Saturday, February 28, 2009

Christopher Hitchens Jumped in Beirut

Christopher Hitchens recently scuffled with Syrian Socialist Nationalist Party members in a cosmopolitan neighborhood in West Beirut after he defaced one of their signs. Here's the play-by-play.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Iran's Jews

Roger Cohen's op-ed on Iran in the New York Times today is an insult to journalism. He made himself the perfect tool of the Iranian government. Is it too much to expect just a little bit of skepticism? 
Accepting, I inquired how he felt about the chants of “Death to Israel” — “Marg bar Esraeel” — that punctuate life in Iran.

“Let them say ‘Death to Israel,’ ” he said. “I’ve been in this store 43 years and never had a problem. I’ve visited my relatives in Israel, but when I see something like the attack on Gaza, I demonstrate, too, as an Iranian.”

This was the kicker:
Perhaps I have a bias toward facts over words, but I say the reality of Iranian civility toward Jews tells us more about Iran — its sophistication and culture — than all the inflammatory rhetoric.

That may be because I’m a Jew and have seldom been treated with such consistent warmth as in Iran. Or perhaps I was impressed that the fury over Gaza, trumpeted on posters and Iranian TV, never spilled over into insults or violence toward Jews. Or perhaps it’s because I’m convinced the “Mad Mullah” caricature of Iran and likening of any compromise with it to Munich 1938 — a position popular in some American Jewish circles — is misleading and dangerous.
Oh, I'm sure the fact that Roger Cohen is an internationally-known, Western journalist has nothing to do with the civility accorded to him. As for that pithy sentence about facts and words, it would be better applied to Iran's denial of its nuclear ambitions. And do bombing Jewish community centers and arming Hizbullah also amount to "mere words"?

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Labor Wants In

Even though Labor MKs have been boasting that they are not afraid to enter the opposition, they have been increasing the pressure on Livni to include them in the government. That, I believe, is how one should interpret statements by the Labor Party to the media, that the faction will not recommend Livni or Netanyahu to President Shimon Peres to form the next government. The comments of Dan Kurtzer, former U.S. ambassador to Israel, that
the Obama administration would find it politically risky to embrace a government that included Lieberman, who has voiced controversial views about Arabs (Ha'aretz),
also give Labor some added punch in the coalition-wrangling going on. Even though Israeli voters, especially on the right, are on the whole indifferent to these U.S. concerns, the senior figures in each party realize that strained relations with the White House are not in Israel's interest. They will be weighing the various domestic and international costs and benefits carefully.

However, it is unclear whether it is possible for these elections to yield a coalition that might appeal to the American administration - even if that were a priority for Israelis. A Kadima-Likud-Labor unity government (28+27+13 = 68 seats) would be a hard pill for Netanyahu to swallow, seeing as it would mean little change from the current line. Meanwhile, the pressure will be on Livni to explain her negotiations with Lieberman to Israeli voters from the left and, behind closed doors, to members of the Obama administration. Netanyahu knows, a fortiori, that a far-right coalition would spell trouble for American-Israeli relations.

In a comment earlier today, Nobody remarked about the need for electoral reform in Israel. There are two conflicting aims that disinterested voters pursue with reform proposals: 1) "true democracy", or 2) stability. The former is almost impossible to satisfy, as no electoral system is immune from challenges of injustice. With regard to the latter, there are certainly systems that make for more stable government. However, I would argue that Israeli society is more divided - ethnically, religiously, and socio-economically - than those countries that do not enjoy the curse of extreme political fragmentation. Lastly, as any student of electoral systems will tell you, there are no "disinterested" reforms in this sphere of politics. Since the proposed changes are always negotiated by political parties, they tend to favor those currently in power, or are at least designed to advance the interests of incumbents (occasionally there are miscalculations though). I am not sure the electoral system is the problem.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Good Morning, Israel. Some Laughs about the Election

There is an English translation by Lisa Goldman in Ha'aretz

"אזרחים, אזרחים סוג ב, ערבים." "Citizens, 2nd-class citizens, 3rd-class citizens, Arabs."

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Another Option: Unity Government

Both Livni and Bibi have expressed their opposition to a unity government. But the numbers, elucidated in my previous post, may make the option of a Kadima-Likud coalition government more appealing. Presumably, such a government would have a rotating premiership shared by Livni and Netanyahu. Here is what it would look like:

Kadima + Likud + Labor + Yisrael Beitenu
= (28 + 27 + 13 + 15) seats
= 83 seats [there are 120 in the Knesset]

It would also be possible without Labor or Yisrael Beitenu, but Kadima would need Labor as a buffer and Likud would need Yisrael Beitenu. Of course, such a government would be handicapped in major policy moves such as peace negotiations, because nearly half of the coalition might oppose them at any time. The key to the puzzle is examining the Likud list and to see what MKs would sit in the Knesset.

Here are the top 28 Likud MKs (I've included one extra, just in case Likud picks up another mandate when the remaining ballots are counted). There are quite a few unknowns (to me) among them, whose political orientation I cannot predict. It looks like the far-right ("right") and more moderate right ("right-centrist") forces are even. By "right," in this case, I mean MKs who would go as far as voting against the government, i.e., against Netanyahu's instructions, if they felt that a policy contradicted their ideology. It looks like this kind of unity government might be able to function. This is hardly scientific and I am open to correction on all of these. 

Note the number of women on the list, the election of Ayub Kra (a Druze MK), and an Ethiopian immigrant Adamsu on #28 (he came to Israel in 1983 though). 

1. Netanyahu (right-centrist)
2. Gideon Sa'ar (right-centrist)
3. Gil'ad Arden (right)
4. Reuven Rivlin (right-centrist)
5. Benny Begin (right)
6. Moshe Kahalon (right)
7. Silvan Shalom (right-centrist)
8. Moshe Ya'alon (right-centrist)
9. Yuval Steinitz (right-centrist)
10. Leah Nes (?)
11. Yisrael Katz (right)
12. Yuli Adelshteyn (right)
13. Limor Livnat (right)
14. Haim Katz (right)
15. Yosef Feld (?)
16. Michael Eitan (right)
17. Dan Meridor (right-centrist)
18. Tsipi Hutubali (?)
19. Gila Gamliel (?)
20. Ze'ev Alkin
21. Yariv Levin
22. Tsion Pinian
23. Ayub Kra (right-centrist)
24. Dani Danon
25. Karmel Shamah
26. Ofir Akunis
27. Miri Regev (right-centrist)
28. Alali Adamsu (?)

1.בנימין נתניהו
40.הילה -אסנת מארק
79.ישראל אמויאל
2.גדעון משה סער
41.אסף חפץ
80.אסיה אנטוב
3.גלעד ארדן
42.יחיאל (מיכאל) לייטר
81.טליה ארגמן
4.ראובן רובי ריבלין
43.דניאל בנלולו
82.אריאל בולשטיין
5.זאב בנימין בגין
44.עוזי דיין
83.מישאל בן עמי
6.משה כחלון
45.אדמונד חסין
84.גבריאל- חיים ביטון
7.סילבן שלום
46.פנינה רוזנבלום סימונוב
85.טל ברודי
8.משה (בוגי) יעלון
47.זאב -יאיר ז`בוטינסקי
86.יבגניי בריסקין
9.יובל שטייניץ
48.מיכאל קליינר
87.אריק ברמי
10.לאה נס
49.נורית (יונה) קורן
88.יוסף גינו
11.ישראל כץ
50.סמיר קאידבה
89.דוד גולן
12.יולי יואל אדלשטיין
51.יוסף- ספי ריבלין
90.פנחס דלויה
13.לימור אהבה לבנת
52.דוד מנע
91.דוד הרמלין
14.חיים כץ
53.יחיאל- מיכאל חזן
92.יוסף חביב
15.יוסף פלד
54.משה שלמה מוסקל
93.יואב טבול
16.מיכאל - מיקי איתן
55.אליהו גבאי
94.אופיר טוביאנה
17.דן מרידור
56.גיל חדד
95.שלמה טל
18.ציפי חוטובלי
57.אלי אבידר
96.זהר ירמיהו
19.גילה גמליאל
58.חמי - נחמיה דורון
97.אסתר שושנה לזרוביץ
20.זאב אלקין
59.מיכל - דאה כפרי - ירדני
98.פרד מונצ`רס
21.יריב גדעון לוין
60.אתי תלמי
99.עופר מוקה
22.ציון פיניאן
61.בלהה ניסנסון
100.יהונתן מישייב
23.איוב קרא
62.ריכאד חיאדין
101.דוד מימון
24.דני דנון
63.אפריים אבן
102.אליהו מלכה
25.כרמל שאמה
64.איילה שטגמן
103.טובה מעוז
26.אופיר אקוניס
65.מרים ארז
104.סנדרה סגיואן
27.מירי (מרים) רגב
66.עטאף קרינאוי
105.מיכאל סוטובסקי
28.אללי אדמסו
67.יוסף בדש
106.אלון סיסו
29.יצחק (איציק) דנינו

Coalition Building - Bibi's Nonsense

It's a travesty that the press is uncritically regurgitating the notion that Bibi has a higher chance of forming a government than Livni. This is not at all true when one looks at the numbers, even if they change by one or two seats in favor of the right-wing after the soldiers' and absentee voters' ballots are counted.

Although Netanyahu has been arguing that he won a decisive victory, I don't think he is thrilled about forming a far-right government. He knows that this will cause him a lot of problems on the international stage, which will in turn impede his ability to advance his policy aims. Furthermore, he would need both ultra-Orthodox parties to form the "nationalist" government that so many people are dreaming about.

Here is what such a coalition would look like:

Likud + Yisrael Beitenu + Shas + Jewish Home + National Union + Torah Judaism 
= (27 + 15 + 11 + 3 + 4 + 5) seats
= 65 seats  [out of a total of 120]

That's a very weak government, considering that it commands just 4 seats more than the minimum. Plus, can you imagine the headaches with Shas, the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox, and Lieberman all in one coalition?

Both Shas and Yisrael Beitenu have been posturing that they would prefer a Netanyahu government. There is bad blood between Shas and Livni, so perhaps Shas will under no circumstances sit in her government. But Lieberman's public expressions of support for a Netanyahu government should be read as attempts to strengthen his bargaining position vis-a-vis Livni. The same of course goes for Barak's remarks about Labor returning to the opposition. Nothing is a given. Neither Kadima nor Labor have any compunctions about sitting in a government with Lieberman. Moreover, Shas and Yisrael Beitenu would probably be willing to bury the hatchet, at least temporarily, if the right conditions are met.

There is thus a distinct possibility of a Kadima + Labor + Yisrael Beitenu + Shas coalition
 = (28 + 13 + 15 + 11) seats
= 67 seats. 

As always, the remarks to the press and leaks by the various candidates and their parties should be viewed with a great deal of skepticism. As much as certain candidates may insist that they will never sit in a government with X or Y, or that they would never consider conceding on issue Z, everything is up for grabs. 

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Benny Morris in Berkeley

This is a team post by Noah K. and Noah S.

On Wednesday, January 28, the University of California-Berkeley's Doe Library hosted Israeli historian Benny Morris. BM was a leading figure among the "New Historians" of the 1980s, a group of scholars who with access to newly opened IDF archives, challenged the then prevailing myths and dogma of Zionist historiography. In 1988, BM published his landmark study The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949, which he updated and reissued in 2004. Surrounded by an eager crowd comfortably ensconced on the sofas of the Morrison Room of Doe Library, Morris spoke about his new book, 1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War. Morris is often described as a "leftist," and his early work, by presenting the conclusion that thousands of Palestinian Arabs left their homes unwillingly during the 1948 war, must have been warmly received by many critics of the official narrative. Now, he is said to have shifted to the center, perhaps only reflecting the reconfiguration of Israeli politics in the last several decades. Is this new book he's hawking a "centrist" book? At no point in the lecture did BM expressly contradict any of the arguments made in his first book on the refugee problem. The book aims to set his old story of the birth of the refugee problem into a complete narrative of the war, really two wars, a civil war, and a war between the Jews and the Arab states after the initial civil conflict was decided. So the creation of the refugee problem loses something of its status as original sin when set against the backdrop of massacres on both sides -- the kind that BM argues "naturally" occur in civil war -- and against his careful description of the evolution of the war aims of the various parties involved. BM was at a pains to present himself as a dispassionate historian, who writes history "from the documents," and with his conclusions undermines the accounts of Arab propagandists and vulgar Israeli nationalists. He wowed the crowd with dates and figures, citing chapter and verse, but he also made recourse to comparative examples in world history.

He began with his most controversial historical claims. It is a matter of dispute among historians of the Arab-Israeli war about whether the war was, for the Arab armies, jihad, i.e., holy war against infidels. BM seemed convinced that there was sufficient evidence for an answer in the affirmative. He cited Arab generals who compared their war against the Jews to the Muslim struggle against Crusaders in the 12th and 13th centuries, and Sunni religious authorities who issued fatwas against Palestinian Jews just months before the Egyptian invasion. The second, related, claim is that the Arab armies were motivated to a certain extent by antisemitism. He presented very little evidence for the latter argument. He did mention that these arguments were probably responsible for the fact that the publisher that originally commissioned the manuscript—Metropolitan Press—ended up not publishing the book. (Yale University Press did.) More on this below.

BM moved on to a chronological account of the two stages of the '48 war: 1) the civil war between Arab and Jewish militias in Palestine (April/May), and 2) the conventional war between the Jewish armies and Arab state armies.

Appropriately, the first question he addressed had to do with war aims. On the Jewish side, BM argued that the original war aim of the Jewish militias in April, 1948, was mere survival and the eventual establishment of a Jewish state. However, as the war progressed, two further aims developed: territorial expansion (past the borders originally allotted in the U.N. partition plan of 1947); and the aim of ridding the area that would eventually become the Jewish state of Arabs, who presented a fifth column. Regarding the third aim, BM differentiated between expulsion—when Jewish soldiers came to Arab villages and commanded residents to leave their homes within x hours—and flight—when Arabs fled their homes in the course of a Jewish attack on their village (Arab militias were based in Arab villages). However, after Arab refugees are not allowed back to their homes after 1948, one could plausibly claim that the whole event was a de facto expulsion. There was no central command on the expulsion issue from Jewish authorities, BM said; some Jewish generals decided not to expel, which account for the fact that at the end of the war, there were 650,000 Jews and still 150,000 Arabs within Israeli borders (who became citizens of the new state).

"Arab" war aims are more difficult to assess, BM continued, because a) there was no central control among Palestinian Arab militias, and b) Arab archives are closed. What he could say was the following: Common war aims among all Arab armies was 1) the prevention of creation of a Jewish state, and 2) the conquest of as much land as possible in Palestine. BM dismissed the argument that a further aim was to "drive the Jews into the sea" for lack of documentary evidence. He further dismissed the official Arab claim that their goal was to save the Palestinian Arab population.

Moving on to the specific aims of the individual Arab states, BM noted that early on King Abdullah of Jordan accepted the inevitability of Israel's creation and aimed instead "only" to take West Bank for itself. Jordan's aim therefore was not to fight Jews, though it ends up happening anyway. Lebanon, too, despite official propaganda never invaded Jewish territory. These examples throw a wrench in the arguments of Zionist historians who claim that all Arab states wanted to destroy Israel in 1948. Syrian, Egyptian, and Iraqi armies did invade Jewish territory.

BM then addressed the "David and Goliath" myth of traditional Zionist historiography (that the small Jewish army was David compared to the Goliath of the Arab states). It is true, BM said, that in territory and population, Arab states were larger. However, the strength of societies also based on economic power—the yishuv was semi-industrial—as well as on "motivation"—whereas Arab soldiers often traveled long distances to fight their enemy, Jews were fighting for their lives on their own territory. The Holocaust had lent a further sense of urgency. Also, Arabs knew they could flee and live, while Jews felt "at death's door," according to BM. Further, the Jews had better ammunition. Once the U.N. imposed embargo on arms sales to warring parties in the Middle East, the Arab states lost supplies, while the Jewish militias had been stockpiling arms on the black market through Czechoslovakia all along and continued re-supplying throughout the war.

At the tail end of his talk, BM revisited the issue of "war crimes": massacres and the refugee problem. On massacres: BM cited numbers of 800-900 dead Arabs resulting from around two dozen discrete massacres (murders of civilians by Jewish soldiers outside of fighting). There were also massacres of Jews by Arab soldiers, BM said. However, the great disparity between the two numbers was a direct result of the fact that the Jewish militias took 400 Arab towns and settlements, whereas the Arab states conquered only 12 Jewish settlements/kibbutzim. This argument makes numerical sense only if one accepts the argument that massacres are a natural by-product of all wars. BM attempted to put the massacres of the 1948 war into "comparative perspective" by noting that there were days in the Yugoslavian war in which Serbs massacred over 9,000 civilians in just two days. (The number of Bosnians killed there is normally estimated at 8,000.) If there was one point, where, we think, he may have slipped up enough to allow the audience a glimpse of his ideological orientation, it was here. Sure the Hagganah, et al., killed 800 or 900 Arab non-combatants in 1947-8, but the Serbs in Srebrenica in 1995, killed 9,000 in a day! Curiously, he began to call the victims of that massacre "Croats," but caught himself, and said, "I think, no, they were Bosnians." The brutal facts of war, in all their precise and gory details, which BM had so far actually seemed to relish bringing out into the sterile light of our library seemed suddenly less important than the dignity of the Jewish state's first generation

On the refugee problem after the war: There were actually two refugee problems – Palestinian Arabs stranded in Arab countries after fleeing homes in Palestine, and Arab Jews stranded in Arab countries that no longer want them there after 1948. The main difference between these two groups is that the latter were absorbed into Israel, whereas the former group is only partially absorbed into various host countries. BM argued that this situation for the Palestinian Arab refugee was historically anomalous, as normally refugees are assimilated into host countries by second or third generation. Instead, now there are 4.5-5 million Palestinian Arab "refugees" who live off U.N. and other aid.

Explaining why there were expulsions and voluntary flight of Palestinian Arabs:

1) Zionists' explanation for the refugee problem was that the Arab states had a advised Palestinian Arabs to flee their homes in order to clear the battlefield for pan-Arab armies, or in order to justify their invasion of the territory.

2) Arab states' explanation for the refugee problem was that the Zionists had designed from the beginning to dispossess and expel the Arabs.

Truth, BM claimed, lies in between. Most Arabs fled from fighting, not because they were advised to by Arab states or forcibly expelled by Jewish soldiers.

By and large, this lecture was about the historian's craft. Amos once told me that he saw BM on Israeli TV arguing with Ilan Pappe -- another of the so-called New Historians. Pappe told BM, "You're not an historian!" And BM, becoming very agitated, retorted in his Anglophone Hebrew, "I'm not an historian?" Indeed, when Pappe came up in the Q&A, BM discussed Pappe's use of Ben-Gurion's diary in order to demonstrate that his rival isn't in fact an historian. An historian, BM, emphasized, writes history from documents. And in the case of the 1948 war, the documents of the yishuv and the fledgling Israeli state, are all we have to work with. The Arab documents haven't seen the light of day, and they aren't likely to soon. We only perceive the Arab position(s) through western eyes: contemporary diplomatic and intelligence assessments. This is the sad reality of the totalitarian political culture in the Arab states. These are the facts. Inevitably, for the history we write, this is for the worse. Then, BM literally threw his hands up. This sense of helplessness in the face of the perceived inadequacy of one, albeit, a massive, crucial segment of the sources, struck me as worth quarreling with. Is Morris giving up too easy? Take the 1967 war and the Soviet role in that conflict as an example. Isabella Ginor and Gideon Remez have recently written a book Foxbats Over Dimona: the Soviets' Nuclear Gamble in the Six-Day War, which reinterprets official Soviet documents, known for years, in order to rewrite the story of the outbreak of that war, arguing that the USSR was by May 1967 directly intervening with its military in an effort to prevent Israel from producing operational nuclear weapons. However, it was an oral source, I recall, which originally sent Ginor and Remez reviewing old official documents, looking for new ones, and challenging the historiography of '67. A recent veterans' newsletter of some kind published a Ukrainian marine's memory of his unit's orders to invade Israel by way of Haifa if and when the Israelis crossed certain red lines. Would BM's methodology allow him to be sensitive to similar material?

Thursday, February 05, 2009

18th Knesset Elections 2009 - Predictions

In less than a week, on Tuesday, February 10, Israelis will elect the 18th Knesset. There has been quite a bit of movement in the polls over the last week. The latest results are showing a tight race between Likud and Kadima, and a surge in support for Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beitenu party.  Candidates on the various party lists are competing for 120 seats. Here are my predictions for the elections results.

Likud: 29
Kadima: 23
Yisrael Beitenu: 16
Labor: 15
Shas: 10
United Torah Judaism: 6
Meretz: 5
National Union: 5
Jewish Home: 2
Hadash: 4
Ra'am Ta'al: 3
Balad: 2

I see Likud widening its lead over Kadima again in the last days before the vote. The last poll is tomorrow, it may still predict a close race between the two parties, but Kadima's lead is heavily dependent on quiet. I am predicting that Lieberman will fall slightly from the current projections but that his party will still beat Labor. 

The next order of business will be to determine who will sit in the government and in what capacity. A key question will be whether the Labor Party will give Ehud Barak the go-ahead to join a coalition with Netanyahu and Lieberman. I think he will twist the right arms to be able to maintain his tenure in the Defense Ministry. According to the polls, there is a possibility that a secular coalition comprising Likud, Kadima, Yisrael Beitenu, and Labor could rule without Shas or UTJ. 

Also interesting to consider - the candidate lists for LaborYisrael Beitenu, Kadima, and Likud. These will be important to peruse as the cabinet seats are divvied up.