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.

More Rockets, No Less Support

Ha'aretz reports that mortar fire from Gaza continues. Not surprising, considering the latest poll from the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion, in which 39% of Palestinians polled continue to support rocket fire on Israel.

Civilian Watch

This will be the first in a running series of posts documenting the deaths of innocent civilians in separatist-group-versus-state conflicts. Throughout the course of the Gaza war, the Palestinian death toll was prominently displayed on front pages across the country. I became curious: are there other separatist-group-versus-state conflicts in other places where civilian life is lost that don't receive the press coverage that Israel perpetually receives?

While this is the first post, my hope, of course, is that it will be the last; civilian death in time of war is a tragedy of the highest order. But, since civilian death is seemingly inevitable in a time of war, I'd like to keep track -- as macabre as that sounds -- both to document the loss of life and to expose news sources for not covering other conflicts as heavily as they cover the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Simultaneous with the Gaza war -- yet far from the front page -- was another war that took place in Sri Lanka. The Tamil separatist group has been fighting the state there, and, after a brutal campaign, Reuters (via the New York Times) reports today that over 250,000 Tamil remain displaced from their homes. Yesterday, the Times reported that the Sri Lankan army shelled a Tamil hospital, which led sick hospital patients to flee, their destination unknown. More than 12 people were killed in the hospital on Tuesday. In contrast to Israel's shelling of the area near the UNRWA school, there was no apparent provocation from the area surrounding the hospital.

The number of civilian casualties throughout the course of this conflict is not readily available. This shows the lack of access given to the media in Sri Lanka at the moment, another difference between the way Israel handled the war and Sri Lanka has. The death toll could be high -- the AP got footage of the dead from inside the war zone on Monday -- but we can't be sure.

Why isn't there a larger outcry? Why isn't this conflict generating story upon story in the press?

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Contentions, Lagging Behind

Commentary Magazine's blog, Contentions, typically provides some of the best insight on the web, particularly into issues relating to Israel and global politics. But today, two of its bloggers were guilty of not keeping up with the news cycle.

First is Emanuele Ottolenghi. While the post is generally correct, Ottolenghi mistakenly links to an old JPost article (from Jan. 22) that reported on an article in Corriere della Serra, an Italian paper. The piece in the Italian paper claimed that no more than 500-600 Palestinians died in the 22-day Gaza war. Yet even Israeli news sources (from Jan. 26) and the IDF refuted this claim. The commonly reported number of deaths -- 1100-1300 is standard -- is correct. As for the number of civilians who perished, that's still up in the air.

Second, David Hazony recycles very old news, in what, it appears, he thinks is a 'scoop.' In a post titled "Gotcha," Hazony reports on Mads Gilbert, the Swedish doctor who, it turns out, doesn't only support Hamas, but also didn't think 9/11 was all that terrible. The problem is that on January 6 -- nearly one month ago -- CAMERA reported on this very fact.

Step Back, George Packer

Today, George Packer of the New Yorker wrote a blog post on the zine's site about the different ways presidents handle troubled subordinates. He writes,

"Clinton showed that he was ready to cut anyone loose who caused him political trouble, and this opportunism weakened him more than the troubled appointee could have. Bush responded with stubborn loyalty, which became the same thing as indifference to competence and integrity, poisoning his Presidency. There's a third way, projecting true strength, and that's to live up to your principles, which is what Obama just did."

Forget about the embarassingly cloying nature of this post. What's more noticeable is Packer's lack of context. Instead of comparing the Daschle/Geithner/Killefer issues with similar transition troubles Bush and Clinton faced, Packer's only example for either one is Bush's defense of Alberto Gonzales -- already an established Cabinet official.

A more apt comparison would be Bush's handling of Linda Chavez, who was (now, as it turns out, wrongfully) pilloried for helping an illegal immigrant ten years before her nomination to Labor Secretary in 2001. Or Bernard Kerik, who withdrew amid scandal after being nominated as Homeland Security chief. Both of these officials were handled in roughly the same manner as Obama handled Daschle. In all of these cases, the President tried to hang on to the nominee for as long as he could, until the nominee finally had to capitulate to public pressure. Packer shouldn't try to manufacture a distinction between presidents when it isn't really so clear-cut.


Thanks for joining me on my maiden voyage in the blogosphere. To torture the metaphor even further, I'll be sailing in treacherous waters, replete with harsh conditions (geo-politically speaking) and unfriendly, adversarial ships (in the form of authors and bloggers who might not share my point of view).

The aim of this blog is both to monitor daily, news-making occurences relating to Israel and to try to get a grasp on longer-term trends with larger global consequences. While the blog is, as its name shows, a hobby at this point, my hope is that it will develop into something meaningful and eye-opening.

Some practitioners of the art of the blog tend to use it so that they can rant and rave about a particular injustice. That's not my goal; though there's a chance I could rant from time to time, I will try to write concise posts that are substantiated and link to other equally substantiated blogs or news sources.

Finally, this blog won't solely focus on Israel and the Middle East, despite the punny name. I'll also be writing about national politics and culture -- high and low -- and I'll take liberties with viral videos. But I won't abuse that right.