Thursday, January 26, 2006

What Has Oslo Ever Done For Us?

It is actually quite common to dislike your enemies but if you want peace, you have to negotiate with them no matter how unpalatable. The Hamas election turns the tables on the sponsors of the peace process. The world told the Palestinians they had to control their gag reflexes and negotiate in good faith with the Israeli politicians and parties who had given them the King David Hotel bombing, and the massacres of Deir Yaseen and Sabra and Shatila, and who since Oslo have settled tens of thousands of new colonists.

Interestingly, most of the international peacemakers and negotiators have always tried to try to persuade the Palestinian leadership that they had to accommodate themselves to what Israeli public opinion could take. No one listened to Palestinian negotiators when they remonstrated that they too had a public whose opinion mattered.

The Palestinians took a tip from Monty Python's Life of Brian. They asked 'What has Oslo ever done for us?' and instead of listing the roads, the hospitals, the schools and the factories built, they listed the schools and hospitals shelled and occupied by the IDF, the roads blocked, the walls and settlements built, and the high explosive assassinations of Palestinian leaders regardless of collateral civilian life. They listed the growing daily humiliation of unemployment, poverty and harassment.

Understandably, they showed their frustration with Fatah's inability to deliver on the promises of Oslo by turning to Hamas. Fatah has its own baggage of cronyism and inefficiency, but it was really let down by the international community, the so-called Quartet, which allowed Sharon to turn the Road Map into a one way street aimed at the Palestinians. No one who saw the election results in Iran, reflecting the inability of the reformers to get any concessions from the US should have been totally surprised at the result.

Anyone who knows the Middle East also knew that the White House's mantra that democracy would solve all its problems was a fond and deluded pipe dream. Oligarchs and tyrants are much more manipulable. Even if they have exploited it, the assorted leaders of the Arab world did not create popular anger about the plight of the Palestinians. Israeli behavior did. Whenever they have had elections Arab voters have been much more intransigent than their unelected rulers.

It was a fair and democratic election, with a turnout which shames both British and US election winners. Fatah is too strong for Hamas to roll over completely so some compromises there are possible. Who knows? The Palestinian brewery may survive the victory.

So now the Israelis have to negotiate with Hamas if they want peace. Frankly, if they do not want peace, the rest of the world and the US will have to intervene to persuade them, since the consequences are literally terrifying.

The present situation is so unsustainable that even Ariel Sharon realized that it had to change, although his changes were unilateral and, in the long term ineffective. His Bantustan solution was not going to get international recognition, let alone Palestinian cooperation.

Israel can annex the territories, and give their people full citizenship but it will not do so since the demographics mean that it would no longer be a Jewish state. Or it could try its hand at ethnic cleansing, and risk full scale war, not least if the Muslim states really are as close to nuclear capacity as the paranoids keep saying. That should scare even the White House out of its complacency.

But the Hamas victory does offer opportunities. Israel should know that, since it was the Israeli security services that originally encouraged and fostered it as a rival to what they then saw as the more dangerous and secular Fatah. It has agreed ceasefires, although once again the propensity of the Israelis to assassinate its leaders whenever that happens makes one wonder whether the Security Services really want ceasefires.

Before, the Israelis and the Quartet negotiated with Fatah, which could not necessarily deliver Hamas. Now they can negotiate directly with a partner that can deliver, and which has shown signs of pragmatic accommodation.

We can only hope that the EU can persuade the US to ignore hardline Israeli calls to discount the results and engage in constructive discussions with the new government.  If Israel agrees its borders end at or near the Green Line, Hamas may be able to accept that it will put its fervent prayers for the eventual disappearance of Israel on a par with hopes for the coming of the Messiah as a wish, not a program. But any acceptable ceasefire will have to be two-sided, with an end to Israeli incursions and assassinations. That was the message the Palestinian electorate was sending.

The consequences of failure are really apocalyptic. The failure will be George W. Bush's as much as any new Israeli prime minister's.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Annan, Swift Boats and the DoD.

Defense Department launches new Swift Boats?

'Do not pander to the unappeasable.' The UN this week showed that it has not learnt this elementary lesson from the swift-boating of John Kerry Kerry, let alone from the swift-boating of Kofi Annan himself over the alleged UN Oil For Food Scandal, when it apologized for displaying a map that did not show Israel - which dated from before Israel existed!

As I went into the UN today, the Fox outside broadcast truck was there, and I groaned as I suspected what had brought it on a slow real news day.

I had read the Jerusalem Post, the New York Sun, and the more rabidly frothy edges of the Blogosphere and knew that well, they were at it again.

On the General Assembly-mandated day of solidarity for the Palestinian people, six weeks ago, Kofi Annan had made his mandatory appearance, and an enterprising photographer took a picture of the UN Secretary General in front of a map of mandatory Palestine in 1948.

Sometime around the Biblical forty days and forty nights later, the usual care in the community cases noticed the picture and raised a storm that because the map did not show Israel.

The UN apologized, but was wrong to do so, both in principle and tactics. Of course the map did not show Israel. The country did not exist in 1948, which is the year the map was drawn. What existed was the UN trusteeship of Palestine, which did exist.  

Let's hope the Greeks or Italians do not have an exhibition on Mediterranean civilization with maps of Alexander's or Hadrian's empire. Just imagine how many countries they would have to apologize to, from Afghanistan to Britain that would not appear on the map.

John Bolton lent the dwindling diplomatic faith and credit of the US to the furor and sent a letter to Annan complaining that 'It was entirely inappropriate for this map to be used. It can be misconstrued to suggest that the United Nations tacitly supports the abolition of Israel.'

Excuse me; this is malicious distortion, not misconstruction. The crowd that started baying about this is not 'misconstruing.' They think that the UN is an anti-American and anti-Israeli plot, and have never been shy of saying so. Indeed Mr. Bolton's own words would suggest that he is in this camp.  

It is possible that the Likudniks of the New York Sun and Jerusalem Post may want to deny history with all that guff about eternal capitals, but there is no reason whatsoever for the UN Secretariat to pander either to their anti-UN venom or their ahistorical hysteria.
They are looking for any excuse, no matter how feeble, to whip up a storm against the organization and its Secretary General, whoever that should be.

Of course, there is an understandable diffidence to combating their slanders, since one of the best pieces of advice is still 'Never argue with an idiot, by-standers can't tell you apart.' But times may be a-changing and in any case, apologizing to idiots only encourages their stupidity - and in this case overlooks their malice. The appropriate response is to sink the swift boats preemptively on the first signs of launch,

In the real world, Kofi Annan has done more to accommodate Israel in the organization than any of his predecessors for decades. In fact, there are a lot of Third World, Muslim and Arab diplomats who will tell you that he has gone too far in that respect.

It is also a matter of record that with the exception of Israel, and the US recently, and a few 'independent' Pacific coral reefs totally dependent on US funding, the nations of the world think that the Palestinians have had a raw deal, and that Israel is illegally occupying the West Bank, Gaza, and indeed the Golan heights. The Secretary General of the UN cannot and should not ignore the views of the world simply because a band of right wingers want to blog him to death on the subject.

The UN Secretariat should be handing out a press kit, showing the map again, and listing the resolutions by which the United Nations created Israel and partitioned the mandate and those since, supported by the US, that declared the West Bank and Gaza occupied territories. Ironically, by questioning the legitimacy of the organization, Annan's persecutors are implicitly undermining the State of Israel's own legal standing.

Of course. it is bad enough when the Murdoch echo chamber amplifies fact-checker-free world of the conservative fringe, but now there is another player.
In the wonderfully wacky world of the blogosphere, most postings should come with a government health warning cautioning that the contents have almost certainly not been edited, fact checked, or lawyered.

However, government health warnings are different in the modern world: they are usually warnings about the government rather than from it.

So it should not really be any surprise that the US Department of Defense has contracted a Detroit subsidiary of, and please have a wry grin, the giant French PR company Publicis, to get a favorable view of the department's work launched into the blogosphere. The company normally publishes web logs for clients like Ford and General Motors and is now tasked with recruiting bloggers prepared to present the war in Iraq through a rose colored screen. (Source: Intelligence Online No. 515, January 13th, 2006).

British political communications specialist, Tim Pendry of TPPR says of the swift-boating process that 'the use of the internet for these political purposes is as logical as the adaptation of the pornography industry to new technologies.  Indeed, wealthy foundations and individuals supported by government technical advice, as well as disinformation units, move with the times.'

He cautions, 'The next development is so-called "citizen journalism" or what my network calls "real news." This should be about ordinary people transmitting material direct into the web at crisis points (like showing the police beating up a demonstrator live) but, again, you can expect events now to be constructed at which "citizen journalists" will magically appear to deliver coverage by feed to gullible broadcasters.'

Here, I have to respectfully disagree with Tim Pendry, who is not exposed to Fox or MSNBC. Those broadcasters are by no means gullible. They are cynical and malicious. I can already see a horde of 'citizen journalists' financed by conservative foundations, out there launching swift boats.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Books I'm Reading

Diary of A Nobody: Making Friends with Hitler

Making Friends with Hitler is almost a new genre. Ian Kershaw takes one of the least effectual and most pompous British politicians of the interwar years and uses his life to trace the history of the period in a seriously revealing way.

In fact, just to call Lord Londonderry the least effectual British figure of his age is unfair. He was a world class nonentity, otherwise outstanding only by his aristocratic birth and vanity. Already promoted above his abilities, he was dropped from his position as Air Minister in 1935 and spent the rest of his life in futile correspondence asserting that his estimates of the Nazi air power had been correct.

It is funnily reminiscent of Charles Pooter in that Victorian humorous classic, the Grossmiths' "Diary of a Nobody," vainly trying to correct the spelling of his name in the guest list of the Lord Mayor's reception in the local newspaper.

Londonderry continued his peevish self-justification even when much more accurate estimates were available. The British could count the Luftwaffe's aircraft as they flew over dropping bombs on their heads, and Londonderry persisted in thinking that he had been cheated out of the high positions that the parental sperm entitled him to.

Londonderry bestrode Europe like an escaped character from P.G. Wodehouse: his full name was Charles Stewart Henry Vane-Tempest-Stewart. He was not alone. Not even Wodehouse's fervent imagination could match a name like that of Admiral Reginald Aylmer Ranfuly Plunket-Ernle-Earle-Drax, who was the emissary that Premier Neville Chamberlain sent on a very slow boat to the Baltic - to negotiate an alliance with the Soviet Union in 1939. While most British wanted an alliance with the Soviet Union against Hitler, Chamberlain and Halifax his foreign secretary did not. As it happens, Stalin didn't either, not when he could cut a deal with Hitler but that is another story.

Londonderry was at the heart of all these events, and Kershaw's account of this unimportant but self-important figure shows the modern age in formation. Londonderry is the perfect thread to illustrate how the modern world was made. He was probably the last of a generation whose genealogy alone could propel him to high office, and even in the thirties, there was enough of a meritocratic principle to put a ceiling on the career of someone whose assets of wealth and blood were not matched by overmuch in the way of grey matter. One of his ambitions, already becoming atavistic, was to be Viceroy of India.

In Britain, Londonderry and others of his ilk lost the battle for an honorable place in history. The verdict of 1940 against the appeasers is even more potent against those like him who actually sought an alliance. He had been a constant visitor to Germany, chatting with Hitler, Goering, Ribbentrop and the rest of the Nazi leadership and it is his membership and support of various pro-German and pro-Nazi groups in Britain for which he is remembered, if at all. It is worth remembering just how pervasive the influence of these groups was, not least among newspapers like the Daily Mail that have subsequently wrapped themselves in spurious super-patriotism.

However, Kershaw, while not concealing the vapidity of his subject, does add some needed perspective to many of this group. For the majority, their concern was to avoid a re-run of the First World War, and an accurate perception of the vindictiveness of Versailles and its effects of Germany. When Hitler was putting down communists, Londonderry, a coal owner, was not too worried about the briskness of the Nazi assault on civil liberties, but Kristallnacht proved too much for his sensibilities even though he was imbued with the traditional background anti-Semitism of his milieu.

However Kershaw points out that appeasement was far from being the prerogative of the right. Many left wing pacifists took part in organizations like the Anglo-German Association and opposed British re-armament. Nor is it as self-evident in retrospect that the appeasers were totally wrong. Chamberlain certainly sold the Czechs down the river, but it was far from certain that Britain had the military strength to do anything much about it, and the Chamberlain government did accelerate the rearmament which meant that the British forces were actually better prepared, albeit still not really ready, when Britain and France did declare war.
Even Londonderry had played his part during his time in the Air Ministry, by launching the development program for the Hurricanes and Spitfires that won the Battle of Britain. Indeed, when he was in government in the new Northern Ireland, he tried unsuccessfully, to end the sectarian divide between protestant and catholic school systems, which apart from possibly averting much sectarian bloodshed since, puts him far in advance of Tony Blair, who is busily trying to put government funds into faith-based schools.

With sixty five years behind us, it is possible to take a more detached and less polemical view of the role of Londonderry and others. From the point of the view of the British ruling classes, and the British Empire, Londonderry and his ilk were quite right. The decision to fight Germany was almost suicidal. An alliance with Germany could have preserved much of the Empire, and perhaps more importantly, British industrial and financial strength.

This dilemma presented itself acutely in 1940, when Churchill took over from Chamberlain with a cabinet committed to war. Britain had only half the financial reserves with which it entered World War One, and was effectively standing alone. A useful addition to Kershaw's book is Clive Ponting's 1940, Myths and Legend a wonderful piece of revisionist history, which, in the course of destroying many now popular myths about the period (Churchill's most famous radio speech was actually delivered by an actor who normally played Larry the Lamb), details the crucial decision the Cabinet took. It was a heroic determination that merits more recognition. Knowing that Britain only had financial reserves to fight the war on its own until 1943, the government decided not to cut to a deal with Hitler, but to fight on, even if it meant effectively selling the country to the USA to do so.

That is what happened, and, as Ponting demonstrates, the US took full and fairly unscrupulous advantage of the fire sale. Not many Brits had much of a real stake in the Empire anyway, and humiliating though the process of a former super power voluntarily indenturing itself to Washington has been and still is, we can assume that it was less onerous than becoming a client state of Nazi Germany. Who knows, we may have euphemized even that as a "Special Relationship," and been offering troops to military adventures overseas to prove our usefulness to the boss man in Berlin.

And on that note of connecting the threads of the past together, Londonderry successfully fought international conventions against bombers - because he felt that they were necessary for economical policing of the Empire - like in Iraq. History is like that: it keeps returning to bite us.

Friday, January 06, 2006

The Hole Where The Heart Should Be

'Nothing but good of the dead,' De mortuis nihil nisi bonum est, the old adage has it. Well as I write, Ariel Sharon is technically alive. But I have to record that when the doctors reported that he had a hole in his heart, I thought it must be a mistranslation, and in fact they reported that they had found a hole where his heart should be.

One of the big advances towards civilization this century is that politicians like Sharon, indicted in Belgium for war crimes in Sabra and Shatila,, along with Pinochet, Kissinger and others like Milosevic have begun to check with their lawyers as well their travel agents before setting off on a journey.

Sharon's exit from Middle East politics will certainly have profound effects on the peace process, but only a total amnesiac would assume that it will necessarily be a negative effect.

If you accept the possibility of miracles, it is of course possible that Sharon had a late life conversion to peace,

But nothing in his career, and nothing he has done since the withdrawal from Gaza has ever given the slightest hint of concern for the plight of the Palestinians. The settlements are still expanding, parts of Gaza are effectively free fire zones and life in the Occupied Territories gets worse by the week.

To accept Sharon as a 'Man of Peace,' we have to forget about the massacre at Qibye, the invasion and occupation of Lebanon, the siege of Beirut, and above all, the massacre at Sabra and Shatila. We need to overlook the continuing massive expansion of the settlements in the teeth of Oslo and Road Map Commitments

We have to blank from our minds his provocative walkabout at Al Aqsa mosque that premeditatedly provoked the Intafada, which his friends in the security services then sedulously kept burning by assassination of Palestinian leaders whenever a ceasefire looked feasible.

Of course, Sharon owes a lot to Osama Bin Laden. Immediately after the September 11 tragedy Sharon saw his opportunity and pronounced that he would join George Bush's fight against terrorism, - but against Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian authority.

Under cover of the smoke of the World Trade Centre, he mounted the brutal armed invasion of the Palestinian Authority, and the razing of Jenin. He undertook the massive violation of international law represented by the Wall in the occupied territories, and the worse-than-apartheid humiliation and squalor forced on the inhabitants of the West Bank and Gaza.

Even Sharon's most recent achievement, the much praised withdrawal from Gaza, was almost certainly more of a cynical ploy to hang on to most of the useful land in the West Bank than a concession to peace. He made it clear for internal audiences that there was no question of returning to the Green line of 1967, and that his vision of Palestinian independence would be like a Bantustan, without, however, the degree of independence the Afrikaners accorded.

In short, nothing he ever said or done right up to his stroke gave the slightest indication that he would accept a peace deal with the Palestinians that they could accept, or which met the standards of international law and United Nations resolutions.

It may have been rational, but it was scarcely 'heroic' to hand over territory occupied in defiance of international law and inhabited by a hostile and increasingly desperate population. No rational Israeli leader would try to hang on to it..

However, no one should doubt the scale of Sharon's diplomatic achievement. By repetition of the magic word 'terrorism,' and admittedly with help from the terrorists themselves, he passed himself off as the good guy and succeeded in switching off international condemnation for behaviour far worse than any previous Israeli administration.

While making it plain that the Road Map conditions only apply to the Palestinians, Sharon was careful not disavow it, allowing the Europeans and others to join the Americans in blaming the victims.

Amazingly, after a few desultory attempts at condemnation, stifled by George W. Bush, the British government and the Europeans have pretty much gone along with his oppressive policies since 2001.

The Europeans have now bought into Sharon's mantra that the enfeebled and besieged Palestinian authority must successfully rein in terrorists, but they make no such stipulations about the Israelis controlling the Settlers doing Brownshirt imitations across the territories.

Of course much of this was derived from the strong personal relationship between George W Bush and Sharon. Bush had announced support for a Palestinian state at the UN just after the World Trade Centre attack. Within months, after a visit from Sharon, the President moved from restraining Israeli attacks to providing diplomatic cover for the attack on Jenin. Would Benjamin Netanyahu have the same influence, not least since he was too rigidly dogmatic to see the pragmatic need to evacuate Gaza?

It is just possible, if not exactly probable, that the removal of Sharon may entail more resistance from the US to Israeli demands, especially if Netanyahu wins. However, in the long run, the basic problem remains. For Israel's long term survival, it has to come to an accommodation with the Palestinians. And as long as Israel's leaders are given a 'get out of jail free' card by Washington and to a lesser extent the EU, then the US and the West will not be able to convince the Muslim world of its good faith.

The best practical solution put forward so far is the two state solution, which will not be feasible on the line of the Security Wall.

Perhaps Sharon's demise will now allow the politicians of the West to take off their blinkers and to see that the deceased had shredded and twisted their cherished Road Map into an Origami dead duck.

They have to chart a more direct course to peace, and enforce international law on all parties to the dispute. Sharon's stroke gives them one less recidivist law breaker to pander to.