Thursday, November 20, 2008

Shared Problems

Coin of Herod the Great as seen tonight on Ebay going for $9.95 before tax and shipping.

The current issue of National Geographic spotlights the trade in illegal antiquities that is flourishing in the West Bank. The piece is worth checking out for the photos, but also for the explanation of the process by which the cultural loot makes it to market. As it turns out, the Persian Gulf isn't only to blame for purchasing a large part of the ancient treasure on the black market, it also provides a kind of laundry service for Israeli dealers. The objects are smuggled out of the West Bank to the Gulf, whence they return to Israel with official export licenses -- in other words, ready for legitimate sale.

The disastrous state of the Palestinian economy and the patchwork legal and security framework, we're told, render this state of affairs all but inevitable. The PA's official and the Israeli Antiquities Authority archaeologist attached to the IDF in "Judaea and Samaria" seem resigned. Political and military imperatives weigh against enforcement of the the 1978 Antiquities Law or the PA's own rules -- which are what exactly? And what is the status of the Israeli Antiquities Law in the territories? Apparently, you need an export license to transfer antiquities from Hebron to East Jerusalem; so said the Israeli courts in Ruidi and Maches v. Military Court of Hebron.

Indeed the situation seems chaotic. But I would argue that traffic in illegal antiquities in the territories isn't only a product of the breakdown of the peace process and the dearth of the Palestinian economy. It's also related to the curious, confusing Israeli stance on the entire issue of antiquities. Today Israel countenances an enormous amount of illegal excavation and sale within its 1967 borders. By one count, 11,000 of the 14,000 sites within the Green Line have been looted. The root cause is often related to a simple contradiction in policy. The Antiquities Law effectively nationalizes any artifact that surfaces. They're all state property. And yet, the antiquities trade is legal -- whereas in many neighboring nations, it's not. With strong demand from museums (some internal) and collectors large, small, and sometimes powerful (see Moshe Dayan, Yigal Yadin, and Teddy Kollek), pressure to increase supply is constant. You might get the idea that the anarchic West Bank is the perfect playground for rich collectors. Ironically, the dubious legitimacy of an Israeli export license may attract more of them.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Peres Silences Palestinians ... by Being Present

I was amazed by the strange logic of this letter, which was sent to the Angry Arab, on the occasion of Shimon Peres's appearance at Oxford:
We, the Oxford Arab Cultural Society and the Oxford Students' Palestine Society, alongside the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and concerned members of the public, held a demonstration outside starting over an hour before the talk, and lasting - audibly - throughout Peres' speech. Some of us attended the lecture and, at intervals, nine students got up and made loud statements beginning 'I represent all the Palestinians who...' One such student was bundled out of the lecture hall. Peres was visibly fazed by these interruptions and the sound of the protestors outside, while the audience were thus made aware of the point of view being stifled by Peres' presence today in Oxford, and every day in Palestine.
I think this is what happens when people take their literary theory too seriously and start viewing people as texts, which are said to repress subalterns by their presence. It is also rather insidious. What exactly are we supposed to do when someone's mere existence is said to marginalize another person's or people's point of view? 

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Obama, Emanuel, and Israel

"Rhambo" has Obama's ear (Photo: AP)

Is Barack Obama's choice of Illinois Rep. Rahm Emanuel as chief of staff a message to Israel? Is it an attempt to beat back attempts in the campaign's waning days to portray the President-elect as lukewarm on Israel -- the kind of guy who pals around with Palestinians? This is what Fox News is suggesting. However, I would speculate that Obama's choice of Emanuel, a former non-combatant member of the IDF, is even less predicative of American policy on Israel going forward than the Senator's friendship with Rashid Khalidi. It's only possible to think that the selection of Emanuel amounts to a statement about Israel by placing undue weight on a few details of the man's biography and ignoring his record and the political imperatives of the day. Obama went out and got an operator, not an ideologue. Or is it a signal to Turkey? Rahm was the most powerful member of the House to oppose the Armenian genocide resolution! One could chalk up all the hubbub about Rahm's Israeli connection to a kind of ethnic and national pride. But in light of the bizarre readings of the American political tea leaves out there right now -- see Amos' post below on one bizarre Greek commentary -- it seems less than innocent to inflate this aspect of the story right now. Fox News is guilty of significant exaggeration here: Ha'aretz "noted his deep Jewish roots." What? As far as I can tell, only Rahm's Zionist/Israeli ties were aired in the Israeli daily: "Emanuel is the son of a Jerusalem-born pediatrician who was a member of the Irgun (Etzel or IZL), a militant Zionist group that operated in Palestine between 1931 and 1948." For what it's worth, I've seem Emanuel address his Jewishness twice on television. He was more or less ecumenical with Bill Maher, a "worried Jew" with Charlie Rose.

Wishful Thinking

I'm curious what exactly Amr Hamzaway is talking about:
US policies in the region are in the grip of a severe credibility crisis. I am not talking about the campaign to spread democracy, to which the Bush administration had hardly adhered before the Hamas victory in the Palestinian legislative elections in 2006 and that it abandoned entirely afterwards. Rather, I am speaking of the conventional role that Washington has played since the end of World War II, which is to protect its allies -- Israel above all -- and to steer the collective security arrangements in the Gulf in order to safeguard the flow of oil. Many of America's allies have begun to question the efficacy of Washington's polices and, in some cases, now believe these policies cause more problems than they solve.
What kind of role does he expect Washington to play? Is he really so delusional as to think that anything meaningful will come of Arab flirtations with other (rather mysterious) powers? The "allies" to whom he is referring may believe what they like. They have long been free to do so. The more important question is, what are they going to do about it?

Obama will pursue a different kind of foreign policy in the region than Bush. But he will certainly not stop protecting Washington's allies or the flow of oil.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

European Antisemitism: Stupidity, Malevolence, or Both?

I wish one could laugh at the stupidity of this headline, which the editors of the Greek daily Avriani saw fit to print yesterday, and which came to my attention via the American Jewish Committee:
The anticipated victory of Obama in the U.S. elections signals the end of Jewish domination. Everything changes in the USA and we hope that it will be more democratic and humane.
If only it weren't so evil, in addition to being completely out of touch with reality.

Perhaps the headline of my post, which refers to "European" antisemitism is misleading. But I happen to think that there is a significant minority of Europeans who share the sentiment of Avriani but are still too cautious to articulate it in public. Granted, antisemitism in post-war Greece, on both the left and right, which is one of those phenomena that seems to defy rational explanation, is especially virulent. But didn't the talk of Jewish neo-cons and lobbies strike the biggest chord in virtually Jew-free Europe?

I fear that pointing out the overwhelming support for Obama among American Jewish voters (77%!) is the wrong strategy for handling this nonsense. And alerting Avriani's editors to the biography of Obama's rumored pick for chief of staff might be similarly counter-productive. The great champions of "democratic and humane" values would do well to examine themselves more closely.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Knesset Elections 2009 - Early Trends

Foreign Minister and Kadima chairwoman Tsipi Livni is no longer wasting time on Ehud Barak. She is interpreting the election campaign as fight between her and Likud chairman Benjamin Netanyahu (English, Hebrew). Having watched the Likud gain several high-profile additions from the right these past few days, Livni went on the attack. She challenged Netanyahu and his supporters to formulate a platform with a vision of the future rather than a series of negations - no to negotiatons, no to territorial concessions, no to a Palestinian state. 

If Livni proves able to stay on the offensive, to challenge Netanyahu to present his own plan for securing Israel's safety and prosperity in the long-term, the Israeli public might ultimately side with her. The truth is that Israel's democratic right has no vision. It offers no solutions to the current impasse, other than a continuation of the status quo, with which most Israelis (rightly or wrongly) are deeply unsatisfied. 

Of course, "creative" policy proposals are plenty on the anti-democratic right, which believes that peace can be achieved by offering the Palestinians a menu of delectable choices, ranging from  forced expulsion, to voluntary transfer, to second-class citizenship. Even someone as cynical as Netanyahu, however, is unlikely to embrace such policy proposals.  He will be hard-pressed to devise a clear and plausible policy sufficiently different from Livni's for centrist voters to choose him over her.

Ehud Barak, in the meantime, is pursuing the bankrupt strategy that has bedeviled  the Labor Party since the end of Barak's last government. His political games are squeezing out the vision and experience that the party's committed parliamentarians and ex-ministers could bring to the art of government. Unless he changes tack, Barak will lead his party to the impotence predicted by current polls.  If they become too fed up, those on the left of the party may join Meretz, while those on the right will jockey for positions in Kadima.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Let the Campaigns Begin

With the U.S. presidential election campaigns drawing to a close and Americans waiting eagerly for its outcome, Israeli political machines are in full swing organizing for a showdown of equally historic proportions. It is of course far too early to call the Israeli elections, which will be held on February 10, 2009, but the outlines of the campaigns that the major parties will run are already visible.

The Likud, led by Benjamin Netanyahu, is convinced that it will make a major comeback and determined to sweep to power in convincing fashion. Current polls, have the party running neck-to-neck with Kadima, while they predict that the Labor Party is headed for a devastating defeat. But it is not at all clear whether Netanyahu would be able to form the kind of government that the Israeli right is dreaming of. To be sure, his campaign will attempt to capitalize on widespread discontent in Israeli society about the lack of progress achieved since Sharon's withdrawal from Gaza. Furthermore, the religious and secular right is regrouping around a united Jerusalem and the protection of the West Bank settlements. 

Such a platform, however, will make it difficult for the Likud to bring in Ehud Barak's Labor Party or Tsipi Livni's Kadima into a coalition government. Hence, Netanyahu has two choices: to win at least 40 seats (out of the 120 seats in the Knesset) and to form a coalition with Shas, United Torah Judaism, the National Religious Party, and Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beitenu, or, to back-pedal immediately on all those slogans and bring the Labor Party into the government. 

There is no telling what the next three months will bring to the Middle East. While progress on the Palestinian front appears hopelessly stalled, we may see slightly more movement on the Syrian track. The latter will depend on the policies that the president-elect of the United States decides to adopt. Olmert, as head of the transitional government, has the legal authority to continue negotiations. Will the Syrians take these talks seriously? Will they prefer to wait for a (potentially more right-wing) new government to form in February, or do they believe that they could grasp the most favorable settlemetn now?

While Bibi today looks like the man to beat, Tsipi Livni has distinct advantages over her challenger from the Likud. Netanyahu's government, like Barak's, is not remembered as an especially successful one. Both of these politicians' styles alienated some supporters of their parties. They will have to invest in overturning these perceptions. Livni, on the other hand, does not have such liabilities, despite boasting considerable experience in the executive branch of the government. She remains somewhat enigmatic in the eyes of many voters, but they may respond very favorably to her messages when she devotes herself fully to campaigning.