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Authority: Personal and Political, or just where is the tipping point with George Bush and Tony Blair? February 21, 2007

Posted by WorldbyStorm in British Labour Party, Irish Politics, Israel, Israeli - Lebanon Conflict, Lebanon, Middle East, Palestine, United States, US Media, US Politics.

Listening to To The Point on KCRW about Condoleezza Rice’s latest foray into the Middle East, and in particular her attempt to act as an honest broker between the Palestinians and Israeli’s, I was struck by how fragile authority can be.

Here we have the Secretary of State of the United States, still the global hegemon, clearly unable to bend the regional powers to her will. Indeed it’s telling how Saudi Arabia has moved strongly into the frame on this issue, no doubt eager not to allow the Syrians or Iranians further increase their influence after what they no doubt regard as the largely successful Israel/Hezbollah conflict of last Summer. The US hasn’t changed. It’s highly unlikely that US policy in the Middle East will change radically whoever finally arrives in the Oval Office. Yet somehow Rice is simply unable to project the necessary power and authority into the public space.

That piece was followed by another considering the Presidents Day public holiday in the US. Presidents Day is held on the third Monday in February and was originally brought in in the late 19th century to celebrate the birthday of George Washington. Since then it has expanded somewhat in scope with some states linking it explicitly to another President born in February, Abraham Lincoln. Yet, according to KCRW the holiday has now become something of a festival of shopping Here too we see the authority of the ‘myth’ (in the broad Barthesian sense of it being a cultural narrative or concept) being drained away from what was once a reasonably significant memorial.

And I was thinking that in some respects that over the past decade we’ve seen how Presidential authority in the US and elsewhere is draining away before our eyes and in two very specific ways. Indeed this can be drawn more widely to incorporate most political authority wherever it may be, but the US Presidency offers a more focused example.

Consider how the authority of Bill Clinton seemed to recede as the wash of scandal broke across him in his second term in office. This loosely could be considered personal authority, and in a way relates more to character, or perceived character. By contrast in the case of George Bush, also a two term President, we’ve seen how his authority has vanished in the wake of the Iraq debacle (if ever two words were made for each other surely it’s those two at this point in time). This is of course more clearly rooted in political and ideological authority.

And, as ever, Tony Blair, riding in the wake of Bush (his own personal and political tragedy to my mind) can be judged to be an interesting combination of both forms of authority deficit, with political and personal authority diminished both by Iraq without and scandal (albeit fairly low-level stuff, whatever the papers may say) within.

Now none of these thoughts are particularly original, political and personal authority has always leeched away in the wake of what Harold Macmillan referred to as ‘Events, dear boy’. Nixon in the 1970s can be seen as being the victim of his own personal and political misdeeds and his authority flat-lined rapidly. But what really interests me is not so much that this happens as to the point at which it happens. If I were to take a guess at it I’d suggest that Bush’s authority diminished in the lead up to the Mid-Term Elections late last year, not after those elections (his relatively unguarded response to them as a ‘thumping defeat’ was accurate, more worrying was his admission ‘I didn’t see them coming’ which whether in jest or not tells me rather more than I need to know about his political acumen).

And I’d make the case for that authority receding then because sometime between early last year and the Mid-Term vote the voting population shifted against Bush and the Republicans. The vote was the symptom, not the cause as it were, and it’s entertaining to see how the supertankers of the US media fought to turn from their courses and deal with a political landscape that had changed without their registering it. Some, needless to say, still have to make that turn.

Can we expect a similar process here? If one is charitable one could propose that Bertie Ahern (whose alleged misdeeds are venial in the scale of the events already noted here) has had a remarkable capacity to retain authority even in the most trying of circumstances. And that’s irritated some people no end. But whether there is a tipping point ahead, a rake hidden in the long political grass that has in some sense already been trodden on but hasn’t come into view yet, remains to be seen. I doubt it to be honest. I think that the political situation here is too confused for such clear cut outcomes. But, I’m prepared to be proven wrong.

And as for Blair. Well, despite his own authority slipping away somehow in some part he still retains sufficient to be able to continue in power. He’s been an exceptionally fortunate politician over the years both in his friends and his enemies. Winning the last British General Election, even with a much diminished majority gave him the political traction to continue in a way that Bush, prey to the minor key disruption of the mid-terms simply couldn’t emulate. Yet Blair has been damaged, damaged to the point where he had to concede that this year would be his last in office. Perhaps there were no mid-terms in the UK, but in some respect he too has passed the tipping point both with the British public and his own party.

They must wonder too if they loved (well, okay, tolerated) too well a man whose protracted demise has led them to a new low in the opinion polls according to the Guardian yesterday. And perhaps gaze nervously at the chosen successor and contemplate just what degree of authority he will have.

And lucky us, we too can look at Enda Kenny and Pat Rabbitte, consider their authority and contemplate our own possible future.

The worst kept secret in the world… or Olmert and the Israeli Nuclear bomb. December 16, 2006

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Israel, Middle East.

Amazing news this week in the Guardian and assorted media outlets. Ehud Olmert, embattled Prime Minister of Israel (TM), announced during an interview with German news station N24 that “Without accepting your suggestion [ that Israel has nuclear weapons] . . . Iran threatens openly and explicitly to erase Israel from the map. Can you tell me that their wish for atomic weapons is the same thing as with America, France, Israel and Russia?” (this taken from the Irish Times report). It’s not exactly the clearest statement of facts, but implicitly the second part of the statement appears to indicate at least some hint of commonality between America, France, etc, etc…

But wait, was this the same event as reported in the Guardian, or even the same sentence construction, where it is reported that: He told Germany’s Sat.1 channel on Monday evening: “Iran, openly, explicitly and publicly, threatens to wipe Israel off the map. Can you say that this is the same level, when they are aspiring to have nuclear weapons, as America, France, Israel and Russia?”

The Jerusalem Post uses the second configuration, so perhaps it’s fair enough to accept it as is. Either way, it seems a clumsy and off hand phrase – exactly how it would be if it had slipped out in an interview. But hold on, this is the Prime Minister of Israel. Of all people on the planet he’s the last to allow strategic Israeli national security information to slip out in an interview – isn’t he?

Let’s assume for the sake of argument, and in the absence of a definitive wording that the reports are essentially correct. As the Irish Times put’s it, it’s unclear whether Olmert’s ‘admission’ was a slip of the tongue or a calculated ploy. The political and historical ramifications of the context are remarkable really when one stops to think about it. Here is the Prime Minister of the Jewish State, more or less admitting in Germany (Germany!) that Israel is in possession of weapons of mass destruction. Hmmm…

Naturally the Israeli opposition are blowing up a storm accusing Olmert of erasing a corner stone of Israeli national security. To be honest it’s hard to feel too exercised about it one way or another. My assumption, and I’m presuming it’s the assumption of regional governments, is that Israel has got such weapons, and has had them for some time (1968 to be precise if we are to believe CIA analyses), 200 weapons, if truth be told, which is an enormous cache. If there is a regional arms race it’s been a long time coming, and it hasn’t exactly been rapid. And realistically (and how I hate that term), there’s little that can be done about this. Still, putting national security aside there is one very practical reason why Israeli’s might feel less than delighted at Olmert’s (non) frankness. As the Guardian notes Israel evades “a US ban on funding countries that proliferate weapons of mass destruction. It can thus enjoy more than $2bn (£1.02bn) a year in military and other aid from Washington”.

Incidentally, one of the particularly silly ideas of the further left is that there is a monolithic front of the US, the UK and Israel. This is a perfect example of how that isn’t true, that state sovereignty (or let’s use the old fashioned term nationalism) still trumps capital at the end of the day. The Israeli nuclear weapons program appears to be very much a home-grown operation, and clearly plays a similar role in the Israeli psyche as it does in that of Pakistan – one which engenders nationalistic pride, with of course the added bonus of security. Or more importantly it provides an even firmer guarantee of Israeli security than US support, and perhaps even provides Israel with a negotiating tool with the US, again in exactly the same way that Pakistan has now leverage due to it’s weapons with the White House (indeed is it too fanciful to see these weapons being used as a means of vetoing US intentions in the area where they conflict with Israeli national interests?). And on that topic for a moment or two… the Guardian also reported on how the Saudi’s have threatened to arm Sunni groups in Iraq unless the US stays in place. And why wouldn’t they? The catastrophe on their northern border promises nothing but pain for them, even if their own brand of Wahhabi extremism is in part responsible for some of the more appalling aspects of the violence. Still it places Bush in a remarkable quandry. World opinion, and that of his own bien-pensants, is at one in the belief that a US withdrawal is necessary. Yet regional actors take the opposite line. I may be wrong, but I’d predict that Iran also could be none-too-pleased at an early US withdrawal (and incidentally this mirrors to some degree the thinking of Irish Eagle on this topic where he argues that the growing regional aspect of the problem works to US interests since it inevitably concentrates the mind of these regional players – okay, granted, that’s a counsel of despair…). And can I recommend Timothy Garton-Ash and his latest piece in the Guardian on Iraq which essentially excoriates Bush. It’s also worth noting that despite his centre left/liberal position he was consistently opposed to the war from the beginning.

Still, to return to the central point, perhaps Mordechai Vanunu, who might reflect wryly and reasonably on the fact that Olmert does not appear to be heading towads 18 years of incarceration for his statements, has the most level headed approach to this, actually welcoming Olmert’s partial admission when he says: “Obviously, I don’t welcome the atomic bomb but this openness could lead at last to some realpolitik – and maybe to some real peace”.

Blaming the Iraqi’s, or how to explain away something worse than a civil war… December 4, 2006

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Iraq, Israel, Israeli - Lebanon Conflict, Lebanon, United States, US Media.
1 comment so far

The latest statement from Kofi Annan (as found in the Irish Times) is – to my mind at least – the most accurate description of the present situation. Whatever way one cuts it the sectarian strife in Iraq is vastly worse than a typical civil war. It pains me to say this, but I also think he’s correct that the situation under Saddam was better. I don’t say that lightly, nor in the wish that Saddam was still in power, but it does point up the incredible vacuity and lack of responsibility of the US led coalition in exercising even the most basic of it’s duties as regards maintaining the integrity of Iraq following the invasion and occupation. I’ve said it before, I supported the invasion. I thought it was a good thing. Unfortunately I was wrong – although even still the majority of Iraqi’s are glad to see the back of Saddam. But the occupation was, as I’ve also noted previously, beyond abysmal in it’s implementation.

In part it’s due to this not being a ‘civil war’ of the usual model that the violence is so appalling. There is an excellent, if depressing, article in this months Prospect magazine by John Keegan and Bartle Bull which argues that since the various groups involved in the violence in Iraq do not have coherent aims as regards attaining state power – these groups being the Sunni insurgency, the Shia militias and extra-judicial elements allied with the state, with infiltration of the state forces by the previous three – therefore it is impossible to characterise it as a civil war. And it’s notable that within each of those groups are sub units. Sunni’s are split between Wahhabists, Salafists and Baath secularist. As the subhead on the article put’s it ‘Lessons from history suggest that Iraq, though in chaos, has not yet reached civil war’. That’s correct in one sense, but most observers would argue – I suspect – that it has in fact moved beyond a civil war. Keegan and Bull note that a curious feature of the Iraqi violence is that it’s ‘decidedly unmilitary’, and this much is true. There are no set pieces, no real attempts to stake or hold territory. And in that respect this is much worse than a civil war. If one thinks of Al-Zaqawi one can see how effectively amateurish his goals and means were. Yet amateurish means do not lessen the ability to massacre.

I said it was worse than a civil war, and I mean that in the sense that the violence, since it has no clear state power aims, is both reactive and entirely uncontrolled. The most appalling acts are carried out by all sections involved with no clear restraint. These acts fit into no particular strategy, indeed run completely counter to the purported aims and interests of those involved in carrying them out. The bombing of the Samarra mosque is indicative of this. Some see this as the final trigger for the involvement of the Shia militias in significant resistance, and altered the complexion of the conflict from one largely between the Sunni insurgents and the state into a broader more inclusive conflagration. But while conflagration is easy to achieve, an end point is more difficult. The complex nature of Iraqi society means that domination of it by Wahhabists is impossible. Yet neither can Shia dominate if the Sunni refuse to engage. In a way this reminds me to some degree of the situation in the North in the very early 1970s where competing groups vied as much to be heard as to make any strategic progress. But, the difference is of course that in Northern Ireland there were clear political programmes pursued by all involved (with the possible exception of Loyalists) and as time progressed it was possible to discern and engage with those programmes.

Frankly the most disgusting thing I’ve heard recently on this matter has been the chorus of voices from some on the US right effectively blaming the Iraqi’s for not being able to ‘do democracy’. Such a charge is specious in the extreme. Firstly it’s clear that Iraqi’s do do democracy as the successful election last year indicated. What they don’t ‘do’ at this point in time is coherent state building since the aftermath of the US invasion saw the willful attrition of the minimally required infrastructure of the Iraqi state and its replacement by – at first – an equally minimal security entirely inadequate for a country as large as Iraq. Secondly the very nature of the invasion and occupation robbed any serious legitimacy from the US – even if one accepts, and I tend to, that this wasn’t a ‘resource war’ fought for oil. No effort was made by the US administration to dispel that impression in a context where such an impression could only serve to weaken it’s bona fides. Indeed the administrations approach was one which actually exacerbated that impression by refusing to seriously engage with the UN, or make any effort to step aside from being the prime mover in the immediate aftermath. Thirdly, the actual make up of Iraq as an enormously intricate society divided along different religious, ethnic, political and other lines was such that it required the most delicate and nuanced of efforts to arrive at a reasonable solution. No such delicacy or nuance was forthcoming.

And now the situation is one where Keegan and Bull suggest that the ultimate shape of the conflict may be similar to that played out in the Lebanon. Fifteen years of civil war passed before a negotiated settlement. Fifteen years. And it’s worth considering for a moment how that settlement in Beirut is this very week under threat, in part due to Hizbollah’s drive to exercise greater power, in part due to another unintended consequence of US policy in the region, a foolish and short-sighted support for foolish and short-sighted Israeli military actions.

I still take a view that it was necessary to remove Saddam. But necessity is one thing, means employed another. It’s very clear that a non-military option was being explored just prior to the war. It wasn’t explored fully, a profound mistake. And this is a world which is crying out for a different approach to international relations, one which isn’t limited by 19th century concepts of state sovereignty, or by entirely sincere but effectively passive anti-war thinking. War happens, dictators dictate, people are imprisoned by the very concept of state sovereignty sometimes. A beefed up UN approach to totalitarianism is a good thing. But as Iraq demonstrates it won’t be feasible as a strategy simply by pretending that regime change through military force is the only, or even the preferred, option.

If it looks like a duck … November 19, 2006

Posted by smiffy in Islam, Israel.

Here’s an amusing piece from today’s Observer. Apparently Asghar Bukhari, from the Muslim Public Affairs Committee (a U.K. lobby group), had built up quite a sweet little relationship with noted Nazi apologist, proven liar and Holocaust denier, David Irving, even going so far as to donate a small sum to Irving’s legal fund.

Now the story is a little sketchy on exact details, but a few points are worth noting. Firstly, Bukhari offered his support wrapped up in a nice little philosophical cliché:

Bukhari contacted the discredited historian, sentenced this year to three years in an Austrian prison for Holocaust denial, after reading his website. He headed his mail to Irving with a quotation attributed to the philosopher John Locke: ‘All that is needed for evil to triumph is for good people to stand idle.’

Nothing too shocking about that. One could argue that Irving’s imprisonment (or, indeed, the criminalization of Holocaust denial in general) represents a fragrant breach of basic civil liberties, while at the same time finding Irving’s own view repulsive. Except … the paragraph above is rather misleading. One could be mistaken for thinking that Bukhari’s support was linked to Irving’s Austrian trial (although I don’t think this is deliberate – it’s just poor editing). However, later on in the piece we learn that ‘Bukhari confirmed sending the letters in 2000’, presumably around the time of the libel case against Deborah Lipstadt and Penguin Irving lost in April of that year (a case he himself took, a point often overlooked by those misguided fools he see him as some kind of defender of freedom of speech).

Bukhari’s response to the Observer’s questions seems particularly self-serving and ignorant (at best):

‘I had a lot of sympathy for anyone who opposed Israel,’ Bukhari told The Observer said. ‘I wrote letters to anyone who was tough against the Israelis – David Irving, Paul Findley, the PLO.”I don’t feel I have done anything wrong, to be honest. At the time I was of the belief he [Irving] was anti-Zionist, being smeared for nothing more then being anti-Zionist.

‘The pro-Israeli lobby often accused people of anti-Semitism and smear tactics against groups and individuals is well known. I condemn anti-Semitism as strongly as I condemn Zionism (in my opinion they are both racist ideologies). I also believe that anyone who denies the Holocaust is wrong (I don’t think they should be put behind bars for it though).’

It’s hard to square his apparent belief that Holocaust denial is wrong, with his continued belief in the rightness of his action. He says that he thought Irving was being ‘smeared’ because he was an anti-Zionist, which suggests that he didn’t know the first thing about the libel trial or, indeed, about David Irving. If he now accepts that criticism of Irving was justified, and that Irving is far more than ‘just’ an anti-Zionist then surely he should accept that his earlier support was wrong. If, on the other hand, he believes he did nothing wrong, then does his view of Irving still hold?

His dragging-in of the ‘pro-Israeli’ lobby is a complete red herring, and is a little hard to take. We’re all familiar with the argument that critics of the State of Israel are often unjustly labeled ‘Anti-Semitic’ and it’s a charge that should always be challenged. Part of the reason such a strategy is so objectionable, however, is that it diminishes actual Anti-Semitism. If everyone is an Anti-Semite, then Anti-Semitism means nothing.

One possibility Bukhari has overlooked is that Irving might be labeled an Anti-Semite because he actually is one. His opposition to Israel stems from this, not from any great humanitarian concerns. It’s important to note that, while not all Anti-Zionists are Anti-Semitic, pretty much all Anti-Semites are Anti-Zionists (certainly in Europe). Not a particularly radical idea, but apparently too complicated for Bukhari and his colleagues in MPAC whose claim that the Observer story is ‘just another Islamaphobic attack aimed at undermining and harming the brave individuals who support the Palestinian cause and the cause of Muslims within Britain’ is so hysterical, it’s almost cute.

What Bukhari and MPAC should try and grasp is that sometimes, just sometimes, is someone expresses Anti-Semitic sentiments and is accused of being Anti-Semitic then there might be another explanation besides the sinister Jewish conspiracy to crush all Anti-Zionist resistance.

Just maybe …

Neutral against who? The Lebanese conflict and the concept of Irish neutrality… October 29, 2006

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Irish Politics, Israel, Israeli - Lebanon Conflict, Lebanon.

Interesting that the Irish Anti War Movement is holding a meeting in the Royal Dublin Hotel on Saturday 4th October.

Speakers will be George Galloway MP of Respect and STWC, Ibrahim Mousawi of Al Manar the Lebanon TV Station and Ben Hayse, an international law expert. On posters around town the third speaker is indicated to be a member of the Peace and Neutrality Alliance and the event is free for members of PANA.

All good, and no doubt an interesting debate will ensue, however one has to ask what questions Mr. Galloway will be putting to Mr. Mousawi about Hezbollah’s vision for Israel. I’m not a fan of Mr. Galloway, but he gave an excellent account of himself on Sky TV where he made a passionate and evidently sincere plea for a credible two-state Palestine Israel with a joint capital in Jerusalem (a vision I entirely share – although I’d go further and look for an internationalised Jerusalem under UN auspices). I’m wondering if this will satisfy Mr. Mousawi in view of Hezbollahs contradictory objectives in relation to Israel which tilt between it’s elimination as a political entity and acceptance that it is to some degree up to Palestinians to decide. However, in either instance it is clear that Hezbollah is a participant in the conflict.

I’m also hoping that either PANA or Mr. Hayse will put a few questions forward about this report in the Guardian which notes that Human Rights Watch (an organisation not usually noted for being an Israeli partisan) has accused Hezbollah of firing cluster bombs into civilian areas in northern Israel.

The use of such weapons by either side is reprehensible. But it makes me wonder what PANA is doing on a platform with a representative of one of the combatants and particularly number 2 of it’s objectives: Ireland should pursue a positive neutrality and independent foreign policy and not join or form an association with any military alliance, such as the WEU or NATO.

I’m wondering how this sort of engagement with a partisan in the conflict falls under the heading of ‘positive’ neutrality?

By the by the non-appearance of this as an election issue is striking but not unexpected, despite the clear and understandable public sympathy expressed for the plight of Lebanon over the Summer. As has been seen many times in the past issues external to the state tend to have little traction on the public imagination and this appears to be yet another…

Eddie Holt had an interesting piece in the Irish Times yesterday (subscription required) about the treatment of a number of pro-Palestinian activists who entered Israel and the differing response to their treatment by our own Department of Foreign Affairs which was rather less interested in accounts of harrasment of Irish nationals when they were framed as occuring in Israel than when they were framed as occuring in Cuba. That might simply reflect an acceptance that it is easier – perhaps – to embarress the Castro regime than Israel, or it might not. But it is telling nonetheless. Having said that, any who have any experience of travelling by air to Israel will know that El Al takes exhaustive and understandable security measures to ensure the safety of their aircraft…

Spooks and Israel… October 23, 2006

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Film and Television, Islam, Israel, Middle East, Terrorism, The War On Terror.

Okay, not to flog a dead horse, and in keeping with the MI5/6 tone of this evenings post, the latest installment of Spooks on BBC1 had a marvelously convoluted plot involving the takeover of a Saudi Trade Centre in London by what appeared to be Al-Queda terrorist who turned out to be Mossad assets attempting to prevent the sale of nuclear technologies to the Saudis.

Satisfyingly bloody as it all was, and entertaining, with – ahem – some interesting thoughts about the woes of the Middle East, one does have to ask if the final scene with the head Mossad agent was absolutely necessary. He had survived the inevitable shoot out at the Trade Centre only to be captured by the Security Service. But since he couldn’t break cover he couldn’t admit to his true identity and was therefore treated as an AQ member.

The concluding scene  showed him clad in an orange boiler suit in a truck arriving at Camp X-Ray.

Makes you think, doesn’t it?

Galloway – Sensible points shocker! August 31, 2006

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Iraq, Israel, Israeli - Lebanon Conflict, Lebanon, Marxism, Middle East, Uncategorized.
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Okay, I must admit to sitting up and taking note of Galloway on Sky a month or so back. Yes, he delivered the usual rhetorical jibes against the presenter (perhaps I’m overly sensitive to such things but he struck me as a tad misogynistic in his treatment of her). Yet, what he said once one wiped away the rhetoric and the bombast was in fact – er…very sensible two-state solution stuff.

And what’s this, why an article in today’s Guardian which while using the usual language of ‘with the victory of Hizbullah, a terrible beauty is born’ and ‘If there is no settlement there can only be war, war and more war, until one day it is Tel Aviv which is on fire and the Israeli leaders’ intransigence brings the whole state down on their heads’, reiterates that, and with slightly less bombast.

Or as he says:

A comprehensive settlement now would of course look much like it has for decades: Israeli withdrawal from land occupied in 1967; respect for the legal rights of Palestinian refugees to return; the emergence of a real Palestinian state with east Jerusalem as its capital – a contiguous state with an Arab border, with no Zionist settlements and military roads, and with internationally guaranteed Palestinian control over its land, air, sea and water. In exchange there would be Arab recognition, normalisation and, in time, acceptance of Israel into the Middle East as something other than a settler garrison of the imperial west.

I’d agree with almost every word – bar my own preference (do you hear me Tel Aviv and Ramallah?) for Jerusalem to become an international city with the rights of all upheld by the international community.

Could it be that underneath all the rhetoric George Galloway is actually almost sensible? That what he projects is bluster that obscures a more moderate heart. That the marxist George, buried for so long beneath the persona of George of Baghdad, is reasserting itself with a good strong dose of pragmatism?

The world wobbles on it’s axis. Yet one wonders how all this will play within certain factions of Respect. The comrades of the SWP are perhaps a little more trenchant in their anatagonism to Israel, to say nothing of the other factions within the party.

Now if only he could detach himself from his ludicrous identification with the so-called resistance in Iraq “If the fierce thicket of the Iraqi resistance stopped the Bush war spreading to Syria then the extraordinary Hizbullah victory has surely made the world think again about an attack on Iran” and then a lot of leftists would find him a vastly more congenial character. But that I fear is a step too far.

Whataboutery, Part 1 August 18, 2006

Posted by smiffy in Israel, Israeli - Lebanon Conflict, Lebanon, Middle East, Palestine.

Did you see the article by Alan Shatter and Rory Miller in the Irish Times earlier this week? I hope so.  Apparently it was the best opinion piece to appear in an Irish newspaper all year. Who but a fool would have missed it?

Of course, I’m lying.  It’s not the best opinion piece to appear all year (that’s just the view of Richard Waghorne, the increasingly cartoon-like Anthony Blanche of Irish blogs).  It’s not even the best opinion piece to appear in the Irish Times that day?  What it is, in fact, is an entirely predictable example of one the laziest arguments put forward not just by those who defend the actions of Israel, but by an array of conservative wannabe pundits – the old ‘ah, but what about them?’ appeal.

Shatter and Miller’s ‘argument’ (to be generous) is that those who, like the Lord Mayor of Dublin or the organizers of the Festival of World Cultures, criticise Israel during its recent military action in Lebanon, are guilty of hypocrisy, as they don’t apply the same scrutiny to other regimes which breach human rights, such as Saudi Arabia in its treatment of Palestinian refugees or Russia in its actions in Chechnya.  It’s not a particularly original point (and it’s hard to see what it was that made Waghorne so giddy).  Indeed, it’s the same criticism that was leveled at those who participated in the mass anti-war marches in 2003: why are they only protesting against the war in Iraq?  Why aren’t the marching against the genocide in Darfur?

On the face of it, there may be some substance to the allegations.  Certainly there are those whose attitude towards Israel borders on the obsessive and whose criticisms of that state are so over-the-top they can be readily dismissed (such as Nobel laureate José Saramago’s opinion that the attack on Arafat’s headquarters in Ramallah by the IDF was ‘a crime comparable to Auschwitz’).

On the other hand, there may be good reason for marching in protest against certain violations of human rights, when other, more heinous, ones are occurring elsewhere.  Champions of Israel are fond of lauding its democratic credentials.  Surely, then, the Israeli government would be more sensitive to world opinion than, say, the Taliban, making protests against Israel more likely to achieve a positive result than those against other regimes.  Similarly, while the likes of the SWP might disproportionately criticise Israel, that state also receives far more support from Western governments, particularly the United States, than the other regimes mentioned.  It’s difficult to imagine any other state taking military action against another state and violating international law and receiving the same backing that Israel recently did, from both governments and commentators (unless, of course, it was the United States itself).  Apart from a minority of die-hard Stalinists, I don’t recall many people making the argument that the Serbian government had ‘the right to defend itself’ by committing ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, even among those who opposed to NATO intervention.  Contrast that with the ‘Israel right or wrong’ attitude adopted by many in the past month and a half.

Those who, like Shatter and Miller, seem to feel that pointing to hypocrisy on the part of others, and the fact that some conflicts receive more coverage than others, is an argument in and of itself fail to grasp that the same criticism can be made of them.  Alan Shatter thinks that the Lord Mayor hasn’t been vocal enough about the Ethiopian incursion into Somalia? Fine, perhaps he can point us to the protest he himself has organised about it, or the outcry he has raised about Chechnya or the Congo.  The same applies to the criticism of the 2003 anti-war marches; how many of those who complained that those marching against the US should have been concentrating on Sudan actually marched against Sudan themselves?  It seems that, for many on the right, violations of human rights which the ‘Stoppers’ aren’t particularly concerned with are only important as a stick which they can beat critics of the US with.  Is anyone adopting such a position really entitled to take the moral high ground?

Finally and, perhaps, most importantly, the crucial weakness of Shatter and Miller’s apparent attempt to defend Israel is that it doesn’t work as a defence at all.  It falls into a rather obvious trap of the ad hominem fallacy.  Even if one was to accept that everyone who has criticized the recent actions of the Israel military is a complete hypocrite, and possibly anti-Semitic to boot, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the criticisms themselves are invalid (as any fule no!).  By ignoring the substance of the charges, Shatter and Miller are implicitly conceding them.  Sure, Israel might be guilty of war crimes, but what about the crimes of A, B or C? Is this really the kind of point they want to make?  And, if so, where it does leave them in attempting to answer those who genuinely do criticise human rights violations wherever they occur?

Funnily enough, what this article serves to show is that Shatter and Miller, as well as many other defenders of Israel, are simply a mirror image of the likes of George Galloway, clown prince of the anti-war movement.  For Galloway, any criticism of Hezbollah, Hamas or the Iraqi resistance can simply be answered (well, ignored but responded to, to be more accurate) by pointing to the crimes of what he describes as the ‘little Hitler state on the Mediterranean’.  Similarly, Shatter and Miller respond to charges against Israel by ignoring them and pointing to the actions of others.  ‘Whataboutery’, it seems, is not confined to any one side.

It’s all over… bar the shooting… August 18, 2006

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Israel, Israeli - Lebanon Conflict, Lebanon, Palestine, Uncategorized.
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So emerging from the wreckage what’s the lay of the landscape?

Borzu Daragahi of The Los Angeles Times mentions on KCRW’s To the Point (15th August) [here] the feeling of betrayal from Lebanese who believe the international community had betrayed them and the Cedar Revolution and their dreams of being the first proper democracy in the region other than Israel. This is a crushing indictment of the US and Britain, and more generally the ‘West’ such as it is. Not to support a secular, democratic leaning state has been an appalling derogation of responsibility. (Incidentally Daragahi also noted that compared to USAF actions during the Iraq war where he had previously reported, the damage from the Israeli aerial bombing campaign was ‘unbelievable’ with ‘whole apartment blocs flattened’ and in no sense pinpointed).

It’s not difficult to identify some crucial problems that arose during the course of the conflict.

Key problem #1: an unwillingness to learn from history. Israel had already taken on Hizbullah in 1993 and 1996 in incursions almost identical to those of the last month or so. They didn’t work then and Warren Christopher had to negotiate a ceasefire with Hizbullah.

Key problem #2: an adventurist administration in Washington willing to allow the Israeli government to act with near impunity during the first two weeks of the conflict.

Key problem #3: an Israeli government desperate to prove it’s military credentials and therefore simultaneously willing to go too far and also unsure and vaccillating in the face of the military pressure to go further.

Key problem #4: an IDF which had burnished it’s reputation decades ago (and reduced more recently to the effective policing of Gaza and the West Bank against opponents unable to mount a serious military threat) facing a motivated and largely professional guerilla force capable of inflicting serious casualties.

Key problem #5: an Israel unable, or unwilling, to understand international public opinion on this issue and making egregious errors of tactics and strategy which only served to undercut what little support it already had. An example, the 48 hour ceasefire granted in order to allow civilians and medical supplies access and egress from the area. At the very least, were Israel thinking rationally such a move would have been made much earlier in the conflict, perhaps at the start. Not because it was necessarily the smartest military move in the short term, but because it was morally right and because it would then allow them to act more decisively later.

Finally, and I keep hearing this, the imbalance between what some perceive as an existential conflict for Israel and yet what in reality was not. Therefore the acres of rhetoric about how the Hizbullah rockets presented a threat (which they did on a real basis to individual Israeli’s but not to the state of Israel) that justified the extreme actions undertaken in Lebanon were simply wrong or self-serving. A million people in shelters is a dismal prospect. But – it’s not as if the adversary was unwilling to cut a deal as demonstrated over the past 48 hours. Nor was, at any point, Israel in a position to degrade Hizbullah to the extent that would render it ineffective. That’s not to say Hizbullah hasn’t been degraded. Clearly it has in some respects, and it will be interesting to see how it’s reputation weathers the next year or so on the ground.

Why do I talk of Israel mainly? Because it is Israel that must carry the bulk of weight of responsibility of the last four weeks, because Israel had different choices at every point and did not take them.

A couple of further points. There is a distressing tendency to paint this in Manichean terms, that Hizbullah (and often Hamas is included in this analysis) is an adversary that cannot be dealt with other than by annihilation. I think this is a serious misjudgement of the situation. Yes Hizbullah is anti-thetical to the State of Israel. That is a given, however the very fact it can be negotiated with to this point demonstrates that it is subject to pressure, opinion and force. Hizbullah is – and I don’t mean to legitimate it in any respect – a response to historical pressures which can be countered. Hizbullah is not entirely detached from the public within which it moves and operates. In other words this is not Al-Quida – beyond any possibility of discourse. In the final analysis Israel must start to engage with those around it who seek it’s destruction, must seek to to alter the perception of it. An interesting point was made in the recent issue of Prospect magazine where it was noted that during the height of the Oslo agreements Israeli and Jewish popularity within the Muslim world reached record levels. Those who make this point appear to believe that hatreds are fixed and unchanging, but that simply ain’t so. Sixty years ago on this continent Franco-German hostility was so deep rooted the prospect of any accommodation, much less the contemporary alliance between the two was unthinkable. Enmities can be overcome. Hatred can be diffused. But it requires work, and let’s be honest to turn around the phrase utilised by the Israeli’s ‘a partner for peace’.
Of course for some (perhaps an individual with the initials OBL skulking in caves along the Pakistan/Afghanistan border) such an outcome was disastrous because they too buy into a Manichean worldview, and any agreement would be subject to attack, but it appears to me that a cautious, step by step engagement by Israel would reap rewards.

How could that start? Perhaps by some sort of assistance to Lebanon. Is that likely? Perhaps not, but how could it hurt? Secondly by serious engagement on the Palestinian issue. The last five years demonstrated the futility of undermining all aspects of Palestinian authority, by degrading even the nascent institutions of a functioning state – as if such a strategy could lead to ‘peace’. The result, as in the Lebanon, keep hitting hard and eventually an adversary will arise that will hit hard back. israel isn’t going anywhere, and that’s fine, but the opposite is also true. Lebanon, Syria, Iran and most importantly the Palestinians aren’t going anywhere either. And if I was in Tel Aviv, and had any thoughts of expulsion of Palestinians from the West Bank as some of the most revanchist (and admittedly marginalised) elements of the Israeli political spectrum do, I’d think again. Lebanon showed that the world won’t wear it.

Otherwise what’s the alternative? Fortress Israel, surrounded by those who would seek to destroy it, permanently on a war footing, watching impotently as the last vestiges of world support ebb away from it. That would be a tragedy.

Even listening to the discussions on the same edition of KCRW’s To the Point some Israeli commentators appeared to completely misunderstand the dynamic of what is going on.

Yossi Klein Halevi who writes for the new Republic is sharply critical of Israel and Olmert for not prosecuting the land war with more vigour. He considers Olmert made two key errors in that he had ‘an almost unprecedented support from Washington’ and a unified public opinion in Israel and the opportunity to send the ‘message that Israel is unpredictable and Israel is strong and resolute…’. But that’s the problem. In the end Israel didn’t have unlimited support from Washington. Quite the opposite, Washington has it’s own concerns in the region now and despite it’s wish to bloody the Iranian nose (by proxy) general regional stability and the pressure of public opinion was going to tell. So an unconstrained land war was never a real option, and Halevi, a sharp and thoughtful commentator, is deluding himself if he thinks so. [As an aside he went on to describe how he lived in Jerusalem close to the West Bank and how he had been ‘subjected’ to his Palestinian neighbours holding fireworks displays for the last thirty days in celebration at ‘Hizbullah’s victory’. Perhaps the real question is just why they would do that and how can the situation be turned around so that an attack on Israel is seen as the last resort of the nihilistic].

By contrast Akiva Eldar of Haaretz noted that Israel had indirectly ‘upgraded Hamas from a political party to a government’ and the same would occur with Hizbullah. And that’s the point. Every action Israel takes is limiting it’s scope for action because by redefining this in existential terms it errs on the side of utilising too great a force against adversaries who could be dealt with more appropriately and alienates support.

My belief is that this is an important point in Israeli/Arab relations because defeat, or more correctly a military stalemate, is something Israel has not experienced before. Stalemate brings it’s own lessons. I genuinely hope they will be assimilated, and not lead to a Likud government closed to the reality of a world which is increasingly turning it’s back on Israel.

But there’s blowback on other issues too. In the US support for the war in Iraq has nose dived and with that there has been a parallel reduction in support for the Republican party, particularly as the party of strong domestic security. This has serious implications for the future as well. Perhaps a future US administration will be just that bit more cautious about handing a blank cheque to Israel, perhaps they will act more along the lines of the US during Suez where it effectively shut down the French, British and Israeli actions.

Perhaps not.

Viewing the other… Israeli Propaganda and the Lebanon August 13, 2006

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Israel, Israeli - Lebanon Conflict, Lebanon, Uncategorized.

A remarkable podcast on KCRW’s To the Point [available here]. Hanady Salman of As-Safir, the Lebanese newspaper, made some telling points about the propaganda war.

Apparently the Israeli’s are resorting to leaflet drops in areas and the jamming of radio stations. But Salman had some telling criticism’s of the form of the material. The leaflets had crude and ‘grotesque’ cartoons which she described as being worse than that which her young child could draw. According to her the Communist party radio station had risible anti-Hizbullah propaganda messages superimposed by the Isreali’s instead.

She said that ‘I feel insulted because they’re not spending too much money to convince us’. And that sentiment, while perhaps somewhat strange in the overall situation, reaches a central truth of this conflict.

We’ve seen that Israeli’s did not appear to credit their adversaries with any degree of sophistication, as demonstrated by their apparent surprise at the level of technological advancement by Hizbullah, and their ability to sustain resistance over a protracted period of time.

But what comes through loud and clear here is a sense that the Israeli’s have a bizarrely distorted version of what Lebanon in general and the Lebanese are like. It is rather as if they presuppose that the population is entirely uneducated and lacking in the ability to decode visual or text based imagery.

Indeed, in the current issue of Prospect magazine [here] Tamara Chalabi, writing from Beirut quotes a Lebanese Christian who initially was antagonistic to Hizbullah more recently saying: Israel is being disproportionate. They want to destroy us. They hate us. They can’t stand the fact that we are a cosmopolitan society with different communities, who are as sophisticated as they are, and living together.”

Simply put the Israeli’s, and I’m not ascribing racialism but instead a form of willful ignorance, appear unable to see the Lebanese as anything other than puppets, dancing to the tune of Hizbullah, or responding to their own demands. They are not credited with the ability to think, decide or determine for themselves. Only the most introverted of political analyses could believe that one can bomb a people out of a belief system, or that such actions could have anything other than a unifying effect upon the general Lebanese population which is less sympathetic to Hizbullah, yet this appears to be the motive force behind the current Israeli action, because one presumes the IDF (a clever and very capable force) understands that in military terms Hizbullah will survive, but more importantly in ideological terms it is going to thrive.

Even in the broader context of the war, and the appalling actions that we’ve witnessed over the past three weeks, I think that tells us something very significant about the gulf of incomprehension on the Israeli side as to the situation they find themselves in.

Incidentally, I wouldn’t deny for a moment that at a higher level of activity, internationally and so on, both Israel and Hizbullah are putting out more sophisticated messages.

However, Lebanon is a sophisticated country with a sophisticated society. How could it be otherwise when it has had to hammer out a means of transcending the conflicts of the past by means of a careful system of checks and balances between the different ethno-religious groups?

I loath the use of the term ‘imperialism’ in these discussions. I think it’s glib, and it’s an issue I hope to return to at a later stage, but there is the whiff of ‘talking down’ to the inhabitants in such actions which leaves a sour taste. The world has changed. The Arab world is changing. While there is much to deplore in the overall socio-political situation, and much which can be laid directly at the feet of the regimes there (noted in the UN report…..), there is also great potential for democracy, prosperity and pluralism. Already contemporary communications are having a significant effect on the area.

That the Israeli’s can misjudge the nature of Lebanon, and presumably misjudge the nature of all those in the area around them, that it can with relative impunity attack the infrastructure, both physical and political of one of it’s neighbours, and more importantly one of the brightest spots in the region with a clear potential to ultimately be a friend and ally of Israel, leaves little hope for the future.

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