Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Hurtful Language

Recently, part of the blogosphere has been abuzz over Noah Pollak's branding of the American Conservative magazine as "un-American." Pollak, who tried to clarify his point in this post on Contentions, said that "a magazine that attempts to undermine the democratic legitimacy of the contribution of Jews to the public debate by repeatedly referring to them as a “fifth column” is indeed an un-American publication." I'm with Andrew Sullivan on this one, who argues that calling an American "un-American" is indeed hurtful and certainly difficult to prove.

Since this discussion is centered on language and its effects, there's another term that's been tossed about by some of Pollak's critics. Sullivan, on his blog, links to a post by E.D. Kain, who also weighs in on the debate. In his rambling, unsubstantiated post, Kain argues that
The Israel Lobby is only a “fifth column” because of continued American delusions about the importance of maintaining a constant military presence in the Middle East to begin with.

It's strange that Sullivan linked to this post on the heels of his serious, justified complaint about the effect that language can have. Even though the term "fifth column" is an ostensibly harmless phrase, it's dangerous to label any interest group -- pro-Israel, pro-tobacco, pro-iPod, or whatever other interest group may exist out there -- a "fifth column." Such an accusation has, and has had, terrible, unfair connotations. And in this case, it seems to be used quite offhandedly, with not much substantiation.

Yes, "un-American" was a poor choice of words by Pollak and Patrick Buchanan alike. Branding an interest group as a fifth column is similarly hurtful, yet it could have even more dangerous ramifications.

Note to readers: This will probably be my final post until April 3rd. After that, I should be posting every day.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

NIE, Reversed

Today, the Los Angeles Times reported that the Obama Administration believes there is "no question" Iran is pursuing a nuclear bomb. Both President Obama and Leon Panetta, tapped to head the CIA, have publicly said that they believe Iran is taking steps to develop a nuclear bomb.

This directly contradicts the National Intelligence Estimate from 2007, which famously derailed any progress the Bush Administration had achieved in building international support against Iran's nuclear program. But, the Times notes,

U.S. officials said that although no new evidence had surfaced to undercut the findings of the 2007 estimate, there was growing consensus that it provided a misleading picture and that the country was poised to reach crucial bomb-making milestones this year.

The NIE was released during campaign season, in December of 2007. According to NPR, Vice President Joe Biden (then running for President) said following the release of the report,

With all due respect to anybody who thinks that pressure [from Congress] brought this about, let's get this straight. In 2003, they stopped their program."

That month, according to Salon, Barack Obama had this to say on the NIE:

By reporting that Iran halted its nuclear weapon development program four years ago because of international pressure, the new National Intelligence Estimate makes a compelling case for less saber-rattling and more direct diplomacy. The juxtaposition of this NIE with the president's suggestion of World War III serves as an important reminder of what we learned with the 2002 National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq: members of Congress must carefully read the intelligence before giving the President any justification to use military force.

While Vice President Biden was clearly wrong then, President Obama was right at the time (and now) about Members of Congress needing to read the intelligence information carefully. It appears now, though, that the Bush Administration had, surprisingly, been right all along. Though Obama advised that Members of Congress review the intelligence, it seems that these two Members of Congress didn't do so. This isn't surprising -- after all, they were on the campaign trail -- but it does lead one to believe that some Democrats' opposition to the Bush policy on Iran had more to do with President Bush than with the facts on the ground.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

On Fixing the Israeli Parliamentary System

In light of the Election Day deadlock in Israel, it's natural to question the current system. Last year in Azure, Amotz Asa-El published a comprehensive review and withering critique of the current parliamentary system in Israel, and suggested ways to fix it. He writes,
This system has been depleting Israel’s political energies for decades: It radicalized the territorial debate, debilitated the economy, obstructed long-term planning, derailed government action, distracted cabinets, diverted budgets, weakened prime ministers, destabilized governments, enabled anonymous and often incompetent people to achieve positions of great influence and responsibility, and blurred the distinctions between the executive and legislative branches of government.

Though it was published last year, this piece is incredibly timely. It's a must-read for those interested in learning about the problems with proportional representation and how they have plagued Israel's government.

(Hat tip: Scott Harris.)

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

A Frustrating System

Earlier today, the Jerusalem Post reported that
If Binyamin Netanyahu's Likud proves the polls right and emerges as the largest faction, heading a right-wing bloc with a Knesset majority, [President Shimon] Peres, who will consult with the various party leaders once the official results are in, will be spared much deliberation and the man who lost power a decade ago will be given the presidential nod.

Alternatively, if Tzipi Livni's Kadima maintains its final-days momentum, eases ahead of the Likud and, however improbably, Livni wins the prime ministerial recommendation of party leaders representing a Knesset majority, she will be given the president's authority to try to succeed where she failed just three months ago in building a governing coalition.

Given the most recent exit polling, it appears that Livni's party has won, as Israeli television stations are predicting between 29 and 30 seats for Kadima and either 27 or 28 for Likud. But it's not clear if she has the parliamentary support necessary to become Prime Minister, and Peres will now be responsible for determining who should be given the first chance to form a coalition. If Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu party backs Likud, then it appears that Netanyahu would get the first opportunity to form a coalition government, even though Livni's party received more votes. The bickering between Kadima and Likud has already begun.

While the unclear election results will cause headaches in the near-term, they are also a manifestation of Israel's troubled political system. As Shmuel Rosner presciently noted six days ago, Israel's problem is that there are no longer any "big" parties, only four or five mid-size ones. This has led to a now-fractured government, and will, most likely, reward control of the government to the second-place finisher.

Monday, February 9, 2009

More on British anti-Zionism

Jeffrey Goldberg notes a new "anti-Jewish" play at the Royal Court about seven Jewish children over the course of the last sixty years. Goldberg:
Suffice it to say two things: One, this isn't surprising, given the peculiar attitude of some of the English to the Jews. Two: Just because it's not surprising doesn't mean it's not shocking. The mainstreaming of the worst anti-Jewish stereotypes -- for instance, that Jews glory in the shedding of non-Jewish blood -- is upon us.

The Mood in England

The Daily Alert compiles newspaper and magazine articles about Israel- or Jewish-related events that occur across the world. (You should subscribe. It's a great service, for free no less.) A usual sampling consists of anti-Israeli incitement and rhetoric or hostile military action, usually in the Middle East. In the past couple of months, for example, the Daily Alert has been dominated by stories on Gaza and Iran.

Today, however, there is a striking number of such articles coming not from the Middle East, but from the United Kingdom. A recent British government report on the Gaza war presents an unbalanced view of the conflict, mentioning Hamas only twice, and a British Foreign Office diplomat -- who is a Middle East expert, by the way -- has been arrested for publicly shouting anti-Israel and anti-Semitic obscenities while watching a story on the Gaza conflict in a gym. What's worse, Britain has seen the largest rise in anti-Semitic attacks in decades -- some on Jewish British schoolchildren -- supposedly inspired by the Gaza conflict.

These attacks and insults have revealed anti-Semitism behind this anti-Zionism -- for some, at least. It's a worrying trend this blog will be watching.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Khatami Joins the Race

According to the AP (via the Jerusalem Post), former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami has decided to challenge Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for the country's top political post in Iran's national election this coming June. In 2005, Ahmadinejad had run on a platform "promising to bring oil revenues to every Iranian family, tackle unemployment and improve living standards," but he has failed on every count. Instead, its economy is in serious distress, and Iran has become the subject of severe global scrutiny due to its nuclear program.

Khatami, if elected, could help relax some of the global pressure on Iran, since he is known as a reformist. The Financial Times noted that

While [Khatami and Ahmadinejad] are equally attached to the country’s nuclear programme, which Tehran says is for peaceful purposes, [the reformists] insist they could address western concerns over it more successfully.

But policy makers and political commentators should not be duped. Iran's president doesn't control the nuclear program; its Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, does. So, no matter the result of the upcoming presidential election, neither candidate is in control of the nuclear program's fate. It will, if recent history is any guide, continue on its course, unless the West ratchets up pressure and sanctions. Only then would Khamenei -- not Khatami or Ahmadinejad -- have to reconsider.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Civilian Watch, cont'd.

Just as a reminder, this running series of posts is meant to document civilian deaths in time of conflict between a state and a separatist group. Again, its purpose is twofold: first, to bring attention to the loss of life when it would otherwise be overlooked; and second, to show the difference between the media responses to the Gaza war and these conflicts. This is in no way meant to minimize the terrible pain and suffering felt by the Palestinians. It's just that the media's ability to feel pain shouldn't be limited to the Palestinians.

In Madagascar, Agence France-Presse reports (via the New York Times) 23 protesters were shot dead by the police, with 83 injured. The protesters, who are supporters of opposition leader Andry Rajoelina, were demonstrating against President Marc Ravalomanana's dictatorial regime. When they decided to march on his palace -- still, apparently, acting non-violently -- the police opened fire. According to the article, Madagascar's main foreign donors, including the EU, have suspended financial aid. But, with the exception of international press agencies, this has been severely under-reported by major news outlets.

The war in Sri Lanka appears to be winding down, with the international community -- from heads of state to human rights organizations -- getting involved. But again, despite the magnitude of this fight, with hundreds of thousands of civilians forced to flee and an unknown number killed, it hasn't made headline news.

One could argue that the lack of heavy reporting in these areas is due to large financial losses major news outlets are experiencing, forcing them to cut back on foreign bureaus. But the reports exist -- they're just buried inside of the paper, not prominently displayed on the front page.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Lieberman's Newfound Power

Over at Time's Swampland blog, Joe Klein worries about the very real possibility that Avigdor Lieberman's far-right (and now, after Gaza, broadly accepted) Yisrael Beiteinu party will play a prominent role in Israel's next government. (His disdain for the party is justified; Yisrael Beiteinu is xenophobic toward Israeli Arabs, calls for their parties to be banned in the upcoming election, and has accused some Israeli-Arabs of conspiring with Hamas.) Klein writes,
"If, as seems likely, Binyamin Netanyahu and the Likud Party wins the election next Tuesday, this will be a real test. Netanyahu will have to build a coalition to govern--does he include Yisrael Beitanu?...If Netanyahu goes the radical route, it has to be seen as an extremely provocative, xenophobic (and perhaps racist) move. The U.S. should express deep concern and disapproval."

Klein is right to be concerned, but this sentiment is far from new. Commentators and politicians in Israel and the U.S. have been worrying about a possible Bibi-Lieberman right-wing all-star team for quite some time now.

However, what's even more noteworthy than Lieberman's acceptance among Likud leaders is his acceptance among the leaders of the other two major parties. Today, Kadima's Tzipi Livni proclaimed that Lieberman is a viable coalition partner, and Labor's Ehud Barak, despite complaints from party members, has said the same. (They both included the caveat that Lieberman must adhere to their party's principles in any coalition government. Good luck.)

Bibi's potential coalition with Lieberman was never too surprising. That both Livni and Barak have deemed it potentially acceptable, however, shows Yisrael Beiteinu's established and growing power.

IsraelVotes 2009

There are a number of ways to combat anti-Israel sentiment. One is to try to discredit the other side, and another is to show that the Zionist cause is just and legitimate.

A third, more palatable way is to show people that Israel is actually a thriving liberal democracy. Emphasis on liberal: while any regime can hold elections, liberal democracies also have the institutions and laws to serve as a firm foundation for both society and government. These institutions enable the liberal democracy to continue to protect civil liberties and rights. Israel is, notably, the only liberal democracy in the Middle East.

IsraelVotes 2009 argues for the Zionist cause in this third way. The program, sponsored by Hasbarah Fellowships, the Jewish National Fund and the Israel on Campus Coalition, tries to raise awareness about the upcoming Israeli elections on February 10th. It does so by explaining (with bright colors and humorous depictions of political leaders) each party's platform, from Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu party to a number of Arab parties and MKs. (Arab pols make up ten percent of the Knesset.) In addition, student leaders will encourage members of the student body to "vote" on their candidate of choice.

This site not only explains how Israeli government works, but it also tries to show that different people of different ethnicities with different worldviews can thrive in the Israeli political system. It's a novel approach that could change the way people think about Israel -- no longer just a military behemoth, but also a bastion of liberal democracy.