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Israel for Dummies

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I don’t pretend to be an expert on Middle East politics.  I usually rely on the perspective of Steve Clemons at The Washington Note, who provides candid, unvarnished commentary on the complicated issues in that region.  Since December of 2008, I have been following the accomplishments of Jeremy Ben-Ami, the Executive Director of J Street, which he describes as “the political arm of the pro-Israel, pro-peace movement”.

Concern over the threat to Israel from Iran’s nuclear ambitions has been a hot topic during this election year.  Nevertheless, on February 27, Andrew Jones wrote a piece for The Raw Story, which included some disclosures published by Wikileaks concerning Iran’s uranium enrichment efforts:

Growing concerns over Iran’s nuclear facilities may prove to be all for naught.  Officials from the global intelligence company Stratfor allegedly discussed that Israel may have already destroyed the Iranian nuclear facility, according to one of the emails released by Wikileaks Monday.

In one of the over five million emails leaked, the conversation centered on Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak praising the news of deadly munitions blasts at a base of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards.

“I think this is a diversion.  The Israelis already destroyed all the Iranian nuclear infrastructure on the ground weeks ago,” one intelligence official wrote in an email dated November 14, 2011. “The current ‘let’s bomb Iran’ campaign was ordered by the EU leaders to divert the public attention from their at home financial problems.  It plays also well for the US since Pakistan, Russia and N. Korea are mentioned in the report. ”

This scenario makes sense.  Iran would not likely admit to having been humiliated by Israel .  Beyond that, the European Union plutocrats would enjoy nothing more than a decent sideshow to distract attention from their economic austerity fiasco.

For years, I have been waiting for someone to write a book called Israel for Dummies.  Too many American teevee pundits seem completely ignorant about Israel’s internal political strife and its impact on the prospects for peace with the Palestinians.  It appears as though someone has finally written that book.  I recently came across a great piece written by Noah Millman for The American Conservative.  Mr. Millman wrote a review of a new book entitled, The Unmasking of Israel by Gershom Gorenberg.  As Millman explains, the book takes us back to the early days of Israel, with David Ben-Gurion at the helm, bringing us to the present-day, never-ending conflict with the Palestinians.  Here are some highlights from Noah Millman’s book review:

Rather, the thrust of the book, as the title states, is to demonstrate that the series of decisions made during and after the 1967 War that resulted in the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza set in motion a process that has progressively “unmade” the State of Israel.  Indeed, the progressive expansion of the settlement enterprise has so eroded the foundations of the signature achievement of political Zionism – Israel as we now know it – that not merely a “Jewish democratic state” but the state as such is now imperiled.

*   *   *

Since 1967, Gorenberg relates, the settlement enterprise has undermined the Israeli state top to bottom.  It has fostered secrecy and corruption in government.

*   *   *

Again the story is familiar.  Less so is the framing. Gorenberg, though he is outraged by the plight of the Palestinians, is not really writing about that plight.  Nor is he writing from an anti-Zionist perspective.  Rather, he is writing from a deeply Zionist point of view.  Zionism, we tend to forget, was not a self-defense movement.  It was a nationalist movement. Nationalism tells a people a story about what it means to be free – that being free means being part of a self-conscious, self-governing, sovereign, and independent collective.  Losing consciousness of one’s national group, being governed by other groups, failing to achieve independence and sovereignty on par with other nations – these are signs of unfreedom.  Of immaturity. The Jews before Zionism were, from the perspective of this narrative, either an exceptionally immature nation or not a nation at all.  The goal of Zionism was not simply – or even primarily – to provide for a “safe haven” for Jews fleeing persecution by the Czar or the Nazis.  The goal was the spiritual rejuvenation of the Jewish people by molding them into a nation like other nations and achieving independent statehood.

This is a narrative frame that, in broad strokes, Gorenberg accepts, which is why he is properly seen as a Zionist.  Indeed, the whole argument of the book is that by holding onto and settling the territories captured in 1967, Israel has reverted to a mode of existence that Zionism was supposed to help the Jews grow out of. By undermining the authority of the state, the settlement enterprise has revived modes of being and of argument that, from Gorenberg’s perspective, the Jewish people should have grown out of when they acquired the power and responsibility of a state. Indeed, that was the whole point, from a moral perspective, of acquiring state power in the first place.  The settlement enterprise doesn’t just undermine the moral case for Israel because it’s an injustice (plenty of states have perpetrated injustices – indeed, far worse injustices – without undermining the case for statehood as such) but because it is evidence that Zionism failed in what was arguably its primary objective.

As an aside:  Be sure to read the Comment stream following Millman’s piece.  It included some astute remarks and a good debate.

One American’s experience in attempting to get a better understanding of the Israeli – Palestinian conflict was chronicled on the Al Jazeera website.  Punk rock icon, Jello Biafra of The Dead Kennedys discussed his decision to cancel a show he was scheduled to perform at the Barby Club in Tel Aviv with his new band (Jello Biafra and the Guantanamo School of Medicine).  His bandmates had decided to boycott Israel in order to support the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movementWikipedia lists this explanation of the BDS movement’s three main goals:

  1. Freeing all Palestinian territories from Israeli influence since 1967 and dismantling the Israeli West Bank barrier;
  2. Acting towards the rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel; and
  3. Promoting the interests of Arab Palestinian refugees in reference to the United Nations General Assembly Resolution 194 of 1948.

Jello Biafra’s account of what followed his decision to cancel the Tel Aviv gig made for some interesting reading:

So with the rollercoaster still in my stomach and my head, I flew solo to Israel instead.  The mission:  to check things out myself and hopefully at least get closer to some kind of conclusion on whether artists boycotting Israel, especially me, was really the best way to help the Palestinian people.

*   *   *

I also got an invitation from a self-proclaimed fan to “come meet the Israeli right” and see the settlements through their eyes, complete with a wine-tasting party.

Many people I met on my trip to Israel feel that the boycott has damaged the Israeli opposition more than it has anyone else and “helped silence the peace camp in Israel”.  A veteran journalist I met later told me, “the best way to contribute to peace is to try and work to understand both sides” and that he felt that boycotts strengthen extremists by keeping people apart.

*   *   *

One of the few things both Israelis and Palestinians seem to agree on is that one of the main obstacles to peace these days is the settlers.

Today the illegal settlements are completely out of control, with 300,000 settlers planted across the Green Line in the West Bank and another 200,000 beyond the Green Line in East Jerusalem. Borders are creatively moved and enforced by the infamous wall, started by the ideas of Yitzhak Rabin and greatly expanded by Ariel Sharon.  It’s a black eye on the face of Israel’s reputation today, considered so even among many of Israel’s citizens and supporters.

Some people told me that if the wall had been built along the Green Line, it might have actually worked.  But Sharon then used it as a land grab, creatively and maniacally routing it through the middle of Palestinian towns, Palestinian farmland and across Palestinian roads, in a deliberate attempt to make the West Bank such a splattered Swiss-cheese hodgepodge of impassable walls and checkpoints that a free Palestinian state could never get off the ground.

Any fantasy that Palestinians could one day be broken down to stay on “their side” of the wall and live happily ever after is ridiculous.  It flies in the face of all human instinct and human rights. It is never going to happen.  Like the Berlin Wall, it is destined to fall sooner rather than later.

*   *   *

A boycott of products made in settlements has begun inside Israel.  There is also a growing boycott by artists refusing to cross the Green Line and perform for the settlers.  A fancy venue has opened in one of the largest settlements in Ariel.  Many artists refuse to perform there.

*   *   *

Yet bringing down this regime by boycott may be a much higher mountain to climb than the boycott of South Africa.  The 1985 musician boycott of Sun City (a posh, government-owned golf resort and casino in South Africa) was just a promotional tool for the financial boycott, where banks, universities and corporations caved into pressure to pull their investments out of South Africa and broke the back of the white apartheid regime.

*   *   *

I am not saying the same tactics that brought down apartheid South Africa can’t be done.  I am just saying that there are different and heavier obstacles this time and people need to be ready for them.

South Africa never had anything like the AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) lobby, which is now considered more of a lobby for Likud than for the Israeli people.  Nevertheless, they have a stranglehold over almost every member of Congress of both parties, using Joe McCarthy-type tactics to smear anyone they don’t like as anti-Jewish – and get them voted out of office.

*   *   *

I will not perform in Israel unless it is a pro-human rights, anti-occupation event that does not violate the spirit of the boycott.  Each artist must decide this for themselves. I am staying away for now, but am also really creeped out by the attitudes of some of the boycott hardliners, and hope someday to find a way to contribute something positive here.  I will not march or sign on with anyone who is more interested in making threats than making friends.

As for the Arab Spring, I cross my fingers on one hand and bite my nails with the other.

I have a lot to learn and a long way to go.

We all have a lot to learn.  Jello Biafra’s humility is refreshing.  If only our politicians were so humble  .  .  .


 

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Grasping Reality With The Opinions Of Others

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In the course of attempting to explain or criticize complex economic and financial issues, it usually becomes necessary to quote from the experts – often at length – to provide an understandable commentary.  Nevertheless, it was with great pleasure that I read about a dust-up involving Megan McArdle’s use of a published interview conducted by Bruce Bigelow of Xconomy, without attribution.  The incident was recently discussed by Brad DeLong.  (If you are a regular reader of Professor DeLong’s blog, you might recognize the title of this posting as a variant on the name of his website.)  Before I move on, it will be necessary to expand this moment of schadenfreude, due to the ironic timing of the controversy.  On March 7, Time published a list of “The 25 Best Financial Blogs”, with McArdle’s blog as number 15.  Aside from the fact that many worthy bloggers were overlooked by Time (including Mish and Simon Johnson) the list drew plenty of criticism for its inclusion of McArdle’s blog.  Here are just some of the comments to that effect, which appeared on the Naked Capitalism website:

duffolonious says:

Megan McArdle?  Seriously?  I’ve seen so many people rip her to shreds that I’ve completely ignored her.

Is she another example of nepotism?  Like Bill Kristol.

Procopius says:

Basically yes, although not quite as blatant.  Her old man was an inspector of contracting in New York City.  He got surprisingly rich.  From that he went to starting his own contracting business.  He got surprisingly rich.  Then he went back to New York City in an even higher level supervisory job.  He got surprisingly rich.  So Megan went to good schools and had her daddy’s network of influential “friends” to help her with her “job search” when she graduated.  Of course, she’s no dummy, and did a professional job of networking with all the “right” people she met at school, too.

For my part, in order to discuss the proposed settlement resulting from the investigation of the five largest banks and mortgage servicers conducted by state attorneys general and federal officials (including the Justice Department, the Treasury and the newly-formed Consumer Financial Protection Bureau) I will rely on the commentary from some of my favorite financial bloggers.  The investigating officials submitted this 27-page proposal as the starting point for what is expected to be a weeks-long negotiation process, possibly resulting in some loan modifications as well as remedies for those who faced foreclosures expedited by the use of “robo-signers” and other questionable practices.

Yves Smith of Naked Capitalism criticized the settlement proposal as “Bailout as Reward for Institutionalized Fraud”:

The argument defenders of the deal make are twofold:  this really is a good deal (hello?) and it’s as far as the Obama Administration is willing to push the banks, so we have to put a lot of lipstick on this pig and resign ourselves to political necessities.  And the reason the Obama camp is trying to declare victory and go home is that it is afraid that any serious effort to deal with the mortgage mess will reveal the insolvency of the banks.

Team Obama had put on a full court press since March 2009 to present the banks as fundamentally sound, and to the extent they needed more dough, the stress tests and resulting capital raising took care of any remaining problems.  Timothy Geithner was even doing victory laps last month in Europe.  To reverse course now and expose the fact that writedowns on second mortgages held by the four biggest banks and plus the true cost of legal liabilities from the mortgage crisis (putbacks, servicer fraud, chain of title issues) would blow a big hole in the banks’ balance sheets and fatally undermine whatever credibility the officialdom still has.

But the fallacy of their thinking is that addressing and cleaning up this rot would lead to a financial crisis, therefore anything other than cosmetics and making life inconvenient for the banks around the margin is to be avoided at all costs.  But these losses exist already.  The fallacy lies in the authorities’ delusion that they are avoiding creating losses, when we are in fact talking about who should bear costs that already exist.

The perspective taken by Edward Harrison of Credit Writedowns focused on the extent to which we can find the fingerprints of Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner on the settlement proposal.  Ed Harrison emphasized the significance of Geithner’s final remarks from an interview conducted last year by Daniel Gross for Slate:

The test is whether you have people willing to do the things that are deeply unpopular, deeply hard to understand, knowing that they’re necessary to do and better than the alternatives.

From there, Ed Harrison illustrated how Geithner’s roadmap has been based on the willingness to follow that logic:

More than ever, Tim Geithner runs the show for economic policy. He is the last man standing of the Old Obama team.  Volcker, Summers, Orszag, and Romer are all gone.  So Geithner’s vision of bailouts and settlements is the one that carries the most weight.

What is Geithner saying with his policies?

  • The financial system was on the verge of collapse.  We all know that now – about US banks and European ones too.  Fed Chair Ben Bernanke has said so as has Bank of England head Mervyn King.  The WikiLeaks cables affirmed systemic insolvency as the real issue most demonstrably.
  • When presented with a choice of Japan or Sweden as the model for crisis resolution, the US felt the Japan banking crisis response was the best historical precedent.  It is still unclear whether this was a political or an economic decision.
  • The most difficult political aspect of the banking crisis response was socialising bank lossesAll banking crisis bailouts involve some form of loss socialisation and this is a policy which citizens find abhorrent.  That’s what Geithner meant most directly about ‘deeply unpopular, deeply hard to understand’.
  • Using pro-inflationary monetary policy and fiscal stimulus, the U.S. can put this crisis in the rear view mirror.  Low interest rates and a steep yield curve combined with bailouts, stress tests, dividend reductions and private capital will allow time to heal all wounds.  That is the Geithner view.
  • Once the system is healthy again, it should expand.  The reason you need to bail the banks out is that they have expansion opportunities abroad.  As emerging markets develop more sophisticated financial markets, the Treasury secretary believes American banks are well positioned to profit.  American finance can’t profit if you break up the banks.

I would argue that Tim Geithner believes we are almost at that final stage where the banks are now healthy enough to get bigger and take share in emerging markets.  His view is that a more robust regulatory environment will keep things in check and prevent another financial crisis.

I hope this helps to explain why the Obama Administration is keen to get this $20 billion mortgage settlement done.  The prevailing view in the Administration is that the U.S. is in a fragile but sustainable recovery.  With emerging markets leading the economic recovery and U.S. banks on sounder footing, now is the time to resume the expansion of U.S. financial services.  I should also add that given the balance sheet recession in the U.S., the only way banks can expand is via an expansion abroad.

I strongly disagree with this vision of America’s future economic development.  But this is the road we are on.

Will those of us who refuse to believe in Tinkerbelle face the blame for the next financial crisis?


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