Friday, September 29, 2006

To Be or Not To Be (On God)

Dawkins needs to show some doubt

Scientists work in a field full of uncertainties. So how can some be so sure God doesn't exist? asks Stephen Unwin

Friday September 29, 2006
The Guardian

I greatly enjoyed Joan Bakewell's review of Richard Dawkins' latest book, The God Delusion (Judgment day, September 23). "He takes on all comers," she says. "Aquinas's five 'proofs', Pascal's wager (meant as a joke, surely), even Stephen Unwin's probability of God, whose use of Bayes' theorem to demonstrate the probability of God Dawkins scathingly dismisses as 'quite agreeably funny'."

During my unhurried descent from the elation of being targeted in such company, I realised that, as the only one of the three still alive, it fell upon me to respond. It is clear that on the question of God's existence Dawkins comes down firmly on the side of certainty. His dismissal of Pascal's wager (which is that, given the uncertainty, one has everything to gain and nothing to lose by belief in God) is a stark indication of his commitment to certainty.
Read more

Below is my own take on this matter, previously posted as a comment to a blogpost on Darwinism:

It's a typical misunderstanding that the scientific method somehow amounts to a faith or a belief system when in fact it's quite the opposite.

Science is built on a few central axioms, such as the existence of reality outside the observer's mind (typically a human mind), the validity of logic, the principle of causality (cause comes before effect) and such like. These are axioms that are universally accepted by people, whether they are religious or not because without them any attempt at reasoning can only fail.

Religious faith however does posit a number of doctrinal points (centrally the existence of God) which cannot be proven but must be accepted as true by the believer, without doubt or question. One cannot be a religious doubting Thomas (at least not in fundamental matters of Faith).

Science operates almost in exactly the opposite way. Whilst accepting the same axioms as the basis for all reason, it builds theories ("models of the world" if you like) based on empirical evidence (empiricism, rationalism and historicism). These theories cannot ultimately be proven, although a strong body of evidence can be built that goes quite a long way towards "absolute proof". The quest for absolute proof is nonetheless asymptotic and its goal can never be achieved.

It is though constant internal examination, scepticism and self-doubt that scientific models gradually edge forward in (what we hope to be) the right direction, without however ever arriving at destination (final stop: "absolute proof"? No). In essence scientists never believe in their own theories because of the absence of absolute, unequivocal proof.

Even the most successful theories like quantum mechanics or relativity remain troubled. Whilst clearly having tremendous predictive power in most circumstances, there exist in the Universe many conditions in which neither theory works all that well. Clearly either or both are partially incorrect or at least incomplete. More work to be done!

I do understand that religious people do sometimes feel offended by the scepticism of the non-believer. Sometimes that scepticism is justified (you could build a forest from all the relics of the Cross, clearly they can't all be relics in the true sense of the word), sometimes it isn't (trying to prove God doesn't exist is futile, but questioning His Existence is within anyone's right).

Faith and science are hardly mutually incompatible though: there is no shortage of influential religious scientists.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Relentless raids leave Gaza reeling

From the BBC

In a village in southern Gaza, an old Palestinian woman stood surveying the wreckage of her life, and her home - bulldozed by the Israeli army.
Subhiya Mouamr pointed out her family's store of flour strewn in the rubble, and the tent she now lives in.

"We sit here - between the earth and the sky - and we survive just on what the Red Cross brings us," Subhiya Mouamr said.

"They destroyed everything."

But on that night when the Israelis came late last week, Subhiya Mouamr lost even more than her home and all that she owned.

She also lost her son and her daughter-in-law.

What happened in the village of Um al-Nasr is typical of the nature of the Israeli offensive in Gaza - which is now going into its fourth month.

Read the rest

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Official: Muslim Terrorism to Save Amewikah!

From For the Grandchildren

From Florida come the following "gems of wisdom":
I do agree with the concerns for our country, as teachers, numbed by classroom experiences and handcuffed by politically correct views on discipline and curriculum, go through the motions until blessed retirement comes; and young American men eschew marriage while huge numbers of young women stagger from bars on their way to one-night stands – as they both celebrate their dedication to pleasure and have little concern for their survival needs or their morality as their depression-era grandparents did.

I will agree that our young people do need a life-threatening challenge to engage them and change their focus from themselves to a larger concern. As we sink deeper and deeper into prime-time pornography, fatherless children on Ritalin, and selfish, irresponsible adults who hate America in their guilt-ridden and aimless lives, we do need something to pull us out of this slime before our civilization goes the way of all others that went down this path.

That challenge may well come from the Islamofascists who have dedicated their lives to re-establishing the caliphate and the Sharia and to destroying the lives and the influence of all who get in their way. It has become clearer and clearer, even to the most liberal among us, that Jihad is a serious threat to our prosperity and even to our existence, and that the war on terror has just begun. We spent 30 years ignoring this war being waged against us, until 9/11 and subsequent events opened our eyes, and even the most cursory reading of Jihadist writings reveals that their time-frame is completely different from ours. They wish to restore the glory that existed for them 500 years ago; we do not remember what happened last month.

We are at war with an enemy that regards death as desirable in a cause they understand and for which they are willing to sacrifice everything, and if it takes 100 years to accomplish their goals, they are prepared. What I am suggesting is that those who are calling for our soldiers to leave Iraq in a year are not merely foolish, they belong on a different planet. What I am suggesting is that American and western culture may have to go to a total war footing for decades in order to defeat this menace and survive. What I am suggesting is that shortly we may need to establish a draft, raise an army of several million men and women and make the kinds of sacrifices that were common during World War II to win.

The Muppet Show's "Sam the Eagle" is alive and kicking and he lives in Florida. You muppet...

Calling a spade a spade...

Jewish terrorist who murdered four Palestinians gets 4 consecutive life sentences

By Nir Hasson, Haaretz Correspondent, and Haaretz Service

Jerusalem District Court on Wednesday sentenced a Jewish terrorist to four consecutive life sentences plus an additional 12 years in prison for murdering four Palestinian men.

Asher Weisgan was convicted on September 11 of murdering four Arab workmen and wounding a fifth at a factory in the West Bank settlement of Shilo where they all worked, the day before the implementation of the Gaza disengagement plan in August 2005.

At the end of the work day at the factory, Weisgan gave four Arab workmen a ride in his car, snatched an M-16 assault rifle from the guard and used it to shoot his four passengers, killing three of them and wounding the fourth. Then he ran toward the factory and shot another workman. He then turned himself in to the security officer who arrived on the scene.

Read it all

Monday, September 25, 2006

The genocide myth - ours and theirs

By Bradley Burston

Note: This article will be followed by an
experiment. In an effort to foster rational dialogue, Talkback responses to this piece will be subject to stringent new guidelines, as specified below.

It is the nature of myth both to contain a kernel of truth, and to obscure the extent of the truth it contains.

So it is, that it is difficult for Israelis free themselves from the sense that the Arabs want to see them all dead. Certainly there is some truth to the extermination myth, but no one knows how much.

Moreover, given the possibility that it may be true, and the inherent danger involved in really putting it to the test, no one really wants to find out.

In either event, the myth feeds into what may be called the First Law of Intractability, or the Law of Conservation of Anguish, which may be summarized as follows: The reaction of one side to its own specific pain, tends to directly accentuate the specific pain of the other.

Stated differently, our Holocaust pain and their Naqba (1948 war) pain potentiate one another.

Our chosen means of self-defense - incursions, body searches, discriminatory laws and regulations, refusal to recognize, refusal to negotiate, raids and bombings, house demolitions, imprisonments without trial, building walls through villages and over farmers' fields, kidnappings and assassinations of leaders - directly act upon the Palestinians' every humiliation nerve.

Their chosen means of redeeming their lost honor - suicide bombings, rocket attacks, masked paramilitary posturing, anti-Semitic incitement, refusal to recognize, refusal to negotiate, kidnappings of soldiers - directly act upon our every annihilation nerve.

So completely has this system taken us over, that it has manages to slough over the cultural borders between us, such that we have begun to react militarily out of humiliation - witness government actions at the end of the recent war in the north - and the Palestinians have taken it as a matter of course that the object of Israeli policy is genocide against the peoples of the West Bank and Gaza.

Both sides can marshal persuasive arguments in favor of the idea that genocide is the object of the other. For Israelis who lived through the 1948 war and the run-up to the 1967 war, there are no end of quotations from Arabs testifying to the idea that the motto Slaughter the Jews was meant to taken literally.

Hamas' resistance to recognizing the existence of Israel, currently backed by a large majority of Palestinians in a recent poll, only adds to the sense that all Israelis are potentially in their gunsights.

Palestinians - and Israeli Arabs as well - need only to look to the Teddy soccer stadium in Jerusalem to find Israelis willing to chant in delirious unison, "Death to the Arabs."

So it is that the myth of genocide has become an article of faith among both Jews and Arabs.

But what if it's not true? What if the original myth doesn't hold anymore? What if the Arabs don't want us all dead?

Forget, for the moment, the extremists.

There will be a pause, at this point, for the extremists in our own midst, who have convinced themselves that they are the only sane Jews, to state chapter and verse that the Arabs - all of them, or enough of them so that the others don't count - want nothing more than they want our extinction.

There will be a further pause for moderates to suggest that even if the vast majority of the Palestinians would be willing to live in peace with the Jews, the extremists are now in power, and might carry out genocide, if they saw a chance.

What is clear is that after years and years and years of bloodletting, Jews need to hear from Palestinians that they are willing to work for a solution that includes the Jews.

It is no less clear that the Palestinians, and their supporters abroad, need to hear a similar message.

Otherwise, the myth will remain a token of faith, a perverse badge of patriotic honor, deepening a rift that already defies healing.

Consider the following response, from a reader in Ireland:

"We simply can't see a genocide in Palestine and pretend it doesn't exist. Today, the Jews are starving, persecuting and killing the helpless Palestinians without any mercy, taking advantage of their domination over American policies and politics.

"But we in Ireland can't behave like political whores as many countries are behaving. We must stand up against the mad dogs of zionism. Will the Jews be angry? Well, who cares?"

There are good reasons to care. One of them is that the resort to the use of terms like genocide to describe the Israeli-Palestinian conflict acts to cheapen the term, to divert attention from real cases of genocide, and to further confound a solution here.

There is something about the use of the term genocide that makes us feel better - Jew and Arab both. It gives us the ultimate moral edge. It gives us the justification for our every excess.

But it is time we saw it for what it is. A myth.

Would the Arabs like to see the Jews disappear from the Holy Land? Of course. Would the Jews like to see the Arabs gone? In a heartbeat.

Is it going to happen? Not on your life. Because that's not what the vast majority of the Israelis and Palestinians want. They want to find an accommodation. They want to find some way to separate and live, independently and in peace.

We cannot let anger speak for us, for either of our peoples, any longer. Too many have died on both sides.

An Irishman in Lebanon...

Below is an interesting and passionate piece written by someone I can only call an Irish Lebanese, with a very strong take on Israel/Lebanon/Hezbollah, the recent conflict and Nasrallah's rally of last weekend. If you wanted to be a fly on the wall during that meeting, now's your chance. Strong and language and opinions galore. Like it or loathe it but don't comment on my post: read it all here and comment there if you wish (comment moderation is in place, so save your abuse for elsewhere, if you're that way inclined). The post contains useful external links too.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Debate... anyone for debate?

Bradley Burston in Ha'aretz is conducting an experiment: his objective is to find out whether it is possible to have a rational debate about terrorism.

Bradley firstly posted a somewhat contentious (well, he is trying to evoke debate!) article titled "The 10 most useful lies about terrorism", then, sensibly, lays down the ground rules for the debate (see the end of the article). But despite this precaution the ensuing exchanges remain unremarkably partisan and rather dull and predictable.

But do have your two cents anyway, here.

Thatcher's children

British democracy has rarely been in worse shape: party memberships have plummeted, election turnouts are low. Where did politics go wrong?

Simon Jenkins
Saturday September 23, 2006
The Guardian

To celebrate the millennium, the people of Norway decided not to build a dome but to ask a question. What, they demanded of a group of scholars, would Norwegian democracy be like in 100 years? Seminars were held, social scientists summoned and polls taken. The answer was not good. Most Norwegians were comfortable and disinclined to political participation. The country was more and more run by a barely changing coalition of party officials, businessmen, lawyers and journalists. Elections meant no more than an occasional job change. Democracy was atrophying and might be a passing blip, replaced by a self-sustaining oligarchy.

Norway is, if anything, more democratic than Britain, and Britain has had the benefit, for the past quarter century, of one of Europe's few recent revolutions: that of Thatcherism. In 1979, this revolution swept aside the postwar welfare settlement in a decade of turbulence. At next week's Labour party conference, delegates will greet a Labour prime minister and chancellor boasting the private sector and profit as salvation of the public realm, delivering hospitals, care homes, prisons and school administration, not to mention trains, coal, gas and public utilities. This would have been unimaginable in the 1970s. Not one cabinet member protests, no backbencher resigns the whip, trade unionists are quiescent. The impending NHS strike is astonishing only for having taken so long - and being doomed to fail. The Thatcherite settlement has survived seven general elections, three prime ministers and three economic cycles. It is politically entrenched.

Yet the revolution has not delivered public satisfaction. No poll has ever shown a majority in favour of privatisation. The 2005 election was almost entirely fought over the perceived inadequacy of public services. Nor is the government satisfied with itself, being in administrative turmoil near to nervous breakdown. Public servants are warned to prepare for what the health secretary, Patricia Hewitt, calls "continuous revolution". Private computer companies fleece it of hundreds of millions of pounds. The City pocketed £500m in fees to privatise the London Underground. Local government has been brought under central direction. The usual totems of democratic enthusiasm - party membership and election turnout - have plummeted.

Thatcherism has yielded a paradox. Ask any profession or occupation what the revolution has meant for them, and the reply is the same. It was probably more freedom for others, but for them, it was more legislation, regulation, intrusion and red tape. Nationalisation might have gone, and anyone doing business with the government grown rich. But liberation from central control has not followed. Quite the reverse. What happened to the revolution?

The answer is that Britain has experienced not one revolution but two, often fighting each other. They are reflected in the personalities of Margaret Thatcher and her "sons", John Major and Tony Blair. This curious trio of "leaders with no hinterland" proved ideal for an era that had little time for the conventions of Britain's constitution or the traditions of its establishment. Each in his or her own way tore them up and delivered Britain refreshed but perplexed into the new century.

Thatcher herself was a split political personality, a Hayekian liberal believing in a shrinking state and a Methodist nanny demanding always that "more must be done". She set out to liberate the supply side of the economy and give it confidence after decades of defeatism and misery. It was initially hesitant. Thatcher was a reluctant and late convert to privatisation - at the 1979 election she banned the word - and, even after British Telecom and the rest, refused to contemplate it for health, coal mines or trains. Not until Major and Blair was the private sector harnessed to the reform of the public one. But Thatcher had changed the climate of government. Her addiction to the TV programme Yes, Minister, was not to its humour but to its moral message: that the system would always defeat attempts to reform it unless a leader was strong. This first revolution was thus one of political will. It transformed the performance of the political economy and was rightly celebrated worldwide. It is the revolution with which the word Thatcherism is commonly associated.

The second revolution arose from the conduct of the first but led in a diametrically opposite direction, away from "less government" and towards a concentration of control. It was a revolution not of will but of power. When challenged, Thatcher did not deny that she had drawn power to her office, because extra power was needed "to smash socialism". That accreting power to smash power would always be a conceit of authoritarianism was a nuance lost on her. She and her followers centralised Whitehall, enforced Treasury discipline and regulated both the public and private sectors to a degree unprecedented in peacetime. Where state ownership retreated, state control advanced. The chief casualty was a plural constitution. British political leadership is less subject to balancing power than in any other western democracy.

The greatest triumph of the first revolution was not the conversion of the Conservative party - though the "battle against the wets" took Thatcher almost 10 years and cost much blood - but the conversion of Labour. While the Blair project was initially presented as a tactical acceptance of Thatcherism to make Labour seem electable, successive election victories saw no return to redistributive taxation, public ownership or European "social chapter" corporatism. On the contrary, Blair and Gordon Brown accepted Thatcher's analysis, that "socialism has been tested to destruction". Even as Brown now bids to lead his party, he is pushing the privatisation of health, probation and jobcentres, and insists that public investment be channelled through high-margin City institutions.

Nor did Blair seize only on the first Thatcher revolution. He seized the second as well. In opposition, he had deconstructed the old Labour party and won for the leader untrammelled control of patronage and policy. In office, this process became a near-parody of elective monarchy. Blair's aide, Jonathan Powell, told the civil service in 1997 that they should expect less Magna Carta, rather "a change from a feudal system of barons to a more Napoleonic system". The accusation by the outgoing home secretary, Charles Clarke, that Brown was a "control freak" (strange from Clarke) was greeted with amen across the public sector.

All utopias contain the seeds of their own descent into autocracy. Thus the quest for a privatised Britain ironically led to a more regulated one, in which political activity has come to seem ever more curtailed. This, in turn, invites another revolution, as if to resolve the contradictions of the first two. The public sector, as reformed over the past two decades, is greeted with unprecedented dismay by opinion polls. A restless upheaval envelopes every Whitehall department and "policy silo", as each one seeks to follow the latest Blair initiatives or Brown target, bereft of any ideological compass.

When viewed in the round, Thatcherism's conduct of the public sector is one of extraordinary ineptitude: the poll tax, rail privatisation, on-off hospital autonomy, school testing, computer procurement, farm subsidies, family tax credits. Private finance, said to be "the only game in town", is startlingly expensive. Blair's quest for service delivery through "e-government" is as elusive as his quest for democracy abroad through e-war. Labour's most treasured creation, the NHS, is forced to find upwards of £12bn to pay for a computer system it does not need and must cut swaths through hospital services to do so. To all this, Thatcherism seems to have no answer.

The Marxist historian, Eric Hobsbawm, pointed out Thatcher's vulnerability to revolutionary paradox. She and Marx both saw synthesis in economic progress, a classless society and a utopian withering-away of the state. Both quests failed. The dictatorship of the proletariat - in Thatcher's case, of the bourgeoisie - entrenched itself and defied synthesis. Blair's coalition of private money, rightwing newspapers and executive discretion saw half a million extra civil servants hired to run the state. How could this square with any withering?

The past three years have seen a half-hearted search for a new synthesis, even a "third revolution". The decline in political participation, especially among the young, has been replaced by "just-in-time" activism, galvanised by such second-revolution reforms as the centralisation of planning decisions, the erosion of university autonomy or hospital closures. Politicians such as John Reid, Ruth Kelly and David Miliband have offered speeches and pamphlets on what they call "the new localism". Even Brown has made forays into the language, if not the practice, of decentralisation. While various attempts to refashion local democracy have fallen by the wayside, the British body politic senses that both revolutions have now run out of steam.

Britain was 10 years ahead of Europe in Thatcherism, but is 10 years behind in resolving the battle between localism and central control. It is not just in Norway that the democracy question is being put. It was put, and answered, in Denmark and Sweden in the 1970s, in France in 1982, and in Italy and Spain in the 1990s. (Britain asked it nervously in Scotland and Wales in 1998.) In these cases, pressure from below led to constitutional decentralisation. As a result, Britain today has the fewest elected representatives per 1,000 voters anywhere in Europe. Despite its mayor, London government alone is said to have 10 Blair appointees for every one elected official.

You do not have to be a rabid localist to see a link between public dissatisfaction with public services and the paucity of local accountability. British politicians assert it, as did Blair in opposition and as does David Cameron, probably with equal insincerity, now. Politics talks the localist talk, but never walks it. Without being forced by a mandate to devolve the constitution, politicians will never surrender control. The great test of devolution, freeing local democrats to tax themselves to improve their services, is abhorrent to leaders of all British parties. Centralism's greatest bogey is the "postcode lottery", just as it should be what democracy calls local choice.

Young Britons now view the Thatcher era much as older ones did the bipartisan welfare state. They take it for granted. They never knew a Britain sliding towards the bottom of every league in Europe. But they do wonder "what next?" Unless Britain follows Europe down the path to a revitalised devolution - not just decentralised administration - its public services will remain demoralised and its politics atrophied.

One certain prediction is that rising wealth will not lead to rising contentment with autocratic rule. Prosperity and leisure will give citizens a greater desire to control their immediate environment, in every sense of the term. Thatcherism promised them more power and delivered them less. In the words of the film, it has left them increasingly mad as hell. But as the Norwegians warn us, inertia may close outlets for anger and replace self-government with oligarchy. Democracy is not automatically entrenched in rich societies. Its institutions must be constantly refreshed or they will die.

Friday, September 22, 2006

The state as a failing startup

By Gideon Samet in Ha'aretz

What the country went through toward the end of this year is only a promo for the mistakes to come. Commissions of inquiry will not be able to keep up with rate of mistakes of the poor administration that has taken over the Israeli startup. Fifty-eight years are too short a period of time in the history of a nation to boast of its impressive achievements. It is certainly too short a period in the life of a unique nation for its enterprise to deteriorate so badly. And now, when once again the failures in its pride and joy - the "best army in the world" - have been exposed, comes the time to pay for its political stupidity.

We are approaching a decisive political point not because we were striving toward it. With the exception of a few unusual years in the previous decade, the Israeli board of directors has done everything possible to prevent this point from being reached. The story is bitter and familiar. The flourishing of a competing enterprise, the settlements, sucked the marrow from the genuine Zionist enterprise and destroyed its army. And the deceptive tricks to prevent talking with the neighbors. Neighbors? An occupied, trampled nation whose terrorists and radical Islam are fueled by the blind cruelty of the foreign regime.

The new chapter is arriving because of a vacuum created by scandalous Israeli politics. Historians will have no difficulty recording it, a politics that adorned itself with the arrogance of supposed victors. Many good people thought the move would succeed. One of the finest, Moshe Dayan, expressed the innermost feelings of a self-satisfied nation when he preferred Sharm el-Sheikh to peace. After an accursed war and continued Ashkenazi contempt for the Mizrahim [Ashkenazim are Jews of European origin; Mizrahim are of North African or Middle Eastern origin], came the years of a crude, reactionary government of the right. It did everything in its considerable power to make do with the brilliant maneuver of its venerated leader, Menahem Begin, and to prevent the peace with Egypt from developing into an understanding with the Palestinians. The tragic end of this chapter and of the leader came in an idiotic war in which a renewed version of Land of Israel revisionism promised us that the land would be quiet for 40 years.

In spite of the first and second intifadas, changing administrations on the right and the left continued to grasp at the refusal on the other side to justify their own refusal to replace the diskette. Arafat was Hitler. After they destroyed his bunker in the Muqata and in effect tried to kill him, they mocked his replacement as impotent. Just as they eventually failed to foresee the missiles of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, a braggart Military Intelligence and the glorious Mossad erred in identifying the rising power, the inevitable victor in the Palestinian Authority.

Ariel Sharon, during the Israeli twilight period when the desire for a father figure swept the sins of the past under the rug, turned a cold shoulder on the new Palestinian leadership. His successor (under the circumstances of a stroke that was national, and not only private) avoided conducting even one serious conversation with Palestinian Authority Chair Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen). It didn't help that the vilified organization of Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh declared de facto recognition of Israel through its spokesmen. He did so when Hamas adopted the pan-Arab agreement of 2002, in the context of the agreement to form a unity government with Fatah. But Israel is inciting Washington not to recognize such a government, as though a purely Fatah organization is Israel's heart's desire.

The irresponsible continuation of crushing any talks with the Palestinians is accompanied by a campaign to demonize the PA and Muslims everywhere. In spite of the pseudo-righteous regret, there was celebration in Jerusalem when the pope, apparently quite a coarse person, made his unbridled attack on Islam throughout the generations. When he cited a Byzantine emperor who was defeated by the Ottoman Empire, did the pope forget the Muslim Golden Age when most of Christian Europe, as Benjamin Disraeli once said, were swineherds? From the pope to Effi Eitan, they are talking about Muslims today in a manner that would cause an explosion in the international media had similar things been said about the Jews.

In an unexpected way, like the war, special circumstances are now being created for discussing peace. Not a Swiss peace of the kind that the right finds easy to attack; an agreement that is certainly possible but Israel looked the other way whenever there was even a shred of a chance that it would succeed. Let the automatic right say what it wants, but it's not true that Hamas refuses to recognize Israel. It's true that all the Arab countries are willing to recognize it in accordance with the decisions of the Arab League, which have been reconfirmed, in exchange for withdrawal to the 1967 border. It is a distortion of the few serious but fragmented contacts after the second Camp David summit (led by Yossi Beilin, who is a leper in the eyes of the right) to maintain that there is no chance of preserving some of the settlements through an exchange of territory. And mainly Israel refuses to examine in serious negotiations whether the claims of the Palestinians like its own are not opening gambits. How can Olmert dare to enter such negotiations when his future lies in the balance?
Any startup would collapse into a terminal crisis if it were run like that. But Israel is not anticipating some round to raise capital. If it doesn't get itself moving, within a few years it will have to deal with an Iranian nuclear power, resting on "thickened" settlements and living in the center of Islamic hatred that has only increased. A commission of inquiry and dubious American support won't help then.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Israel continues building in West Bank almost unabatedly

Further expansion of existing settlements in the land given to the Israeli settlers by G-D (oops, I meant by the IDF) continues, in flagrant violation of international law. How this can possibly contribute to the aim of dismantling militant Palestinian groups remains a complete mystery...

Government issues tenders for 164 new homes in the West Bank

By Reuters, via

The government is planning to build 164 new homes in three settlements in the West Bank, despite an obligation under a U.S.-backed peace road map to halt such construction on land Palestinians seek for a state.

The Israel Lands Administration, a government agency, issued a tender inviting bids on 88 plots in the Ariel settlement, 56 in Alfei Menashe and 20 in Karnei Shomron.

Israel's Peace Now settlement watchdog criticized the move. "This tender hurts the interests of the state of Israel. It is a provocative step which goes against the majority of the Israeli public," said Mossi Raz, a senior member of the group.

The latest tender follows one published on September 4 to build 690 new homes in the settlements of Maaleh Adumim and Beitar Ilit, the largest number of housing bids for settlement building offered since Prime Minister Ehud Olmert took office in May.

Israel Lands Administration data showed that 98 housing plots were marketed in the West Bank from January to August.

The new tender brings to 952 the number of plots offered this year. That compares with 1,180 plots in 2005 and 1,075 in 2004.

While Israel has failed to suspend settlement building under the first stage of the road map, the Palestinians have not met their own obligation to dismantle militant groups.

Before the Lebanon war, Olmert had planned to unilaterally withdraw from swathes of the West Bank in the absence of peace talks with the Palestinians.

He shelved that plan after a month-long war with Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon that ended with an August 14 cease-fire.

Hezbollah fired nearly 4,000 rockets at towns in northern Israel during the war, raising concern among Israelis that a West Bank pullback could leave cities in the center of the country vulnerable to similar attacks by Palestinians.

The World Court has branded all Jewish settlements on occupied land as illegal. Israel disputes this.

Some 240,000 Jewish settlers and 2.4 million Palestinians live in the West Bank, territory Israel captured from Jordan in the 1967 Six-Day War.

Chavez and the Devil: Bush's Use of 'Evil' Comes Home to Roost

Juan Cole
'Railing and praising were his usual themes,
And both, to show his judgment, in extremes;
So over-violent, or over-civil,
That every man with him was god or devil'
- John Dryden

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez referred to US President George W. Bush as "the devil" in his speech before the UN general assembly on Wednesday, complaining that the stench of sulphur still hung in the air at the podium. Chavez crossed himself at the mention of Bush, a folk Catholic way of fending off Satan.

Bush himself opened the way for these sorts of comments with his 2002 State of the Union address, where he mysteriously allowed the Neoconservative lightweight David Frum to put into his mouth the phrase "the axis of evil" in referring to Iraq, Iran and North Korea. Critics at the time complained that they weren't an axis.

But the real problem is that "evil" is not a political term, it is a theological one. The president of a civil republic has no business trafficking in the rhetoric of evil. Besides, the best ethical theory sees evil as an attribute of acts, not of persons or countries. "Iran" is not "evil." Iran's governing officials may occasionally do evil things, but they are actions, not essences. If you call a person or a country "evil" you are demonizing them.

Having made Iran a demon, Bush refused to talk to it. At the time he put Iran in the axis of evil, reform President Mohammad Khatami had presided over candlelight vigils in Iran for the United States in the aftermath of the al-Qaeda attacks, and had called for people to people diplomacy and a "dialogue of civilizations." President Khatami has his flaws, but he was not and is not "evil."

So, having theologized international relations and turned them into moral absolutes, it is natural that Bush is subsequently paralyzed.

Bush started it. He started talking about other countries and leaders as "evil." He bears the responsibility for this importation of the absolute into our political discourse.

And having set up these theological absolutes, Bush became bound by them. He had to invade "evil" Iraq, because it was . . . evil. Bush keeps saying that Saddam Hussein was "dangerous" even if he did not have weapons of mass destruction. Apparently he was "dangerous" because he is "evil." His dangerousness was not related to actual capability to accomplish anything (which was low). He was intrinsically evil and dangerous.

Contrast Bush's theological crusade against "evil" to the speech of then president John Quincy Adams:
'America, in the assembly of nations, since her admission among them, has invariably, though often fruitlessly, held forth to them the hand of honest friendship, of equal freedom, of generous reciprocity. She has uniformly spoken among them, though often to heedless and often to disdainful ears, the language of equal liberty, of equal justice, and of equal rights. She has, in the lapse of nearly half a century, without a single exception, respected the independence of other nations while asserting and maintaining her own. She has abstained from interference in the concerns of others, even when conflict has been for principles to which she clings, as to the last vital drop that visits the heart. She has seen that probably for centuries to come, all the contests of that Aceldama the European world, will be contests of inveterate power, and emerging right. Wherever the standard of freedom and Independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.'

Bush, having identified other countries as "monsters" had to go in search of them to destroy them. Hence the quagmire in Iraq.

And it was predictable that once he began calling others "evil," someone in the global south would respond by calling George W. Bush "evil" himself.

So now in Bushworld we have all these "evil" politicians and regimes in the world, with whom we won't talk and whom we wish we could just overthrow.

Bush and Chavez aren't qualified to decide that others are evil.

And the whole point of the United Nations was to foster dialogue and understanding. We had enough demonization of people after 1933. Bush's rhetoric has impeded that dialogue, and seems likely to go on doing so.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

The Pope should know better than to endorse the idea of a war of faiths

Jonathan Freedland, Guardian Comment is Free

The freedom-of-speech defence is a sideshow. The pontiff has broken an unwritten compact of religious leaders

Glenn Hoddle and Robert Kilroy-Silk were there first, of course, but Pope Benedict XVI has joined the club. Like those two other great scholars, the pontiff has found himself at the centre of a free speech row.

In 1999 Hoddle, then England manager, suggested that disabled people were the victims of bad karma, punished for their conduct in an earlier life. In 2004 Kilroy, then presenter of a daytime TV show, described Arabs as "suicide bombers, limb-amputators, women repressors". Both Hoddle and Kilroy were eventually sacked, their defenders hailing them as free speech martyrs, cut down for daring to speak their mind.

The Pope won't suffer Hoddle and Kilroy's fate - the only authority who can sack Benedict wears a hood and carries a scythe - but he is already being elevated, as they were, into a symbol of freedom under assault. It's as much a mistake now as it was then, a product of a repeated confusion over the nature of free speech.

To be clear, we all have the right to free speech. In some countries that right is all but absolute, guaranteed in the US by the constitution's first amendment. In Britain it is limited by laws on incitement, libel and the like. But essentially we have the right to say what we want. Still, we know instinctively that certain roles or positions of responsibility limit that right. Hoddle was free to believe the disabled were wicked souls trapped in damaged bodies, but he couldn't voice that view and expect to hold a nationally symbolic job. Kilroy is now free to denounce Arabs, but he couldn't do that while he was a presenter for the avowedly neutral BBC. The position we hold alters the meaning of our words.

An example from the 1980s. At a 1983 Conservative rally, the comedian Kenny Everett called out, "Let's bomb Russia!" A year later, a microphone caught Ronald Reagan ad-libbing a mock radio address: "My fellow Americans, I'm pleased to tell you today that I've signed legislation that will outlaw Russia for ever. We begin bombing in five minutes." Both had an equal right to make the joke. But it was rather less wise for the leader of a cold war superpower.

Pope Benedict is in the Reagan category. Of course he has the right to quote whomever he chooses, but there is now a significance to his words that did not apply when he was a humble scholar. This is what makes the Pope's defenders so disingenuous when they insist that he was merely engaged in a "scholarly consideration of the relationship between reason and faith". He is not a lecturer at divinity school. He is the head of a global institution with more than a billion followers. So he has to think carefully about the sources he cites. When he digs out a 700-year-old sentence that could not be more damning of Islam - "Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached" - he has to know there will be consequences.

If he did not fully agree with the statement by the Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologos, he should have put some distance between himself and it. But read the lecture and the only hint of papal disavowal is a description of Manuel's "startling brusqueness". Which means the Pope was either inept, failing to disown Manuel's sentiment effectively, or that he in fact agreed with it and wanted to say so. Again, that is his right - but he should have known, given who he is, that it would have the most calamitous results.

That's not because Muslims are somehow, as their accusers have written, uniquely touchy. It is rather because of two dramatic shifts in our world.

First, religion is becoming more political. It is possible to have an academic discussion about the competing claims of different religions, but it has to be done with great care. Yet the Pope wades in almost casually. Note how his weekend apology to Muslims quoted St Paul to describe the crucifixion as a "scandal for the Jews". There must be a hundred lines the Pope could have cited without evoking the two blood-soaked millennia during which Christians blamed the Jews for the death of Jesus. But, almost in passing, he touched that landmine, buried deep in the European soil. (In so doing, he performed one useful service, reminding us that the Crusaders of the past had not one infidel enemy, but two: Muslims and Jews.)

The Pope seems unaware that, for hundreds of millions of people, religious affiliation is not a matter of intellectual adherence to a set of abstract principles, but a question of identity. Many Muslims, like many Jews or Hindus, may not fully subscribe to the religious doctrine concerned, and yet their Muslimness, or Jewishness or Hinduness, is a central part of their make-up. Theology plays a lesser part than history, culture, folklore, tradition and kinship. In this respect, religious groups begin to look more like ethnic ones. Which means that a slur on a religion is experienced much like a racist insult. Plenty of secularists and atheists struggle to understand this - wondering why they cannot slam, say, Catholicism the way they might attack, say, socialism - but the Pope, of all people, should have no such trouble. He should realise that when he declares Christianity a superior religion, as he did some years ago, that is heard by many as a statement that Christians are superior people.

Second, politics is becoming more religious. For many years people in Arab and Muslim lands have resented western meddling in their affairs: toppling governments, propping up dictators, invading countries. They have cheered on different movements to fight this intrusion, whether socialism in the 50s or Arab nationalism in the 60s and 70s. Each effort has been thwarted, usually with western connivance. Today the lead movements of opposition are Islamist and, in their most extreme versions, seek to cast the battle of east and west not as a political clash about imperialism but as a holy war.

What makes me shudder about the Pope's Regensburg lecture is that he appears to join Osama bin Laden in this effort to cast the current conflict as a clash of civilisations. Complicatedly, and dense in footnotes, he is, at bottom, trying to establish the superiority of one faith over another. His argument is that reason is intrinsic to Christianity, yet merely a contingent part of Islam.

But what sense is there in such a contest? If the most senior figure in Christendom effectively takes Bin Laden's bait and says that, yes, this is a war of religions, ours against yours, how can this end? Such a war cannot be quieted by the usual means of diplomacy or compromise. There can be no happy medium in matters of core belief: Muslims cannot meet Christians halfway on their belief that God spoke to Muhammad, just as Christians cannot compromise on Jesus's status as the son of God.

Most religious leaders have long recognised that, and agreed to tiptoe politely around each other, offering a warm, soapy bath of rhetoric about "shared values" and "interfaith dialogue". Of course they have known that, if pushed, they would be obliged to say their own faiths are better than the others, but they have avoided doing so. Now this Pope has broken that compact - and who knows what havoc he has unleashed.

On Progressive Zionism

Aliyah Thoughts Three Months Later

By Alex Stein, published by MarkfromIreland

I have just made aliyah. Considering the current pessimism surrounding prospects for peace in the Middle East, this move may surprise many. Given the rise of Hamas and the concomitant entrenchment of unilateralism in Israel, not to mention Iran's nuclear ambitions, isn"t making aliyah a strange thing to do? I don"t believe so. In fact, for anyone who shares the same Progressive Zionist ideals as I do, now is a wonderful time to be taking the aliyah plunge, for this is a time of destroying and rebuilding.

In the case of Israel/Palestine, it is best not to believe the hype until the maps have been published, and even then not to believe the maps unless the source is beyond repute. And although there has been wild speculation over Ehud Olmert's plans to unilaterally withdraw from the West Bank, the precise parameters of the plan are still unclear. It seems that Olmert is seeking to annex the major settlement blocs - Ariel, Gush Etzion, Ma"aleh Adumim - as well as securing a permanent presence in the Jordan Valley. But this is far from certain. And even if this did constitute the plan, questions remain. Will there be a Jewish presence in Hebron? Will any military bases be left behind? Will Gaza and the West Bank finally be connected? What will happen in Jerusalem? Predictably, though, any suggestion of withdrawal from the West Bank has led to widespread criticism, particularly from the Religious Zionist and Christian Zionist camps. This was inevitable. Giving up one inch is too much for those who value land more life. There can be no satisfying such people.

At the outset, Olmert stated that he wanted to set Israel's borders by 2010. Following the war in Lebanon, however, the plans have been shelved for the foreseeable future. The reasons for this are obvious. The best that Olmert is prepared to offer the Palestinians do not come close to satisfying their minimal demands. As a result, the Americans are trying to encourage Olmert to engage Palestinian President Abbas, an undoubtedly reasonable man. It seems that a meeting between the two will soon take place, although there is little hope for a significant outcome. Israel will surely soon return to unilateralism. But this should not distract from a basic realisation: Israel will not be stable, in the truest sense of the word, until Palestine is. This should be the Progressive Zionist mantra, the response to unilateralism.

My Zionism, however, is primarily personal, not ideological. In other words, I do not aim to impose my Zionism on other Jews in the Diaspora. The decisions we have to take in our lives are terrifying enough without trying to impose them on other people. Furthermore, I do not summarily dismiss anti-Zionism as self-hatred. I believe anti-Zionists to be fundamentally mistaken, but I acknowledge the legitimacy of the position, and welcome the critique. I, however, hold an axiomatic conviction in the right of Jews to self-determination, and the no less deeply held belief that this does not necessitate persecution of the other.

"Progressive Nationalism" is all the rage nowadays, with the increasing realisation that people express their autonomy more freely within a national context. Zionism needs to keep up the pace. National movements exist to promote what Will Kymlicka calls a 'societal culture". For progressive nationalists, this culture is necessarily "thin", given that the state should not intervene in matters of religion, values and lifestyles. But it should not be dismissed as unimportant. The Zionist movement has done a tremendous job in resurrecting the Hebrew language, and a vibrant Israeli national culture. It now has to make sure that the values of pluralism and democracy can spread far deeper into Israeli society.

Thus, in addition to solving the conflict with the Palestinians, Israel has to resolve the contradictions between its commitment to democracy and its commitment to the Jewish people. Despite what some doctrinaire anti-Zionists might say, this remains a viable goal, and many people are working hard at formulating a way forward. Of most importance in this regard is providing Israeli-Arabs with full equality and integration into Israeli society. In addition lays the importance of confronting the religious/secular divide, particularly the status quo which gives the Orthodox establishment such disproportionate influence over the personal lives of Israeli citizens. These tasks may be difficult, but they are certainly feasible.

To dream madly and to imagine all possibilities has always been the Zionist way. As the date of aliyah approaches, one should have delusions of grandeur, which should be replaced by humility on arrival. My five months (I need five years) of ulpan has become a time of observation, of re-acquainting myself with the facts on the ground, and trying to imagine how I can possibly fit in, and what I can do. As soon as this honeymoon is over, I shall know I have arrived.

The above should suffice as an explanation of my ideological commitment to Zionism, and the political context of my aliyah. But I am aware it does not go the heart of why I have made this move. In all honesty, answering the "why" question is an extremely difficult one. It would be great if I could reduce everything down to a neat narrative, but life is more complicated than that. I can"t, for example, name the day I finally decided that Israel was the place for me. Like all the best decisions (I hope), there was a rocky road to a gradual realisation that I wanted to go.

So despite everything: despite Hamas, despite the worship of unilateralism, despite racism (on both sides), despite Ahmadinejad, despite my unerring commitment to universality. We can only really achieve a universal order when we value the particular. I remain cynical as to how sustainable Jewish life is in the Diaspora, at least on a serious level where the decisions we take as Jews have ramifications beyond our tribe. Our little job in achieving the dream of genuine universality is to create an Israel where justice trumps ethnocentrism.

Theodor Herzl famously noted that "if you will it, it is no dream". To refer to this aphorism is to invite the ridicule that is heaped on a bad poet, or someone unwilling to dirty themselves with detail. But it still remains Zionism's most potent catchphrase, and one which has never been bettered as the embodiment of Zionism's revolutionary potential. The time has come for this revolutionary potential to be rediscovered, for Zionism to pave the trail for progressive nationalism everywhere. One of the most tragic aspects of modern history is the constant victory of reactionary nationalisms. Now, at a time of deep-rooted pessimism, is as good a time as ever for this process to be reversed.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

It's Not Either / Or: The Israel Lobby

By Norman G. Finkelstein

In the current fractious debate over the role of the Israel Lobby in the formulation and execution of US policies in the Middle East, the "either-or" framework -- giving primacy to either the Israel Lobby or to U.S. strategic interests -- isn't, in my opinion, very useful.

Apart from the Israel-Palestine conflict, fundamental U.S. policy in the Middle East hasn't been affected by the Lobby. For different reasons, both U.S. and Israeli elites have always believed that the Arabs need to be kept subordinate. However, once the U.S. solidified its alliance with Israel after June 1967, it began to look at Israelis, and Israelis projected themselves, as experts on the "Arab mind." Accordingly, the alliance with Israel has abetted the most truculent U.S. policies, Israelis believing that "Arabs only understand the language of force" and every few years this or that Arab country needs to be smashed up. The spectrum of U.S. policy differences might be narrow, but in terms of impact on the real lives of real people in the Arab world these differences are probably meaningful, the Israeli influence making things worse.

The claim that Israel has become a liability for U.S. "national" interests in the Middle East misses the bigger picture. Sometimes what's most obvious escapes the eye. Israel is the only stable and secure base for projecting U.S. power in this region. Every other country the U.S. relies on might, for all anyone knows, fall out of U.S. control tomorrow. The U.S. discovered this to its horror in 1979, after immense investment in the Shah. On the other hand, Israel was a creation of the West; it's in every respect, culturally, politically, economically in thrall to the West, notably the U.S. This is true not just at the level of a corrupt leadership, as elsewhere in the Middle East but, what's most important, at the popular level. Israel's pro-American orientation exists not just among Israeli elites but also among the whole population. Come what may in Israel, it's inconceivable that this fundamental orientation will change. Combined with its overwhelming military power, this makes Israel a unique and irreplaceable American asset in the Middle East.

In this regard, it's useful to recall the rationale behind British support for Zionism. Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann once asked a British official why the British continued to support Zionism despite Arab opposition. Didn't it make more sense for them to keep Palestine but drop support for Zionism? "Although such an attitude may afford a temporary relief and may quiet Arabs for a short time," the official replied, "it will certainly not settle the question as the Arabs don't want the British in Palestine, and after having their way with the Jews, they would attack the British position, as the Moslems are doing in Mesopotamia, Egypt and India." Another British official judged retrospectively that, however much Arab resentment it provoked, British support for Zionism was prudent policy, for it established in the midst of an "uncertain Arab world a... well-to-do educated, modern community, ultimately bound to be dependent on the British Empire." Were it even possible, the British had little interest in promoting real Jewish-Arab cooperation because it would inevitably lessen this dependence. Similarly, the U.S. doesn't want an Israel truly at peace with the Arabs, for such an Israel could loosen its bonds of dependence on the U.S., making it a less reliable proxy. This is one reason why the claim that Jewish elites are "pro"-Israel makes little sense. They are "pro" an Israel that is useful to the U.S. and, therefore, useful to them. What use would a Paul Wolfowitz have of an Israel living peacefully with its Arab neighbors and less willing to do the U.S.'s bidding?

The historical record strongly suggests that neither Jewish neo-conservatives in particular nor mainstream Jewish intellectuals generally have a primary allegiance to Israel, in fact, any allegiance to Israel. Mainstream Jewish intellectuals became "pro"-Israel after the June 1967 war when Israel became the U.S.'s strategic asset in the Middle East, i.e., when it was safe and reaped benefits. To credit them with ideological conviction is, in my opinion, very naive. They're no more committed to Zionism than the neo-conservatives among them were once committed to Trotskyism; their only ism is opportunism. As psychological types, these newly minted Lovers of Zion most resemble the Jewish police in the Warsaw ghetto. "Each day, to save his own skin, every Jewish policeman brought seven sacrificial lives to the extermination altar," a leader of the Resistance ruefully recalled. "There were policemen who offered their own aged parents, with the excuse that they would die soon anyhow." Jewish neo-conservatives watch over the U.S. "national" interest, which is the source of their power and privilege, and in the Middle East it happens that this "national" interest largely coincides with Israel's "national" interest. If ever these interests clashed, who can doubt that, to save their own skins, they'll do exactly what they're ordered to do, with gusto?

Unlike elsewhere in the Middle East, U.S. elite policy in the Israel-Palestine conflict would almost certainly not be the same without the Lobby. What does the U.S. gain from the Israeli settlements and occupation? In terms of alienating the Arab world, it's had something to lose. The Lobby probably can't muster sufficient power to jeopardize a fundamental American interest, but it can significantly raise the threshold before U.S. elites are prepared to act i.e., order Israel out of the Occupied Palestinian Territories, as the U.S. finally pressured the Indonesians out of Occupied East Timor. Whereas Israel doesn't have many options if the U.S. does finally give the order to pack up, the U.S. won't do so until and unless the Israeli occupation becomes a major liability for it: on account of the Lobby the point at which "until and unless" is reached significantly differs. Without the Lobby and in the face of widespread Arab resentment, the U.S. would perhaps have ordered Israel to end the occupation by now, sparing Palestinians much suffering.

In the current "either-or" debate on whether the Lobby affects U.S. Middle East policy at the elite level, it's been lost on many of the interlocutors that a crucial dimension of this debate should be the extent to which the Lobby stifles free and open public discussion on the subject. For in terms of trying to broaden public discussion here on the Israel-Palestine conflict the Lobby makes a huge and baneful difference. Especially since U.S. elites have no entrenched interest in the Israeli occupation, the mobilization of public opinion can have a real impact on policy-making, which is why the Lobby invests so much energy in suppressing discussion.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Help! Peacemongers! (Uri Avnery)

Hat tip: FalseDichotomies

GUESS WHOSE words these are: “Starting this war was a scandal. It was possible to solve the problem of the missiles in South Lebanon by diplomatic means. The offensive of the last two days of the war, in which 33 soldiers were killed after the cease-fire resolution had already been accepted, was a spin of the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister, the Minister of Defense and the Chief-of-Staff must resign.”

Right, it was Gush Shalom.
But that’s not new. What is new is that yesterday, the former Chief-of-Staff, Moshe Ya’alon, repeated these statements, almost word for word.

“Bogie” Ya’alon is the very opposite of Gush Shalom. Nobody could say that he belongs to a “marginal group”. He comes from the very center of the establishment. He is a Rightist. He was responsible for some of the most cruel acts of the occupation.

There is another difference: Gush Shalom spoke out when the events were actually happening, in the midst of the war, when it was still possible to save the lives of those 33 soldiers. At that time, these statements were unpopular in the extreme, bordering on treason. Because no Israeli medium was prepared to publish them, the Gush had to pay for them as advertisements. Now Ya’alon comes and repeats them, after the wind has changed and they have become popular.

Ya’alon’s motives are not important. (As will be remembered, Ariel Sharon removed him from office and replaced him with Dan Halutz a year ago, in order to ease the way for the “Disengagement”). What is important is that the things have now been said by a person with supreme military credentials. When such a person declares that 33 soldiers were sacrificed for no military purpose, for the personal interests of Ehud Olmert, that the war itself was quite unnecessary, and that the problem of Hizbullah’s rockets could have been solved by diplomatic means - these things carry weight.

This is not important only in regard to what happened a few weeks ago, when the leadership spoke of a terrible danger looming on our northern border, but even more so today, when the same leadership is warning of an even more acute “threat” somewhere else.

IN THE corridors of power in Jerusalem the cry is going up: “Help! Peace is upon you, Israel!”

A terrible enemy is conspiring to impose peace on us. He is advancing against us from two sides, in a giant pincer movement.

One arm of this offensive is the Palestinian Unity Government that is about to be set up.
The other is the decision of the Arab League to revive the Arab Peace Plan.
From the point of view of the Government of Israel, this offensive is far more dangerous then all of Hassan Nasrallah’s rockets put together.

THE PALESTINIAN Government of National Unity is designed to solve, first of all, domestic Palestinian problems.

Since the Palestinians elected Hamas, a state of anarchy has prevailed on the Palestinian street. The constant clashes between the President, who is the head of Fatah, and the Prime Minister, who belongs to Hamas, have created a state of paralysis, just when the Palestinian people need unity in the face of existential challenges.

Fatah has dominated the modern Palestinian national movement since its foundation by Yasser Arafat almost 50 years ago. It is not resigned to defeat. But a people fighting for its very existence cannot allow its two main factions to fight against each other, instead of cooperating in the struggle for national liberation.

To this must be added the blockade imposed on the Palestinian Authority by Europe and America, by order of President Bush. This is an unprecedented attempt to literally starve a whole people into removing its democratically elected government.
The National Unity Government is designed to restore public order and to break the international blockade.

For this to happen, the government must circumvent several obstacles. For religious reasons, it is difficult for Hamas to recognize Israel officially. This has nothing to do with anti-Semitism, as alleged, but with the fact that according to Islam, Palestine is a “Waqf” (religious endowment) belonging to Allah (similar to the Jewish fundamentalists’ belief that God has promised us the country, so that giving away any part of it is a mortal sin.) But the Muslim religion opens a back door here by allowing for a long-term “hudnah” (truce) that can last for decades or even centuries.

The way to solve this problem is to get the Unity Government, headed by Hamas, to declare that it is committed to the “prisoners’ document”, the UN resolutions, the agreements signed between Israel and the PLO and the Arab peace plan - all of which are based on the recognition of Israel. That should suffice for anybody who really wants to promote Israeli-Palestinian peace.

As far as our government is concerned, there precisely is the rub.
THE SECOND arm of the peace offensive is the renewal of the Arab Peace Plan.
This plan was originally devised by Abdallah, then the Crown Prince and now the King of Saudi Arabia. It was adopted by the summit meeting of the Arab heads of state in Beirut in March 2002.

This plan says, roughly: the entire Arab world will recognize Israel and make peace with it, if it withdraws to the 1967 borders and makes it possible to establish the State of Palestine, with East Jerusalem as its capital.

The government of Israel has rejected the initiative, as the Hebrew expression goes, “on the threshold” (every peace initiative is rejected “on the threshold”, so as not to allow it, God forbid, to put a foot in the door.) The plan was consigned to a pigeon hole and has been collecting dust ever since. Now the evil Arabs have decided to dust it off and slap it back on the table.

AGAINST THIS danger of the Arab peacemongers, the Olmert government is calling up all its forces. In spite of the fact the entire political and military leadership is now busy fighting for its survival after the Lebanon fiasco, it is uniting in the face of this frightening menace.

Tzipi Livni was sent head over heels to the United States, in order to avert the danger. She went to convince President Bush (who happened to “pass” the room when she was talking with Condoleezza Rice and who calls her “Tsiffi”) to use the deadly American veto against any Security Council resolution that might support peace. She is going to meet with some 20 heads of governments and foreign ministers to enlist their support against this menace.

For this, she took down from the Foreign Office attic a diplomatic rag called “the Road Map”. It has never even entered the mind of the Israeli government to carry out this agreement, whose sole purpose was, right from the beginning, to create the impression that President Bush has achieved something in the Middle East. From its inception, all the parties knew that this was a document that cannot be implemented.

Israel and the US will, therefore, declare that the Arab peace plan is damaging peace, because it contradicts the Road Map. The Palestinian unity government, when it is set up, must be boycotted, because it does not explicitly state that all its members recognize the State of Israel (as if all the members of the Israeli government were prepared to recognize the State of Palestine and its government, not to mention foreswearing violence and accepting all the existing agreements.) Therefore, the blockade of the Palestinian population must go on, until it sinks to its knees.

WHY DOES the peace offensive frighten the Israeli government?
If somebody had come to us on June 4, 1967, and told us that the entire Arab world was ready to make peace with us within the borders existing on that day, and that the Palestinian leadership, too, was prepared to declare an end to the historic conflict, we would have felt that the Messiah had come.

But on June 5, 1967, we started a war that changed everything. We were soon in control of the whole of Palestine and huge additional territories. We declared that we were holding them temporarily in order to trade them in, but, as is well known, appetite comes with eating. We started to annex territories (East Jerusalem with its surroundings and the Golan Heights), and to cover the West Bank with settlements.

In the eyes of the Israeli leadership, the peace initiative - any peace initiative - is nothing but an evil conspiracy of the peacemongers to rob us of these territories. It would compel us to put an end to the settlement enterprise - which has not stopped for a moment since 1968, and which is even now in full swing - and to dismantle the existing settlements.
The pincer movement of the peacemongers could gather momentum and generate international pressure that would be difficult to withstand. That’s the reason for the panic in Jerusalem.

THE ARAB peace initiative could be successful if it puts in front of the Israeli public the straight and unequivocal choice: peace without the occupied territories - or the occupied territories without peace.

After six major wars and several minor ones, we may be inclined to suspect that the price in blood and money is too heavy, and - more importantly - that it does not bring victory, but multiplies the burdens on Israeli society.

In the six years of folly between the 1967 and the 1973 wars, Moshe Dayan coined the phrase: “Better Sharm al-Sheikh (on the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula) without peace than peace without Sharm al-Sheikh!”

Such slogans cost the lives of some 2700 Israeli soldiers (and who knows how many Egyptians and Syrians) in the Yom Kippur war. Afterwards we returned Sharm al-Sheikh and all of Sinai and got peace with Egypt. Dayan himself played a role in achieving this peace.

How many soldiers and civilians, Israeli and Arab, must die before we finally understand that peace with the Palestinian people and the entire Arab world is immeasurably more important to Israel than trying to hang on to the occupied territories and the settlements?

Ultimately, the U.S. will attack

By Yossi Melman

Note: my comments are in italics.

* "Israel doesn't have the military strength to attack all of Iran's nuclear installations. Only the United States can do that."

* "But neither the United States nor Israel should do so."

* "A military strike will not solve the problem."

* "I nevertheless anticipate that the United States, under a Republican administration of Bush or his successor, will face a choice of not whether but when to attack Iran."

* "A Democratic president will also face that choice but will not attack."

These statements were made by Prof. Raymond Tanter of Georgetown University and the head of the Iran Policy Committee, a group that studies Iranian opposition groups and has concluded that supporting the Mujahideen-e-Khalq (MEK) is in America's interest. The MEK is a controversial Iranian militia that is opposed to the rule of the ayatollahs. Tanter is the co-author of "Appeasing the Ayatollahs and Suppressing Democracy: U.S. Policy and the Iranian Opposition."

Tanter and the members of the committee believe that the only way to prevent Iran from attaining nuclear weapons is to replace the religious regime in Iran with a democratic regime. In their opinion, only Mujahideen-e-Khalq can do that.

However, the organization faces several significant problems: The United States has declared it a terror organization; most Iranians consider the members of MEK traitors, because they supported Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s; and they are considered a weak group, lacking broad support in Iran itself. Last week Tanter presented his thoughts and plan at the sixth conference of the Institute for Counter-Terrorism at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, and in a conversation with Haaretz.

Tanter, 67, is considered a genius in international relations. At the age of 25, he completed his doctorate at the University of Indiana. He belongs to the school that introduced the use of mathematical models and quantitative studies in international relations. He has taught at top American universities, and in 1974 he spent his sabbatical at Hebrew University's Institute for International Relations (in the interest of proper disclosure, I was his student at the time.)

Between one academic job and the next, Tanter filled several positions in the White House and the Pentagon, mainly during Ronald Reagan's presidency. For two years (1981-1982) he was a member of the National Security Council, in charge of Libya and Lebanon (among his other assignments, Tanter followed Israeli policy which led to the invasion at the time.) He is identified with the Republican Party and has for the most part held conservative opinions. In his opinion, however, President George W. Bush's administration is not sufficiently conservative.

Well, at least we know where we stand politically...

And here is his viewpoint in a nutshell: "Israel does not have the military strength to attack Iran's nuclear installations. For that there is a need for aerial strength that will enable continuous and prolonged attacks against unknown sites, and the Israel Air Force does not have such capability. Only the United States can do that. In the final analysis, the United States will attack, on condition that there isn't a Democratic president in the White House. A Republican administration is more likely to attack in the absence of a political regime change policy, whether there are good military opportunities or not.

"But attacking will not provide a fundamental solution to the problem. It will not eliminate Iran's nuclear program, but will only delay it. In order to bring about a halt to the nuclear program, there has to be a regime change there. Such a change is possible and can take place within a short period of time. From the moment that the Mujahideen-e-Khalq is removed from the U.S. State Department's list of terror organizations, they will bring about regime change in less time than it takes the regime of the ayatollahs to obtain nuclear weapons."

How much time are we talking about?

"I tend to accept the assessment of Israeli intelligence rather than that of the CIA, that Iran will have nuclear weapons within one to three years."

Tanker, why would Israeli intelligence be any better than CIA intelligence? Because it suits your thesis? For a "genius in international relations" Tanter offers precious little evidence backing his assertion...

And during such a short period of time will you be able to give Mujahideen-e-Khalq control over Iran? How? With the support of the Mossad and the CIA?

"No. Intelligence organizations must under no circumstances be involved. Otherwise it will be a repeat of 1953 and the Mossadegh affair [the CIA and the British MI6 organized a coup that removed prime minister Mossadegh, who had nationalized the oil industry, and brought back Mohammed Reza Pahlavi as Shah - Y.M.]. Our 10-point plan has clear guidelines: U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice should declare the removal of Mujahideen-e-Khalq from the list of terror organizations, Congressional leaders should invite Maryam Rajabi [the head of the political arm of the organization, and the wife of its leader - Y.M.] to testify before the congressional committees; and the Pentagon should allow the organization to operate from Iraq against the regime in Iran."
But the regime in Iran and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad were elected in democratic elections.

"The elections were democratic only de jure. The council for the defense of the Islamic regime rejected hundreds of candidates and allowed only its own candidates to participate in the elections. That's how Ahmadinejad was elected by default when the corrupt candidate, former president Rafsanjani, opposed him. It was a choice between a killer and a crook. Eighty percent of those eligible to vote did not participate in the elections. We believe that the moment the organization is able to operate from Iraq it will gain public favor in Iran.

"People will go into the streets to demonstrate. That happened already in 1981, when half a million Mujahideen-e-Khalq supporters did that. The regime will order the demonstrators dispersed by force and suppressed. Those who will try to carry out the order are the Basaji, the armed street militia of the Revolutionary Guards. They will shoot at demonstrators, a civil war will break out, and then in the heat of the events the army will intervene, stop the bloodshed, remove the ayatollahs and take over."

The man's not only a genius, he also appears to have a crystal ball...

But even then there will be no guarantee that Iran will stop trying to obtain nuclear weapons. We know that this is an Iranian national ambition, regardless of ideology and world view.

No, Yossi: we only know with certainty that Iran is seeking nuclear technology for civilian purposes. The regime flatly denies wanting the Bomb.

"Mujahideen-e-Khalq have already declared that they are not interested in manufacturing nuclear weapons. But no one cares if a democratic Iran has nuclear weapons. Who cares if Israel or India has nuclear weapons?"

It doesn't seem to occur to Tanker that democratic regimes can be overthrown and replaced by totalitarian ones...

Mujahideen-e-Khalq was founded in the 1960s by Iranian students with Marxist views, who were opposed to the Shah's pro-Western policy. They joined Ayatollah Khomeini in the Islamic Revolution, but the combination of Marxist ideas and the principles of Islam did not accord with his plans, and in 1981 the group was expelled from its bases in Iran. The members of the group came under the wing of Saddam Hussein, who gave them bases and weapons and enabled them to operate from Iraqi territory during the Iran-Iraq war. This act was seen as betrayal by most of the Iranians, even opponents of the regime.

At the end of the war, the members of Mujahideen-e-Khalq established headquarters in Paris, and since then they have been activating thousands of activists and underground fighters from there. They have guerrilla and terrorist activities to their credit, such as the elimination of senior officers, including the chief of staff of the Iranian army, and an attack on the presidential palace in Tehran (in 2000, during the term of President Khatami.) In addition, it was members of the organization who discovered the two secret plants for enriching uranium that Iran had not declared, and which were therefore not under international supervision. When the U.S. Army invaded Iraq, it disarmed the organization and prohibited it from operating.

The reason why Mujahideen-e-Khalq is defined as a terror organization is based on several incidents. The group's activists are suspected of the murder of U.S. citizens on Iranian soil during the period of the Shah. Prof. Tanter and his associates claim that those who carried out the acts were Maoist activists who did not obey the leadership of the organization. Another reason is its support for the takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran by Iranian students and holding its 52 employees as hostages.

Tanter believes that Israel can help legitimize Mujahideen-e-Khalq: "I'm not asking the Mossad to join them and cooperate with them. They should not be involved, and Israel should stay out of the picture. Mujahideen-e-Khalq do not wish such a tie with Israel. But Israel has influence in the United States. It has supporters and a lobby and it can ask them to have MEK removed from the State Department's list of terror organizations.

An Israel lobby in the US, you say? And it has influence, you think?

Instead, Israel is taking a neutral stance, and that's a pity. Mujahideen-e-Khalq is the only game in town if we want to bring about regime change in Iran. To paraphrase Churchill's words about democracy, I think that Mujahideen-e-Khalq is the worst option, except for all the other alternatives."

Your support for the MEK seems like putting all your eggs in one basket.

"No, I put my eggs in the Iranian people, not in a single group."


Saturday, September 16, 2006

Remembering Sabra and Shatilah...

16 September 1982 (dubbed also 9/16) marked the start of the massacre of hundreds of Palestinian refugees in the Beirut camps of Sabra and Shatilah, an atrocity lasting for two days.

Here's what the BBC wrote about the 20th anniversary of the massacres. We're now five years on and little has changed. There will be no worldwide outpouring of grief or commiseration with the survivors and their relatives.

Executive summary of the Sabra and Shatilah massacres, here.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

The Village on the Line

Here's the second part of Alex Stein's story on the Palestinian village of Al Nue'man and what Israel's "security wall" is doing to it. Read it. Spread the word.

We have been reduced to yelling away. The current administration’s plans for the Occupied Territories are now clear; it is extraordinary that anyone deigns to paint them in a different light. Yet we still hear it said that the Israeli government is only waiting for the Palestinians to demonstrate its commitment to compromise, and it will then eagerly seize the opportunity to fairly bring the conflict to an end. To those who still cherish this myth, I ask only that you wander over the green line, without the military accompanying you, where you will be able to see very clearly exactly what is going on. Despite Olmert’s claims to the contrary, the annexation programme (otherwise known as disengagement), continues with haste. Al Nue’man is that plan in microcosm.

The Al-Nue’man story is as follows: In 1967 the village was annexed to Jerusalem, and thus to Israel. The village’s residents, however, were listed in the census of that year as residents of Umm al-Tala, which was not annexed. As a result, the municipality did not provide services, collect taxes or enforce building codes. The villages made only cursory efforts to resolve this anomalous situation, such as collectively applying to the Supreme Court for permanent residence. In 1992, bureaucracy caught up with the village. Building of any kind was prohibited. The children were made to leave their neighbouring school of Umm Tuba, which belonged to the Jerusalem municipality.

Where there is tragedy, farce is never far behind. And so it proved. In 1993, as Oslo promised peace, closures began in the Occupied Territories. Special permits were required for Palestinians seeking to enter Israel from the territories. It was now illegal - according to Israeli law - for the residents of Al-Nu’eman to live in their own homes. This theory was occasionally matched in practice – in 2003 the men of the village were occasionally arrested and charged with illegal presence in Israel. The municipality charges heavy fines to the residents for building their homes, two of which have been demolished. Further demolitions are pending. There are often roadblocks on the road to Umm Tuba and Jerusalem. With the construction of the wall, the road to Bethlehem is also now off-limits. The residents of Al-Nue’man are hemmed in from both sides.

The end-game is now in sight. Israeli plans for Al-Nue’man are clear. In March 2003, a representative from the government arrived at the village. He told residents the decision had been taken to ‘clear’ the village of its residents. He offered financial compensation to those who were willing to leave immediately. Those who stay, he said, ‘will be like a tree without water’. The people of Al-Nue’man are to be cleared to make way for Har Homa D, and the new Jerusalem ring-road. Needless to say, these projects are due to take place on land which has been occupied by Israel in contradiction of all international legal norms and morals. This is theft, taking place under the guise of security.

It is astounding that the self-defence myth is still peddled. To repeat for the umpteenth time, the barrier represents a clear attempt to annex valuable land, particularly areas containing water resources, under the legitimate pretext of security. This is self-evident. All one needs to do is look at a map or take a walk around the outskirts of Jerusalem. It defies belief that anyone still believes otherwise. Aside from the politics, Har Homa is a horrific structure, a place people where will only live because it’s dirt cheap. The idea that the twenty two houses of Al-Nue’man will be knocked down to build Har Homa D, as well as a ring-road, is deeply distressing. It reminds me of the eco-wars in 1990’s Britain, except that those were consisted of trees, not people, being made to make way for roads.

And yes, it is only twenty two homes. If this was the only act of dispossession that Israel was undertaking, maybe that would be a tolerable price to pay. But this process is being repeated all over the West Bank, ad infinitum. In the same week that Israeli officials talked up the road-map as the only game in town, they were happily contravening its requirements. The text clearly states that, during Phase One, “Israel also freezes all settlement activity, consistent with the Mitchell report.” And, to clear up any ambiguity, the Mitchell Report states that “The Government of Israel should freeze all settlement activity, including the ‘natural growth’ of existing settlements.”

Last week, at the same time as Israel was declaring its commitment to the road-map, it was announcing its intention to build 690 apartments in Beitar Ilit and Ma’aleh Adumim. One of the pretexts that is often offered in justification of Israel’s road-map transgressions is the Palestinian failure to dismantle terrorist organisations, which is also required by the text. This failure is also despicable. But the idea that it somehow legitimises Israel’s breaking of the road-map’s provisions is laughable. The requirements of the Israeli and Palestinian governments, according to Phase One, are not chronologically dependent. That is to say, both parties are obligated to keep to its demands irrespective of the behaviour of the other side.

If Israel was really interested in peace, it would stop all settlement construction, and make a big deal of it. It would say to the world – “look, we’ve stopped expanding settlements, and we are waiting for the Palestinians to stop attacking us in order to make progress.” Such a posture would attract widespread sympathy. Instead, my government continues to rob, plunder and destroy, all under the pretext of saving my life. When will enough be enough? Is there any hope that the left can muster enough force to save the country from itself?

The prospects are slim to none. There were only six Israelis on the tour of Al-Nue’man. While only twenty minutes from where I write these words, it is a world away. The residents of Tekoa eagerly await the construction of the ‘Lieberman Road’, which will speed their transit to Jerusalem. The government knows that the homes of Har Homa D will be too cheap for the country’s poor to resist. The twenty two homes of Al-Nue’man will truly be wiped off the map. It will be another nail in the coffin of Israeli-Arab rapprochement, and more evidence of the injustice that has so often permeated the Zionist enterprise. For those of us who will argue to the death that this injustice has never been inherent to the project, the task gets harder by the day.

Read the first part here.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Christian Jihad?

Tom, over at has a video which I can only describe as a prequel to Christian Jihad. Taking back America for Christ by the latest generation. Worth watching...

Sunday, September 10, 2006

In time of war: reason amid rockets

Fred Halliday (article includes many useful external links
11 - 8 - 2006

Fred Halliday is professor of international relations at the LSE, and visiting professor at Cidob, Barcelona. His books include Islam and the Myth of Confrontation (IB Tauris, 2003) and 100 Myths About the Middle East (Saqi, 2005).

The violent conflict in the middle east makes it ever more urgent to listen to voices of universalism and human solidarity in the spirit of Isaac Deutscher and Hannah Arendt, says Fred Halliday.

The cycles of memory work in unexpected ways. The current war involving Israel, the Hizbollah movement and Lebanon provokes a recollection of the first time I came face to face with the Arab-Israeli dispute. It was in October 1964 at a debate in the Oxford Union, only days after that momentous 15-16 October on which Nikita Khrushchev fell in Moscow, the Chinese exploded their first atom bomb, in Xinjiang, and (more parochially) the Labour Party won the British general election, ending thirteen years of Conservative rule.

It takes an effort of imagination to recall now how different then was the balance of public attention and sympathy between Israel and the Palestinians compared to today. Israel enjoyed enormous authority – not so much as a close ally of the west, which at that time it was not (the alliance with the United States took shape only after 1967) but as the site of an experiment in socialist economics and living which the kibbutz system epitomised.

By contrast, nearly everyone in the west who thought about the matter, on left or right, regarded the Palestinian issue as being one of "the refugees" and the obstacles to their resettlement – as if they were a late, post-second-world-war residue of the millions of "displaced persons" whom the great European conflict had shunted across frontiers.

The Palestinian guerrilla movement emerged only with the formation of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) in Cairo in January 1964. It was initially under the control of the Arab states, and of Egypt in particular; its first armed action – an attack on a power station near Galilee – occurred in January 1965.

Any sympathy for such "Arab" causes on the left at that time focused more on the experiment in "Arab socialism" under Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt and on the experiences of workers' control and peasant cooperatives that had arisen out of the Algerian revolutionary war of 1954-1962; perhaps also, a few were dimly aware and supportive of the remote but reputedly resolute imamate of Oman (which had, in fact, ceased to exist).

All of this was to change after the six-day war of June 1967, with the emergence of the Palestinian resistance movement in the West Bank and in Jordan, and the gradual loss of sympathy for Israel across much of the world. This latter process did not take place overnight: Cuba, for example, maintained relations with, and admiration for, Israel until after the war of 1973.

A sudden end

The Oxford debate of October 1964 thus took place before the enormous shifts of sentiment and solidarity, evident today in relation to Lebanon and the Hizbollah movement, towards Arab causes and away from Israel. I was then a student in my first weeks at university, with the general interest in what were then known as "third-world" struggles characteristic of that time, but with no knowledge of this particular question. I sat in the balcony and watched the two main speakers make their respective cases: on the Israeli side, the urbane, silver-haired Labour MP (and part-time novelist) Maurice Edelman; on the Arab side, the Lebanese writer and longstanding pro-Palestinian campaigner Edward Attiyah.

The debate was conducted along already (and still) familiar lines: on one side, evocation of the genocide of Jews in Europe under Nazism (the term "holocaust" came into general use only later), the Arab refusal to accept the 1947 United Nations partition plan, the Arab responsibility for the flight of the Palestinian population in the war of 1947-1949; on the other, the violence of the Zionist acquisition and conquest of Arab land, the betrayal by Britain of its many promises to the Arabs up to its unilateral backdoor scuttle from Palestine in May 1948, the hypocrisy and passivity of the international community thereafter.

As it continued, however, the atmosphere became more disputatious. Edward Attiyah's speech was interrupted by the shouts, way beyond normal heckling, of a group of young supporters of Israel who rose to their feet in unison, seeking to silence the speaker by accusing him of being a "Nazi" and raising their arms in mock-Hitler salute. This must have been hard to take for the author of the elegiac autobiography of a Lebanese upbringing, Having Been an Arab, who (in common with other modern Arab intellectuals such as George Antonius, Albert Hourani, Hanan Ashrawi and Edward Said) was brought up as a Protestant, and in his case had identified England as his spiritual home.

I was never to find out. Attiyah battled on, his voice rising intermittently above the din, before a sudden pause. A throttled sound came from his throat, and he fell to the floor, victim of a heart attack. He was dead. I shall never forget the sound of his body hitting the union's wooden floor.

Two voices

The next few years were (in another phrase not yet current) a steep learning-curve for a young student. A watershed moment in the redrawing of intellectual and political battle-lines was June 1967, when Israel conquered all of mandate Palestine in a lightning war. In its wake, the strategic relationship between Israel and the United States began to be forged, and an international leftwing movement of solidarity with the Palestinian people grew.

The six-day war precipitated a new phase of political alignment and argument in and about the middle east. In their essentials, the controversies, issues and even the language of the thirty-nine years that have followed have remained constant. This indeed is confirmed by the familiarity of the so much of the mass of material published and broadcast since the outbreak of the Hizbollah-Israeli conflict on 12 July 2006 that is now consuming Lebanon.

Hence, at least for those of my generation formed in the 1960s, the arguments of those times remain often bitterly relevant. Amid the unconscionable violence, targeting of civilians, and appeals to unreason and ethnic identification that such modern wars entail, it is all the more necessary to retrieve the example of those who sought to defend core values that crossed boundaries of prejudice and narrow partisanship.

I have already honoured one of those in this openDemocracy series of columns: the great French scholar of the Muslim world, Maxime Rodinson (see "Maxime Rodinson: in praise of a 'marginal man'" (September 2005). Two more such figures were formative in articulating an internationalist position – one (Isaac Deutscher) within a Marxist framework, the other (Hannah Arendt) within a broadly liberal perspective.

Isaac Deutscher, the son of a rabbi in Poland and a committed socialist political activist there in the late 1930s, survived Nazism and Stalinism to write pathbreaking biographies of Joseph Stalin and Leon Trotsky. Soon after the 1967 war, Deutscher gave an interview to three editors of the London-based Marxist intellectual journal New Left Review: Tom Wengraf, Peter Wollen and Alexander Cockburn. In it, Deutscher struck a note that has diminished to near-invisibility in more recent debates, where claims of identity prevail over universal principle, where identification with one side or the other predominates, and where the atrocities and callous political blunders of each combatant readily find their intellectual defenders.

Deutscher's approach rested on three clear and courageous premises:

that both leaderships, Arab and Israeli, were guilty of demagogy and misleading their own people, above all by promising a victory that was unattainable and by stoking hatred of other peoples and religions
that the antecedent histories of both peoples (genocide in Europe for the Jews, and denial of national rights for the Palestinians) could not be deployed to legitimate the maximal current claims of either side
that – a principle Deutscher resolutely adhered to – the Israelis and Palestinians were peoples with legitimate claims, which should be recognised on a sensible, and lasting, territorial and political basis.
Deutscher built on these premises an argument – couched in tones of anti-clerical, universalist disdain, something all too lacking in these days of grovelling before "identity", "tradition" and "faith communities" – that was clear in its rejection of the invocation of the sacred, the God-given, in political debate. Deutscher rejected Talmudic obscurantism and bloodthirsty Arab calls for vengeance alike.

The work of the German philosopher Hannah Arendt (who had found refuge in the United States by the time the second world war broke out) was not directly related to the Arab-Israeli question, but her liberal internationalist outlook does have immense relevance to it. This is especially true of Eichmann in Jerusalem, her 1963 book on the trial of the Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann. This is best known for its controversial phrase, born of watching this shifty and apparently "normal" man in the glass dock, "the banality of evil". The controversy it has generated is something of a distraction, as the vast literature on killing in other dictatorships and massacres across the world suggests: the architects of Stalin's gulag or the Serb massacres in Bosnia were no less "banal".

Much more controversial (and neglected) is Arendt's critique of the legal and moral case made by the Israeli prosecutors against Eichmann. For, whereas the Nuremberg trials of the Nazi war criminals had been conducted under what at least purported to be some form of "international" law – the precursor of later codes of universal jurisdiction, crimes against humanity and the International Criminal Court – Adolf Eichmann was prosecuted for the taking of Jewish lives and in a Jewish court.

A case that in 1946 had been (if weak in some points of principle) confident in its universalist aspirations, had by the early 1960s been converted into something derived from the ethnicity of the victims. And this ethnicisation of the victims was, at the same time, deemed to convey a particular right, if not responsibility, on the state that lay claim to representing those victims, namely Israel. This was what Hannah Arendt identified.

A time of regression

What Isaac Deutscher and Hannah Arendt noted contains truths that the contemporary middle east, and the world, sorely need. Their relevance is to much more than the Arab-Israeli question; it applies in principle to any of the numerous other national or inter-ethnic conflicts across the world where local rhetoric and partisan solidarity from outsiders have reinforced each other in a dance of death, as if one side were angels and the other devils – Cyprus, ex-Yugoslavia, Nagorno-Karabakh, Sri Lanka, Northern Ireland. In regard to the middle east, Muslims and Arabs across the world identify with the Palestinians (or, more recently, Hizbollah) on ethnic, religious and communitarian lines; Jews do the same, in support of Israel. Even many of those Jews who oppose the policies of the state of Israel speak as Jews ("not in my name").

There is an enormous historical regression involved here. It involves seeing membership of a particular community, or claims of affinity, ethnicity or religious association with others, as conveying particular rights (or particular moral clarity) on those making such claims. In purely rational terms, this is nonsense: the crimes of the Israelis in wantonly destroying Lebanon's infrastructure, and the crimes of Hizbollah and Hamas in killing civilians and placing the lives and security of their peoples recklessly at risk, do not require particularist denunciation. They are crimes on the basis of universal principles – of law, decency, humanity – and should be identified as such.

(In this regard, ethnic and religious diasporas are among the last people who can offer rational explanation or moral compass in regard to such events. Recently, when interviewed by a BBC panel set up to consider accusations of bias in regard to the Arab-Israeli dispute, I was given a list of the British-based groups the panel had consulted – Muslim and Arab on one side, Jewish and Zionist on the other. My recommendation to the panel was to ignore completely what any of them said and to question whether they should have any standing in the matter.)

In such times, the moral clarity of Isaac Deutscher and Hannah Arendt is essential, even where subsequent history and philosophical debate have moved arguments on. Any hope, for example, that a solution to inter-ethnic conflict could be found on the basis of proletarian solidarity must be dispelled as ineffectual at best, dangerous at worst: proletarian solidarity did not save the Jews of Europe in the 1940s and has not reconciled Arabs and Jews thereafter.

Equally, a condemnation of the actions of militarised states and guerrilla groups must be based on more than a rejection of their demagogy and chauvinism; it requires a quality that has been long neglected (including by the left, as is evident in much discussion of the war in Iraq), namely respect for the laws and norms of war, as in the Geneva protocols (1949), the additional protocols (1977), and related documents. Across the world there are movements of solidarity – including with Hamas, Hizbollah, or the "Iraqi resistance" – that, while invoking universal principles of war against Israelis, fail completely to apply the same principles the behaviour of the guerrillas and other groups, even though many have committed terrible acts of barbarism, murder, intimidation of civilians, and fostering of inter-communal hatred.

This is vividly apparent in the way that esteemed voices of the British left, high on anti-imperialist rectitude, revel in the slaughter of civilian United Nations officials in Iraq (in the bomb of 19 August 2003 which killed Sergio Vieira de Mello and twenty-one others, including the human-rights scholar and openDemocracy columnist, Arthur Helton); while they and others finesse or condone the killing of civilians in Israel, and the wanton sacrificing of the security of the whole population of Lebanon in the name of a self-proclaimed "national resistance". Much of this rhetoric comes from groups in Palestine and Lebanon that for years sought to destroy the one real chance for coexistence and peace between Israelis and Palestinians, namely the Oslo accords of 1993. In opposing the accords and then trampling them into the ground , they were at all times vigorously supported by fellow-travelling intellectual acolytes in the west who are relentless in a rhetorical "solidarity" which does so much disservice to those it ostensibly champions.

Isaac Deutscher and Hannah Arendt were intellectuals of their time, whose ideas were forged in the war against fascism and the critique of western and Soviet narratives of the cold war. Their inheritors may be found today in the work of the best non-governmental organisations as much as among their intellectual inheritors: among them, human-rights organisations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch that resolutely and with as much accuracy as war and propaganda allow, document and condemn the crimes and violations of all sides.

The sustained independence of mind and clarity of principle of figures such as Deutscher and Arendt should guide judgment and commentary on the latest middle-east war. The alternative is more missed opportunities for peace, and more debates (like that I witnessed in October 1964) where vitriol and the refusal to listen replace the deliberation, understanding, and reason that the global public sphere desperately needs.