Thursday, June 05, 2003
Happy Holidays

It's holiday time here today. Tonight is Shavuot, which commemorates God giving Moses the Torah on Mt. Sinai. Shavuot is a pilgrimage holiday; in ancient times, Jews would bring the first fruits of the new crop to the Temple as an act of thanks. Of course, us non-religious know it better as the cheesecake holiday.

Jewish holidays all seem to have a signature food (as the joke goes: every Jewish holiday basically comes down to "They tried to kill us, they failed, let's eat.") Well actually every Jewish holiday save for Yom Kippur, which is about the absence of food. For those of us who aren't particularly religious, we can always tell what holiday is approaching by seeing which foodstuffs are prominently on display at the supermarket: dried fruit (Tu B'shvat), hamentaschen (Purim), matzos (Passover), honey cake (Rosh Hashana), or donuts (Chanukka).

For a variety of reasons, Shavuot has traditionally been associated with cheeses. (Somehow, I seem to be the only one struck by the irony of a dairy-based holiday for a people genetically predisposed to lactose intolerance.)

So, I'm off to give thanks. And bake a quiche.


I'm finding it hard to keep my optimism in check today.

No, that wasn't a typo. I've been watching the strange and wondrous things which came out of Aqaba yesterday. A small part of me is filled with glee and is stubbornly ignoring the less gleeful side trying to point out to it that all we got from Sharon and Abu Mazen were declarations, statements. Which is to say words. Pretty, pretty words.

Abu Mazen declared an end to the violent part of the intifada, denounced attacks on Israelis as terrorism (actually using the word), and acknowledged the historic suffering of the Jewish people saying it was time to bring this suffering to an end. Sharon once again pledged his commitment to a two-state solution, recognized the importance of territorial contignuity, and promised to begin dismantling illegal outposts in the territories.

I watched the speeches on the news yesterday with a sense of pleased perplexion. The fact that Abu Mazen spoke in Arabic was significant. (Arafat often speaks in a forked tongue: conciliatory words in English followed by calls for a million shahids in Arabic). So was the use of the word "terrorism". Sharon's speech was even weirder. I got a real sense of cognitive dissonance watching the symbol of the right wing and the settlement movement making the same arguments and declarations as uber-dove Yossi Beilin.

It was a heck of a nice ceremony. But, so was that one on the White House lawn 10 years ago with Rabin and Arafat. Mustn't forget where that got us.

Yes, the ceremony was nice but what counts is not what Abu Mazen and Sharon say but what they actually do. And there are plenty of other factors mucking up the situation: Arafat, the world's oldest and ugliest terrorist (to borrow LGF's description), is still lurking in the background trying to trip up his successor. Hamas and the other Palestinian terrorist groups have not shown any readiness to give up the armed struggle. It isn't clear that Abu Mazen has the muscle to stop them. And on the Israeli side, you still have a population of settlers who are going to go apeshit over the prospect of settlements getting uprooted.

However, there are signs of optimism. The Palestinians are nutty, to be sure. But there is a sense that a lot of them are tired of the fighting and well aware of the damage they caused to themselves. I'm hoping that the opinions expressed yesterday by Bassem Eid of the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group that it's time for the Palestinians to stop the violence are representative of more than a small group of intellectuals. If the Palestinian living situation improves, the theory goes, Abu Mazen will start getting the support of his people, which will help him stand up to the terrorists.

On the other side of the fence, the most hopeful sign that something might happen is the fact that Ariel Sharon is the one leading the charge. Sharon's biggest political asset is the fact that he doesn't have Ariel Sharon in the opposition. A decade ago, he made Rabin's life hell for implementing a political program that was not nearly as far-reaching as the one he himself is now trying to implement.

Sharon may be putting himself in danger from the extremists over here. This may be true, but in the Ha'aretz analysis the right wing felt hatred and hostility towards Rabin, whom they viewed as an outsider. Sharon is one of them; his actions fill them more with grief and sadness. Politically, Sharon is on solid ground. His political opposition, both inside the cabinet and across the aisle, is weak. Even Bibi Netanyahu was striking a conciliatory message last night, saying that the government will implement the plan, albeit cautiously.

Cautious is the buzzword here. Accordign to the latest Peace Index, a majority of Israelis share my feelings hopefulness mixed with pessimism. The late Israeli Arab playwright Emile Habibi wrote of one of his characters that he was an "opsimist" half an optimist, half a pessimist.

For the moment, I think we're all opsimists now.

Wednesday, June 04, 2003
Tony Under Fire
The lack of WMDs is a political pisser, but at this point it doesn't seem to be dragging Bush down much. Not so in England, where Tony Blair suddenly finds himself taking flak from all corners about the British involvement in Gulf War II. Blair has to fend off four separate calls for an independent inquiry into whether he faked intelligence reports about Iraq's WMD program in order to convince the British public to support the war. Blair has agreed to an internal inquiry into the affair.

Leading the charge is the toad-like former Foreign Minister, Robin Cook. Cook, a member of Blair's Labour party, who has joined a number of other Labour backbenchers in attempting to take down his former boss. Those seeking an inquiry say their goal is to ensure that the government is accountable to the people and isn't lying to them. And yet, the whole thing reeks of political opportunism. Cook has long had his eye at the PM's chair. As for a lot of the others, they vehemently opposed going to war and you get a sense that they are now looking to punish Blair for not listening to them.

Part of the problem, as Tom Friedman points out today is that Bush did not sell the war properly. Instead of saying that America should attack Iraq in order to build a democratic society in the Arab world (the "right" reason according to Friedman) or simply that Saddam was a genocidal monster who deserved to be taken out (the "moral" reason), Bush chose to use the argument of Clear and Present Danger. Politically, this was more palatable, but in retrospect it's proving to be problematic.

In his column today, James Lileks talks about this currently growing idea that Bush lied in order to get the war going (cf. Paul Krugman's column from the other day, if you manage to get through Krugman's tortured logic).

Lileks was looking at editorial cartoons, one of which made reference to the Bush Lied theory.
It wasn't the drawing that impressed me, or the point it made, which was fatuous. It was the way in which a meme takes root and flowers. The BBC Jessica Lynch story + Robert Scheer's ravings + the stories based on edited excerpts of the Wolfowitz interview = Bush Lied. That's the New Truth. Bush Lied.

I doubt that Blair would have engaged in a wholesale deception of the British public. If the man didn't believe that Saddam was a threat I doubt he would have put his political career on the line in the way that he did. If the intelligence reports indicated that Iraq had no chemical weapons, Blair might have gone along with the war drive but I doubt he would have taken on the role of head cheerleader for it in Europe.

Jerusalem's New Mayor

Jerusalem held a mayoral election yesterday, which ended in a close, but historic finish. Uri Lupoliansky emerged with a bare majority to become the city's first ultra-orthodox mayor. Lupoliansky, a representative of the haredi Degel Hatorah party , had been deputy mayor under Ehud Olmert. He became interim mayor when Olmert left city hall to serve in Sharon's cabinet. Now the position is permanent.

Relations between the ultra-orthodox and the secular in Israel are always tense, and probably no place more so than Jerusalem. In the last decade the city has seen a real phenomenon of secular flight to outlying areas. As a result of this and the high birth rate in the haredi community, the percentage of Jerusalem which is ultra-orthodox is steadily growing. That the city would eventually have a haredi mayor was inevitable sooner or later, but Lupoliansky's victory still seems a bit soon.

Jerusalem's seculars are now crapping themselves over visions that the new mayor will initiate draconian enforcement of Shabat observance or funnel municipal funds to the yeshivas.

Lupoliansky is a jolly little moon-faced man who always seems to have a happy grin on his face. (This, by the way, makes for a refreshing change from the sour expression one normally finds on Israeli politicians). Before he became deputy mayor, Lupoliansky founded Yad Sarah, Israel's largest volunteer organization which won the Israel Prize for its work. By all accounts, he is a genuinely decent guy. His opponents, however, claim that he is nothing more than a figurehead and that he is controlled by the ultra-orthodox rabbis.

Yesterday's vote resembles Jerusalem's last municipal elections in 1998 when the ultra-orthodox parties gained a majority in the City Council. Then, as now, the secular population's voter turnout was decisively lower than that of the haredim. However, nothing much changed in Jerusalem and it's unclear whether anything will change under the new mayor.

In his victory speech, Lupoliansky stressed that he has no intention of changing the status quo governing religious affairs in the capitol. He also made a point of saying that he believes in patience and tolerance to help bring the different citizens of the city together.

If he manages to succeed, then Lupoliansky will be a political figure to watch in the future.

Tuesday, June 03, 2003
Summit Time

I've been avoiding writing about the summit season which is suddenly upon us. I can't seem to get myself worked up one way or the other about this whole roadmap thing. The Israeli press has been buzzing all week about Sharon using the dreaded "O" word when he said that the Occupation was a bad thing. The more extreme part of Arik's cabinet has already started grumbling and the settlers are beginning to protest and threaten.

On the other side of the fence, Abu Mazen may call for an end to the armed intifada. He is trying to make nice with Hamas. He wants to set up a hudna (cease-fire) with Hamas in the hopes of cooling everything down a bit. In the meantime, Arafat, the Loathsome Ghoul of Ramallah, tells Palestinian children that they should aspire to become shahids and plots to derail any progress that might be made.

In the middle of everything, Unca George rolls into town to get everyone to start talking to each other. Today he attends a meeting in Sharm al Sheikh, Egypt, with leaders of the Arab States that We Like (i.e. not Syria or Libya) in an attempt to get them involved in the process. Tomorrow, Bush comes to Aqaba, Jordan, for trilateral talks with Abu Mazen and Sharon on getting the road map going.

And in the meantime, one tired blogger sits in Tel Aviv trying to muster up some excitement. It isn't working. On the face of it, there's not a whole lot of room for optimism. At this point, the two sides aren't offering each other much as an initial gesture. Abu Mazen is talking about a 3-month cease fire with his terrorists. Meanwhile Sharon makes noises about dismantling a handful of clearly illegal settlement outposts.

And the the talks are liable to explode at any time over the right of return issue; Israel is trying desperately to get a declaration cancelling the right of return from the outset while the Palestinians are trying just as hard to affirm it.

I'm ambivalent. We've seen enough of these summits in the past to be skeptical that anything will come of them. At any rate, having been burned once by the Palestinians with Oslo, most of us over here are wary of trusting them again. At the same time, I won't join the "Roadmap to Murderville" bandwagon popular with a lot of my fellow travellers in the Blogsphere.

And yet, I still have a very small residual spark of hope. This resides in Dubya.

In my opinion, Bush -- who has been late in getting into the Middle Eastern game -- is doing a lot of things right that Clinton got wrong:
  1. Clinton waded right into the small details of the conflict and tried to be everyone's friend. Bush is coming in as the stern conquerer who wants to cut through the details and get to the results. He won't hesitate to push Sharon on the outposts issue but at the same time it seems that he will push Abu Mazen just as hard on the terrorism.

  2. He's trying to get the other Arab states to commit their support to the plan. This is a crucial step, since a lot of the militancy and intransigency of the Palestinians comes from the twisted inter-dynamics of Arab politics. Arab leaders have a tendency to denigrate each other as Uncle Toms. As a result, the extremist elements tend to drive the discourse. By cutting the radical states out of the picture and not dealing with the Arab League, Bush hopes to force each of the moderate states to take an explicit stand in favor. If Abu Mazen has the open support of Egypt, Jordan, the Saudis, the Iraqis, and the Gulf states it will make his life a lot easier.

  3. At the same time, Bush is also cutting the UN and the Europeans -- the same people still desperately in love with the murderer Arafat -- out of the picture. This is crucial for getting Israeli popular and political support.

The expectations are really low for the summit tomorrow. At the same time, what we've seen in the last week is that both Sharon and Abu Mazen have been making a little bit of progress as each of them tries to please their stern American Daddy and try to ensure that they aren't blamed if things fall apart.

The tiny bit of hope I have is that both sides will continue in this way to blunder towards some state of norm

Monday, June 02, 2003

Now that the U.S. has liquidated the butchering firm of Saddam and Sons, the biggest loose end remaining with regards to the Iraq situation is just where the WMDs are. So far, searches have yielded quantities of raw materials and a couple of mobile weapons labs. The arsenal remains elusive.

From the standpoint of those of us who supported the war, the lack of WMDs is a minor but nagging problem. The lack of weapons is keeping the victory from being a complete slam dunk.

In a column for the Sunday Times, Andrew Sullivan posits three theories: that the weapons are there and we'll find them eventually, that Saddam actually managed to destroy most of the weapons (while retaining the capability to build more) so that he could pass weapons inspections, or that he never had any WMDs and the intelligence community and/or the Bushies made it all up. The war critics have seized upon the third option; Sullivan won't discount it completely but says that time will tell.

I think the broader question is what would constitute a success in the search for WMDs? What kinds of and how much would weaponry would allied forces have to find in order to convince the naysayers that the war was justified?

Sullivan goes on to argue that the search for WMDs is a bit besides the point at the moment. What counts is the fact that Saddam clearly had the capability for producing WMDs and there was a reasonable risk he would have used them against the West or provided them to terrorist groups at some point in the future.

Taking up this same idea, Michael J. Totten (who posits that Saddam may have been bluffing about having WMDs or been deceived about it by his own sycophants) says that in the long run it really doesn't matter. From the historical perspective, the only thing that matters is the fact that an unspeakably cruel and murderous regime was taken down.

I'm in complete agreement. But then again, I've been in favor of taking out Saddam since Aug.2, 1990 on the grounds that he was a general menace to everyone around him.

Basically it comes down to this question: would most Iraqis be better off if Saddam came back? Other than a handful of extremely bitter people on the lefty fringes I don't think anyone could say yes.

Thomas Friedman Needs Your Help

Tom Friedman is either getting weird or burned out.

Generally speaking, I like his columns. He's a snappy writer and has an ability to clearly sketch out Really Big Ideas. On the other hand, he can sometimes be a lazy writer, recycling ideas, writing column after column with the same point, and occasionally resorting to paragraphs of boilerplate. His latest column takes this tendency one step further: floating a half-baked idea and asking his readers to help him finish it.

In Sunday's NYTimes, Friedman comes up with a grand unified theory for explaining America's image problem in the world (something about America suddenly becoming a direct influence in peoples' lives). It's a fine theory, written in traditional Friedman style. But he doesn't do much to develop it or try to draw any conclusions from it.

In fact, he's totally up front (albeit cheekily so): "I offer it here, even more briefly, in hopes that people will write in with comments or catcalls so I can continue to refine it, turn it into a quick book and pay my daughter's college tuition." He even asks for readers to write him with suggestions.


All this makes you wonder if Friedman has a major case of writer's block. Or maybe he's using irony to make a subtle comment about all the reporting scandals plaguing the Times at the moment.

Or maybe he's just lazy.

Sunday, June 01, 2003
1933 and all That

Clarence Lasby, a history professor I had at university, used to say that the problem is not that people don't learn lessons from history; the problem is they learn the wrong lessons.

A couple of weeks ago, in hiscolumn in the New York Observer, Ron Rosenbaum raised objections to the recently aired CBS miniseries Hitler: The Rise of Evil. If you'll recall, the movie was the center of a minor fuss when its executive producer, Ed Gernon, was let go after he made statements openly comparing Bush to Hitler.

While Rosenbaum criticized the decision to fire Gernon, he also criticized some passages in the screenplay where Gernon altered key statements and events in order to make his Bush=Hitler analogy that much more explicit.
The issue is what the docudrama has Hitler say as he surveys the flaming ruins of the Berlin legislative chamber. In the docudrama, we hear Hitler declare: "This is a signal from God. We're under siege. The terrorists have opened fire, and we will fire back" (my italics).

Beginning to get the Ed Gernon analogy? In case there's any doubt how we're supposed to read it, check out the way Hitler's words on the scene at the Reichstag fire are altered by the CBS "docudrama." In Mr. Kershaw's Hitler biography (the book upon which this miniseries was initially to be based), the historian gives us the standard version of what Hitler told his vice chancellor, Papen: "This is a God-given signal, Herr Vice Chancellor! If this fire, as I believe, is the work of Communists, then we must crush out this murderous pest with an iron fist!"

But the change from "we'll get the Communists" to "we'll get the terrorists" is hard to understand as anything but a labored attempt at a contemporary analogy. It's altering a key sentence in history to make a polemical point about today.
I've been on the lookout for reactions to the miniseries and it looks like Ed Gernon's message has been read loud and clear.

The clowns at Indymedia, were, of course, already primed to receive the message. I also ran across this a long, not altogether coherent essaya diatribe against gun control.

Which is why I was happy to run across James Traub's article in the NYTimes magazine which gives a rational counterargument:
And this is really the fundamental point: fascist states arise not simply because a mesmerizing leader seizes state power in unsettled times but because the democratic institutions that might oppose him have rotted away, as they did in Weimar Germany. Has that really happened here? It's true that today's Republican Party is, by all historical standards, fervently doctrinal, if not necessarily ruthless or antidemocratic. Left to its own devices, the Bush administration, and especially Attorney General John Ashcroft, might be perfectly willing to expand government powers to fight terrorism no matter the cost to individual liberties. But the administration has not been left to its own devices. Opposition from both liberals and libertarian conservatives -- i.e., Republicans -- killed the TIPS program and may already be hindering next-generation Patriot II legislation; organs of the ''corporate-controlled media,'' like ''60 Minutes,'' have reported on the growing threat to civil liberties....

Why, then, the hysteria? I have several explanations. First of all, you cannot miss the element of wish-fulfillment in these prophecies of doom. Those of Bush's critics who loathe him as an overprivileged lout and corporate cats' paw regard the new moral and political stature he has gained as a result of the war on terror as an intolerable twist of fate; and so the terrible events they predict will prove the ultimate unmasking. We will see ''Bush as Fuhrer,'' to cite one recent Internet posting. But we will also, of course, see America as Germany, a society so ''demobilized'' that it will stay glued to reality TV as Karl Rove cancels the presidential elections. It is this contemptuous dismissal, I realize, that makes my blood boil every time I hear the 1933 analogy. When will the left learn that this is not simply a nation of dimwitted yahoos?