June 24, 2011

Choosing peacemakers over war-mongers

The other day, I heard a random rumor that Bahrain was working some initiative to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks (remember those days?). Whether the rumor is true or not, and setting aside the recent concerns about democracy and human rights issues, it didn't shock me -- and it highlights a useful dividing line between productive governments and destructive regimes. Certainly, there are democracies and "good" autocracies that also go to war to save popular standing, but very few "bad" dictatorships have ever made peace in order to quell a popular revolt.

When Richard Nixon was besieged by Watergate at home, he accelerated his efforts -- and Henry Kissinger's -- to end hostilities in the Middle East, setting the stage for the subsequent Camp David talks. When Ehud Olmert was being accused of corruption, he recommitted himself to negotiations with Mahmoud Abbas. For all the concerns we may have about the circumstances, these actions reflect a healthy society, where a leader can assume that promoting international reconciliation wins domestic support (or at least distracts from personal troubles). 

Countries whose leaders have no respect for the governed adopt wholesale repression against their own people and have no hesitation to pick fights and project external enemies as the real villains. In the case of Syria, President Bashar Assad has fanned tensions with Israel and with Turkey even as his regime faces a massive popular uprising. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad responded to widespread protests against his dubious re-election by turning up his defiance of the international community. When there is no proactive program for growth and innovation, the preferred option seems to be polarization and fear. 

Even as we advocate for rule of law and civil liberties around the world, it is worth bearing in mind that some governments are at least leaning in our direction, while others have no intention and make no pretense of ever being true to their citizens or forthright with the world.

June 22, 2011

Yale reneges on anti-Semitism?? Never mind...

"All this time I thought he didn't want to get married. But, the truth is, he didn't want to marry ME." - When Harry Met Sally

Last week, Jewish organizations were lining up to decry Yale's decision to end its Yale Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Anti-Semitism. Yale was allegedly buckling under pressure from left-wing anti-Israel groups intent on quashing YIISA's focus on Muslim anti-Semitism and Iran's genocidal threats against Israel. Today, it turns out Yale is launching a more scholarly program to study anti-Semitism within a more academic framework. [Full disclosure: I heartily agreed to join the advisory board for YIISA's independent predecessor some years ago, though I was never actively involved.]

This all reminds me of the Starbucks decision several years ago to close its few shops in Tel-Aviv, except that back then major Jewish organizations jumped to Starbucks' defense when accusations went viral that Starbucks was boycotting the Jewish State. Turns out, Starbucks had tried to get off the ground in Israel, but its business model was poorly matched to Israel's cafe culture.

This time, several organizations expressed "concern" at the same time that others were all but calling Yale anti-Semitic. Now most of the groups are expressing measured support.

There is plenty of room for advocacy on important issues like Israel and anti-Semitism, but a prestigious research university that did adopt a start-up initiative as its own should have the latitude (and benefit of the doubt) to hold to its own standards of peer review and scholarly impact. Yale's mission is to advance knowledge, not to stop genocide or achieve nuclear disarmament or ensure Jewish continuity.

If the field of anti-Semitism studies is to have a future as a credible academic discipline on a par with Judaic studies, we can't impose community standards on it. And we can't afford to jump in with knee-jerk reactions that only undermine that credibility, and our own.

It's not all about us, and maybe that's a good thing.

June 17, 2011

POTUS loves New York

President Obama takes a strong interest in what happens in New York politics. He called on Anthony Weiner to resign without calling on him to resign. He merely said what he would do in the same situation...

In his first months in the White House, the President leaned on several New York Democrats to not run against Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, who had been appointed by then-Governor David Paterson (himself a non-elected Governor) to succeed Hillary Clinton, whom the President had selected to be the U.S. Secretary of State. He also declined to endorse the Democratic nominee for Mayor of New York City, presumably out of loyalty to his political and policy alliance with the incumbent Mayor Michael Bloomberg. In this second case, by not even issuing a pro forma endorsement of the Democrat, the President was effectively getting involved in local politics and undermining his party's candidate.

Obviously, New York politics is seen as an important place to be seen. Former President Bill Clinton has based his operation in New York City, and Secretary Clinton is now a veteran New Yorker. Former Mayor Rudy Giuliani continues to be a national player in Republican circles, and Governor Andrew Cuomo has followed his father Mario as a national contender. 

Aside from its symbolism as the birthplace of patriotic resolve for former President George W. Bush and Rudy Giuliani, New York houses the bulk of corporate and media headquarters, and is central to political fundraising. Even Sarah Palin launched her national bus tour here. Ultimately, nominations and policies in New York (both the city and the state) are out of the hands of most ordinary voters. If party leaders are going to be making their own decisions anyway, maybe having the President of the United States take an interest isn't entirely bad.

June 15, 2011

From Arab Spring to Persian Summer?

Democracy breaks out across the Arab lands, and Palestinians take it out on Israel. Iran supports democracy for its enemies, dictatorship for its allies. Israelis hunker down.

Palestinians seem to be in an earlier stage of statism than their fellow Arabs in Tunisia, Yemen, Libya, or even Syria. Their resentment and their yearning for freedom can still be channeled against Israel at least as much as against their own leaders. As Syrians finally turn against the Assad regime, resident Palestinians have advanced the ruler's agenda by defying the fortified Israeli border. In the West Bank and Gaza, hard-core demonstrations against Israel have similarly spared Fatah and Hamas the worst kind of insurrection being witnessed around the Middle East. Palestinians certainly have grievances against Israel, but so did the Syrians and Egyptians who have risked their lives to overthrow their own leaders. For now, their adaptation of the Arab Spring is serving to bolster their established elites. 

Iran continues to support Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon, as well as Assad in Syria -- while hailing the fall of Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, who was no friend of the Islamic Revolution. Also, the Islamic Republic continues to crack down on the innate dissent within Iranian society, lest the Arab Spring turn to Persian Summer.

Israel, of course, has little influence over the sweeping changes across its neighborhood. While championing democracy as a goal for the region, Israelis are fearful of radical movements that may use the resulting vacuum to take power in on or more of these nations. They prefer the devil they know... The fact that the Israeli government -- and consequently the Israeli public -- seems increasingly disinterested in negotiating with Palestinians certainly does little to keep the pragmatic Palestinians from being overruled at home. This is one bet Iran may be winning.

June 13, 2011

"Responsibility" should have consequences

Perhaps Representative Anthony Weiner really didn't "betray" his constituents, but he has said he did and he has accepted full responsibility for his actions. If he means that, then he will have to resign. There's no way to take responsibility for betraying one's constituents -- one's employers -- without resigning. 

Weiner's acts, though creepy, are far less than some actual crimes allegedly committed by other politicians, including Senator David Vitter (R-Louisiana) who remains in the U.S. Senate four years after showing up on the customer records of the infamous "DC Madam". That unfortunate woman, Deborah Jeane Palfrey, took her own life less than a year later, and Senator Vitter won reelection. Louisiana... I get it.

Referring to the Iraq War, back in 2007, President George W. Bush said, "Where mistakes have been made, the responsibility rests with me." And yet, the only individuals who lost their jobs over Iraq were the Army General who predicted we'd need more troops than the President initially committed and some mid-level officials implicated in the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal. As for the 9/11 attack on our nation, which defined the Bush Presidency as well as the 2008 candidacy of Rudy Giuliani, I know of no Bush administration official who lost his or her job as a result of failing to prevent the worst attack on U.S. soil in the last 150 years. "Mission Accomplished"... NOT.

When President Obama learned that Air Force One and military jets had been flown at low altitude over Manhattan and the Statue of Liberty for a photo op -- without coordinating with alarmed local government and law enforcement -- he fired the White House official who should have known better. Had President Bush applied the same standard to those who failed their duties on 9/11 and in the planning and prosecution of the Iraq invasion...

Representative Weiner did take some responsibility for his scandalous and inappropriate actions -- though incompletely -- and he did submit to the questions of an eager press corps on live TV. He has reportedly entered some psychiatric facility for treatment of his compulsions. His decision window is still open, even though it's wider than our typical six-hour news cycle. 

The saddest aspect to the Weiner affair, and to most of our political scandals and policy failures, is that there is no responsibility or accountability, nor any consequences, for the actions of public officials. Taking "full responsibility" has become an empty figure of speech, as "With all due respect," or "Have a nice day." I don't need a shopkeeper to mean it when telling me, "Y'all come back now." But I would like elected officials to stand behind their statements of accountability. Call me old fashioned. 

June 2, 2011

It's never too late (but almost) for Israel to win this round.

A Facebook friend has asked me what Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu could do to show he really does want to resume negotiations leading to a final settlement with the Palestinians. Obviously, Israel's leader owes me no such proof, but here are a few things he could do to move things forward.

It's a bit late now, since the PM just concluded his big annual pitch to Washington and Jewish audiences, including a White House visit with President Obama (and official Blair House accommodations). Were he serious about negotiations, I'd advise him to halt expansion/growth of existing settlements and run all related decisions and announcements through his own office (which is within his authority).

I would also suggest he bring in the centrist Kadima Party once and for all, so he negotiates from strength without having to let the most right-wing coalition partners drive the agenda. Then I would call on Abbas to meet him one-on-one, and/or possibly with Obama - he should invite the President to visit just for that occasion, and build a state visit around that event (since he has yet to visit Israel as President, and he's running for re-election!) -- call Obama's bluff, as it were. Talk about seizing the initiative and capturing the moral high ground... 

Even if the PM is just blowing smoke, it's still a great way to show up the President of the United States AND the Palestinian leadership, and even the overestimated democratic changes sweeping the rest of the region. By September, if the Europeans sign on to Palestinian statehood even without the U.S. and Israel, it could be too late to come out ahead in this round.

June 1, 2011

Why the Syrians are on their own

I was asked why the world is not taking more action in support of the popular uprising and basic human rights being threatened in Syria. By rights, the major powers should have stepped in the way they did in Libya, or at least call on Bashar Assad to step down (or at least revoke his medical license for systematically savaging a poor 13-year-old boy).

Here are a few thoughts:

1. Why now? Just because of what's been going on elsewhere in the region? The Assad family has put down localized uprisings before. Most Syrians may either hate the Assad regime or simply want democracy (or something else), but most people don't seem to be taking to the streets. Syria has been a brutal place for decades.

2. Everyone but the brave protesters seems to prefer Syria as it is. Even though Egypt is strategically vital, its territorial integrity was never up for grabs, while Syria -- a bit like Iraq -- has remained a precarious venture. Syria could disintegrate, in which case the region might plunge into violent anarchy.

3. So many powers are invested in Syria's status quo, moreso perhaps than with Egypt. Russia and France still retain old colonial designs on Lebanon and Syria's national life. The United States, obviously, has interests relating to Lebanon, Israel, and Iran. Though they be allies on generally good terms, Iran might use Assad's downfall to expand its role in shaping Syrian politics even more than in Lebanon, and to further streamline its pipeline of terrorists and weapons into Lebanon. Turkey fancies itself as the bridge between Europe and the Middle East, and it shares Kurd-a-phobia with Assad. 

4. Israel, of course, has relied upon its contentious yet predictable border, including Lebanon. It already lost one longtime neighbor in Hosni Mubarak, but at least there's a peace treaty locked in with U.S. financial and strategic support. Syria has no emergency brake. And if Israel ever did cut a deal with Syria, it could be a relatively straight -- if painful -- swap of Golan Heights for peace; but not if Iran steps in first.

The Syrian people have long deserved better than Bashar Assad, but they also know their predicament. Their resilience is impressive, and we can hope they succeed and that their rich intellectual and cultural heritage carries them through toward a more democratic future. But the vested interests will be vested, at least for now.