angry college Freshmen looking for political certainties but I just don't get what appeal it holds for grownups. I also don't see how his particularly ugly brand of moral relativism in the wake of 9/11 has not yet been reductoed ad absurdium.

Personally, Chomsky lost me a long time ago in the wake of a scandal involving his support for the French anti-semite Robert Faurisson. Faurisson was a Holocaust denier who got fired from a teaching position. Chomsky signed petitions supporting Faurisson, then wrote the introduction to one of Faurisson's books. (The New Criterion piece doesn't mention the incident, although you can read about in and others in a blistering essay by Chomsky foe Alan Dershowitz).

Chomsky defends his involvement with Faurisson on pure free-speech grounds, but resorts to manic obfuscation when confronted with it directly. (Anyone who can find straight answers to the questions posed to The Great Man in this query on the Faurisson matter is invited to contact me.) I tried following a couple of Chomsky's own bits of self defense in the archives with similar frustration.

I find is his total disregard and disengagement from the content of Faurisson's work kind of creepy. It's one thing to take a pure free speech stand, but Chomsky never expresses any sort of distaste for Faurisson's works. And Chomsky styles himself an anti-totalitarianist (or at least an anti-European totalitarianist).

And I'm being generous here; Dersh intimates that at some level, at least, Chomsky has no problem with Faurisson's Holocaust denial.

The left always harps about Bush being stupid. However, if Chomsky is their ideal intellectual, I'll go with the inarticulate guy on the right any day of the week.

The Sec State Comes a’Calling

So, we’ve just had a visit from Colin Powell, who sat down yesterday with Sharon and Abu Mazen to talk about the road map for peace. The response from the Israeli side was muted while the Palis are groaning that it’s a big waste of time. Sharon won’t make anything other than minor, symbolic concessions to the Palestinians and won’t publicly embrace the road map until he meets with Bush next week. Abu Mazen embraces the road map, but so far has done nothing to meet its basic obligations. The Palestinian leadership has made it clear that they won’t crack down on the terrorists in their midst. The best they’re willing to do is try to arrange some sort of cease-fire.

The expectations for this road map are so low as to barely be distinguishable from the pavement. This month’s Peace Index pretty much says it all: Israelis feel vaguely optimistic about the road map’s chances for ending the conflict even as they mostly doubt that the two sides will implement it. I suppose my own views are somewhere in this neighborhood, although in the two weeks or so since the road map was announced my pessimism has increased significantly.

The bottom line is this: when there's so little trust and so much hatred between the two sides, there's little value in any signed agreement. We saw this with the Oslo Accords: the moment either side failed to live up to their commitments, the whole process came undone in a fog of mutual recriminations. In the two and a half years since Oslo crashed and burned, the distrust and hatred have increased a few orders of magnitude. All of which means that the road map will likely end up on the same shelf as the Tenet and Mitchell plans which it resembles.

What to do?

Tom Friedman’s column yesterday suggested that the younger Bush take a page from his father’s book and send over a James Baker figure in order to get tough with the Israelis. It’s a bit sad to see Friedman, who normally gets it, putting so much of the onus on Sharon. Friedman admits that the recent reforms in the Palestinian Authority are a semi-sham and that the leering ghoul with the Nobel Peace Prize is still trying to run the show. He thinks, however, that Israel should be pressed into making concessions which will allow Abu Mazen to establish his credentials.

I dunno. Color me skeptical but all this goes right back to the lack of trust. If the new Palestinian Prime Minister has neither the power nor the desire to clamp down on the terrorist groups, then what good does pressuring Israel do? The cease fire with the terrorist groups -- which the apologists say is the best Abu Mazen will be able to muster –- will only serve to give the terrorists some time to regroup before starting the next waves of attacks.

Sometimes I think that the time has come to turn all the conventional wisdom about the Israeli-Palestinian crisis upside down. Perhaps the US should sit with the Palestinians and say to them, “You are one seriously screwed-up bunch of people and unless you fix yourself -- really fix yourself -- then you're not going to get anywhere. You do that and we’ll have something to talk about.”

What to do, Contd.

On the same topic, Daniel Pipes and former US Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk recently held a discussion about the nature and timing of American involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. (The transcript of the debate is a bit lengthy, but fascinating.)

Basically, Indyk argues that a large enough window of opportunity has opened to re-start the negotiations and that the US needs to risk getting involved in order to nurture the process. Pipes argues that the Palestinians are slowly getting the message that they’ve lost the war; getting involved now will only serve to re-nurture their dreams of eliminating Israel.

Both guys make fairly solid points. I think Pipes’ analysis is fundamentally correct (that the majority of Palestinians still think they can succeed in driving the Jews into the sea), but that he highly overestimates Israel’s ability to sustain the violent status quo indefinitely. Indyk, on the other hand, does see the economic and social ratifications of the status quo for Israel but doesn’t take into account enough the Palestinian national psychosis which puts settling their historical score with the Jews well ahead of their own best interests.

Actually, Indyk made perhaps the best suggestion I’ve heard lately about resolving the conflict. In an essay in the most recent Foreign Affairs Indyk proposes that in the event that the road map idea fails, that the US take trusteeship over the Palestinians. He suggests that a US-led nation-building force be brought to the Palestinian territories. This force would help the Palis build their national institutions and preserve Israel’s security until the Palestinians are ready to govern themselves.

Most Israelis would probably favor this plan, even if it involved making territorial concessions up front, just as long as the US – and not the UN or the Europeans – were running the show.

Sadly, however, this plan would never work. The Europeans, the UN, and the Arab League would scream bloody murder. Or worse, colonialism. Plus, as I’ve mentioned before, Indyk way underestimates the Palestinian penchant for blowing up their best interests. He still assumes that the goal of the Palestinian national movement is an independent Palestinian state when all evidence points to the fact that the goal of the Palestinian national movement is the elimination of Israel. There’s no way you’d ever be able to convince them to go for this plan.

It’s a nice idea, however.

Sunday, May 11, 2003
Independence Day Vacation

I’m still recovering from Independence Day and all its associated activities. Yom Ha’atzmaut this year revolved around my grandfather, who was awarded the Israel Prize for life achievement. The Israel Prize is this country’s top honor which is awarded every Independence Day to people from a wide variety of different disciplines in the arts and sciences, along with people and institutions who have made a significant contribution to Israeli society.

Both my mother and mother-in-law flew in from overseas to attend the ceremony. This meant that Tuesday through Saturday were spent running around attending ceremonies and family gatherings.

So, Wednesday evening, after the traditional Independence Day cookout, we trekked out to Jerusalem for the Israel Prize ceremony, which was broadcast live on Channel One, the state TV channel. The ceremony was a bit long, and a bit corny (a classic Channel One production), but moving nonetheless.

Each of the 18 prize recipients stood up in his/her turn. A short film highlighted their history and gave a description of their work. Then they walked over to the other side of the stage where a panel consisting of President Moshe Katzav, Ariel Sharon, the Education Minister, the Speaker of the Knesset, and Jerusalem’s mayor handed out the award.

My grandfather seemed moved, or as moved as he ever gets. (He spent much of the preceding two weeks complaining about the number of interviews he had to give to the media). The rest of my family was beaming. And my mother-in-law can now tell the folks back home in London that she saw the PM and the President.

In short, a memorable Independence Day.

Independence Day, Part 2

The other big event was my grandfather’s annual Independence Day party which he throws each year on the Friday following the holiday. Several hundred people show up, friends and peers from the 1948 generation and their families. You find an interesting collection of retired IDF generals, Labor party politicos, journalists, and actors, all of whom come together to sit around a campfire (this year, a pair of memorial candles stood in its place), pull out the accordions, and sing songs from the good old days.

The collected crowd could easily be called Israel’s “Greatest Generation”. These were the ones who fought for this country and then built it up almost from nothing. One of the reasons I feel glad I came back to Israel 10 years ago is that it’s given me the opportunity to know some of these people who are sadly passing into history.

The sense of passing is palpable on a couple of levels. Each year there are fewer and fewer original participants at the party. But beyond the fact of their physical disappearance, there’s also a sense that their historical legacy is disappearing. I got some of this sense listening to the interviews my grandfather gave for his Israel Prize award, some of which were quite prickly. He complained that the country lacks leadership and that the generations which followed his lack the values of sacrifice and commitment to the interests of the country.

Between the lines you can see the dismay of a generation that devoted their lives (often literally) to the country and now find themselves and their achievements being negated.

On the official level –in government services and the educational system—the 1948 Generation is still accorded all due respect. However, in the political and especially the cultural spheres, their legacy is much less certain.

Their political demise can be seen clearly in the disintegration and increasing irrelevance of the Labor Party they helped found. The dominant political strain in the country is not theirs; it belongs to the heirs of their ideological rivals on the Revisionist right. The heirs of Jabotinsky and Begin have, it seems, ultimately trumped the heirs of Ben-Gurion.

In the cultural sphere, the situation is a bit more complex. On the one hand, you find a growing nostalgia for the good old days. Folk dancing and public sing-alongs have come back in fashion in a big way since the Intifada started. On the other hand, mainstream Israeli culture is increasingly hedonistic and individualistic, a repudiation of the self-sacrificing socialism of my grandparents. In the popular discourse, the 1948 generation also comes under attack from for being Ashkenazi elitists and its achievements often get belittled by those who accuse the founders – sometimes justifiably, often not – of racism and cultural imperialism.

Among the regular guests at the Independence Day party are Shimon Peres and Ehud Barak. In years past, they would show up for 20 minutes to make an appearance, shake the appropriate hands, and leave. This year they stuck around for longer, and even sat and joined the singing. Peres – who has always struck me as cold and aloof personally – uncharacteristically ran around pressing the flesh with anyone who looked at him.

The background to all this was the leadership battles for the Labor Party. Peres looks like he’ll be at least Labor’s next interim head and doubtlessly harbors visions of another in a long series of attempts to get elected Prime Minister. Barak, for his part, also appears to have dreams of making a Bibi-style comeback.

The question is this: what will they be coming back to? The Labor Party which they want to head seems to be going the way of the generation who founded it.

All of which is a great shame.